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This event is an all too familiar scene to the black inhabitants of the island. At this point, Antoinette is a little girl who struggles with loneliness and fear; she is aware that the family is hated by the other islanders and that she is also unloved by her mother, whom she feels sees her as a “white nigger” (26). While Annette is still tied to the generation of slavery, Antoinette must achieve a new identity for the white Creole, one that is harmonious with post emancipation Jamaica. This is murky territory for Antoinette, as she unsuccessfully attempts to form relationships with people like Tia and tries to please her disapproving mother and her new English stepfather. Mr. Mason establishes his authority as an Englishman and evokes racist feelings in Antoinette by making her feel shy about admitting that Sandi Cosway is her cousin because he is black (50). Caught between shame and affinity with the black Caribbean, Antoinette cannot achieve any sense of identity, which leaves her vulnerable to making mistakes such as marrying Rochester. In the meantime, she lives in the convent, where her pain is momentarily eased by the gentle nuns. Here is where the first mention of red occurs since the fire at Coulibri, in relation to Antoinette’s cross-stitch: “Underneath, I will write my name in fire red, Antoinette Mason, née Cosway, Mount Calvary Convent, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1839” (53).
This act is very significant because here, Antoinette is creating a text through her sewing. The act of sewing or weaving has always been an important element in literature, particularly in regard to women. One famous example is the myth of Philomela, who suffers a brutal rape at the hands of her sister’s husband, but is unable to speak about the crime because he also cuts out her tongue. Though she can no longer
speak, she is able to reveal her story through weaving:
Cloth was one of the earliest forms of paper, and in literary works it often functions as a symbol for a page or a text. Philomela’s woven cloth tells her story, and in Antoinette’s cross-stitch, her fabric is also a text which reveals parts of her story that are fundamental elements to one’s identity: her name and her place of birth. Though her identity is not fully realized, the fiery color of Antoinette’s stitching foreshadows her determination and resolve. The textual implication is clear: the Creole’s story will be written, and as the reader realizes at the end of the novel, it is written in flame.
Red is again used to describe the earth, which connects this color to the Caribbean. Antoinette takes note of this and points it out to her new husband, who is not
impressed by her observation:
Next time she spoke she said, ‘The earth is red here, do you notice?
‘It’s red in parts of England, too.’ ‘Oh England, England,’ she called back mockingly, and the sound went on like a warning I did not choose to hear. (71) Rolfe Humphries, trans., Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Indiana University Press, 1955), 146.
The depth of color, according to Antoinette, is expressly reserved for the island. This exchange takes place in part two, narrated mostly by Rochester, and it is in this section that Antoinette often wears white, which I described above. Though her love for the island and its tropical environment is apparent, it is also in this chapter that she begins to see England as a solution to her problems with Rochester. I explored this at length in chapter one, but the point I would like to make now is that in part two Antoinette pledges allegiance to England, not realizing that it is England, in the form of her English husband, that is forcing her into the stereotypical role of the mad, drunken Creole found in Jane Eyre. In part two, she asks Rochester, “Is it true that England is like a dream? Because one of my friends who married an Englishman wrote and told me so. She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up” (80).
This question, of course, references the nightmare that Antoinette had of England when she was staying in the convent (60) but also is pertinent to her emotional state in part two. As her relationship with Rochester worsens, Antoinette enters a sleep-like state.
She numbs herself by overindulging in rum, and eventually follows Rochester mechanically and indifferently to England. Rochester notices her eyes as “blank, lovely eyes” (170) and that her voice had “no warmth, no sweetness. The doll had a doll’s voice, a breathless but curiously indifferent voice.” Antoinette thus fulfills the dream prophesy from part one: “I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself;
if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse” (60). In part two, Antoinette is in her cold dark dream from which she will eventually wake, and it is important to note that the person who tries to save her, and whom she refuses, is Sandi Cosway, Antoinette’s cousin, her friend, and possibly (or so Rhys hints) her lover. However, as previously noted, this is the same Sandi Cosway that Antoinette denounces as a relative under the
Foolishness/That All Foolishness: Race and Caribbean Culture as Thematics of Liberation in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea,” “If she [Antoinette] had married Sandi Cosway, she would not have lost either of her names, for she and he carry the same family name.” Instead, Antoinette has two English names, Bertha Mason, and her rejection of Sandi is another example of how she attempts to assimilate to English customs and deny her Creole past.
Zombification: Rochester as Author in Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette’s lifelessness is the result of zombification, a state which the novel defines as a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead (107).
Critic Simone Alexander defines zombification as “a state wherein one is brutally stripped of knowledge of his or her original world and left as an empty shell or flesh, capable only of receiving orders from someone else and unquestioningly carrying them out.” Indeed, Antoinette enters a master-slave relationship with Rochester, for she becomes the colonized subject and he the colonizer. Like her mother, Antoinette becomes a zombie and there are several moments in the novel that describe her as such.
For example, two children jeer at Antoinette on her walk to the convent, and in doing so
they eerily foreshadow Antoinette’s fate, which will be similar to that of her mother:
Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother. Your aunt frightened to have you in the house. She send you for the nuns to lock up. Your mother walk about with no shoes and stockings on her feet, she sans culottes. She try to kill her husband and she try to kill you too that day you go to see her. She have eyes like zombie and you have eyes like zombie too. (49-50) Drake, “Race and Caribbean Culture as Thematics of Liberation,” 104.
Simone Alexander, Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women (Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 2001), 58.
In the convent, even Antoinette describes her mother as a zombie, saying both that “she must pray for her as though she were dead, though she is living…” (57) and “This is my mother, wherever her soul is wandering, for it has left her body” (57). These characteristics all satisfy the definition of the zombie given in the novel, that of the “living dead.” As Rochester becomes more distant from Antoinette, she meddles in obeah in order to bring him back to her, yet this disastrously fails and she, like her mother, begins to enter the zombie state. The potion does not work because, as Christophine points out, she is “béké” and not of the island people. Mary Lou Emery connects this failure to the fact that Antoinette lacks identity: “These reasons [that the obeah fails] belong to the larger one of Antoinette’s lack of place in this society. Neither beke nor black, her reliance on obeah for individual, personal matters cannot succeed, for as an individual she hardly exists.” In her despair, Christophine also notes that Antoinette’s eyes are empty: “your face like dead woman and your eyes red like soucriant” (155). Antoinette succumbs as slave to Rochester, who clearly defines himself as master and Antoinette as slave when he begins to call her Bertha, which the reader recognizes as the madwoman’s name in Jane Eyre. The re-naming is significant in two ways. First, name and identity are intimately linked. Second, this episode represents a reversal characterized by Rochester’s use of obeah. Antoinette’s whiteness prevents Christophine’s potion from working; instead Rochester uses his own form of witchcraft when he renames her. She rightly accuses him of this: “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” (147). The subject Emery, Jean Rhys at “World’s End,” 44.
of names is also a point of interest in regard to Rochester. Though Rochester renames Antoinette, he remains nameless in the novel. The reader only identifies him as Rochester through the recognition of the character in Jane Eyre. If the reader had no knowledge of Brontë’s text, then his name would be unknown. The fact that Rhys does not name him paradoxically enforces his role as master, and Antoinette as slave, for Rochester is one who names and not one who is named. The fact that Antoinette is enslaved will be of importance in the conclusion of the novel, for her experience as slave, and her later rebellion, will enable her to identify with the black Caribbean, an identification which was impossible before. At this point she will wake from the zombie state, but I will discuss this momentarily. First I will further develop my analysis of Rochester’s authorial position in the novel and the effect it has on Antoinette.
Toward the end of part two, Rochester’s plans become more sinister and he begins textually to take on the role of Western literature which typecasts the Caribbean Other. For example, when Rochester first plans to hide Antoinette from view, he intends to stay in Jamaica (162) only to reconsider when he thinks about how much the people gossip (163). Upon reflection, he begins to sketch, and this sketch inspires him to return to England: “I drank some more rum and, drinking, I drew a house surrounded by trees.
A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman – a child’s scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one for a body, a triangle for a skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet. But it was an English house” (163). The drawing symbolizes the text; the person drawing has authorial control to place the house in England, to put the woman in the attic of the house. Rochester is essentially drawing the blueprint for his plan to imprison his wife, to put her in England where no one will talk to her and where her voice will not be heard. Furthermore, Rochester assumes the role of the English narrator who speaks for the Caribbean Other. This idea is developed in the following pages: Rochester says, “Words rushed through my head (deeds too). Words.
Pity is one of them. It gives me no rest” (164). These words are not unlike those found on the pages of Jane Eyre; they ferociously describe Antoinette as Bertha, the madwoman who cannot be controlled and Rochester as the one who deserves sympathy: “ ‘Pity. Is there none for me? Tied to a lunatic for life – a drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way’ ” (164). Rochester becomes the imperialist author whose words spill wildly as he continues to describe Antoinette’s character, his thoughts interrupted only by points from his previous conversation with Christophine, points that explain why Antoinette is in such a delicate emotional state. Yet when Christophine’s reasoning enters his mind, Rochester counters this reasoning with what will be his version of events. Again, this version is familiar to readers of Jane Eyre. For clarification, note that Christophine’s
words are in quotations:
In Wide Sargasso Sea, the reader sees that Antoinette’s “madness” is evoked in multiple ways: her unreciprocated love for Rochester, her inability to make him understand the reasons behind her mother’s condition, and the feelings of dislocation that have permeated her life. In the above passage, Rochester simplifies this explanation by reducing Antoinette’s character to that of a woman whose sexual desire and laughter are uncontrollable and therefore indicate that she is insane. This is the version of events told in Jane Eyre. In chapter one, I explored the ways in which Rochester is repelled by Antoinette’s desire and why this is another element of her character that Rochester sees as non-English. A woman who feels such desire does not fit the mold of the English ideal found in the Victorian novel and therefore the only place for her in Western literature is that of the Other, and in this case, the Other is a mad Creole. While Christophine implores Rochester to show Antoinette a bit of compassion, his response is to insist that “she loves no one” and thus, writes a new story to explain Antoinette’s state, one that the reader views as the recognizable story that had once been regarded as truth.
As Jean Rhys said of Jane Eyre’s Bertha, “Of course Charlotte Brontë makes her own world, and of course she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed.
That’s only one side – the English side” sort of thing.” In part two of Wide Sargasso Sea, the reader sees the manifestation of Rochester’s plans and his portrayal of Antoinette as a lunatic as “the English side.” Although at one point even Rochester realizes that his
version of the story is slanted, he is still unwavering:
Nancy Harrison, Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women’s Text (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 127 – 128.
So I can never understand why, suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined was false. False. Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest is a lie. Let it go. Here is the secret. Here.
(but it is lost, that secret, and those who know it cannot tell it.)