Feminist liberalism in Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys In writing the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, it was the ambition of writer Jean Rhys, to create a history and understanding of the character Bertha Rochester, infamous Creole mad wife of Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Rhys set herself up to appropriate Bronte's story, the consciousness of a woman who goes insane (Bertha), and the perspective of an English gentleman (Rochester). It took Rhys nine years to create these characters and this story that empathetically provided culturally accurate defense for both Bertha and Rochester. Rhys herself lived in Dominica until she was sixteen and in England for the remainder of her life. Rhys ' mother was Creole, like Bertha Rochester, and her father was Welsh. With this ancestry, Rhys lived in a multicultural setting and was likely sensitive to the differences of people of various cultures. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys confronts the possibility of another side to Jane Eyre. The story of Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea is not only a brilliant deconstruction of Bronte’s legacy, but is also a damning history of colonialism in the Caribbean. Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea between 1945 and 1966. The story of the conflicting cultures is examined in the character of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, a West Indian. As a child she is called “white nigger” by her black playmate. She marries a constrained and domineering Englishman, Edward Rochester, and follows him to his home country. Like Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, she ends up confined in the attic of her husband's country house. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the West Indies. In her madness and misery, Antoinette burns up the house and herself. Black women Rhys considered stronger than white. The story is set just after the emancipation of the slaves, in that uneasy time when racial relations in the Caribbean were at their most strained, in 1839, six years after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part. The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, Antoinette is the only narrator. In the second part, Rochester takes over, but his narrative is interrupted briefly by Antoinette. In the third part, the English nurse Grace Poole is the narrator, until Antoinette regains the narrative voice. This first-person narration is significant because it lets the reader see the world through the subjective gaze of flawed characters. In Parts I and II, Antoinette reveals her own naivety by relating her story. She so obviously does not understand the world she has been


born. As the book opens, the former slave-owners and the newly freed slaves await compensation from the British government. This tension erupts as the fire at Coulibri. The black workers burn the symbol of white oppression, the plantation. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys focuses on the differences between people who come from various places. The symbolism of the title suggests the barriers, such as bodies of water, that separate people. Rochester and Bertha’s conversations comment on their difficulty of understanding one another due to their opposing upbringing and culture: It is Rochester’s inability to feel comfortable in Jamaica and Bertha’s inability to understand England that forms a barrier between them. Rochester admits that Bertha is a stranger and that he cannot empathize with her. The story is set just after the emancipation of the slaves, in that uneasy time when racial relations in the Caribbean were at their most strained, in 1839, six years after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part. Rhys explores the complex relations between white and black West Indians, and between the old slaveholding West Indian families and the new English settlers in the post-emancipation Caribbean. Set mainly in Jamaica and Dominica (the country of Rhys’s birth) the novel describes how Antoinette became mad. In Bronte’s novel, Bertha/Antoinette is a monster, described as violent, insane and promiscuous. Rhys creates instead a sympathetic and vulnerable young woman who seeks, unsuccessfully, to find her place, she attempts to fill in the blanks of a fictional character's life story, creates a biography for Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway, in the beginning of the novel is a child living on the overgrown and impoverished Coulibri Estate in Jamaica. Antoinette (Rhys renames her and has Rochester impose the name of Bertha on her when their relationship dissolves) is descended from the plantation owners and her father has had many children by Negro women. She can be accepted neither by the Negro community nor by the representatives of the colonial centre. As a white Creole she is nothing. The taint of racial impurity, coupled with the suspicion that she is mentally imbalanced brings about her inevitable downfall. Rochester, who is never named in the novel, is not portrayed as an evil tyrant, but as a proud and bigoted younger brother betrayed by his family into a loveless marriage. His double standards with regards to the former slaves and Antoinette’s family involvement with them are exposed when he chooses to sleep with the maid, Amelie, thus displaying the promiscuous behavior and attraction to the Negro community which he accuses Antoinette of harboring. Their brief days of happiness at Granbois are halted by his willingness to believe the worst of Antoinette. His betrayal of her is set up before he receives the information from Daniel Cosway. The narrator of Part II is Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte Bronte’s

Jane Eyre. He is never named in Rhys’s novel, but the details he gives of his life make it clear to the reader that he is a younger version of Bronte’s character. The narration of Part II begins several months after Antoinette voiced her fears of leaving the sanctuary of the convent for the outside world. In that time, Mr. Mason has died and his son, Richard, has arranged the marriage of Antoinette to Rochester. Put ashore in the town of Massacre, Dominica with his new bride, Rochester thinks to himself, Grace Poole, another character from Bronte’s Jane Eyre, begins the narration of Part III. In Bronte’s novel, Grace is the woman hired to care for Bertha/Antoinette when she is locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s home in England. In Rhys’s novel, Grace tells of how Rochester’s father and brother have died and how Edward has become very wealthy. He has instructed his housekeeper to hire Grace at extremely high wages to look out for the mad woman, Antoinette. Grace calls her “that girl who lives in her own darkness”. English House vs. the Caribbean Spaces Self-enclosed gardens: the garden in Coulibri and the forests in both Coulibri and Granbois, the “enclosed garden”. Antoinette dreams of a house with “thick walls”, “blazing fires and the crimson and white rooms”; places without looking glass: the convent the house in England (Thornfield in Jane Eyre) England: “a black and cruel world to a woman” for Grace. Antoinette in the house: relationships between Grace and Antoinette: Grace is kind, but in lack of understanding; a speaking, rational, perceptive and knowing subject: “she hasn’t lost her spirit”; plans to convince Rochester to let her go home. Signs of “madness”: look at the tapestry; loss of memory, does not remember fighting Richard. Rhys’s use of the mirror in Wide Sargasso Sea, to symbolize the duality of the self, can be seen to parallel Bronte’s. The two selves – the reflected self and the “real'” self – are separated from each other. Antoinette relates that when she 'was a child and very lonely (she) tried to kiss her (her own reflection). But the glass was between us – hard, cold. Self-wholeness is prevented by a looming solid wall. In women’s writing can be seen to represent patriarchal judgment, Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, illustrates how Antoinette's identity is so completely diminished through patriarchal oppression that when she looks in the mirror she does not recognize her own reflection. All the mirrors Antoinette looks into, in order to imagine a self for her, are distorted or cracked. When the mob sets fire to her house, Tia casts a stone at her. Rhys’s great achievement in her re-writing of the Bronte text is her creation of an external double to the madwoman, which transforms the bestial Bertha into an individual woman who has been “othered” by imperialistic and patriarchal oppression. Her madness is shown throughout the novel to be a reaction to oppression. Her dreams merge into a circular pattern of enclosure from which Antoinette cannot escape. The first three dreams occurs after Antoinette’s literal separation

from Tia. Tia is what Antoinette wishes to be – her projected double – strong and resilient. Their separation is as painful to Antoinette as a splitting of the self. The first dream, with its threatening “heavy footsteps” of “someone who hated (her)… coming closer and closer”, anticipates what the progression of the dream will carry her to: a division of the most extreme kind – madness. This lurking mad-double follows Antoinette through her transition into maturity and throughout the novel. There are similarities between the fire scene in Part I and that in Antoinette’s dream (nightmare) in Part III. Elements in the last dream are recurrent ones: followed by somebody, the hall with only red and white colors, searching for the altar, Aunt Cora’s room, the “ghost”; escape from the fire, to see “all her life” written on the sky. Tia too, as “her own dark double” remains symbolically with her. Tia acts out Antoinette’s own rage and grief (which her name – Tia – symbolizes), but from the other side of the mirror of racial division. Tia throws a stone at Antoinette which hurts her face, but as though it is happening to her image in the mirror, she doesn’t feel it. Antoinette’s marriage is the culmination of this enforced literal oppression, and the second of her symbolic dreams anticipates it. The mysterious man of the dream, the prophetic figure of Rochester, leads her into this prison of unreciprocated love, (as Rochester will later do with his false protestations of love and safety – his immaculate “performance”). It is when she is trapped in her literal prison that Antoinette will have her final dream. In it she must jump off the roof of the attic back into that past where her identity lies and join with her projected double, Tia. Although her jump towards her own projected double is an escape out of the suspended present into the past, the escape is illusory. Although in spirit she jumps back into the past, in reality her jump ends in the smashing of her physical body at the foot of the patriarchal house. Tragically she must burn the house with herself inside it, in order to destroy the patriarchal house of oppression. The only escape for Antoinette, from the terrible oppression of patriarchy, is suicide. Both have their own space, their different lives and communities, but both of them are victims. Rhys shows that Rochester’s cruelty towards Antoinette is due to a projection onto her of his hate for his father, and the marriage arrangement which he has been pushed into. His anger is the anger of the oppressed. Like Antoinette he is a victim of imperialistic and patriarchal oppression. In this too they are doubles, but they do not recognize their duality. Both are trapped in the other’s world. The tragedy is that through their mutual misunderstanding of each other, neither realizes that the following footsteps are the steps of the other. An exploration of the layered doubleness of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre reveals that the doubleness of selfhood can exist across all boundaries and that

we all have a double life lurking within us. Jean Rhys’ protagonist, Antoinette, she is named by the local population of her native island of Jamaica as a “white cockroach”. Denial, in Wide Sargasso Sea, takes the form of the failure to love. The unnamed man extrapolated out of Bronte’s Rochester, himself a second and hence a dispossessed son, with a father to work out of his own system, is incapable of anything beyond a mechanical lust fumbling about in a stupor, split from love and care. His rejection of the guilt at the failure to love recoils on the dispossessed woman in the form of hatred. She becomes like a mirror, first wiped clean of her own self-hood, into which he then projects his self-hatred, which he finally breaks up as he might a doll, chanting to her the lulling and demeaning refrain “Marionette, Antoinette”, in an attempt to get rid of his own guilt. The only wish Antoinette can nurse successfully in Wide Sargasso Sea is to die, and like her mother, she dies more than once: What Rhys identifies is man’s practice of voodoo or obeah upon woman: the plural deaths women are made to suffer at the hands of men who acquire power over them. Her husband's deliberately casual adultery with a coloured servant in Antoinette's house distastes and dispossesses her of the only place she had learned to identify herself with as her natural habitat and patrimony. England, his home and the house he builds there with her money, transports what had first seemed to her its dream-like unreality into nightmare. The tragedy is that he appropriates and desecrates what he neither appreciates nor understands, a person emblematic “of a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness”. The feminine in Rhys gets wrecked on the failure of love. The themes explored in the novel are especially the status of women, prejudice and the race relations between newly freed slaves and their former owners. In its formal techniques and thematic sources, Rhys’s novel incorporates modern and postmodern devices of fragmentation, while drawing, at times, on Romantic notions of sublimity, passion, and the supernatural. Rhys allows us to interpret the fate of Antoinette differently by having the ending open – Antoinette’s dreams of the fire and leap to her death –, but the novel ends with her resolution to act rather than a description of her death or an exact repetition of Bronte’s words. An aesthetic experiment in modernist techniques and a powerful example of feminist rewriting, Wide Sargasso Sea gives voice to a marginalized character and transforms her original tragic demise into a kind of triumphant heroism. Delving into the psyche of her principal characters, Rhys examines their fragmented identities and unconscious fears, focusing on an inner world that mirrors the impressions of an evocative physical landscape. In the end, Rhys created a complex and multidimensional novel championed by postcolonial, feminist and modernist critics alike, Wide Sargasso Sea struggles

against dominant traditions and espouses the cause of the under-represented.


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