Wide Sargasso Sea
Independence and Freedom of Female Characters in Memoirs of Emma Courtney, Wide Sargasso Sea and I Love Dick
Throughout the years, it has been possible to appreciate how a great variety of styles and genres has developed within literature due to the influence of the literary waves. In this case, the issues of independence and freedom, which will be analysed in the selected works, have a presence that predominates especially within postcolonial genre but also in literary works where female characters have an important role within the story. These characters may or not be protagonists of the novels as well as being conditioned by society of the period. In this essay, therefore, we will analyse how these concepts are reflected in the following selected novels: Memoirs of Emma Courtney by Mary Hays, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus.
During the last decades, the number of feminists has progressively increased and developed a critique against the traditional ethics related to the issue of autonomy. At the beginning of the 1970s, those feminists began to refute the way in which mainstream philosophy promoted autonomy as a universal ideal without recognising the innumerable ways society has denied women the means to achieve it. In addition, they also went against the concept of “autonomy” itself, “pointing out that the autonomous subject — self-made, self-directing and self-sufficient — is an unmistakably masculine ideal, modelled on the social roles and fantasies of men, leading some to question its ultimate value for women.” (Norton, 2013) The Age of Enlightenment was another focus of attention for feminist critiques but although initially it was not easy to appreciate it, during that period there was also a development of an imminent feminist critique that we can see represented with a greater clarity in Hays’ work, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796).
Hays’ novel can be seen as a Bildungsroman because it is a story about the development and maturity of Emma Courtney from her childhood until her adulthood with the aim of getting recognition of her identity in the world. However, the novel does not conclude with the protagonist’s realisation, unlike A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man (1914) by James Joyce, so keeping in mind social and historical limitations that women had to suffer at the time, it could be difficult to understand if it is possible for a woman to end her story without getting married and still be happy. In addition, the text is also considered a great reference of feminist critique not only because the author has a great ability to convey through her work the desires and frustrations that women had to live in English society of the 18th century, but because of her attempts to combine different traditional values such as freedom and restraint, female and male, reason and passion, public and private.
Hays reflects throughout her novel, especially when Emma is considered an adult among society after being eighteen years old, the problem that society imposed on women at the time, which is to deny the opportunity of exercising their aptitudes constructively. At the age of eighteen, Emma loose her beloved aunt Mrs Morton, who had a “romantic manner of thinking” due to the old romances, and her aloof father, a man of pleasure who never loved anyone else but himself, she finds herself alone with a poor inheritance and an incomplete emotional education. After her father’s death, she realises that “the small pittance bequeathed to me was insufficient to preserve me from dependence.”(ch.11) She has limited option of works, all of them related to the servitude, but her “mind panted for freedom, for social intercourse, for scenes in motion, where the active curiosity of my temper might find a scope wherein to range and speculate.” (ch.11) But Emma also realises that among society of her time, her virtues as woman as strongly limited or not recognised. However, due to the vulnerability among society, being legal, economic, emotional or social; Emma feels the necessity to get independence as well as her mentor Mr Francis urges her: “The first lesson of enlightened reason, the great fountain of heroism and virtue, the principle by which alone man can become what man is capable of being, is independence.” (ch.11) However, as Emma also declares with anger: “’Why call woman, miserable, oppressed, and impotent, woman — crushed, and then insulted why call her to independence — which not nature, but the barbarous and accursed laws of society, have denied her? This is mockery!” (ch.12) Through the passage, Hays reflect how patriarchal society undermines female “independence” and Emma’s words debunks Mr Francis’ suggestions since independence is precisely the thing society denies her.
As we can appreciate, contemporary society that is shown in Hays’ novel is still strongly oppressive from a female perspective and it is society what encourages women like Emma to pursue that feeling of self-sufficiency and freedom within the novel.
“Civilization is yet distempered and imperfect; the inequalities of society, by fostering artificial wants, and provoking jealous competitions, have generated selfish and hostile passions. […]. Endeavour to contract your wants, and aspire only to a rational independence. […] let discernment precede confidence.” (ch.9)
If we consider Mr Courtney’s position regarding his daughter’s education, we can see how it differs slightly from the conventional rules established within society regarding education for women. As a gentleman says while he is talking with Mr Courtney, “knowledge and learning, are unsufferably masculine in a woman […]: lines of thinking destroy the dimples of beauty; aping the reason of man, they lose the exquisite, fascinating charm, in which consists their true empire.” (ch.7) After Emma’s arrival at her new home, her father does not overlook that her daughter’s thoughts are more emotional than rational, giving priority to themes related to fiction, so he decides to correct her education: “your fancy requires a rein rather than a spur. Your studies, for the future, must be of a soberer nature.” (ch.7) At first, Emma does not welcome the task imposed by her father to follow a course of historical reading, but this genre progressively manages to attract her attention and curiosity. However, Emma also declares about the genre that she “could never acquire a taste for this species of composition” (ch.8) due to complexity and numerous conflicts that constitute it, unlike genres of poetry and fiction, where she always entertains herself. All the education created from the tasks imposed by her father and Emma’s ability of being self-taught made her mind begins to be emancipated and she is able to reason and exercise her thoughts with freedom. All of these experiences contribute to the development of Emma’s character and, more specifically, they prepare the way for her “fatal” love for Augustus Harley. (Norton, 2013)
Hays’ novel, however, shows how Emma’s obsession with self-sufficiency “can obscure the ethical value of human relationships, the extent to which we depend on each other to live full and flourishing lives.” (Norton 2013) Emma’s feelings for Augustus begin to flourish when she and Mrs Harley become closer and Augustus’ mother beings to tell her anecdotes about her son, an event that happens before these two characters meet. However, those feelings of affection are inseparable from her desire for self-improvement to live a useful and productive live. Mrs Harley, in addition, feels a special affection for Emma and considers her as another daughter. All of this will make the protagonist spends more time in the residence of her neighbour and Augustus becomes a philosophical mentor for her, thus providing her a greater intellectual development. Oppression, even so, that denied eighteenth-century women the right of being able to participate in the wider world created by and for men together with her passionate desire to improve herself, Emma develops a dependence on Augustus that is clearly reflected during their dialogues and in the letter that she sends him. When Augustus beings to move away from her side, Emma fears that she would be unable to continue cultivating and improving her talents to live the productive life she desires if she did not have Augustus by her side. In this way, Hays shows a situation that was very common for all those women who were not satisfied with the traditional tasks of doing household chores and raising children, but they aspired to everything else and wanted to achieve an autonomous life under the conventional and oppressive rules imposed by society.
Finally, Emma’s decision to marry Mr Montague can be interpreted as the only means of escape that is offered to the protagonist after a life full of effort and dedication to achieve self-sufficiency that was never granted. Emma adopts the role of wife and mother in her new life with Mr Montague, although it does not make her forget her purpose of living a useful and productive life since she works as an auxiliary nurse when Augustus arrives injured at her home. As a conclusion, the only purpose of the novel from the point of view of the protagonist was to tell her adopted son Augustus the years of her youth to learn from them and avoid a similar romantic tragedy in his own life.
Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), on the other hand, is known for being the prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. It is a work of postcolonial genre, so the themes of “independence” and “freedom” have an important role within the story and, in addition, it is analysed from different points of view. The protagonist of the novel, Antoinette Cosway or Mason, is the character known as Bertha in Brontë’s novel but Rhys places the novel in an earlier period where the Abolition of Slavery Act changed the political status of the West Indies from protectorates British to colonies, generating numerous problems for families such as Antoinette’s. Antoinette’s life is full of oppression and suffering: during her childhood, she never felt the warmth of protection and during her adulthood, she suffers cultural and gender oppression. Are those types of details which Rhys plays with to show the meanings of “slavery” and “freedom” within different social class as well as to create metaphors such as presenting European women as slaves within that new world.
Rhys’ purpose consisted on creating a novel about the character of Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre, from who there is almost no information, to know her closer and comprehend the reason why she became a madwoman. During her childhood, Antoinette accumulates mainly hostile experiences. Her status as Creole along with her family’s economic status generated numerous problems since she did not belong to English white class, but neither to working class of blacks and mulattos: “They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. […] ‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.’ […] ‘Nobody want you, Go away.’” Those words, promulgated by a girl against Antoinette, reflect the deep hatred felt by former black slaves. However, hate and discontent do not only remain retained in words, but also in actions due to Mr Mason bought new servants after his marriage with Annette for their new life at Coulibri Estate. Far from settling for harassment against them, those individuals decided to set fire to the Manson residence and Antoinette’s family is forced to flee the place before being condemned by them. The episode ends with Antoinette’s young brother, Pierre, dead as well as a cruel and cold memory in the protagonist’s mind about her last meeting with Tia, her old friend. The girl, who knowing her place and side as a daughter of former black slaves, attacked her when Antoinette ran to her seeking help, expressing in that way they belonged to different sides. With those circumstances that culminate the first part of the novel, Rhys shows how the meaning and state of freedom for some people can be a condemnation for others.
The passage in which Mr Mason decides to present Antoinette to society as an adult woman will mark a before and after in the story since not only her marriage and relationship with the unnamed Rochester will begin, but it will involve the first act of theft of identity for Antoinette. Part two begins with a change of narrator where the new perspective will be offered by Rochester, through which we can appreciate his difficulties in adapting to the new West Indian environment. Rochester’s fleeting vision of the truth and reality around him is distorted. He is surrounded by characters who act according to the role that has been demanded, including Antoinette: “the doll’s smile came back–nailed to her face.” Rochester is aware that always something eludes him and, being a man of English upper class that always wants to have the control of everything, the situation supposes a problem for him.
The term “obeah” in the novel refers to the religious practice that took place among slaves in the West Indies and consisted in the theft of the spirit to reduce human beings to a state of puppets, dolls or zombies. Both characters, Rochester and Antoinette, practice this ritual with the other in different ways.
Daniel Cosway, one of Alexander Cosway’s bastard children, has an important role in the story because he will be the one to provide Rochester with a letter with information about his wife and her family that until now was unknown for him. In the letter, Daniel not only alludes to a case of incest that took place between Antoinette and his cousin Sandi, but also warns Rochester about the madness that runs through the genes of Antoinette’s family exposing Annette as an example. Antoinette’s mother, as her daughter tells, began to show signs of madness and melancholy from her earliest memories, but her condition worsened after the fire and death of her little brother. A short time later, Annette died while Antoinette was studying at the school of the convent. Rochester, fearing that this situation would happen again with his wife, begins to adopt a series of behaviours towards her as. He was more distant with her and started calling her by another name, thus having the second act of theft of identity: “Bertha is not my name, you are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name, I know, that’s obeah too.”
The image that Rhys shows us of Antoinette, on the other hand, is “connected to nature, beautiful, vain, poorly-educated, melancholic, and love-starved.” (Gilchrist, 2012) The Abolition of Slavery had a negative influence on her childhood, as we have already seen, and caused an existential crisis along with a death wish that would lead her to fulfil her last dream in the Rochester Mansion. However, Antoinette also develops “slave” qualities that create a dependency on men that places her in a precarious but erotically powerful recurring dream. These qualities are developed because of her nostalgia for the image of a life under slavery that no other character could corroborate. As she tells Rochester of Coulibri, “If I could make you see it, because they destroyed it and it is only here now.” Antoinette’s words carry a double meaning: on the one hand, she could refer to how the English metropolitan destroyed the plantation by freeing the slaves and leaving them in poor condition. On the other hand, she could refer to the terrorist act and loaded with hatred of the former slaves against their family, destroying Coulibri after its restoration. (Gilchrist, 2012)
The only true purpose of Antoinette was to get the affection of Rochester. She gave herself to him sexually because she loved him and feared that her happiness would not last: “If I could die. Now, when I am happy.” However, Rochester forces himself to rationalise his own feelings because of the issues of incest and racial impurity. Although he feels a great desire for his wife, he also declares that desire is not love and, therefore, has no feelings for Antoinette because she is different: “I did not love her. I was thirsty of her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” Antoinette did not overlook that something was wrong in her marriage since her husband was distant and they slept in separate beds, so she decides to go to Christophine to help her reconquer Rochester, who ends up offering her a love potion — a kind of aphrodisiac — that allows them to have a night of intense passion. All that remains of it is Antoinette’s ripped nightgown on the floor, the bruises on her body, and a smile on her lips that Rochester refuses to believe is real. The submission of Antoinette during the sexual act can be interpreted as “a psychological corrector of his childhood neglect and a recreation of historical slavery” (Gilchrist, 2012) where they simulate the master-slave relationship that gives her the feeling of freedom that she has always longed for. Nevertheless, Rochester considers this act of unbridled sexuality as a madness that leads to physical corruption and, fearing that Christophine’s obeah magic and Antoinette’s passion reach more, he decides to reduce his wife to a soulless being: “Like a doll. Even when she threatened me with the bottle she had a marionette quality.” In this way, Rochester becomes the practitioner of the colonial obeah who, considering his culture and race as superior, steals Antoinette’s spirit and drives her mad. The decline of Antoinette will take place after discovering the infidelity of Rochester, thus making her his lifeless puppet.
Finally, the last part of the novel shows an Antoinette immersed in madness and deprived of any existing freedom. Locked in an attic and with a guardian who guards her, the protagonist begins to doubt what is real and what is not. Her fuzzy dreams and red dress are the only things that reminded her of her previous life. The novel ends by showing an ironic relationship between the tragic events of the parrot that died in the fire of Coulibri with Antoinette’s death amid the flames. Just as Mr Mason caused the death of the parrot by clipping its wings, thus preventing him from escaping from the flames, Rochester deprived Antoinette of any freedom by cutting off his wings, thus alludes to the colonial desire of a master to control and break his slave. Antoinette’s suicide, therefore, can be interpreted as an act of rebellion against his master and the fact that Tia was present in that dream along with the fact of Antoinette jumping into the flames to go with her can symbolise the path to freedom and the moment of redemption of her life.
The third and last work, I Love Dick (1997) by Chris Kraus, is an epistolary and autobiographical novel that tells the protagonist’s romantic obsession, known as Chris Kraus, with Dick, an academic colleague of Chris’ husband, after their first and only meeting. During the more than two hundred letter that Chris writes addressed to Dick, sometimes along with those of Sylvère, the protagonist creates a universe where Dick is an object of devotion and manipulates his identity “into a faceless, patriarchal screen onto which she projects her sexual fantasies, personal anxieties, and critical interventions.” (Fisher, 2012)
In her letters, Chris recounts her humiliations by naming not only Dick’s refusal of to the proposal to maintain a romantic relationship with her but also insults and condescension from society that she has to endure for being the wife of a successful public figure. However, Chris also proves to be a dedicated woman in her work and with determination: “Chris continued making independent films they’d always be juggling money, thousands here and thousands there.” As well as dealing with everything related to the economic issue within her marriage, from checking invoices and paying taxes to buying and renting properties to make a profit. In this way, “with Chris’ help Sylvère’s career was becoming lucrative enough to offset the losses incurred by hers.” While he gets top billing, she is on the guest list as his “plus one” (Fisher, 2012). The monotonous and fruitless situation that Chris has to live is also conditioned by the failure in her professional career, perhaps because she had not enough talent for making films or because society underestimated her only for being a woman. All this causes her to become a “parasite” within her marriage, a financial and emotional burden from her husband’s resource. Chris considered herself a staunch feminist who would achieve success by herself but failure and economic constraints forced her to be dependent on her husband: “Chris […] smiled to think that in order to continue making work she would have to be supported by her husband. ‘Who’s independent?’ […] ‘The maid? The bureaucrat? The banker? No!’ Yeah. In late capitalism, was anyone truly free?”
The first and only encounter with Dick, however, would cause the situation to take an unexpected turn in favour of Chris. The trigger of her love letters was the process of deconstruction that Sylvère and she carried out after their meeting with Dick. Sylvère, noticing that Chris could not stop thinking about that man, proposed that she could write a letter to him where she expressed what she felt. From that moment both Sylvère and, mainly, Chris began to write individually a series of letter to Dick. This makes Chris’ feelings increase and the diary provides her with the freedom she needed to be able to express herself as she wanted, without limitations or obstacles, using Dick as an object of devotion and shaping him to her liking within her new world.
As the novel progresses, we can see how Chris’ fantasies become more real, highlighting the erotic theme among her pages. As she admits, “when you’re living intensely in your head there is no difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless.”
The situation, on the other hand, becomes harmful from Dick’s point of view. Chris correspondence lurks, as the author herself within the novel when she decides to go to the place where he is only to see him. This psycho-sexual obsession is reflected in the different entries in the diary that, in turn, become weapons that Dick cannot use in his defence. Chris perverts the meaning of the lyrics and uses Dick as an exchange object first between her and Sylvère and then between her and the reader. The impotence and fear that Dick shows in his only letter to them to answer all the letters that Chris wrote to him is not a mystery because of the intensity of the narrative and the intention of publishing the book using his name. In addition, Dick fails to find protection under patriarchy or “the law of the father.” Chris’ feminine subterfuge turns Dick’s own logic against him, as she insists on the excess produced by the system’s supplementary parts-bad taste, affect, contamination-that by dominance’s own logic cannot be taken into the court record. (Fisher, 2012)
Possibly the reason why Chris felt more connected with Dick, despite not having any kind of physical or romantic relationship with him outside of her fantasies, than with Sylvère could be a matter of control and independence. Within her “relationship” with Dick, she was the one who had the control of the situation and she was not judged or felt in the shadow of anyone, while within her marriage to Sylvère, Chris lacked independence, especially economically, and had to depend on her husband’s support to undertake and continue with her projects. Therefore, thanks to the affective obsession with a man, from who she barely knew anything about, Chris manages to disengage from her husband and eliminate “the relentlessly accommodating structure of patriarchy with little appreciation for the implications of its collapse for her own survival without it.” (Fisher, 2012)
A Comparative Literary Critique of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
Hailed as a feminist novel, Jane Eyre represents the Victorian female struggle for independence and autonomy. A bildungsroman, Bronte skilfully brings to light the oppression and inequality facing women in the 19th century, inspiring feminists and writers alike including the Creole writer Jean Rhys; author of Wide Sargasso Sea published in 1966. Following her fascination with Charlotte Bronte’s critically acclaimed novel, Rhys sought to uncover the shrouded mystery surrounding the ‘mad woman’ Bertha Mason who in Wide Sargasso Sea is known as Antoinette Cosway Mason. Through a feminist and Marxist critical analysis, the extent of the exploitation and marginalisation of women is thoroughly unravelled.
Significantly, both novels are autobiographical, incorporating many elements of the authors’ lives. Feminism in Bronte’s time was just beginning to take root although it was not yet fully established. Bronte consequently had to use the male pseudonym ‘Currer Bell’ in order to have her novel published as female authors were not taken seriously enough due to the patriarchal ‘norms and values’ of the nineteenth century. Once published, Victorian male critics deemed the novel ‘anti-Christian’ and ‘rebellious’ against Victorian ideals of ‘femininity’ and ‘domesticity’ which highlights the sexism of the 19th century. Through a feminist critical reading, the misogyny of men is prominent throughout much of Jane’s life. From her tyrannical cousin John Reed to the ‘hypocritical’ and cruel Brocklehurst, Jane is constantly reminded of her ‘orphan’ and ‘female’ status in society; with the disheartening knowledge that the only means of escape is through ‘flight’ or ‘starvation’. This is reflected in Victorian society in which women had no equal rights and subsequently, no ways to escape oppression. In both novels, Rochester exercises his dominant male power and authority over the protagonists. This is clear in the way he changes Antoinette’s name to ‘Bertha’, essentially erasing her ‘identity’ and autonomy. Furthermore, despite proclaiming to Jane that she is his ‘equal’ and his ‘likeness’, he wants to adorn her with a ‘diamond chain’ around her ‘neck’ and ‘bracelets’ on her ‘fine wrists’ which is a symbol of ownership. The expensive wedding ‘veil’ is another representation of the ‘unequal’ status between Jane and Rochester which Bertha Mason ‘rips apart’ into two and “trampled on them” exemplifying Jane’s inner struggle between her ‘love’ for Rochester and her Christian morals. Jane is also unwilling to be imprisoned in a lifetime of domestic servitude as merely a ‘mistress’. Upon securing Jane’s hand in the promise of ‘marriage’, Rochester attempts to assume the all-encompassing role of a ‘misogynistic’ Victorian husband seeking to gain full ownership of his wife.
The ‘Madwoman’ Bertha Mason is a pivotal character in both novels acting as the central confrontation in Bronte’s novel. In Jane Eyre, she is presented as the antagonist and is seen as an obstacle to Jane’s happiness, but little else is known about her. She represents the gothic element of the novel as she aimlessly drifts through the ‘gloomy’ halls of Thornfield in the dead of night, setting fire to Rochester’s bed. Bronte cleverly uses gothic language to create a ‘female voice’ and in turn provides female representation in an otherwise male-dominated style of writing. One of the ways she does this is by giving Jane a ‘gothic imagination’ when she reads ‘Bewick’s History of British Birds’ containing images of ‘the cold and ghastly moon’ and the ‘black horned thing’ which provokes terror in young Jane. There is also a gothic element in Jane’s ‘unjust’ and traumatising experience in ‘the red room’ which symbolises the jane’s deep-set anger and frustrations as well as the restrictions and entrapment of Victorian women in the confines of the male-dominated space. With the use of the motif’s fire and ice, Bronte subtly expresses the turbulent emotions of Jane which go beyond what is considered acceptable in traditional Victorian society. In many ways, Bertha Mason is a juxtaposed character to Jane Eyre reflecting Jane’s innermost desires and passions that she must keep ‘locked up’ in order to conform to society’s expectations. Gilbert and Gubar describe Bertha as Jane’s ‘truest and darkest double’ which is evident in Bronte’s symbolism of mirrors leading up to Jane’s wedding. When Jane looks at herself in the mirror, she sees ‘a robed and veiled figure’ that ‘seemed almost the image of a stranger’. Jane struggles to operate within conventional social limits and knows that transgressing social norms leads to imprisonment. Therefore, Bronte is demonstrating how women in the patriarchal Victorian society cannot freely express themselves without being labelled as ‘crazy’. In contrast, Bertha chooses to no longer be ‘confined’ in ‘the attic’ so she chooses the only possible route of escape which is ‘death’.
The power imbalance in the novel is strongly evident in the relationships the protagonists have with Rochester. Through a Marxist critical reading, the class struggle is found rife in Victorian society as well as in the Caribbean. Jane represents the ‘proletariat or ‘working class’ and is conscious of the class difference between herself and Rochester stating, ‘I like to serve you, sir, and to obey you in all that is right”. This demonstrates Jane’s awareness of the barrier between a ‘governess’ like herself and Rochester who belongs to the affluent class, the ‘bourgeoisie’. In addition, Mrs Fairfax, aware of Rochester’s bigamous intentions, seeks to dissuade Jane by highlighting the class differences of the two, stating “equality of position and fortune Is advisable in these cases”. The idea of a wealthy man intending to betroth a governess was almost unheard of at the time and it represents the strict segregation of social class in the 19th century.
Wide Sargasso Sea is set after the abolition of slavery which created heightened tension amongst Ex-slave owners and former slaves. The Cosway family, who were former slave owners, are left with little money and surrounded by rising animosity against them because of their white-creole descent; often being referred to as ‘white niggers’ by the English and ‘white cockroaches’ by the black inhabitants. Antoinette’s family, upon regaining wealth through Annette’s marriage to Mr Mason, find themselves once again amid hostility. The antagonism between the two groups represents the Marxist theory of ‘class conflict’ between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie which Karl Marx believed will eventually occur in a capitalist society. This ‘class-conflict’ occurs during the burning down of the Cosway estate in Coulibri by their indignant black neighbours symbolising a ‘proletariat uprising’.
Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea illuminate the narratives of unconventional women in their thirst for ‘equality’ and independence. Jane brings to light her disagreement for traditional gender roles and held the feminist belief that traditional Victorian ‘women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their’. In turn, the ‘victimized’ Antoinette ‘Bertha’ mason escapes her inhumane confinement in the ‘attic’ through death and subsequently escapes from the chains of patriarchal oppression.
- Bronte, C. (1994) Jane Eyre, London: Penguin Classics
- Eagleton, T. (1996) Literary Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell
- Rhys, J (1997) Wide Sargasso Sea, London: Penguin Classics
The Theme of Rochester and Antoinette in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
“Antoinette can be read as a victim of a dominant discourse (a European, white male one at that), which discourages any syncretic possibilities.”
Rhys adopts a dominant narrative voice in part two of the novel to stress the presiding nature of Rochester and thus the damage that many white Europeans have done to the Caribbean. Rochester declares tonight “you must be Bertha”. Bertha is the name forced onto Antoinette and Rochester’s insistence on this being her name highlights the patriarchal influence that he possesses. The demand for the name “Bertha” also prevents Antoinette from determining her own identity as the “Miller’s daughter” image that is stereotyped is instead forced upon her. She could therefore be read as a victim of such dominance. However, the “English” image is somewhat imposed on herself through her warped ideals of identity. She cannot fathom an existence in Jamaica, stating: “….white cockroach. That’s me.” This accentuates the feelings of disconnection from the Caribbean and thus her sought-after connection to England. This self-loathing is also fairly ironic, as the Caribbean was a white settlement long before it became a “black country”. The disconnect that Antoinette feels for the island could perhaps then be attributed to the European’s rejection of the Caribbean, and thus Antoinette after the Emancipation Act of 1833. A postcolonial reading accentuates this issue, with the the attitudes towards Annette’s marriage to Mr Mason a key example. One observer claimed “he would regret it”. The fact that the only consideration is for the male is steeped in irony as it is Annette who is destroyed by the marriage, eventually going mad. The word “regret” is foreshadowing Antoinette’s conversation with Christophene, when she wisely tells her this would be a marriage to “regret”. This advice was ignored and the subsequent relationship would completely isolate her from any syncretic possibilities and eventually end in her death.
Rhys uses the madness of Annette to explore the theme of heredity and thus underlines the responsibility of the mother in her daughter’s lack of a cultural identity. Annette laments “now we are marooned” when their horse is murdered. The use of such definite language impresses this lamentation onto Anntoinette and this severely hinders her search for a distinctive self being. The relationship with Tia, Antoinette’s only self-made connection to the outside world, is seen as insignificant to Annette, who remarks: “which one of them is Tia?”. This highlights Annette’s apparent reluctance to connect with the locals as the word “them” suggests a disconnection. This deconstruction of the segregative concept challenged the common 1960s opinion, where Apartheid had been established for over a decade in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement was a controversial issue in America and the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1965 had prompted mass demonstrations in England. Rhys, herself a Caribbean descendant, is perhaps suggesting that society is limited by its segregative opinions, much like Annette is in the novel, as she is unable to establish any relationship with any black people apart from Christophine, whose opinion she devalues completely. The fight that Antoinette has with Tia is a poignant example of how destructive the adult world can be on the innocence of children. Antoinette calls Tia a “cheating nigger”, after a dispute over money. The use of such vulgar language reflects the graceless adult world; this is Rhys stressing the importance of reducing the evil passed on to children. This refusal to cooperate with the black population could perhaps be accounted to the the dominant European influence, which Annette strives towards. Indeed the arrival of Mr Mason prompts mutterings from the local women. One says, “He didn’t come here to dance – he came to make money as they all do”. This goes undisputed and is Rhys highlighting the damaging effects of the Europeans on the Creole’s cultural identity. They aspire to be like the Europeans and the only result they get is financial exploitation. This is also foreshadowing the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester, in which Rhys reveals Rochester’s only motive is money.
The relationship between Rochester and Antoinette is used by Rhys to stress the damaging effects of the dominant male on the cultural identity of the female. Rochester casts off the wedding as simply a performance, where he “played the part [he] was expected to play” He then goes on to boast to the reader that it was a “faultless performance”. This is Rhys highlighting the despicable nature of the white European, and presents Antoinette as a victim of his deceit. The subsequent dominance means their marriage acts to show how men display dominance and power to marginalize and oppress women. A feminist reading would also draw on the madness of Antoinette, and its presentation within the historical context of the time. Feminist critic Maria Olaussen points out that when choosing to write about the madness of Bertha, “the monster” in Jane Eyre, Rhys did not want to describe Bertha’s madness independently. Rhys wanted to put her description of a “madwoman” into the context of literary tradition of a “madwoman” that Charlotte Bronte has created. The attitudes of the white Europeans towards the Caribbean population – seeing them as the “other” is linked to the madness portrayed in Jane Eyre, and thus prevents Creoles such as Antoinette from joining the European culture, as they are still viewed as alien. Rochester’s imposition is a key example of this, as he views Antoinette as exotic and interesting, further alienating her from the “Miller’s Daughter” image she so strives to connect with.
Isolation and the Coulibri Estate in Wide Sargasso Sea
“Antoinette is trapped between two cultures, clearly without status, a condition which is clearly linked to her descent into madness”
In light of this view, consider Rhys’ presentation and use of setting in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Isolation is a key theme in wide Sargasso, and Rhys uses setting to allude to this. The Coulibri estate is the epitome of isolation with the road between them and the Spanish town is described as “very bad”. This is a metaphor for the loneliness of Coulibri and the degradation that the area is under after the Emancipation Act of 1833. Rhys is stressing how the Act had affected the life of the Creoles as “road repairing was now a thing of the past”. The road could perhaps be symbolic of the interaction between Creoles and the local black population, which is now non-existent. Antoinette’s lack of a cultural identity is clearly emphasized by her relationship with Tia; whom she struggles to relate to especially on the themes of money, as both girls have lived very different economic lives. Money interrupts their supposed blossoming friendship and results in Antoinette calling Tia a “cheating nigger”. Rhys’ use of such vulgar language further emphasizes the cultural and racial differences between the two characters. This also reminds us how much of an influence the adult world has on children.
Once Rhys establishes the difference between Antoinette and the black community, she then goes about demonstrating the difference between Antoinette and the white English through the use of the wedding that Rhys describes soon after her argument with Tia. Antoinette admits that she “hides from them” when they visit Coulibri. Rhys highlights the fear the Antoinette feels to further emphasize the divisions between her and her ancestors from England. The fear of the outside world could perhaps also be linked to her time in England where she never really was allowed to become accustomed to the social norms of the country, clearly linked to Antoinette’s descent into madness.
The death of Annette’s horse, who had been “poisoned”, was the Cosway’s last mode of transport from Coulibri to civilisation. Annette laments: “now we are marooned”; the feeling of hopelessness and segregation could perhaps be foreshadowing Antoinette’s decline into insanity later in the novel, where she is locked away from society by Rochester. The use of the word “marooned” further emphasises the sense of exile from society that the Creoles feel. Stephanie Courtney concluded that “through social ostracism, legal restrictions and negative verbal labeling, the society dominated by male colonizers seeks to confuse the Creole woman’s notion of self, thereby conquering not only a class of people, but also the threat that individuals such as Antoinette pose to socially constructed norms involving race and gender.” The locals’ hate of their past oppressors is understandable, but the Creoles are also unsavoury in the eyes of the white Europeans, seen as blemished from their time in the Caribbean. The death of the horse, a symbol for power, represents the final slide into the paralysis of isolation.
Although the Coulibri estate was linked to Antoinette’s entrapment, the burning down of the house also symbolises the final destruction of any sort of cultural relationship that she had. This could also be foreshadowing the burning down at Thornfield the end of the novel. Like Coulibri, Thornfield is a place of entrapment and the burning down should symbolise freedom but instead it just destroys her last fragment of identity, eventually resulting in her death. After Coulibri is destroyed, Rhys uses temporary locations to further stress her detachment from society. She stays at her aunt’s house, and the thing she is told is that her hair “had to be cut”. The use of such as strong statement shows that she is still trapped even after such a liberating event such as the burning down of her metaphorical prison. The fact that this is the first thing she hears is Rhys reminding the reader that Antoinette cannot be freed by a purely physical action, alluding to the inevitable madness that will develop as the novel goes on.
Rhys creates Coulibri as the epitome of entrapment. Theoretically, it being burned down should be a liberating moment, but by continuing to culturally confine Antoinette, she stresses the extent of emotional discord that lives in her mind. This is a clear indication of the insanity that will mature in the mind of the protagonist.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: Struggles that Affect Identity
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial novel set in Jamaica following the Emancipation Act of 1838, when slavery was outlawed in the British Empire. The story follows the life of an ex-slaveholder’s daughter, Antoinette. Many important themes are brought up in Wide Sargasso Sea. Themes such as slavery, oppression, race, femininity, and identity are all relevant themes brought up in Wide Sargasso Sea. The theme of Identity is the most prominent and significant. Having a sense of identity is important as it allows one to develop a sense of importance and well-being. When one struggles with their identity or has an identity crisis, they are unsure about who they are or what their place in the world is. This can happen for many reasons. Past experiences, stress, lack of affirmation, poor upbringing, and social expectations are all some causes of identity crises. Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, many characters face struggles when it comes to their identity. Antoinette, Rochester, and Annette all face identity crises throughout the novel. Antoinette is going through a period of insecurity when it comes to her cultural identity. She constantly struggles between identifying with her European ethnicity and Caribbean nationality. The lack of love and attention from her mother while she was growing up also contributes to Antoinette’s identity crisis. Rochester suffers an identity crisis due to rejection and lack of support from his family. His identity insecurities are displayed when he tries to deprive Antoinette from a cultural identity. Annette faces an identity crisis due to being ostracized by other women and the visit from the Spanish doctor. The struggles these characters face are all relevant causes of an identity crisis.
While many characters in Wide Sargasso Sea face identity crises, Antoinette’s is the most significant. Throughout the novel, Antoinette faces many setbacks that contribute to her ongoing identity crisis. When Antoinette says, “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (Rhys, 64), there is a strong emphasis on Antoinette’s doubt in where she belongs in respect to her nationality and ethnicity. Antoinette constantly faces struggles in identifying with two cultures; her European ethnicity and her Caribbean nationality. Being called a “white cockroach” (Rhys, 64) and a “white nigger” (Rhys, 64) have a strong impact on Antoinette’s doubt in her identity. Antoinette is neither accepted by the Creole people or the White people. Antoinette begins to take on more Creole characteristics in hopes of befriending Tia. Critics see this as normal for Antoinette to do as she is exposed to her mother teaching her to be white when she does not want to be (Erwin, 209). Later on in the novel, Antoinette has different feelings about who she wants to be. Antoinette wants to have a definite identity and strives to do so by assimilating to English by the means of a potion (Drake, 198). As culture is very prominent in one’s life, this inability to identify with a culture contributes to Antoinette’s identity crisis. While Antoinette’s inability to identify with a culture contributes to her identity crisis, her detached relationship with her mother Annette also contributes to her identity crisis.
Antoinette’s relationship with her mother Annette also contributes to her identity crisis. Throughout her childhood, Annette never expressed the proper love and care for her child in order for Antoinette to grow and create a solid foundation for her identity. As a result of an absence of love and care, Anntoinette constantly questions who she is and if she is even worth the effort of others. This can be problematic as development depends on the level of stimulation, which is love and affection, in the environment, which is the relationship Antoinette and her mother share. Antoinette disassociation with her mother can be seen when she says, “…she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she decided once and for all that I was useless to her” (Rhys, 20). This shows how unattached Antoinette and her mother are. They do not share the bond that most children form with their mother at a young age. As a relationship with a parent, most importantly a mother, is so crucial to the development of a child, Antoinette’s lack of identity is then justified as she lacks the relationship crucial to one’s development. While Antoinette’s identity crisis is the most significant in the novel as she is the main character, her husband Rochester also faces an identity crisis that is significant.
Throughout the course of the novel, Rhys utilizes the character of Rochester to illustrate the theme of identity. In the novel, Rochester is shown to be rejected by his family through various scenes such as when he received none of his father’s estate. This lack of passing on family heirlooms or wealth illustrates how Rochester’s father feels about him. If he had love and admiration for Rochester, he would have given more as he would want to see Rochester doing well. Rochester’s alienation and rejection from his family leads him to have trouble later on in the novel with his identity. His identity crisis is reflected upon his treatment of his wife, Antoinette. Rochester’s identity crisis is apparent through his lack of respect for Antoinette’s culture and cultural identity (Voicu, 2014). This can be seen by his attempt to deprive Antoinette of her cultural identity. Rochester attempts to deprive his wife Antoinette of her cultural identity by changing Antoinette’s traditional Carribean name to an English name, Bertha. Furthermore, Rochester attempts to deprive her of her personal identity as well. After being locked in the attic in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette begins to question herself again, “What am I doing in this place and who am I” (Rhys, 107). Rochester’s acts of depriving his wife of an identity illustrate his own insecurities with his identity. Furthermore, Rochester’s identity crisis can be seen through the fact that he remains nameless in the novel. Rochester’s namelessness creates a sense of uncertainty amongst the reader which leads to them questioning who he really is. As well, a person’s name is a fundamental characteristic of one’s identity. Without his name being spoken, he really did not have a true identity in the novel.
Rhys’ illustration of the theme of identity is brought to light through the use of characters in the novel, one of which was Annette. While being ostracized by others and not being able to do everything for her family on her own, Annette struggled with her identity crisis. Being the widow of an ex-slave keeper, Annette was ostracized from society by other women in the town. The women of the town felt threatened by Annette’s beauty and felt that she was too good for Mr. Mason. This lead to the women of the town to alienate Annette from social gatherings and talk behind her back. Due to this, Annette was never able to make friends in the town which lead to her questioning what was wrong with her and doubting who she was. By not being able to provide for her family without the financial help of another man also take a toll on Annette’s identity and self-esteem. Annettes alienation from others of the town lead paired with her inability to provide for her family without financial help from another man lead to her having an identity crisis.
Rhys also explored the theme of identity through Annette’s reaction to the visit by the Spanish doctor. It wasn’t clear what Pierre was diagnosed with but from Annette’s reaction, the reader can understand that it is something bad.
She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn’t speak distinctly. I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all. (Rhys, 4).
After the visit from the doctor, Annette was changed. The effortless transition of her state of mind illustrates how her sense of identity was never that strong. Annette’s inability to leave the house and talk to others shows the identity crisis and period of doubt she is going through.
Many important themes are brought up in Rhys’ post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Themes such as slavery, oppression, race, femininity, and identity are all relevant themes brought up in the novel. Identity is the most prominent and significant. Rhys strategically develops the theme of identity through Antoinette, Rochester, and Annette. The author does this using their identity crises throughout the novel. All three character face struggles that affect their identity. Antoinette is going through a period of insecurity when it comes to her identity because of her inability to identify with her cultures and because of her upbringing. Rochester suffers an identity crisis due to rejection and lack of support from his family. His insecurities about his identity are illustrated in how he tries to deprive his wife Antoinette of her identity. Annette faces an identity crisis due to being ostracized by other women and the visit from the Spanish doctor. Rhys’ successful development of the theme of identity through the characters in the novel makes Wide Sargasso Sea one of the most insightful pieces of postcolonial literature of this time.
The Voice of The Other in Wide Sargasso Sea
“How will you like being made exactly like other people?” is a question that echoes through Antoinette’s mind early within Jean Rhys’s responsive and revisionist text, Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys 22). Constructing her protagonist from Charlotte Brontë’s insane Bertha Mason, Rhys aims to write the history, the preface, of one of the most discussed feminist figures in the literary canon. Giving voice to the voiceless, Rhys reconsiders the circumstance that culminated in Bertha’s (here Antoinette’s) descent into madness. However, one character in particular—Antoinette’s former slave and surrogate guardian, Christophine—maintains a refusal to subscribe to this question of erased identity that shapes the novel. A character “embedded in multiple hierarchies” (Hai 494), Christophine defies the subordination and assimilation of other, more powerful characters within the text whose actions aim to reduce her to the demeaning role of “other.” While her race, color, and gender all leave her open to discrimination and marginalization typical for members of these social groups, she subtly undermines these stereotypes not through overt, activist proclamations but through her silence and exit from a novel dominated by two white narrators.
Throughout the novel, Rhys exemplifies Christophine’s narrative as one of dual subjugation and subversion in order to depict her defiance of patriarchal colonial powers and illustrate the resistive power of subtle, marginal actions. The opening of the novel presents a tone of quintessential colonial hegemony, immediately characterizing Christophine as an “other” within the text. However, what is perhaps most notable—and uncharacteristic of colonial discourse—is that Christophine opens the novel as the first women named to the reader. Rhys opens her text, “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did… The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said” (Rhys 9). By allowing Christophine to open the novel, great power is instilled in both her voice and her narrative; however, this power of with being the first speaker is muddled by Christophine’s inability to speak for herself. While her words open the story, Antoinette’s ultimately narrates it. This action of being spoken for exemplifies the authority that colonial and slave-owning traditions hold over Christophine, as she is unable to speak for herself despite possessing a quotable, insightful opinion. The language of Christophine’s opinion particularly separates her as an ignorant other. By proclaiming Annette to be “pretty like pretty self,” in her Caribbean colloquial dialect, Christophine’s voice is inherently seen as less educated and less insightful. The juxtaposition of this native tongue to Rhys’s eloquent opening prose of “closing ranks,” crafted in a lengthy, complex syntax, further marginalizes Christophine and her voice as subsidiary. Repeatedly analyzed as the othered native trope, Christophine’s role is often reduced through postcolonial critic Gayatri Spivak’s observation that “she is simply driven out of the story, with neither narrative nor characterological explanation or justice” (Spivak 246). However, it is this strange and muddled opening that both gives Christophine power and strips it from her, presenting the character as one of complex motives, stories, and means.
Additionally, Rhys’s narrative structure implicates the ownership—both legal and informal—that Antoinette holds over Christophine. Her role as slave, and later servant, in the novel immediately notes her as a dominated woman, but coupled with the statement of “closing ranks” illuminates a characterization as a member of an outed, lesser group—a characterization assigned to her from the opening of the text. Christophine, despite her initial assignment to this place of marginalization, repeatedly threatens the powers, and people, that aim to subjugate her. Throughout the novel, Christophine maintains an undoubtedly complex relationship with both Antoinette and Rochester—challenging one of the primary forms of her marginalization, servitude. To take on black feminist bell hooks’ exploration of what it means to be oppressed, Christophine undermines those who aim to dominate her all while within her place of servitude. While hooks acknowledges that the concept of marginalization typically notes a rather negative, oppressive connotation, she reverses this construct, uniquely defining the margin as the primary “space for counter hegemonic discourse… not just… in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (hooks 206). Utilizing this perspective, it becomes clear that Christophine’s actions—while still at times in a place of subservience—alter the forms of oppression placed upon her. For instance, in a moment where Christophine is cleaning and serving the couple coffee, Rochester harshly critiques, “I can’t say I like her language… And she looks so lazy, she dawdles about” (Rhys 50-51). Despite taking place in a moment where Christophine is working and repeatedly referring to the two as “master” (Rhys 50), Rochester elects to distinguish her as, above all, “lazy.” This depiction overtly refers, not to her work ethic, but her blackness, equating her performance to her race. The notion that “she dawdles about” inherently diminishes her to an entity responsible only for serving and subject to the judgments of her “masters.” This moment, conversely, gives way to the power Christophine yields over language, again complicating her subservience.
While clearly not the rhetoric preferred by Rochester, Christophine’s rhetoric creates a dialogue that disrupts the expectations of submission and silence. It is through her language—even within a role of servitude—that Christophine asserts her power, aligning her margin to hooks’ “site of radical possibility, [and] space of resistance.” (hooks 206). Christophine further dismantles her role of subservience when she refuses Antoinette’s money for an obeah love potion. Repeatedly begging Christophine to mend her marriage and her love with Rochester, Antoinette, by partaking in the obeah trade, legitimizes both Christophine’s practice and her knowledge over the culture. Aiming to dominate the trade and by extension Christophine, she attempts to throw her “purse from [her] pocketbook” (Rhys 70), claiming capital control over her former slave. However, Christophine subverts this capitalist hegemony by simply refusing the money, retaliating, “You don’t have to give me money. I do this foolishness because you beg me—not for money” (Rhys 70). By directly dismissing Antoinette’s money, Christophine removes herself from a capitalist interaction aimed at dominating her. She further extends her reclamation of power over the situation, denoting Antoinette’s desires for the obeah potion as “foolishness.” Despite it being Christophine’s own cultural practice, she aligns with the dominating rhetoric that deems obeah foolish, not to belittle herself, but to embarrass Antoinette. In this moment, Christophine aims to redefine the power dynamics present between the two women, simply by removing herself from the traditional interaction of trading money. By removing herself from this capitalist practice, Christophine willingly exits from the accepted mainstream and, arguably, into the margin. The occupation of this space, while traditionally undesirable, breaks the oppressive expectations Christophine must maintain in the periphery. It is here that it becomes clear that Christophine’s marginalization maintains hooks’ ideal resistance “where one can say no to the colonizer, no to the downpressor” (hooks 207), allowing her to deny and rebel against Antoinette’s standards, dismantling the capitalist ideals often associated with colonial hegemony.
Perhaps the most powerful moment Christophine commands within the novel is when she confronts Rochester’s treatment of Antoinette, in a sense, verbally castrating him. While Christophine’s rebellion against Antoinette’s expectations is powerful for its corrosion of the master/servant and black/white dichotomies, her assertion of Rochester is arguably extensively more powerful as it additionally addresses the patriarchal authority he holds over her as a man. Abhorred by his treatment of Antoinette, she accuses “all you want is to break her up… you made her worse” (Rhys 92-93), culminating in the vivid insult, “But you wicked like Satan self!” (Rhys 96). This proclamation that Rochester lives to see Antoinette deteriorate verbally assaults the treatment of his wife. The harsh accusation that he made his wife “worse” is particularly baring and rather out of place from a servant, making Christophine’s words that much sharper. To depict Rochester in the simile “wicked like Satan” not only places Christophine’s immense distaste upon him but also parallels him to an evil so grotesque the only image she can conjure is that of the devil. This degradation stands not only to diminish Rochester, but also to assign power to Christophine and her language that he has already expressed contempt for. Her assertive discourse, directly meant to question his patriarchal authority as Antoinette’s husband, challenges his decisions and his command over a servant he should presumably carry great colonial dominance over. Thus, Christophine’s verbal attack subverts Rochester’s position of authority, allowing her to combat the colonial standards that aim for her submission.
Despite her rather dramatic proclamations of power against both Antoinette and Rochester, Christophine disappears from the novel in a rather abrupt exit. The same way Christophine subverts the subordination from the coupled narrators, she refuses to exit the physical periphery to enter the center: England. In the culmination of her fight with Rochester, Christophine proclaims, “‘Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know,’” to which her arch in the novel concludes, “She walked away without looking back” (Rhys 97). Christophine’s adamant profession of her lack of literacy—something often attributed to intelligence and knowledge—does not capture her ignorance, but rather reveals a knowledge of her own limits. By confessing to her deficit, Christophine reclaims her lack of understanding and instead propels her assertion “other things I know.” This brief yet poignant moment establishes Christophine’s certainty in her role throughout the novel, while the short syntax resonates “know” at the closing of the sentence, solidifying Christophine’s rebellious confidence. Furthermore, it asserts a sense of wisdom and understanding to her action of “walk[ing] away.” It is this definitive past tense: “she walked away” that ultimately becomes Christophine’s most powerful act of defiance. Without so much as “looking back,” she is able to refuse a physical presence once the white narrators leave for England, instead adhering to her margin as “a site one stays in, clings to even… to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds” (hooks 207). Therefore, she is not driven out but rather consciously elects to leave once the novel’s setting migrates to the center in her ultimate act of defiance.
Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, the character of Christophine subverts the hegemonic powers that aim to subjugate her in order to demonstrate the capacity of passive resistance. While her outright verbal defiance of Antoinette and Rochester directly undermines capitalist and patriarchal standards, her subtle behavioral resistances illustrate the power she culminates through her own marginalization. Despite the subservient act of cleaning, she resists through language Rochester deems abhorrent, and despite the silencing moment of her exit, she voices her dissent by refusing presence once the narration reaches England. This defiance ultimately portrays the complexities that define Christophine’s suppression, highlighting her disruption of colonial powers and her use of the margin as a site of rebellious discourse.
Wide Sargasso Sea and the Symbolism of Mirrors and Madness
Poscolonial narratives and rewritings attempt to deal with minority responses by recovering their untold stories as a result of European colonization (Reavis). This literature addresses the problems and consequences of the decolonization of a country and individual responses to issues of imperialism and racialism. Jean Rhys takes on the task of giving a voice to historically silenced characters in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a precursor story to Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s mad and seemingly bestial wife Bertha Mason, whose given name is revealed to be Antoinette Cosway. Throughout the novel Rhys employs various symbols to convey the concept of “the other” along with themes of social and cultural identity, entrapment, and ecocriticism to reflect the psyches and experiences of the characters. Rhys uses the concept of mirrors in particular throughout Wide Sargasso Sea to symbolize Antoinette’s double identity, madness, and ultimately deteriorated selfhood under a system of patriarchal oppression.
Mirrors initially play a large part in Antoinette’s chaotic childhood to convey her double identity and fluidity between social groups. In a pivotal scene when the Jamaican natives siege Antoinette’s home at Coulibri Estate, Antoinette uses her passive and poetic rhetoric to describe an otherwise disastrous situation. When she and her family finally get out of their burning home, Antoinette alludes to mirrors as she runs toward her childhood friend Tia: “When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass” (Rhys 45). This scene, fraught with intensity and emotion, serves as an interesting juxtaposition of two different female experiences. Antoinette, a white Creole girl living in Spanish Town, Jamaica in the midst of post slavery illegalization, often refers to herself as a “white cockroach.” Throughout her narrative, she fails to belong to any one social group, as she cannot relate to the black residents of Spanish Town but is also too “exotic” to fit into any component of English culture. Tia serves as her double in a significant way, and as a reflection of Antoinette, she acts out the anger and grief Antoinette ultimately seeks to express but from the other side of the mirror of racial separation. Tia is an image of an identity Antoinette longs to be her own: a black woman with a sense of belonging, not a white Creole woman strung in between any true community. The concept of the looking glass and Tia as a double seems to iterate what Antoinette knows, that she will never find the sense of belonging or identity that she wants for herself.
As Antoinette’s madness develops, mirrors reflect her alienation from any sense of identity. Part Three of the novel is a frightening culmination of Antoinette’s psychosis through seclusion that poses the question of whether her madness is intrinsic or just a consequence of her poisonous treatment and history. Annette, Antoinette’s mother, despite her short appearance in the novel, had a habit of constantly looking for her own reflection in the mirror. Antoinette adopts this part of her mother, perhaps indicating their shared need to be seen in a world that neither invites nor accepts them. When Rochester puts Antoinette in the attic, he further amplifies her madness by making her isolated and disconnected. In rhetoric constantly jumping between the past and present, she describes her mirrorless prison when she says, “There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my break” (Rhys 182). Even when Antoinette had access to a mirror, her sense of isolation and alienation from her image demonstrates her general lack of selfhood. As a child, Antoinette tries to kiss her image in the mirror as if to unite the two halves of her cultural identity but is met by the cold glass. By calling her the wrong name and not giving her a mirror, Rochester seeks to erase her most fundamental sense of existence. However, by the time she lives in the Thornfield attic, her madness has become her identity more than anything else. The lack of mirrors and Antoinette’s lifelong desire to close the gap between two cultural identities serve to personify her madness in this passage and accounts for her inability to fully grasp reality.
Finally, mirrors serve as a means to reflect Antoinette’s deteriorated, colonized self as a result of patriarchal oppression. Her identity has experienced an irreversible split, which is evident in Part Three when she escapes from the attic and woefully explores Thornfield. She describes her encounter with a mirror in a dream-like trance: “I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her – the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her. I dropped the candle I was carrying and it caught the end of the tablecloth and I saw flames shoot up. As I ran or perhaps floated or flew I called help me Christophine help me and looking behind me I saw that I had been helped” (Rhys 188-189). Rhys illustrates how Antoinette’s identity is so diminished through her oppression and entrapment that when she looks in the mirror in this pivotal and traumatically poetic scene she does not quite recognize her reflection. The use of the mirror itself, an impenetrable wall of separation, represents patriarchal judgment, and Antoinette believes she has seen a ghost-like woman with streaming hair, but she is a stranger to herself and does not recognize her identity as Bertha Mason (Sarvan). Her selfhood has undergone an irreversible split in which she will not recover from. In the same way that Tia was previously her mirror image and “dark double,” Antoinette seeks to destroy Bertha, her other self, and Thornfield, a manifestation of her patriarchal imprisonment.
Rhys uses mirrors throughout Wide Sargasso Sea to embody Antoinette’s double identity, mental break, and deteriorated identity under systematic patriarchal imprisonment. In a conversation with Rochester in Part Two, Antoinette pleads with her husband to listen to her story and consider her side when she says, “There is always the other side, always” (Rhys). In the same way that the mirror acts as third space for Antoinette’s mental deterioration, Wide Sargasso Sea is a third space that allows for the enunciation of the other in which Rhys locates the racial and feminist struggle of Antoinette (Reavis). Apparent through the mirror and an intimate look into Antoinette’s mind, Rhys entraps the reader and creates compassion for a woman whose helplessness through patriarchal oppression is often remarkably familiar.
Reavis, Serena. “”Myself Yet Not Quite Myself”: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and a Third Space of Enunciation.” 2005. University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Document. 4 May 2016. <https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/listing.aspx?id=927>.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982. Print. Sarvan, Charles.
“Flight, Entrapment, and Madness in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” International Fiction Review January 1999: 58-65. Journal Article.
The Influence of Slavery on Human Relationship
Jean Rhys novel Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the most important post-colonial works that examines the effect of colonialism on Jamaica. Part of this examination is the exploration of how the aftermath of slavery affects Antoinette’s relations with the Afro-Caribbean people in general and in particular with two prominent Afro-Caribbean characters in the novel Tia and Christophine. Rhys examines how slavery has both beneficial and destructive effects on her relations with the Afro-Caribbean community. Rhys demonstrates how the exploitation, suppression of the Afro-Caribbean people and their lack of compensation and lack of improved living standards has generated racial tensions and fostered the development of mutual hate. Moreover, Rhys illustrates how this atmosphere of mutual hatred caused by slavery impacts Antoinette’s relationship with the Afro-Caribbean population of post-colonial Jamaica. Rhys also exhibits the effect of figurative slavery on Antoinette’s marriage with her husband, whose name is not initially stated, but implicitly identified as Rochester (from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre). Jean Rhys explores the after effects of slavery on Jamaica by looking at the relationship between Antoinette and the island’s native Afro-Caribbean population.
The relationship explored by Rhys is characterized by racial tensions. One of the ways this conflict is portrayed by Rhys is the use of derogatory terms. Throughout the exposition of the book, which is set on the island of Jamaica, characters of both races use racial slurs to refer to each other. One example of this is when a native Afro-Caribbean girl says, “’Go away white cockroach, go away’” (Rhys. p.7) to Antoinette on her way home. The term “white cockroach” is a term used by the Afro-Caribbean people to describe Antoinette and her family, as they are white but due to their lack of wealth not part of the white elite of Jamaica. The use of the term “cockroach” demonstrates how antagonistic the relationship is as the term cockroach connotes vermin. Furthermore the fact that it happened on Antoinette’s way home shows the ordinariness of the situation. The racial tension is also conveyed through the violence of the natives towards Antoinette and her family. This violence begins with small incidents such as violence against animals that are owned by Antoinette’s family. For instance the reader is informed by Antoinette that “they killed our horse” (Rhys. p.18). This violence then spirals into the forceful eviction of Antoinette and her family from their estate “Coulibri” through a riot by members of the Afro-Caribbean community that set fire to their home. Antoinette’s use of a hyperbole to describe the scenery reveals the momentousness of the situation. She says, “[the] flames [are] shooting up to the sky” (Rhys. p.20). Rhys also uses a hyperbole to mirror Antoinette’s young age, as children often use exaggerations in their language. These racial tensions portrayed by Rhys seem to portray the Afro-Caribbean population in a bad light, but in the historical context of the novel, one might argue that the anger of the Afro-Caribbean community is justified and understandable, as they suffered tremendous horrors, during the period of slavery.
The negative effects of slavery on the relationships between Antoinette and the Afro-Caribbean community are also shown by Rhys through Antoinette’s interactions with Tia. Tia was Antoinette’s only friend until an argument drove them apart. The abrupt ending of their friendship and the disappointment it caused is later outdone by Tia’s betrayal of Antoinette. Antoinette’s early relationship to Tia, after their first encounter is characterised by their mutual friendship. Antoinette says, that “Tia was my friend and I met her daily” (Rhys. p.7) . The daily routine of their relationship illustrates their close bond. However, this bond later breaks up over a petty bet of whether or not Antoinette could “turn a somersault under water” (Rhys. p.8). A disagreement about whether or not Antoinette actually completed this somersault spirals out of control and results in the end of their friendship. This is significant as both express their feelings using racial slurs Antoinette calls Tia a “cheating nigger” (Rhys. p.8)  and Tia refers to her former friend as a “white nigger” (Rhys. p.8). The use of those very strong and pejorative racial slurs informs the reader about both of the girls’ upbringing and the social acceptability of racism in post-slavery Jamaica, as it is highly unlikely that the two girls used those terms without having acquired them from their surroundings. The racism expressed by Antoinette and Tia highlights how saturated Jamaica was with race-related hate and this hate can be directly linked to slavery.
In contrast to Antoinette’s relation with the Afro-Caribbean community and her interactions with Tia, which illustrate the negative effects of slavery on relationships, the connection between Antoinette and Christophine is not dominated by mutual hate and distrust, but rather by genuine affection and maternal love. Their relationship is Rhys description of a relationship that many female slaves and children of plantation owners experienced. Christophine, just as many other female slaves was forced to function as Antoinette’s surrogate mother, as it was seen as inappropriate for upper class women, like Antoinette’s mother once was, to take care of her own child. Even though their relationship was forced upon them it resulted in a mother like bond. Rhys demonstrates the amiable aspects of their relationship especially through to what great extent Antoinette feels secure with Christophine by her side. Antoinette says that without Christophine next to her at night the “safe feeling left” (Rhys. p.18) her. This highlights Antoinette’s dependency on Christophine and her trust in her. Rhys uses Antoinette’s relationship to Christophine to examine how slavery can lead to a mother like bond between two people from different social standings.
Wide Sargasso Sea does not only explore the impact of literal slavery as a result of colonialism but also the concept of figurative slavery in the form of a woman’s childlike dependence on her husband. The relationship between Antoinette and her husband Rochester is a vivid example of figurative slavery, as Antoinette is subordinated towards her husband who has the power to rob her of her freedom, by which he transforms Antoinette’s figurative slavery into literal slavery. This metamorphose intensifies Antoinette’s reliance on her husband. This dependency expresses itself primarily as an economic dependency. The reader is informed of this financial need through the dialogue between Antoinette and her surrogate mother Christophine. Christophine suggests Antoinette to leave Rochester to re-start her life however Antoinette tells Christophine and thereby the reader that: “’I [Antoinette] am not rich now, I [Antoinette] have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him…that is the English law’” (Rhys. p.68). The interaction between Christophine and Antoinette portrays the subservience of a woman on her husband and how this impacts a marriage by equipping the husband with supremacy and by entrapping the wife. A further example of Antoinette’s entrapment and figurative slavery is her name being subsumed to “Bertha”. Her husband, Rochester refrains from calling her Antoinette as it reminds him of her crazed and deranged mother. This name change is an act of dominance and demonstrates his power in the relationship, as he possess the power to alter another human beings identity. The name “Bertha” is of importance as Antoinette is robbed not only of her dignity through the loss of her last name, but also of her Creole heritage. Antoinette’s Creole heritage makes her unique and exotic and distinguishes her from her husband. The changing of Antoinette’s name to Bertha demonstrates Rochester’s inability of dealing with the exotic and different.
In conclusion, Rhys vividly examines the results of the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and how it affects the protagonist’s relationship with the local Afro-Caribbean community, especially with Tia and Christophine. Tia and Christophine portray the two different possible outcomes of slavery’s impact on Antoinette’s relationship with the Afro-Caribbean population of post-colonial Jamaica. Whereas Tia represents the destructive impact of an environment drenched with hate generated by slavery and Christophine embodies the positive impacts of a relationship forced upon by slavery. Rhys further examines the effect of figurative slavery on Antoinette’s marriage with her husband Rochester.
 Jean Rhys‘ Wide Sargasso Sea’s “Antoinette” is an exploration of the character the “Mad Creole Woman” from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre it is a common literary practice to refer to Antoinette’s husband as “Rochester”.
 Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea London: Penguin Books Student Edition 2001
Critical Review of William Harris’s Wide Sargasso Sea Criticism
In Dr. William Harris’s Carnival of Psyche: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, an analysis of Rhys’s 1966 postmodern “prequel” to Jane Eyre, Harris attempts to evaluate the significance of “intuitive myth” on the novel’s psyche. “Attempt,” however, is the operative word here. Without a thesis or clear argument, Harris’s essay feels more like a meandering, purposeless discussion of his thoughts about Wide Sargasso Sea, which range from its connection to The Invisible Man to the role of structuralism in nihilist philosophy. This would not be such a problem if Harris’s individual points were well-argued, but, unfortunately, they are not. Predicated on very little textual evidence and worsened by convoluted syntax, Harris’s claims amount to little more than opinion and badly-articulated opinion at that. Furthermore, Harris’s central argument — that Jean Rhys’s allusions to myth are intuitive, not intentional — is extremely difficult to prove. And Harris does not rise to his own challenge. He fails to define the difference between intuitive and intentional allusion, offer any coherent evidence to suggest the Jean Rhys’s allusions were intuitive, or explain why it matters whether Rhys intended these allusions or not. Ultimately, Harris’s convoluted style, meandering structure, and lack of textual evidence makes proving an impossible claim even harder.
Harris’s central argument about “intuitive myth” is, for the most part, predicated on one quotations alone, neither of which are particularly well-analyzed or used to prove his point. Harris rests most of his case on Antoinette’s reference to a “tree of life in flames” in her dream, which Harris (indirectly) connects to a South American creation myth. This allusion is not difficult to recognize; Rhy’s description of the burning tree of life is very plausibly a reference to Arawak and Macusi legends of the “The food bearing tree of the world, which is fired by the Caribs at a time of war when the Arawaks seek refuge in its branches. The fire rages and drives Arawaks up into space until they are themselves burnt and converted into sparks which continue to rise into the sky to become the Pleiades.” However, the heart of Harris’s argument — that these myths are intuitive — he never proves. Instead he simply states that they are, using italics for emphasis, saying “Wide Sargasso sea…has a profoundly intuitive spirit” and asserting that the “tree of life myth” (and other myths which he references only in vague, single-word quotations) “are intuitively woven into the tapestry of Wide Sargasso Sea.” Furthermore, in addition to never demonstrating why he believes Rhys’s inclusion of these myths was not “deliberate,” Harris fails to explain why the intuitive vs. deliberate inclusion matters. He mentions briefly that “one cannot avoid the ambiguities that pull at that [allusion to the “sky of fiction” and “tree of life] and suppress it still into the sphere of symbolic widowhood.” This ambiguity may be one implication of intuitive myths, but Harris makes this point so briefly and indirectly that it becomes negligible. Ultimately, Harris’s argument, while interesting, lacks in any real substance.
Harris further obscures his already-lacking argument with convoluted syntax, unclear metaphors, and a meandering structure. Despite promising to “confine himself on this occasion to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Harris begins his argument with a two-paragraph digression about Invisible Man, which he does connect in any way to Wide Sargasso Sea. When he does get to the novel at hand, he begins by saying, “Wide Sargasso Sea varies the rainbow arc between cultures in foundly intuitive spirit. To appreciate that variation we need to recall the bridge between sky and earth that is implicit in the rainbow arc from Central to South America in Quetzalcoatl and Yurokon. Then we need to revise that arc or bridge into a rather different compression of features.” What, exactly, “the rainbow arch” is or why he expects readers to “recall it,” Harris does not explain. However, he sets up his most important point — the reference to the creation myth — upon this confusing metaphor, making the rest of his argument equally as confusing. After an short but baffling discussion of this “intuitive myth,” drenched in convoluted syntax and unproven statements, Harris segues into an analysis of the relationship between Rochester and Antoinette. This discussion is lengthy and hard-to-follow — focusing on the “psychical and immaterial re-marriage of Rochester and re-dressed Bertha into Antoinette in the ‘sky of fiction” — and, other than the ‘sky of fiction’ reference, is not at all connected to intuitive myths. After some discussion of Obeah, Harris then caps off his argument with the greatest departure from this topic yet: the relationship between structuralism and nihilism. Not only is Wide Sargasso Sea not mentioned once in the last two pages, but the discussion itself feels utterly irrelevant to the larger theme of the essay.
William Harris’s Carnival of Psyche: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is an unfortunate example of the way flowery language and a commitment to originality can obscure the true substance of an argument. Densely abstract, Harris’s piece stops being an analysis and starts becoming a piece of work that needs analyzing itself. Filled with unexplained metaphors and run-on-sentences, Harris may spend a paragraph explaining what he means by “inarticulate” but he clearly can’t recognize the trait in his own work.
Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea: Comparing the Peculiarities of Narrative Techniques
In a first-person narrative reflecting on the past, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jean Rhys’ expansion thereof, Wide Sargasso Sea, the presentation of the memories which constitute the story immensely affects the thematic impact of the work by reflecting the narrator’s feelings about their experiences. In the aforementioned novels, both narrators’ memories are colored by their own impressions of particular times in their lives; thus, the tone that each speaker uses reflects their circumstances at the time, and their respective fates as a whole. Specifically, it reflects Jane’s eventual happiness with Rochester, Antoinette’s perpetual isolation, and Rochester’s entrapment in his marriage.
Both novels begin when the narrator is a child trapped in an unaccepting, isolating environment. As children, they both naturally have an imperfect grasp on their surroundings. Both accounts give a somewhat disjointed, distorted narrative, which the reader understands is not entirely trustworthy; however, it is important to distinguish that Antoinette’s narration is far more so than Jane’s. Her narrative skips suddenly from one event to another, and from specific instances to generalizations of her life and descriptions of the scenery whenever it is relevant. As she ages into adolescence, this effect becomes less severe, but it remains still. Conversely, Jane’s presentation of events is more organized, and flows between events without much obtrusive interruption in the atmosphere.
This disparity reflects both Antoinette’s less “civilized” upbringing in the Caribbean and her foreboding fate of a descent into madness like her predecessors. As Rhys makes her protagonist’s roots evident, she shows how Antoinette’s exposure to a nature-surrounded upbringing by former slaves gives her a more natural, disjointed sense of time than the rigid, linear sort which those like Rochester and Jane learn in England. Thus, Antoinette’s sense of time seems disorderly in the eyes of a modern Western reader. Combined with the knowledge later revealed regarding the Cosway family history and possible prior knowledge of her fate from Jane Eyre, this cements the reader’s sense that Antoinette is fated for madness. In contrast, Jane’s narration is more organized and linear, reflecting, in addition to her strict and well-educated upbringing, the fact that she never strays too far from stability; even Lowood, where she is isolated and miserable, eventually proves to be a place where she can prosper as a student and as a teacher. Fittingly, Jane does finally find happiness with Mr. Rochester. Rochester’s narration in Wide Sargasso Sea, too, is more linear than that of his first wife; his narration flows between events with less breaking in the narrative — naturally, seeing as he is the most educated narrator of all these three.
The language which the respective narrators use sets a tone immediately in each distinct section of their life. In Jane Eyre, these treatments emphasize the effect each experience has on Jane. For example, she arrives at her cousins’ home in a blizzard, trudging through deep snow, and remains snowed in for some time. This circumstance creates the perception that she is trapped there. Notably, the novel begins rather somberly, reflecting Jane’s mistreatment and isolation in Gateshead and at Lowood Institute. After Jane matures and is able to leave these oppressive institutions to become a governess, however, the change of pace stimulates her yearn for adventure and she is able to experience more things in a more vibrant light. In contrast, in Wide Sargasso Sea, this same effect establishes a consistent overtone of isolation for both Antoinette, on account of her family history, and for Rochester, on account of his foreign origin. In the first section of Antoinette’s narration, a sense of being lost is tangible; in the third, where she is locked up in Rochester’s attic, the prevailing feeling is one of helplessness and hopelessness. When Rochester narrates, he automatically sets an impression of uncertainty about the nature of his marriage and his new surroundings. His view of his life is overwhelmingly pessimistic and defeated; after all, his account begins with the phrase “so it was all over,” (59), automatically emphasizing an ending and creating a pessimistic tone. Although Rochester presents this ending as something which may have happened “for better or for worse,” he soon makes it evident to the reader that his move and his marriage bring him misery.
The narrators’ selective memories also have a hand in affecting the tone. Jane notably tends to remark on the weather before recounting a major event, particularly an unfortunate one. The weather conditions she mentions also reflect her general feeling about an era; while recounting her stay at the oppressive Lowood Institute, she often remarks the cold and unpleasant weather, but she consistently notes excellent weather while with Rochester at the festive, open Thornfield Hall, especially when their relationship is on an upturn. She even talks about “twilight and snowflakes” (113) when she is unable to see Rochester, indicating that, after their meeting, his presence is integral to her happiness. Selective memories such as these affect the general atmosphere of a scene and therefore express to the reader Jane’s overall emotional state. Rochester, too, uses this technique to set a tone in his own account; at the beginning of his narrative, the first time we see him and Antoinette together from his perspective, he remarks “sad leaning cocoanut [sic] palms,” a “shingly beach,” and an uneven collection of huts in a village macabrely called “Massacre.” In opening his section of the narrative with these details, he establishes a sad, dull tone which reflects his feelings about the island and about his marriage. Later, he mentions the fast-dying pale flowers outside his window (79) before he states his first major criticisms of his bride; she is inconsistent — i.e. showing the earliest signs of her insanity — and has unwelcome unfeminine traits. Antoinette’s narration is also marked by selective omission, although it is never quite clear whether she does this out of a desire to hide her past or out of a simple inability to remember her past coherently. Regardless, her failure to mention details such as her family’s history of mental illness and her former relationship with her cousin Sandi make it evident that she is not a reliable or wholly truthful narrator.
The choices Rhys makes regarding narrative voice serve to establish an overarching feeling of unhappiness for her two protagonists, in creating tone which conveys isolation and restraint. In contrast, the tone Charlotte Brontë sets through Jane Eyre’s narration stays emotionally vibrant, even as her life strays far from perfection. Together, these narrative voices emphasize the eventual destiny in these novels; Antoinette dies in isolation, while Rochester, after his dull marriage to her, finds mutual love and happiness with Jane.