Analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Napoleon and the Spectre

Charlotte Brontë wrote “Napoleon and the Spectre” in 1833, when she was 17. The story is taken from the manuscript of her novella The Green Dwarf. In its original context, the tale is overheard being told by “a little dapper man” to a group of Frenchmen at an inn (1996, 127). When it is finished, Napoleon himself enters the inn and arrests the little man for having recounted such a “scandalous anecdote” (1996, 130). Although extracts from the story appeared in a literary journal in 1897, it was not published in its entirety until 1919, when Clement Shorter printed a limited edition for private circulation. It was published for a wide audience for the first time in The Twelve Adventurers and Other Stories (1925) and has since appeared in editions of Brontë’s juvenilia and in various short story anthologies.

Brontë’s amusing ghost story is a gothic parody and a satire of patriarchal authority. Her irreverent portrayal of Napoleon, or “Nap,” may owe, in part, to a friendly rivalry with her brother Branwell, who was her early writing partner. Branwell chose Napoleon to be the hero of his earliest stories, while Charlotte preferred the Duke of Wellington (Alexander, 27). Her spoof begins abruptly with the line, “Well, as I was saying, the Emperor got into bed.” The unnamed storyteller proceeds to relate that Napoleon’s repose is disturbed by strange noises. A groan emanating from a closet causes him to leap out of bed and threaten to shoot whomever is inside. The only response is a “short, sharp laugh” (1996, 139), which may suggest to the reader that the mysterious occupant is already dead. When Napoleon opens the closet door he hears a rustling noise. But he soon realizes that the sound was caused by a cloak that had fallen from its peg, so he returns to bed, “[h]alfashamed” of his superstitious fears (1996, 140). This unsatisfactory explanation, which fails to account for the groan or the laughter, parodies a gothic device popularized by the novelist Ann Radcliffe, whereby seemingly supernatural events are depicted, only to be explained later in rational terms. Through her humorous invocation of the “explained supernatural,” Brontë foreshadows the bathetic ending of the story.

Just as Napoleon is about to close his eyes again, a specter appears before him. Although its identity is as yet unknown, Brontë’s comic-grotesque description provides the initiated reader with several clues. It wears “a black cravat very tightly round its neck, and confined by two little sticks behind each ear. The countenance was livid; the tongue protruded from between the teeth, and the eyes all glazed and bloodshot started with frightful prominence from their sockets.” (1996, 140). An example of the story’s pervasive irony occurs when this dreadful figure addresses Napoleon gravely as the “lifter of the Eagle Standard!” (1996, 140), an impressive title incongruous with the image of the emperor huddled in bed “[s]weating with terror” (1996, 140).

The wall of the bedchamber opens, and the ghost leads Napoleon through a passage and out onto the streets of Paris. They arrive at a grand house and enter a large hall, where Napoleon sees a row of masked women and hears a wild strain of eerie music. The mystery is elucidated when Napoleon comes to his senses and finds himself in the midst of a ball that Marie Louise (his second wife) is throwing. He has been sleepwalking and now stands before his wife and her guests in his nightgown. When he asks dazedly for “Piche,” the identity of the specter is revealed: General Charles Pichegru was arrested for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Napoleon and was found strangled to death in his cell while awaiting trial. Although it was sometimes thought he had committed suicide, this story suggests that the narrator (and perhaps Brontë herself) believed Napoleon to be guilty of his murder (1996, 138). Brontë’s satire ends with a comic flourish. When the humiliated emperor realizes it has all been a dream, he is seized with a “fit of catalepsy” that lasts for two days (1996, 143).

In juvenile works such as “Napoleon and the Spectre,” Brontë practiced her technique as a writer and explored themes she would develop in her mature novels. For example, the trope of the explained supernatural is used for comic effect in this early story but is treated more seriously in Jane Eyre (1847), in which mysterious noises and occurrences at Thornfield Hall are ultimately attributed to Rochester’s mad wife. In both instances, Brontë depicts the apparently supernatural in order to create an atmosphere of suspense and explore the theme of imagination itself.

Analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s Novels

Alexander, Christine. The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë. New York: Prometheus, 1983.
Brontë, Charlotte. Charlotte Brontë: Juvenilia, 1829–1835. Edited and with an introduction by Juliet Barker. London: Penguin, 1996.
———. “Napoleon and the Spectre.” In The Twelve Adventures and Other Stories, 137–43. London: Hodder, 1925.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: