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In Rhys’ developing symbology, England provided the antithesis to “home,” an antihome. If Dominica was light, England was dark; if Dominica was warm, England was cold; if in Dominica the male seduction was “mental” and paid for with chocolates, in England it approached prostitution; if Dominica was dominated by the rejecting figure of Rhys’ mother, England proferred an endless line of hostile Wyndham, The Letters of Jean Rhys, 6.
Teresa O’Connor, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 72.
landladies; and if Rhys’ island suggested an expansiveness of the soul, England offered finite closure, infinitely. 3 The idea of England and Englishness first appears in Wide Sargasso Sea as a place of possible refuge and safety for Antoinette, but the novel soon depicts the country much like Jean Rhys describes it in her letters and autobiography – dark, cold, and hostile. Because England is for the colonial settler the “mother country,” it is natural for Antoinette to look to England as a possible home when she is shunned by the people of the island. However, just as Antoinette’s relationship with her mother is devoid of warmth, England also rejects Antoinette as daughter. In the following pages I will explore how Antoinette’s relationship with her mother is symbolic of her relationship with England and how Antoinette’s Caribbeanness contributes both to the divide between her, her mother, and the mother country.
The relationship that Antoinette has with her mother Annette is one without much dialogue or understanding, yet Antoinette fatalistically follows in her steps, marrying an Englishman, leaving the island, and succumbing to madness. Even before her mother suffers from madness she does not have an endearing relationship with Antoinette, favoring instead Pierre, her handicapped son. Antoinette reflects upon her mother’s demeanor: “I hated this frown and once I touched her forehead trying to smooth it. But she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she decided once and for all that I was useless to her” (20). When her mother does become ill, Antoinette goes to see her, and is once again pushed away: “Why you bring this child to make trouble, trouble, trouble? Trouble enough without that” (48). It is not completely clear why Annette is unloving towards her daughter, but Antoinette feels that her mother Ibid., 79.
is ashamed of her for her assimilation to the black Caribbean. The fact that the island people show hatred toward the family, and that the family is in financial ruins following emancipation, causes Annette to see the results of that hatred and financial despair in
Antoinette. Antoinette conveys this feeling to Rochester:
Then there was the day when she saw I was growing up a white nigger and she was ashamed of me, it was after that day that everything changed. Yes, it was my fault, it was my fault that she started to plan and work in a frenzy, in a fever to change our lives. Then people came to see us again and though I hated them and was afraid of their cool, teasing eyes, I learned to hide it. (132) Antoinette embodies the idea of dislocation for her mother; she is evidence of their poverty, their alienation and their desolation. At some point Annette turns to England to remedy the situation, in the form of a new, English husband. Mr. Mason rescues the family from poverty but cannot save them from the people’s hatred. His “Englishness” and racism are clear in his underestimation of the potential violence of the people. For instance, he refuses Annette’s pleas to leave Coulibri, believing that the natives are childlike people who pose no threat to their lives: “Live here most of your life and know nothing about the people. It’s astonishing. They are children – they wouldn’t hurt a fly” (35). Mr. Mason’s tone is paternalistic and is representative of England as the imperialistic authority that views other islands, races, and peoples as insignificant.
Antoinette and her mother know that the opposite is true and that the people could pose a threat, and their viewpoint demonstrates that they do not fully connect to England. As white Creoles, they are different, as illustrated when Antoinette ponders Mr. Mason’s naïve view of the Caribbean. Her thoughts separate her from English people: “none of you understand us…I wish I could tell him that out here is not at all like English people think it is” (30). Despite the knowledge that she is different, Antoinette still longs to equate England with comfort and though she sees the disparity between herself and Mr.
Mason, she sees his presence as positive:
Then I looked across the white tablecloth and the vase of yellow roses at Mr. Mason, so sure of himself, so without a doubt English. And at my mother, so without a doubt not English, but no white nigger either. Not my mother. Never had been. Never could be. Yes, she would have died, I thought, if she had not met him. And for the first time I was grateful and liked him. There are more ways than one of being happy, better perhaps to be peaceful and contented and protected…(36) England is seen as protection for English descendants, and Mr. Mason is seen as the protector and rescuer. Though they are not completely English, Antoinette feels that England will protect her family, convincing herself that her mother would have died without his help. But as the reader knows, Mr. Mason’s actions, or inaction, leave the family unprotected and this inaction ultimately leads to Annette’s death. These events offer a glimpse of an England that provides little safety for those who do not fully belong, and this idea is completed when Antoinette is treated cruelly by her English husband and when she returns to her mother country, which I will discuss below.
Antoinette’s desire to have a close relationship with her mother is developed in parallel with to her wish to have a relationship with England. She looks at England as an alternative when she feels rejected by her beloved island, and this idealized view of England surfaces even at the beginning of the novel. Her favorite picture is of an English girl “the Miller’s Daughter’’ (36), and when her marriage with Rochester worsens, she actually believes that England could be a place of refuge. Not surprisingly, she imagines an England with beautiful and natural scenery, a setting comparable to her island, to
convince herself that England is a place of light:
Cool green leaves in the short cool summer. Summer. There are fields of corn like sugar-cane fields, but gold colour and not so tall. After summer the trees are bare, then winter and snow. White feathers falling? Torn pieces of paper falling? They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, I must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow. (111) The combination of summer and winter, of images such as cane fields with snow, demonstrate both that Antoinette is a hybrid – not fully English nor fully Carribean; and that she is quite ignorant of England’s reality. Antoinette has a need to identify with England, though it is clear by this passage that even as she romanticizes the country, she cannot suppress a feeling of danger associated with the place. This is why she says, “I will dream the end of my dream…but I must not think like this” (111). Antoinette’s frightening dreams are always of a foreboding place which she refuses to admit is England, for it is painful to accept that Antoinette’s mother country, through the character of Rochester, has contributed to colonizing her and making her a slave. In contrast, Christophine, who has a strong identity and is likened to a surrogate mother to Antoinette, questions that a place such as England exists: “Why you want to go to this cold thief place? If there is this place at all, I never see it, that is one thing for sure” (112). Critic Judith Raskin attributes Christophine’s rejection of England to the fact that she does not need a different place in which to ground her identity: “In contrast to Antoinette’s persistent desire for an allegiance to this place, England, Christophine recognizes that England is as much a construct of “belief” as of “knowledge” or truth.
Unlike the white Creole, she asserts her identity as separate from its existence.” Christophine realizes that Antoinette is using England as a fantasy, that Antoinette’s conception of England is a false one which will not provide her with the comfort she is
Judith Raskin, Snow on the Canefields: Women’s Writing and Creole Subjectivity (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 151.
seeking. However, since Antoinette, as Raskin concludes, is unable to belong to the people and culture of Jamaica, she clings to her ancestry in hopes of finding a space that will accept her. She attempts to go home, only to find that “home” is just as Christophine described, a cold thief place that threatens to destroy any shred of self that belonged to Antoinette.
Rochester’s relationship with Antoinette and the island reveals that she does not really belong to her mother country though she is of English descent. Instead, Antoinette’s return to the mother country defines her displacement most clearly and this section of the novel is filled with the most despair. Throughout the work, Antoinette has several dreams that foreshadow the danger England represents, yet she will not consciously admit that England is unwelcome territory. Antoinette’s first dream occurs early in the novel, when she is still living in Coulibri. In this dream she is in a forest: “I dreamt that I was walking in the forest. Not alone. Someone who hated me was with me, out of sight. I could hear heavy footsteps coming closer and though I struggled and screamed I could not move. I woke crying” (26). When Antoinette wakes from her nightmare, her mother, another figure who hates her, is standing over her. It is only thoughts of “the tree of life, the barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains” (27) that comfort her and assure her that she is safe. In other words, it is not England, her mother country, nor her actual mother, who protects her. Only the island and its natural surroundings offer consolation.
Antoinette’s second dream, which occurs when she is living in the convent, further confirms that England is a hostile place. It is no coincidence that this dream happens just after a visit from her stepfather, whose goal is to see Antoinette married to his brother, Rochester. His presence disrupts the peace Antoinette feels in the cocoon of the convent, a matriarchal place of maternal warmth and safety. In contrast, Mr. Mason is a danger to that safety. Just as he is the immediate cause of Annette’s suffering, Mason is also the catalyst for Antoinette’s doomed marriage. Her second dream seems to be a
continuation of the first, but Antoinette ends up somewhere else:
Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. 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. This must happen. We are now under the tall dark trees and there is no wind…We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees…(60) Antoinette appears to be in a wedding dress, which represents her marriage, and is following her betrothed (Rochester). The trees are “different trees,” which indicate that she is in a different place, away from her comfortable surroundings. The fact that she makes no effort to save herself foreshadows her voyage to England with Rochester, for when they leave the island she does not protest or refuse, and she does not listen to Christophine’s earlier warnings to leave. Later in the dream, there are “stairs leading upwards” which should remind the reader of the attic in Thornfield Hall. When she wakes up she tells the nun she has dreamed of Hell, not realizing that the place she had been dreaming of is England. However, the reader sees the prophecy and understands that Hell is synonymous with England and that rather than being a place of refuge, it is a place of oppression and confinement. This dream is further evidence that Antoinette is displaced; she is an unloved daughter in her mother country. In her book Raskin also analyzes Antoinette’s transition from fanciful notions that England would welcome her
home to the grim truth that her nightmares have become a reality:
Antoinette finds that her place of escape is also her place of imprisonment; her dream of an England of snow, cornfields, and millers’ daughters progressively becomes her dream of violence and destruction. Each time Antoinette has her dream, England becomes more menacing and she becomes more active. This “dream” is never referred to as her “nightmare” for by the end of Wide Sargasso Sea the violence is visited upon the English institution (Thornfield Hall) and English literature (Jane Eyre) is the dream of the awakened and furious colonized figure. 5 The violence Raskin speaks of begins in Antoinette’s last dream, which occurs in England while she is trapped in Thornfield Hall. At this point Antoinette, though she was never accepted by her mother, has essentially become her mother. Annette loses hope when her son dies from the fire in Coulibri, and Mr. Mason’s solution is to leave her in the hands of caretakers who abuse her. In Antoinette’s case, Rochester is the Englishman who replaces Mr. Mason, and though he promises Antoinette protection, he rejects her as he realizes how different, how non-English she is. Rhys employs repetition to connect Antoinette to her mother as they both enter the world of “madness.” It is important to note that the idea that they are mad is questionable from Rhys’ point of view. What the English determine as “mad” is in Rhys’ novel a response to being ill-treated and unloved.