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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: May 2019

Chapter 4 - Being Human


Alexandra Lewis takes the complex life of the mind – and resulting mental and bodily markers of happiness and distress – as central to Charlotte Brontë’s conception of what it means to be human. Lewis demonstrates how, by negotiating between unconscious cerebration and ideologies of self-will in Villette, Brontë devises a narrative of traumatic memory which complicates gendered notions of anxiety (through the medical terms hysteria and hypochondriasis); considers the role of imagination and empathy in diagnosis; and tests the possibilities of that creative form devoted to the exploration of the individual human subject – fictional autobiography. With reference to the work of nineteenth-century scientists and physicians, Lewis illuminates how, for Brontë, the problem of loss of control over deliberate recollection penetrates to the heart of one of the most difficult – and least well understood – elements of human experience: the recurrence of traumatic images or flashbacks which are simultaneously unrecoverable (in any meaningful totality) and yet irrepressible. As Lewis shows, Brontë’s final novel challenges theories which reduce mind to body, and provides a startlingly original argument for understanding mental distress and mnemonic dysfunction in terms that take an appreciation of the ‘human’ beyond the limiting boundaries of entrenched gender stereotype.