Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre: Challenging the Canon

April 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

Wide Sargasso Sea uses the erasure of Antoinette’s story from Jane Eyre to challenge a canon which is misrepresentative of British colonialism. However, Wide Sargasso Sea “does not adopt the adversarial strategy of dehumanizing Rochester” (Thieme 78). Rather, Rochester is also presented as a victim and in contrast to Jane Eyre’s authorial commentary, Wide Sargasso Sea presents both sides of the cultural divide. Through dividing the narrative between Antoinette and Rochester’s perspectives, Wide Sargasso Sea becomes a narrative about narrative and how a single perspective narrative precludes another. The misappropriation of the cultural other in Jane Eyre becomes a metaphor for the preclusion of alternative narratives from the traditional canon. Yet, Wide Sargasso Sea is dependent on Jane Eyre as an intertextual referent, simultaneously challenging and reinforcing its canonical status.

The concept of a canon of English Literature began in British ruled India as a form of colonial oppression. The 1835 English Education Act introduced the academic discipline of English Literature to India as a “civilising force” (Eaglestone 11). Through works such as Mathew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy and Francis Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse, the “study of English Literature was brought back to Britain to ‘re-civilise the native savages’” (Eaglestone 12). At the time of the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, the concept of canon formation had been refined by F.R. Leavis. In The Great Tradition, he developed Arnold and Palgrave’s concept into an “authoritative list”, with a “civilising mission” designed to “cultivate a sense of national community” (Eaglestone 15, 55). However, his definition of the canon, which Robert Eaglestone notes as “perhaps the most significant influence on how English Literature was understood in the twentieth century”, also relied upon a “personal sensibility to make judgements they claim to be objective” (14, 55). Leavis’s account was built on the presupposition of British cultural superiority and forced people into a fixed pattern of values of “civilised Englishness” (Eaglestone 17). The exclusion of texts which did not reaffirm the narrow assumptions of value esulted in a monocultural perspective of British heritage which refuses to confront colonialism.

Jane Eyre reflects the hegemonic monoculturalism of canon formation in the early twentieth century. Bertha’s otherness is described as stereotypically bestial: “whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal […] a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face” (321). Her blackness is made explicit in Jane’s description of her having a “discoloured face” with “fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments” (311). Rochester also labels Bertha’s mother as a “madwoman and a drunkard”, associating her with “two of the most common stereotypes associated with blacks in the nineteenth century” (322, Meyer 253). The oppression of Bertha is “necessary for the emergence of the central and coherent unified female subject, Jane” (Childs 145). Bertha represents all that Jane is not, “Jane […] is poor, plain, little, pale, neat and quiet, while Bertha is rich, large, florid, sensual, and extravagant” (Gilbert 361). However, Jane and Bertha also share similarities and the imprisonment of Bertha recalls “that “bad animal” who was ten-year-old Jane, imprisoned in the red-room, howling and mad” (Gilbert 361). The similarities emphasise how Jane’s fate could become Bertha’s if she was to give in to desire and become Rochester’s mistress. The figurative use of Bertha to provide Jane with “an example of how not to act” presents the racialised other as incompatible with the egalitarian world-view Jane embodies (Gilbert 361). The misappropriation of Bertha is synonymous with the “unquestioned idiom of imperialist presuppositions” and justifies the civilising mission of St. John Rivers to bring “knowledge into the realms of ignorance” (Spivak 249, Brontë 376). The narrative events of Jane Eyre mirror the basis of canon formation, that “if you don’t ‘genetically’ share the idea of the canon […] you can neither properly appreciate not write great books” (Eaglestone 54). Bertha’s incarceration in the attic and the exclusion from the narrative demonstrates that the cultural other has no place in the dictated narrative of colonized canonical literature.

Wide Sargasso Sea challenges the limits of a monocultural canon by freeing Bertha from the attic, allowing her to become the protagonist of her own narrative. Bertha is reimagined as Antoinette to compose a “moral corrective for Charlotte Brontë’s silencing of Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre” (Arizti 39). A central component of the narrative is the figurative use of obeah and the fear of zombification. Obeah is described as a “black magic” that takes control of other peoples’ lives, transforming them into “a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead” (Rhys 66). Antoinette alludes to her fear of zombification when she tells Rochester “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about” (81). Rochester exploits Antoinette’s fear and his insistence on calling Antoinette Betha “is an apt image of his violation of her identity”, “Bertha, is not my name” Antoinette protests, “You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” (Thieme 78, Rhys 95). Through Rochester’s renaming of Antoinette, obeah is presented “as a discursive construct deployed by the colonizer as much as by the colonized” (Mardorossian 1079). However, Wide Sargasso Sea is not a complete counter-discourse to Jane Eyre and Rochester is also presented as a victim; the “impecunious younger son, who has been tricked into an arranged marriage” (Thieme 78). As Christophine notes “The man not a bad man […] but he hear so many stories he don’t know what to believe” (71). Instead, the theme of obeah is centered and Rochester’s use of obeah becomes a metaphor for how the colonizer uses narrative to silence the cultural other. Therefore, Wide Sargasso Sea is not just writing back “to an English canonical text, but to the whole of the discursive field within which such a text operated and continues to operate in post-colonial worlds” (Thieme 80). In doing so, it challenges the canonical assumption of a shared white heritage which Jane Eyre projects.

As a postcolonial work, the novel challenges imperialism, but “although the novel is oppositional in its response to Jane Eyre, it is more comfortable with other British intertexts that may not have been deemed canonical during Rhys’s earlier career, but had come to be regarded as such by the time she came to write the final version” (Thieme 80). The stream-of-consciousness narrative demonstrates an “affiliative response” to European modernist writers such as James Joyce and from this perspective Wide Sargasso Sea “is a late modernist text that is more concerned with providing multiple perspectives on the interior lives of its characters than […] postcolonial identity politics” (Thieme 80-81). Furthermore, although Bertha’s blackness is emphasized in Jane Eyre, Antoinette is the descendant of white plantation owners, removed from racial oppression. The narrative exposes the “limits of its own discourse in Christophine” who “cannot be contained by a novel which rewrites a canonical English text with the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native” (Spivak 252-253). Christophine is a “commodified person” and although her perspective is critical of Rochester’s colonial rhetoric, the narrative does not “romanticize individual heroics on the part of the oppressed” and she “is driven out of the story, with neither narrative nor characterological explanation or justice” (Spivak 253). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak concludes that “No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialists self” (253). Although Spivak’s analysis of Christophine forces the reader to question Antoinette’s position as a figure of anti-colonial resistance, I would argue Wide Sargasso Sea does not consolidate the imperialism of Jane Eyre. The allegorical purpose of the narrative is not to be a postcolonial counter-discourse in the traditional sense, but to encourage the reader to question the nature of perspective narratives and how the telling of one story can so often preclude the telling of another. In this reading, the challenge is not to the canonical status of Jane Eyre but to the ethics of canon formation.

Wide Sargasso Sea cannot challenge the canonical position of Jane Eyre without simultaneously reinforcing it and “The Brontë novels became more visible […] in an academic environment that emphasized the text as a contested site, and reading as necessarily partial and ideologically fraught” (Lodge 191). However, Wide Sargasso Sea erodes the “monocultural optic of its canonical pre-text” and it becomes impossible to read both texts “without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England” in the nineteenth-century (Thieme 84, Spivak 243). The intertextual relationship between the two texts comes to reflect the multitude of conflicting narratives brought together in a postcolonial Britain, where a hegemonic monoculturalism is no longer viable.

Works cited:

Arizti, Bárbara. “The Future That Has Happened: Narrative Freedom and Déjà vu in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” A Breath of Fresh Eyre: Intertextual and Intermedial Reworkings of Jane Eyre, edited by Margarete Rubik and Elke Mettinger-Schartmann, Rodopi, 2007, pp. 39-48.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Penguin, 1984.

Childs, Peter, editor. Post-Colonial Theory and English Literature: A Reader, Edinburgh UP, 1999.

Eaglestone, Robert. Doing English. Routledge, 2009. Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale UP, 2000.

Lodge, Sara. “Brontë scholarship and criticism, c. 1970-2000.” The Brontës in Context, edited by Marianne Thormählen, Cambridge UP, 2012, pp. 191-198.

Mardorossian, Carine M. “Shutting up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double-Entendre in Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea.’” Callaloo, vol. 22, no. 4, 1999, pp. 1071–1090. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3299872. Accessed 28 April 2018.

Meyer, Susan. “Colonialism and Figurative Strategy of Jane Eyre.” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 1990, pp. 247-268, EBSCOhost, .ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=30h&AN=6879781&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 26 April 2018.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin, 2001.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 1, 1985, pp. 243-261. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1343469. Accessed 26 April 2018.

Thieme, John. Postcolonial Con-Texts: Writing Back to the Canon. A&C Black, 2002.

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