To what extent is a reading of Rhys’ novel enhanced by considering source texts other than Jane Eyre?
Rhys utilises a backdrop of potent gothic mechanisms and echoes the stricken anarchy of post emancipation colonial rule in her writing to enhance the audience’s reading and to enable her protagonist to hold a slanted mirror to the world of Jane Eyre.
At first, it seems incongruous that the vibrant, post colonialist backdrop of Wide Sargasso Sea, soaked by the ‘brazen sun’ (1) should be so richly entangled with the shadowy landscapes of the European gothic. Jane Eyre is punctuated by claustrophobic English imagery to add an atmospheric sense of terror, particularly noticeable in Brontë’s description of the violent Thornfield countryside, where the landscape seems animated by some nameless, feral horror; the beck is ‘a torrent, turbid and curbless: it tore asunder the wood, and sent a raving sound through the air, often thickened with wild rain or whirling sleet; and for the forest on its banks, that showed only ranks of skeleton.’ (p.64)
The genre relies on a distinctive range of features to create and signify the presence of anxiety. It is evident that others, notably Wuthering Heights, use setting and the contrasting play between darkness and light as an invaluable tool in creating the sense of encroaching danger inherent in gothic texts as Rhys does in Wide Sargasso Sea. Emily Brontë’s description of the gaunt landscape which ‘lay in shadow...bare masses of stone, with hardly enough earth in their clefts to nourish a stunted tree’ (Chapter 18) and of Cathy, whose ‘face was just like the landscape...shadows and sunshine flitting over it in rapid succession; but the shadows rested longer, and the sunshine was more transient... ’ (Chapter 27) show the crucial, gothic characteristic of light and shadow to enhance a sense of intangible fear in the reader.
There is a commonality of theme here which Rhys echoes and subverts in Wide Sargasso Sea to create a repeated image that is superficially drenched in light, where intensity creates a sensory overload, ‘Everything is too much ... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green...’ (p.59). the use of the excessive ‘too much’ suggests that this luxuriance is unwelcome and somehow unsavoury. Her description of the garden is equally distasteful - as ‘beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there but it had gone wild...a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh, living smell...Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched...The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.’ (p.16-17) It is clear however, that the Caribbean brightness that Rhys creates is illusory; the Biblical motif, the references to death, decay, the forbidden and the untouchable here reveal the real, gothic tradition at work behind the image and the overripe Caribbean landscape is indisputably an apt breeding ground for the birth of the monster in Antoinette/ Bertha. As Alice Thomas Ellis puts it in ‘Fairy Tale’, ‘Sometimes light, like water, washed away all the dark things, but sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes by contrast yet in collaboration, it served the dark things well, showing what it were better not to see.’ (p.39)
Rhys’ letters reveal her censure of the original lack of back-story for the tragic Creole in Jane Eyre, ‘She’s necessary to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls, laughs horribly, attacks all and sundry – off stage. For me...she must be right on stage. She must be at least plausible with a past, the reason why Mr Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds...’ (2) As Gilbert and Gubar assert, a female protagonist cannot just be the ‘eternal feminine’ of patriarchal literature; silent and docile. The story that she holds is important, above everything, in affording any kind of credibility to a character, ‘A life that has no story, like the life of Goethe’s Makarie, is really a life of death, a death in life.’ (3) And, thus, Rhys uses the isolation and fear that Antoinette/ Bertha feels to provide the narrative catalyst for her eventual crossing into abjection and madness. The motivation that Rhys creates is a sympathetic one; bound up with the habitual neglect that Antoinette/ Bertha suffers at the hands of her mother, the loss of her brother, her home, the poverty and friendlessness she endures to become the violently drunk, ‘red-eyed, wild-haired stranger...shouting obscenities’ (p.122) at the end of the novel’s distressing Caribbean sequence.
Within this narrative, Antoinette/ Bertha retreats into the glassy grip of psychosis, Rochester describes her, ‘Blank, lovely eyes. Mad eyes. A mad girl.’ (p.140) and his succinct, fragmented sentences score his revulsion deeply. At once, her portrayal ceases to be altogether human, described as if she were already dead - lying motionless on the bed like a doll or ‘marionette’ (p.123). This implicit blurring of the boundary between life and death is reminiscent of Dracula and other gothic monsters, specifically the vivid nightmare scene from Frankenstein, ‘I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms.’ (p.58)
Despite Rhys’ determination to create the ‘ on stage’, sympathetic back-story that Antoinette has lost, gothic mechanisms are, once more, clearly at work within Wide Sargasso Sea. In Rhys’ text, Antoinette/ Bertha’s attractiveness is transitory and she is soon no longer an object of sexual desire for Rochester. Moreover, she has become not a compliantly docile wife but her double; a ‘female monster’, as Gilbert and Gubar would have it, created not by him alone, complicit as he may be, but by her self-rage and the insecurity of her untenable position within a postcolonial world. Here, England indubitably represents the inherently more civilised culture; Spivak states, “imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English,” (4) However, Antoinette/ Bertha as a white Creole and, necessarily, an imperialist, is despised by the English and the Jamaicans, caught between two cultures and marginalized by both. This denial of any social or cultural identity allows Antoinette/ Bertha’s powerlessness to take hold and is pivotal in her retreat into insanity.
When Antoinette/ Bertha slews into madness and becomes the ‘other’, the wrathful monster of the Brontë text, it is as if she were fulfilling a fate foreshadowed in the madness of her mother, Annette. There is a passive defeatism in the way that she submits to the jostling of the children on the way to the convent and an implicit reference to the inexorable certainty of her tainted inheritance when the girl shouts, ‘Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother...she have eyes like zombie and you have eyes like zombie too.’ (p. 41-42) Rhys sources the gothic terror of the double elsewhere too, in Tia, who is perhaps the symbol of the life that Antoinette/Bertha might have had in another, less complex reality. A malevolent Tia steals her clothes in the pool scene at Coulibri, a vengeance which is a textual strategy for stealing her identity too. The significance of doubling is clear as the ghost of Tia follows Antoinette/ Bertha to Thornfield at the end of the novel, ‘Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated, she laughed. I heard her say, you frightened?... All this I saw and heard in a fraction of a second. And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought, why did I scream? I called “Tia!” (p.155) Here Rhys intensifies the drama by heightening the colour and escalating the pace. She recalls an image of destruction in the fire which is central to both the gothic tradition of the mad double and the ‘abjection’ that Kristeva describes when she suggests that: ‘There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable.’ (5) Antoinette/ Bertha’s downfall is certainly complicated by the degradation that she feels and is fed by the concoction of threats from both the cracked coherence of her psyche and the tensions of a dangerous postcolonial world.
The Caribbean childhood and expedient marriage that Antoinette/ Bertha experienced affords her narrative a dynamic; a psychology and accedes to the madness that overtakes her, symbolised by Rhys’ use of the double. It is worth remembering here that the evocation of the doppelgänger or zombie figure that she becomes is not one that belongs to postcolonial texts alone. Edward Said speaks of intertextuality, the ‘worldliness’ of all texts where the narrative must have ‘complex engagements with the historical, political and social conditions of their time.’ (6) As such, any writing which is concerned with the hostile convergence of cultures is similarly populated with doubles, dybukks and golems (7) and should be considered as source texts for Rhys as they mirror the powerful insecurity that Antoinette/ Bertha, trapped between two cultures and not truly belonging to either, must feel . A wealth of stories in Jewish tradition, for example, echo the alienation felt by a persecuted people, like the ‘cockroaches’ or ‘white niggers’ of Wide Sargasso Sea. The creation of the ‘double’ is therefore emblematic of this otherness, mirroring a fractured identity within a foreign society where self-definition is hindered by a culture that seeks segregation.
The notion of alienation seems to suit the tenor of Yiddish literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer creates an abominable vision of diaspora in works like Short Friday and Satan in Goray, set in a desolate rural Poland, ostensibly a world away from the postcolonial Caribbean but bound to it all the same by recurrent images of decay, defilement and an uneasy people without any sense of belonging. As Satan in Goray reaches its denouement, its protagonist, Rechele is possessed by a dybukk and, believing she has been made pregnant by the devil, slips into an abyss of the forbidden and unclean. Like Rhys’ Antoinette, Singer’s evocation of possession and mental illness is terrifying – but somehow fascinating too; wound up with a sense of hallucination and magic at play. Rochester is bewitched by the taboo beauty of Antoinette/Bertha and marries her before abhorrence of her and the Caribbean overtakes him. ‘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. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it’. (p.141) The pointed repetition of the word, ‘I’ reveals the narcissistic, self-pitying hate Rochester feels – in which he is the victim, rather than Antoinette, and recalls the entrenched, tense malevolence of postcolonial unrest where, ostensibly, the societal order may have changed but underlying attitudes have not. ‘No more slavery!’ says Christophine acidly, neatly articulating the failures of emancipation, ‘She had to laugh!...New ones worse than old ones – more cunning, that’s all.’ (pp. 22-23)
It is tempting to imagine that Rhys read Lafcadio Hearn’s ‘Two Years in the French West Indies’ as there are abundant textual parallels in their description of the luminosity of colour, violence of light and the peculiarly sinister atmosphere that seems to play in the Caribbean landscape. There are direct echoes too, to enhance our understanding, in Hearn’s description of the West Indies - a disturbing, psychological insight into a postcolonial mentality. Resolutely lacking in anything that might be called objectivity, he states, ‘And while the white element is disappearing, the dark races are multiplying as never before: - the increase of the negro and half-breed populations has been everywhere one of the startling results of emancipation...seem to confirm the old prediction that the slave races of the past must become the masters of the future.’ (8)
Hearn’s unapologetic racism speaks not of a historian’s perspective in which the facts of an historical epoch are presented but of a narrative in which he supplies his own interpretation of events and seems to suggest an anarchic state in which the ‘white element’ is dissolved by the powerful ‘dark races’, demonstrated by Rhys in the baying of a black mob as they burn Coulibri and the Cosways’ lives fragment.
Therefore, the background of postcolonial hostility and the cultural damage that it wrecked cannot be seen as anything other than a source for Rhys; the text is punctuated by social anxiety and a characteristic fear of the foreign, common to both the gothic and to the postcolonial. The fundamental differences between England and the Caribbean suffuse the novel and, within that, the language’s poetic function is to deliver the clear sense of the Caribbean’s treachery; ‘a very wild place – not civilised’ (p 57). There seems to be an irrevocable partition between the two cultures, which is so much more than geographical, borne perhaps of Rhys’ own colonial status. The textual contrast between dream and reality extends everywhere in Wide Sargasso Sea; England, so far away, is afforded an almost mythical status by Antoinette/ Bertha, who asks, ‘Is it true...that England is like a dream?’ And Rochester answers petulantly, ‘that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.’ (p. 67). Christophine is also unconvinced, ‘You do not believe that there is a country called England?’ She blinked and answered quickly, ‘I don’t say I don’t believe, I say I don’t know, I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it.’ (p 92) The reader’s insight into Antoinette’s frailty is intensified here by Voyage in the Dark, where the brittle Anna mirrors Antoinette so closely that it is almost as if the novel were Rhys’ ‘dry run’ for Wide Sargasso Sea. The movement between two cultures is silhouetted by Anna as it is for Antoinette as threatening and dangerous and Rhys’ language here is coolly emphatic, ‘It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again...Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream’ (9). According to McInnis, ‘Clearly neither country is a mere dream, but they are so far divorced from the speakers’ realms of familiarity as to be virtually unfathomable’. (10)