Jean Rhys' complex text, Wide Sargasso Sea, came about as an attempt to re-invent an identity for Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre, as Rhys felt that Bronte had totally misrepresented Creole women and the West Indies: 'why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester's wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I'd write a story as it might really have been.' (Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, p144). It is clear that Rhys wanted to reclaim a voice and a subjectivity for Bertha, the silenced Creole, and to subvert the assumptions made by the Victorian text. She does so with startling results. In her quest to re-instate Bertha's identity, Rhys raises issues such as the problems of colonisation, gender relations and racial issues. She explores the themes of displacement, Creolisation and miscegenation. However, the aim of this essay is to look at the marriage contract within the text, its effects on the participants' sense of selfhood and its comparisons with the colonial encounter.
The marriage contract, for Rhys, is ultimately cast as a colonial encounter in the novel. However, the problem of displacement and a shaky sense of one's own identity are already well established in the first part of the text, long before the marriage takes place. It seems that Rhys wants to bring the problems of the Creole existence to the fore at the very beginning of the novel, and lay emphasis on Antoinette's feelings of alienation: the white Creoles are neither part of the black slave community or accepted as European either (a lack of belonging that Rhys knew all too well):
'they say when trouble comes, close ranks. And so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks' (WSS 5).
'White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you' (WSS 9).
Though this is a childish taunt in the novel, the truth of it is that nobody does want Antoinette; as Teresa O'Connor points out, not even her own mother: 'Antoinette is also alienated from the meagre remains of her family itself, and, most specifically, from her mother's love' (Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, 172).
The second part of the novel marks the beginning of the marriage between Antoinette and the English gentleman (normally identified as Rochester from Jane Eyre; he will be referred to as such for the remainder of the essay). The Marriage contract itself, interestingly, is negotiated and put into action by a series of men: Rochester's father and brother, Antoinette's stepfather and, subsequently, her step-brother, Richard Mason. When Antoinette herself puts up a half-hearted resistance to the marriage, both Rochester and Richard Mason step in to push the contract along. Already, Rhys, within the marriage, establishes action as a male characteristic and inertia as female.
As the narrative moves into part II, Rochester takes over from Antoinette as narrator. Also, the feelings of displacement and problems of identity are shifted onto him. Rochester, at Granbois, experiences a complete lack of power normally exercised by the English gentleman, at once having to deal with the strange otherness of the West Indies and cope with the rejection by his father and brother. According to O'Connor 'he experiences what it is like to be a woman'. The marriage has placed him in the position of the female: without power, without knowledge and without a sense of an English or metropolitan identity:
'everything is too much, I felt, as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green...it was a beautiful place - wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I'd find myself thinking - what I see is nothing - I want what it hides - that is not nothing' (WSS 54).
He is the 'dispossessed coloniser' (Jean Rhys 18), unable to reconcile his English identity with the strangeness of the periphery, frustrated with his inability to know and control the place. Antoinette, on the other hand, appears to have gained a sense of belonging at Granbois from the onset of the marriage. She says of the place: 'this is my place' (WSS 45) and 'here, I can do as I like' (WSS 57). Rhys, here, links knowledge and power: as Antoinette has knowledge of the island, she is in the position of power, a situation that embitters Rochester as time goes on: 'Her [Antoinette's] pleading expression annoys me. I have not bought her, she has bought me' (WSS 42). Of course, as this is all told from Rochester's view-point, we can never actually know if this is how Antoinette really feels. To Rochester, she seems to be simply another aspect of the West Indies' otherness that he cannot connect with:
'she never blinks at all, it seems to me. Long, dark, alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either' (WSS 40).
Indeed, Antoinette's otherness begins to plague Rochester to the point where (particularly after Daniel Cosway's letter) he begins to conflate her as racially other, convincing himself that there is a resemblance between her and the black maid, Amelie.
Rhys takes care to portray Rochester's crisis of identity in the West Indies as she does the Creoles'. The development of the marriage into a colonial allegory takes place as Rochester begins to try and deal with the problems of displacement. Rhys writes him directly into the roles of coloniser at the point where he changes Antoinette's name to Bertha, attempting to change the Creole other he imagines in her into something 'knowable'. He then demonstrates his sexual power over her by denying her a physical relationship with him, yet sleeping with Amelie within her hearing, driving her further away from her new-found sense of identity and back into the sense of placelessness she felt in the novel's first part. Finally, Rochester, assuming 'the traditional stance of male imperialist authority...silencing the woman's voice' (Jean Rhys 109) physically displaces her, splitting her from the West Indies and any connection with a self image: 'there is no looking-glass here and I don't know what I am like now...what am I doing in this place and who am I?' (WSS 117). At this point in the novel, Rochester's role as coloniser and Antoinette's as colonised within the marriage are fully realised. Rochester, in the position of power, has successfully taken possession of Antoinette's wealth, property and identity. Antoinette, stripped of all three, has made the transition from Rhys' text to the imperial construction of the mad woman in the attic of Jane Eyre.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 1997.
Howells, Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
O'Connor, Teresa F. Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
This page was written by Jayne Lendrum. Email me with your suggestions.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
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