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He [the immigrant] wanted to forget everything: the foreign language that left an unmistakable trace in his English speech, the religion that continually recalled M.L. Hansen, “The Third Generation of America,” Commentary 14, no. 5 (1952): 494.
childhood struggles, the family customs that should have been the happiest of all memories. He wanted to be away from all physical reminders of early days, in an environment so different, so American, that all associates naturally assumed that he was as American as they. 29 This second generation’s desire to escape from the culture of their parents explains the silence that envelops the Italian American tradition. For example, writer and critic Louise DeSalvo explains how her father considered his history a burden and threw out many papers, photographs, certificates, and other reminders of his past. This has been the experience of many third generation writers, and though in Paper Fish the reader is not privy to the inner workings of second generation characters Marco and Sarah, it is precisely this elusiveness about them that underlines Hansen’s theory. Marco and Sarah are suffering, their suffering is illustrated by their silence, and the characters we learn most about are Carmolina and her grandmother Doria. Carmolina is the child of the third
generation, a generation that Hansen points to as the redeemer of immigrant culture:
“After the second generation comes the third and with the third appears a new force and a new opportunity which, if recognized in time, can not only do a good job of salvaging, but probably can accomplish more than either the first or second generations could have ever achieved.” It is the third generation of Italian Americans that seeks independence yet also remains very conscious of the Italian ancestry. In order to gain knowledge of this ancestry, the third generation turns to the person who has not let go of the old country: the first generation immigrant, or the grandparent. More specifically, it is the grandmother who is the source of inspiration for many Italian American women writers.
Edvige Giunta, Helen Barolini, and Louise DeSalvo are just a few writers who stress the Ibid., 494.
Louise DeSalvo, “Color: White/Complexion: Dark,” in Are Italians White? How Race is Made in America, ed. Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 20.
Hansen, “The Third Generation in America,” 495.
significance of their relationship to their Italian grandmothers. She is often the earliest source of information available to the family’s past, as Helen Barolini explains: “The grandparent is a rich mine of the Italian American imagination – mythical, real, imagined, idealized, venerated, or feared. The grandparent embodies the tribe, the whole heritage, for that, in overwhelmingly the most cases, is as far as a present-day Italian American can trace his or her descent.” 32 Like the other protagonists in the novels I am treating, Carmolina does not have a close relationship with her mother. Sarah is quiet and distant, visibly pained by her other child’s illness. This is reminiscent of Annette in Wide Sargasso Sea, who cannot be a mother to Antoinette because she is hindered by the loss of her handicapped son. As previously noted, in Paper Fish the reader becomes familiar not with Sarah or Marco but with Doria. We learn that her transition to American life has not been an easy one, and that her thoughts often turn to Italy. She imparts these thoughts to her granddaughter, Carmolina, whose strong relationship with her grandmother keeps her in close contact with Italian culture. Critic Mary Jo Bona does not directly mention Hansen’s theory, but she does comment on the ways in which later generation Italian women begin to assert more independence and explore the self, while at the same time remaining close to the family. Bona explains that one effective way to attain this independence and still preserve cultural values is through memory and through written language: “Instead of perceiving the family and home to be a reflection of the larger world, however, the Italian American woman writer has used the family setting as the starting point for her Barolini, Chiaroscuro, 141.
exploration of self.” The text is used as a tool to achieve independence from what can be a restricting family unit, yet it is also used to preserve this sense of community. In the next chapter I explore how each protagonist uses the text in order to reconcile feelings of otherness and establish a sense of identity.
Mary Jo Bona, “Broken Images, Broken Lives: Carmolina’s Journey in Tina de Rosa’s Paper Fish,” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 14, no.
3 (Fall – Winter 1987) : 88.
The primary focus of this chapter is to define how the text is used to speak for the silenced, otherwise known as Other in the canonical text. For Jean Rhys and Maryse Condé, the use of the text is exceptional, because they both take a work from the English canon and make it their own through rewriting it. The act of possession has significance, for by possessing, then changing, a revered work of literature, the authors are attempting to reverse the power structure. They write about the Caribbean lands that were colonized and reveal the aftermath of this colonization. For Jean Rhys, this idea is somewhat problematic since she is (and writes about) a white Creole and is therefore part of this colonial history. She focuses on her alienation as a result of this history, presenting herself also as a victim. Maryse Condé also grew up under European influence, which left her unsure about her historical past. She writes about this confusion in her memoir, but she also imparts this turmoil to the characters of Wuthering Heights in her revisionary work, La migration des cœurs.
In the section on Wide Sargasso Sea, I argue that through the text, Antoinette takes control of her story and that she makes a symbolic return to her native Caribbean.
The experience of being oppressed by her husband and the memory of her island home compels her to act, and this action gives her an identity that was formerly withheld. I explore many important facets of the novel that are connected to identity, such as how the mirror functions in the text. I also explore how the colors white and red signify the difference between England and the Caribbean. In Condé’s novel, I study the differences between La migration des cœurs and Wuthering Heights, and why these distinctions make the work definitively Caribbean. The island landscape, the focus on race, and the narration are some examples I use to demonstrate the Caribbeanness of this text.
Power Through the Text: Jean Rhys’ Caribbean “Anyhow this book has woken me up as some books do. So I’m determined to not be killed by loneliness whatever way I die.”
After nearly 27 years of silence, Jean Rhys reappeared in 20th century fiction with what is considered her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea. If this book has “awoken” the author, this awakening is transferred to her protagonist Antoinette, who in the final pages of the novel wakes from her zombified state to take revenge on her oppressor, Rochester, and to challenge the canonical validity of the text Jane Eyre. In the above quotation, Rhys is determined not to die of loneliness, a feeling that also plagues Antoinette, who experiences loneliness and alienation in a world where she is marginalized because of her race, gender, and cultural difference.
Wide Sargasso Sea explores the implications of displacement through Antoinette, formerly known only as the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.
Rhys’ own cultural background is rooted in Caribbean and English tradition, though the opposing nature of these cultures (i.e. England’s association with colonization and slavery) made it difficult for Rhys to form attachments on her native island of Dominica. Born in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh father and a Creole (a white West Indian) mother, Rhys felt antagonism directed towards the “English” side of her heritage. Though Rhys identified more with Dominican than with English culture, her ancestry complicated her relationships with the island people. Rhys’ maternal grandfather was a slave owner who arrived in the West Indies from Scotland at the end of the 18th century. Rhys describes her longing to truly fit in among the Caribbean people, but how strained race relations made this impossible: “I thought a lot about them. But the end of my thought was always revolt, a sick revolt and I longed to be identified once and for all with the others’ side which of course was impossible. I couldn’t change the colour of my skin.” 1 In her book Snow on the Cane Fields, Judith L. Raiskin explains Rhys’ unusual
position as a white Creole:
Her ambivalent assessment of her family’s responsibility for the atrocities of slavery and of the potential glamour or corruption inherent in power deny her an easy identification with either Whites or Blacks. In most of her writing, she focuses less on the disadvantaged position of Blacks (as Schriener did in her portrayals) than on her own exclusion, alienation, and envy as a white Creole living among blacks. 2 Wide Sargasso Sea certainly dissects the problems of individuals who feel trapped between two cultures, but what makes the work so fascinating is that Rhys does so through the rewriting of Charlotte Brontë’s text Jane Eyre, giving a story and life to the enigmatic madwoman in the attic. By focusing upon the identity issues of the white Creole, Rhys creates a text that can stand alone, while also forever changing the way the reader interprets Jane Eyre. Antoinette/Bertha is no longer the raving madwoman whose illness runs in the family but instead she becomes a sympathetic character with whom the reader establishes a connection. Through her unusual portrayal of “Bertha,” Rhys defies the classic English text by encouraging the reader to view Antoinette as the tortured victim and Rochester as a cruel manipulator.
In this chapter, I will argue that the only hope that the displaced person has for gaining identity is through the text. Antoinette Cosway, in her life before becoming the O’Connor, Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, 36.
Raskin, Snow on the Canefields, 100.
madwoman “Bertha,” has roots in Western European civilization but only knows life as that of the Caribbean Creole. Though she shares their culture, the black natives can only look upon her family with disdain. It is a family which is not English enough for England nor Caribbean enough for the Caribbean and is therefore exiled on its own island home, having no place to truly “belong.” The fact that they are descendants from a generation of English slave owners only fuels the animosity of the islanders. The family continues to carry the stigma of slavery and is therefore viewed as a family of colonizers. This term becomes very significant in the novel, for Antoinette and her mother, the former “colonizers” eventually become “colonized” by their English husbands. The consequence of this colonization is madness for both Antoinette and her mother, leaving the reader to wonder if Antoinette’s family is paying for the sins of its ancestors.
The problems of cultural identity that Antoinette experiences are parallel to those of literary identity that Jean Rhys confronted. Rhys always felt as if she were an outsider in Dominica but these feelings intensified when she went to England, the “mother country.” Here, West Indians were not always well received, for they were a reminder of a shameful history and looked upon as inferior. Edward Brathwaite explores the effect of black Caribbean culture on whites of European descent, commenting on their difference of dress, language, and diet and how these differences were not necessarily accepted by Europeans in the “mother country.” In his book The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica he offers many quotations from English observers who view Creoles of English descent as uneducated and improper. One observer is uncomfortable with the black
influence on the white Creole:
“Another misfortune is the constant intercourse from their birth with Negro domestics, whose drawling, dissonant gibberish they insensibly adopt, and with it no small tincture of their awkward carriage and vulgar manners; all which they do not easily rid of, even after an English education, unless sent away extremely young.” Another observer also comments on the non-Englishness of the Creole, emphasizing the spoken dialect of the islands: “The Creole language is not confined to Negroes. Many of the ladies, who have not been educated in England, speak a sort of broken English, with an indolent drawling out of their words, that is very tiresome if not disgusting.” In Wide Sargasso Sea, this sentiment is felt by Rochester in his observation of Antoinette, for he, like the English observers above, cannot understand why Antoinette is so affectionate with her black nurse and confidante, Christophine: “ ‘I wouldn’t hug and kiss them,’ I’d say, ‘I couldn’t’ ” (91). He is also unnerved, like the English observers in the above quotations, by Antoinette’s language: “She’d be silent, or angry for no reason, and chatter to Christophine in patois” (91).
In her book Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell describes the West Indian as “an outcast, a sort of freak rejected by both Europe and England, whose blood she shares, and by the black West Indian people, whose culture and home have been hers for two generations or more.” Being both a writer in Europe but also an outsider, where in the literary canon does Rhys’ work belong? Most of her novels involve a protagonist from the West Indies trying to adapt to a European setting. Rhys herself, though she disliked England, lived there for most of her life, returning to Dominica but one time. Mary Lou Emery Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 42.
Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell, “The Paradoxes of Belonging: The White West Indian Woman in Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies 31, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 287.