Tag Archives: Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea as Literary Achievement

8 Feb

A reductive explanation of Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) would be “a 1960’s novel that serves as a revisionist complement to Jane Eyre that fleshes out the story of Bertha.” This would leave one to expect a post modern novel that revised the Bertha character in light of evolving social attitudes. That would not necessarily be wrong. One might also expect the novel to challenge and outright reject imperialist ideas of the Caribbean and its people as savage and unknowable and, perhaps, as sinful or morally ambiguous. That would be off the mark.

Rhys places Bertha/Antoinette on a cultural island of her own. As a White Creole she is looked down upon by Europeans and Jamaicans (and Dominicans). We might have expected Rhys to portray the British/Europeans as the villains but, while Rochester (or the character we must assume is Rochester) is not painted in a positive light, the Jamaicans in Part One and Amelie in Part Two serve as antagonists along with Antoinette’s new husband. This strikes me as a laudable literary choice, going beyond a more simplistic flipping of “good” and “bad” characters. For example, in Wicked, Maguire simply makes the Wicked Witch/Elpheba the sympathetic protagonist and Oz, Dorthy, etc. the antagonists. Rhys largely takes morality out of the equation and uses Antoinette’s White Creole status, as well as her position as the daughter of a slave owner, as a device to create conflict and isolation for the character, thus creating a compelling and effective narrative.

The most revisionist element of WSS is the unnamed version of Rochester. Rather than the enlightened, sophisticated, and Byronic figure of Jane Eyre, Rochester displays close minded attitudes that seem in step with the time of the story but must have been a deliberate choice by a writer in the 1960’s to point out embarrassing aspects of imperialist thinking. It is ironic and hypocritical that Rochester comments “Nothing that I told [Antoinette] influenced her at all,” (56) when he makes little effort to understand his new bride or the cultures he finds himself surrounded by. These attitudes go hand-in-hand with his imprisonment and, if I may, emotional abuse of Antoinette but they are not all that make up the character. His actions may not be easily excusable, but they do not lack explanation. He is not a moustache twirling cartoon villain.

As the footnotes in the Norton Critical Edition illuminate for the reader, WSS takes into account a variety of historical developments. However, it does not act as an allegory for the experience of one particular group or another. Antoinette’s story is not limited to a representation of the White Creole or former planter experience. Nor are black Caribs limited to one stock type. Instead, Rhys writes three dimensional characters who are rarely presented as acting in a completely moral manner. Indeed, she does not strip Antoinette/Bertha of the madness portrayed in Jane Eyre, but rather offers up a more fleshed out character, allowing the reader to understand Antoinette’s madness, but not going so far as to ask the reader to excuse it.

From the workshop/MFA point of view, Rhys’ greatest achievement is verisimilitude. This is a result of characters that are, at times, morally ambiguous and resist the more contemporary tendency toward social responsibility in literature in lieu of honest portrayals that suit the narrative rather than another agenda. While WSS presents the “other” of Jane Eyre as more than “unknowable” or a simple cliche, it does not go so far as to cast Antoinette as morally upright, allowing the novel to serve as a companion to Eyre but not as a complete rejection of Bronte’s work. Because Rhys has prioritised character and verisimilitude, WSS can stand on its own as a work of literature.

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The Rise of the White Creole Zombie

8 Feb

Like Joellyn, I too see England and the other European colonial powers as a zombie makers in the Caribbean, although I think the link Joellyn makes between being a zombie and being colonized goes deeper than just political, economic, and cultural domination.  Through colonialism and the migration of Europeans to the Caribbean, England and France created the  “white creole” – a people that do not fit completely in neither European nor Caribbean society.  We discussed in class the evolving term “creole”, but regardless of which definition Rhys intended, “creole” is still a term used to describe a mixture of cultures, so “white creoles” like Antoinette, her mother, and her father, are a mixture of Europe and the Caribbean with an ambiguous race, culture, and identity.  European are “[r]eal white people, they got gold money” while “old time white people [i.e. white creoles] nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (Rhys, 14).

Had the European colonizers not come to the Caribbean, the class of white creoles never would have been created.  But after they were created, these white creole plantation owners (e.g. Alexander Cosway) immediately became dependent on Europe as a market to sell their sugar cash crop.  But when England abolishes slavery in 1833, it transforms these white creoles, dependent on slavery for sugar cane cultivation and processing, into a type of zombie by forcing them to change the life they had known; in the process, the white creoles mentioned in Wide Sargasso Sea are transformed from “real white people” with “gold money” into “white niggers”.  The white creole’s new state of alienation from both Caribbean and English societies resonates with Sandra Drake’s argument that “the zombi’s state is symbolic of alienation on the social as well as the individual level” (199).  So in answer to Joellyn’s question – If Antoinette had refused to be called by a name that is not hers, or if she had refused to travel to England, would she have lost her culture and, in doing so, lost herself? – I think she would have lost her culture and her self because she, and the other white creoles, had already undergone a process of “zombification” through colonialism; the story of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea is therefore a story of England’s zombification of the white creoles in the British colonies in the Caribbean.

The Colonizer as Zombie-Maker

8 Feb

Sandra Drake makes some really interesting observations regarding Caribbean culture and Antoinette’s “reanimation” at the end of Wide Sargasso Sea. She writes, “Antoinette’s ‘real’ death is not a demented suicide in the flames of Thornfield Hall…Her ‘real’ death is her subjugation by Rochester – by the colonizer – the long slow process of her reduction to the zombi state.” I find this fascinating, the idea that Jean Rhys not only creates an entire story for an admittedly minor but important character in Jane Eyre, but she also recreates her story so that even though she dies, Antoinette is, in fact, reborn. In class on Tuesday, we talked about what Rhys had changed about the original text in order to adapt her own; I think this may be one of the biggest changes, the idea that Antoinette may be better off in death than she was in a life that did not completely belong to her.

Drake also states that the “zombi” state, as it is known in Caribbean culture, is not permanent, but can be reversed. Drake compares being a “zombi” to being colonized – the person or group who is taken over becomes robotic and unemotional because their own culture has been taken away from them. When Antoinette sees her red dress in her prison-like room at Thornfield, then, she is reawakened to the idea that she does not have to live like that – like a prisoner in her own body.

Thinking about zombies in this way is totally different from any other type of zombie I have seen portrayed in movies or on television. The fact that the person who is “zombiefied” can still recognize aspects of his or her old self makes the whole state seem like something that can be prevented. If Antoinette had refused to be called by a name that is not hers, or if she had refused to travel to England, would she have lost her culture and, in doing so, lost herself?