- Unquiet Ghosts:The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea
"We can assume that any theory of the subject has been appropriated by the masculine. . . . When she submits to [such a] theory, woman fails to realize that she is renouncing the specificity of her own relationship to the imaginary. Subjecting herself to objectivization in discourse—by being 'female' " (Irigaray 133). In these words Luce Irigaray aptly summarizes one of the basic problems that Jean Rhys attempts to grapple with in her best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. The tale of Antoinette, as indicated by the critics, is the tale of a schizophrenic, a Creole whose search for identity leads to madness, or, as some would advocate, the story of a woman too weak to resist the onslaught of a strong male such as Rochester, and whose response is escape through madness. Yet such interpretations fail to take into account an important element of the text: its structure. A basic question remains. Why would a writer such as Jean Rhys, dedicated to portraying a female point of view, choose to write more than half the novel from a male perspective?
In addressing this issue, it is important to bear in mind that Wide Sargasso Sea is a rewrite of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Rhys's statement as to the origin of the novel has been much quoted: "She seemed such [End Page 437] a poor ghost, I thought I'd like to write her a life" (O'Conner 144). Arnold Davidson interprets Rhys's words as a reminder, a warning: "We need to be reminded how much the story that is there supercedes and suppresses other possible stories in that first one" (43). A story, any story, carries within it the possibility of repression, the exorcising of such "ghosts" that would otherwise "haunt" the narrative and intervene with it. In Bronte's text, the well-being of Jane depends on the death of Bertha. In the history of patriarchy, the well-being of man depends on the reduction of woman to a ghost, a Woolfian "Angel in the House."
Wide Sargasso Sea is an analysis of how such a process has been accomplished, outlining "the processes whereby the Great Mother Goddess becomes sister to the god, wife of the god, mother of the god, becomes Mary the Virgin mother, becomes lady to be worshipped, becomes, finally, prostitute and temptress to be reviled with hatred" (Nebeker 144) and constitutes, as a novel, a means of fighting the silences that pervade woman's history, the "unnatural" silences to which Tillie Olsen devotes her book: "the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot" (6). Wide Sargasso Sea, then, is a story of the "struggle to come into being" of Antoinette Cosway, the thwarting of that process, and her stubborn insistence on "speaking herself no matter what the cost may be.
From the beginning, the possibility of establishing a narrative with woman as subject immediately appears tenuous. The text does not begin with an assertion of an "I" that differentiates itself from the other. Instead, that self is presented as objectified by society. "They say," begins the text, a judgmental "they" whose voice, although "they" are women, immediately sets both mother and child outside society because they do not confirm to its narrow standards. Yet at the same time the words that give us our first view of Antoinette and her mother tighten around them, classifying them and fixating them so that it is to these words that Antoinette immediately turns to describe her situation. Even at this early stage, Antoinette has begun to relinquish that control which is her only hope for the establishment of an autonomous self independent of social expectations. The lack of differentiation is further aggravated by Antoinette's emotional dependence on the mother, who, significantly, rarely speaks to Antoinette and whose two frames of reference are marked immediately as patriarchal: the mirror, which is, as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, the "voice" of male approval (38) and the case of "succession," which the mother freely bestows on the son in acknowledgment of a patriarchal line as...