The Natural World in ‘Dolly’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Dolly by Susan Hill both show connections between humans and the natural world. Rhys presents the rich landscape of postcolonial Jamaica to be difficult to harmonise with yet as able to provide comfort, which is mirrored through the feelings and emotions of humans; Rochester and Antoinette. In a review of the book, Victoria Walker states ‘Rhys’s […] ambiguous portrait of the Caribbean is rendered through Antoinette’s conflicting feelings towards her homeland[1]’. Additionally; the title itself suggests an intimate relationship with the natural world, and as the vast North Atlantic Ocean is initially what divides Antoinette and Rochester. The natural world is a reminder of the different cultures that Antoinette and Rochester grew up in, and as the novel progresses Rhys uses the relationships both characters hold with nature to demonstrate their incompatibility as a couple. Similarly, Susan Hill reveals the darkness of nature in her novel Dolly. Repression is used as a typical gothic feature to demonstrate this; both through Leonora’s repressed anger triggered by her temperamental upbringing, and by the physical repression of Dolly who is buried in a box beneath the earth. Hill uses aspects of Freudian concept ‘the Uncanny’ to present nature as being strangely familiar, but also disturbing and unfamiliar, to demonstrate how when placed in an unfamiliar context, the two children need to question the seemingly safe environment of the natural world.

The novel Dolly, written by Susan Hill, uses the natural world in order to evoke the feelings of horror and unease typically associated with gothic fiction. More often than not, the settings of Gothic novels present the reader with bleak and gloomy visions of nature, and Dolly is no exception. However, Hill trusts that the reader is familiar with the ‘autumn night[2]’ but then adds unfamiliar qualities to the setting. The pathetic fallacy of ‘eerie cries’ foreshadow the later supernatural event of Dolly crying, which immediately establishes an indestructible bond between the natural world and humans. The use of human qualities to personify nature such as ‘whisper’ and ‘eerie cries[3]’ is uncanny as the reader recognises human traits in something supposedly inhuman, which evoke the typical Gothic feature of creating a sense of unease when reading. When the children explore outside, Leonara can see herself in the lake but is unable to explain what she sees.

‘Leonora’s red hair spread out in the water like weed, and the collar of her blue frock was clear, and a little of her long pale neck. But her face was not the same. Or rather, it was the same but…

“Oh,” he said. ‘“Who is it?” Leonora whispered.’[4]

The dark and reflective lake ties in with Freud’s theory of repression: the process of forcing unwanted thoughts into the unconscious part of the mind, in order to prevent the dangerous thoughts from entering our consciousness. This is out of fear of being exposed to the darkest parts of ourselves. The use of ellipsis after ‘but’ perhaps suggests that what Edward sees in the lake is too unspeakable to be put into words. This represents Leonara’s trauma; which has been pushed down into the unconscious, and is possibly the result of having an unsettled childhood, whereby Leonara travelled from Geneva ‘but before that from Hong Kong and before that from Rome[5]’. The reflectiveness of the lake would typically remind the reader of a mirror, but in this case they are confronted with the repressed and darkest parts of themselves. By experiencing the uncanny, both children are forced to question reality of a seemingly safe environment, as a natural notion of looking into the mirror has become supernatural and disturbing. This creates unease for the reader, as they too witness something which cannot be described, demonstrating how Hill allows the reader to be taken on a psychological experience through use of the natural world.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s cognitive development through childhood and into adolescence is reflected through her relationship with the natural world. For instance, when engaging with nature, Antoinette refers to her friend Tia using the triplet: ‘(fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her feet, I never saw her cry)[6]’. The triplet demonstrates a tone of pessimism, the comment suggests that in contrary, Antoinette struggles to live harmoniously with nature and her feet are hurt by the stones[7]. Her struggle to cooperate with the environment is perhaps a parallel to her difficulty identifying as a White Creole in Dominica. Typically more prosperous and educated than the local Dominicans, but not as superior as the white metropolitans; White Creoles often found it difficult to identify as a group in society. In his work which seeks to explore the culture and political position of white Creole people in Barbados, David Lambert states: ‘white identity was codified in law and nationalised in access to power[8]’. Despite referring to a different colony, Lambert’s work is easily applied to Jamaica, where Anette’s family were considered superior and powerful due to her Father’s plantation which exploited slaves. The uneasiness at this is demonstrated in the novel when ‘an animal roar’ erupts as the family leave the burning house. The animality present in the humans perhaps reflects their previous treatment as slaves, where they were seen as inferior to plantation owners. This cruel act mirrors how they were once treated, and the colour imagery of the ‘yellow-red sky[9]’ depicts nature’s anger regarding the harsh conditions and injustice that Atlantic slave trade brought to local Dominican people. This demonstrates the struggle that Antoinette’s family undergo in attempt to live peacefully with the natural world.

Rhys explicitly highlights the uncomfortable position of a white Creole peoples with their labelling as ‘white cockroaches[10]’. An example of theriomorphism, the derogative term reduces the family to mere bugs, and the metaphor continues as they are gradually squashed through the gossip and actions of the natives, which climax in the house being set ablaze. However, by the end of the novel, Antoinette does not run from fire but instead initiates it, demonstrating not only her maturing with age, but more importantly the conquering of her previously volatile relationship with the natural world. The shift in tonality from the original pessimism in the adverbial of frequency ‘never[11]’ has lifted, implying that Antoinette is able to change her connection with nature. As Gail Fincham notes in an essay ‘focalizing nature’ in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea; ‘the women of WSS are significantly linked with nature[12]’. Rhys is able to manipulate the natural world in order to show that as Antoinette develops with age, so does her ability to live harmoniously and at one with nature.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys frequently uses the natural world, colour imagery in particular, to mirror Antoinette’s states of mind. From a young age Antoinette’s narration places emphasis on carefully noticed colours ‘white, mauve, deep purple[13]’, which indicate a sense of enjoyment when spending time outdoors, rich with exotic colours. Describing the day that the ex-slaves set fire to Coulibri, Antoinette recalls the silence the family return to although she is comforted by the organic smells; ‘ferns and river water[14]’ that she associates with safety. Pathetic fallacy is also used to foreshadow the fire as ‘the colours had gone from the sky[15]’ and following the event, Rhys makes use of colour imagery. The ‘silver ferns[16]’ that had once boasted life and comfort to Antoinette have gone and the narration now focusses on the ‘blackened wall and mounted stone’. The sinister connotations juxtapose to Antoinette’s previously bright descriptions, symbolic of the first traumatic event whereby her depiction of the natural world dims to a bleak greyscale. The use of pathetic fallacy contrasts greatly to Rochester’s relationship with nature; when looking up at the rolling hills and sea, he meekly exclaims ‘what an extreme green’. The underwhelming exclamation juxtaposes to Antoinette’s colourful descriptions whereas he seemingly only has the ability to focus on one colour at a time, in contrast to Antoinette; who’s language often contains triplets. The anaphora of the triplet ‘too much blue, too much purple, too much green’ further demonstrates Rochester’s weak and emotionless connection with nature, which implies they are incompatible. However, Rochester’s inability to live harmoniously with nature only emphasises Antoinette’s much stronger connection in which the natural world can match her feelings and emotions. This links with the ecofeminist strand of criticism which seeks to link feminism with ecology, and Antoinette’s strong bond with the natural world supports this link.

The characters in Dolly can be seen as linked to nature too, and Leonora’s passionate rages are often mirrored by the weather. After becoming increasingly infuriated about not winning a game of Bagatelle, ‘the heat formed a heavy cloud that hung over the garden[17]’, which mirrors her ‘silent fury[18]’. The adverbial of manner, ‘hung’ implies that Leonora’s low spirits also have a dampening influence on Edward’s mood, who grows tired of playing. The weather imagery foreshadows the growing storm, but is also a parallel to Leonora’s boredom and disinterest regarding her time spent at Iyot Locke, which causes her furious outbursts. When the storm arrives, Edward wakes to colours of ‘flared white’ and ‘vivid blue[19]’. Hill uses colour imagery to portray weather in a similar way to Rhys, however the difference in location is evident with Rhys’s use of warm and flamboyant colours; ‘golden ferns[20]’ and ‘red and yellow flowers[21]’ which reflect the rich culture of the Caribbean. Hill’s use of colour is more subtle, and she uses cooler tones more typically associated with Britain, such as blues, greys and whites. Further lexical choices enable Leonara to be likened to the storm. The metaphor ‘thundered up the stairs[22]’ provides further support for Leonora’s storm like nature and after not having received the doll she wanted, she lets out a ‘dreadful animal howl[23]’. The use of theriomorphism is similarly to that utilised by Rhys, whereby both occasions give humans animal like qualities. The storm is the first thing the children are able to bond over and as a result are ‘bound up together in excitement and pleasure[24]’ over the visually stimulating natural event. This leaves them ‘linked in passion[25]’ which demonstrates a connection between themselves and the natural world.

Rhys uses the environment to provide comfort to Antoinette, who seeks solace in nature. ‘Green moss soft as velvet and I never wanted to move again. Everything would be worse if I moved[26]’ demonstrates a recognition that she doesn’t want her sense of safety to be removed by interfering with her position in nature. ‘In a child’s world, nature consoles[27]’ (Fincham); but perhaps the comfort sought in the natural world is due to the neglect she experiences at the hands of her Mother, both physically and emotionally. The simile ‘green moss soft as velvet’ creates a state of physical ease and serenity that a parent’s warm embrace would offer; suggesting that as a result of the maternal deprivation, Antoinette replaces her own absent parent with Mother Nature. Indeed, other natural elements such as wind and fire provide security to Antoinette by the end of the novel. The metaphor ‘there was a wall of fire to protect me[28]’ contrasts to the early bitter exclamation that ‘fires always lit for her[29]’. As she stands over the edge of Thornfield, her hair ‘streamed out like wings’ as it was caught by the wind. The reference to wings creates biblical imagery and is euphemistic in symbolising her death, but suggests that even in her final moments, a powerful spirit is guiding her to safety, poignantly illustrating that the natural world serves as a guardian for Antoinette.

In Dolly, the natural world also provides comfort to Edward and Leonora. Absent mothers are present here too; Edward is left an orphan after both of his parents die suddenly, and Leonora’s Mother constantly travels the world, often leaving Leonara behind, and in the novel both children spend the summer at Aunt Kestrel’s house. Leonara refers to her parents as being ‘somewhere else’, and in Gothic Forms of Feminine Fiction, Susanne Barker states that the absence of mothers ‘haunts the daughter’s subjectivity’. She precedes to state that the ‘uncanny presence of absent mothers[30]’ sometimes known as ‘mock mothers’ are central to Gothic writer Munro’s plots. Leonara’s inability to sleep at night implies that she could be subconsciously haunted, and is highlighted by the hyperbole ‘face stark white[31]’ as she stands at Edward’s door. She also appears in her cousin’s room whilst sleepwalking, suggesting that she subliminally seeks the comfort of a familiar figure, as her own Mother is not available to provide comfort. However, she is soon brought back to her sense of self by witnessing the storm, something both she and her cousin thrive from. This suggests that similarly to Antoinette, the pair find comfort from nature to partly compensate for their unavailable Mother figures. Additionally, Dolly also lacks a Mother figure, and her removal from the ground by Edward disrupts the idea of a natural vaginal birth. His use of ‘a bowl of cold water, an ancient cloth and a blunt knife[32]’ is evocative of a Caesarean section, which in itself is an unnatural form of birth. This act is anti-feminist as something as natural as birth has been controlled by a male figure and similarly Antoinette’s decline in wellbeing is at the hands of Rochester, also a male figure. This suggests that in both novels, the absence of Mother’s results in the attempted control of a male figure, but that the absence is partially restored through the natural world.

The humans in both Dolly and Wide Sargasso Sea are tied to the natural world. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s development into adulthood is reflected by her relationship with the wild nature in Jamaica. Her ability to light fire by the end of the novel is evocative as it symbolises her desire to cleanse herself of her new, restricting surroundings. In Dolly, the presence of the uncanny is used to present the discomfort of the characters when faced with human traits in nature. For example, the ‘eerie cries[33]’ that Edward hears when returning to Iyot Lock are symbolic of Dolly’s cries before he buries her in the graveyard. Dolly herself is a symbol of the uncanny is both dead and alive; both human and non-human, which adds unease when reading, and Hill has ultimately created a psychological experience for Dolly’s readers. After paying close attention to both books, it seems vital to add that perhaps we should start paying closer attention to nature, as our relationships with the natural world can tell us a lot about ourselves.

[1] Victoria Walker, ‘Ornithology and Ontology: The Existential Birdcall in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Anna Kavan’s Who Are You’ (2012) p.507 [2] Susan Hill, Dolly (London: Profile Books, 2012) p.v [3] IBID p.v [4]IBID p.54-55 [5] IBID p.41 [6] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed. by Angela Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p.6 [7] Dr Ellie Dobson, Psychoanalysis and Dolly, Prose(University of Birmingham, unpublished, 2017) (accessed on 1st January 2018). [8] David Lambert, White Creole Culture, Politics and Identity during the age of abolition (Cambridge University Press, 2016) P.36 [9] Susan Hill, Dolly (London: Profile Books, 2012) p.24 [10] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed. by Angela Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p.9 [11] IBID p.6 [12] Gail Fincham, ‘The Mind’s Eye: Focalizing “Nature” in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea’, English Academy Review, 27:1, p.19 [13] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed. by Angela Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p.6 [14] IBID p.16 [15] IBID p.17 [16] IBID p.24 [17] Susan Hill, Dolly (London: Profile Books, 2012) p.63 [18] IBID p.63 [19] IBID p.67 [20] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed. by Angela Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p.24 [21] IBID p.12 [22] Susan Hill, Dolly (London: Profile Books, 2012) p.82 [23] IBID p.80 [24] IBID p.68 [25] IBID p.69 [26] Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed. by Angela Smith (London: Penguin Books, 1997) p.9 [27] Gail Fincham, ‘The Mind’s Eye: Focalizing “Nature” in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea’, English Academy Review, 27:1, p.19 [28] IBID p.123 [29] IBID p.6 [30] Susanne Becker, Gothic Forms of Feminine Fiction (Manchester University Press, 2012) p.112 [31] Susan Hill, Dolly (London: Profile Books, 2012) p.68 [32] IBID p.112