Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

A “rewrite” of Jane Eyre, this novel tells the back-story of Bertha Rochester (Antoinette Cosway) before she is locked in the attic at Thornfield. Antoinette is a white creole living in Jamiaca, the daughter of a slave-owner and a mother who is purportedly crazy. Her nurse/maid  is Christophine, who plays a similar roll to St. John Rivers (neither novel can fully contain their stories). At a young age, Antoinette’s house is burnt down, following the Emancipation of slaves. After a brief sejour in a convent (her mother has moved to the countryside) her step-father Mr. Mason “provides for her” by arranging a marriage between her an unnamed man from England, presumably Mr. Rochester. He narrates the second part of the novel, which tells of their marriage that goes through a honeymoon phase before souring completely. Rochester has married for money, and now he feels the burden of having what some angry quack has called a “madwoman.” He readily adopts these fears, believing that Antoinette, Christophine and the entire Jamaican landscape harbor the secret that will destroy him (the secret turns out to be nothing other than the violence of colonial slavery). Antoinette, whom he violently renames Bertha, want shim to love her, so has Christophine (who practices the magical obeah) give him a “love potion” that makes him sick.  Ant moves with Christophine to some place in the countryside where she attempts to recover from an illness. The third section opens with Antoinette now narrating. She is in England, being nursed and jailed by Grace Poole. She  assaults he step-brother Richard Mason after he does not “recognize” her. She then burns down the house, but not before seeing herself in the mirror as the ghost that haunts Thornfield Hall.

As re-writing of Jane Eyre, the political consequences of Rhys’ novel cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gives a face and history to a character that, in the original, was merely a “madwoman in the attic” that needed to be repressed for Jane’s emergence as chaste, moral, properly feminine, etc. But Spivak argues, convincingly, that such an argument appropriates the form of individualization that radical feminism, and critique more generally, should unsettle or reject. In Spivak’s reading, Bertha self-immolates so that Jane can emerge as the individualized feminist heroine  of European literature. The true Other, Christophine, remains outside this circuit of Western literature, the dialogue between literary feminists, because she is not just a white Creole, but a servant that is displaced from her home country Martinique from the very beginning.

Interesting endpoint for looking at the trope of the looking-glass. Antoinette sees herself in Tia just as the latter the latter throw a rock at her head. She herself in the eyes of the other. What are the ethical stakes of this identification. How does it differ from the self-recognition that occurs at the end of the novel, where Antoinette sees herself as the necessary sacrifice for the emergence of Jane Eyre/Jane Eyre? Connect to Wilde’s comments on cracked looking-glass, Joyce on cracked looking glass, and deKoven on mirrors, water, etc.

Mother-daughter text – Rhys’ novel is the daughter text that seeks to be the mother text. Compare to Zadie Smith’s rewriting of Howard’s End.

Literary history – the patronymic in the form of English literature is eaten away as Rochester scans the decaying book collection at the old mansion.

Narration – Rochester granted the role of narrator for all of second part. Does this render him sympathetic? Perhaps. Talk about the novel as Antoinette’s “quest” for a voice. The opening section’s voice is able to ventriloquize the thoughts of the town itself…the voice of the third section has fully imbricated itself into a text that has already been written. How qualified is that power of writing? Connect to the emergence of Stephen’s voice at the end of Portrait.

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