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WIDE SARGASSO SEA (1966)

JEAN RHYS

Introduction:
Jean Rhys was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, and stylistically also a modernist.
She spent most of adult life in Britain and Paris but was born and brought up in
Dominica the West Indies, then a British colony. Most of her fiction was written in the
1920s and 1930s, the main modernist decades. Only Wide Sargasso Sea, her last novel,
some short stories and her unfinished autobiography were written in the sixties and
seventies. Although a first version of Wide Sargasso Sea had apparently been written in
the 1940s.
She was only canonized as a great writer in her old age, after the publication in
1966 of her very successful novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. The reason was that, although
stylistically, since the publication of her first book, she was praised for her technique,
the content of her work was too radical for the times. Critics often defined her subject
matter as immoral, as sordid: in the four novels and the short stories written before
1940 she wrote about women who were prostitutes, alcoholics, adulterous and
unbalanced. Even the few contemporary readers who admired her work considered it
too depressing. Even in the last decades of the twentieth century, when reader were used
to seeing the harshest reality, Rhyss work was rejected by some feminist
readers/writers, not on account of its immorality but of its pessimistic representation
of female lives and subjectivity. For example, the critic Rosalind Miles wrote
sarcastically that Rhyss heroines are walking wounded. The feminist postmodernist
writer Angela Carter described Rhyss work as chronicles of victimology, and she
traced the literary origin of Rhys heroines chronic victimization to Sades most famous
female character, the sadomasochistic Justine, whose passive virtues are, Carter
argues, invitations to violence (The Sadeian Woman, Carters most famous cultural
essay). Yet it may be argued that Rhyss work deeply influenced Angela Carter, since
she explicitly wrote against it.
Features of Wide Sargasso Sea as a Modernist novel:
1. Use of symbolic imagery. Like other modernist writers Rhys was not
interested in the direct expression of psychic contents feelings, ideas but in indirect
expression. She aimed at suggestion rather than plain statement. Even the title of the
book is symbolic.
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2. Representation of inner life, even of unconscious life. Rhyss main literary


project was the representation of a female speaking subjectivity. She was a radical
modernist in as much as she aimed at representing the subjectivity of what her
modernist lover, Ford Madox Ford, called the underdog, the marginal woman, the
outcast, or at least the woman on the fringes of society. The critic and biographer Carole
Angier notes,
Wide Sargasso Sea will expose the emblematic Englishman, Rochester,
and elevate that most despised creature, the mad, drunken woman. This is perhaps the
heart of her modernism, the thing which makes her far more radical than such civilised
sisters as Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson.
3. Avoidance of omniscient narrator (the death of the author, in Roland
Barthess words). Rhys wrote:
I dont believe in the individual writer so much as in writing. It uses you
and throws you away when you are not useful any longer.
I used to think that all writing should be anonymous
When thinking about the narrative voice for the novel, she considered, among
other possibilities,
Or it can be told in the third person with the writer as the Almighty. Well
that is hard for me. I prefer direct thoughts and actions.

As a rewriting of a previous novel, it is also postmodernist metafiction or


intertextuality.
Wide Sargasso Sea revises and rewrites Charlotte Bronts nineteenth-century novel
Jane Eyre, using the same genre, the gothic romance and some of its characters (Bertha,
her brother Mr. Mason, Rochester, Grace Poole). As an explicit rewriting of a previous
text Jean Rhys last novel can be considered as a paradigmatic early example of
postmodernist literature, characterized by its metafictional (fiction about fiction) or
intertextual nature, using other texts or genres and movements - as objects of
representation.

Genre: Gothic Romance, revised. The subversive revision of a genre to which,


paradoxically, homage is also been paid, is a postmodernist strategy.
The Gothic is a discourse full of ghosts and innocent female victims, and also a vehicle
for the covert expression of womens darker feelings of anger and revenge. The figure
of Bertha can be seen in this light as Janes dark hidden self, her gothic double. But in
Wide Sargasso Sea we read the story from the point of view of Bertha, and the reader is
led to conclude that the good woman and the bad woman are one and the same
person at different stages of development, in different circumstances.
Postmodernist post-colonial literature:
The drama in this novel is not just personal. It is also the drama of West Indian history
focused through the figure of the mad wife in Jane Eyre. That history is also her own
family history as ex-slave owners. One of the main themes of this novel is the
connection between personal history and identity and socio-cultural history and
identity, a major postmodernist theme.
This novel is often interpreted from the perspective of cultural studies, which
foreground the relation of the colonizer and the colonized.
The dominant ideology in England, where she lived most of her life, defined her
as a reject, a colonial therefore inferior by imperialist definition. In her
representation of a colonial version of Bertha, Rhys breaks down the dominant cultural
assumptions and prior literary views based on them about the colonial bad
woman. She shows the other side of an imperialist culture that misrepresents its victims.
There is always the other side, always, says Antoinette when talking about her
mothers madness. Therefore in Rhyss novel there is a critique of the nineteenthcentury imperialist ideology that produced the figure of the Creole Bertha in Jane Eyre.
The cultural critic Gayatri Spivak writes:
In the figure of Antoinette, whom in Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester
violently renames Bertha, Rhys suggests that so intimate a thing as personal and
human identity might be determined by the politics of imperialism. Antoinette, as a
white Creole child growing up at the time of emancipation in Jamaica, is caught
between the English imperialist and the black native.
The perspective of cultural studies has been very helpful to interpret, for
example, the functions of Christophine, who is, in Spivaks words, a commodified
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person (Antoinettes fathers wedding present to Annette), but Rhys reverses her
position and gives her important functions, as subject, in the story: she is the first
interpreter of the story, and the strongest, most able and most intelligent character. She
is therefore empowered. For besides being the main analyst and interpreter, she also
judges the events. She is given the authority/power of an omniscient narrator.
Christophine foresees and interprets correctly Anettes madness and the real
position of the black natives in the island after their emancipation slavery continues
through the repressive law in the colonies. She also interprets Rochesters feelings and
behaviour to Antoinette and dares to confront him.
Rochesters vision of Antoinette is also an important aspect interpreted by
cultural studies: his is clearly the vision that an imperialist Englishman has of the
colonized subject: he sees Antoinette as he sees the colonised island, as something
exotic, mysterious and, above all, dangerous: alien. But this exoticism and mystery was
something that the nineteenth-century Western colonizing countries created artificially
for their own emotional and aesthetic thrills. And the thrilling danger turned paranoid.
Rochester feels Antoinette is alien/dangerous before Daniels letter. So the failed love
story is partly explained as an effect of the imperialist ideology.
The colonial setting: Dominica (Jamaica in the novel), as landscape of the self
but also as character with its own story.
After thirty years of absence, Rhys went back to Dominica, and according to her
biographer Carole Angier, Dominica for the first time was seen as a separate reality
from her own self as well as part of her colonial self:
impressed itself on her mind not just as part of her story, but as itself,
with its own story, its own beauty and squalor and sadness. She was a supreme egoist,
for whom most places (like most people) were reflections of her own moods and
feelings more than simply themselves. That is true of even London and Paris in her
novels. But in Wide Sargasso Sea Dominica though she calls it Jamaica is itself.
The West Indies represented in this novel have as much presence and
substantiality as the characters themselves. Paris and London, the setting for Rhyss
previous fiction, were hardly ever present except as symbolic imagery for the state of
self of the protagonist for example, the grey streets of Paris express the heroines
depressed state but in her last novel the setting is independent from the heroine, with
its own life and characteristics.
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And yet, although the West Indian islands seem to have an independent existence
from the heroine, in the sense that they do not necessarily function as reflections of the
heroines inner life, this setting also has a mirroring function, as a landscape of the self.
The description of the physical background is sometimes an expression of, in Rhyss
words, passion, hardship, emotions. She wrote:
there is an atmosphere of pain and violence about the West Indies.
Perhaps it wasnt astonishing that I was tuned into it.
See p. 6: Our garden was large
Description and history of the setting:
Dominica is close to its volcanic birth. Halfway across the island of Roseau, where
Rhys was born, is the Valley of Desolation, and in the middle of the valley is the
Abomination of Desolation, the huge crater of a semi-active volcano. There is also a lot
of violence in Dominicas history. Five hundred years before the first European arrived
the fierce Caribs drove out the Arawaks, who were so gentle and innocent that they are
supposed to have been the originals of the noble savage. For two hundred and fifty
years the Caribs killed and it was said ate any European who tried to colonize the
island. Finally the French won. Then there came fifty years of war between the French
and the British, until in 1805 (close to the time of the Rhyss story) Dominica became
British. But the greater violence of slavery had arrived with the French in the 1750s, and
lasted through French and British domination for nearly a hundred years.
Even after slavery was abolished in 1834 the violence didnt end. Only a few
years before Jean Rhys was born the imperialist J. A. Froude wrote that the black people
of Dominica were poor creatures whom the law calls human, but who to [the white
people] are only mechanical tools
On top of violence Dominica has always had much poverty and plain bad luck.
And yet, it is a very beautiful island.
Jean Rhys island is realistically Dominica, an earthly paradise and almost
uninhabitable for a large part of the black population even today. She represents the
characteristic Antillean atmosphere: beauty, gaiety, and underneath menace, cruelty and
fear. As Angier notes, there is gaiety on the surface, and beneath an almost desperate
defeatism.
After emancipation, the economy of the Caribbean collapsed. In one sense the
white Creoles were by the mid-nineteenth century already living in the modern age: the
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unstable existence of an in-between, hybrid culture. But in another sense, colonies are
always behind, more conservative, and the hierarchies of class and colour more
obviously and rigidly preserved1.

Wide Sargasso Sea as a bildungsroman (as Jane Eyre): a novel of development of


the heroine, Antoinette/Bertha.
The key to approach Rhyss novels is the heroine: a passive victim. It is from her point
of view that we read the story, with the exception of Wide Sargasso Sea, where the
mans point of view is also shown. The success of the novel in the readers mind
depends on being able to understand the heroines perspective, so that we do not feel
impatient with the heroines passivity and other self-destructive traits. For all of her
heroines are helpless, impotent observers of their own fates. But in her last novel Rhys
focused, rather than on the heroines passivity, unhappiness, alienation, on the causes
for such imbalance. As the critic Helen Carr notes,
The emphasis on the passive victim has made it harder, or less
necessary, to acknowledge the intensity of Rhyss attack on social injustice: a victim
who is passive is by common consent (as Jean Rhys bitterly noted) to a great extent to
blame for her fate. The phrase [passive victim] implies that passivity is an innate
characteristic of that particular victim, and not that there could be social, cultural or
historical conditions which have driven this victim into an impasse2. ()
In her fiction those inner and outer worlds, the psychic and the cultural,
are deeply intermeshed. One of the achievements of her fiction was finding a form
through which their complex interrelation could be conveyed.
But Rhys previous four novels do present heroines that seem to have been born
victims, for they are presented from the beginning as grown-up women with
personality traits which are very self-destructive, with a passivity, narcissism and
fatalism that, without a context that helps explain the development of these traits,
seem to be innate. This lack of background was solved in her last novel, written over
two decades after her previous novel (1939), from the perspective of a much older
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Nowadays the colour-bar has disappeared and only the class-bar is still very rigidly maintained but most
socially underprivileged people are in fact black.
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learned helplessness

woman, this last novel presents another passive female victim very similar to other
heroines but not a born victim, for Rhys shows the development of her personality
from childhood.
Antoinettes story does not start, like the other heroines, with an unhappy loveaffair. Her story is much more tragic and powerful in its effects on the characters
psychology. The novel shows the destruction of the heroines personality from the
beginning. In a very realistic, plausible way, the novel places the destruction of the
heroines personality in a very destructive social and familial environment. Her selfdestructive personality traits are shown to be the product of a series of socio-cultural
and personal traumatic circumstances.
This novel is the only one written by Rhys that shows the whole life-cycle of the
heroines life: it starts from the beginning, her childhood, and ends with total selfdestruction, her death. The middle the unhappy love-affair is what this novel has in
common with the four previous ones.
In order to write about her heroines traumatized childhood Rhys had to face her
own childhood suffering. In her unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, Rhys shows a
childhood that has a lot in common with Antoinette, her loneliness, her sense of
exclusion, her lack of maternal love and attention as she felt it besides a lot of
factual events (the burning of Coulibri, for instance, was based on her own family
history as ex-slave owners).
Thinking about how to represent her heroine, she wrote in a letter:
the girl must have had some tragedy in her life which she cannot forget.
As a child I have got that the reason must have gone back to the beginning.
Paradoxically, what led Rhys for the first time to represent a plausible past for
her self-destructive heroine was not the desire to complete the story of her own
previous heroines so as to justify their negative personalities but the desire to complete
the story and justify the madness of another woman writers female character, Charlotte
Bronts Bertha.
Rhys wrote in a letter (1958) about the process of writing Wide Sargasso Sea:
Ive read and re-read Jane Eyre of course, and I am sure that the
character must be built up. The Creole in Charlotte Bronts novel is a lay3 figure
repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive which does. Shes necessary to the
plot, but always she shrieks, howls, laughs horribly, attacks all and sunder off stage.
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For me (and for you I hope) she must be right on stage. She must be at least plausible
with, the reason why Mr Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the
reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why
she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds. () Lastly: Her end I want
it in a way triumphant!
The Creole is of course the important one, the others explain her. ()
Im fighting mad to write her story. () sober and plausible.
Antoinettes story is in one sense the preface to Jane Eyre but also to her own
heroines, who suffer from fear of being hurt, from lack of love and from abandonment
even before the lovers rejection takes place. Only the last novel shows the reasons why
the heroine is so afraid, so convinced of betrayal and hate, before she meets them finally
and fatally in the rejecting lover. Here the reader can see how she has already met them:
in her family and in society.
By giving Antoinette a childhood Rhys achieves the complete plausibility in the
psychology of the heroine an extreme psychological realism which is itself its best
modernist feature - , for she has turned her passive victimization and pathetic
personality into an effect which is convincing in its psychological complexity and
causal determination. In this work, as in previous ones, Rhys conveys the idea of the
impossibility of the individual effort to triumph against certain adverse conditions, but
not, as in other novels, because of a sense of fate, a fatality that the heroine cannot
escape nor explain, or because the whole world is horrible and cruel, but because the
heroine cannot escape her own psychological condition, her cognitive ordering
principles, the plausible effect of a series of personal and social-cultural circumstances.

Analysis of Part I (Antoinettes childhood):

1. What are Antoinettes traumatic personal/familial circumstances in her


childhood?
2. The novel establishes clearly and from the beginning Antoinettes and Annettes
social exclusion. Why is Annette rejected by both black and white people after her
husbands death?
3. How and why is Annettes social exclusion linked to her rejection of her
daughter?
4. What is the significance of Annettes loving relationship with her son Pierre in
terms of Antoinettes development?
5. Analyse passages that are specially relevant to explain Antoinettes psychological
make-up.
6. How do you interpret the strange scene where Tia throws a stone at Antoinette?
Would you agree with the assertion that the would caused by Tia is the most
traumatic event in her life?
7. What kind of relationships does she have with the nuns and the school-girls?
8. Interpret Antoinettes first paranoid dream.

PART II. (Rochesters narrative)


Analysis of Rochester:
Technically, the main way how Rhys manages to avoid the heroines self-pity is by
giving Rochester the narrative of the most difficult part of Antoinettes story, the failed
love-affair. When the novel came out, critics praised this technical change. The review
in The Times Literary Supplement, for example, said:
The earlier heroines existed in a social vacuum, whereas Antoinettes
tragedy is in part the tragedy of the society to which she belongs. Also Mr Rochester is
the only one of the men in her novels who is presented live.
They praised the fact that, for the first time, Rhys presented the point of view of
the villain, which was very difficult for her to achieve and apparently the main reason
why the novel took so long to write (nine years). But, by letting the man tell the story of
the rejection of the heroine, Rhys achieved two aims:
a) To avoid the abandoned womans self-piteous and angry voice. It is actually
Rochester who shows self-pity and anger.
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b) To avoid the Manichaeism and simplification of the abandoned womans


victimization. From his point of view the woman is not blameless and innocent.
Rochester explains the reasons why he abandoned Antoinette. And his portrait is
quite complex, not the ruthless lover of previous novels, a paper tiger who uses the
woman sexually and abandons her when he gets tired of her. Rhys shows the mans
ordinary humanity. He is not the all-powerful distant lover of previous novels. His
treatment of Antoinette has more to do with weakness and conscious and unconscious
fears than with lack of morals. He is not unkind: Christophine says about him: the man
not bad-hearted.
Analyse the complex way Rochester is characterized, particularly through his
letter to his father and his long interior monologue at the end of part II.
Why do you think he is nameless?

A Romance: demythologising romantic ideal love


In this novel Rhys explores more exhaustively than in any other womens romantic ideal
love, which can become a master-slave relationship.
What is romantic ideal love? Traditionally, in fairy tales, the princess that, being
physically alive, sleeps as if she were dead Snowhite, Sleeping Beauty is awakened
by Prince Charming. The man has the power to give the princess back her own life, that
is, in psychological terms, her substantiality, her joy, her fully alive I. Antoinette
believes in this story, and grants Rochester magical powers to make her want to live
(after the fire, she is too tired of life and her only real wish is to die: peace and quiet).
In exchange for his love, she will live for him only. This situation prototypical
romantic ideal love forms the basis for a sadomasochistic relationship, in the sense
that the woman becomes slavishly dependent on the mans love/desire.
. Interpret Antoinettes second dream
. How do you interpret in the context of the ideology of romantic ideal love
Antoinettes loss of her own name? (Rochester changes it to the English Bertha)
Analysis of Daniel Cosway:
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Antoinette never expresses self-pity. She talks about her pain but without bitterness and
resentment. One character that expresses self-pity, directly and obsessively, is Daniel
Cosway, her half-brother. Some critics see in him a kind of Antoinettes double, as an
extreme embodiment of the worst side of the heroines condition: the condition of the
unloved and even despised person, rejected by all, belonging nowhere. Like
Frankensteins outcast, he becomes spiteful and revengeful.
Since Rhys knew well that the tragedy of the outcast has a dark moral side, it is very
likely that she planned a male double for her female heroine. In Daniel Rhys
represented what she hated most in herself, her self-pity and bitterness, her malice and
cruelty.
In fact Jean Rhys had a passion for doubles but in this novel she purportedly
wanted to avoid a female double for Antoinette.

The representation of MADNESS: gradual process of self-alienation and


death of the self.
It has been argued that the central insight of WSS is into the genesis and nature of
madness. Rhyss avowed intention when writing the novel was to give the reasons why
Bertha goes mad. The novel explores the origin of Annettes and her daughters
madness, by showing the events that are the source of the process of mental disturbance
that eventually ends in psychosis. Rhyss psychological insights have made of her
heroines fictional case histories analysed as prototypical representatives of certain
types of mental disorders.
How is the connection between madness and death represented?

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