Obeah, Black Magic and the Supernatural

Whilst reading ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the theme of supernatural attracted my attention as it appeared to inflict a large amount of fear upon the characters in the novel, particularly the dark magic Obeah (which is known to the French-speaking Caribbean as “voodoo”). Its main practitioner is Christophine – Annette’s servant and Antoniette’s nurse – who causes worry to those who come into contact with her. Obeah is a folk religion that is native to the Caribbean and casts a large shadow over the novel – though it is arguable that the obeah magic doesn’t even work. The supernatural element is separated from any of the traditional concepts of God which provides a start contrast to the traditional, God-centered Supernatural forces that are present in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Instead of causing fear to people through the actual achievements of magic, it causes people tobe afraid from what it’s rumored to do. The Haitian revolution is said to have been started off from a voodoo ceremony that led to the practitioners of obeah being put into prison as they were thought to have encouraged the slave rebellion. Obeah is often juxtaposed with Christian beliefs in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which began various questions on how the different systems of belief work. Christophine says,

“so you believe in that tim-tim story about obeah, you hear when you so high? All that foolishness and folly. Too besides, that is not for béké. Bad, bad trouble come when béké meddle with that.”

She is being disingenuous in this section as she refuses to give Antoinette the obeah potion but then ends up giving it to her. She also explains how she has been put in prison by the bèkès (the white people) for her practicing of obeah. (Associated with slave mutinies). Christophine says how bad “trouble” comes from that, which echoes the beginning of the novel referring to the damages that were caused by the Emancipation Act, which other members of the blog have touched upon so I won’t go into detail to explain it.

As others have also mentioned, the novel uses many of the same techniques that is also used in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. However, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ puts its own twist on the Gothic elements that are presented in Brontë’s novel. Antoniette, much like Jane Eyre, is connected to the spiritual world as it gives her awareness that the rest of the characters seem to lack; it is as though she is able to predict her future making it seem like there is something that is not part of the physical world that makes her envision this. At the section of the novel when Antoinette is about to get married, she gets close to withholding the wedding, but yet when Rochester asks why, she simply replies,

“I’m afraid of what may happen”

as though she is already aware that their marriage is not going to work and it is going to end badly and has a psychic element about her. Rochester also gives the impression that he knows there is something mystical about her,

“is she trying to tell me that is the secret of this place? There is no other way? She knows. She knows”

showing that he is aware Antoinette knows – or can sense things – that other people cannot and this threatens him.

As stated before, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s critical piece of feminist work titled ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ had actually been written with Antoniette in mind and the way in which she had been presented in ‘Jane Eyre’. As mentioned in Amy’s post, Glibert and Gubar voice their disapproval on the element of fiction of the idea that female characters are only able to conform to two different stereotypes: the pure angelic woman and the corrupted monster. When reading ‘Jane Eyre’, it was clear to me that Rochester viewed Jane as being the perfect angelic angel to him and Antoniette was looked upon as being his monster. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, however, it was obvious to me that the majority of times it wasn’t clear as to what Antoniette’s character was and it didn’t come across as there was only the two different stereotypes for women. As Antoniette is a creole (white person born in the Caribbean – refer back to Alan’s post for more information on Creole Identity), she can often be looked upon as being high up, then other times her race can have people look down upon her (Tia when she calls her a “white cockroach”). Jane Eyre is often looked upon as being a higher person and is portrayed as being the angelic and ideal woman whilst Antoniette is treated badly, displaying how there was a stereotype that decided how different people should be treated in a different way all because of who they are and the race that they are.

Another theme that I’m going to touch up on before I end things is ‘The Origin of Genres’ by Tzvetan Todorov. In this text, Maurice Blanchot stated how he believes there is no “distinction between genres” anymore. He believes that all novels and books have now became one and genres no longer have their own individuality any longer. Todorov does not support Blanchot in his beliefs that genres no longer exist and there is no “distinction between” them. This is made quite clear in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as it shows the Gothic elements in the novel as it has ghosts, black magic and obeah, dreams and zombies. It is also made clear that it is a Post-Modern text as it contains slavery (though they had been set free at this point) and integrates multiple voices and blurs the difference between reality and dreams.

Bibliography 

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Jean Rhys

‘The Origin of Genres’, Tzvetan Todorov

‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Antoinette as ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’

As Ilsa outlined in her post on race, Wide Sargasso Sea focused on the time after The Emancipation Act; a time when the abolition of slavery caused interracial tensions to arise. These tensions come into play in the labeling of Antoinette as ‘mad’. Immediately after reading Wide Sargasso Sea I noticed 

Image result for wide sargasso sea

the similarities between an encounter with Tia, and Antoinette’s inner monologue during her isolation.

“When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.”

This first quote is taken from the beginning of the book, an obvious comment on the tensions resulting from the Emancipation Act. Here, Tia (the daughter of a former slave) rejects Antoinette (the daughter of a former slave-owner). Despite the friendship between the two characters, differing racial identities caused undeniable friction. Antoinette’s desire for acceptance took a powerful hit in this scene and caused a kind of self-examination shown in Rhys’ comparison to a looking-glass. The mirroring between the two characters (the blood and tears) seems to be a metaphor for their relationship in that the opposition has caused different but comparable types of pain, a rejection of both parties.

I am aware Alan has briefly touched upon this scene in his post on Creole identity, so I will now focus my analysis on the next mention of a looking-glass.

Rhys’ allusion to a looking-glass, interestingly enough, is repeated in the final part of the book, again bringing Antoinette’s racial identity into focus; allowing the reader a moment to reflect on the events of the story and how the rejection of her racial identity could contribute to her so-called ‘madness’.

“Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking glass. There is no looking glass here and I don’t know what I am like now… Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?”

It is obvious in this scene Antoinette is again questioning her identity – much like after the rejection from Tia – however, the main difference here is she seems to be experiencing a complete loss of identity; the mourning of who she used to be and a questioning of who she is now. Here, there is no looking-glass to reassure her.

Rhys’ use of the mirror as the personification of Antoinette’s (or Bertha’s as it overlaps with the events of Bronte’s Jane Eyre) mental stability is an incredibly useful tool that allows the reader to track the progress over the course of the book.

Roland Barthes’ Theory

As we know by now, Barthes differentiates between readerly and writerly texts, essentially claiming a readerly text is one in which a reader can take on a passive role, while a writerly text engages the reader and requires them to be active in their reading.

In her post on race, Ilsa has labeled Wide Sargasso Sea as a writerly text due to the elaborate narrative. Though I agree with her assessment, I must point out an opposing point of view to ensure all paths are being explored.

Barthes outlines the difference between readerly and writerly texts in his essay S/Z:

Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text. […] Opposite the writerly text, then is its countervalue, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text.

Though it would be foolish to sideline Wide Sargasso Sea as what Barthes calls a readerly text, it must be acknowledged that the reader could take a passive role if desired. That said, in order to truly appreciate Rhys’ work the reader must be open to differing interpretations of the text.

For instance, while I am exploring how Antoinette’s racial identity affects how she became literature’s archetypal ‘madwoman in the attic’ (as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre), it is possible to push this to the side and explore other reasoning behind the label of ‘madness’.

‘The Madwoman in the Attic’

It would be remiss of me to not mention Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s book of feminist theory entitled The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Although this book does not directly address Wide Sargasso Sea, it does offer analysis of Antoinette’s inspiration, Bertha Mason as shown in Jane Eyre.

I must acknowledge, again, Amy has briefly touched upon this book in her post on marriage.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar address the issue of femininity versus masculinity and how this representation affects the individual.

“May not Bertha, Jane seems to ask herself, be a living example of what happens to the woman who [tries] to be the fleshy vessel of the [masculine] elan?”

One major downfall of referencing this particular book of feminist theory is the age of the work. While this book may be invaluable to a reading of Jane Eyre, it falls short on usefulness for the analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea due to the authorial differences between Rhys and Bronte.

For instance within Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is described as overtly masculine and almost monsterous in her stature, while Antoinette only fits this description due to the removal of her identity in the form of feminine clothes; her dresses.

That is not to say that The Madwoman in the Attic cannot be useful when reading Rhys’ novel, one must simply be aware of the downfalls that accompany using theory that precedes the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea.

This brings us to the end of Antoinette as ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’. I am acutely aware of the limitations of using such a medium to express the depth of information needed to fully understand this book. However, I hope I have given you some interesting points to consider when reading this book.

Bibliography

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. London: Cape, 1975.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, (New Haven Yale University Press, United States, 1979).

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin UK, 2001.

The consuming idea of power in women.

When reading ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ I come across some interesting points about the link between power in womanhood.  Jean Rhys looks at the financial stability women have on the men around them.  For men in the novel, marriage is seen as a way into holding more power over women because they can gain access to their wives’ inheritance.  Even though as readers we are not given an exact on the time the novel is set in, we know that it is set in Jamaica some point after 1834 which gives us an idea of the social and wealth restrictions women faced.  There is a question as to whether women have power over each other in novel or whether they play against each other to feel like they have power.  An example of this is at the start of the novel when we realise that Antoinette’s does not have a good relationship with her Mother Annette and is isolated for most of her childhood years ‘She has an old muslin dress. Find that.’ RHYS JEAN, WIDE SARGASSO SEA (1,1,11).  By Antoinette’s mother speaking about her daughter is such a hostile tone conveys the lack of maternal instinct Annette has as she is asking someone else to help dress her own child.  Despite Annette handing out orders to someone who is considered as a much lower class to her which would appear that she holds power in this situation.  It in fact highlights the lack of power she holds. Annette is telling someone what to do who is as a much lower class to herself which does not indicate power because she is not able to tell someone what to do in the same or higher social class of herself.  Another example of Annette thinking she has a lot of power is that she is unable to care for her daughter on her own and become under pressure when trying to do so.  The action verb ‘find’ shows that her tone is aggressive yet insecure with her own authority as she is unable to help her own daughter change clothes.  As mentioned previously we are aware that the time the novel was set in, it was a very traditional theme; Mothers would stay at home and care for their children and in this scenario, Annette is unable to do the basic skill of being a mother.  She shows no maternal support.  This refers to the point I made that women do not hold any power they just like to think they do because they are so consumed under the pressure they face from their husbands and societies expectations of being a perfect wife and mother.  This idea links to a theorist called Wareing and how language and power are split into three different types of power: political, personal and social.  In this case Annette is power is mainly social and personal.  Social because society has created certain rules to follow that all men are much higher, and superior compared to women and they should do whatever a man tells them to do no matter what class background they are born into.  It also fits into personal because she is finding the lack of power extremely restraining and is trying to create her own sense of power by telling people from a lower social class to her what to do.  In the time the novella was set it would have not been powerful telling someone less inferior than yourself what to do instead this would convey no power what so ever.  By Rhys introducing Antoinette’s Mother in this way she proves that women in the novel like to believe they hold power over each other when in fact they do not, it just makes them look weaker by exploiting their vulnerability.

Another point we get to see the lack of power in women is when Antoinette becomes confused with her identity and who should be ‘I will write my name in fire red, Antoinette Mason, née Cosway, Mount Calvary Convent, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1839. (2) Even though the use of symbolism and colour and fire symbolises strength and courage the reader can read this as Antoinette putting on a façade that she powerful and knows who she is.  However, the fact that she uses both of her names tells us that she is not confident with who she is at all and throughout the novel we know that she always listens to what people think she is rather than who she believes she is, even when her husband is telling her she is insane she thinks that she is not but will not do anything tell people who she really is.  We can argue that she does this because she knows her place in society and that people will not listen to her because it is the word of the man what people believe but tries to claim back some sort of power by juxtaposing herself with the strength symbolism.  By doing this we do feel great sympathy towards all women in the novel because we can see how much they are suffering with not having a voice and how the men in their lives can really damage their reputation and feelings by being able to create fake characters.  This links to the theory of Lakoff (Robin) 1975 as he says women use hedges, fillers, speak less and more intensifiers and this makes women look less inferior and prevents women from being taken seriously.  The novel does support this theory because as a reader can see that women hold no power and he fact Antoinette is thinking she is talking with power and confidence know it is just an act of desperation to prove to others that she can be who she wants and no one else can define who she is.  Also, this be an attempt to reassure herself that she is more than what people say is.  Overall, Rhys and we know it is sad because people do not think she is powerful and almost laugh at her and again this furthers the point that women do not hold any power and men control their sense of characters and identities.

 

References:

RHYS JEAN, WIDE SARGASSO SEA (1,1,11).

Rhys Jean Wide Sargasso Sea.  (I.2.4.1)

 

 

 

Desire, Sex and Power versus Love, Romance and Equality-Representations of Marriage within Wide Sargasso Sea

Desire, Sex and Power versus Love, Romance and Equality- Representations of Marriage within Wide Sargasso Sea

 

During my reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, it became clear to me that the novel is a piece of fiction that is unsure about its stance on love and marriage.  On one hand, Rhys seems to suggest that the desire to marry is motivated by sexual deviance and the need to be sexually desired, as well as a thirst for power, or more, a thirst to improve one’s social status.  Those who have read Jane Eyre will know that the relationship between Antoinette (or ‘Bertha’ within Bronte’s novel) and Rochester was an especially volatile one, resulting in Antoinette being locked away in the attic of Rochester’s home, but what isn’t made clear within the novel is the reasoning behind Rochester’s decision to marry Rhys’ protagonist.

 

I’ll take her in my arms, my lunatic. She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me. (2)

 Rochester’s desire to marry Antoinette comes from his wanting for power, and his need to exert control and possession over someone that is beneath him. He sees his wife as a body, nothing more or nothing less, and feels that she isn’t worthy of romantic love. Rochester’s callous behaviour could be attributed to a number of things, including his racial bias towards Antoinette as a creole woman in the colonial period, or his need to feel like he has ownership of something, due to most of his fortune being inherited and not strictly owned by him, but either way, Rochester’s sexual power over Antoinette benefits him in the long run, whilst at the same causing his downfall.  In Jane Eyre, we see that Rochester has moved on from Antoinette with Jane, a woman who her, supposedly, truly loves, suggesting that the toxicity of his marriage to Antoinette was a stepping stone towards him realising what it truly means to feel love.  At the same time, Rochester’s cruel, animalistic treatment of his wife causes her to go insane whilst cooped up in his attic with only the occasional companionship of Grace Poole, and as a result, she burned down Thornfield, leaving Rochester blind and unable to function without the support of Jane.  With this in mind Rhys’ stance on purely sexual relationships between individuals is rather unclear, as there is the implication that sexual dominance and power can fill a hole in one’s life that has been lacking a sense of control, but after the temporary adrenaline rush that all consuming sexual obsession brings, comes the consequences of such a reckless and selfish way to live, which is the lesson that should truly be learnt from this piece.

 

As opposed to sexual obsession and its pros and cons, Rhys’ novel also discusses the idea of romantic love and equal partnership, which, after some close reading, stands out to me as the thing that both Antoinette and Rochester truly crave, but cannot get from each other, due to the lack of equality within their union.

I thought at first, is there no happiness? There must be. Oh happiness, of course, happiness, well. But I soon forgot about happiness (3)

Antoinette, who was brought up with catholicism as a key religious force in her life, has clear ideals when it comes to the idea of love.  She draws on her teaching at a religious convent which states that true contentment can only be achieved in the afterlife, and she seems to agree, as she has failed to find any happiness in her life up to this point, having been thrust into a loveless marriage with Rochester which offers her very little and him an awful lot. It is also abundantly clear that true happiness and belonging is something she truly wants, and something that she almost had with an ex lover, Sandi Cosway.  

That was the life and death kiss and you only know a long time afterwards what it is, the life and death kiss. (4)

Although Cosway isn’t a pivotal part of the novel as a physical character, Antoinette speaks about him fondly and recalls instances where he offered her affection, but this relationship was eventually extinguished and found herself with Rochester as a kind of last resort. After the marriage between Rochester and Antoinette falls apart, the characters head in different directions: Rochester marries Jane and falls in love, whilst Antoinette falls apart due to a lack of it. Despite having very different endings, the character’s both, fundamentally, at their happiest with the true loves of their lives, Jane and Sandi, and were unable to function without that kind of relationship surrounding.  As a concluding point, I would say that the moral of Rhys’ story in terms of love is to follow your heart, not your head or your impulses, and remember that all actions have consequences.

 

Wide Sargasso Sea: Love and Literary Theory

 

What was interesting to me about Wide Sargasso Sea was also the way in which it could be interpreted in many different ways relating to many different works of literary theory, especially when it comes to the theme of love. Although race is obviously a big factor in how Antoinette is treated within her marriage, another way of interpreting Rochester’s mistreatment of her could be to link it to feminist studies.  

 

Literature is not the business of a woman’s life and it cannot be (6)

As most people will already know, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s collaborative critical feminist piece of work The Madwoman in the Attic was written with Antoinette, and the way that she was represented within Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in mind, and despite Rhys’ best efforts and intentions to represent her in a less troubling way, there are still instances in the text that could link back to ideas posed by Gilbert and Gubar forty years ago.  One of the key elements of fiction that Gilbert and Gubar voice their disapproval of is the idea that female characters can only conform to two different stereotypes: the pure angelic woman or the corrupted monster.  In Jane Eyre, we see a clear example of this, with Jane being Rochester’s ‘angel’ and Antoinette being his ‘monster’, but within Wide Sargasso Sea, although there are still instances of these stereotypes represented, the lines between them are blurred.  Antoinette’s Creole identity is key to her positioning on the angel to monster scale, as at times within the novel, her exotic features can position her as an other-worldly and angelic figure, whilst at other times her race deems her as being unworthy of love and affection, like an animal.  It is however, hard to determine where exactly on the scale she fits, and whether Rhys’ conformation towards literary stereotypes of women is intentional or not. In relation to love, it is clear that these two stereotypes carry with them different ideas about how love should be given, with angelic women often receiving the romantic rewarding side of love whilst monstrous women experience sexual dominance, which is more like a form of control than actual devotion.   

 

Another work of literary theory which I found to be interesting in relation to Wide Sargasso Sea’s representation of love and marriage is Roland Barthes’ theory surrounding the ‘common sense’ reading of literary texts.  Within his book The Death of the Author, Barthes aims to challenge the ‘common sense’ way of interpreting a text, by shattering “the illusion of the single right reading” (Kermode).  

The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centre of culture (7)

In simpler terms, Barthe is suggesting that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to developing ideas surrounding literary texts and how they have been written, and that the author of the work of fiction isn’t the “God” of the piece whose opinion is the only acceptable one.  To truly understand how this links to Wide Sargasso Sea, you have to know your history surrounding Rhys’ reasonings for writing the novel.  Having read Bronte’s Jane Eyre whilst fuelled by her well documented alcohol addiction, Rhys decided that she was unhappy with the way that the novel was representing Bertha Mason as a monstrous nuisance for Rochester whilst he was trying to make a go of things with his angelic true love Jane,  and in turn wrote a piece of fiction that completely turned the story on its head, transforming Rochester from a brooding hero to a deeply flawed man who comes from a family with a long history of racial conflict. By doing this, Rhys has shattered the illusion that Bronte, a much loved and respected female author of her time, is the Author-God of Jane Eyre as a text, by putting her own spin on the tale which contradicts the fairytale setup that Bronte had created, where the big bad villain (Bertha) has done away with so that the hero and heroine (Rochester and Jane) could finally be happy.  Of course it could further be argued that Rhys is not the Author-God of Wide Sargasso Sea, and that her take on the characters could be completely different to what you, I or anyone else would think.  The moral of Barthe’s story is that every interpretation is right, and there is no ‘common sense’ answer to any question posed within literary texts, and on that note, I bid you farewell.

References

1.Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin, London, 1966)

2.Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, part 2 section 7

3.Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, part 1 section 2

4.Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, part 3 section 5

5.Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, ( New Haven Yale University Press, United States, 1979)

6.Robert Southey in Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic

7.Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author, (1967)

Race at the heart of Wide Sargasso Sea, with Roland Barthes’ theory.

Thanks Alan! So as Alan was discussing, creole identity is indeed a major theme within Wide Sargasso Sea, and something which links closely to this, is the theme of race which is what I will be focusing on throughout this post.

With ‘The Emancipation Act’ being passed in 1833, it meant that slave owners had to free slaves before 1839. Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial novel which focuses on this time after the end of slavery, and the tensions which still occurred between white and black people. If you are interested in the exploration of racial issues within literature, then you will find this postcolonial novel, indeed dwells deep into the theme of race.

Within the novel, the white Creole protagonist Antoinette Cosway, is the daughter of a slave-owner and much of the narrative is told from her perspective. However, racial tensions come to play in her life, when Antoinette’s whiteness is mocked by a black girl who sings;

‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away.’[1]

The song implies continued racial hatred post-emancipation, where there is now a reversal in which the white/creole people are the ones who are being racially segregated. It is clear that the black girl, who was once enslaved and belongs to a family who also faced brutalities amongst white power, is now free and thus views the white people as the infestation, as she calls her a ‘cockroach’. This animalistic imagery may have typically been used towards black slaves who were often compared to animals, and seen to adopt barbaric/animal like qualities. Thus, this reversal within the novel conveys how black people are now openly expressing their hatred towards slave owners, who once limited their freedom. This is just one of many examples within the novel which expresses tensions.

Roland Barthes: Readerly and Writerly texts:

Moving onto Barthes and how his theory links to the novel, he categorises texts as either being ‘readerly’ or ‘writerly’, and within his works tiled S/Z, he analyses the values of these two types of texts;

‘Why is the writerly our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text […] Opposite the writerly text, then is its counter value, its negative, reactive value: what can be read, but not written: the readerly. We call any readerly text a classic text’[2]

In other words, if a text is ‘readerly’ then it is less challenging and the reader is usually a passive consumer of the text. However, if a text stimulates and provokes active readers, and is more literary challenging, then the text, as stated by Barthes, is ‘writerly’.

Wide Sargasso Sea with its elaborate narrative, can be viewed as a writerly text as there are many different interpretations available for the reader to explore or create for themselves. For example, Antoinette’s relationship with her friend Tia comes to a downfall when there is money involved, as they are placing a bet;

”Keep them then, you cheating nigger’ […] Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger’[3] 

And when looking at the ‘wide’ picture (pun intended), this particular scene can then be interpreted as reflecting the socio-economic disparity between white and black people, which again links to racial tensions between both races.

The repetition of the taboo language ‘nigger’ is evidently something they have picked up from the adults within their communities. By Tia calling Antoinette a ‘white nigger’, it is almost like she is saying that Antoinette is the one who is now below her in status and money, as originally this word was used to oppress black people during slavery, in order to remind them they are lower in status. Thus, with the end of slavery it is clear that this term no longer has a suppressive undertone for black people, and within the novel, is utilised towards white people to almost mock them, as they no longer hold any power. However it can be argued that, by Antoinette being discriminated against, Rhys makes us as readers sympathise with her exclusion from the black Creole society, and perhaps view the black minority as the wrongdoers, even though in a way their anger is just.

Like this reading, there are many different ways you as a reader are free to interpret certain events in the novel using your own creativity and literary skills. This is indeed something which makes the novel a writerly text and more interesting to read as an active reader.

Barthes’ hermeneutic code:

Barthes has also indicated 5 codes which could be present within many novels, one of which is the hermeneutic code;

‘Let us designate as hermeneutic code (HER) all the units whose function it is to articulate in various ways a question, its response, and the variety of chance events which can either formulate the question or delay its answer; or even, constitute an enigma and leads to its solution’ [4]

As biblical as it sounds, Barthes is conveying how within texts there are often questions raised by readers and the answers to these questions are not usually found, he then titled this the hermeneutic code. Through Antoinette, there is a question of racial identity and belonging posed within this novel as she often wonders what her own personal identity is; ‘who I am and where is my country and where do I belong…’[5]. As a reader, reading from her perspective, you are also made to question what her racial identity indeed is and if she will find these answers herself and feel like she belongs. Whether or not she finds the answers towards her questioning of identity, is something which can only be answered by following Antoinette’s journey, and applying Barthes’ theory to explore the hermeneutic code of questions and answers.

We have come to the end of the whistle stop tour of the theme of race within the Jane Eyre inspired novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. However your knowledge does not stop here. Grab yourself a copy of this novel and indulge into its narrative, and then come back to this very same blog post and leave your comments, thoughts, and ideas towards what you found the most interesting about how race is woven into this novel…

References:

[1] Jean, Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, (Penguin UK, 2001), 7.

[2] Roland, Barthes, S/Z, (London: Cape, 1975), 3-4.

[3] Jean, Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, (Penguin UK, 2001), 8.

[4] Roland, Barthes, S/Z, (London: Cape, 1975), 75.

[5] Jean, Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, (Penguin UK, 2001).

Bibliography:

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. London: Cape, 1975.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin UK, 2001.

Creole Identity

This part of the blog focuses on Creole Identity, which is a major feature of this story. I will also investigate how the literary theory of Tzvetan Todorov, particularly his essay The Origin of Genres, equates with the tropes that are demonstrated in this story.

It is useful to gain an understanding of what Creole identity involves before identifying its use in the Wide Sargasso Sea and then going on to see how Todorov´s ideas relate to the story.

What is Creole?

The word Creole was originally used to denote white people of European parentage who were born in the Caribbean. It also refers to people of other cultures and races who have been imported to the Caribbean and naturalized there. A white Creole would therefore belong to the former group whilst a black Creole would be a person of African descent born in the Caribbean. During the nineteenth century Creole became increasingly associated with the culture and people of the black West Indian islands.

A Creole person can be one of mixed white and black ethnicity, particularly in the Caribbean. This mix of races also gives rise to a whole cultural spectrum of language, culture, music, religion and superstitions that have originally derived from a European source but have evolved to create their own separate identity.

A Creole language is a fully developed mother tongue that is derived from a European language (usually English, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch) and combined with local languages, especially African such as spoken by slaves in the West Indies. A Creole language is fully formed, with patterned grammar and conjugated verbs, although it has usually developed from pidgin which has limited grammar and vocabulary. There are many examples of Creole languages derived from a combination of numerous different languages. One example is Jamaican Patois which is English based Creole spoken in Jamaica.

Considering the cultural aspect, and particularly to do with religion and customs, Creole culture incorporates such traits as folk Catholicism, home altars, Mardi Gras and voodooism. It has distinct musical traits such as Cajun music and Zydeco. Creole also has its own distinctive culinary traditions with dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish etouffee.

Because of the tendency for white plantation owners to have sexual relationships with their black slaves producing mixed race offspring, there is also a racist aspect to Creole identity. Particularly from a European viewpoint, the word Creole would suggest such a mixed-race identity. From this same perspective, there would be suspicions that a person had black ancestry if they demonstrated black characteristics in their appearance- eye colour, shape of nose etc.

Why is Creole culture an important aspect of the Wide Sargasso Sea?

Antoinette finds herself a social outcast because she is Jamaican–born of white British parents. Accepted by neither blacks, because of her family´s recent ownership of black slaves, or UK-born whites, because of the suspicions regarding her upbringing in a non-white society, Antoinette finds herself a social outcast because of her family heritage. Christophine encapsulates her dilemma when she suggests to Rochester that ¨She is not béké like you, but she is béké, and not like us either¨.1 Béké is a Creole term to designate a descendant of white European ancestry, which is being used fairly loosely by Christophine to express Antoinette´s confused cultural identity.

Antoinette feels a part of the culture that she grew up with but is rejected by it, as demonstrated by her friend, Tia´s reaction after the fire at the plantation.

I saw Tia and her mother and I ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been… As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her… When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.

This passage is one of the most powerful in the book and demonstrates several things. Antoinette has just witnessed her home being destroyed but takes comfort from the presence of her friend in the crowd. Wishing only to remain part of the life that she has always known she runs to join her, only to be rebuffed as Tia attacks her with a stone. Tia as the black daughter of a former slave rejects Antoinette, the white daughter of a former slave owner. Even though Antoinette and Tia had been friends, the differences in their cultural positions cannot be reconciled.

The other side of this paradox is demonstrated by Rochester´s attitude to Antoinette. In the passage where Antoinette needs to be persuaded by Rochester to go through with their marriage, she is referred to as “this Creole girl” Rochester is suspicious of Antoinette and does not see her as a white girl. Whilst she has British born parents, she was born in the Caribbean and he detects differences in her facial features that make him doubt her ancestry. He sees similarities in her facial expression to their servant girl, Amélie. “She raised her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned down in a questioning mocking way… she looked much like Amélie. Perhaps they are related, I thought. It´s possible, it´s even probable in this damned place.”Rochester takes this a step further by renaming Antoinette, Bertha.

Antoinette protests that he is “trying to make (her) into someone else”This is something that Rochester achieves by driving her to madness.

Tzvetan Todorov and how can he be applied to this story?

Tzvetan Todorov wrote his thesis on The Origin of Genres in 1976, some ten years after the publication of Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea. Todorov initially quotes from Maurice Blanchot who proposed, when referring to the writing of Hermann Broch, that he “no longer recognizes the distinction between genres and seeks to destroy their limits. ” Whether one accepts this statement as indicating the disappearance of genres or maybe that genres have evolved, as opposed to being eradicated, is a subject for debate. It is perhaps useful to consider why genres exist at all.

For the writer, genre indicates a sense of belonging and a model for creating their work. Definitive genres exhibit specific traits that are the characteristics expected by their readership. Even a genre as avant-garde as Modernism is created with an ideal to conceive writing that is experimental and resists convention, so as to give rise to something totally new and “modern” For the reader, the idea of genre is useful to equate a book or author with their individual literary taste. Similarly, for the critic, genre is a useful starting point for deconstructing and assessing an author´s work.

Todorov suggests that “It is even considered a sign of authentic modernity in a writer if he ceases to respect the separation of genres.” He further maintains that “genres no longer have any genuine significance. ” So what is the relevance of these conjectures when equated with Wide Sargasso Sea?

Rhys writing in this novel displays traits of multiple genres. The writing is most definitely Post Modern in its use of multiple voices and blend of reality with dreams. The book is also distinctly feminist in its consideration of how Antoinette, like her mother before her, is oppressed by men, particularly, in Antoinette´s case, Rochester. Directly relating to this particular scrutiny, the book is a postcolonial study with an anti-colonial stance considering racism and displacement. In this consideration, the subject of Creole culture is a fundamental theme.

Todorov, in his essay, is not supporting Blanchot´s opinion that genres no longer exist, he has a less radical opinion and that is that genres are evolving. For Todorov, genres are constantly evolving, so that “a new genre is always the transformation of an earlier one, or of several: by inversion, by displacement, by combination.” Certainly this description can be directly applied to Wide Sargasso Sea for the reasons just highlighted. Rhys writing displays a multiplicity of genre affectations as a “combination”as suggested by Tordorov.

I will now hand you over to Ilsa who is going to explore the idea of identity further by discussing race in relation to this book.

 

References:

Rhys Jean, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin (London) 1966.

Todorov, T. and Berrong, R., “The Origin of Genres”. New Literary History, 8(1), London (1976).

Teesside University Book Club Blog

We are the Teesside University book club and we would like to introduce our readers to our latest book, Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea. In this blog we are going to introduce you to various aspects of the book and also demonstrate some literary theory that is pertinent to the facets that we discuss.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte´s Jane Eyre. The main protagonist in the story is Antoinette, who is the Bertha character in Jane Eyre. The story examines her background as the daughter of a former slave owner, living in Jamaica, just after slave trading had been made illegal in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The story deals with problems stemming from her links with a slave owning family and her unhappy marriage to an unnamed English gentleman who equates to the Rochester persona in Jane Eyre. Rochester, suspicious and repelled by Antoinette´s Creole heritage, declares her mad and takes her back to England where she is confined in an attic of a great house under the care of Grace Poole. The culmination of the novel suggests that Antoinette is about to set fire to the great house which is what occurs towards the end of Jane Eyre.

The main themes we will look at are:

  • Creole identity
  • Race
  • Love/marriage
  • Power
  • Supernatural elements
  • Mental health/madness

Alan is going to kick us off with a discussion about Creole identity within the novel.

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