Tag Archives: Wide Sargasso Sea

Violence as liberation in ‘Season of Migration to the North’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

1 Mar

In Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ (available on google books), the author makes a case for the positive influence of violence in the anti-colonial struggle by claiming “at the individual level”, it is a “cleansing force” that “… frees the native from his inferiority complex and his despair and inaction” (94). Fanon also describes violence as “all inclusive”,  and calls it an “illuminating force” (94).

This reading of violence as a positive, proactive force for change can be applied to the ending of Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as well as to the final pages of Salih’s ‘Season of Migration to the North’– In the former, Antoinette’s last words give the reader the impression that through the violence of a house fire, she will finally be able to reclaim her true identity– “the sky is red and all my life is in it” (Rhys 112). In Salih’s novel, the narrator describes his struggle in the water:

I was conscious of the river’s destructive forces pulling me downwards and of the current pushing me to the southern shore in a curving angle. I would not be able to keep thus poised for long; sooner or later the river’s forces would pull me down into its depths (168).

In keeping with the classic doppelganger trope often seen in Post-Colonial literature, the narrator mirrors Sa’eed’s own literal struggle with life when he almost drowns in the river, but survives when he gives up his struggle to migrate– figuratively and literally– from south to north.  On the final page of Salih’s book, the narrator appears to be claiming that by choosing to live, to engage with a community of his choosing and the discharge of his duties (168), he is choosing to not give into the struggle of belonging or being in either the north or the south– “Though floating on the water, I was not part of it” (168).

By placing violence in an active, positive context, Fanon seems to be suggesting that violence = action = agency = individualism = liberation. In ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, Fanon speaks of liberation again when he talks about freeing “the black man.. from himself”, and by association freeing him from the urge to seamlessly assimilate or mimic aspects of the colonizer. When Salih’s narrator vocalizes his yearning (a hunger, a thirst for a cigarette) and ceases to attempt to get to either north or south shore, and instead yells for help, he is eschewing the struggle Sa’eed faced before him, viz. being appropriated and objectified as an English Educated Black African. Similarly, when Rhys’ Antoinette lights all the candles she finds and makes plans for her final escape, she — through an act of violence– finally releases herself from the Othering forces of both her ethnic heritage and her white husband. It is only through violence and death (figurative for the former, literal for the latter) that both Salih’s narrator as well as Rhys’ Antoinette are able to escape the weight of their doubles (Sa’eed, the ghost/Tia) and truly return to their own sense of selfhood.

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Reading Contrapuntally – Guilt and Redemption

15 Feb

Reading Wide Sargasso Sea this week, I can’t help but recall Edward Said’s point that unless we read contrapuntally, we are necessarily studying some literature at the exclusion of others. I think of this mainly because as I read, I was categorizing the novel in my head, comparing it to things that I’d read before – specifically, anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. This is something that I do naturally when I read, but as I did it this time it occurred to me that Said might not approve. While Notes From Underground has a place in Western canon, Garcia Marquez really does not, and by making these innate and seemingly innocent connections I realize that I was othering Rhys without even thinking. Suddenly, Said’s contrapuntal reading becomes a dangerous game – can we truly contextualize without marginalizing, or is every connection that we make between novels necessarily at the exclusion of others? 

I think that Roberto Schwarz, in his Marxist reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, provides an approach to answering this question. Schwarz links Rhys’ tone with his content and overall conceptual goals through the idea of volubility – he writes on page 17 that “volubility is the formal principle of the novel” and he conveys it through a “deliberate abusiveness of tone,” among other things (7). This idea that the novel is structured both rhetorically and conceptually around contradictory terms is striking, especially considering he sees this as a direct result of Rhys’s attempt to convey Brazil’s “cannibalistic” culture. In class, we learned that Schwarz described a cannibalistic culture as an “emptying out of what’s already hollow,” and we also discussed the idea of Wide Sargasso Sea being a “romantic novel emptied out of its form.” These thoughts seem to imply that this novel is generated on formlessness as a framework – thus allowing the paradoxes that seem to define it to arise and exist in contradictory and yet coalescent spaces. Therefore, the novel really becomes not about a culture itself, but a frameless framework for one.

In this way, rather than othering a culture when comparing Rhys to Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Dostoyevsky, it seems that we are really distinguishing a form – one that Schwarz links very closely with culture, certainly, but which also has the inherent qualities of being culture-less (or indeed, “anything-less”) simply by nature of being emptied of everything to begin with.  While I’m not sure that this gets us to the point in which I can answer my original question, I do think that one way to get our heads around the idea of truly reading contrapuntally would be to consider how much of form is culture, and how much is necessarily culture (and really, “anything”)-less. 

Controlling the Narrative: the relevance of “answering back” in Wide Sargasso Sea

9 Feb

One of the most interesting points raised by McLeod was the point of it being an error to apply Manichean aesthetics broadly to a reading of either Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre: he claims this is an error, as it wrongly imposes the concerns of the present upon the literature of the past, which completely undoes the concept of reading a literary work historically (181). McLeod goes on to argue that this kind of labeling fails to allow for the text to “potentially question” colonial views (182). I feel this point is no where more relevant than in discussing the concept of “Creole” as it develops through the text of Wide Sargasso Sea, and what it means to our understanding of Antoinette’s complex character.

According to O. Nigel Bolland in an article published in the Caribbean Quarterly, “… the term ‘Creole,’ referring to people and cultures, means something or somebody derived from the Old World but developed in the New” (1). Bolland goes on to state that “[i]n common Caribbean usage, ‘Creole’ refers to a local product which is the result of a mixture or blending of various ingredients that originated in the Old World.

Bolland suggests that the thesis which states that the “common people” in the Caribbean islands were “active agents in the historical process” expanded the understanding of Caribbean social history and “reconstituted… ways of looking at the dynamics of social and cultural change. Caribbean societies and cultures can no longer be thought of as the result of a one-way process, of the unilateral imposition of European culture upon passive African recipients” (2).

This brought the Fabian article to mind, and the discussion we had about the traveling back into history and time that Marlowe undertakes in ‘Heart of Darkness’– traveling back into primordial time, Marlowe meets Kurtz who has come undone after attempting this “unilateral imposition of European culture” during his ivory quests. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rochester is undone whenever he attempts to impose his idea of European social hierarchy on his wife and on his surroundings. In addition, he is unable to control or influence any of the servants; even though he exerts power over Amelie via the act of sex, she is able to leave free and easily of her own free will. Rochester is unable to comprehend his wife, and though he attempts to overpower her by Othering her, by the end of the novel it is Antoinette who reigns supreme over Thornfield Manor, invoking a return to her true identity through the metaphor of fire.

According to McLeod, the characters in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ compete for the overall control of narrative by “answering back”– perhaps the very development of the term “Creole” during the course of Rhys’ text is an answering back to Rochester/European culture’s attempt to pin down the Creole identity to one set of stereotypes or concepts. Unlike the barbarians in ‘Heart of Darkness’, Rhys’ Creole characters defy European conventions by talking back regularly, and literally laugh in the face of them quite often, as Helle brought up in class today.

Considering the various approaches to understanding self-hood in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, I feel that McLeod is right in suggesting that Antoinette escapes the parameters of European representation, because the definitions of ideas such as madness, Creole identity, as well as psychological concepts like the death instinct are left open to interpretation, allowing Antoinette to take on far more meaning than what she was allowed as Bertha Mason in ‘Jane Eyre’.

Bronte and the “Other”

8 Feb

Because I learned very little about the Bronte’s imaginary kingdom when I first heard it mentioned in my undergraduate classes, I decided to do a research post on the Brontes and their obsession with the “other,” which began in early childhood.

Apparently, Charlotte and her brother Bramwell were the primary creators of the fictional African colony of “Angria,” while Anne and Emily broke off and wrote primarily about an imaginary island in the South Pacific, entitled “Gondol.”  According to this website, Charlotte’s stories about Angria were influenced by current events, and featured complex “political machinations and romantic entanglements.”  As this website also says, Bronte was influenced, especially at first, by the “Arabian Nights,” which, of course, makes me think of Said’s “Orientalism.”

It proved surprisingly difficult to find information on “Angria” online, so I turned to JSTOR.  According to this article, the tales of Angria began when the children received toy soldiers; Charlotte had hers colonize the country, which she placed “on the coast of Africa, near the Niger river” (495).  The article says that Bronte’s colonizers founded a city there, and she has the Duke of Wellington elected ruler.  The kingdom subsequently expands under colonization and is peopled by “Byronic heroes.”  The article describes how Bronte eventually began transferring her characters to England in subsequent stories set there, “transform[ing] them into ordinary English men and women” (499).  Even Rochester and Jane Eyre, it seems, originated in Angrian characters, and “Rochester’s mad wife,” as well as other elements of the plot, also originated in Bronte’s cycle of stories about Angria.

The limited writing about Angria I have found so far praises the stories as evidence of Bronte’s incredible imagination, even from an early age.  I hope to do some further research and read some of the stories myself, as Tales of Angria is available on Amazon.  Obviously there is a lot of rich information here.  My impression about the imaginary country was that Bronte had peopled it with African characters, not with white colonizers.  However, she still apparently allows her white colonizers to give way to their passions far more than she does for her English characters in England.  Finally, what does it mean for our reading of Bertha, in terms of various potential post-colonial or feminist readings, if the trope of the mad woman in the attic appeared in a previous story, in a different setting and plot?  I shall have to investigate.

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.

Doubling and Naming

8 Feb

Last class we discussed the double effect between Antoinetta and Tia. The two scenes that we talked about were when the two switch roles as Tia takes Antoinetta’s clothes, and the second when Tia throws the stone at her, showing tears and blood mirroring each other. The double here shows the confusion of identity and the struggle with Antoinetta being seen as both white and black, which is worse than being one or the other (“black nigger better than white nigger”).  This doubling I believe is continued throughout the rest of the novel, which becomes more confused as she loses herself- her name and identity.

Amelie seems to be another double, but the double is created through Rochester rather than Antoinetta. Amelie is dark, lower class and mean to Antoinetta in a similar way as Tia. The beauty Rochester sees in Antoinetta he transfers to Amelie. Taking Antoinetta’s place, Amelie sleeps with Rochester. However, as soon as the act is over, Rochester erases this double and sees Amelie as she was; “Her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought” (84). The ‘whiteness’ of Antoinetta dissolves in the blackness of Amelie. As soon as the double vanishes, so does Amelie leave the novel. The fact that Antoinetta is nearby and able to hear everything is another step toward her own loss of self; her place as wife is transferred.

In the end, Tia is brought back to life as a double figure to Antoinetta. The last page of her dream vision reads, “Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated, she laughed. I heard her say, You frightened?” (112). It is the double that beckons her to her death. The last step to her madness happens as she wakes up calling ‘Tia!” Antoinetta’s other half (Tia) lies over the edge. If she jumps to her death, she will have a full identity again rather than pieces of it scattered in various characters.

It may be too far to say that Rochester is some form of a double, however, there is some form of madness that takes over his thoughts. This is especially present after talking to Christophine in Part Two. Rochester says, “She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me” (99). While naming seems to be a prominent issue in the sanity of characters, it seems to me that the doubling element has a lot to do with madness as well. Naming may be a trigger to the loss of identity, but doubling provides no return to sanity.