The questions this essay endeavours to answer are: ‘What are the post-colonial writing strategies employed by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea and how does the author’s own identity contribute to her employing these strategies?’
Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in 1890 in the British colony of Dominica, one of the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. She was the child of a Welsh father and a third-generation Creole mother and at the age of sixteen, she left Dominica for the United Kingdom, where she was to spend the majority of her life, returning to the West Indies only once (Angier 1985). In the United Kingdom, her Caribbean accent and her heritage as a Creole led to both prejudice and ostracism and in fact she was nicknamed “West Indies” by her boarding school peers (Angier 1985, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004). It is important to note that “Creole” when capitalised in this context, ‘does not imply mixture of race, but denotes a person either of European or (now rarely) of negro descent born and naturalized in certain West Indian and American countries’ (Fowler 1926). This foreshadows the central character of Antoinette, who is likewise a Creole, a descendent of Europeans born and raised in the Caribbean, former wealthy slaveholders rendered impoverished by the freeing of their slaves under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
Wide Sargasso Sea, first published in 1966, is a story of racial and social displacement and dispossession. It is also, perhaps, Rhys’s attempt to redress what she saw as injustice toward Creoles made famous by the character of Bertha Mason – the “madwoman in the attic” of Jane Eyre. Rhys wanted to illustrate that neither she nor Bertha/Antoinette were habitually or congenitally mad. It was her way of correcting a stereotypical image that she knew, as a Dominican Creole in Britain, was untrue. As Rhys explained in her Letters (Wyndham and Melly 1984), she further desired to give Rochester’s Bertha a voice of her own, to see why he treated her so badly, and why she descended into irreversible madness. Jane Eyre, she said, was one voice only, that of the English voice. She wanted to give the white Caribbean a voice too and dispel tightly-held views that Creoles were licentious and indolent; that they had been separated from their mother country for so long that they had become natives in mind and body as well (Carr 1996) . It is interesting to note that in the book, how the unnamed Rochester views Antoinette as they are coming to Massacre, Dominica (Rhys 1997 p.40). He is watching her, in his words “critically”, judging her by her ethnicity as something neither Afro-Caribbean or truly European; something in-between and belonging to neither world. Rhys herself was subject to such critical scrutiny by the men, friends and peers in her British life (Angier 1985) and this is perhaps an externalisation of these characteristics.
Carole Angier in her biography of Rhys regards Daniel Cosway as the novel’s true villain (Angier 1985) and the unnamed Rochester accepts what Daniel has to say uncritically. Rather than giving Antoinette any kind of benefit of the doubt, her new husband takes the impassioned words of this illegitimate man at face value. This leads to another postcolonial construction where the coloniser immediately thinks the worst of the colonised, without much thought to the veracity of Daniel’s claims. In fact, the unnamed Rochester even expected the letter from Daniel, as if foreseeing trouble, or fulfilling a self-satisfying prophecy (Rhys 1966 p.62). This mirrors the patriarchal attitude prevalent at the time, where a man’s word carried more weight or import than a woman’s.
Rhys according to Burns, is ‘returning the general to the specific’ in Wide Sargasso Sea (Burns 2010) . The author is deconstructing Antoinette’s character as a stereotypical mad Creole and has rebuilt her as plausible flesh and blood: a real woman with real emotions and sensibilities, shaped as they are by her life caught between the seemingly irreconcilable worlds of the Afro-Caribbean and the British. Antoinette, for all of her whiteness, is as much subaltern according to postcolonial theory as are the characters of Amèlie or Tia. Antoinette does not go mad because of some racial disposition as Rochester in Jane Eyre asserts, but as Burns suggests, the ‘emotional, social and gender-specific’ experiences she has had during her life (Burns 2010). In a sense, it’s a story of ‘becoming’ as Burns asserts. Everyone salient in the story is becoming something – Antoinette is becoming mad, the unnamed Rochester is becoming cold-hearted (Burns 2010). The net result of this is that Antoinette’s world has crumbled, as everyone and things has become something else, invariably for the worse.
The sense of place has been upended and disrupted in Wide Sargasso Sea. None of the named characters that dwell in Jamaica truly belong there with regards to indigenous sense of place. All of them are strangers in strange lands. Even an Afro-Caribbean such as Christophine, for all her worldliness and received wisdom, is a sum product of a culture that has its origins thousands of miles away. Antoinette is asked who was massacred in Massacre, hence giving it its name, to which she cannot give an answer, stating that nobody knows now (Rhys 1966 p. 39). In fact it is the site of a massacre of the native Carib people undertaken by the English in 1674 as a reprisal for one of their own being murdered (Davidas 1998). Turkish scholar Neşe Şenel erroneously regards the Afro-Caribbean community as native to Jamaica and Dominica (Şenel 2014) and it is telling that the true aboriginal inhabitants of the Caribbean, the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Taino and the other groupings, are never mentioned.
Antoinette’s step-father, Mr Mason, possibly represents the coloniser with his callous and arrogant disregard for the social realities of life in the newly-emancipated lands. For sure, he does and sees nothing to forestall the rioting and the fire that destroys Coulibri, blissfully disregarding all advice that could have prevented it. The fire symbolically mirrors that of Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre – things have come full circle between the two novels, but where the Bronte work is one of romance and reconciliation, Francis Wyndham calls Wide Sargasso Sea a work of revenge and self-pity (Wyndham 1993). Rhys is getting her revenge on the portrayal of Bertha Mason, as well as Rochester, specifically by not naming him in Wide Sargasso Sea. In her Letters, Rhys said she was careful not to name him (Wyndham and Melly 1984), and by depriving Rochester of a name, she has rendered him faceless, a cruel cipher that uses (or abuses) his position and privilege to destroy Antoinette’s mind. Rhys also applies postcolonial theory, primarily through viewpoint. According to Mary Klages, postcolonial theory is concerned with demonstrating through fiction how colonising powers were able to express their cultural, linguistic and social superiority over those they conquered and colonised (Klages 2006). Rhys shows us the characters of Christophine, Tia, and Amèlie through the eyes of Antoinette and the unnamed Rochester, never giving them their own voice. Filtered through Creole or English sensibilities, these characters, richly endowed with histories of their own, are never permitted to become anything more than founts of home-baked wisdom in the case of Christophine or an oversexed, conniving minx in the shape of Amèlie. They are everything the colonisers deemed Afro-Caribbeans (and Africans in general) to be; imbued with rampant lust or heathen witchcraft. Even after their emancipation, the Afro-Caribbean population is still largely kept cowed by the law, and in the novel this is exemplified where Christophine backs down after being threatened by the unnamed Rochester with legal consequence (Rhys 1966 p. 103).
There are intertextual elements throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, with the characters and situations foreshadowing those in Jane Eyre (Maurel 1998). Antoinette and the unnamed Rochester frequently reflect on what is to come, with premonition and foreboding being key elements in the Rhys novel. Perhaps a key example of this is the unnamed Rochester drawing his house in England with a woman standing in a room (Rhys 1966 pp. 105-6). This literary technique, foreshadowing, is used to great effect within the novel, reinforcing its intertextuality.
In summary, Wide Sargasso Sea appears to be a personal triumph for Jean Rhys of a sort. Not only has she redressed and rehabilitated the maligned character of Bertha Mason, breathing fire and purpose into her as Antoinette Cosway, Rhys has also challenged racial and stereotypical concepts of the Creole. In Wide Sargasso Sea, there is a postcolonial deconstruction of life in the British Caribbean, cunningly depicted by altered viewpoints and only making the most oblique references to the material the novel is inspired from. There is no love or joy present, but only hatred, resentment and confusion as each of its players struggle to come to terms with alienation and upheaval, that in the end claims the sanity of them all.
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Carr, H 1996, Jean Rhys, Northcote House Publishers, Plymouth, UK.
Davidas, L 1998, ‘The Dominican Karifuna Indians Fight for Survival’, Dialectical Anthropology, vol 23, no. 4, pp. 415-424.
Fowler, H W 1926, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, London.
Klages, M 2006, Literary theory: a guide for the perplexed, Continuum, London.
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Rhys, J 1997, Wide Sargasso Sea – The Annotated Edition, Penguin Modern Classics, London.
Şenel, N 2014, ‘A Postcolonial Reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys’, Journal of Language and Literature Education, 11, pp. 8-45.
Wyndham, F & Melly, D (eds.) 1984, The Letters of Jean Rhys, Viking Penguin, New York.
Wyndham, F 1993, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin Film and TV tie-in ed. (1993), Penguin, London.