«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
If the dream is Antoinette’s dream of entrapment, and if it is true, then is the “secret” that Rochester mentions Antoinette’s real story that he wants safeguarded? If so, he intends to keep it, and if this were a Western novel, then that would be the end of it, for in Jane Eyre Bertha’s story is a very slim portion of the novel. Fortunately, Rhys’ novel has Caribbean influence, and Rochester underestimates Antoinette who in part three wakes from her English dream to tell her secret. She rekindles her Caribbean identity to finally “write her name in red.” “I Will Write My Name in Red”: Antoinette’s Caribbean Identity Red, the color that represents the Caribbean in this novel, is the color of the dress that Antoinette has with her in the attic at Thornfield Hall. In England Antoinette miserably writes, “I am dying because it is so cold and dark,” (183) another repetition in the text of England as a “cold dark dream.” In part three, Antoinette once again narrates, and when she sees her dress hanging in the press, her senses start to awaken. The
description of the dress contains elements of the Caribbean:
As I turned the key I saw it hanging, the colour of fire and sunset. The colour of flamboyant flowers. ‘If you are buried under a flamboyant tree,’ I said, ‘your soul is lifted up when it flowers. Everyone wants that.’
The scent that came from the dress was very faint at first, then it grew stronger. The smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering. The smell of the sun and the smell of the rain. (185) The flamboyant tree recalls the orange tree that Rochester found when he was lost in the forest, and the flowers scattered around were those thought to be sacrifices to the zombie. When Antoinette smells the dress, she slowly begins to come back to life, for the scent of the Caribbean plants the seed of “something I must do” (187) which is to put Thornfield Hall to flame. In her article Sandra Drake describes how this scene depicts
Antoinette as a zombie that is reawakened and takes its revenge:
Frangipani, vetivert, cinnamon and lemon are all Caribbean salts which awake the zombie from its slumber. The red dress which Antoinette fears “they” have taken from her – the act which she calls “the last and worst thing,” to change its smell – steal the freeing salts which confirm her identity – she sees transmute itself, to flame;
and she identifies it, in the comment quoted, with the flamboyant tree. Antoinette converts Thornfield Hall itself into a flamboyant (flaming) tree; her own soul rises up as it “blooms.” 23 Earlier in the novel Antoinette mentions that there are two deaths, the real one and the one people know about. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s real death comes under the oppression of Rochester, symbol of English rule. She is colonized into a slave figure and thus enters a death-like sleep, a zombie state, just as her mother did. Upon closer inspection, the death is also the one imposed by Western literature through voicing the Other’s history instead of allowing the Other to tell her own history, as Sandra Drake also
Antoinette’s “real” death is not the demented suicide in the flames of Thornfield Hall.
That projected death is really the one “everyone knows about” – through reading Jane Eyre, the European colonizer’s writing of history, and of Antoinette’s history.
Her “real” death is her subjugation by Rochester – by the colonizer – the long slow process of her reduction to the zombie state chronicled in the novel. 24 Though the suicide is the death that everyone is familiar with in Jane Eyre, in Wide Sargasso Sea it is Antoinette’s coming back to life. She holds the flame colored dress Drake, “Race and Caribbean Culture as Thematics of Liberation,” 108.
(which contrasts the white dress images previously seen in the work) against herself and asks Grace Poole, “Does it make me look intemperate and unchaste?” (186). These words are taken directly from Rochester in Jane Eyre: “Bertha Mason, -- the true daughter of an infamous mother, -- dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.” This time, Antoinette is not reduced to becoming the infamous madwoman, because when she sees the flame colored dress on the floor it inspires her to act, which she does first in the form of a dream. As in Jane Eyre, Antoinette steals Grace Poole’s keys in order to roam the house, but she is frightened, not wishing to encounter “the ghost of a woman who they say haunts this place” (187). Antoinette does not realize that the ghost, of course, is herself. Her description as a ghost is another textual repetition in the novel.
Shortly before their departure to England, Rochester remarks, “She was only a ghost. A ghost in the grey daylight. Nothing left but hopelessness” (186). A ghost is what she is reduced to in Jane Eyre, one which Antoinette does not recognize, which makes her at once self and Other. But Antoinette will soon go beyond Jane Eyre’s legend, as I will explain. The fire begins when she lights several candles in order to fill the white room
with the color red:
It was a large room with a red carpet and red curtains. Everything else was white. I sat down on a couch and it seemed sad and cold and empty to me, like a church without an altar. I wished to see it clearly so I lit all the candles, and there were many…I looked round for the altar for with so many candles and so much red, the room reminded me of a church. Then I heard a clock ticking and it was made of gold.
Gold is the idol they worship (188).
White for England, red for the Caribbean, as Sandra Drake’s article affirms. When Antoinette sees the gold clock, her thoughts echo Christophine’s about the English and Emily Brontë, Jane Eyre (New York : Chelsea House Publishers, 1996), 302.
that their main concern is money. She thus separates herself from English belief and aligns herself with Christophine’s. As the room fills with red it becomes her Aunt Cora’s room, reinforcing the idea that red and flame transport Antoinette back to her island. She knocks down the candles and the fire spreads: “I laughed when I saw the lovely colour spreading so fast, but I did not stay to watch it. I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her – the ghost. The woman with the streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her” (188-89). Antoinette comes face to face with her own reflection which she recognizes as “the ghost.” She is surrounded by a gilt frame, which symbolizes many things. Gilder is a gold covering, which reminds the reader that gold is what the English revere, that “gold is the idol they worship.” Secondly, Antoinette is an image that is framed, which conjures the idea of a picture, such as that of the Miller’s daughter, the English picture that Antoinette once so admired and which is revisited later in the context of fire. Finally, Antoinette as Bertha is framed within the context of the mad Creole in Jane Eyre; she was previously limited to and trapped inside Brontë’s pages. In essence, she is surrounded by Englishness.
However, she peers into the glass and thinks, “but I knew her.” This time Antoinette is more; she is not “only a ghost” as Rochester previously stated. Her first glimmer of selfrecognition is in stark contrast to several other moments in the novel that include mirrors.
She sees Tia as an object in a mirror during the fire at Coulibri, yet is painfully aware that she is unlike her. She is unable to see herself at the convent because mirrors are forbidden. There are also no mirrors in the attic at Thornfield Hall, so Antoinette tries to
There is no looking glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried
The idea of mirrors is significant in the text as mirrors are linked to identity and Antoinette’s uncertainty about her own identity is shown through her interaction with mirrors. This is not a new concept, for the Lacanian view of “The Mirror Stage” indicates that the first perception one has of himself is a self-image through the recognition of the self in a mirror. This is part of what Patrick Hogan discusses in detail as “reflective identity” which he describes as “everything I think of myself, perceptually or conceptually – my visual self-image, my characterization of my feelings, thoughts, and acts.” The mirror provides the visual image, where one not only sees oneself but also what others see, which brings up another Lacanian moment, for self-perception is determined not only by visual image but also by what others think of you; hence part of one’s identity could be formed through the gaze of “The Other.” 27 It is easy to understand why Antoinette is conflicted if her identity involves the perception that others have of her; she is deemed a “white cockroach” by the black inhabitants of the island, a “white nigger” by whites, including her mother, and “alien” by English European standards. However, the mirror provides some sense of self, which is perhaps why Antoinette’s mother looked to the mirror with hope: “I got used to the solitary life, but my mother still planned and hoped – perhaps she had to hope every time she passed a looking glass” (18). The image in the glass is a symbol of hope, hope that is absent in
situations where Antoinette is stripped of her identity, as in Rochester’s malicious plan:
“She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile and at herself in that Hogan, Colonialism and Cultural Identity, 83.
Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1966-1971).
damnable looking glass” (168). Rochester’s plot mentions taking away the mirror, a tool which provides some sense of identity. As explained in the above passage, Antoinette never could fully identify with herself or with England, and her struggle as a white Creole in post emancipation Jamaica prevented a natural connection to the Caribbean. As a child, she saw her image yet did not know herself. But in the fire scene at Thornfield Hall, Antoinette does recognize herself in the gilt frame. The all important red dress will be another detail in the novel that shows Antoinette’s actions contradicting Rochester’s words – she will “dress up” and see herself in the glass. She not only sees herself but says she knows herself. Antoinette begins to distinguish her real self from the Other that was constructed from English literature, a construct that took her life away. She begins to connect to her Caribbean identity, which is remarkably shown through the Caribbean
images seen in the flames:
Then I turned around and I saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it. I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora’s patchwork, all colours, I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver and the soft green velvet of the moss and the picture of the Miller’s Daughter. I heard the parrot call as he did when he saw a stranger, Qui est là? Qui est là? And the man who hated me was calling too, Bertha! Bertha! The wind caught my hair and it streamed out like wings. It might bear me up, I thought, if I jumped to those hard stones. But when I looked over the edge I saw the pool at Coulibri. Tia was there.
She beckoned to me and when I hesitated she laughed…And I heard a man’s voice, Bertha! Bertha! … And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought, Why did I scream? I called ‘Tia!” and jumped and woke. (189) There are several things happening in this passage. It is, of course, a repetition of the fire at Coulibri, only this time Antoinette is the colonized figure who takes revenge on her English oppressor. Antoinette has been enslaved, and therefore can more easily identify to the people of the island because this history is now shared. Mary Lou Emery explores
this notion as Antoinette ignores Rochester’s calls and instead leaps:
She rejects “the man’s voice” and his name for her and chooses instead her black friend, rekindling their childhood ties through the wall of fire. She can make this choice, not because she has consolidated her character, but because she has lost and multiplied it, become enslaved, and thus joined the history of the blacks of the islands, learning from them traditional means of resistance. 28 This connection is perhaps why Antoinette calls out to Tia and why she jumps to her childhood friend. Though Brathwaite asserts that “Tia was not and never could have been her friend,” I argue that in Rhys’ fiction, with Antoinette’s experience as slave to Rochester, she can through a new historical understanding achieve a bond with the black Caribbean. As she says to herself earlier in the novel, in viewing the landscape, “This is my place and this is where I belong and this is where I wish to stay” (108). The return is achieved through the text, and I agree with Mary Lou Emery when she states that Rhys’ novel is not obligated to mirror historical “reality” but that it is a rewriting of canonical fiction: “He [Brathwaite] does not consider, however, the novel as a creative response to that history and to its eclipse in nineteenth century English fiction, a response written in another historical period of West Indian and colonial histories.” 30 To return to the fire, the images within the fire are significant, for all of the images of the Caribbean landscape that are so important to Antoinette reappear, thus reuniting her with the comforting elements of her past. The English elements, such as the carpet and chandelier, merge with the Caribbean but seem to be swallowed up by them as the focus is on island symbols and not on English ones. Additionally, throughout the novel, the color red, flame and fire are associated with the Caribbean and red fire is the consuming factor in the passage.
Emery, Jean Rhys at “World’s End,” 59.
Brathwaite, Contradictory Omens, 36.