«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
While Spivak’s above passage suggests that there is a basis to look upon Christophine as “tangential,” it is important to recall that Christophine is the most independent woman in the novel. She is not tied to or dominated by a male figure, a sharp contrast to the white females, like Antoinette and her mother. Though Christophine was once a slave (a wedding present to Antoinette’s mother), she is now, as she states, a “free woman” (160). Again, the irony in the text is that the women who are not free are Antoinette and Annette, the white females. In the beginning of the novel, they are not free to leave their home, for they are so hated by the other island inhabitants that they fear leaving. Additionally, as described in chapters one and two of this dissertation, when they marry, they enter into a master/slave relationship with their husbands. Therefore, Annette is trapped within her own mind as she suffers from madness, and Antoinette is not “free” from Rochester until her revolt at the novel’s close.
Another example that makes Christophine a compelling figure among these women is that she is one of few in the novel who defy Rochester. As previously noted, Rochester is uncomfortable around Christophine and the other servants because he feels alien to island culture. Christophine’s identification with island culture intensifies these feelings of alienation. The fact that Rochester feels his authority is subverted plays into his desire to take Antoinette away with him to England. His contemplation of this plan leads to one of the longest dialogues in the novel, occupying twelve pages, and it is between him and Christophine. Her speech to him is candid and convincing; she rightly accuses Rochester of marrying Antoinette for money, of being jealous of her, of her mother being driven to madness and of Rochester repeating this same history with Antoinette (161). The idea of speech arises and is interesting in terms of Christophine’s
Christophine cannot read or write, she possesses rich linguistic ability, speaking English, French, and patois (21). This and “other things” suggest that Christophine possesses knowledge that is in no way inferior to what is important in Western tradition. As
Glissant affirms, writing must be cultivated with speech:
Car la seule manière selon moi de garder fonction à l’écriture (s’il y a lieu de le faire), c’est à dire de la dégager d’une pratique ésotérique ou d’une banalisation informatique, serait de l’irriguer aux sources de l’oral. Si l’écriture ne se préserve désormais des tentations transcendantales, par exemple en s’inspirant de pratiques orales et en les théorisant s’il le faut, je pense qu’elle disparaîtra comme nécessité culturelle des sociétés à venir. Comme le Même ne sera éteint dans les vivacités surprenantes du Divers, l’écriture se renferma dans l’univers clos et sacré du signe littéraire.
For the only way, to my mind, of maintaining a place for writing (if this can be done) – that is, to remove it from being an esoteric practice or a banal reserve of information – would be to nourish it with the oral. If writing does not henceforth resist the temptation to transcendence, by, for instance, learning from oral practice and fashioning a theory from the latter if necessary, I think it will disappear as a cultural imperative from future societies. As Sameness will be exhausted by the surprising dynamism of Diversity, so writing will be confined to the closed and sacred world of literary activity. 12 Christophine represents an oral component in the work that diversifies and nourishes Rhys’ text, and her presence contributes to its authenticity as a Caribbean novel. When Christophine’s presence is no longer in the text, Antoinette is in England trapped in her cardboard house which Spivak interprets to be the pages of Jane Eyre. It is interesting to apply Glissant’s above quotation to Brontë’s novel. It becomes clear that Antoinette is imprisoned in the British text and therefore, in what Glissant refers to as “the closed and sacred world of literary activity.” In this case, that “world” is synonymous with the Glissant, Le discours antillais, 193, and Glissant, Caribbean Discourse, 101.
Western tradition. As the reader is aware, Antoinette sets this world aflame, and in so doing, she calls out to Christophine for help (189). Therefore, Antoinette is leaving the closed world in order create a new text outside the canon and she calls to Christophine, the oral component, for help in achieving this purpose.
When Christophine turns away “without looking back” it is, as Spivak states, her last physical appearance in the novel, but it is not the last time the reader hears from Christophine. Not only does Antoinette call out to her near the novel’s conclusion, but Christophine’s argument with Rochester rings so true that it echoes in his mind when he attempts to make plans to entrap Antoinette, as I discussed in chapter two. Rochester obviously knows that Christophine has rightly guessed his motives; therefore he has trouble dismissing her voice from his thoughts, and this voice reinforces Christophine’s oral authority in the work. Although Christophine makes no more appearances in physical form, she is not so tangential that she is ignored throughout the remainder of the novel. Furthermore, as critic Benita Parry explains, it is fitting that Christophine exits the novel at this moment because she denies that England exists: “She blinked and answered quickly, ‘I don’t say I don’t believe, I say I don’t know, I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it’ ” (112). Christophine does not know England, and, as noted in chapter one, she, unlike Antoinette, is confident in her identity and therefore does not need to depend on England’s existence to support this identity. Christophine leaves the narrative just before part three which takes place in England. Benita Parry also disagrees with Spivak’s view that Christophine is a peripheral character, stressing that Christophine’s
exit makes sense:
In Spivak’s reconstruction, Christophine’s departure from the story after this declaration [“Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know” (133).] and well before the novel’s end, is without narrative and characterological explanation or justice. But if she is read as the possessor and practitioner of an alternative knowledge, then her exit at this point appears both logical and entirely in character. 13 It is true that Rhys’ novel concentrates on the predicament of the white Creole, which is a source of contention to many critics, who point out that the violence aimed at Afro Caribbeans resulted from this group. However, it is probable that Rhys develops characters such as Christophine, who were othered through colonialism and are now a more powerful presence in the novel, as a way to subvert the violent past. In his article, “The Place of Wide Sargasso Sea,” Peter Hulme refers to Christophine as a character who triumphs over history: “At the same time, foregrounding African-Caribbean protagonists (especially Christophine) in the way Charlotte Brontë would never do, and allowing them to speak and act as they do, Rhys implies that they are the historical victors without ever articulating that victory.” Christophine’s impatience with Antoinette’s passivity and her refusal to leave her husband further emphasizes the former’s position as independent and sets her up in opposition to Antoinette who is weak in comparison.
In regard to Rosario Ferré’s novel, critic Mary Ann Gosser Esquilin’s point of view is similar to that of Spivak’s. While she concedes that Afro Puerto Rican women are given more of a voice in the novel, Esquilin claims that these women are still marginalized characters who predominantly inhabit basements and kitchens, and that the text is problematic because it represents modern Puerto Rican society, a society that is still othering these women despite advancements for their race. As Spivak does with Christophine, Esquilin focuses on Petra as one of these marginalized figures, claiming Benita Parry, “Two Native Voices in Wide Sargasso Sea,” in Wide Sargasso Sea: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Judith Raskin (New York: Norton and Company, 1999), 249.
Peter Hulme, “The Place of Wide Sargasso Sea,” Wasafiri: Journal of Caribbean, African, Asian and Associated Literatures and Film 20 (Autumn 1994): 9.
that “most of the time she remains silent, in the background of the house and the plot of the manuscript.” 15 Esquilin makes some valid claims, most notably that the text is representative of today’s Puerto Rican society. However, there is nothing that is “problematic” about this fact. Ferré illustrates the problem of Puerto Rican society’s discrimination against these women, and it is precisely that she exposes the true nature of this society that makes her text a sympathetic one to marginalized figures. While Petra and her relatives are not the main characters (the elite) in the work, they demonstrate an integrity and mental fortitude lacking in the latter. Ironically, the main characters endure setbacks and suffering because of their own self-destructive racial discrimination. Quintín loses his son and his brother, because he will not allow them to marry into “black” blood, and this ultimately results in the loss of his own life. Furthermore, as author, Isabel reduces Quintín, and not Petra, to a tangential character, literally forces him into the margins of the text, and then eventually writes him out of it.
The text does not limit itself to exposing the marginalization of Afro Puerto Rican characters, but widens the scope to include the disadvantaged position of all Puerto Ricans. By including a strong political component to the novel, Ferré explores the idea of living under the colonial influence of the United States, and details the conflict that divides Puerto Ricans between those who desire Statehood and those in favor of Commonwealth status. Therefore most Puerto Ricans in the novel have identity issues, and are given the status of “Other” with respect to the U.S. As detailed in chapter two, one is labeled Other in the face of sameness, which is determined by the most powerful Esquilin, “Nanas Negras,” 57.
entity. In Puerto Rico’s case the latter is represented by the United States. In this way, The House on the Lagoon is similar to Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys focuses less on the disadvantages of the black native and more on the precarious situation of the white Creole. In so doing, the blacks that inhabit the island are depicted as more “self” than they are as “Other.” In The House on the Lagoon, elite Puerto Ricans like Isabel are conflicted by identity issues that stem from the colonial status of Puerto Rico, while characters such as Petra do not seem affected and are and appear comfortable with their identity. Here, a reversal is at work whereby the crisis of identity is experienced by those characters traditionally presented as dominant while the weak suffer no such internal conflict. A similar reversal is at work in Wide Sargasso Sea, as outlined above.
Petra’s position in the house is also a point of interest for Esquilin, who believes that although she is a strong figure, Petra’s living in the cellar nonetheless minimizes her space in the novel. On the contrary, Petra’s space in the novel is more important than Esquilin claims. It is Petra who is known to be the keeper of the secrets held at the house on the lagoon, which makes her an authoritative figure in the work. Isabel remarks on this authority when she visits Petra to learn the truth behind Ignacio’s suicide. She finds Petra in her usual space in the cellar, and the visit resembles a sacred journey to the
I wanted to talk to Petra; I was certain she’d be able to tell me the real story…I went down to the cellar and found Petra there, sitting in her old wicker chair. She was as massive and as enigmatic as ever, with her beaded necklaces wound around her neck.
She was peeling a manioc root, and it was difficult to distinguish her dark, knarled hands from the tuber’s knobby surface. I pulled up a stool next to her and she set the manioc root down with the knife on a table. For the first few minutes I didn’t say anything but just sat there in silence. Finally I sighed and put my head on her lap.
(290) Though Petra is the supposedly marginalized character in the novel, it is Isabel who, suppliant and humble, comes to her in search of truth. This scene may recall Wide Sargasso Sea’s Antoinette, who, at dawn, rides to Christophine’s house to seek out a remedy for her problem with Rochester. In both situations the Afro Caribbean woman is a commanding and authoritative figure; she possesses knowledge about things that béké cannot begin to understand. Petra says as much to Isabel: “ ‘There are secrets in the Mendizabal family you know nothing about, my child, ’ she said softly, shaking her head.
‘But I’m not the one to tell you about them’ ” (292). To view Petra’s space in the cellar as limiting is to minimize the symbolic nature of the basement as the foundation of the house. In this case, it represents so much more since the house is the basis for the novel, therefore Petra’s position in it takes on a double significance.
Finally, Esquilin finds it problematic that Petra’s voice emerges from a white author. This is certainly understandable; indeed, this dissertation treats the problem of the imperialistic tradition speaking for the marginalized Other. However, Puerto Ricans such as Rosario Ferré, as well as her characters like Isabel, would not necessarily be considered “white” by U.S. standards, by which any tint to the skin is a darkening, and not a lightening, of the race. Ferré illustrates this view at the beginning of her novel, when she describes the difficulty Puerto Ricans experienced in the U.S. and the discrimination they faced because of their color (25). In his article “Puerto Rico: The Pleasures and Traumas of Race,” Alan West-Durán also describes the differences in
determining skin color between the United States and Puerto Rico: