Of Flesh and Stone: An Ovidian Reading of Wide Sargasso Sea
In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, there is a shift in Part Two of the novel as Antoinette’s narrative voice is traded for that of her unnamed husband, presumably Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre. As he chronicles the events of their honeymoon leading up to Antoinette’s confinement in the attic of Thornfield Hall, there is a distinct change in his perception of his new wife, in which indifference gives way to lust, which gives way to suspicion, before completely surrendering to paranoia. To formulate an analytical understanding of these moments of transformation and transfiguration, I will reference Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion—specifically, the animation and the naming of his statue Galatea—as the foundation upon which my analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea will be built. In comparing the two texts, I aim to answer the following question: How does an Ovidian reading of Wide Sargasso Sea impact its depictions of language, power, and narrative?
Edith Hamilton’s rendition of “Pygmalion” presents Galatea’s animation as a miracle so unbelievable that sculptor briefly doubts his own reality: “Was it self-deception or did she really feel warm to his touch? … Venus, he thought. This is the goddess’s doing” (Hamilton 9). Yet, beneath the initial shock of realization, he grounds himself in attributing the feat to the otherworldly capabilities of Aphrodite. Using this moment to frame a similar occurrence in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is likewise changed by Daniel Cosway’s words. In presenting Rochester with the purported truth of his wife’s upbringing, a different version of her is called to life. However, contrary to Pygmalion, the pair’s love is not brought to fruition. Instead, Daniel manipulates Antoinette’s narrative and, with the language of trickery, successfully sours Rochester’s impression of her, inverting Ovid’s tale into one of apprehension and bitterness.
Daniel’s unscrupulousness is reinforced when he coolly asks Rochester, “What is five hundred pounds to you? To me it’s my life.” (Rhys 76). This scene stands in stark contrast against an earlier moment when Antoinette seeks counsel from Christophine, and the latter denies the former’s offer of money in exchange for obeah. In Rochester’s case, money serves as a method of protection and keeping his reputation intact, whereas Antoinette’s “ugly money” (Rhys 71) inadvertently taints Christophine’s potion. Additionally, given that Rochester had married Antoinette to commandeer her wealth, Daniel’s query becomes a taunt, a sneering insult aimed to attack Rochester’s status (or lack thereof) and manhood. Hence, the language of power—tangible wealth in the form of money—overtakes the power of language—spiritual practices in the form of rituals—and becomes the breeding ground for deceit.
Similarly, Rochester’s understanding of Antoinette’s climactic outburst in the house later on is overshadowed by the influence of Daniel’s duplicity. As Rochester recounts, “Then she cursed me comprehensively, … and it was like a dream in the large unfurnished room with the candles flickering and this red-eyed wild-haired stranger who was my wife shouting obscenities at me” (Rhys 89). This description of a “red-eyed wild-haired stranger” (Rhys 89) conjures up an image of something monstrous, something so ghastly that Rochester is no longer able to recognize Antoinette. In this case, the power of her performative language is so overwhelming that it transforms Antoinette into something akin to a beast, stripping her of all humanity. Unlike Aphrodite, who breathes life into an object of beauty, Daniel and Rochester reduce Antoinette to a nightmarish banshee, doomed to perish alongside her family’s failures.
As for the naming of Galatea, Hamilton’s “Pygmalion” notes that, “Venus herself graced their marriage with her presence, but what happened after that we do not know, except that Pygmalion named the maiden Galatea” (Hamilton 9). The return of Aphrodite establishes her role as a figure significant to the pair’s relationship, making it comparable to the resounding authority Daniel held over Rochester and subsequently Antoinette. That being said, Rochester’s attempts at forcibly renaming Antoinette must be acknowledged in how they seem to parallel “Pygmalion,” though Antoinette is much less receptive of this change. This not only calls attention to the intertextual bond between Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre, but also, as pointed out by a footnote in Rhys’ novel, sheds light on the “ritual of Anglo-American marriage” (Rhys 88) in the changing of surnames and its linguistic power over self-identity.
Antoinette is noticeably discomfited and outraged by Rochester’s cries of “Bertha,” insisting that, “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” (Rhys 88). Despite Rochester’s belief that changing Antoinette’s name will sever her ties to her “sly-boots” (Rhys 74) mother and separate her from her family history, she fights back. This inherently rejects Ovid’s portrayal of a subservient woman who lays her life down at her lover’s feet, who was created by a man for his own pleasure and enjoyment. What’s more, Antoinette comprehends the power of her name and its intrinsic links to her personhood. In recognizing the ways in which Rochester is distorting her sense of reality, she speaks out against his usage of obeah, decrying his appropriation of this verbal ritual, and denies him the satisfaction of expropriating and appropriating her narrative.
Admittedly, Antoinette’s resilience does not change the fact that her matrimonial bond to Rochester granted him full reign over her worldly possessions, thereby both figuratively and quite literally boxing her in: “Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover, for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other” (Rhys 99). Rochester’s mocking remark of Antoinette’s purpose hearkens back to Ovid once more, in which he depicts himself as a Pygmalion, who rejects his Galatea and attempts to turn her back into stone. In denying her the option of a life beyond his ostracism, he cements her fate of misery and despair. Again, Rochester returns to the language of dehumanization, addressing her as though she were a hapless “creature” (Rhys 99) ensnared by his carefully-laid trap. This tips the scales within their power dynamic in his favor, as he pairs his words with the intent to further subjugate Antoinette.
Nevertheless, it is pertinent to note that perceiving Antoinette as Galatea and Rochester as Pygmalion does not erase the fact that Rhys’ narrative does provide the former with much agency and the latter with a shaky grasp of power. For example, Rochester is never addressed by name throughout the novel and is referred to only as “the man” (Rhys 67). While the argument can be made that there was no need for Rochester’s name to be explicitly stated, it does effectively show the literal narrative denying him of his identity—tying in his lower placement on the rungs of the social hierarchy. And, Antoinette’s visit to Christophine serves as a literary disruption, as it interrupts Rochester’s narrative halfway through Part Two, showcasing Antoinette’s control over the textual domain in spite of Rochester’s given dominance, usurping his place and temporarily reinstating herself as the primary voice of the novel.
Much like Hamilton’s Pygmalion, Rhys gives Antoinette a name beyond what was available in the pre-existing canonical text. As exhibited by Antoinette herself, the transcendental power of altering a narrative exists both within and beyond the text, shedding further light on how our perspectives on Antoinette, Rochester, and Jane Eyre can change. By conducting an Ovidian reading of Wide Sargasso Sea, the unpredictable and occasionally volatile effects of language, power, and narrative are revealed, particularly in conjunction with truth and identity. It problematizes Brontë’s Bertha and Mr. Rochester and reflects the complications of their relationship through how they are empowered and disempowered by each other’s words. Ultimately, it equally inverts and subverts the tale of Pygmalion, as it questions the impact of love gone wrong and control being placed in different hands.
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