The Theme Of Loss In Wide Sargasso Sea
The impact of loss in both novels is prominent and ubiquitous and arguably the theme of loss manifests itself as the underlying plots of these novels. There is a variation of losses contained within these books, such as the loss of identity due to the past, loss of maternal figures, loss of familiarity/ security linked to setting and loss/gain of identity due to men. Both ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys and ‘Eve Green’ by Susan Fletcher give the reader an insight into the complexity of emotions involved with loss and how one deals with it relative to their situation.
Both Antoinette and Eve Green, the protagonists in these novels, struggle with their identity and find themselves losing their identity. Antoinette’s inability to identify entirely with white Europeans and native black Jamaicans makes her an outcast in a seemingly black and white world. Her loss of identity ultimately leads to her downfall; she does not believe she is of value as that is what she has been socially conditioned to believe by her mother and society. ”Real white people, they got money…old time white people nothing but white nigger and black nigger better than white nigger”. Tia says these hurtful words to Antoinette who, despite wanting to be like Tia, conflictingly feels a sense of racial superiority over Tia because she is white, however Tia is quick to undermine her internalised racial superiority by referring to her as a ‘white nigger’. ‘Real white people’ is in reference to the new colonisers whose economic status was much more opulent than their predecessors, who are equated to ‘white niggers’. Antoinette’s family’s economic status reduces them down to a ‘white nigger’ status. Antoinette’s classification as a Creole, or the mixed product of Caribbean black and European white races, presents one major aspect of her character in which she receives clashing social messages regarding her overall identity. Homi K Bhabha discusses how we shape our identity. He refers to people called ‘hybrids’ and the concept of hybridity, a central term within postcolonial criticism which is used to understand and interpret what it means to be a migrant, to not belong to one place only, to be a hybrid. Living in-between multiple identities leads to a form of hybridity, an ambivalent state of mind where there is no longer a specific place or home, but mixed feelings over the fact that nothing is stable anymore or is the way we expect things to be. I agree with Bhabha that Antoinette, by this definition, is a hybrid and this uncertain state of being leads to the loss of Antoinette’s identity. Despite Antoinette and her family living among the Jamaicans of Coulibri for a long period of time, they have continuously faced discrimination by the native Jamaicans and this could be a reflection of how actual old white colonisers were treated following Britain’s Emancipation Act which ‘freed’ colonial slaves. As a result of the Cosways’ previous dependence on slave labour, and this now being a diminishing source of income following this act, the Cosways’ weakened reputation and decline in social status creates the prime conditions for racial revenge. Rejected by the Jamaican culture in which she has been raised and arguably associates most with, Antoinette begins to doubt her right to claim the island, the only homeland she has ever known, as a part of her identity. This is also evident when she conveys these feelings of insecurity and desperation to Rochester, “I loved the island because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often”. The simile used here alludes to the absence of passion in Antoinette’s life caused by the lack of potent racial identity, a loss that contributes to her marginalisation. Tia throws a rock at Antoinette, where Antoinette says “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 could be using Antoinette to allude to Antoinette’s ancestors’ colonial past; white colonisers massacred millions of Jamaican minorities in the name of British imperialism and caused immense suffering for Tia’s ancestors. This is emblematic in the ‘blood’ on Antoinette’s face, and the ‘tears’ on Tia’s. Tia is symbolic of what Antoinette arguably desires to be: a black woman both physically and spiritually. Unlike Tia, Antoinette will never have a fulfilling racial identity to call her own. Rhys, being a creole herself, was mainly concerned with asserting the cultural identity of the natives in her creole heroine Antoinette. Rhys was raised in Dominica but moved to England and she too struggled with the classification of her identity and Antoinette is the written dramatization of this.
The loss of identity in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is central to Antoinette and without it arguably there would be no story. ‘Eve Green’ also places emphasis on the loss of identity, but it not as central as in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. ‘Eve Green’, rather, is an exploration of identity, whereas in Wide Sargasso Sea, identity is not explored, it is deprived and yearned for and ultimately lost. Eve says ‘people always had views on red hair…it felt bad, like a blemish’. Fletcher uses a simile to present a central part of Eve’s identity as though it were an imperfection or flaw of which Eve can’t get rid of. This presents the younger’s Eve’s insecurities about her Irish identity as being particularly prominent as she was judged heavily in Wales for being half Irish. Contextually, this novel is set in the 1980s which is around the time when ‘The Troubles’ took place. Many people were fearful of the Irish due to the terrorist attacks from the IRA and this is reflected in the way Eve is treated by the locals in Wales. In reflection, Eve says ‘I emerged as Eve- stronger’. Eve hated her birth name ‘Evangeline’ and refers to herself as Eve- arguably taking control of her identity. The separation of the adjective ‘stronger’ places emphasis on it and shows that Eve’s past does not define her now. Therefore, at the heart of ‘Eve Green’ is arguably not the loss of identity, but the gradual discovery of identity.
Loss of identity is pertinent throughout both novels but this is particularly caused by the male figures. Through social ostracism, legal restrictions and negative verbal labelling, the society dominated by male colonizers seeks to confuse the Creole woman’s notion of self, thereby conquering not only a class of people, but also the threat that individuals such as Antoinette pose to socially constructed norms involving race and gender. Rochester embodies this, as well as the Victorian ‘gentleman’ and he is a large contributor to Antoinette’s declining sense of self. Rochester says ‘I scarcely recognised her voice. No warmth, no sweetness. The doll had a dolls voice, a breathless but curiously indifferent voice.’ The objectification of Antoinette as a ‘doll’ distances Rochester from her. A ‘doll’ connotes his ability to control her as though she were an inanimate object who exists to look beautiful but nothing more. The lack of recognition of Antoinette’s voice ‘I scarcely recognised her voice’ could be metaphorical for Antoinette’s lack of identity. Rochester self imposes his own prejudicial identity upon Antoinette as not a purely white woman, which he sought to change, as evident when he refers to her as ‘Bertha’, and here it seems Antoinette has spiralled in to having lost any form of identity- a consequence of the abuse she suffers from Rochester and inner turmoil from being locked away in the attic. Rhys herself had endured three divorces and so she understood the form of toxic relationships. Rhys was highly critical of the patriarchal society she lived in and being that she descended from a slave holder father and Creole mother, Rhys can be seen to use Antoinette to reflect her own marginalised identity, both as a woman and a colonial subject.
The masculine impact on loss of identity in ‘Eve Green’ can be seen by Mr Phipps who is particularly fixated on Eve’s half Irish identity. He says, ‘told me redheads had tempers and weren’t to be trusted’. This points to Mr Phipps’ racist scepticism about Eve as being redheaded was associated with being Irish. It’s interesting that Mr Phipps subtly calls Eve Green untrustworthy when Eve herself is unable to find trust because she knows she is disliked for her racial identity. Mr Phipps continues to use derogatory language against Eve,” little Irish bitch.” And the use of this explicitly violent, misogynistic language points to the extreme racially motivated persecution of Eve by Mr Phipps which arguably contributes to her loss of identity, either because Mr Phipps self imposes that loss or because Eve finds it safer to neglect her Irish identity in fears of violence.
One can argue it is not merely the female protagonists who experience loss. Rochester’s loss of familiarity related to his surroundings is significant; his disdain for the Caribbean and belief in the supremacy of colonial Britain can be seen in the novel. ‘There was…what looked like an imitation of an English summer house’. For Rochester, the Caribbean takes him out of his comfort zone and this radically challenges his sense of self. It is evident here that he latches on to anything that vaguely reminds him of England as he compares his vacation home to an ‘English summer house’. Rather than appreciating the Caribbean as a separate entity, he only sees the island as either a pale ‘imitation’ or monstrous deformation of his English homeland. Describing the screw pine as an ‘imitation’ may be symbolic of his feelings about Antoinette being merely a failed ‘imitation’ of Europeans. Rochester also says ‘I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.’ Rochester’s anaphoric list of ‘I hated’ places negative emphasis on everything he hates about Jamaica, and shows his insecurities regarding his loss of familiarity but more specifically is a macrocosmic reflection of his hatred of Antoinette; thus he associates anything related to Antoinette negatively. Rochester feels threatened by the excessive beauty of the natural landscape and by using simple nouns,” the mountains, the hills, the rivers” to describe his elaborate surroundings he refuses to acknowledge the fruitfulness of Jamaica and simplifies it so it is comprehendible for him. Rochester’s sense of emptiness and loss is evident when he refers to the ‘magic’ and ‘loveliness’ of which he ‘would never know’, as Rochester’s character desires dominance and self fulfilment but he is unable to process the intangible beauty of Jamaica and thus becomes increasingly frustrated. This idea is supported by postcolonial critic Sue Thomas who comments upon Mr Rochester’s feelings about the Antoinette and the island. She says ‘Mr. Rochester sees Antoinette as someone who embodies the wild and the alien which is different from him and it is something he is not used to. Mr. Rochester becomes threatened by everything that is not like him or like anything in England’. This idea is reflected in the way Rochester treats Antoinette treats Antoinette throughout the novel, whether that be something as simple as telling her to be rid of the perfume she uses in her hair, to having pure feelings of unfounded resentment towards Antoinette because she is not submissive in the way Rochester expects. Rochester says “She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.” Rochester feels the toxic pain of loss of the simple, British life he lived before meeting Antoinette. Rochester could be alluding to his childhood, when he did not have to worry about his inheritance and being forced in to a marriage with a woman whom he did not love. Sue Thomas also says, ’Furthermore, the island is a place that becomes conceptualized by Mr. Rochester and Antoinette’s troubled relationship where English xenophobia, class, racial, and sexual anxieties are parts of it’. This can be seen in Rochester’s degradation of Antoinette when he sleeps with Amelie in very close proximity to Antoinette, as well as renaming her ‘Bertha’ because he didn’t like her Creole name.
Antoinette never wholly feels complete in to Jamaica or England due to her ambiguous racial background and has to forge a world for herself to exist in, ‘if razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think, “its better than people”.’ The razor grass’s mutilation of Antoinette’s body marks a metaphorical wound where her sense of self should be. The wild beauty of the Coulibri estate provides young Antoinette with an escape from her troubles, but this estate isn’t a home, a safe and secure place that Antoinette can identify with and make her own. Antoinette forgets her troubles to the point where she doesn’t even exist anymore, perhaps to the point where she is no longer human which is not necessarily a good thing.
Arguably Eve Green’s unfamiliarity with her surrounding contributes to her initial loss of identity, much like Antoinette, although Eve Green eventually finds comfort in what she first disliked. In Eve Green the feeling of loss resurfaces when the character has a specific memory so loss of familiarity in setting is a continuous symbolic response to inner loss experienced by the characters. Eve says “no other houses, no homes, no lights in the distance”. The repetition of ‘no’ expresses young Eve’s mental incapacity to accept her newfound surroundings and the negativity she attributes with it is evident. Fletcher uses ‘houses..homes..lights’ which are all objects associated with security, yet Eve is unable to find any security here and she feels unsafe and at a loss. Older Eve reflects later on, “what sort of world was this for them, full of mud and rain and sharp teeth?” Here, literally she is describing the death of lambs in the harsh welsh weather conditions, but also reflecting on her bringing her own child in to such a cruel world. The use of rhetorical question emphasises Eve’s inability to resonate with her environment, and ‘sharp teeth’ brings about vicious animal imagery and pain. She seems to metaphorically lose her sense of security here. As setting is a critical theme in both novels, with the changes of setting occurring during momentous life-changing events, it reflects the necessity for both protagonists and antagonists in these novels to feel stable in their environment and how their inner loss is reflected in the outside world. As Fletcher stated, ‘I do think time outdoors gives you a better sense of what matters’, which can be reflected in Eve’s character as the feelings of loss she experiences is heightened by the overbearing tranquillity she finds in wales and its ability to direct her attention to the past in which she longer feels a part of.
The loss of maternal figures is stated early on in both novels. Antoinette’s loss of her mother Annette is not a physical loss, rather an emotional disconnect with the woman whom she should be closest to. This loss is arguably one of the driving factors of Antoinette’s general suffering. Antoinette says, “I fell against the partition and hurt myself”. Although literally Antoinette is describing being flung from her mother, the metaphorical implications of this indicate the mental pain Antoinette is feeling at the separation with her mother, even if this is a physical separation. This shows their dysfunctional emotional division in their parent- child relationship. Antoinette says “once I made excuses to be near her when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to…keep me safe. But not any longer. Not anymore.” The use of metaphorical description of Annette’s hair as a ‘soft black cloak’ brings about images of positive mother-daughter relationships, one where Antoinette feels safe around her mother and her mother fulfils her role as her protector. The use of short sentences and repetition of ‘not’ highlights the loss of security she now endures around her mother due to her mother’s declining mental health. Antoinette’s growing coldness is reflective in her speech and mirrors her mother’s neglect of her. Contextually, Rhys herself did not have a flourishing relationship with her mother. In the biography ‘The Blue Hour’ Pizzichini discusses Rhys’ mother’s loss of children before having Rhys- Rhys felt like the ‘ghost of her mother’s baby’. ‘Her mother’s inattentiveness and mournful demeanour had far-reaching effects…nothing could compensate her mother for her loss.’ Rhys’ dysfunctional relationship with her mother is reflected in Antoinette and Annette’s relationship- one of isolation and lack of communication and its loss has fatal implications for Antoinette further in the novel.
In ‘Eve Green’ there is a strong sense of loss of the maternal figure, as this book also begins with the description and loss of Eve’s mother. Eve mentions her mother throughout the book and as older Eve she thinks wistfully of her mother and idolises her for her own personal experiences of motherhood. The loss of maternal figure in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ results in the lack of emotional recovery in Antoinette in all her future relationships and Eve Green experiences a similar period of disassociation and reflection on her life. She says “I have spaces I can’t fill, as though I sealed my head up for a while, or boarded up my windows against the stormy weather’. While literally Eve is describing the weather outside, metaphorically she is describing her inner turmoil at her the loss of her mother and her inability to comprehend the vastness of this loss. Eve finds comfort in feeling guarded and closed off from the rest of the world. Eve also says “the fog was a proper blackness…I looked for stars but there were none” and the use of “proper blackness” presents it as though it is made very prominent and thus frightening for a child. The use of colour imagery indicates the fog was unsettling for young Eve and the symbolic lack of stars is representative of how Eve felt without her mother’s guidance. Stars usually connote ideas of destiny but here it seems Eve feels like her life is destitute without her mother.
In conclusion, loss is an important factor in determining the outcomes of the protagonists and antagonists in both novels, however the theme of racial identity seems to be central to these novels over the theme of loss. Loss is seen through the entirety of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ but this is manifested in Eve’s identity most prominently. ‘Eve Green’ does not focus itself on loss entirely, but the development of Eve and the challenges she faces.
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