The Creole Woman and the Problem of Agency in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature


Table of Contents

Introduction: Postcolonialism versus Feminism

1. The Represented Self

2. Othering Antoinette

3. Jane’s Dark Secret

4. Resistance?

5. Sati

Conclusion: Literary Texts as Political Agents


Introduction: Postcolonialism versus Feminism

Agency is one of the buzzwords in contemporary critical theory. Referring to the ability of the individual to perform an action, the term agency puts on the theoretical agenda the question of whether one could autonomously act, or whether one’s actions are mere consequences of the ways in which one’s identity has been constructed (See Ashcroft 2004, 8). Since agency focuses on the secular interrelations between an individual and the society, the term becomes crucial for the theoretical debates on identity formation. Apart from (re-)defining identity as impure, unfixed, fractured and fragmented, Stuart Hall refers in “Who needs Identity?” to Althusser, Lacan and Foucault in order to elaborate on the ways in which ideology, language and discourse hinder one’s ability to initiate an action autonomously. (Hall 1996, 1-17) The notion that our actions are already ‘chosen’ for us troubles agency. Judith Butler provides a possible solution to the problem by situating identity in the context of gender and viewing gendered identity as constructed through the repetition of the same performance, whereby “this repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established”. (Butler 1990, 140) Due to the changing cultural contexts, one cannot repeat anything twice in exactly the same way. Agency, “then, is to be located within the possibility of a variation on that repetition”. (Butler 1990, 145)

Since my paper deals with Feminist Postcolonial Studies, I would like to use the term agency as the ability of the female colonial Other to act against patriarchy, imperial ideology and Western feminism. Applying agency to the context of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, I demonstrate the Creole woman’s loss of a speaking position and the impossibility of retrieving her voice.

The aim of my introduction is to elaborate on the historical and political background that gives an account of how the particular power relation between Jane, a plain English girl, transforming into a self-fashioned woman, and Bertha, the Creole wife of Jane’s master, comes to be ‘powered’. Since Victorian “women influence the public domain only in relationship to men”, as daughters, mothers, and wives, being a woman and an autonomous social agent at the same time is a logical impossibility.(Sharpe 1997, 47) The paradox of gaining a ‘domestic’ form of social agency is “resolved by defining the English woman in relation to other women instead of men”.(Sharp 1997, 47) Consequently, the Western female is constructed as ‘enlightened’, ‘educated’, ‘superior’ and ‘moral’ in contrast to the ‘dark’, ‘ignorant’, ‘inferior’ and ‘immoral’ native one. These binary oppositions establish the Western woman as the norm and the native as a deviation, as her Other. Thus, the Western feminists’ struggle for agency uses the power strategy of the white Western male, who employs exactly the same dichotomies in order to legitimize his control over his Others, colonials and females.

Furthermore, the mentioned binaries enable the emergence of the “Third-World” difference, an ahistorical notion, perceiving the ‘Third-world’ woman as a ”singular, monolithic subject”. (Mohanty 2003, 17) By not paying attention to the racial, national and class differences among the native women themselves, Western feminists repeat the rhetoric of Empire that homogenizes colonials in a similar manner. For instance, the Irish are characterized in the same way as the Indian, the Indian - as the African. Consequently, the sameness of colonial women proves to be politically produced by the Western feminist discourse.

Besides, the role of the ‘Third-World’ woman for the self-establishment of the ‘First-World’ one is the same as that of the Orient for the self-defining project of the West. They are the identifiable margin that the Centre needs in order to define itself in contrast to it. So, the ‘First-World’ worlds [1] the ‘Third’ one, Orientalism orientalise s[2] the Orient, and the Western feminist discourse others [3] the native woman. Therefore, there could be no ‘First-World’ without a ‘Third’ one, no West without Orient, no self-established Janes without silenced Berthas. The Centre turns out to be dependent on the periphery, not vice versa.

The already mentioned issues of representation, othering, consolidation, resistance and loss of a speaking position are dealt with in the subsequent sections in the same sequence as enumerated.

1. The Represented Self

I begin by exploring the power relation between Charlotte Brontë’s Jean Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. The latter novel uses the postcolonial strategy of rewriting. It simultaneously relies on a familiar text and questions our assumptions of it. “Rather like the prefix post- in the term postcolonial, the prefix re- in rewriting thus designates a double function: repetition and resistance, or reliance on and reversal of the given structures.”(Döring 2008, 83) Rhys’s text ‘defamiliarizes’ our knowledge of the madwoman in the attic by giving us a story which precedes the action of Jane Eyre, a pre-quel. So, Wide Sargasso Sea challenges us to rethink and re-evaluate Bertha. In this respect, the novel’s ‘ agency ’ should be located in its ability to establish a counter-version of the Creole’s story. Furthermore, by emphasizing the importance of the colonies for the English literary canon, the text changes our view of English literature in general. Therefore, I do not consider Wide Sargasso See a derivative text.

Besides, rewriting belongs to the broader term intertextuality, the notion that all texts partly continue, partly contest previous ones. (See Döring 2008, 82) In the same manner, Rhys’s text ‘acts’ against the dominant discourse together with it. Rhys takes up English[4], the language of the Master, and uses it against the Master’s ideology. Moreover, Wide Sargasso Sea embodies the cultural heritage of both the dominated and the dominant. Antoinette’s cross-stitching of silk roses resembles Jean Rhys’s ‘stitching’ of Wide Sargasso Sea on Brontë’s Jane Eyre. (See Rhys, WSS, 29) In this regard, ‘cross-stitching’ alludes to the notion of the palimpsest because both imply addition of new inscriptions on a given script without the old being erased.

The above mentioned idea refers to Edward Said’s concept of contrapuntal reading, which “must take account of both processes, that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded”.(1994, 66-67) In other words, the dominant discourse never stands alone. The counter-discourse is not something added, it is already in the text. Said’s statement hints at the so called ‘ backstage characters’, where the backstage is a place that we do not see, but on which the plot depends. This concept presumes a spatial construction of the world which presents the colony as the backstage and England as the ‘front’ one. Bertha’s shadowy presence in the attic of Thornfield Hall designates her as a ‘ backstage character’. She functions in Jane Eyre in the same way as St Innocenzia in Wide Sargasso Sea. She is just a relic, no one “know(s) her story, she is not in the book”. (Rhys, WSS, 29)

Jean Rhys’s purpose is to put this ‘ backstage character’ at the front by writing her a story. This task turns out to be quite disputable, since there is already Rochester’s version of Bertha’s story. The voice of the Creole seems to be excluded from the ‘debate’ on ‘her’ story. Bertha’s state could be compared to that of the village Massacre. Something happened there, but no one remembers what it was. (See Rhys, WSS, 36) There is no evidence and no accurate search is made to find it out. Therefore, everyone could create his own version of this village’s possible story.

Story-telling poses two important questions which are interconnected: What is said or written? and Who decides what is said or written?. Whoever determines the story being told, determines our knowledge of it and the way in which we think of its subject. In this regard, telling one’s story on one’s behalf means representing him/her, whereas representation is “the act of recreating or imitating, constructing or representing something in cultural medium like literature, thus to make present what is absent and, potentially, control, contain or subjugate it in this way.” (Döring 2008, 40) Therefore, literary representations are also political acts. Moreover, the versions of a story, whose subject cannot articulate itself, repeat the colonial act of representing the dominated colonials. Brontë’s Rochester claims the privilege of knowing Antoinette in the way the imperialist claims his familiarity with ‘his’ colonials. This assumption empowers the dominant individual to speak for the dominated and thus to produce a ‘master version’ of what can otherwise not be articulated. Paradoxically, Jean Rhys’s well-meaning project to write the Creole a story draws on the imperialists’ cultural privilege of representing the subjugated Other.

Furthermore, story-telling is a question of authorization. Jane’s autobiography has the same goal as Western feminist discourse - the self-positioning of the imperial female Self. In this respect, Jane Eyre is seen as a female Bildungsroman because it describes the way in which female identity is formed. Since Jane needs the Creole, in order to reposition herself in the established social order by asserting superiority over her female Other, Jane’s autobiography presupposes Antoinette’s silencing. My assertion alludes to Edward Said’s notion of the worldly text. He argues that texts “are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, of human life, and of the historical movements in which they are located and interpreted”. (1983, 4) Literary texts are even more influential than historical ones because they persuade and affect one not rationally, but passionately. Since literature deals with the problems of perspectives, mediation and self-positioning, it turns out to be an extricable part of the whole question of agency.

2. Othering Antoinette

Coined by Gayatri Spivak, the term othering describes “the process by which imperial discourse creates its ‘others’, whereas the ‘Other’ corresponds to the focus of desire or power (the M-Other or Father – or Empire) in relation to which the subject is produced, the other is the excluded or ‘mastered’ subject created by the discourse of power”.[5] (Ashcroft 2004, 171) Many critics, however, use the terms interchangeably by referring to the construction of the Empire’s Other, not others. My analysis addresses the imperial Centre as the ‘Self’ and its politically produced others as the ‘Other’, whereas the Self always defines itself in opposition to the Other. For instance, the Victorians bound up the Self with “Protestantism, masculinity, heterosexuality, whiteness, rationality, sanity, moral and sexual temperance, propriety, invention and endeavour”. (Purchase 2006, 106) Conversely, their Other is described in terms of “Godlessness” or any other religion that differs from Protestantism, “foreignness, femininity, homosexuality, blackness, irrationality, madness, moral and sexual laxity, criminal deviance, outright laziness”.(Purchase 2006, 106) These binary oppositions are endowed with two functions: first, they trigger the self-fashioning of the dominant individual by politically producing an Other, second, they legitimize his/her control over the Other by privileging the Self. Therefore, Othering, in the terms of naming, mapping, categorizing, homogenizing, creating cultural stereotypes, is an act of power.


[1] Worlding is the process, describing the way in which colonized space is brought into the ‘world’. (See Spivak 2004, 838)

[2] It produces stereotypes of the East.

[3] The process of othering is thoroughly explained in 3. Othering Antoinette.

[4] As a Caribbean author, she has no other alternative because there are only few words which remained from the indigenous languages. (See Döring 2008, 73)

[5] Spivak’s notion adheres to Lacan’s mirror stage. According to Lacan, the ‘other’ designates the image of the child in the mirror. Although the mirror image resembles the child itself, it makes the child aware of him/herself as a separate being. Next, Lacan states that the subject , the child in this case, gains identity in the gaze of the ‘Other’, who could refer either to the mother or to the father. (See Ashcroft 2004, 170)


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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LMU Munich – Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Jane Eyre Wide Sargasso Sea Agency Postcolonial Studies Gayatri Spivak Edward Said Chandra Mohanty




Title: The Creole Woman and the Problem of Agency in Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea"