In her novel The Professor, author Charlotte Bronte details and develops the life and experiences of narrator and main character William Crimsworth. After graduating from Eton College in England, Crimsworth is in need of an occupation. He stubbornly refuses offers from his uncles, and consequently finds himself with no other choice than to work for his tyrannical brother in the menial position of clerk. However, his conditions soon become unbearable, and through an acquaintance’s recommendation, William secures himself employment as a professor at a boys’ school in Brussels.
William’s arrival in Belgium presents him with new opportunities both professionally and personally, as he almost immediately meets two women who are to change his existence dramatically: Zoraide Reuter and Frances Henri. Bronte creates and emphasizes many differences and similarities between these two women using various techniques and methods, which primarily include comparison and contrast. Zoraide and Frances each have their own significant and individual role in the life of and interaction with William Crimsworth.
Each woman possesses different kinds of physical and mental attributes, comes from a unique background, and enters into and affects his life in a contrasting way. These differences, along with a few similarities, are explored through the author’s use of imagery and irony. Initially, Zoraide and Frances become involved in Crimsworth’s life in completely dissimilar ways. These conditions reflect a hint of irony, as their initial roles are complete reversals of their ultimate functions.
Zoraide and William’s initial encounter is one that has been arranged by her mother, who has offered him a teaching position at the girls’ school over which Zoraide presides as directress. Thus, Zoraide appears suddenly and pronouncedly; the importance of her and Crimsworth’s interactions, and her influence upon his life and work are immediately made evident. Their relationship is established as one in which she is his superior both in position and in age. However, a romantic possibility is also suggested in the scene containing their introduction. While walking together in her garden, William implicitly compares Mdlle.
Reuter’s form to the “well-trimmed beds and budding shrubberies” of her garden, and her complexion to “the bloom on a good apple” (108). William and Zoraide’s affections are further developed in this natural setting, as the majority of their romantic interactions take place in her garden, a sort of forbidden Garden of Eden into which she allows him access. The nature and plant imagery that pervades his descriptions is continued throughout the novel and is also used in portrayals of the other primarily influential character in his life: Mdlle. Frances Henri. As opposed to the entrance of Mdlle.
Reuter, Frances arrives in William’s life quietly and without notice as a sewing teacher of whom he has previously observed but never taken notice. This condition is made evident in his statement, “A… maitresse I sometimes saw… but of her I never had a more than passing glimpse… I had no opportunity of studying her character or… observing her person” (132-133). Her important and influential role develops gradually throughout the subsequent months. She later becomes one of his pupils, thus establishing their relationship as one in which William is the superior: he is the authoritarian teacher and she the submissive student.
However, as her intellect and admirable nature soon become apparent, Crimsworth’s regard and affection for her grow and develop. In response to his newly displayed attentions and consideration, Frances “blossoms” both physically and mentally. This nurturing relationship is manifested in the metaphor that compares her to a plant and Crimsworth to its caring gardener (176). In yet another nature-related metaphor, she is compared to a “lost jewel… nestling in the mossy and mouldy roots of yew-trees” (194).
Crimsworth’s many descriptions of each woman play an integral role in the development of both their physical features and mental attributes. Although plant and floral imagery is used in the portrayals of both women, there are metaphors drawn between other natural elements that highlight the differences between them. An aspect of descriptive imagery in which the two women differ completely, is that of fire and temperature. Zoraide is constantly being related to coldness and ice; her gaze is described as “hard, dark,” her eye as glittering with “nothing of a flame ever kindled in its temperate gleam” (180,183).
Furthermore, as William becomes further acquainted with Mdlle. Reuter, she essentially “withers” as her true nature is discovered. This condition is made evident when she and Crimsworth return to the bench in her garden, once a place of affection and fascination for him, which has now been transformed into a location of cold, emotional emptiness, due to his discovery of her real character (181-185). Zoraide’s true nature is a manipulative one, which is exhibited and manifested several times in the course of the novel through her actions.
For example, upon realizing that she has lost Crimsworth’s regard (due to her own manipulations and dishonesty), Zoraide immediately results to underhanded methods in an attempt to regain his affection. She uses false flattery of William, and criticism and condescension of Frances hidden under a guise of concern in order to elevate her own status and appearance ( ). In contrast, Frances is constantly being associated with warmth and fire; her eye is portrayed as clear and light, her countenance as bright and warm, “glowing in the animated flush… shining in the expansive light [of] the summer sun flashing out… urning almost like fire” (195). Mdlle.
Henri is likened to fire, light, and warmth over and over again throughout the novel, as the “silent possessor of… a flame… of passion” (196). As a further testimony to the importance of their association, without Crimsworth, she has grown “wasted and pale,” her blaze “humble[d]… to embers” (195, 196). This imagery further reiterates the appropriateness of her and Crimsworth’s relationship, as he himself is often described as the possessor of an inward fire, his heart burning and “hot within [him]” (181).
Such interactions and descriptions develop the nature and character of the principal relationships of the work. As far as character is concerned, Mdlle. Reuter and Mdlle. Henri have defining character traits that are quite opposite from one another. The true nature of each woman is made evident as the novel progresses and their respective relationships with William develop. The expression of these internal characteristics, in turn, contributes to Crimsworth’s desire for each woman.
Although it is Zoraide to who he is initially attracted, her inconsistencies and shallow nature result in a short and meaningless romance. Her presence is aggressive and noticeable; she makes her romantic feelings for Crimsworth obvious, and then engages in psychological and emotional “games” with him. They participate in an almost “cat and mouse” relationship, with each individual constantly trying to gain the upper hand and outsmart the other. William’s affections for and infatuation with her are short-lived as a result of her deceitful character and lack of integrity.
Frances, on the other hand, possesses much more dignity and humility than Zoraide, and never engages in deceitful and base actions. She maintains a quiet and demure, almost unnoticeable existence. Her feelings for William are not discovered until much later in the novel, and are not revealed as a result of her actions but are rather made known through his own pursuits. The more lasting and true love is formed with Frances, who is the possessor of redeeming and admirable qualities-she is the embodiment of all that composes a truly “good” individual.
These characteristics form the kind of foundation upon which a steady and real love can be based, and thus, it is this relationship that develops harmoniously and remains intact throughout the novel. Her love and compassion ensure the marriage just as Mdlle. Reuter’s dishonesty and selfishness ensure her downfall. Another note of irony enters the novel here, as it is Mdlle. Reuter who has had a more formal and proper upbringing, while Mdlle. Henri was raised in virtual poverty and want, with almost no formal education. Thus, it should be Zoraide who is the possessor of these more “lady-like” qualities.
This difference in background and its end result further reflects the contrasts in the inherent nature of each woman, elevating the reader’s view Frances and reducing that of Zoraide. In the final chapters of The Professor, Frances finds herself in the position of directress of a school that she and William have founded and thus maintains the same occupation as Mdlle. Zoraide. This condition serves to heighten both the similarities and contrasts of the two women. Bronte characterizes and explores the two primary women characters of Zoraide Reuter and Frances Henri in her work The Professor through the use of comparison and contrast.
These two individuals are defined through their relationship with the narrator and main character, William Crimsworth. These interactions are developed through the revelation of certain characteristics and information that pertain specifically to each woman. In turn, imagery and irony develop and add depth to these qualities, which include physical and mental attributes, background and history, and intrinsic disposition and nature. Without the skillful use of these devices, the characters in the novel would not appear so realistic and possess such a great degree of depth and complexity.