I Am Who (You Say) I Am: Issues of Identity in Kincaid’s Lucy and Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
In the beginning of Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway, a young creole woman, lives in poverty with her mother, Annette, and her brother, Pierre, on the island of Jamaica. In the society in which they live, Antoinette is oppressed and discriminated against because of her race, class, and gender. Not only does Annette favor Pierre, but the entire family is targeted by the Jamaicans, first because of their race and the fact that they are poor, and later because of their wealth. Life is no better for Lucy Josephine Potter, the native Antiguan title character in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel, Lucy. Living in Manhattan as an au pair, Lucy is constantly faced with reminders of the oppression she endured in her country, both at the hands of her mother and her British colonizers. She soon realizes that no matter how much distance she places between herself and the past, she cannot escape this oppression. The situations that these two girls face may be similar, but they both deal with them in extremely different ways. While the historical and cultural circumstances in which Antoinette grows up cause her to define herself solely as a victim, Lucy finds strength within the oppression she is forced to endure; as a result, Antoinette is driven into madness while Lucy is able to build an independent life for herself.
Due to the patriarchal society in which the Cosway’s live, Annette is constantly dependant on men. She sees Pierre as someone who will grow up to protect her. Thus, it is not surprising that Annette clearly favors her son over her daughter. As a result of this favoritism, Annette fails to care for Antoinette as well as she cares for Pierre; it never bothers Annette that her daughter’s clothes are old and dirty until visitors come to their house, at which point she looks at Antoinette’s dress and orders the maid, Christophine, to “throw away that thing [and] burn it” (Rhys 25). It is only then that Annette realizes that her daughter does not own any clean, decent dresses. Despite her mother’s neglect, Antoinette always strives to be a good daughter. When she finds her mother frowning, she lovingly attempts to smooth out the wrinkles on her forehead. Yet Annette only “[pushes Antoinette] away . . . calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she [has] decided once and for all that [she is] useless to her.” Instead of spending time with her daughter, Annette simply wants to “sit with Pierre . . . without being pestered” (Rhys 20). While this is enough to make anyone feel neglected, it is when the Jamaicans burn down the Cosway’s house that we are able to see just how little Antoinette means to her mother. A day after escaping the riot, Antoinette is taken to see her. When Annette notices her daughter, she simply looks from her to the door, waiting for her beloved Pierre to enter. When she is told that her son died in the fire, she flings Antoinette from her and screams “No, no, no . . . why did you bring the child to make trouble, trouble, trouble” (Rhys 48). Annette eventually goes mad over Pierre’s death, and abandons her daughter. Due to the patriarchal society in which she lives, Annette cannot bring herself to care as deeply for Antoinette as she does for Pierre, for Pierre can offer her the security that she seeks. As a result of the neglect and abandonment that Antoinette suffers, she views herself as a victim of her own culture.
Lucy, on the other hand, refuses to brand herself with the term ‘victim.’ While she too has been oppressed on the basis of her gender, she does not allow these experiences to define her as a person. While growing up in Antigua, Lucy and her mother enjoyed a good relationship. However, after Lucy was ‘blessed’ with two brothers, the situation soon changed. Her brothers became the agents in all of her mother’s dreams. They are the ones who will grow up to become prestigious doctors. Since Lucy’s brothers are male, they are the ones who will be able to take care of and support their mother later on in life. However, this does not make Lucy feel worthless. Instead, it motivates her to make something out of her life.
Not only are Antoinette and Lucy oppressed because of their gender, but because of their race and class as well. Antoinette grows up in a predominantly black society; the only Caucasian people living there are the rich descendants of the plantation owners. While Antoinette’s family is a product of colonialism, they do not reap any of the benefits, such as money and power. As a matter of fact, in the beginning of the novel, they are no richer than the black Jamaicans, and thus do not fit in with the rich white class, who, according to Antoinette’s friend Tia, are “real white people, [with] gold money.” When Tia, who is a black Jamaican, tells Antoinette that she and her family are “nothing but white nigger[s] now,” it is obvious that the townspeople have no respect for the Cosway family (Rhys 24). Children constantly taunt Antoinette: “White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away” (Rhys 23). Her family is nothing but a joke to the Jamaicans, who laugh and sneer at Annette and eventually poison her horse so that she has no transportation to town and must stay near her house. While Antoinette feels victimized by the Jamaicans, she realizes that they pose no real threat to her security.
However, when Annette marries rich Mr. Mason, the situation changes. No longer is Antoinette’s family considered the fallen mighty; nor are they simply considered a joke. Now they are part of the rich, white class, and stand as representatives of their ancestors who owned the plantations on which the Jamaicans once worked as slaves. Annette realizes that her family must be extremely careful because of their regained wealth. Yet, Mr. Mason underestimates the situation in Jamaica, and thus, to his dismay, does not share his wife’s wariness. Annette constantly asks her husband if the family can leave Coulibri, the town in which they live, on the grounds that “the people [there] hate [them]” (Rhys 32). She realizes that when they were poor they were simply “something to laugh at,” and now that they are no longer poor, they are no longer safe. The Jamaicans now “talk about [them] without stopping. They invent stories about [Mr. Mason] and lies about [Annette].” However, when Annette reveals this to her husband, he replies that the Jamaicans are simply curious and “too damn lazy to be dangerous” (Rhys 32). It is this underestimation of the Jamaicans by Mr. Mason that eventually leads to the riot in which the Jamaicans burn down his family’s house. First Antoinette is victimized because of her poverty, and then she is victimized because of her wealth.
While Antoinette faces discrimination as a creole woman in a majority population of Jamaicans, Lucy faces discrimination as a West Indian in a majority population of Caucasians. Even her employers’ African-American maid, who has origins somewhat similar to Lucy’s, is quick to criticize her:
She said that I spoke like a nun, I walked like one also, and that everything about me was so pious that it made her feel at once sick to her stomach and sick with pity just to look at me. (Kincaid 11)
However, instead of feeling stupid and worthless, Lucy responds to these insults by displaying pride in her heritage. While she is faced with many racial stereotypes, she stays true to herself and her history. After the maid is finished blatantly criticizing Lucy, she suggests that they dance, even though “she is quite sure [Lucy does not] know how.” When she plays an album sung by three white singers, Lucy bursts out with an energetic calypso about “a girl who ran away to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and had a good time, with no regrets” (Kincaid 12). She is not ashamed of her origins, but rather takes pride in them. Lucy is “determined to be an agent rather than a passive receiver” (Ferguson 52). She refuses to allow the circumstances in which she is placed to define her. When she travels to Manhattan from her native country of Antigua she stays in a “box in which cargo traveling a long way should be shipped” (Kincaid 53). While Antoinette would accept this, Lucy strongly states “I [am] not cargo” (Kincaid 7). In her essay, “Lucy and the Mark of the Colonizer,” Moira Ferguson states that “from the beginning, whether consciously or not, Lucy sets out to undermine metropolitan authority and asserts her right to contest it” (52).
There are many times in Antoinette’s and Lucy’s lives in which identities are offered to them by others. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester refuses to accept Antoinette for who she is. His insistence on calling her by another name represents this. In response to a question, Rochester replies, “Certainly, I will, my dear Bertha.” Antoinette tells him “Not Bertha tonight,” but when he tells her “Of course, on this of all nights, you must be Bertha,” she gives in and obediently replies “As you wish” (Rhys 136). Since she has internalized the victimization of her past, she is unable to find the strength to stand up to her oppressive husband.
Lucy, on the other hand, “rejects the available identities offered” to her by “her mother… , the British Empire, her well-meaning employer Mariah,… and her employers’ African-American maid” (Simmons 121). Her mother attempts to mold her daughter into who she wants her to be, and to want to have what she wants her to have: “A career as a nurse;… a sense of duty to [her] parents; [and] obedience to the law and worship of convention” (Kincaid 133). Yet, Lucy refuses to allow her mother to be in charge of her own identity. Since she does not share the same dream as her mother, she pursues her own. She gives up on going to nursing school at night, and rejects her conventional upbringing by becoming promiscuous. Lucy makes the decision to define her own destiny.
In addition to her mother attempting to push an identity upon Lucy, the British empire does as well. As a subject under Britain rule, Lucy studies such literature as Milton’s Paradise Lost. Through reading this and other British works, the idea is planted in Lucy’s head that beauty consists of blue eyes and white skin. However, she does not allow this idea to label her as ‘ugly.’ Instead, she finds beauty in her brown skin and course, kinky hair. Lucy has the strength to refuse the ideas being forced upon her by her colonizers, and allows herself to define her own ideals. She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in either. At age fourteen she “stand[s] up in choir practice and [announces] that [she does] not wish to sing ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves; Britons never, never shall be slaves,” making it quite clear that she is not Briton, given the fact that not too long ago she would have been a slave (Kincaid 135).
Lucy’s employer, Mariah, also attempts to mold her into who she wants her to be. Mariah believes that her view of the world is correct, and cannot fathom that it should be any other way. As a young child in Antigua, Lucy is forced to memorize Wordsworth’s poem in which he discusses the beauty of daffodils. However, Lucy does not see daffodils as a sign of beauty, but rather as a sign of oppression. This fact is made quite clear in the dream she has the night after she must recite the poem in front of the entire school:
“I dreamt, continuously it seemed, that I was being chased down a narrow cobbled street by bunches and bunches of . . . daffodils, . . . and when finally I fell down from exhaustion they all piled on top of me, until I was buried deep underneath them and was never seen again.” (Kincaid 18)
Mariah is persistent in trying to force the beauty of daffodils upon Lucy. She does not realize that, to Lucy, they represent something too horrible to be beautiful. However, Lucy does not allow Mariah’s beliefs to become her own. Despite hearing of Lucy’s dream, Mariah brings her to a garden full of the dreaded flowers. She says to Lucy, “I’m sorry about the poem, but I’m hoping you’ll find them lovely all the same” (Kincaid 29). She is so sure that the world is how she sees it, that she continues to attempt to make Lucy see it the same way. Yet, Lucy refuses to allow her to do this. She replies, “Mariah, do you realize that at ten years of age I had to learn by heart a long poem about some flowers I would not see in real life until I was nineteen?” (Kincaid 30). Lucy is taught that Britain is a glorious and beautiful country, and that Antigua’s beauty has no hope of measuring up to it. However, she refuses to accept this, along with Mariah’s ideas of beauty. Instead, Lucy finds the strength to live by her own standards of beauty.
Despite all of the oppression Lucy must endure, she remains a strong and independent individual, with a job and an apartment of her own. She has the ability to do “what suits [her]. . . , as long as [she can] pay for it” (Kincaid). However, Antoinette handles her oppressive circumstances differently. She believes that since she always has been a victim, she will remain a victim, and there is no point in trying to overcome it. It is because of this that she is driven into madness.
Because of her failure as a strong individual, Antoinette is unable to escape from her oppressive husband. When he learns of her past, out of complete embarrassment he immediately moves her to England. There, Antoinette is locked up in the attic and hidden from the outside world. Now she is trapped; it is too late to escape. Eventually, Antoinette is forced into madness. “She sits shivering and she is so thin” (Rhys 177). She is drunk more often that not. At the very end of the novel, she lights the house on fire. Antoinette sees no way out, for she believes that once a victim, always a victim. By accepting everything that comes her way, she becomes an extremely passive person, allowing herself to be victimized again and again. If Antoinette defined herself as more than simply a victim, then she would have been able to find happiness. But since she has internalized the victimization of her youth, she is destined to always be a victim.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette views herself as a victim due to the historical and cultural circumstances in which she grows up. As she becomes older, she allows these experiences to define her as a person. The title character in Kincaid’s Lucy faces similar circumstances, yet she refuses to allow them to dictate her identity. It is for this reason that while Antoinette is driven into madness, Lucy is able to build an independent life for herself.
Ferguson, Moira. “Lucy and the Mark of the Colonizer.” Jamaica Kincaid. Philadelphica: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.
Rhys Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1966.
Savory, Elaine. Jean Rhys. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Simmons, Diane. Jamaica Kincaid. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
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