Impact of “Epistemic Violence” of Imperialism in Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is regarded as a striking Caribbean novel, lying between the world of capitalism and post-Emancipation West Indies. However, many critics frequently tend to overlook the marginality of women in the post-colonial era because white Anglo-American feminists often stress on the rights or liberty of white women, while post-colonial critics are prone to focus on those of men in the post-colonial realms. The post-colonial feminist critic, Gayatri C. Spivak, therefore, provide a theoretical model from feminist angle for post-colonialism studies. According to Spivak, epistemic violence denotes that colonizers try to reject or reshape the local culture of colonies through the imperial discourse of science, universal truth and religious redemption. Thus, to view Wide Sargasso Sea from Spivk’s perspective, and to read this book as a text that restores the voices victimized by historical silences, readers can perceive that the tragedy of the protagonist, Antoinette, actually roots in the impact of “epistemic violence” of imperialism, which can be seen in three elements: Antoinette’s vacuum world, binary constructions between Antoinette and Rochester, and applying of mirror metaphor.
Speaking as if Antoinette was in a vacuum world, where she speaks no one for no reason, she struggles to confirm her racial thinking and self-identification under the influence of epistemic violence. The first section of the story abounds in scenes to display that for the racial thinking. Antoinette partly replicates her mother’s, not surprisingly to the point that the black and colored people like Christophine can reassure her. Like her mother said that had it not been for Christophine, they would all be dead and “that would have been a better fate than being abandoned, lied about, helpless” (Rhys 27). However, Mardorossian points out that “Antoinette is not aware of the subtext of these comments; she does not pick up on the trope of the gossipy and idle black to which her mother is referring” (1074). Otherwise, she would not bother to console her mother by saying that Godfrey and Sass stayed. For her self-identification, Antoinette ever said in the story: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said” (Rhys 18). Readers can perceive that Antoinette draws voice from a cross-cultural matrix as a cultural other and a unified outsider. Also, in Winterhalter’s words, “she defines herself in relation to the language of ‘the white folks’ by citing the authority of their folk wisdom”; and “establishes her distinct Creole heritage by placing herself outside the white colonials, for ‘we were not in their ranks’; then “incorporates the insights of the island Blacks by quoting Christophine’s analysis of the motives for her cultural rejection” (218). Albeit in this vacuum world that “there is no fictional listener to Antoinette’s voice, no ‘you’, no ‘reader’, no addressee to mediate between the nineteenth-century colonial ‘I’ and the twentieth-century postcolonial reader”, quite the contrary, “the omission of a ‘you’ and of a context—a reason for speaking—may increase the illusion of Antoinette as a reliable, truthful witness, informing the reader of ‘the other side’ of Bronte’s version” (Neck-Yoder 185), and then exactly reflect the impact of epistemic violence on Antoinette.
Through binary constructions of the two protagonists, Antoinette and Rochester, and showing the affliction and oppression of Antoinette, Jean Rhys actually treats Rochester also as a victim of epistemic violence with narrating the entire half part of the novel. On the one hand, Rochester marries Antoinette solely for her fortune to help him gain proper position in society; after their marrying, he struggles to make Antoinette conform to his own desires by guiding that how she should speak or wear; he even violently renames her Bertha after their estrangement and his knowing her mother was a crazy woman. Antoinette gradually is aware of “the constructedness of notions of the real”, and “she is mainly shown trying to live up to her husband’s pre-established views and submitting to his unshakeable belief in the naturalness of his socially sanctioned ways of knowing” (Mardorossian 1076) by saying “You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” (Rhys 147). However, Antoinette still tries to win him back. She tells him the truth about her mother and tells him her past stories, and wears the white dress he liked. Not surprisingly she fails. Because Rochester has confirmed that she is abnormal and probably has inherited her mother’s madness. Also, she is incapable of cognizing that Rochester views her attire as female sexual wantonness and “prostitution”, and indeed, Rochester only regard her as a sexual partner instead of a real, respected wife. On the other hand, in Rochester’s situation, he is forced to buy an heiress in colonies by the patriarchal inheritance law of entailment because he is not the firstborn. Then to consider his behavior to Antoinette, Spivak reveals that “so intimate a thing as personal and human identity might be determined by the politics of imperialism” (240). She meanwhile points out that Rhys utilizes “the thematics of Oedipus”, which is “the normative male subject” and “divided between the female and the male protagonist, feminism and a critique of imperialism become complicit” (241) to link Rochester and his patrimony. Seeing Rochester from Spivak’s perspective, readers can figure out that Rhys indeed provides the evidence by showing the scenario of letters to his father, which can be regard as part of explanation of the tragedy of this book: Dear Father. The thirty pounds have been paid to me without question or condition. No provision made for her […] I will never be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love. No begging letters, no mean requests. None of the furtive shabby manoeuvres of a younger son. I have sold my soul or you have sold it, and after all is it such a bad bargain? The girl is thought to be beautiful, she is beautiful. (59) Dear father, we have arrived from Jamaica after an uncomfortable few days. This little estate in the in the Windward Islands is part of the family property and Antoinette is much attached to it. […] All is well and has gone according to your plans and wishes. I dealt of course with Richard Mason […] He seemed to become attached to me and trusted me completely. This place is very beautiful but my illness has left me too exhausted to appreciate it fully. I will write again in a few days’ time. And so on. (63) From the two versions of letters above, Rochester changes his descriptions of surrounding things, even potential feelings about everything he undergoes. However, readers know neither the name of the character that is corresponding to Rochester, nor the destination the letter eventually reaches. Rochester actually traps into the barriers of Patronymic and under the great effect of discourse of imperial epistemic violence. Again, in Spivak’s words, “his writing of the final version of the letter to his father is supervised, in fact, by an image of the loss of the patronymic”, and “Rhys’ version of the Oedipal exchange is ironic, not a closed circle” (241).
If in the case of Rochester and his patrimony, which Rhys links with the thematics of Oedipus, then, for Antoinette, Rhys utilizes the thematics of Narcissus. When it comes to Narcissus, there are often many images of mirror metaphor. For instance, Tia, a Jamaican black servant girl, who is Antoinette’s childhood playmate: We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her […] When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it […] We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass. (Rhys 38) Antoinette wants to maintain their friendship and see Tia as an indispensable part of her life, while Tia doesn’t think so. Because the Jamaican slaves has been set free and they are enjoying delight with liberty. Although Tia bursts into tears when she sees Antoinette’s bleeding face, she still throws that stone. This seemingly simple behavior exactly indicates Tia is more sensitive to the “adversarial relationship” between local Jamaican people and British colonizers, which is a metaphor of the relationship between Tia and Antoinette. As a white Creole girl, Antoinette suffers an affliction of marginalization, standing between the British colonizers (imperialism) and black aborigines; while as an independent individual, she can do nothing but part ways with Tia. In ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus’ madness is revealed when he realize his Other (his reflection from the water) as his self. Similarly in the very end of Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, before Antoinette burning herself, there is also a mirror metaphor which showing the Narcissism and lead Antoinette to death, because Antoinette finds herself has become an “Other” in the mirror: “I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her—the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her” (Rhys 154). Antoinette gets stuck into the fictive England of her vision, hence herself also becomes a fictive Other to play her role, set fire and burn herself, contributing to make Jane Eyre the feminist individualist heroine in British literature. Just like Spivak says: “I must read this as an allegory of the general epistemic violence of imperialism, the construction of a self-immolating colonial subject for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer” (240).
All in all, Wide Sargasso Sea portrays the white Creole, Antoinette’s dramatic yet tragic life and “interculturation” between white and black Creoles, as well as her relationship with her husband which displays the other side of Bronte’s Bertha and Rochester. Through viewing the three aspects from Antoinette’s vacuum world, binary constructions between Antoinette and Rochester, and applying of mirror metaphor above, readers can finally realize the strong effect of imperial epistemic violence in this novel. By creating a series of scenes of marginal women in the story and a sense of “recursive margins in the reader”, Wide Sargasso Sea shows the shifting of viewing feminist criticism of post-colonial literature, which focuses on the “silence women” in the third world: “the approach that extolled the unified and autonomous subject Jane […] has given way to a model that scrutinizes the potential negations and devaluations which such a definition of identity may involve” (Mardorossian 89) Then, readers try to figure out the reason for the silences and the method of resuscitating the voice of these “silence women” who are under the influence of epistemic violence. In this case, Spivak asserts that the epistemic violence of imperialism “imposes on the subaltern Western assumptions of embodied subjectivity and fails to acknowledge that the other has always already been constructed according to the colonizer’s self-image and can therefore not simply be given his/her voice back” (Mardorossian 1071). Thus, as with the development of civilization and democracy, no matter at present or in the following future, the voice of “silence women” in the third world need to be heard; meanwhile, the world should pay more attention to avoiding the remnant effects of imperial epistemic violence.
Mardorossian, Carine Melkom. “Double [de]colonization and the Feminist Criticism of ‘wide Sargasso Sea’”. College Literature 26.2 (1999): 79–95. Jstor. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
—. “Shutting up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double-entendre in Jean Rhys’s ‘wide Sargasso Sea’”. Callaloo 22.4 (1999): 1071–1090. Jstor. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton. 1982. Print.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Imperial Text and a Critique of Imperialism.” Race, Writing, Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 235-261. 1985. Print.
Van Neck-Yoder, Hilda. “Colonial Desires, Silence, and Metonymy: ‘all Things Considered’ in Wide Sargasso Sea”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 40.2 (1998): 184–208. Jstor. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
Winterhalter, Teresa. “Narrative Technique and the Rage for Order in ‘wide Sargasso Sea’”. Narrative 2.3 (1994): 214–229. Jstor. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
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