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Christophine says, “They drive her to it…They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad. Question, question…In the end – mad I don’t know – she give up, she care for nothing” (157). When Annette and Antoinette begin to feel hopeless, they are described in almost identical terms. Early in the novel, Antoinette notices her mother’s frown: “A frown came between her black eyebrows, deep – it might have been cut with a knife” (20), and later, Rochester notices the same expression on Antoinette’s face: “The cold light was on her and I looked back at the sad droop of her lips, the frown between her thick eyebrows, deep as if it had been cut with a knife” (138). Mother and daughter experience the same fate when they try to save themselves in the form of a relationship Raskin, Snow on the Canefields, 148.
with their mother country through their marriages to English men. Inevitably, the English side betrays them. Antoinette is unwilling to admit this, and when she sees that Rochester is pulling away, she tries even harder to connect with him, going so far as to use obeah as a love potion. As Christophine warns, this method is only reserved for islanders, not for béké. As she predicts, the plan backfires and Rochester has even more hatred for her and in his revenge, takes her away to England. This is part three of the novel, and Antoinette’s experience in England very clearly shows the reader that her mother country offers no protection.
When Antoinette is trapped in the attic in Thornfield Hall, she refuses to acknowledge that she is in England, telling her keeper, Grace Poole, “I don’t believe it…and I will never believe it” (183). The idea that Antoinette’s mother country has renounced her “daughter” is too painful for Antoinette to bear; it is easier to deny that she has returned. Once again the idea of England as a menace appears in the form of a dream, which is when Antoinette is most active. In the dream, she sets fire to the house and in so doing, reenacts the fire at Coulibri. At Coulibri the oppressed people, enraged at the former slave owners, use their power to burn the estates. Similarly, Antoinette represents the oppressed slave who takes revenge on her English oppressors, England and Rochester. This position is one that she could not assert in Coulibri, where she was considered the colonizer. The fire, therefore, could be seen as an act of triumph on her part, rather than an act of self-destruction. I will discuss this idea in chapter two, when I examine the idea of intertextuality in Wide Sargasso Sea. The concentration here is on the idea of Antoinette taking revenge on her mother country. During her fantasy dream of England, I mention that Antoinette merges island images with English ones and this characterizes her confusion involving her double culture. Similarly, in the fire dream, Antoinette again sees images that merge her island and England into one, as if the two worlds to which she does not fully belong are both being destroyed. “I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboo and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver, and the soft green velvet of the moss on the garden wall” (189).
For Antoinette, the return to England has only caused more suffering in her life, suffering caused by failed relationships, whether it be with a husband, with a mother, or with a place. Through her suffering in Thornfield Hall, she conjures images of the past to comfort her, though her true experience of that past was also one of anguish. Earlier, when feeling rejected by the islanders, Antoinette was nostalgic for England, a fanciful and non-existent place. She creates a relationship that she does not have with her mother country, and then, upon its rejection of her, Antoinette re-creates nostalgia for Jamaica.
For example, in the final dream she sees Tia, a childhood friend who betrayed her, which demonstrates Antoinette’s desperate wish for a connection to her island home. In his article, “Nostalgia and Narrative Ethics in Wide Sargasso Sea,” John Su comments on how the depth of regret depicted in Wide Sargasso Sea defines nostalgia in a historical
If Said’s history depends on narrative to transform our interpretation of events, its truth claims still depend upon evoking actual historical occurrences. In contrast, history in Wide Sargasso Sea is defined by images of communities never formed, empathy never felt, suffering never shared – in other words, history is defined by what never occurred. Antoinette, Tia, Rochester, and Jane all are submitted to cruelty on the basis of race or gender or primogeniture, but only Rochester and Jane form anything resembling a satisfying relationship. Our awareness of lost opportunity becomes clearer only because of Rhys’ poignant depictions of communities that never were. 6 John Su, “Once I Would Have Gone Back…But Not Any Longer”: Nostalgia and Narrative Ethics in Wide Sargasso Sea,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44, no. 2 (Winter 2003) : 166.
I agree with Su’s idea that Antoinette’s history, notably her English history, is characterized by nostalgic notions of things that have not actually happened and will not happen. This is ironic, considering her future is defined by nightmares that do come to life. This idea creates a reversal in a literary context, for normally it is the Caribbean culture that has been dealt the hand of a “non-histoire” that I will further detail in chapter two, in as much as the Caribbean had previously been defined by Westerners. However, Su’s statement that Jane and Rochester have what resembles a “satisfying relationship,” is dubious. By Rhys’ negative portrayal of Rochester, she calls into question what type of husband Rochester can be to a wife, be it a Creole or an English wife. And though Jane is not a presence in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys’ portrayal of Antoinette is suspiciously close to Jane’s experience as a child depicted in Jane Eyre. In Brontë’s work, Bertha and Jane were seen in opposition to each other, but in Rhys’ version the reader is able to see similarities in the two women that present them as doubles. In Jane Eyre the reader sympathizes with the fact that Jane was an orphan, that Jane was locked up in the “Red Room” and mistreated by her aunt. In Wide Sargasso Sea the reader now has an opportunity to sympathize with Antoinette and her feeling of alienation, because she too is orphaned, forced into exile, and locked in the attic of a house with red curtains. 7 Antoinette has been rejected by her mother, her English ancestry, and her mother country, and perhaps she is now seen as a sister to Jane and is given a chance to be accepted by the reader. Though within the pages of the novel Antoinette only has history through nostalgia of non-events, it is through the text that Rhys offers to Caribbean literature the life and history of the madwoman. Antoinette wakes from her
Mary Lou Emery’s Jean Rhys at "World's End": novels of colonial and sexual exile. (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1990) also draws parallels between Jane and Antoinette.
dream thinking, “Now I know what I must do” (190). The determination expressed in the narrative voice could be Rhys’ resolve to tell the madwoman’s story.
The West Indian Landscape of Wide Sargasso Sea While the first part of Wide Sargasso Sea focuses on Antoinette’s inability to identify with the island people, the second half focuses on her inability to identify with England, which is demonstrated through her relationship to Rochester. This separation from England is partially defined by him, for he clearly sees how different and nonEuropean Antoinette is. It is Antoinette’s otherness that ultimately leads to the demise of their relationship, and her connection to the natural surroundings of the island contributes to this otherness. In an effort to draw nearer to Rochester, Antoinette begins to forsake elements of her Caribbeanness. According to Glissant, it is a problem for the Caribbean to look outside the community and to assimilate to a European model. He incorporates the importance of landscape in this belief and supports the idea that if one is alienated
from the Caribbean then he/she is also alienated from the land:
Le rapport à la terre, rapport d’autant plus menacé que la terre de la communauté est aliénée, devient tellement fondamental du discours, que le paysage dans l’œuvre cesse d’être décor ou confident pour s’inscrire comme constituant de l’être. Décrire le paysage ne suffira pas. L’individu, la communauté, le pays sont indissociables dans l’épisode constitutif de leur histoire.
The relationship with the land, one that is even more threatened because the community is alienated from the land, becomes so fundamental in this discourse that landscape in the work stops being merely decorative or supportive and emerges as a full character. Describing the landscape is not enough. The individual, the community, the land are inextricable in the process of creating history. 8 Édouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (Paris : Éditions de Seuil, 1981), 199, and Édouard. Glissant, Caribbean discourse : selected essays. Translation by J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 105.
Though Antoinette does not fully belong to the Caribbean, her desperate attempt at full Englishness results in an alienation from the land in which she grew up. This alienation can be viewed in conjunction with Glissant’s cautioning not to abandon the land. Antoinette’s rejection of the Caribbean will be examined further in chapter two.
This section treats the relationship between Rochester and Antoinette and its association to landscape.
Kenneth Ramchand’s book The West Indian Novel and its Background provides one of the earliest readings on Wide Sargasso Sea. Though his treatment of the work is little more than intensive plot summary (for the book is rather dated), his interpretation pays close attention to Antoinette’s relationship to the land, specifically when she and her new husband journey to their honeymoon house: “On the simplest level, we and the husband (with whose narration Part II opens) are made to see Antoinette’s ‘blank face’ and protective indifference giving way to animation as they move on the long journey through virgin land to the cool remote estate in the hills, farther and farther away from the scenes of her earlier distress.” Ramchand’s reading of Antoinette’s involvement and subsequent disillusionment with the landscape are part of what he labels as a “terrified consciousness” that White West Indians experienced as a result of decolonization. Other critics view Rhys’ colorful implementation of the landscape as evidence that Wide Sargasso Sea is a fully West Indian novel. For example, Wally Look
Lai claims that the function of the landscape in the work earns its stature as West Indian:
“The West Indian setting, far from being incidental, is central to the novel: it is not that it provides a mere background to the theme of rejected womanhood, but rather that the Kenneth Ramchand, The West Indian Novel and its Background (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), 234.
theme of rejected womanhood is utilized symbolically in order to make an artistic statement about West Indian society and the aspect of West Indian experience.” According to Look Lai, Rhys is successful in not simply describing the landscape but making it a fundamental part of her work. Antoinette’s connection to the land also rouses Rochester’s hostility towards her, and her need to quell this hostility leads her to abandon this land. Rochester’s striking lack of affinity to island culture is one of the first signs that he will not adapt to his new life in Jamaica. From the beginning, he is uneasy with the lush surroundings, describing the island as a place that is “not only wild but menacing” (69) and overwhelmed with color: “Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (70). It is likely that Rochester’s original intentions did not include coming to the island to take control over Antoinette, but that he succumbs to rage when he realizes he has control neither over the island nor its inhabitants. In a landscape that is so diverse from his own, Rochester cannot assert any authority whatsoever as a white European and this causes him to despise the island and his wife for her association to its beauty. Delia Konzett’s book, Ethnic Modernisms,
analyzes Rochester’s lack of control :
Rochester, as the scene from the wedding ceremony shows, knows that he can at best give a good performance of white respectability but ultimately remains as unconvinced of his assumed mask as the black locals. Mastery is reduced to a weak assertion of status and in the end Rochester will come to realize the absolute hollowness of his identity as an Englishman. Moreover, he learns that mastery is not only an illusion but also something altogether unattainable, leading him to an irrational hatred of Antoinette and Jamaica. 11 Wally Look Lai, “The Road to Thornfield Hall,” New Beacon Reviews, 1 (1968) : 40.
Delia Caparso Konzett, Ethnic Modernisms: Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the aesthetics of dislocation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 137.
The frustration that Rochester experiences is intensified through Antoinette’s understanding and familiarity of the island. It is Antoinette who educates Rochester on how to prepare for his new surroundings: she instructs him to put his coat on when they are riding into a cooler climate (70), and to watch out for fire ants when he bathes (86).
She also chases away a giant crab with a rock that she throws “like a boy” (87).
Rochester’s authority is therefore undermined by Antoinette’s knowledge of the Caribbean. He admits as much to her: “ ‘I feel very much a stranger here,’ I said. ‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side’ ” (129).