’s Jane Eyre And Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Essay, Research Paper
How and why are selected canonical texts re-written by female authors? Answer with close reference to Charlotte Bronte s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys s Wide Sargasso Sea.
The Sargasso Sea is a relatively still sea, lying within the south-west zone of the North Atlantic Ocean, at the centre of a swirl of warm ocean currents. Metaphorically, for Jean Rhys, it represented
an area of calm, within the wide division between England and the West Indies. Within such an area, a sense of stability, permanence and identity may be attained, despite the powerful, whirling currents
which surround it. But outside of this sea , one may be destabilised, drawn away by these outside forces, into the vast expanse of ocean between the West Indies and Europe. Outside of these metaphorical and geographical oceanic areas, one may become the victim of these currents, subject to their vagaries and fluctuations, no longer able to personally define, with any certainty, where one is
culturally or geographically located.
For Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre depicted representations of a Creole woman and West Indian history which she knew to be inaccurate. Bertha Mason is mad; and she came from a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations. Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! She is further described as having a discoloured face , a savage face with fearful blackened
inflation of the features, the lips were swelled and dark ; described as a demon, witch, vampire, beast and hyena1. But nowhere in the novel does Bronte allow the madwoman in the attic to have a
voice, to explain what may have caused her madness. Rhys says: The mad wife in Jane Eyre always interested me. I was convinced that Charlotte Bronte must have had something against the West
Indies and I was angry about it. Otherwise, why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature? 2 So in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys rewrites Bronte s canonical text according to her own, personal experiences, as both a white West Indian and a woman.
But, giving Antoinette a voice, she exposes truth behind madness: The history of the land in which she lived, and the role of the woman in it, was a tale of Victorian, patriarchal values and colonial
exploitation; polarised ideology, division and confrontation in racial, cultural, sexual and historical issues. In a literary sense, Antoinette s voice, once heard, would not only offer mitigating reasons for her madness, but would ensure that Jane Eyre could never be read without her voice being heard ever again.
Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as a historical-novel. She was able to incorporate elements of detailed factual history of Dominica: including slavery, colonialism and external conflicts over proprietorship; as well as how these issues related to her fictional characters. Although not strictly autobiographical, Rhys uses cultural and topographical descriptions to both illustrate her own experiences in Dominica in the early, formative years of her life and to authenticate what she says. She sets her fiction in a time
of upheaval and disruption in Dominica, following the emancipation of slaves, and in order to do so shifts the approximate dates used in Jane Eyre, but the significance of this shift is almost
imperceptible, except in that it emphasises the plight of the Creole planter, rather than that of the emancipated slave.
The historical-fictional content of Wide Sargasso Sea is, by design, a prequel, or (p)review of Jane Eyre. Rhys called an early draft of the text Le Revenant: something that comes back, haunts, revisits. I
think the haunting and revisiting between Rhys and Jane Eyre is reciprocal. Here, she herself revisits her youth, through Antoinette, to experience Dominica in a way which previews the characters and content of Jane Eyre in a temporal sense; but in doing so, creates indelible perspectives which haunt subsequent re-readings of the book. She also establishes a literary relationship between Jane and Antoinette, which Bronte does not describe. Rhys also invites comparison between Bronte and herself, in terms of the feminist writer. I shall consider these in due course.
Rhys (p)reviews Jane Eyre by correspondences in thematic content and characterisation. Her book was written for very personal reasons and invited many comparisons with events in her own life. Antoinette represents the culmination of her female fictional characters. In Rhys s fiction, for the leading lady, we can invariably read Rhys herself. I have therefore focused on those themes with direct relevance to Antoinette.
There are a whole series of binary oppositions and comparisons considered by Rhys: Love-hate, fear-attraction, black-white, Anglican-Catholic, history-fiction, freedom-captivity, male-female, British-French. Their number, along with the clear lack of distinction between them, are indicative of the conflicting forces at work, both within Dominican society and those impacting on it from outside.
The history of the country reflects both internal and external conflicts. Most notably, prior to 1834, between Britain and France. Two key, connected themes grounded in the social and cultural history of Dominica, are slavery and exploitation. The social and cultural shift created by the Emancipation Act 1833 was enormous: the enslaved were free and the Plantocracy , the colonial exploiters of cheap
black labour, were soon financially ruined by the collapse of the sugar-production industry. This shift exposed and exacerbated a stratification of West Indian society: a gradation of wealth and identity: white, Creole, mixed race, coloured and black; with similar stratifications within black West Indian communities, between islanders of Martinique, Jamaica and Dominica.
In Dominica, as in the novel, nothing is clearly defined and these gradations between those binary oppositions become blurred. The sense of identity, that is reinforced or created as a result of them, also becomes blurred. Immediately the novel opens, the reader is struck by this sense of uncertainty, with an undercurrent of danger: They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. 3 The abolition of slavery meant freedom for the slaves, but had brought fear and poverty to the white people. The colonial whites, abandoned by their mother-country, had, in a short space of time, become shifted from oppressor to oppressed. The plantocracy and their families were dispossessed of their power and influence: neither black nor true white, their status and sense of identity was in
The emotional effect on Antoinette s sense of identity was considerable. Her mother, mentally abused by her philandering husband and now verbally abused by the local blacks, became the primary focus
of her solitary life . She would see the sorrow in her mother: the frown .. between her black eyebrows, deep – it might have been cut with a knife. I hated this frown.. 4 But as the victim of
favouritism towards her brother, her attempts at consolation were repelled, causing her to conclude that (she) was useless to her 5. She noticed that her mother began to talk to herself, and Antoinette
withdrew within herself. This situation reflected Rhys s own early experiences, which fostered in her a legacy of isolation, loneliness and a desire and need for security and protection. She shared this
with, and reflected this through, her portrayal of Antoinette: her need for, and dependency on, Rochester.
But this madness, depicted yet left unexplained in Jane Eyre, when it is considered in light of the generalised, denigratory terms used to describe Creole women – idiots and maniacs through three generations 6, implied a sweeping inevitability of which Rochester was the innocent victim. But it also hid a more sinister side: Insanity was used to disguise the abuses and exploitations of forced-labour and slavery, and legitimise the wealth accumulated from it by the Victorian colonialists. It was seen as being in some way justified.
When emancipation and consequent lack of forced-labour caused the estates collapse, the opportunity for further exploitation presented itself: A repetition of the colonial exploitation of the blacks, this
time perpetrated on displaced and vulnerable white Creoles and their estates. The Creoles, neither white nor European, referred to as white niggers or white cockroaches throughout the text, become
the victims of Victorian colonialism, patriarchal domination and English property law. The exploitation of the Creole woman mirrors the earlier exploitation of the slave. When she inherits her land, Antoinette is sold , just as a slave, by Mason. This image of Rochester as exploiter is totally incongruent with representations in Jane Eyre – the romantic gentleman and innocent victim – but may be, historically, more accurate. In mitigation, he becomes exploiter by default, as he himself was initially exploited, and sold as slave , by father and brother.
Rochester embodies Rhys s impressions of England: cold and mean. Attempting to structure everything about him according to British Victorian rigidity; all of which conflicts with the vibrant colour, gaiety and passion of his surroundings. This Anglocentric intolerance is clearly shown in his xenophobic and racist attitude towards the French-patois speakers and his neurotic obsession with race, miscegenation and incest. He personifies the masculine, forbidding restrictions of the Anglican church, contrasted with the bright, warm, predominantly feminine Catholic environment7.
He sees, in his environment, both culturally and topographically, menace overpowering beauty. He feels threatened by the otherness of the environment, the indigenous people in it, and his inability to
control it. His perception of the blacks is racist and bigoted, and he feels emasculated and threatened when confronted by the empowered attitudes of the emancipated slaves.
But this alienation and need for control, destabilised by knowledge of his own exploitation, suspicions as to Antoinette s complicity, and his discovery of her involvement with obeah – tricking him with the aphrodisiac, begins the destruction of their relationship. He had acquired Antoinette s wealth and solicited her trust, captured and indulged himself in her passionate love, yet when, by his own
failings, he was unable to manipulate her into something within his control, like a marionette or doll, he discarded her love, whilst withholding her freedom. The exploited once again becomes the exploiter.
But if Antoinette sees her own displaced , deracinated condition in terms of historically specific shifts in class and economic power, Rochester … interprets racial difference in moral and sexual terms,
specifically in terms of miscegenation and contamination 8. This reflects the Victorian preoccupation that syphilis – the precursor of madness and contracted by the sexually promiscuous – originated in Africa. The commonplace assumptions of British…
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