Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: Struggles that Affect Identity
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial novel set in Jamaica following the Emancipation Act of 1838, when slavery was outlawed in the British Empire. The story follows the life of an ex-slaveholder’s daughter, Antoinette. Many important themes are brought up in Wide Sargasso Sea. Themes such as slavery, oppression, race, femininity, and identity are all relevant themes brought up in Wide Sargasso Sea. The theme of Identity is the most prominent and significant. Having a sense of identity is important as it allows one to develop a sense of importance and well-being. When one struggles with their identity or has an identity crisis, they are unsure about who they are or what their place in the world is. This can happen for many reasons. Past experiences, stress, lack of affirmation, poor upbringing, and social expectations are all some causes of identity crises. Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, many characters face struggles when it comes to their identity. Antoinette, Rochester, and Annette all face identity crises throughout the novel. Antoinette is going through a period of insecurity when it comes to her cultural identity. She constantly struggles between identifying with her European ethnicity and Caribbean nationality. The lack of love and attention from her mother while she was growing up also contributes to Antoinette’s identity crisis. Rochester suffers an identity crisis due to rejection and lack of support from his family. His identity insecurities are displayed when he tries to deprive Antoinette from a cultural identity. Annette faces an identity crisis due to being ostracized by other women and the visit from the Spanish doctor. The struggles these characters face are all relevant causes of an identity crisis.
While many characters in Wide Sargasso Sea face identity crises, Antoinette’s is the most significant. Throughout the novel, Antoinette faces many setbacks that contribute to her ongoing identity crisis. When Antoinette says, “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), there is a strong emphasis on Antoinette’s doubt in where she belongs in respect to her nationality and ethnicity. Antoinette constantly faces struggles in identifying with two cultures; her European ethnicity and her Caribbean nationality. Being called a “white cockroach” (Rhys, 64) and a “white nigger” (Rhys, 64) have a strong impact on Antoinette’s doubt in her identity. Antoinette is neither accepted by the Creole people or the White people. Antoinette begins to take on more Creole characteristics in hopes of befriending Tia. Critics see this as normal for Antoinette to do as she is exposed to her mother teaching her to be white when she does not want to be (Erwin, 209). Later on in the novel, Antoinette has different feelings about who she wants to be. Antoinette wants to have a definite identity and strives to do so by assimilating to English by the means of a potion (Drake, 198). As culture is very prominent in one’s life, this inability to identify with a culture contributes to Antoinette’s identity crisis. While Antoinette’s inability to identify with a culture contributes to her identity crisis, her detached relationship with her mother Annette also contributes to her identity crisis.
Antoinette’s relationship with her mother Annette also contributes to her identity crisis. Throughout her childhood, Annette never expressed the proper love and care for her child in order for Antoinette to grow and create a solid foundation for her identity. As a result of an absence of love and care, Anntoinette constantly questions who she is and if she is even worth the effort of others. This can be problematic as development depends on the level of stimulation, which is love and affection, in the environment, which is the relationship Antoinette and her mother share. Antoinette disassociation with her mother can be seen when she says, “…she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she decided once and for all that I was useless to her” (Rhys, 20). This shows how unattached Antoinette and her mother are. They do not share the bond that most children form with their mother at a young age. As a relationship with a parent, most importantly a mother, is so crucial to the development of a child, Antoinette’s lack of identity is then justified as she lacks the relationship crucial to one’s development. While Antoinette’s identity crisis is the most significant in the novel as she is the main character, her husband Rochester also faces an identity crisis that is significant.
Throughout the course of the novel, Rhys utilizes the character of Rochester to illustrate the theme of identity. In the novel, Rochester is shown to be rejected by his family through various scenes such as when he received none of his father’s estate. This lack of passing on family heirlooms or wealth illustrates how Rochester’s father feels about him. If he had love and admiration for Rochester, he would have given more as he would want to see Rochester doing well. Rochester’s alienation and rejection from his family leads him to have trouble later on in the novel with his identity. His identity crisis is reflected upon his treatment of his wife, Antoinette. Rochester’s identity crisis is apparent through his lack of respect for Antoinette’s culture and cultural identity (Voicu, 2014). This can be seen by his attempt to deprive Antoinette of her cultural identity. Rochester attempts to deprive his wife Antoinette of her cultural identity by changing Antoinette’s traditional Carribean name to an English name, Bertha. Furthermore, Rochester attempts to deprive her of her personal identity as well. After being locked in the attic in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette begins to question herself again, “What am I doing in this place and who am I” (Rhys, 107). Rochester’s acts of depriving his wife of an identity illustrate his own insecurities with his identity. Furthermore, Rochester’s identity crisis can be seen through the fact that he remains nameless in the novel. Rochester’s namelessness creates a sense of uncertainty amongst the reader which leads to them questioning who he really is. As well, a person’s name is a fundamental characteristic of one’s identity. Without his name being spoken, he really did not have a true identity in the novel.
Rhys’ illustration of the theme of identity is brought to light through the use of characters in the novel, one of which was Annette. While being ostracized by others and not being able to do everything for her family on her own, Annette struggled with her identity crisis. Being the widow of an ex-slave keeper, Annette was ostracized from society by other women in the town. The women of the town felt threatened by Annette’s beauty and felt that she was too good for Mr. Mason. This lead to the women of the town to alienate Annette from social gatherings and talk behind her back. Due to this, Annette was never able to make friends in the town which lead to her questioning what was wrong with her and doubting who she was. By not being able to provide for her family without the financial help of another man also take a toll on Annette’s identity and self-esteem. Annettes alienation from others of the town lead paired with her inability to provide for her family without financial help from another man lead to her having an identity crisis.
Rhys also explored the theme of identity through Annette’s reaction to the visit by the Spanish doctor. It wasn’t clear what Pierre was diagnosed with but from Annette’s reaction, the reader can understand that it is something bad.
She persuaded a Spanish Town doctor to visit my younger brother Pierre who staggered when he walked and couldn’t speak distinctly. I don’t know what the doctor told her or what she said to him but he never came again and after that she changed. Suddenly, not gradually. She grew thin and silent, and at last she refused to leave the house at all. (Rhys, 4).
After the visit from the doctor, Annette was changed. The effortless transition of her state of mind illustrates how her sense of identity was never that strong. Annette’s inability to leave the house and talk to others shows the identity crisis and period of doubt she is going through.
Many important themes are brought up in Rhys’ post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Themes such as slavery, oppression, race, femininity, and identity are all relevant themes brought up in the novel. Identity is the most prominent and significant. Rhys strategically develops the theme of identity through Antoinette, Rochester, and Annette. The author does this using their identity crises throughout the novel. All three character face struggles that affect their identity. Antoinette is going through a period of insecurity when it comes to her identity because of her inability to identify with her cultures and because of her upbringing. Rochester suffers an identity crisis due to rejection and lack of support from his family. His insecurities about his identity are illustrated in how he tries to deprive his wife Antoinette of her identity. Annette faces an identity crisis due to being ostracized by other women and the visit from the Spanish doctor. Rhys’ successful development of the theme of identity through the characters in the novel makes Wide Sargasso Sea one of the most insightful pieces of postcolonial literature of this time.
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