- “There is always the other side, always”: Black Servants’ Laughter, Knowledge, and Power in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea opens with the words of Christophine, the black Creole servant, quoted by Antoinette, the white Creole child-narrator, who apparently cannot tell her story without calling on this figure whose reading of the world frames, shapes, and colors her own: “The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.”1 Antoinette understands her widowed young mother’s isolation (and thereby her own)— the result of white Jamaican women’s antagonism toward a pretty Martiniquan—via Christophine’s cynical understanding of female sexual and imperial rivalry.2 Christophine’s sayings constitute Antoinette’s world. Herself from Martinique, “brought” as a slave to Jamaica, and bestowed as a “wedding present” on Antoinette’s mother by her father (12), Christophine clearly emerges in the novel as a significant protofeminist figure, adored by Antoinette, distrusted by Antoinette’s English husband, fiercely protective of the former, boldly confrontational with the latter, speaking truth to power. The novel ends with Antoinette literally calling on Christophine again, this time not only for words but for support in the form of action: “I called help me Christophine help me and looking behind me I saw that I had been helped. There was a wall of fire protecting me” (112; emphasis added). Whether Antoinette, in her dream, merely imagines that she is helped by Christophine, whether she is in fact helped, or whether the sheer act of remembering Christophine and imagining that she has received help enables Antoinette finally to do what she will do remains one of the enigmas of this novel.3 [End Page 493]
Since its publication in 1966, critical scholarship on Wide Sargasso Sea has focused largely on Rhys’s revision of Jane Eyre and the novel’s reclamation of the figure of Antoinette/Bertha, its modernist formal techniques and restricted narrative points of view that shift between Antoinette and her unnamed husband/Rochester, the novel’s Caribbean contexts and its history of slavery, given Rhys’s white Creole slave-owning plantocrat background and metropolitan residence, and the question of whether it stands alone or is dependent on its famous precursor.4 Not much attention was paid to black figures in the novel until Gayatri Spivak’s groundbreaking “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” which provoked a famous debate with Benita Parry about Christophine and inspired a wealth of important scholarship on the complexities of cross-racial representation and dynamics in the novel.5 Spivak describes Christophine as “powerfully suggestive,” a figure with “crucial functions” such as the power to understand the culture-specific limits of obeah and to analyze, “challenge,” and frighten Rochester, but Spivak’s famous conclusion—that Christophine “cannot be contained” by this novel, from which she is banished by threat of the white man’s law and that a “perspective critical of imperialism” cannot “turn the Other into a self”—has been read as saying that the subaltern can never be heard within the limiting framework of imperialist discourse (“Three Women’s Texts,” 252–53). (One might ask, though, in what ways Christophine cannot be “contained,” or how the polysemousness she generates spills over the frameworks of both imperial and postcolonial epistemologies.) In contrast, Parry and others (notably Lucy Wilson) have claimed for Christophine the voice of black resistance.6 A “middle position” is now taken by most critics, exemplified by Carine Mardorossian, who argues that Christophine neither has an authentic voice nor is silenced but rather she produces “countermeanings” that are mediated by the unreliability of both Antoinette and Rochester as narrators, and that black Creole resistance in the novel can be seen in the freed slaves’ subversive practices of strategic silence and denial.7
But even scholarship that focuses on racial and colonial questions has tended to separate Christophine from the other black characters, both named and unnamed, whom it overlooks or regards as flat stereotypes, from Amélie, Hilda, and Baptiste in part 2 and Godfrey, Myra, and Mannie in part 1 to the cook who leaves after the husband’s...