TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding
Sektionsleiter | Section Chair: Atilla Silkü (Ege University, Izmir, Turkey)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

The Victim of Colonization: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

H. Gul Koparanoglu (Dokuz Eylul University, Izmir, Turkey) [BIO]



Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) reflects the experience of women in patriarchal and colonial societies in the mid-nineteenth century. A Creole herself, from Dominica, Rhys was mainly concerned with asserting the cultural identity of the natives in her Creole heroine Antoinette. By reconstructing Bronte’s text Jane Eyre, Rhys unveils the issues related to the phenomenon of colonialism. In the character of Antoinette, she draws attention to the colonized people who are totally silenced, dehumanized and mistreated in the earlier colonial text. As the novel tells us about the relation between the oppressor (Britain) and the oppressed (Jamaica), the heroine is the subject of domination and humiliation by the system of the patriarchal and colonial oppression which is prevalent in England and Jamaica. This relation is also symbolized in Antoinette’s marriage. She is married to an English man and this leads her to her end.

The novel consists of three parts. In the first part, Antoinette recalls her childhood at Coulibri and her life in the convent prior to her marriage to Rochester. The second part unfolds the narration between Antoinette and her husband Rochester, in which he starts to impose his point of view. The third part depicts Antoinette’s disintegrating narration as Rochester confines her in the cold attic of Thornfield Hall. The aim of this paper is to show how Jean Rhys represents the idea of belonging nowhere, the results of replacement and, as a consequence, how these two ideas affect the protagonist Antoinette and provoke her resistance.

In the following sentence:

“We must be able to think through and interpret together experiences that are discrepant, each with its particular agenda and pace of development, its own internal formations, its internal coherence and system of external relationships, all of them coexisting and interacting with others” (Said, 32),

Edward Said emphasizes the importance of recognizing the interdependence of various histories. As literature develops and progresses with the continuous progress of history, when the interrelation of the novel and the history is analyzed, it is important to notice that “the English stayed in Jamaica for two centuries from 1655 and 1855, during which time they enslaved the aborigines and exploited their land for their own personal interest” (Cundall 6). As the aboriginal population declined through abuse and disease, slaves from West Africa were transported as a replacement. “Even after emancipation of slaves in 1834, slaves were not completely free, for they were still not allowed to own land. Instead, they became indentured servants for the whites” (Bigelow, 121). By hiring black servants for life, the English were attempting to restore slavery in an indirect way. If the social stratification of the time is analyzed, it is clear that in Jamaica, there were three racial categories: the whites were the elite who controlled everything; the blacks were mainly slaves and finally the browns or Creoles who belonged neither to the whites nor to the blacks, but somewhere between the two.

In her definition of the word “Creole,” Susan Meyer cites the 19th century history of the United States and claims:

“The word Creole was used in the 19th century to refer to both blacks and whites born in the West Indies, a usage which caused some confusion, for there are Creole whites, Creole negros, Creole horses… etc. Creole whites are of all persons the most anxious to be deemed of pure white blood” (Meyer, 253).

This ambiguity and the idea of belonging to nowhere are emphasized in the novel, in which Antoinette and her Creole mother are ostracized by expatriate whites and despised by their black servants. They are suspended between the two races and isolated from both: the blacks call them “white cockroaches” and the whites refer to them as “white niggers.” Antoinette’s undefined race is a major dilemma in her life. She declares: “So between you and I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (Rhys; 102).

Since her childhood, Antoinette’s feelings of rejection and marginality in relation to her family and to the people around her are intensified by her experience as a Creole. As a child, Antoinette notices that nobody comes to visit them, and that Jamaican ladies do not approve of her mother, who is originally from Martinique. In fact, Antoinette’s mother is doubly rejected. She is isolated from the black women who consider her an outsider, and excluded from the white community as a French West Indian woman in British West Indian colony.

The rejection of mother and daughter by their “community” refers basically to the socio-economic and political changes that have taken place after the abolition of slavery. As old colonizers, Antoinette and her mother are caught up between the former slaves who do not want them any longer in the island and the new colonizers who are still coming from England to replace the old ones. Despite the abolition of slavery, we notice that human relationships within the context of Wide Sargasso Sea are constructed within a complicated system of racial and class differences. For instance, Antoinette’s nurse, Christophine, a wedding gift to Annete, chooses to remain with the Cosways and later on with the Masons even after the emancipation. Annette says: “Christophine stayed with me because she wanted to stay. She had her own very good reasons you may be sure. I dare say we would have died if she’d turned against us and that would have been a better fate.” (Rhys, 21) Christophine’s good reasons mark a relationship of intense dependency, because she moves from the position of slave to the position of Antoinette’s nurse - which indicates the continuity between slavery and post-slavery conditions. Regarding other freed persons, Annette says angrily, “They stayed, because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat” (Rhys, 22). This also shows that the abolition of slavery did not eliminate the master/slave relationship of the past, because the abolition did not better the situation of the blacks in the West Indies, neither offered them better choices.

By using racial stereotypes like Antoinette, her friend Tia and her nurse Christophine, Jean Rhys presents the social relationships of the time. Her friendship with Tia is established immediately after relating the incident of the little girl who follows her singing, “Go away white cockroach, go away, go away” (Rhys, 23), marking the social divisions of black and white. Antoinette is aware of the hostility of the blacks, a fact that renders her friendship with Tia fragile and ambivalent. Their relationship marks not only their racial difference, but also Antoinette’s profound desire to identify herself with Tia, and with the island at large. Still, Antoinette, who sometimes feels like belonging to the superior race, tries to distinguish herself from Tia: “After we had eaten, she (Tia) slept at once. I could not sleep, but I wasn’t quite awake as I lay… looking at the pool” (Rhys, 23). By contrasting her alertness with Tia’s laziness, Antoinette is referring to a general racial stereotype concerning the lazy black, through which she attempts to emphasize her racial superiority. According to a critic, Veronica Greeg, here the white child contemplates nature, whereas “the lazy black who only desires to sleep after eating is a common trope of colonialist discourse” (Greeg, 88). This racial difference between Antoinette and Tia indicates the lack of mutual standards in a relationship which is highly influenced by cultural background. Tia, who is fully aware of Antoinette as an old colonizer, challenges Antoinette’s assumptions and undermines her racial superiority by referring to her as a “white nigger.” This racial abuse is manifested in action when Tia cheats Antoinette out of her pennies. The two girls quarrel and abuse each other verbally:

- “keep them then, you cheating nigger. I can get if I want to.”
-“that’s not what she hear,” she (Tia) said. “she hear all we poor like beggar… plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got 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, 24).

The “real white people” in Tia’s narrative refers to the new colonizers whose economic status is much better than that of the old colonizers who are generally equated with “white niggers.” This indicates that the racial superiority of the whites depends upon their economic status. Tia purposely draws this comparison between the new colonizers who have money and the old ones who have lost theirs in order to humiliate Antoinette and her family, whose economically declining situation reduces them to “niggers”.

There is another racial difference between her husband and Antoinette. The discourse of Antoinette and her husband Rochester is in a violent conflict. Antoinette’s relationship with her white English husband, Rochester that is marked by misunderstanding, suspicion and betrayal, is central in Rhys’s novel. On the one hand, it emphasizes the conflict between the old and the new colonizers, while on the other hand, it represents a colonial encounter between the oppressor, Rochester, and the oppressed, Antoinette.

In the beginning, Rochester promises Antoinette peace, happiness and safety, but as soon as he achieves power and money, he attempts to press her into conformity with his own views, first by verbal persuasion, then by coercion. As a colonizer, Rochester has to overcome his feelings of alienation in the new place. His dominant voice becomes a process of self-identification that enables him to maintain his superiority over the uncivilized island and over its racially different natives. He shows an acute concern for his place in the island and that of the natives. He reconsiders the racial background of Antoinette, as he describes her: “Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either” (Rhys, 67). His indifference to the place and, by extension, to the natives and Antoinette is revealed as he thinks to himself: “it was all very bright colored, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry” (Rhys, 76).

Part of Rochester’s estrangement from Antoinette derives from their difference from each other, and this difference according to Rochester makes it impossible for him to love her: “As for the happiness I gave her that was worse than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did” (Rhys, 93). Not only that Antoinette is a stranger for him, but he is also alien to her and to the entire island as well: “I feel very much a stranger here. I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side” (Rhys, 129). The feeling of being rejected by his wife as well as by the community intensifies his feelings of superiority before his Creole wife and the racially different natives. This mood reinforces the mutual misunderstanding, suspicion, and betrayal in his relationship with Antoinette.

The discourse of Antoinette and her husband Rochester is in a violent conflict. While Rochester maintains a white male imperialistic stance, Antoinette attempts to preserve the integrity of her own self. The result is that both stand in a binary cultural opposition. There is a wide divergence in their perceptions, because they represent two opposed centers of consciousness. Through some extended passages of dialogue, Antoinette’s voice is heard in the midst of Rochester’s narrative. In fact, she invades his narration to confront his imperialist ideology by challenging his superiority and by emphasizing her point of view, as this example of their argumentative exchange shows:

“Is it true?” she said, “that England is like a dream?...”
“Well,” I answered annoyed, “that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.”
“But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?” And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal? More easily, she said. Much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream.”
No, this is unreal and like a dream”, I thought (Rhys, 80).

Antoinette’s tendency to resist the discourse of the white male ideology of imperialism, as voiced through Rochester’s consciousness, can also be seen in the argument that ensues from Christophine’s speech when she is serving them coffee. Antoinette endeavors to defend Christophine by correcting Rochester’s distorted views of blacks along with his racist language. Rochester’s view of Christophine is counter-challenged by Antoinette’s insistent voice. She rectifies his judgements of Christophine, especially his attribution of laziness and vulgar language to her, and by extension to the natives in general, as the argument indicates:

Antoinette’s subversion of the imperialist discourse is also evidenced by a high value she attaches to her own identity. When Rochester perversely calls her Bertha, and provokes her by saying “I think of you as Berta” (Rhys, 135), Antoinette strongly protests this false denomination, because it signifies the obliteration of her real identity: “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name” (Rhys, 147).

The last section of Wide Sargasso Sea brings Antoinette into a confrontation with the cold English world of Rochester, the center of imperial values and the prison house for the white Creole woman. Even Rochester’s voice is silenced. Having successfully destroyed Antoinette’s identity and all her links with the past, he recedes from the narrative in this final section, but even when she is confined to the attic of the Thornfield Hall, Antoinette struggles to restore her own identity. She is aware of the importance of her true name for her sense of her identity, insisting that “names matter, like when he couldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking glass (Rhys, 180).

The problems between Antoinette and Rochester come to an end when Antoinette gives her decision and descends from her prison by burning down Thornfield Hall, Rochester’s home, which is the symbol of white male domination and exploitation in England, with its clear connections to the structures of colonialism. As Thornfield Hall is the concrete manifestation of Rochester’s inheritance from his father, and the culmination of the Rochester fortunes made from colonial wealth, Antoinette’s final act of defiance overturns the past history in which she was the helpless watcher of Coulibri’s destruction.

The end of Wide Sargasso Sea is left open; readers do not witness the death of Antoinette Cosway. What readers witness is her decision to seize the confrontation of her own destiny at last:

“now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage” (Rhys, 190).

Rhys represents her protagonist with a ray of light to guide her hopes. For Antoinette, at least, the darkness of ignorance, despair and death are finally illuminated by the light of self-knowledge and revolt.

To conclude, Jean Rhys envisions no way in which the colonial white West Indian woman can escape her imprisonment in the prevailing social structure except through death and destruction. Focusing on the issues of colonialism and the effects of colonialism on the external world, Rhys grants her Jamaican heroine her own voice by picturing the oppressor and the oppressed.



3.3. Globalization, Transnational Literatures, and Cross-Cultural Understanding

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For quotation purposes:
H. Gul Koparanoglu: The Victim of Colonization: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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