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  • Who is Christophine? The Good Black Servant and the Contradictions of (Racial) Liberalism

In a special PMLA issue on “Comparative Racialization,” Shu-Mei Shih argues that “Even though South Asia-based postcolonial theory has geared us to the study of colonialism and its consequent postcolonial complexities, it has also long held a strongly ambivalent relation to race studies” (1347). Whether or not we agree with Shih’s characterization of the ambivalence toward race studies within “South Asia-based postcolonial theory,” her essay correctly points to an unfortunate divide between scholarship on race and postcoloniality. Aiming to bridge this divide, this paper revisits an ongoing debate among postcolonial scholars on the racial politics of a celebrated anticolonial text, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Although a beneficiary of this debate, I argue that what is missing from the conversation is a more robust engagement with the limits and contradictions of Wide Sargasso Sea’s liberalism. By reading Rhys’s 1966 novel alongside the 1831 liberal antislavery treatise, The History of Mary Prince, I model a comparative reading practice that is informed by prominent critiques of liberal theory and practice emerging out of race studies. Such a comparative reading of Rhys’s text throws light on the elisions of postcolonial criticism, even while recognizing how this mode of [End Page 815] criticism has provided a necessary and meaningful corrective to the Eurocentrism of Anglophone literary studies.

Routinely invoked for its anti-imperialist rewriting of the English classic Jane Eyre, Rhys’s novel is a staple text in courses on modern and postcolonial literature across the Anglophone world. Through its sympathetic rescripting of Bertha, the white Creole lunatic from Jane Eyre, Rhys (herself a white Creole from Dominica) writes back against colonialist imaginings of the colonized West Indian subject.1 Until the 1980s, the majority of British and American (especially feminist) literary criticism of Wide Sargasso Sea2 focused on Antoinette Cosway—Rhys’s version of Bertha—and her relationship with her British husband—Rhys’s version of Mr. Rochester. The novel’s Caribbean setting and depiction of colonial and race relations were ignored by all but West Indian critics.3 However, following the 1985 publication of Gayatri Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”—in which she provides an insightful reading of Rhys’s text—Anglo-American criticism began to expand beyond exploring the novel’s self-created relationship with Jane Eyre, emphasizing also the white West Indian protagonist’s connection with her black maid and former slave, Christophine. In “Three Women’s Texts” Spivak identified Wide Sargasso Sea as an admirable exploration of imperialist self-constitution that provides us with Christophine’s perspective as an Other while at the same time being careful to not “contain” her in a novel written “in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native” (272).4 After Benita Parry critiqued Spivak for foreclosing the possibility of reading Christophine as an empowered subaltern who enunciates a “counter discourse” to colonial ideology (38), much of the criticism on Rhys’s novel came to be structured as a debate about the nature and limits of the black subaltern’s voice and agency in a narrative written from the perspective of the former plantocracy. 5

Postcolonial perspectives on Wide Sargasso Sea helped to bring on stage a character that was hitherto on the margins of Anglo-American literary criticism. Yet, although Spivak’s essay and Parry’s response to it generated a productive conversation that attended not only to the white Creole’s identity crisis but also to the black Creole’s position within Rhys’s text, the terms of this conversation have in turn been limiting. For in the ensuing debate about whether or not Christophine is a resistant subaltern, what has been left unaddressed is how she is constructed as an exceptional black servant—one set apart from, or in opposition to, other blacks. Put differently, what is obscured in the focus on Christophine’s subaltern voice is how she is modeled after the generic trope of the good black servant—a trope that was central to the liberal vision of black humanity expressed in transatlantic pro and...

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