Destabilizing the Binary System Through Intertextual Symbolism
Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea develops an intertextual relationship with Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre by inventing a backstory that can explain the tragic fate of Bertha Mason – the most marginalized character. The oppressive binary system created by the white colonials are not made apparent enough in Jane Eyre. To expose the interlocking systems of oppression that underlie Bronte’s text, Rhys incorporates prominent symbols found in Jane Eyre such as fire and the colour red and cultivates their meaning in her own novel. By cultivating symbols in Jane Eyre, readers are implored to delve further into why Rhys has chosen to extend Bronte’s use of symbols in her meta-text. She enriches those symbols in Wide Sargasso Sea to accomplish a certain goal: bring light to the existence and the effects of the oppressive binary system found in Jane Eyre in order to deconstruct the intelligibility of the binary system as a whole.
While Bronte in Jane Eyre uses symbols to show her protagonist overcoming difficulties and to racially categorize people, Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea incorporates those same symbols to undermine the intelligibility of the binary system by highlighting its limitations, thus warning readers of the dangers of accepting the dominant binary system set in place by those in power. It is important to understand the notion of binaries and its effects first to see why Rhys might have made them an object of focus through the adopted symbols. Flynn and Leonard in Necessary Fictions claims that binaries convey a hierarchal relation between two terms, and that no person, place, or thing in this world is beyond this ideology (Flynn and Leonard Ch. 4). Since binaries are made by those in power, they act as a vehicle for hegemonic discourse by carrying norms, values, and hierarchies established by those in power (Ch. 4). In addition, binaries influence how subjects see themselves and who they think they are in relation to what is considered right or wrong (Ch. 4). Bertha/Antoinette in the two novels is confined by binaries that carry norms and values counter-intuitive to her culture at home. Due to the conflicts between the ridged European-based binaries and the multi-faceted cultures of the Caribbean, Bertha/Antionette suffer internal conflicts which make it difficult for her to subjugate herself in relation to what is right or wrong.
Oppressive binaries are in both Jane Eyre and in Wide Sargasso Sea, but in the former it is covert, and in the latter, it is prominent. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is utterly oppressed by the binary system, but the novel is worded to make it appear as if it is necessary for her to be locked away in secrecy. The first clear description of Bertha depicted her as a savage animal: “it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal” (Bronte 338). Bertha’s spectators could not tell whether she is a “beast or [a] human being . . . at first sight” (338). All they could tell is that the figure is “covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face” (338). Furthermore, in a conversation Jane had with the locals, he tells her that Bertha “[is] kept in very close confinement” and “people even for some years [are] not absolutely certain of her existence” (491). Looking strictly at the words used, there is no suggestion or thought that this beast of a human has been coerced to become like this. Instead, it is made to seem like Bertha set fire to the hall because she is a “lunatic” and not because she was systematically oppressed by the binary system (492). Jane, the narrator whom the readers view the world through, is blind to the consequences of silencing and imprisoning another individual. Bertha is oppressed because she does not co-exist well with the binary system England enforces.
Rhys exposes the historically and racially biased binaries in the world of Jane Eyre by creating a meta-text with Antoinette/Bertha caught in-between dueling epistemologies, highlighting the prejudices that create those oppressive binaries. Conforming to those oppressive binaries can lead to the degradation of a person. Coco the parrot in Wide Sargasso Sea symbolizes the dangers of binaries. Coco can act as a stand-in for Bertha in Jane Eyre. The parrot had his wings clipped by Mr. Mason and became ill-tempered afterwards as he displayed aggressive behaviour towards other people (Rhys 21). As Antionette’s house was burning down, she saw that “everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him, and he fell screeching. He was all on fire” (22). Coco directly correlates with Bertha, who in Jane Eyre is described as a “big woman, and had long black hair: [they] could see it streaming against the flames as she stood” on the top of Thornfield Hall (Bronte 493). The people of Thornfield saw a man approach her, but she yelled and jumped off the house, “and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement” (493).
In Jane Eyre, the death of Bertha is unsympathetic as she is simply seen as the escaped lunatic wife. Coco the parrot embodies Bertha’s situation. The systematical oppression using binaries leaves little room for a person like Bertha to prosper. As mentioned above, she does not co-exist well with the binary system the Europeans created since she is a marginalized character; someone who is not exactly fully integrated nor rejected in society due to her culture and race. Rochester clearly values certain traits over others. Being white, passive, and docile is preferred over being colored, assertive, and flamboyant. These named traits are binaries of one another, and having non-preferred traits consequently leads to the loss of respect and privilege. Thus, Coco the parrot falls down helpless and on fire because he was stripped away of the necessities to survive in the world, similar to how Bertha falls to her death in society due to her loss of autonomy and sanity.
After delineating the existence and the effects of the oppressive binary system in Jane Eyre, I will now compare how symbols are used by both Bronte and Rhys. Fire in Jane Eyre symbolizes sexual passion and destruction, both of which Jane must persevere through. Fire’s symbolic meaning can be found in the various instances when a fire starts in Thornfield Hall. A sexual connotation is produced by the first fire Bertha starts: “tongues of flame [that] darted round the bed” (Bronte 174). This use of fire symbolizes the sexual passion that used to envelop the relationship between Rochester and Bertha. Readers can see that the sexual relationship between them was hot, passionate, and centered around the bedroom. Jane must overcome and remove this sexual passion before she can become the sole desire of Rochester. She figuratively overcomes this fiery passion by dousing the flames with a bucket of water (174). Fire also symbolizes destruction in Jane Eyre. The second fire Bertha sets “broke out at the dead of night, and before the engines arrived from Millcote, the building was one mass of flame” (491). It made Thornfield Hall quite a ruin (491). Luckily Jane was away at the time because Bertha “made her way to the chamber that had been the [Jane’s] . . . and she kindled the bed there,” thereby avoiding the dangers that fire brought altogether (492). Fire brings only destruction to Thornfield hall and to Bertha herself. Rochester becomes crippled from the incident and loses most of his fortune and property. This change in fate makes Jane wealthier than Rochester. After Jane overcomes the trouble fire has caused, can she then live happily with Rochester. Those instances of fire are used in direct opposition to Jane. Fire is related to Hell, and that is what stands between Jane from being with Rochester. The removal of fire results in the removal of obstacles for Jane, allowing her to succeed in the end. She informs readers that she has “now been married ten years” and knows “what it is to live entirely for and with what [she] love[s] best on earth” (519). She also thinks of herself as “supremely blest” because her husband’s life is fully hers as she is his and that “no woman was ever nearer to her mate than [she is] . . . [as they] are precisely suited in character” (519). The death of Bertha and Thornfield Hall marks the turning point for Jane because the obstacles between her and a happy life are removed. Thus, the symbolic meaning of fire in Jane Eyre – sexual passion and destruction – is used to oppose Jane, and only when all the fires have been subdued may Jane proceed uncontested.
On the other hand, fire in Wide Sargasso Sea is reworked to symbolize both destruction, and redemption of individuality. Fire thus develops a double entendre which consequently defies the logic of the colonial’s binary system. Fire can symbolize destruction – like in Jane Eyre – as seen when hate for Antoinette’s family grew in Coulibri. This hate compelled the other denizens to set fire to her home. The house burned like tinder and there was nothing her family could do to stop their home from being completely engulfed in flames (Rhys 20). The fire claimed more than just her home, as it claimed the life of her brother and the sanity of her mother: “she was part of Coulibri, that had gone, so she had gone, I was certain of it” (25). However, unlike the static symbolic meaning of fire in Jane Eyre, fire develops a new meaning throughout Rhys’ novel. Fire also holds a certain protective and redeeming feeling for Antoinette. In her vision of setting Thornfield Hall on fire, she sees “a wall of fire protecting [her]” from a ghost-like Jane (122). After she wakes up, she learns at last “why [she] was brought here and what [she has] to do” (122). Her candle flame almost flickered out, but she shields it with her hand and it burns brightly once again, lighting up the dark passage (123). In this instance, fire provides Antoinette a second chance at obtaining her own identity, while also providing her direction. She feels both the destructive nature of fire, and the redemption aspect of it. Hence, the symbolic meanings of fire in Rhys’ novel resists the systematic classification of symbols as fire itself can represent both heaven and hell.
Moreover, the use of the color red as a symbol in Wide Sargasso Sea also deconstructs the system of binaries by suggesting that not everything can be clearly categorized into one or the other as established by those in charge. However, in Bronte’s novel, the color red is used by Rochester as an index for his binary conception of race, which consequently makes Bertha appear as a grotesque monster, placing her on one end of the binary. Any skin color or skin tone other than white is placed on one side of the binary spectrum with white on the other. Antoinette is a Creole, which in her case means a person who descended from the Europeans and has settled in the West Indies. She is neither wholly from either Europe or the West Indies – culturally speaking – as she is openly rejected by both cultures. Rochester values and prefers people like Jane who are racially and culturally white over other people who are not. This is proved when Rochester says to Jane that if she were mad like Bertha, he would still love her regardless (Bronte 347). In Rochester’s mind, Bertha is simply seen as the other colored people and not someone from home, which is why even if Jane became mad just like Bertha is perceived to be, he would still love her. In addition to the color red being used as an index for Rochester’s binary conception of race, it is also used to symbolize hell-like attributes. The notion of heaven and hell are binaries that categorize Jane on the former end, and pitting Bertha in the latter end of the binary. The following example demonstrates how English society in Jane Eyre uses the binary system to oppressively categorize and define people: Rochester compares Bertha to Jane, asking his companions to “look at the difference [and] compare [Jane’s] clear eyes with the red balls yonder – [her] face with [Bertha’s] mask – [her] form with that bulk” (Bronte 339). He continues to comment on how Jane “stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon” (339). Rochester’s comparison uses the color red to symbolize hell, which “establish[es] an organizing contrast between the two mutually exclusive terms” (Flynn and Leonard Ch. 4). By creating contrast, each term obtains “its full meaning in human culture and language” (Ch. 4). The color red in the culture and language that the colonials use defines Bertha/Antionette by categorizing her as demonic, and un-earthly. In the English language, the historical use for anyone who is not racially white would be considered a person of color. Thus, the color red in Jane Eyre is used as symbol to define Bertha’s race, and to refer to hell-like attributes. When the two meanings for the symbol are combined, it subsequently leads to a negative portrayal of a non-white race.
In response to Jane Eyre’s use of the color red, Wide Sargasso Sea undergoes the process of reclamation for the color red to decenter its symbolic intelligibility as an index for binary conceptions of race while also destabilizing the certainty of the binary system. The symbolic use of the color red aims to resist the black and white categorization of people and ideologies that the colonials use and value so much. As mentioned earlier, the binary system carries hegemonic discourse, and with common discourse comes power. Power and control over people comes from being able to classify and assign values to the binaries – the same way scientists devise methods and systems to classify every living species to every type of element on this planet. When something proves to be an exception to their systematic rules, the system loses its intelligibility and must be fixed using exceptions to their methodological rules they created. Similarly, Antoinette is an exception to the rules the binary system created. As Antoinette stood on the roof, she “turned around and saw the sky. It was red and all [her] life was in it” (Rhys 123). Analyzing the words picked by Rhys, she described the entire sky as the color red with Antoinette’s entire life or essence in the color. There is nothing part of that sky or her life that obeys the strict binary classification system as the color red is neither black nor white. It follows that her life resists the classification of binaries which sees everything as either one or the other, leaving no in-between space. The redness of the sky and her life creates a middle-ground between the two binaries, giving space to people who – like her – belong in a binary-less world. The red sky contained things from her childhood: all the colors she has seen, places she has been to, and the tree of life in flames (123). In other words, her childhood was full of people of various cultures. The colonial binary system cannot fully appreciate the variety of cultures that exist in the world, which is why it hastily categorizes every other non-white culture as colored. Doing so keeps the binary system alive and retains power in those who use the binary system in an oppressive manner. Although, as explained above, this way of categorizing people is faulty as it does not do justice to the amount of other people of different backgrounds that also exist. Antoinette challenges the binary system and makes a statement regarding her individuality by firmly engraving her existence – “Antoinette Mason, née Cosway, Mount Calvary Convent, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1839” – outside of their binary system in “fire red” (29). Hence, the color red that Antoinette describes defies the simple classification system of binaries by emphasizing the disregarded but unique cultures and races that the colonials have simply categorized together.
Thus, the shared intertextual symbols between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea can make readers aware of the oppressive binaries present in texts and in the real world by considering how much of the discourse is influenced in favour of one of the two binaries. In addition, Rhys’ adaptation of fire and the color red as symbols also deconstructs the intelligibility of the binary system by highlighting its limitations. Only by being aware of how binaries can be oppressive to some, can one begin to challenge the system of binaries created by those in power. Bronte’s novel is founded upon interlocking systems of oppression that are subtle but impactful, while Rhys’ novel seems to want to burn the binary system to the ground and replace it with a different system that values both the racialized and the privileged instead.
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