In JVC 15.3, Katherine Inglis re-examines the representation of scopic conflict and discipline in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette (1853), within the context of the reconfiguration of the eye during the 1850s. Villette is pioneering in its representation of an ophthalmoscopic conception of the eye, as an organ which could be looked into by medical practitioners as well as looked at. This notion of the eye was only possible after Hermann von Helmholtz’s invention of the ophthalmoscope in 1850. Villette is thus one of the first literary responses to the newly visible living retina.
This essay argues that in light of the novel’s emphasis on a penetrable, legible eye, the critical emphasis that scholars have placed on surveillance as a disciplinary model in Villette is overstated. Visual exchanges are described not in the disembodied abstractions of panopticism, but with references to a violent lexicon derived, in part, from the novel terminology of ophthalmoscopy. The prominence of opthalmoscopy points towards a remedial narrative in which diagnosis is succeeded by surgical intervention, and ultimately the restoration of sight.
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