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Antoninette is a classic case when considering novels by Jean Rhys, because the author creates female characters that are desperate for reason and justice in a world dominated by money and bigoted men; Antoninette is dragged down psychologically by being exposed to the gender-specific discrimination perpetrated by Caucasian males.
This novel is crafted on the framework of the book Jane Eyre, but for Antoninette life is so much more intense than what happens to Jane Eyre because there is a sense of vague emptiness and of being lost in a fog of confusion without a life for Antoninette. For Jane Eyre, she can battle back against her challenges and at least reach a reasonable definition of herself; but Antoninette finds herself basically ignored. In part three of the story, Antoninette is startled to realize she actually has spirit, she has physical presence, and she reflects on her isolation because Rochester has basically imprisoned her, and in her attic prison, there is no mirror.
"There is no looking glass here and I don't know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I
say was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely
I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us -- hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I" (p. 180).
This passage reflects not just an unjust situation for a female -- an unconscionably cruel abandonment and forced isolation, a feminist nightmare that Rhys is brilliant at creating -- but Rhys is also presenting an inhuman scandal of enormous proportions. Men oppressing women, as noted, is a near-constant theme in Rhys's books, and in this story women are without the power to fight back. When Antoinette's mother Annette dies, Antoinette could not cry. "I prayed," she said, "but the words fell to the ground meaning nothing" (p. 36).
It is very hard for Antoinette to experience real pain when her mother dies because in effect Antoinette has been in mourning most of her life due to the incomplete relationships she had with her dysfunctional family, including her mother. Rochester, the husband that was forced on her -- which is probably as cruel an act in the eyes of feminists as can be perpetrated on a woman other than rape or torture -- asks why Antoinette lied and said her mother died when she was a child. "It is true," Antoinette explains. "She did die when I was a child. There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about." Of course the death that "people know about" was death of any real relationship between mother and daughter.
A feminist's nightmare is a situation where a man and a woman are bonded through marriage but their only real relationship is sex. In this novel the two communicate through sex and they both have lust in that regard, but though Antoinette wishes that they can one day actually love each other, Rochester is not the least bit interested in loving her. It would be easy to say that Rochester is just a cold-hearted horny man who wants intercourse to satisfy his physical cravings, but Rhys presents him as a bit more substantive than that. He is actually sorry there is no real communication between them.
Wide Sargasso Sea -- Colonial Perspectives
It should be understood that Jean Rhys identifies seamlessly with Antoinette because Rhys knows all about what it is like being Creole from Jamaica -- that is her personal legacy as well. Meanwhile, it should also be presented in this paper that the British colonized Jamaica from 1655 to about 1855, and during those two hundred years the British put aboriginal peoples into slavery and exploited the land for its wealth of resources. That is the background to this novel, and the concept of "Creole" (a person's heritage is like a split personality -- part white, part black), thanks to the dark exercise of power by the colonial intruders, plays an important part in the hegemonic situation on the island of Dominica.
To the native blacks in Jamaica, Creoles are "white cockroaches," and to the whites they are "white niggers," and colonization can be blamed for this unfortunate cultural conundrum. Thus, Antoinette and her mother are despised by the expatriate whites and loathed by the black servants. Caught in the middle of a racial catch-22 because of the socioeconomic changes that occurred following the end of slavery, Antoinette's life resembles the lives of those in Jamaica who were caught up in the mean currents of British dominance.
Wide Sargasso Sea -- Postcolonial Images
Postcolonial writing usually points to the historical details from the point-of-view of those that were colonized. The details in Rhys's book provide stark evidence of the hardships that a native people endure even after the colonizers have backed off or have been figuratively shoved over a cliff.
Colonized people don't suddenly have better lives just because slavery was banned, or because the colonizers have turned over the government to local leaders. The bitterness and lingering suspicions between people of different ethnicities is present in this book (as it was when Rhys was growing up) because of 200 years of oppression by the English. Within those different ethnicities Rhys uses characters' values and experiences to flush out the aftermath of colonialism. For example, Antoinette is disadvantaged in several ways, by her gender, her class, and her race, but unlike Rochester, who symbolizes the British attitudes, Antoinette is a child of nature.
Since her family is dysfunctional and she is a social cockroach, her connection is not with her family or with society, but with the land. "There was a smell of ferns and river water and I felt safe again," she said (p. 33). In fact the very first time that Rochester witnesses an Antoinette smile is when she is in the jungle, about to take a drink of pure mountain water from a cup made of a leaf. This is a beautiful scene and shows the huge chasm between the Rochester, symbolic of the colonizer (British whites) and the colonized (Antoinette, Creole). Rochester is not at all comfortable in nature, and feels out of place, while this is Antoinette's land. After all, the natural world is not aware of or touched by human suffering, but it is a place where suffering humans may go for a retreat from the stifling social climate that was caused (in large part) by two hundred years of British hegemony.
In the colonial world of Jamaica, the white man was socially and psychologically out of place. Hence, in the postcolonial world of Jamaica, the symbol of oppression -- in this case Rochester -- is still clearly out of place. Author Rhys uses color to establish this dramatic conflict symbolically. Antoinette admires and is drawn to colors, but Rochester is put off by the wildly vivid natural colors in Jamaica. On a journey to Granbois, Rochester notices "…too much blue, too much purple, too much green…the flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near" (p. 70).
In conclusion, these two novels are very similar in that both have the British as colonizers, bringing pain and unwanted social changes to a country in the name of dominance and exploitation. Conrad and Rhys are noted for their brilliantly conceived narratives, but in these books they both relied on situations that they actually observed and lived first hand. In the Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette didn't know how to read and write, she said, "Other things I know," and she certainly did know. She knew discrimination and isolation, and the images that Rhys presents to the reader bring out Antoinette's despair and trials in starkly real narrative.
Clendinnen, Inga. 2007. 'Preempting Postcolonial Critique: Europeans in the Heart of Darkness.' Project Muse / Common Knowledge, vol. 13, 1-17.
Conrad, Joseph. 2011. Heart of…[continue]
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