The Theme of Rochester and Antoinette in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
“Antoinette can be read as a victim of a dominant discourse (a European, white male one at that), which discourages any syncretic possibilities.”
Rhys adopts a dominant narrative voice in part two of the novel to stress the presiding nature of Rochester and thus the damage that many white Europeans have done to the Caribbean. Rochester declares tonight “you must be Bertha”. Bertha is the name forced onto Antoinette and Rochester’s insistence on this being her name highlights the patriarchal influence that he possesses. The demand for the name “Bertha” also prevents Antoinette from determining her own identity as the “Miller’s daughter” image that is stereotyped is instead forced upon her. She could therefore be read as a victim of such dominance. However, the “English” image is somewhat imposed on herself through her warped ideals of identity. She cannot fathom an existence in Jamaica, stating: “….white cockroach. That’s me.” This accentuates the feelings of disconnection from the Caribbean and thus her sought-after connection to England. This self-loathing is also fairly ironic, as the Caribbean was a white settlement long before it became a “black country”. The disconnect that Antoinette feels for the island could perhaps then be attributed to the European’s rejection of the Caribbean, and thus Antoinette after the Emancipation Act of 1833. A postcolonial reading accentuates this issue, with the the attitudes towards Annette’s marriage to Mr Mason a key example. One observer claimed “he would regret it”. The fact that the only consideration is for the male is steeped in irony as it is Annette who is destroyed by the marriage, eventually going mad. The word “regret” is foreshadowing Antoinette’s conversation with Christophene, when she wisely tells her this would be a marriage to “regret”. This advice was ignored and the subsequent relationship would completely isolate her from any syncretic possibilities and eventually end in her death.
Rhys uses the madness of Annette to explore the theme of heredity and thus underlines the responsibility of the mother in her daughter’s lack of a cultural identity. Annette laments “now we are marooned” when their horse is murdered. The use of such definite language impresses this lamentation onto Anntoinette and this severely hinders her search for a distinctive self being. The relationship with Tia, Antoinette’s only self-made connection to the outside world, is seen as insignificant to Annette, who remarks: “which one of them is Tia?”. This highlights Annette’s apparent reluctance to connect with the locals as the word “them” suggests a disconnection. This deconstruction of the segregative concept challenged the common 1960s opinion, where Apartheid had been established for over a decade in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement was a controversial issue in America and the passing of the Race Relations Act in 1965 had prompted mass demonstrations in England. Rhys, herself a Caribbean descendant, is perhaps suggesting that society is limited by its segregative opinions, much like Annette is in the novel, as she is unable to establish any relationship with any black people apart from Christophine, whose opinion she devalues completely. The fight that Antoinette has with Tia is a poignant example of how destructive the adult world can be on the innocence of children. Antoinette calls Tia a “cheating nigger”, after a dispute over money. The use of such vulgar language reflects the graceless adult world; this is Rhys stressing the importance of reducing the evil passed on to children. This refusal to cooperate with the black population could perhaps be accounted to the the dominant European influence, which Annette strives towards. Indeed the arrival of Mr Mason prompts mutterings from the local women. One says, “He didn’t come here to dance – he came to make money as they all do”. This goes undisputed and is Rhys highlighting the damaging effects of the Europeans on the Creole’s cultural identity. They aspire to be like the Europeans and the only result they get is financial exploitation. This is also foreshadowing the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester, in which Rhys reveals Rochester’s only motive is money.
The relationship between Rochester and Antoinette is used by Rhys to stress the damaging effects of the dominant male on the cultural identity of the female. Rochester casts off the wedding as simply a performance, where he “played the part [he] was expected to play” He then goes on to boast to the reader that it was a “faultless performance”. This is Rhys highlighting the despicable nature of the white European, and presents Antoinette as a victim of his deceit. The subsequent dominance means their marriage acts to show how men display dominance and power to marginalize and oppress women. A feminist reading would also draw on the madness of Antoinette, and its presentation within the historical context of the time. Feminist critic Maria Olaussen points out that when choosing to write about the madness of Bertha, “the monster” in Jane Eyre, Rhys did not want to describe Bertha’s madness independently. Rhys wanted to put her description of a “madwoman” into the context of literary tradition of a “madwoman” that Charlotte Bronte has created. The attitudes of the white Europeans towards the Caribbean population – seeing them as the “other” is linked to the madness portrayed in Jane Eyre, and thus prevents Creoles such as Antoinette from joining the European culture, as they are still viewed as alien. Rochester’s imposition is a key example of this, as he views Antoinette as exotic and interesting, further alienating her from the “Miller’s Daughter” image she so strives to connect with.
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“Antoinette can be read as a victim of a dominant discourse (a European, white male one at that), which discourages any syncretic possibilities.” Rhys adopts a dominant narrative voice in […]