Adrienne Rich defines revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (305). The act of revision may thereby be seen as the act of re-reading a text while in the process associating new meanings with its content. This act of revision can be seen in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Originally published in 1966, Rhys’ novel revises the meanings associated with the Creole identity as it was presented in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.
Originally entitled The Reverent, the novel ‘revised’ the Creole identity through the re-presentation of Bertha Mason’s perspective regarding the events that happened in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. According to Ingram and Prondzynski, the novel stands as a “daughter’s protest against a ‘mother’ text” (119). After reading Jane Eyre, Rhys stated, “I was vexed at her portrait of the ‘paper tiger’ lunatic, the all wrong creole scenes” (qtd in Ingram and Prondzynski 119). The novel thereby aims to correct the mistaken portrayal of the Creole identity through the character of Antoinette.
The proceeding paragraph is a summary of the novel along with substantial comparisons of Rhys’ protagonist from that of Bronte’s. The redefinition of the Creole identity in Wide Sargasso Sea occurred through the gradual transition of Antoinette’s character throughout the book. Set near Spanish Town, Jamaica, the first part of the novel presents Antoinette as a disheveled and confused young woman. The confusion is a result of her inability to define her ‘self’. She is described as feeling “abandoned, lied about (and) helpless” (Rhys 12). The second part of the novel set at Granbois, Domina presents Antoinette’s character as coping with the conditions that society forces upon individuals with a mixed racial heritage. It is within this chapter, that Antoinette shows the paranoia resulting from such a treatment. She states that she would rather remain “in the dark…where I (she) belong” (Rhys 81). The third part of the book presents Antoinette’s condition in the attic of the Rochester English estate. Comparable to the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre, it is within this location that Antoinette is forced to live imprisoned in her husband’s estate. It is also within this part of the novel that Antoinette chooses to end her life as people know of it.
The redefinition of the Creole identity can thereby be seen in Antoinette’s character as Antoinette shows that the ‘darkness’ that an individual experiences is a result of his/her lack of an identity. This is one of the main themes prevalent in the works of Caribbean women writers such as Rhys. Such an identity was taken away from her during her childhood and was denied to her during the rest of her life. This is because the woman is defined and looked upon as the ‘other.’ It is important to note that both colonization and patriarchy contributed much to the problem of the identity of the woman. Through colonization and patriarchy, the woman experiences double displacement; that is to say that the woman is displaced because of colonization and is doubly displaced because of her gender. This observation is warranted by history in general. Even in the history of thought and literature, the woman has been treated not only as the ‘other’ but also as ‘inferior’ to their male counterparts.
Within this context, one might note that the fundamental problem of women writers like Rhys is the problem of the woman’s identity; challenging both colonialism and patriarchy’s portrayal and more importantly, treatment of the woman. Such a task therefore involves the re-definition of the woman and the recognition of womanhood as a vital force in shaping human consciousness and history. The concept of enslavement best captures the state of the woman in a colonized and patriarchal society. From girlhood to motherhood, the woman may be said to be repressed. A simple example would suffice to the point that I wish to accentuate. If one carefully examines a wedding ceremony, one can see that behind the so called ‘union of two souls’ and the ‘vows of love and faithfulness,’ there is something more that the wedding ceremony makes manifest; that the bride is transferred by her father to another man (the groom, that is). In this sense, it is not difficult to see that the woman is treated like a property of some sort. Socially-constructed (and ascribed) roles to the woman further place the woman in the condition of enslavement. This is because socially-constructed (and ascribed) roles limit the choices that are available for the woman. In many cases, the woman is expected to deny her own self to fulfill these roles.
Madness, as it is significant in this universe of discourse may be seen from different aspects. First, it can be seen as an offshoot of the lack of self-identity and the enslavement of the woman in a colonized and patriarchal society. In comparison to Bronte’s novel, Bertha Mason’s condition of madness, as it was presented in Jane Eyre, was a condition of madness brought about by the lack of identity and history as opposed to a condition of madness brought about by one’s biological heritage. Second, madness can also be seen as liberating; as signifying the woman’s struggle for self-identity, respect and recognition in a colonized and patriarchal political setting.
Wide Sargasso Sea was thereby able to revise its ‘mother’ text by questioning the patriarchal and colonialist assumptions of the Jane Eyre. Within this context, it may be said to present a feminist reading and reinterpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Such a reading and reinterpretation was achieved as Rhys’ novel questioned the objectivity of Bronte’s text by giving emphasis on the subjectivity of an event; that is, the many ways in and through which one may interpret events. By retelling the conditions for the occurrence of a particular event, ‘revision’ happens since the reader is forced to consider the hidden history and hence the hidden truths behind the occurrence of a particular event.
Ingram, Heather and Heather von Prondzynski. Women’s Fiction between the Wars: Mothers, Daughters, and Writing. Np: Edinburgh U.P., 1998.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Np: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989.
Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Mary Eagleton. London: Blackwell, 1996.
Shaffer, Brian. “Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).” English, 1950-2000. London: Blackwell, 2006.