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Emery, Jean Rhys at “World’s End,” 47 The Parrot as Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea The parrot image in the fire is a particularly significant symbol, one that the reader recognizes from the beginning of the novel as the family pet whose wings are clipped by Mr. Mason, representing Annette’s and subsequently Antoinette’s loss of freedom. This is proved by the fact that Mr. Mason, though he loves Annette, does not take her fears seriously, thus costing Annette her sanity and her property in Coulibri.
When the house is set on fire, it is the parrot that she wants to save from the blaze, which Mr. Mason will not allow. Therefore, the reader is treated to the ghastly image of a parrot aflame, attempting to, but of course, unable to fly, falling from the roof screeching “Qui est là!” (43). This scene recalls the fire scene in Jane Eyre, where Bertha, on the blazing roof, jumps to her death. In his article, “A Tale of Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys, and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry,” Graham Huggan explains how the parrot functions as a metaphor for mimicry, which he argues “is a strategy by which the Caribbean writers of different backgrounds seek to interrogate the European literary and cultural traditions which not only give shape to their own work, but also continue to exert considerable influence over the hybrid societies of the Caribbean region.” Wide Sargasso Sea mimics, but does not copy, Jane Eyre, and mimicry is used to imitate certain aspects of the canonical text yet makes modifications in this text to challenge it. 32 In part three, the parrot image is repeated, only it is Antoinette on fire, her hair aflame “like wings” which were metaphorically clipped by Rochester. However, Graham Huggan, “A Tale of Two Parrots: Walcott, Rhys, and the Uses of Colonial Mimicry,” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 643.
It is important to note Homi Bhabha’s influence on Huggan’s article. Bhabha’s essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” is among the first that treats the concept of mimicry in postcolonial literature.
Antoinette does not go down in flames, as the parrot (Bertha) did, she rises up, consistent with her wish “if you are buried under a flamboyant tree…your soul is lifted up when it flowers.” One page earlier, shortly after seeing her image in the mirror, Antoinette is described as running from the flames, but she is actually flying: “As I ran or perhaps floated or flew I called help me Christophine help me…” (189). Antoinette flies, like the parrot, calling out to the Caribbean influence Christophine, then jumps to meet her object of desire, the girl that she longs to be, Tia. While England burns behind her, Antoinette jumps to embrace the Caribbean.
There is a religious element to this scene as well, which, combined with the other religious images in the novel, strengthens the idea that Antoinette’s “death” in the flames reunites her with the Caribbean. In her Caribbean world, Antoinette’s caretakers have religious names – Christophine refers to Christ and Baptiste is a reference to John the Baptist. It is John the Baptist who in the book of Matthew mentions a baptism of fire, and traditionally, baptism signifies death and then rebirth. As previously discussed, Antoinette dismisses this Caribbean world in favor of Englishness, and her betrayal is evident when she pressures Christophine to give her the “love potion,” then rewarding the favor with money, the English idol, which Christophine rejects: “ ‘You don’t have to give me money. I do this foolishness because you beg me – not for money’ ” (117). This scene recalls two biblical episodes that detail a betrayal of Jesus: Peter, who denies him three times and is reminded of his sin by the cock’s crow; and Judas, who accepts money in exchange for his complicity in a plot to kill Christ. After coercing Christophine to
give her the obeah potion, Antoinette compares herself to the biblical figure: “Nearby a cock crew and I thought, ‘That is for betrayal, but who is the traitor?’ She did not want to do this. I forced her with my ugly money. And what does anyone know about traitors, or why Judas did what he did?” (118). Antoinette, as noted earlier, has already denied parts of her Caribbean past, such as her cousin Sandi. Now, Antoinette betrays Christophine 35 and follows Rochester to England, where she remains in her zombie state (the living dead) until the fire. Shortly before starting the fire she sits in the red room that reminds her of a church, but the gold clock reminds her of money, a false idol (188). Antoinette is then prompted to start the fire, and in the midst of these flames she calls to Christophine.
This fire can be seen to symbolize Antoinette’s baptism with fire, her death gives way to rebirth, and this rebirth is one that reunites her with Christophine and the Caribbean.
The fire scene without all of the above implications mimics the fire scene in Jane Eyre, yet the end result is quite different. As Huggan says in his article, “Mimicry, creolization – both provide means by which Caribbean writers such as Walcott and Rhys ‘answer back’ to the dominant metropolitan systems within which their own work is implicated.” 36 The difference between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea is that in Rhys’ work Antoinette wakes up in the midst of her fiery death, a significant diversion from the ending as told by Brontë. Since the fire came in the form of a dream, it does not signify the end of Antoinette as the fire in Jane Eyre signified the end of Bertha. Instead, Antoinette wakes, the final awakening of the zombie, but her intention is to carry out the actions in her dream: “Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I must do.
There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I
shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage” (190). For perhaps the first time, Antoinette speaks with determination and clarity.
Before, her questions were “what am I doing here?” and “who am I?” much like the parrot’s question, “Qui est là?” Now that she has come to terms with these questions, she has recognized her image and knows what it is, she has embraced her cultural difference in her Caribbean identity. Though it is a subtle detail, Rhys’ implementation of a draft that almost extinguishes her flame is important, because it once again represents the attempt of imperialism to stifle the voice of the Other. Antoinette’s flame, though, representing the red fire of the Caribbean, burns steadily under her protection and enables her to achieve “what I must do” which is to symbolically burn the canonical text to create room for the Creole one and defeat the plan to keep her story a secret. This nefarious plan is a result of the imperialism which is symbolized by Rochester’s intentions: “Very soon she’ll join the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough…I too can wait – for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie…” (172).
The intention is to silence the Other, which brings me to Spivak’s analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea, which claims that Antoinette remains within the confines of her attic prison.
Does the Subaltern Remain Silent? Spivak’s Critique of Wide Sargasso Sea Gayatri Spivak one of the most well-known critics in the field of postcolonial theory, and her essay “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” has a pessimistic view of Wide Sargasso Sea’s ending. Below is a particularly interesting
passage from the essay:
We can read this as having been brought into the England of Brontë ’s novel: “This cardboard house” – a book between cardboard covers – “where I walk at night is not England” (WSS, p. 148). In this fictive England, she must play out her role, act out the transformation of her “self” into that fictive Other, set fire to the house and kill herself, so that Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction. I must read this as an allegory of the general epistemic violence of imperialism, the construction of a self-immolating colonial subject for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer. At least Rhys sees to it that the woman from the colonies is not sacrificed as an insane animal for her sister’s consolidation. 37 Spivak contends that Rhys’ work, rather than giving a voice to the Other, actually
surprising, for Spivak’s many essays, most notably her “Can the Subaltern Speak,” conclude that the colonized subject is “irretrievably heterogeneous” and that attempts to liberate the Other or condemn imperialism ultimately serve to fortify the tradition of Otherness in the colonized subject. Consider what she writes about works like Wide Sargasso Sea, which attempt to tell the Other’s story: “No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self.” Spivak indicates that a
through the historical violence of colonization, a historical past that is unalterable, that the Other obtained its heterogeneity, for an Other can only be so when there is a self put up against it; it can only exist in the realm that names it Other. Stuart Hall also makes the point that for identity to exist, there must exist entities that are unlike the identical
Gayatri Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry 12, no. 1 (Autumn 1985) 251.
Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason.
Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” 253.
Moreover, they [identities] emerge within the play of specific modalities of power, and thus are more the product of the marking of difference and exclusion, than they are the sign of an identical, naturally-constituted unity – an ‘identity’ in its traditional meaning (that is, an all-inclusive sameness, seamless, without internal differentiation).
Above all, and directly contrary to the form in which they are constantly invoked, identities are constructed through, not outside, difference. This entails the radically disturbing recognition that it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, to what has been called its constitutive outside that the ‘positive’ meaning of any term – and that its ‘identity’ – can be constructed. 40 Therefore, if ones agrees that the self needs an Other to strengthen the self’s sense of identity, then one can understand how through Rhys’ critique of Jane Eyre, she immediately puts Antoinette in the position of Other, thus reaffirming the English self.
Spivak suggests that the work strengthens the imperialist cause in that it replicates the discourse that it is trying to refute, but that the end result is the same – the mad Creole’s suicide through fire that reinstates the triumph of British fiction. There is also the implication that little hope remains for the colonized subject to escape otherness. This is shown through her description of Antoinette trapped within the confines of the cardboard book and having to “play out her role,” the only difference being that at least the Creole is portrayed with more dignity in Rhys’ work.
Spivak’s argument is certainly compelling, her concept of the cardboard house as book covers is insightful, and her concept of otherness is true in that once the other is labeled Other, the process may be impossible to reverse. In terms of Rhys’ supposed servitude to imperialism, one can agree that from the moment Rhys picks up the pen, she enters into the Western literary tradition. I have already mentioned that the European influence in the West Indies is unquestionable, and the reader is well aware that Brontë’s Stuart Hall, Questions of Cultural Identity (London: SAGE Publications, 1996), 5.
Jane Eyre was the inspiration behind the work. However, for Spivak to suggest that the only redeeming difference between the Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre is that in the former Antoinette/Bertha is less monstrous, is a restrictive view which does not lend enough credit to the possibility of a Caribbean identity. There are several ways in which the Creole can be seen as the prevailing character in the story who surmounts the gruesome end given to her counterpart in Jane Eyre.
The first difference is that in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester, the Englishman, also becomes the “Other.” Certainly Antoinette feels otherness both in terms of the island and England, but in the beginning of part two she is in control. As I described in chapter one, it is she who must warn Rochester about the fire ants, the cooling weather, the local customs. Rochester feels alien and unsure of himself in the island’s wilderness and he must depend on his wife and the black inhabitants to direct him. He is painfully aware they do not respect him as an authority figure, and this inability to assert control incites a rage which fuels his hatred of Antoinette. By placing him against the Caribbean backdrop, Rhys creates an interesting reversal by making Rochester the fictive Other in a Caribbean work. Though Rochester attempts to seize control by bringing Antoinette back to British soil, I would argue that Antoinette’s act of setting Thornfield Hall aflame does not reinforce the imperialist self but rather vindicates the oppressed Other.
Antoinette does not merely “play out her role” by setting fire to the estate and killing herself. Though she is within the confines of the cardboard house, which Spivak interprets as the cardboard covers of a book (Jane Eyre), this book is burned, a striking image if the reader accepts Spivak’s interpretation. The result is that Jane Eyre burns to the ground to make room for the new Creole character emerging from the flames, one that contains a literary Caribbeanness, whose “soul is lifted up when it flowers” (185).