Identity Complexities and Its Effects on Characters in Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus
In this paper, I will explore the complexities in identity and its effects on the characters in Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus using the lens of postcolonial approach. The concept of identity is complex and different meanings of it are evident to offer good starting points for a research of the concept of identity. Here is the most relevant entry for identity in the Oxford English Dictionary, “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” or “the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity” (Oxford English Dictionary, p 705). In addition to this, Beller and Leerssen also claims that, “Identity becomes to mean being identifiable, and is closely linked to the idea of permanence through time something remaining identical to itself from moment to moment” (Beller and Leerssen, p 3) They reveal “the other side” of identity by referring to what they call the synchronic meaning of the concept of identity. From this view it can be said that this sense of self representing one’s autobiographical narrative with the ever-changing actions and reactions experienced in the real life.
The process of rewriting the story of somebody’s life enables the person to reinterpret past experience and is essential for acting as a person with a sense of self in the present and the future. The way one identifies them to another does influence how others identify them. In terms of postcolonialism, displacement has heavily influenced the identities of the diasporic people mainly Caribbean and Africans. Postcolonialism as a term that retains a high complexity from its diverse nature. Displacement and diaspora offer a significant example of the aftermath of colonialism. The complexity of identity formation of the postcolonial diaspora invites a close examination. It is hardly doubtful the role of colonial experience in the formation of the identity of the once-colonized. The colonial caused a rupture in the self-identification of the once-colonized, eradicated and denigrated their pre-colonial identities, and rendered them ever-struggling for their new identities. The debate about the identity of the colonized, therefore, is caught between a displaced stand which claims that the identity of the diaspora has never been the same for every colonized victims. Using the postcolonial theory throughout the essay will enable to study the process by which colonialism has been a shaping factor of identity complexities in the selected characters in three different novels respectively. The three works are examined comparatively to emphasize the displacement and the complexity of identities that results from colonialism in Caribbean Island and Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is born on September 15th 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and an active feminist campaigner which writes broadly on the issues of Biafran war in Nigeria during the late 1960s. Born as the fifth of six children, she described her childhood life as a happy moment but as she is pressured by her family and social expectations, Adichie pursued her study in medicine in University of Nigeria After one year and a half however, Adichie decided to drop out and pursue her study in communications and political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, US. Adichie pursue her unfulfilled dream as an author as she stumbled upon Things Fall Apart written by novelist and fellow Igbo Chinua Achebe and she regarded it as a ground-breaking piece of writing Adichie writes fiction, non-fiction as well as a collection of short story entitled The Thing Around Your Neck published in 2009. Her fiction includes Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013). Her non-fiction on the other hand include her definition of feminism of the 21st Century in her book-length essay of We Should All Be Feminists (2014). The essay is an adaptation of Adichie’s 2012 TEDx talk of the same name. Most of Adichie’s novels all focus on contemporary Nigerian culture, its political turbulence and at times, how it can intersect with the West. Similar themes shared by J. M Coetzee’s novel, reflects either directly or indirectly on recent events unfolding within South African society, between fictional representation and the rapid, traumatic changes that have transformed and continue to transform South Africa. John Maxwell Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 9 February 1940, the elder of two children. His mother was a primary school teacher. His father was trained as an attorney, but practiced as such only intermittently, during the years 1941–45 he served with the South African forces in North Africa and Italy.
Though Coetzee’s parents were not of British descent, the language spoken at home was English. Coetzee entered the University of Cape Town in 1957, and in 1960 and 1961 graduated successively with honours degrees in English and mathematics. In 1965 Coetzee entered the graduate school of the University of Texas at Austin, and in 1968 graduated with a PhD in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages. After an application for permanent residence in the United States was denied, he returned to South Africa. From 1972 until 2000 he held a series of positions at the University of Cape Town, the last of them as Distinguished Professor of Literature. Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969. In the Heart of the Country (1977) won South Africa’s then principal literary award, the CNA Prize, and was published in Britain and the USA. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) received international notice. His reputation was confirmed by Life & Times of Michael K (1983), which won Britain’s Booker Prize. It was followed by Foe (1986), Age of Iron (1990), The Master of Petersburg (1994), and Disgrace (1999), which again won the Booker Prize. Coetzee has also been active as a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature. However, Jean Rhys did not share similar academic background like the other two authors. Rhys was born in Dominica, a formerly British island in the Caribbean, to a Welsh father and Scottish mother. She moved to England at the age of sixteen, where she worked unsuccessfully as a chorus girl. In the 1920s, she relocated to Europe, travelling as a Bohemian artist and taking up residence sporadically in Paris. During this period, Rhys lived in near poverty, while familiarising herself with modern art and literature, and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist throughout the rest of her life. Her experience of a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement during this period would form some of the most important themes in her work. Her first four novels were published during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 that she emerged as a significant literary figure. A ‘prequel’ to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea won a prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.
Wide Sargasso Sea and Purple Hibiscus contain three parts respectively compared to Disgrace. Purple Hibiscus tells the story from Kambili Achike’s narration on her household which include three periods of her life, during the Palm Sunday, before Palm Sunday, after Palm Sunday and the present. Kambili’s household comprises of her abusive Papa, Eugene Achike and her submissive Mama, Beatrice Achike along with her older brother, Chukwuka Achike or Jaja. Papa is a devoted Catholic who is well-known for his generosity while he turns out as an abusive monster towards his wife and children at home. Being a submissive wife, Mama submits herself wholly not only towards Papa’s violence act but also in upholding their religion and belief. Kambili and Jaja on the other hand are struggling to express their emotions as they are emotionally repressed in the house and often dictated by Papa on a daily basis. Papa imposed his strict religious value upon everyone in the house and expected nothing but full commitment from them. As the novel ends, Mama has decided to poison Papa as she could not stand his outrageous treatments towards the whole family. As Jaja takes the blame for Mama, by the end of his imprisonment, he obtains the sense of freedom from the abusive and confined house, similar to his younger sister, Kambili. This novel is set from the long history of British colonialism in Nigeria.
On the other hand, Coetzee’s novel, 1999’s Disgrace, is a strong statement on the political climate in post–apartheid South Africa. The main character, David Lurie, is an English professor at the University of Cape Town. He sees himself as an aging, but still handsome, Lothario. He has seduced many young women in his day, but an affair with one of his students finally proves his undoing. Charged with sexual harassment, he leaves his post in disgrace, seeking refuge at the small farm owned by his daughter, Lucy. While David’s world is refined and highly intellectualized, Lucy works at hard physical labor in simple surroundings. David’s notions of orderliness are overturned when three men come to the farm, set him afire, and rape Lucy. Father and daughter survive the ordeal, only to learn that Lucy has become pregnant. Eventually, in order to protect herself and her simple way of life, she consents to become the third wife in her neighbor’s polygamous family, even though he may have arranged the attack on her in order to gain control of her property. Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea begins shortly after the Slavery Abolition Act is passed in 1833. The novel shows that the act put an end to legal slavery throughout the British Empire, becoming effective in August of the following year which reflects on the protagonist, Antoinette Cosway is a young girl living with her mother and brother at Coulibri, her family’s estate near Spanish Town, Jamaica.
With the passage of the Emancipation Act and the death of her father, the family is financially ruined. Moreover, they are ostracized by both the black and white communities on the island. The black community despises them for being former slaveholders, and the white community looks down on them because they are poor, Creole, and, in her mother’s case, French. Among the only servants who remain is Christophine, a Martinique woman who is rumoured to practice obeah. Motivated in part by her family’s desperate situation, Annette, Antoinette’s mother, marries Mr. Mason, a wealthy planter. This marriage, however, only seems to aggravate racial tensions in their neighborhood. One night, rioters burn the house down. The entire family narrowly escapes, all except Antoinette’s brother Pierre, who, due to his exposure to the smoke, either dies very soon after. Pierre’s death devastates Annette, who goes mad with grief. Mr. Mason sends Annette off to an isolated house to be cared for by a couple of color. Antoinette is sent to live with her aunt Cora in Spanish Town. For a year and a half, Antoinette attends a convent school there. Part I ends with Mr. Mason back in Antoinette’s life, insinuating that plans for arranging her marriage are already under way. When newly wedded Antoinette and Rochester on their honeymoon in Granbois, the Cosway estate outside Massacre, Dominica. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that their marriage was arranged by Rochester’s father, Mr. Mason, and Richard Mason, Antoinette’s stepbrother. After only a month of courtship, Rochester married Antoinette. While at first wary of each other, Antoinette and Rochester grow to trust each other and consummate their marriage. But the honeymoon is short-lived, as Rochester receives a malicious letter from a man who claims to be Daniel Cosway, Antoinette’s stepbrother.
The letter alleges that there is a history of sexual degeneracy and mental illness in Antoinette’s family, and it also alleges that Antoinette had previously been engaged to a relative of color, Sandi Cosway. After receiving the letter, Rochester spurns Antoinette. Using an obeah potion obtained from Christophine, Antoinette drugs and seduces Rochester. On waking, Rochester realizes that he has been drugged, and sleeps with Antoinette’s maid in revenge. Betrayed, Antoinette seems to go mad herself. Part II ends with their departure from Granbois to Spanish Town, where Rochester plans to have Antoinette declared insane and confined. Antoinette already confined in Thornfield Hall guarded by Grace Poole. Antoinette seems to have little sense of whom or where she is at this point. Her stepbrother Richard Mason visits her, and she attacks him after he refuses to help her out of her marriage. Finally, she dreams that she escapes from her room and sets fire to the entire house. At the end of the dream, she flees to the top of the battlements, and then jumps off. Antoinette wakes up, and the novel ends as she escapes from her room, with a candle lighting her way down a dark hallway. Postconialism ties these three novels together with the theme of identity and how the characters portray the complexities of their displacement.
Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus describes a Nigerian girl named Kambili Achike who is divided between the rigid doctrine of Catholicism on the one hand and Igbo culture and its religious practices on the other. Kambili’s father, embodies the post-colonized lifestyle. He represents the supremacy of modernity over tradition and values Catholicism over Igbo religious customs. In the text, the house in Enugu, Nigeria, becomes a metaphor for the father’s Eurocentrism and his value of the rigid doctrine of Catholicism over traditional religious customs. Eugene not only embodies the role of colonizer, he parallels the idea that many Africans and African Americans cannot respect culture of their homeland because of the significant effects of colonization. For example, he admires and shows more respect for his father-in-law, who values Eurocentrism, than his own father. In describing the ways in which Eugene treats his father as opposed to his father-in-law, Kambili says, “If Papa-Nnukwu minded that his son sent him impersonal, paltry amounts of money through a driver he didn’t show it. It was so different from the way Papa had treated my maternal grandfather until he died five years ago.
Papa would stop by Grandfather’s house at our ikwi nne, Mother’s maiden home, before we even drove to our own compound. Papa still talked about him often, his eyes proud, as if Grandfather were his own father. He opened his eyes before many of our people did, Papa would say; he was one of the few who welcomed the missionaries. Do you know how quickly he learned English? When he became an 35 interpreter, do you know how many converts he helped win? Why, he converted most of Abba himself! He did things the right way, the way the white people did, not what our people do now!” (Adichie, 67-68)
Like his father-in-law, Eugene internalizes the view of Africa as uncivilized and demonstrates how colonization can alter natives’ minds about their own skin colour and heritage. Eugene embodies the notion that everything associated with whiteness is morally right and holy, and everything associated with the Nigerian nation before colonial rule is immoral and sinful. This explains Antoinette’s struggle for her identity, her belonging and her existence began when she was just a little child where she could not define her own self properly. She was marginalized not only for being of a mixed blood but also for being a female and for being the colonized object as will be explained later. Antoinette is born in the midst of racial conflict. She is the daughter of a white Creole woman and an English slave owner in Jamaica. Her family is hated by the locals who consider it as a family of colonizers. Antoinette is also excluded on the basis of her mother’s Creole origin, and so she is rejected by both the black and white population of the island. The black community doesn’t accept her because she is white and at the same time, she doesn’t fit into the world of the whites who consider those of mixed races as inferior to themselves. As a white Creole, Antoinette becomes a double outsider, “white nigger” for the Europeans and “white cockroach” for the blacks. As Antoinette wistfully explains to her husband in the novel, “…a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they [the blacks] 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. … 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, 64)
This results in creating a sharp conflict between the white and black population of the West Indies. Antoinette is scorned by both white and black cultures and is thus forced to see herself as “Other” without being able to consider herself as part of these two prevailing ethnic and cultural groups. On the contrary, when colonialist policies fade away, the white’s privilege disappears along with them. Therefore, in Disgrace, Lurie could not escape the shadow of the privileged colonialists in colonial time quickly. He feels it difficult to cope with the changing world in an apartheid-free South Africa. So as soon as the white lose their power, Lurie loses his identity. He feels displaced, confused and helpless, like a sleepwalker in darkness. The colonialist policies leave an unquenchable scar for not only the black but also for the white in post-apartheid South Africa. Along with the disappearance of the past hegemony, the representative language of the white English loses its function as well. As a professor of language, as the representative of colonizers, Lurie is suffering a physical or even psychological harassment when his daughter is robbed and gang raped. There is no help, even though, “He speaks Italian. He speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. ” (Coetzee, 95)
When colonialist policies fade away, the colonial evil would revenge on the body and flesh of their offspring. It is the colonizers themselves that deserve the chain reaction of their sin in the past. The violence on the farm is inevitable. It is not only a violation upon human body but also a symbol of revenge and a historical hatred between different races, which is caused by colonizers.
In the long run as the characters face identity crisis, they craft a new path by being submissive and passive to the situation in order to create new identity for themselves with the intention to feel belonged. They believed that they could find comfort and also will be able to empower if they could adapt themselves into the lifestyle and the culture of the colonizers. This act is called the ‘mimicry’ in postcolonial terms. In having desire to have a better life forces them to imitate the English society in order to indulge into their world. They even start eating their food as they find that this way is the only one for them to choose an identity that distinguishes them from others. In other words, Antoinette and her mother try to imitate the colonizer and to find comfort in adapting their modes of behaviour as well as their lifestyle. We can see that when Antoinette begins to eat English food in the English way, “We ate English food now, beef and mutton, pies and puddings. I was glad to be like an English girl but I missed the taste of Christophine’s cooking” (Rhys, 17).
However, this feeling does not solve Antoinette’s identity problem. Antoinette’s identity crisis reaches its peak with her marriage that has been arranged by her stepfather Mr. Mason and his son Rochester. Antoinette’s husband is shown as a representative of the colonial powers. With the appearance of Rochester and his domineering character, the oppression, discrimination and marginalization practiced on Antoinette are magnified. Rochester never gives support to her but tries to eliminate her identity and her presence. His harsh and inhumane treatment of her diminishes any hope for her of ever becoming an independent woman. Rochester has not married her out of love but for money and he never hesitates to keep her under his full control as a colonizer who makes her feel lost. On the other hand, as a white offspring of the ex-colonizers, Lucy becomes the victim of colonialist policies.
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept, to start at ground level with nothing. Not with nothing but with nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity. ” (Coetzee, 205)
Meanwhile, Lucy loses her originally independent identity. She will redefine her identity against Petrus and her unborn child, whose blood is mixed with the black one and the white one. The child belongs to the black pedigree, the earth and the black race. He is also a symbol of hope and amalgamation. The white Lucy would become the ‘wife’ of black Petrus and become a member of the black family, which would ensure her position in the postcolonial society.
Likewise, PapaNnukwu, Kambili’s paternal grandfather, takes pride in his Igbo heritage and the informal, oral educational system that he values allows his grandchildren to connect to a culture that affirms them. Through storytelling, the grandfather introduces Kambili to a culture that is neglected and devalued in her home. For example, while in Nsukka, Papa-Nnukwu recounts to his grandchildren the, “story of why the tortoise has a cracked shell” (Adichie, 157).
Although Kambili does not defy her father as openly as her brother does, she knowingly goes against his rules by bringing a portrait of Papa-Nnukwu to his home. Kambili notes, “Perhaps it was what we wanted to happen, Jaja and I, without being aware of it. Perhaps we all changed after Nsukka even Papa and things were destined to not be the same, to not be in their original order” (Adichie, 209).
The Igbo religion and culture allow Kambili to connect to an identity that articulates the values and realities of her Nigerian identity. In the process of submissiveness, the colonized victims also took steps of empowerment when they willingly abide to the colonizer’s lifestyle, language and culture. Aunty Uju is an important example of this concept. During summer, Ifemelu moves to America, she stays with Aunty Uju and Dike in New York. Immediately, Ifemelu notices differences in her aunt’s personality. As they are driving in the car, Aunty Uju mispronounces her own name when she takes a call. Adichie continues this scene with an exchange between Ifemelu and Aunty Uju,
“Is that how you pronounce your name now? It’s what they call me” (Adichie, 105).
Just as we see with Aisha, Aunty Uju appears to give in to the American perception of who she is. Because she is traveling the road to American success, she chooses to make her travels smoother by ignoring bumps along the way namely, the correct pronunciation of her name. Just as with Aisha, we also see Aunty Uju simultaneously acknowledge her otherness while submitting to the identity that the dominant society has created for her. Aunty Uju again shows her willingness to bend to the ways of the dominant society when she, Dike, and Ifemelu are at the grocery store. Ifemelu observes the way Aunty Uju speaks when she engages in conversations with white Americans.
“’Dike, put it back, ’ Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. ‘Pooh-reet-back’. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing” (Adichie 109).
In the wake of colonialism, the white may or may not absolve one from guilty. Lurie commits crimes, and his daughter Lucy atones for it, which just as it goes,
“Then it is over, all this badness. ” (Coetzee, 202)
Lucy is a sign of hope for the coexistence. The sin of the white’s past and the disgrace of apartheid’s will be compensated by the white’s acquiescence. And in the apartheid-free South Africa, white women are in the redemption and reconciliation for the past colonial evils. To some extent, it is an assimilation to the white colonizers, which implies that aggression and plantation will be defeated by the colonized at last. The violence on the farm is caused by the colonialists. Finally, Coetzee draws a picture of Lucy to bear the child, signifying the amalgamation and reconciliation between the colonizers and the colonized, the black and the white. Similarly, Antoinette’s young husband, who narrates the second part of the novel, feels for her a mixture of fascination and repulsion that can be seen as representative of the European attitude towards the non-European as a whole. He represents those Europeans who are opportunists seeking a world in which to improve their economic power. It is not surprising that he sees the West Indies Island as one dreary and dreadful place far removed from human civilisation. After a while his love and affection for Antoinette and the estate begins to turn to aggression and hatred. There is an overt attempt to hurt her by sleeping with Amelie, a Creole servant. However, Antoinette rejects the apparent renaming by her husband. Antoinette’s husband, who remains nameless throughout the narrative refuses to call her Antoinette anymore. Instead, he calls her Bertha. Antoinette says of this, “Names matter, likewhen he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with herscents, her pretty clothes and her looking glass. ” (Rhys, 180)
This foregrounds the fact that Antoinette would rather die than lose her identity. She asserts and accepts her ‘whiteness’ even as she grows hostile to her maid servants,
“I dare say we would have died if she’d turned against us and that would have been a better fate. To die and be forgotten and at peace. Not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless. All the ones who died, who says a good word for them now?” (Rhys, 21-22)
The narrative voice has a shift from Antoinette to her husband and even to Christophine at some point. It jumps through time and space. As a postcolonial work, the novel indicts England’s exploitative colonial empire, aligning its sympathies with the plight of the black Caribbean.
In conclusion, therefore, Wide Sargasso Sea presents the predicament of the post-slavery white planters in the West Indies as a tragic one, in Disgrace, when the majority of the black in South Africa succeeds in coming into power when the colonialist rules fade away, colonialist policies leave an unquenchable scar on both the black and the white in their mind as well as on their bodies and in Purple Hibiscus, reveals the life and circumstances behind the colonized identity and show how each they attempt to reconcile their identities and their resistance through larger issues of a hybrid identity, place, and the trauma one experiences as a result of colonialism.
All three novels expose the postcolonial effects towards the complexities of identity on the characters through the colonizers perspectives. In the 1990s, when the majority of the black in South Africa succeeds in coming into power, when the colonialist rules fade away, colonialist policies leave an unquenchable scar on both the black and the white in their mind as well as on their bodies. So the white take up the heavy burden of redemption. So the white cannot help but to expiate and start on a long and painful journey to search for self-identity. Therefore, both the black and the white are displaced, confused and helpless in the wake of colonialism. Though the wound is too smart to heal, both the black and the white are trying their best to search for a new way for them to coexist in peace and harmony.
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