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discusses the ways in which Rhys is doubly marginalized in that she is neither considered alongside Caribbean writers such as Derek Walcott or Edward Brathwaite, nor is she considered among European women writers. In the case of the former, she cannot share their African ancestry or historical past, as she is linked to a colonizing culture; in the case of the latter, her difference separates her from a community of fellow women writers. In her autobiography Smile Please Jean Rhys speaks with a tone of self-defeat as she describes her isolation:“I knew in myself that it would never happen. I would never be part of anything. I would never really belong anywhere, and I knew it, and all my life would be the same, trying to belong, and failing. Always something would go wrong. I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care.” Some West Indian authors are also quick to exclude the white Creole and deny him/her a place in West Indian literature.
Rhys, Smile Please, 16.
Edward Brathwaite, Contradictory Omens: Cultural Diversity and Integration in the Caribbean (Mona:
Savacou Publications, 1985), 38.
Obviously, Rhys falls outside Brathwaite’s definition, which leaves her further marginalized and casts doubt on her identity as a West Indian. In the following pages, I will explore several aspects of Rhys’ text that involve her identity as a Caribbean of English descent, including colonization, zombification, and the relationship of Wide Sargasso Sea to Jane Eyre. I will argue that the conclusion of Wide Sargasso Sea enables Antoinette to establish a connection to the Caribbean that was previously denied.
Critics such as Mary Lou Emery have cautioned readers against viewing Wide Sargasso Sea as a return to a native land, but Rhys’ novel attains a type of return for Antoinette,
Though Antoinette identifies more with island culture than European culture, she is not fully accepted by the former, as Christophine eventually explains to her new husband: “she is not béké like you, but she is béké, and not like us, either” (155). One particularly interesting relationship, that between Antoinette and Tia, a native black girl, demonstrates that the former has an ambivalent relationship with the Caribbean world.
The girls are playmates, but they have an altercation at the river in which Tia calls her “white cockroach” and steals her clothes. Because of this theft Antoinette is forced to wear Tia’s clothes, which the latter left behind. In donning these clothes, Antoinette metaphorically becomes Tia. However, when she returns home and puts on another dress, it rips, a way of expressing that her old identity no longer fits. Nothing fits Antoinette: her original dress has been stolen, and her new dress rips. This “new” dress, Emery, Jean Rhys at "World's End,” 14.
Tia’s dress, is symbolic of Antoinette’s desire to be like Tia. Antoinette cannot find an identity to suit her, and this lack of belonging applies to her inability to assimilate to the Caribbean. In her book Jean Rhys at "World's End,” Mary Lou Emery comments on this
When Antoinette emerges from the pool, she discovers that Tia has exchanged her dress for Antoinette’s. In the black child’s dress, Antoinette arrives home to meet a visitor from England, Mr. Mason, who eventually marries her mother and takes over their neglected estate. She has become Tia’s double, by a forced exchange, and in that costume meets the man who will forcefully exchange her in marriage to another white Englishman. 11 Antoinette not only becomes Tia’s double in this scenario but also when the estate is set
on fire, for she simultaneously identifies with Tia and realizes that she is not like her:
This idea of the looking glass, of a mirror, appears often in the novel, which I will discuss in more detail below. Of greater importance is the fact that Antoinette, the viewer, peers into the mirror and sees an object of desire. Antoinette desires to be accepted by the island people and is reluctant to say goodbye to her life in Coublibri, even though the people’s hostility toward her is evident. The island is all that she knows, and she is desperate to identify with it through Tia, for Antoinette feels that they have shared the same experiences. She wants to be a part of something, so she clings to the hope of Tia and being “like her.” This desire manifests itself most strikingly when Antoinette looks directly at Tia as if she were looking into a mirror. Of course, her Emery, Jean Rhys at "World's End,” 39.
illusions are shattered when Tia throws the stone in her face, breaking the mirror image and jolting Antoinette to the realization that she does not belong and that she is not like Tia. The reality is that the racial boundaries are set: Antoinette is white, Tia is black;
Antoinette represents the colonizer, Tia the colonized. Margaret Paul Joseph writes about doubling and mirror images found in Wide Sargasso Sea, and focuses on this particular
Mirrors are used with other, more specific, intentions as well. Antoinette has a playmate, a black girl called Tia, whom she envies because Tia belongs as Antoinette never does. It seems as if fires are always lit for her, as if sharp stones never hurt her bare feet, for she never saw her cry. While Antoinette longs to be black in order to identify with her, Tia is conditioned by the master-slave relationship that links them both; so the feeling of sisterhood is one-sided. 12 The image of a dress, like the one Tia steals from Antoinette, frequently appears as a symbolic image in the novel and usually signifies Antoinette’s relationship and identification with England and the Caribbean. These further references to dresses emphasize the color white or red, an important detail which indicates that white represents England while red represents the Caribbean. The color that Antoinette wears shows where her devotion lies, and the reader will see a transition in part two and three from white (England) to red (Caribbean) to symbolize her triumph over the oppression that England epitomizes.
Beginning with the white dresses, Antoinette wears one white dress in her second dream that foreshadows her unhappy marriage to Rochester. I explored Antoinette’s dream at length in chapter one, but in this section I wish to focus on the dress image. In the dream Antoinette first tries to hold up her dress, but then she allows it to trail the earth: “…so I walk with difficulty, following a man who is with me and holding up the Margaret Paul Joseph, Caliban in exile : the outsider in Caribbean fiction (New York: Greenwood Press, 1992), 39.
skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I do not want to get it soiled…He smiles slyly. ‘Not here, not yet’ he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress” (59). This image of the soiled dress is repeated in part two, for it is used to describe Christophine, whose dress trails the floor. 13 However, the repeated image of the dress, rather than serving to compare the two women, actually highlights their differences, once again distancing Antoinette from a Caribbean identity. It is Rochester who takes notice of the dress: “Her coffee is delicious but her language is horrible and she might hold her dress up. It must get very dirty, yards of it trailing on the floor.” Antoinette replies: “You don’t understand at all. They don’t care about a dress getting dirty because it shows it isn’t the only dress they have” (85). In Antoinette’s dream she is following the man who will reject her and take everything from her, and she tries hard not to dirty the white (read: English) dress. When she does allow it to fall to the ground it is in terms of surrender and complete subordination to Rochester.
Christophine, in contrast, is unmarried, independent and self-assured. She is not concerned when her dress gets soiled, for as she later says to Antoinette, “I keep my money. I don’t give it to no worthless man” (110).
The dress images continue in part two when Rochester sees Antoinette’s white dress lying on the floor which leaves him “breathless and savage with desire” (93).
Antoinette longs to please him (England) and wants to have a double of the dress: “I was thinking, I’ll have another made just like it,” she promised happily. “Will you be pleased?” (94). As I have already noted, Antoinette is part of a double culture: English descent with Caribbean tradition. However, she wishes to have a double of the white I have already noted several repetitions in the text, such as Antoinette and her mother, who both have frowns that appear to be cut “like a knife.” That repetition connects the two women in their madness and despair.
dress, which demonstrates her desire to be loyal to her husband and thus to England. The desire to have two white dresses leaves no space for her Caribbean background. Of course, Antoinette cannot achieve this goal of full Englishness, as is clear when Rochester later sees her wearing the dress and feels annoyance instead of desire: “She was wearing the white dress I had admired, but it had slipped untidily over one shoulder and seemed too big for her” (127). Like Tia’s dress, the white dress (England) does not suit Antoinette; the identity does not fit and it is clear to Rochester that though she is of English descent she is different. As discussed in chapter one, which treats the mother country, England will betray Antoinette and in so doing, provide another example of the symbolism of the color white which is the color of the ship that takes her away (186).
In part three, narrated by Antoinette in Thornfield Hall, she notices a girl coming out of her bedroom, wearing a white dress (182). If we are to assume that this girl is Jane, then it is fitting that she wears white, for she is the English girl who in the Victorian novel is set up in opposition to Bertha (Antoinette). 14 In Thornfield Hall, however, the dress that Antoinette reserves for her later action is not white, but red, which will be a significant diversion from the white images.
With the color white symbolizing England, it is of course not a far leap to attribute white in terms of race. Antoinette is not without racist feelings, for she calls Tia a “cheating nigger” (24), Christophine a “black devil from Hell” (134) and an “ignorant, obstinate negro woman” (112). Critic Patrick Hogan remarks that the description of the man in Antoinette’s dream has a face “black with hatred” while her dress is “white and Critics are divided on whether or not the girl in the white dress is actually Jane; I leave open the possibility that she is Jane, for in Jane Eyre Jane stays in Thornfield Hall and fears the ghost (Bertha) that haunts the place.
beautiful.” Although Antoinette has ambivalent feelings about blacks, specifically a mix of envy and dislike, it is clear from the first sentence of the novel that she is also excluded by whites: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks” (17). Antoinette is neither white enough for the Europeans nor black enough for the “natives,” which is problematic for her own sense of identity. Antoinette’s struggle with race could be an autobiographical component to the text, for in Rhys’ autobiography Smile Please, she prayed to be black: “Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black, and would run to the looking-glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened? And though it never had, I tried again. Dear God, let me be black.” 16 Once again the image of the mirror appears in Jean Rhys’ text, and is the place where she hopes to see her object of desire.
While the color white symbolizes England, red is the color of the Caribbean.
Before appearing as the color of Antoinette’s dress in the final chapter of Wide Sargasso Sea, the color red emerges in other parts of the novel, most often as fire, this fire is symbolic of the text. As the reader is well aware, Wide Sargasso Sea is the untold story of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic and though it is a novel that could stand alone, the influence of Brontë’s work is undeniable. This relationship between the two novels is analogous to the history of colonization in the Caribbean; European influence is present
Englishness to her advantage, however, and creates a text that questions Western Patrick Hogan, Colonialism and Cultural Identity: crises of tradition in the anglophone literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 59.
Rhys, Smile Please, 42 Some critics debate this point. For example, in his article “Heroines and Victims: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre,” Massachusetts Review: A Quarterly of Literature, the Arts and Public Affairs 17 (1976) : 540 – 52, Dennis Porter believes that Wide Sargasso Sea is not autonomous while Sandra Drake maintains that it is.
authority by portraying English control (in the form of English men and husbands) as harmful and malignant. She also succeeds in creating a madwoman as a sympathetic figure who emerges as triumphant and liberated from English rule. I will explain this through my interpretation of the fire images, which appear first in part one of the novel, when the people burn the house in Coulibri. The fire at Coulibri occurs shortly after Mr.
Mason marries Annette, thus restoring wealth and prosperity to the Cosway household.