Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) tells about the life of Antoinette, a white Creole, and her search for her own identity as she struggles for peace and sanity amidst the conflicting perspective of British, West Indies and Creoles social and racial divisions. The setting is basically informative of Antoinette’s developed double consciousness. Being placed in Jamaica and Dominica, Antoinette is forced to fit in within the two extremes. Yet as she grows and encounters inevitable life circumstances brought about these social and racial issues, and as she experiences death and insanity even in her own family, she deliberately and painfully realized that she can never belong to any of the two. As such, she pushed herself into isolation and despair.
The novel basically started out as a recreation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Although the main character in the novel, Bertha, is described as a “monster, violent, insane and promiscuous,” Rhys portrayed Antoinette as “a sympathetic and vulnerable young woman who seeks, unsuccessfully, to belong.” Indeed, critics were emphatically attuned to the enriched attribution of Antoinette’s life imbalances to conflicting social and racial factors. Attention to the merit of her work brought her the prestigious W.H. Smith Award and the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society for Literature. It was also named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. These and other awards consequently rescued her from deep depression, alcohol addiction and isolation before its publication.
Connection between the life of Antoinette Cosway and her author is inevitably noticeable. The author herself is the third child of a Creole mother and a Welsh doctor. Her ancestors on her mother side are known to be slaveholders. She grew up in Dominica and she moved to England while she was a teenager. Much like her main character, Jean Rhys despises England and she attributes her isolation and depression from the conflict of the White and the Black races. Perhaps, the novel served as a medium for her to express her mixed feelings towards her social status and the bigger community in which she grew.
The emancipation of the slaves in 1834 is the starting point of the conflict. Although the racial and social conflict between the British, the Creoles and the West Indies was set even before this, this particular event produced a new set of social issues. Before freeing the slaves, racial distinction is high; everyone knows their places – the Jamaicans are slaves, the Creoles are the slaveholders, and the British are the rich people who own the entire place. “Thus multifaceted power structure [is] revealed within Rhys’ narrative” (Paul, 2004). However, upon freeing the slaves, the Creoles were left with nothing to identify themselves with, except their culture represented in the story as the black magic of Cristophine. Indeed, it is through the practice of this that Antoinette showed independence and glee. She was overly confident of her ability to read omens, and she turned for a magic love potion to fix the marital relationship problem with his unnamed husband. However, the event did not only leave her to question her racial identity. It brought her a set of new problems to deal with, problems overwhelmingly enormous for her age: the death of her father, the insanity of her mother, the hatred of the slaves, and betrayal of a friend. During the course of her life, she tried to live normally; but in a world of conflicting culture, a strong and stable identity serves as a shield to protect her from insanity.
Among the social issues presented in the novel are poverty, violence, injustice, suppression of human rights, and discrimination. Particularly obvious in the novel is the issue of slavery and entrapment. Although the Emancipation Act freed the slaves, it lacked the necessary subsequent rights to enable them to live a normal life. The law failed to provide them with enough compensation to have a job that could sustain their everyday living, so that instead of celebrating their freedom, the West Indians breed hostility from the Creoles who left them with nothing to eat and who started to limit their lifestyle as slaves. Thus, for the Jamaicans, the Act did not free them at all; superficial and problematic, the Act served to only worsen the lives of the Blacks. Setting the social issue aside, however, slavery and entrapment is not only applicable to the Jamaicans. The Creoles were the most affected in terms of developing their racial identity.
Being primarily slaveholders themselves, their main source of income entrapped them into thinking that they cannot move beyond that which socially defined them. Thus, the emancipation of the slaves brought them with nothing to showcase. Without slaves, they were in same social status as the previous slaves. Although they may appear financially richer, in the long run, the social distinction between the slave and the master is gone. Furthermore, the death of Antoinette’s father revealed the strong patriarchy in Jamaica. Anette, her mother, felt helplessly imprisoned with his death, and she only regained her composure after meeting the British Mr. Mason. “Fragmentation is also evident in Antoinette’s own ethnic status, which has profound implications for the resulting power imbalances” (Paul, 2004).
Lastly, Rhys ended the novel with Antoinette being entrapped in England, in a room under the watch of servant named Grace Pool. Figuratively, this event returns the novel from the beginning of the conflict. The room represents the range of power of the British people, the servant represents the Jamaican slaves, and Antoinette serves as the representative of the Creole slaveholders. The author made a very interesting point here. Metaphorically, it showed that the social status of the British people points to the entrapment of the Creoles and the Jamaicans, that the Creoles are practically more enslaved than the Jamaicans and that the latter can clearly see it, and that the key to freeing the Creoles lies on their slaves all along. Although it started as a dream for Antoinette, the author expressed optimism to putting the dream into a reality.
Another important theme in the novel is the complexity of racial identity as highlighted by Alexander Cosway’s illegitimate children. Aside from the distinction between the British, the Creoles and the West Indians, the Blacks have their own kinds of stratification. Originally from Martinique, a French Caribbean island, Cristophine stands apart from the Black community. Furthermore, Americans and slave owners are known to rape their slaves and produce illegitimate children who do not know which side they should place and categorize themselves in the society. Not only do legal rights define the mixture of races in Jamaica, social interaction and geography also underscores the differences between them. Although physical distinction does not apply well to the half-breeds, social interaction spells how each race view one another. And alongside this, racial identity clearly becomes racial discrimination, creating double consciousness for those who are midway to who they are and who they should be: “That’s not what she hear, she said. She hear all we poor like beggar. We ate salt fish-no money for fresh fish. That old house so leaky, you run with calabash to catch water when it rain. Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (Rhys, 1966; Halloran, 2006).
Important motifs in the novel also clarify some of the issues presented in the novel. Madness, disease and death are recurring motifs revolving around the life of Antoinette. Everyone underwent some kind of madness in the novel, particularly among the Creoles and her family. Antoinette’s madness may be interpreted as the major reason behind her demise. But Rhys was able to clear this possible nuisance by highlighting the maddening conditions of their life. Although it may be true and realistically safe to claim that the Cosways are prone or have tendency to be mad, it is also true that long stressful situations are the main caused to trigger such cases. Also, Rhys included the incident where Antoinette’s unnamed husband only noticed her “madness” when her illegitimate brother told him about it. This incident could therefore mean that “madness” is largely a result of how the British see it, that inside a Creole’s life, this “madness” is a normal phenomenon. Yet what colors this motif is that it presents doubt to the readers on whether to believe Antoinette or not.
However, Rhys was able to answer this issue in the end as she intentionally showed that Antoinette’s imagined reality can actually be real. Ironically, the “statement” simply puts that madness is as real as it actually seems. Likewise, madness is intricately related to disease and decline. Through these, Rhys was able to show (not tell) the effects of the society on the individual. Near-fatal fevers both to Antoinette and Rochester metaphorically address the ill-effects of the social situation on the lives of individual people. It is also a mark or a warning of the unrest of the social situation. Thus, even if Antoinette believed at the start of the novel that the cure for her “sickness” is in England, further decline in her health during her stay there reflects the inability of the society to cater to their needs. It also reflects that geographic replacement can never make her belong and fit in the British society. Lastly, death is the major blow for madness in the family, and it leads to isolation and depression. Tragically, through death, almost all of Antoinette’s family members deserted her. The good thing, however, is that it is also through her isolation that she finds the truth behind her enslavement and despair.
The Wide Sargasso Sea indeed “suggest[s] that social demarcations between English and Creole cultural identities are artificial because they ultimately depend on chance-on the geographical accident of a given person’s or character’s place of birth” (Halloran, 2006). But this artificiality has continued to enslave the lives not only of Antoinette, but of all the characters in the story. Perhaps, the novel was a medium for Rhys to prompt the readers to reexamine the influence of society. It is not that the novel seeks to put the blame upon the society per se; rather, it is a call to notice the larger force that influences our behavior and to help us judge and define the boundaries from which we should allow it to rule us. Thus, Antoinette’s imbalance in her life is due to social and racial issues than to a personal deficiency.
Halloran, V. N. (2006). Race, creole, and national identities in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Phillips’s Cambridge. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 21, 87-104.
Paul, N. (2004). Other ways of looking: The female gaze in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. eSharp, 2 (spring 2004). Retrieved April 27, 2008, from http://www.gla.ac.uk/departments/esharp/issues/2/paul/
Rhys, J. (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. NY: Norton & Co.