EN3262   Postcolonial/Postmodern Writing

Lecturer: Rajeev S Patke




Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) - Lecture Summary

1. Narrative Technique: Narrative personas

[first persona narrator; alternate narration; manipulation of reader's viewpoint; the feminist logic of "woman must tell"]

2. Intertextuality

[the relation with Jane Eyre; postmodern self-reflexivity; textual parasitism & textual revisionism]

3. Thematic Topics

[Gender, Race, Marriage, Power, Place]

4.  Six recurrent motifs

[Place & identity; Colonialism & race; Gender and family; Power & magic; Dreams & denegation; Narrativity & truth]

5.  Sample Essay (excerpt)

6.  Review Questions




Recurrent Motifs



 1. Place and identity

 70: Everything is too much ... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.

 80: `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.'

 111: `England,' said Christophine ... `You think there is such a place?'

 129: `I feel very much a stranger here,' I said. `I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.'


 2.1 Colonialism and race 

 24: 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.

  2.2 Hybridity as miscegenation 

 67: Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.

 [Note on language and hybridity: Dialect: local and class variants which are distinct from the standard form of a national language.; Pidgin: simplified mixtures of two or more languages current in trading or `contact' situations, but without being anyone's mother tongue; Creole: Creole comes about when the children of pidgin speakers acquire it as their first language, not just for specific transactions, but for social and intimate use.... So a Creole may be understood as a kind of dialect which has arisen out of a specific, typically colonial, situation of cultural mixing; Patois: refers to an unwritten regional dialect, usually considered substandard; All these designate an inferior or peripheral significance to languages which arose in a colonial context, whereas standard English has connotations of imperialism.]

 [Gordon Rohlehr, `The oral tradition in Caribbean poetry': Africa equals drum, naked tribesmen cavorting, play, passion and backwardness; Europe equals refinement, culture, education, intelligence, virtue and self-control.... the psyche of the person of mixed racial heritage became a battlefield of conflicting elements... the `mulatto of culture' was faced with the choice of either total negation of, or subversive self-identification with the black ancestor. ]

 [Louise Bennett (poet): The nature of the Jamaican dialect is the nature of comedy.... the dialect is very adaptable ... you can express yourself so much more strongly and vividly than in standard English .... I wanted to put on paper some of the wonderful things that people say in dialect.... So then I started to take a greater interest in people — to listen to what they were saying and how they were saying it.... Our people ... have a wonderful sanity and clarity in their language ....  for too long it was considered not respectable to use the dialect. Because there was a social stigma attached to the kind of person who used dialect habitually.]

 102: ... a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders.  And I've heard English women call us white niggers.  So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.


 3. Gender and family

 49: `Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother'.

 134: she didn't want me. She pushed me away and cried when I went to see her. They told me I made her worse.

 157: `They drive her to it. When she lose her son she lose herself for a while and they shut her away. They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad... They won't let Antoinette see her. In the end - mad I don't know - she give up, she care for nothing...'

 164: ...a drunken lying lunatic - gone her mother's way.

 [Note: The notion of foreclosure is a Lacanian retrieval of Freud's Verwerfung, used systematically in the 1956 paper, `On a question preliminary to any possible treatment of psychosis', Écrits 200-201, 217). Lacan claims that `if the Created I assumes in it the place in F, left vacant by the Law, the place of the Creator is designated in it by that liege lassen, that fundamental let-lie, in which absence that made it possible to construct oneself out of the primordial symbolization M of the Mother appears to be denuded, from the foreclosure of the Father' (Écrits 205) .... `It is in ... the foreclosure of the Name-of-the Father in the place of the Other, and in the failure of the paternal metaphor, that I designate the defect that gives psychosis its essential condition, and the structure that separates it from neurosis' (Écrits 215) .... `For the psychosis to be triggered off, the Name-of-the-Father, verworfen, foreclosed, that is to say, never having attained the place of the Other, must be called into symbolic opposition to the subject' (Écrits 217). Other related terms used by Lacan to discuss that which is not repression, and how it functions in the formation of the ego include méconnaisance, `the illusion of autonomy' (Écrits 6), and Charcot's scotomozation, which refers technically, as Martin Jay explains `to a retinal lesion producing a visual blindspot, the term was used ... to designate a mode of psychotic unawareness' (Downcast Eyes 1994: 354). `Contrary to what happens in normal repression, the mind in spite of outward appearances is really simply trying to evade a situation in which it has to endure frustration and which it apprehends as a castration' (cited from a 1927 source by David Macey, Lacan in Contexts, 1988: 35).]


  4. Power and magic

 59-60: It is still night and I am walking towards the forest ... following the man who is with me ... I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse.

 70: And the woman is a stranger ... I have not bought her, she has bought me.

 107: negroes as a rule refuse to discuss the black magic in which so many believe. Voodoo as it is called in Haiti - Obeah in some of the islands, another name in South America.

 113: `Even if I can make him come to your bed, I cannot make him love you. Afterward he hate you.'

 147: `Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know that's obeah too.

 154: `She tell me in the middle of all this you start calling her names. Marionette. Some word so.'

   `Yes, I remember , I did.'

   (Marionette, Antoinette, Marionetta, Antoinetta)

  `That word mean doll, eh? Because she don't speak. You want to force her to cry and to speak.

 163: I drew a house surrounded by trees. A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman ... it was an English house.


  5. Dreams and denegation

  Julia Kristeva: `Denegation or disavowal [Freud's Verleugnung] is a specific mode of defence which consists in the subject refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception', Toril Moi, ed. The Kristeva Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 215. The result, according to Kristeva, is twofold: hallucination and displacement.

 119: There would be the sky and the mountains, the flowers and the girl and the feeling that all this was a nightmare, the faint consoling hope that I might wake up.

 181: They tell me I am in England but I don't believe them.... It was that night, I think, that we changed course and lost our way to England.

 182: you remember much more than you pretend to remember.

 183:  `You fool,' she said, `this is England.'

    `I don't believe it,' I said, `and I never will believe it.'


   6. Narrativity and truth

  104: How can one discover truth I thought and that thought led me nowhere. No one would tell me the truth.

  113: Running away from him, from this island, is the lie.

  130: `You want to know about my mother, I will tell you about her, the truth, not lies.'

  152: `Everybody know that you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up, because you jealous of her.'... It was like that, I thought. It was like that.               



 Brief essay (RSP) [from "Method and Madness in A Question of Power and Wide Sargasso Sea." Journal of Caribbean Literatures , 4.1 (2005): 185-193:

 Wide Sargasso Sea brings about an intersection between race, gender and familial constructs with such intensity as to have repercussions and challenges for the field of theory, in its intersection of the feminist, the psychoanalytic and the postcolonial.   Like her protagonist, Jean Rhys was a creole `white nigger' (85) born into the layered colonialism of the late nineteenth century Caribbean, and paid the price in her life of a stigma which converted an intransitive and involuntary condition of hybridity into what her society claimed was the embodiment of a transgression against nature. Body and skin-colour could not avoid being read as indelible signs of a mixed racial origin. To have been born a hybrid meant having to face calumny, ingest guilt, and contend with self-negation. Birth became miscegenation, a condition in which the wish for self-debasement has to be fought as the black child in Blake tries to, or as Shakespeare's Perdita manages to, in her spirited defence of `gilly-flowers', Nature's so-called bastards, which she reminds her elders are no less natural than products of other more `legitimate' beds. Her experience is one of exile and alienation from home, where home is a comprehensively split notion which encompasses the absence-in-presence of the parental, the social, the cultural and the racial. The incomprehensibility of why you were somehow `wrong' could not alleviate the unbearableness of being made to feel always so `wrong'. Jean Rhys' protagonist, Antoinette, explains why she is referred to by the local population of her native island of Jamaica as a `white cockroach' (102).

               For her and her mother life is a trauma in which `some things happen and are there for always even though you forget why or when' (68-9). The craft of the novelist which shapes the struggle to redeem lives already branded by a `crime' that they are not conscious of having committed, whose recursivity, however, they had to suffer, as a kind of surplus or overflow, a helpless and terrible repetition beyond recuperation.  What belies the despair, or underlies and overlays it, is a resistance which takes succour in the narrativity of art. Rhys constructs a semi- or quasi-autobiographical journey which might be described as an allegory in the shape of a moebius.  This is wound or twisted around a protagonist who might be said to be a metonymic function of the author's predicament, in the manner in which a charm can be said to relate intimately to the evil it is meant to ward off, or the way an inoculating virus resembles the parent virus against whom it is used to develop protective antibodies in the host, or the way a lightning-rod is married to the bolt of lightning it must earth, or the way the shield of Perseus kisses the gaze of the Medusa it will freeze, or the way Orpheus might have averted with averted gaze the destiny of losing Eurydice a second time.

                The novel is exemplary, not in the enormity of the damage the author sustained in reaching the point from which she could write this narrative, but in the resourcefulness with which the novelist exorcizes through art the rapacity of a universally appetitive will to power, a will rooted in weakness, insecurity and malice.  Rhys gives her protagonist three separate first-person narratives. The personal dreams written down in a Black Exercise Book thirty years before Wide Sargasso Sea was conceived, eventually find their way into Antoinette's recurrent nightmares.1  Rhys is intent on letting her protagonist capsize in order for her narrative to excoriate the Law. Author and protagonist are thus split.

                The climactic time of incendiary madness is narrativized by Rhys with concision, thus foregrounding the enforcing events which induced the final of many self-immolations. By cross-hatching one narrative subjectivity against another and one narrative time against another, the gradual inevitability of Antoinette's dereliction and decomposition is given a dispassionate Cubist-like perspective. A polyphony of multiple narrative voices and shifting time-frames deliberately fragments linearity even as it organizes the narrative momentum into the shape of two large prelude-like waves: in the first, the protagonist loses her mother's primary attention to a succession of husbands and a male idiot sibling, and then the mother loses her favourite child and her sanity when her home is burnt down by a racist mob who have long resented her hybridity, her mixed marriages and the property she has inherited from them. In the second movement, the daughter who never knew a true father, and then twice lost a mother, now loses herself and her property to a man whom she cannot hold either in love or even lust.  A foster-mother supplicated and importuned for black-magic — `obeah' (88-9) — proves of no avail. The daughter cannot hold a husband in one sense just as she never had a father to hold her in another sense, and the foster-mother ends up, almost against her own will, betraying the daughter to confinement and the fate of the madwoman in the attic, thus repeating the mother's betrayal in never having been there fully for the daughter.2 The girl who lost her home, her sibling, her mother and their parrot to a fire that razed everything down to ashes, can only find relief in a second fire to mirror the original one, so that she is finally cleansed of her self. There is no phoenix in this fiction. All the mirrors Antoinette looks into in order to imagine a self for herself are distorted or cracked. When the mob sets fire to her house, a servant girl with whom Antoinette used to play casts a stone at her (38).

                The act of writing, of using language to organize consciousness functions simultaneously as re-enactment, heuristic and therapy.  Hysteria, breakdown and despair are confronted, not evaded.3 The exorcism of art works through articulating clearly that which threatens to break, tear, wrench. The daughter who was never properly acknowledged by fathers, and unable to relate adequately to men as lovers or husbands, write themselves into a space in which the desire of the male is held up to a close and scorching scrutiny. The daughter frees herself by writing the mother out of her life, reckoning the damage the mother sustained and the damage she passed on to the daughter as unwitting legacy, a curse whose poison has to be digested in the blood of the daughter, and bled as ink onto the canvas of the novel, for the white magic of art to inscribe its redemptive and its rebuking hieroglyphs. The unspoken or smudged out palimpsest on which the narrative is written points to a daughter who has been pulled off like a splinter from the maternal body, without a chance for what is most desired, an imaging of her self in the mirror of the mother. The difficulty for a girl `in detaching herself from the mother in order to accede to the order of signs as invested by the absence and separation constitutive of the paternal function' is made worse by the absence of the father.4 It withholds paternal authorization, and puts the origin of the subject in question. Husbands — displacements of the male authority for the woman's identity — in failing to confer upon the woman the social role and the domestic rites of a wife, redouble the effect of the originary displacement.

                The relation between author and protagonist in Rhys is prophylactic. The fate of Antoinette, the woman from whom the man withholds even her name, the woman who cannot make all the fragments cohere, is like a project of naming through which the woman-as-author, who was registered at birth under the name Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, renames herself Jean Rhys.5 She must not, will not become the madwoman in the attic, but knows that she is too often too close to that condition. She writes herself an alter-ego to serve as sacrifice on the twin altars of patriarchy and the missing mother. Her text also offers homage and administers a rebuke to her literary foster-mother — Charlotte Brontë — a woman whose Jane Eyre half-subverts the progeny she has engendered. The construction of Antoinette's narrative is an unravelling of the weave into which Brontë worked her fantasy of Jane and Bertha and Rochester. The deconstruction is possible because Brontë's fiction wears the threads of its repression loosely on the sleeve of its own feminine wish-fulfilment. Rhys discloses what in Brontë is never completely enclosed. The names of mother and daughter in Rhys are a near-reversal of those in Brontë; the name the man insists on using for Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea — Bertha — is the name of Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre. By constructing her novel in the form of an antidotal fable to that of Brontë, dependent yet resistant, Rhys is able to marry the personal through the mediation of the intertextual with the allegorical without sacrificing any of its pungency. By deconstructing a potentially self-deconstructive text such as Jane Eyre, Rhys is able to shape her own materials into a systematically antithetical relation which feeds cannibal-like on Brontë's compromised femininity.

                Denial, in Wide Sargasso Sea, takes the form of the failure to love. The unnamed man extrapolated out of Brontë's Rochester, himself a second and hence a dispossessed son, with a father to work out of his own system, is incapable of anything beyond a mechanical lust fumbling about in a stupor, split from love and care. His rejection of the guilt at the failure to love recoils on the dispossessed woman in the form of hatred. She becomes like a mirror, first wiped clean of her own self-hood, into which he then projects his self-hatred, which he finally breaks up as he might a doll, chanting to her the lulling and demeaning refrain `Marionette, Antoinette' (127), in an attempt to get rid of his own guilt. The silvering at the back of the mirror is his lust for her money, a small, ugly stop-gap for the lack he can never fill. Towards the end, for her, lost in his England, `There is no looking-glass here and I don't know what I am like now' (147). The only wish Antoinette can nurse successfully in Wide Sargasso Sea is to die, and like her mother, she dies more than once: `There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about' (106). `Say die and I will die' she says to her husband; in response he declares to the reader that `I watched her die many times. In my way, not hers' (77). What Rhys identifies is man's practice of voodoo or obeah upon woman: the plural deaths women are made to suffer at the hands of men who acquire power over them.

                Rhys scores a threnody for the defeat of the feminine as the only tragic indictment of the masculine available to her Antoinette and Anette. The repossessing a sense of the value of ordinariness, of the mundanity of work, and of belonging to a place is underscored as precisely that which is denied to Rhys' Antoinette. Her husband's deliberately casual adultery with a coloured servant in Antoinette's house distastes and dispossesses her of the only place she had learned to identify herself with as her natural habitat and patrimony (90). England, his home, and the house he builds there with her money, transports what had first seemed to her its dream-like unreality into the numbness of nightmare.  The tragedy is that he appropriates and desecrates what he neither appreciates nor understands, a person emblematic `of a beautiful place — wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness' (73). The feminine in Rhys gets wrecked on the failure of love.


1  Teresa F. Connor, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels (New York  and London: New York University Press, 1986), 184.

2  `The primordial Law is therefore that which in regulating marriage ties superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature abandoned to the law of mating', Jacques Lacan, `The function and field of language in psychoanalysis', Écrits (New York and London: Norton, 1977), 66.

3  Kristeva's use of C. S. Peirce's notion of icon (`a signifier which is or incarnates its referent' as Toril Moi explains): `The hallucination recurs periodically in order to indicate, like an icon, an unutterable jouissance that endangers the symbolic resources of the speaking being' (The Kristeva Reader 216, 230).

4  `Women's Time', The Kristeva Reader, 204.

5  cf. Teresa F. Connor, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels, 8.



Review Questions: Wide Sargasso Sea

  1.   What is the role of mirrors as image and symbol in the novel?

 2. How do issues of race get mixed with issues of class in the novel? And how is that reflected in the language of the text?

 3. How do issues of gender get reflected in the novel?

 4. What makes it an intertextual novel in relation to Jane Eyre? What is the significance of this intertextual relation?

 5. What is the significance of naming in the novel? and how is it related to issues pertaining to magic (literal and metaphorical)?

 6. If the protagonist and partial narrator of the novel could be said to be triply colonized (by colonialism, racism and patriarchy), how does the activity of writing narrative provide a kind of fictive redress? [Check out the implications of the notion of "redress" through Seamus Heaney's The Redress of Poetry.]

 7. How can the narrative technique deployed by Rhys, and its self-reflexivity, enable subsequent readers to link the novel to postmodern tendencies?




LAST UPDATED  21 July 2010