Shutting Up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double-Entendre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
This paper explores Wide Sargasso Sea’s articulation of race and gender in the context of a debate that has been waged within feminist postcolonial studies around the representation of racial otherness. On the one hand, critics like Benita Parry contend that we need to recover historically repressed knowledges and to construct “the speaking position” of the subaltern, a “conception of the native as historical subject and agent of an oppositional discourse.” 1 On the other, Spivak and her followers emphasize that our very effort at resuscitating the subaltern’s voice/self by invoking historical contexts reproduces the “epistemic violence” of imperialism: it imposes on the subaltern Western assumptions of embodied subjectivity and fails to acknowledge that the other has always already been constructed according to the colonizer’s self-image and can therefore not simply be given his/her voice back. 2 Spivak and Parry both invoke Wide Sargasso Sea’s representation of black Creoles to illustrate their respective approaches. For Parry, the black nurse and obeah woman Christophine is the source of a counterdiscourse that is rooted in the historically potent function of black magic in African and West Indian cultures. For Spivak, an unmediated access to the subalterns’ histories is impossible because Christophine is “tangential to a narrative written in the interest of the white Creole protagonist” (“Three Women’s Texts” 253).
I argue that each position can only partly account for Rhys’s complex delineation of West Indian social and racial relations in Wide Sargasso Sea. By analyzing the largely ignored distinction between narration and focalization in the text, I show that the novel does not, as Spivak argues, appropriate blackness in the service of Euro-Creole subject constitution. In fact, it constantly thwarts an easy identification with the white Creole protagonist, showing her as ensnared by colonialist assumptions which she unsuccessfully and often grotesquely attempts to replicate. Wide Sargasso Sea thus exposes the conventional cultural constructions through which Antoinette, like Rochester, represents her racial others, but it paradoxically also resists assigning the subaltern the function of a mere “repository of Eurocentric assumptions.” As Parry points out, the representation of black Creoles in Wide Sargasso Sea does allow for the emergence of countermeanings. I dissent with Parry’s argument, however, when she celebrates an unproblematical articulation of the West Indian world from an “authentic” black perspective and puts the defiant Christophine in the role of the self-determining agent Antoinette failed to become. Indeed, the moment Christophine [End Page 1071] best represents Western ideals of subjectivity and vehemently speaks up against injustice is also the moment she is made to leave the island and the narrative altogether. The premises of the colonialist discourse do not falter and lose ground when the black subalterns speak but paradoxically when they are silenced and stereotyped. This paradox thwarts our attempts at reading the black subjects as unmediated representations of historical African Creoles by foregrounding the complex and shifting cultural constructions of race, sex, and class through which the black Creoles are perceived in the novel. Black resistance in Wide Sargasso Sea is located in the complex interplay between colonial strategies and subaltern practices.
Contemporary critics tend to agree with Spivak’s reading that Wide Sargasso Sea provides us with a sympathetic representation of white Creole alienation at the expense of the black Creole perspective. 3 The novel’s complex delineation of the plural histories and cultures of the Caribbean forecloses, however, a facile celebration of an insulated voice’s recovery by hampering the reader’s identification with Bertha/Antoinette. By foregrounding the West Indian racial and social divisions, Rhys does to her own protagonist Antoinette what she has been acclaimed for doing to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, i.e., shows her as constituted within and by the processes of colonization and imperialism. Instead of extolling the unified and autonomous (feminine) subject Jane had—and Antoinette could have—come to embody, Wide Sargasso Sea calls forth a model of reading that scrutinizes the negations and devaluations which such a definition of identity may involve. Critics have impressively read against the grain of the husband’s narrative in the novel’s middle section in order to interpret the white Creole’s life and identity; taking into account the representation of the black characters compels us to read against the grain of Antoinette’s narrative as well. Rhys distances herself from her protagonist through formal patterns, ellipses, and repetitions which expose Antoinette’s colonialist assumptions. Thus, Wide Sargasso Sea’s double narrative structure—which only gives us access to the black Creole voices and actions through the consciousnesses of the two major narrators—attests not to Rhys’s imperialism but to her insight into the workings of the ideological system and its categories of representation. Binaries are not invoked as central in and for themselves but flaunted only to be exposed as the historical and discursive constructions through which Antoinette’s black others are represented; they ultimately dissolve because we are compelled to take into account the interrelation of axes of power (gender, race, class) that constitute and contextualize cultural identities.
In the first section of the novel, the young Antoinette’s perceptual and psychological point of view is considerably confused and confusing. Whereas the initial chapter of Jane Eyre raises the question of how an abused and continually humiliated little girl could possibly come up with such psychological vigor and self-esteem, Wide Sargasso Sea’s protagonist appears fragmented, insecure, and disoriented so much so that she [End Page 1072] seems to function merely by internalizing others’—especially her mother’s—language and contradictory values. When a black little girl follows her, calling her white cockroach, Antoinette’s reaction sounds rather strange (“They hated us. They called us white cockroach. Let sleeping dogs lie” [23, emphasis mine]) unless we remember that she is repeating a phrase she heard her mother use in reference to the old gardener Godfrey (“I’ve learned to let sleeping curs lie” ). That Antoinette herself is clueless as to what the “dogs” were doing when they were not sleeping becomes clear when we bring the disjointed and fragmentary elements of her narrative together with the other dispersed textual pieces of the patchwork. 4 This reading model provides insight into social meanings and knowledges that Antoinette herself lacks and can only intuitively grasp.
The significance of her quarrel with her childhood friend Tia by the pool can only be understood, for instance, once we analyze the white Creoles’ interaction with the black Creoles in light of the historical and socio-political context of the Caribbean. When Tia takes her money, Antoinette resorts to cultural stereotypes about black Creoles and Tia retorts accordingly:
‘Keep them then, you cheating nigger,’ I said, for I was tired, and the water I had swallowed made me feel sick. ‘I can get more if I want to.’
That’s not what she hear, she said. She hear all we poor like beggar. We ate salt fish—no money for fresh fish. That old house so leaky, you run with calabash to catch water when it rain. Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.(24)
Tia’s tirade reveals that race is a historically and discursively constituted identity whose meaning varies according to one’s economic status. Antoinette, however, takes her friend’s (unwittingly) structural analysis personally, i.e., as a comment on her behavior and person rather than as a commentary (albeit a sarcastic one) on the status of the white Creole minority after Emancipation. In the middle section of the novel (Rochester’s narrative), she refers to this same episode when explaining her background and her past to her estranged husband: “Then there was that day when [my mother] saw I was growing up like a white nigger and she was ashamed of me, it was after that day that everything changed. Yes, it was my fault, it was my fault that she started to plan and work in a frenzy, in a fever to change our lives” (132). This confession underwrites and clarifies her interpretation of Tia’s words after their altercation at the pool: “She [my mother] is ashamed of me, what Tia said is true” (26). Antoinette cannot see that “what Tia said” included her mother too, because she has no grasp of the historical and ideological barriers that separate classes in West Indian postslavery society. Her personal is not political.
The first section of the novel abounds in scenes that show Antoinette’s inability to comprehend the relationships between the few individuals that people her world (“They were all the people in my life—my mother and Pierre [her brother], Christophine, [End Page 1073] Godfrey [the old gardener], and Sass who had left us” [23–24]) and the broader sociopolitical and discursive fabric of the Caribbean. 5 When her mother tells her that had it not been for Christophine, they would all be dead and “that would have been a better fate than being abandoned, lied about, helpless,” Antoinette is not aware of the subtext of these comments; she does not pick up on the trope of the gossipy and idle black to which her mother is referring (here and on several other occasions), or else she would not bother to point out that “Godfrey stayed . . . [a]nd Sass” in order to console and reassure Annette. Indeed, in the latter’s system of belief, the black and colored people are part of the problem, not the solution.
Not surprisingly, Antoinette replicates her mother’s racial thinking to the point where it is sometimes hard to determine whether she is transcribing her mother’s words (in free indirect discourse) or sharing the beliefs she has internalized and naturalized:
She still rode about every morning not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby (they notice clothes, they know about money). (18, italics mine)
All Coulibri Estate had gone wild like the garden, gone to bush. No more slavery—why should anybody work? This never saddened me. I did not remember the place when it was prosperous. (19) 6
Sass had come back and I was glad. They can smell money, somebody said.(30)
Antoinette’s lack of critical and social awareness is partly a result of internal focalization (i.e., affected by a child’s perception). Indeed, one of the most distinct narrative patterns in Wide Sargasso Sea consists of an oscillation between the internal perceptual focalizer (the experiencing child) and the external focalizer (the older, narrating Antoinette). 7 The next excerpt is typical in this respect:
Quickly, while I can, I must remember the hot classroom. The hot classroom, the pitchpine desks, the heat of the bench striking up through my body, along my arms and hands. But outside I could see cool, blue shadows on a white wall. My needle is sticky, and creaks as it goes in and out of the canvas. ‘My needle is swearing,’ I whisper to Louise, who sits next to me. We are cross-stitching silk roses on a pale background. We can colour the roses as we choose and mine are green, blue and purple. Underneath, I will write my name in fire red, Antoinette Mason, née Cosway, Mount Calvary Convent, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1839.(53)
In the first section of the novel, the adult narrator-focalizer (Antoinette writing in the attic at Thornfield? Or, as I prefer to think, writing before her wedding to Rochester when she is still trying to choose between her cousin Sandi or Rochester) summons images, sounds and sensations from her past; they first rush back disjointedly, but [End Page 1074] soon a particular scene is captured, and the internal focalizer takes over (“We can colour . . . etc.). The change of focalizers is conveyed by the shift in verb tenses within the same sentence or paragraph (I must . . . could . . . is . . . creaks . . . we are cross-stitching . . . I will write) and reveals the psychology of the younger Antoinette from within.
This psychological aspect of focalization might be responsible for the critical assumption that Antoinette is a sympathetic character from the ideological standpoint, all the more so since the adult narrator “fails” to focalize the norms of the text unequivocally. Indeed, in contrast to Jane Eyre whose authoritative ideology is consistently and unambiguously that of the narrator-focalizer (the older Jane), the ideological position of the narrating Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea is neither transparent nor central. Wide Sargasso Sea disrupts the 19th-century first person narrative conventions that tend to subordinate the perspective of the younger focalizer to the ideological point of view of the adult narrator. Instead, the novel offers a narrator-focalizer whose own limited knowledge and problematic values highlight her unreliability as she is shown desperately trying to patch together the fragments of her disintegrating world.
Antoinette’s “cluelessness” to the power relations that structure her world is also of course a function of the planter class’s typical amnesia when it comes to their participation in the history of slavery. Her mother, for instance, does not at any point relate her harassment by the blacks to the historical circumstances of slavery. And when racial history and inequalities are mentioned, she irremediably resorts to stereotypes as “a way out”:
We were so poor then, we were something to laugh at. But we are not poor now. You are not a poor man. Do you suppose that they don’t know about your estate in Trinidad? And the Antigua property? They talk about us without stopping. They invent stories about you, and lies about me. They try to find out what we eat every day.(32)
It is ironically Mr. Mason, her self-satisfied British husband, who brings up this constantly erased past by mentioning her complicity with the repression of the natives: “Annette, be reasonable. You were the widow of a slave-owner, the daughter of a slave-owner, and you had been living here alone, with two children, for nearly five years when we met. But you were never molested, never harmed” (32). 8 The real irony of course is that he does not in the least mean to justify the blacks’ resentment towards her or to ascribe any agency to them: “They are curious. It’s natural enough. You have lived alone far too long, Annette. You imagine enmity which doesn’t exist” (32). Thus, the text not only invokes the natives’ effaced socio-historical context and agency (independently and even in spite of the speaker’s intention), but it also exposes how slavery as a historical event gets constructed and assigned meanings by the colonizer’s discourse. Like Rochester, Mason is a haughty and pious abolitionist (he “did not approve of Aunt Cora, an ex-slave-owner who had escaped misery, a flier in the face of Providence” ), whose complacent ideals reveal a stereotypical understanding of the blacks that has remained unchanged since before Emancipation. [End Page 1075] Like Rochester, he is incapable of seeing people of color as actors in their own history of liberation.
It is significant in this respect that the novel’s evocation of colonial history consists of random and blunt references to place names, slavery, the Emancipation Act and to historical figures such as Père Labat (Père Lilièvre in the novel). The straightforward historical narrative is replaced by allusions which not only challenge an essential way of ordering reality but also dramatize the process by which “the real” gets obliterated by conflictive representational discourses. And even though the older Antoinette does come to realize the constructedness of notions of the real (“You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” ), she is mainly shown trying to live up to her husband’s pre-established views and submitting to his unshakable belief in the naturalness of his socially sanctioned ways of knowing. After their initial estrangement, for instance, she tries to win him back by telling him the/her truth about her past but confirms instead his suspicion that she has inherited her mother’s madness and promiscuity; she is wearing the white dress he liked so much, “but it ha[s] slipped untidily over one shoulder” (127). Antoinette herself is incapable of realizing that in Rochester’s eyes, her attire actually associates her with (black) female sexual wantonness and prostitution, since her only frame of reference is her favorite childhood picture she is striving to emulate, “‘The Miller’s Daughter,’ a lovely English girl with brown curls and blue eyes and a dress slipping off her shoulders” (36, emphasis mine).
The discrepancy between Antoinette’s (often unsuccessful) attempts at replicating dominant conceptual structures and her actual experience further demonstrates that Rhys is not identifying with so much as scrutinizing the position of the white Creole in post-Emancipation Caribbean society. 9 For instance, despite Antoinette’s desire to please her mother, stepfather, and later Rochester by behaving like a “lovely English girl,” she is often presented as more in tune with black models than with the white standards to which she strives and is expected to adhere. On the one hand, she has—probably as a result of “Mr. Mason’s lectures” (Wide Sargasso Sea 50)—no qualms uttering racialized and dismissive comments about black customs: “The girl was very black and wore no head handkerchief. Her hair had been plaited and I could smell the sickening oil she had daubed on it, from where I stood on the steps of Aunt Cora’s dark, clean, friendly house” (49). On the other, her older self has adopted many of her black counterparts’ practices and beliefs, and ironically, also incurs repulsion: “‘Don’t put any more scent on my hair. He doesn’t like it.’ The other: ‘The man doesn’t like scent? I never hear that before’” (79). 10 Antoinette’s closeness to the black Creole culture becomes all the more evident when she actually expects to offend her stepfather by labeling him “white”: “[I] thought that I would never like him very much. . . . ‘Goodnight white pappy,’ I said one evening and he was not vexed, he laughed” (33–34).
Although Kamau Brathwaite’s Contradictory Omens castigates Rhys for her “neglect” of the black and poor West Indian people’s experiences, 11 it is ironically the concept of “creolization” delineated there that I think best describes the novel’s racial/textual politics. Brathwaite discusses post-slavery as the time when “creolization,” i.e., the process of “acculturation” of black to white norms but also of a [End Page 1076] reciprocal and enriching “interculturation,” was halted. He explains that the white Creoles’ lack of co-operation with and degrading of the black labor-force defeated the possibility of an alliance between the two as well as the completion of the creative process of creolization (24). Similarly, Wide Sargasso Sea dramatizes the possibility of a mutual and creative “interculturation” between white and black Creoles, hints at ways in which this interaction could have been propitiously sustained and foregrounds the reasons why it was stopped.
In her essay “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse,” Benita Parry points to Antoinette’s black nurse Christophine as the rightful and defiantly resistant subaltern in Rhys’s novel. In contrast to Spivak who sees the same character as “inaccessible blankness circumscribed by an interpretable text” (“Three Women’s Texts” 264), Parry describes Christophine as the text’s female source of a counterdiscourse (38). Although Parry is (rightly) concerned that poststructuralist strategies of reading downgrade the historical evidence of the colonial subject’s resistance, Spivak’s point is not to devalue or deny the subaltern’s resistance (she does not doubt its existence), but to question the possibility of an unmediated and disinterested access to these (hi)stories. She suggests that the Western analysis of the colonial subject’s capacity for thought and action has typically resulted either in the denial of the external constraints that constitute the subaltern or in a naive and unproblematical “nativist” position which sees colonized societies “as distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact heritages waiting to be recovered” (“Rani” 247). I follow this model but also argue that Wide Sargasso Sea’s exploration of the different contexts and discourses in and through which colonial subjects are constructed actually resists assigning to the subaltern the function of “a mere repository of Eurocentric assumptions.” Although the black Creoles are indeed, in Spivak’s words, “doubly silenced, doubly marginalized,” their complex interplay with colonial strategies actualizes a resistance that effectively unsettles the colonizer’s worldview and actions.
Once we realize that the text compels us to read against the grain of Antoinette’s narrative, our understanding of the representation of the black characters necessarily changes as well. It no longer follows, as critics have argued, that Rhys is “naturalizing” the racist attitudes of the planter class and portraying the white Creoles as the innocent “victims” of a malevolent mob of black and mulatto people:
Still [the black Creoles] were quiet and there were so many of them I could hardly see any grass or trees. There must have been many of the bay people but I recognized no one. They all looked the same, it was the same face repeated over and over, eyes gleaming, mouth half open to shout.
This scene follows the burning of the Coulibri estate and has often been objected to on the grounds that it depicts the black Creoles as an undifferentiated and unreasoning [End Page 1077] mass of hatred and betrayal (Gregg 94; Rody 307; Sagar 167). Taking this episode in isolation as representative of the text’s ideology, however, signifies two things, both of which my argument contests: first, that Antoinette’s voice represents Rhys’s point of view, and secondly, that the absence of a straightforward narrativization of the island’s abject slaveholding history is prejudicial to the perspectives of the black African Creoles. Indeed, the scene preceding Antoinette’s depiction of the collective face helps elucidate the seemingly unjustified violence of the ex-slaves: one of the servants, Myra, overhears Mr. Mason’s intention to “import labourers . . . from the East Indies” (35) and goes, Aunt Cora implies, to notify the others. It is left up to the reader to infer that what Myra reports is that the “importation” and commodification of human beings which to the ex-slaves would necessarily conjure up slavery was to be resumed. Thus, rather than corroborating the white Creoles’ stereotypical representation of their lower-class others, this episode also indirectly intimates the black Creoles’ inflexible commitment to decolonization and freedom and recasts their “unreasoning and miasmic presence” as reasoned determination. 12
Wide Sargasso Sea foregrounds black resistance without, however, offering unmediated access to alternative “negro traditions” or to a counterdiscourse to an imperialist way of knowing. The novel neither celebrates an unproblematical articulation of the West Indian world from the black creole point of view nor puts the resilient Christophine in the role of the self-determining individualist Antoinette failed to become. Rather, it highlights the ways in which black creole agency was primarily identified as criminality and affirmed not for its own sake so much as to justify subjugation and obscure white domination. Amélie and Christophine both know better, for instance, than to stay in Rochester’s proximity once they have acted as agents by speaking their minds. Yet, at the same time as it thus foregrounds the historical and discursive processes which doubly silence the black subaltern, the text also denaturalizes these processes by exposing the racial contradictions embedded in the dominant imperial and patriarchal ideologies. In fact, it is paradoxically the formal disruptions and silences at the heart of colonialist and stereotypical discourses rather than the novel’s reference to a historical and social reality of black resistance that allow for the perspectives and resistances of the subaltern to be recognized.
The practice of obeah, for instance, does not constitute an effective counterdiscourse in Wide Sargasso Sea on the basis of its historical function. 13 Obeah was a secret African religion that survived the period of slavery in spite of the colonizers’ prohibition that the slaves practice any religion from which they might draw for empowerment. It is traditionally represented as a source of resistance that assisted in slave rebellions and inspired fear and awe among believers (Emery 44; “Religious Ideologies” 278). Yet, despite this daunting historical function, Christophine’s practice in Wide Sargasso Sea can hardly be accounted for as a source of fear or awe among the black creoles. Indeed, when she catches Amélie flirting with Antoinette’s husband, her threat to work her magic against the young servant does not in the least prevent the latter from sleeping with Rochester; Daniel Cosway does not either seem to fear retaliation when he calls Christophine a liar and tells Rochester about her past troubles with the police; Baptiste, whom Christophine herself later echoes, calls Obeah “foolishness” (106). [End Page 1078]
In fact, Christophine’s intimidating influence in Wide Sargasso Sea seems strangely limited to Antoinette and Rochester. Critics have pointed to the “obeah scene,” the verbal confrontation between Rochester and Christophine in the former’s interior dialogue, as central to the novel insofar as the black nurse’s intervention forces Rochester “to internalize her interpretation” (Emery 51) and constitutes a powerful countermeaning (Parry 38). This reading effectively ignores, however, the outcome of the confrontation which forces Christophine to leave the island and the property which Antoinette’s mother had bequeathed her. That Rochester echoes Christophine’s words during their talk does not signify that he is absorbing them or being invaded by her culture. Considering his expeditious dismissal of her, he rather seems to act as an obstructing surface from which Christophine’s words bounce back unheeded. In fact, it is precisely when Christophine’s free will and resiliency explode in Rochester’s face that her powers are the most limited: he “no longer felt dazed, tired, half hypnotized, but alert and wary, ready to defend [him]self” (158) and appeals to the “Letter of the Law” to subdue the black nurse he can at last clearly identify as an opponent. The moment she “explains” herself to him and appeals to his humanity on Antoinette’s behalf, he sets in motion the hegemonic legal and medical systems which will allow him to successfully silence both her and Antoinette. Christophine “walk[s] away without looking back” (161) and disappears from the narrative altogether. Antoinette becomes a “marionnette” and “silence itself” (168).
Wide Sargasso Sea compels its critics to question facile celebrations of “negro traditions” as authentic sources of subversion or alternative power and foregrounds instead the reality of imperialist control. It reminds us that celebratory readings of Obeah might actually obscure its appropriation by the dominant power as grounds for punishment. It also reveals that our analyses of black magic as a potent threat to white authority and a source of “fear among believers” might paradoxically be more bound up with colonialist discourse and its descriptions of the practice than we like to admit. Indeed, according to Brathwaite, “obeah was associated in the [white] Jamaican/European mind with superstition, witchcraft, and poison . . . [whereas] in African/Caribbean folk practice, where religion had not been externalized and institutionalized as in Europe, the obeah-man [sic] was doctor, philosopher, and priest” (Folk Culture 12).
Instead of evoking black magic as a practice objectively determined from an underlying social and historical reality, Wide Sargasso Sea presents it as a discursive construct deployed by the colonizer as much as by the colonized. The text does not document the power of Obeah as an empirical fact or try to account for its influence, (whether nurturing or deterring) over the Afro-Caribbean community. Instead, its representation of the role of Obeah among black Creoles remains cryptic. For example, we never know for sure whether Amélie ultimately leaves the estate, as Rochester suggests, for fear that Christophine might retaliate or whether, as she herself claims, she is simply carrying out a long-formed plan; whether Christophine’s “powers” contribute to unifying the ex-slave community or to isolate her from it; whether the black creoles qualify Obeah as “foolishness” to mark their distance from the practice or to appease the British colonizer by dissimulating resistance behind a mask of docility. This ambiguity persists throughout the narrative and reflects the two [End Page 1079] narrators’ inability to grasp a Caribbean experience whose opaqueness cannot be reconciled with their interpretive frameworks.
I argue that the evidence of the power of Obeah in the novel is not given through its impact on the black and mulatto community but paradoxically through the fear and paranoia a stereotypical and colonialist definition of black magic produces in Rochester. It is not what Obeah is that overwhelms the British; it is the account of Obeah he reads in an English text The Glittering Coronet of Isles:
‘A zombi is a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead. A zombi can also be the spirit of a place, usually malignant but sometimes to be propitiated with sacrifices or offerings of flowers and fruit.’ I thought at once of the bunches of flowers at the priest’s ruined house. . . . [N]egroes as a rule refuse to discuss the black magic in which so many believe. . . . They confuse matters by telling lies if pressed. The white people, sometimes credulous, pretend to dismiss the whole thing as nonsense. Cases of sudden or mysterious death are attributed to a poison known to the negroes which cannot be traced.(107)
When Antoinette enlists Christophine’s help to drug her husband and “make him love [her],” Rochester wakes up the next day feeling giddy and nauseous, and he immediately articulates what transpired that night through the colonialist script. That he thinks, for instance, that Christophine is trying to turn him into a zombi (“I woke . . . after dreaming that I was buried alive” ) is confirmed when he rushes to the priest’s ruined house in the forest (139) to counteract the effect of the “poison” Antoinette administered to him the previous night. Following the British text, he assumes that Christophine meant to cause his “sudden or mysterious death” and remembering that “sacrifices or offerings of flowers and fruit” can “propitiate” zombis, he rushes to the ruined house where he had noticed “bunches of flowers” and “a wild orange tree” (139).
Rochester’s perception of Cosway’s account of Antoinette’s past also takes quite a different meaning when read in the light of the British book’s colonialist representation of black magic. Daniel keeps referring to the two women’s “madness” as just part of the problem: “. . . madness not being all either” (97); “. . . a crazy wife in your bed. Crazy and worse besides” (99, italics mine). He urges Rochester to find out about Antoinette’s mother: “Is your wife’s mother shut away, a raging lunatic and worse besides? Dead or alive I do not know” (98, italics mine). In Rochester’s mind, “what’s worse” than madness will soon become associated with his newly acquired knowledge about the living dead. Ironically, when he does ask Antoinette about her mother’s whereabouts, her ambiguous answer only contributes to feeding his overworked imagination and paranoia by yet again summoning the image of a zombi: [End Page 1080]
[W]hy did you tell me that she died when you were a child?
Because they told me to say so and because it is true. She did die when I was a child. There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.(128, italics mine)
Edward’s experience of the island and its inhabitants and his understanding of the role of the Obeah woman is completely filtered through the English text. Nevertheless, although the political effects of obeah are determined by the colonialist account of black magic, it still functions as a site of resistance and disruption in the novel. Indeed, as long as he cannot determine with certainty whether the presence of obeah works against him or for him (“It’s evidently useful to keep a Martinique obeah woman on the premises” ), whether it is “foolishness” and “nonsense” or subversive and dangerous practice, Rochester feels “half hypnotized” (158) and unable to take any punitive action against Christophine. As long as he is incapable of fixing obeah as an object of knowledge, he cannot control and appropriate it. He vacillates between interpreting the black Creoles’ denials and silences as a sign of ignorance and lack of knowledge (their silence is the truth) or as evidence of their duplicity and underlying sinister intentions (their silences and denials hide the truth).
Rochester ultimately loses control and carries out the colonizer’s worst fear, namely of “going native,” when he runs to the ruined house to counteract the effects of obeah on its own terms. What disarms him is thus not the obeah witch’s “agency” but the stereotypical notions of a Eurocentric text he cannot question combined with and exacerbated by “native” silences he cannot interpret. The Afro-Caribbean characters’ conspiracy of silence/ignorance surrounding the practice of black magic enhances his paranoia and undermines colonial authority from within in a way that their speaking up against injustice cannot. In other words, it is paradoxically when the other’s silence is articulated with the categories of imperial discourse that it has the potential to make visible and denaturalize the ambivalent modes of operation of colonial authority. The political effects of black magic need therefore to be examined in the context of the patchwork of ignorances/silences that ultimately constitutes the locus of black Creole resistance in the novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea recasts the black Creoles’ silence in response to the legacy of colonialism as a strategy of power rather than as a reflection of weakness, and challenges in so doing the Western habit of associating speech with power. It is no coincidence that the few scenes which actually foreground a subaltern’s “coming to voice” in the face of authority all result in the speaker losing rather than gaining power. No matter what Christophine or Antoinette say, their utterances are filtered through and consolidate a colonialist discourse whose premises and prescriptions Rochester cannot question. When Antoinette tells her husband “the truth” (what she calls “the other side”  of her mother’s story), her impressionistic narrative only serves to confirm Rochester’s pre-established views and the suspicions stimulated by Daniel Cosway’s allegations. In the same way, when Daniel Cosway “comes to voice” in his first letter to Rochester, he is credulously addressing the Britishman as an ally who helped bring about “the glorious Emancipation Act” (96) and who would [End Page 1081] therefore share his aversion of the white Creoles’ elitist attitudes. When Daniel mentions the “madness” that affected Antoinette’s mother, he is not, like Rochester, attributing it to her sexual indulgence and racial “degeneration” but to the white Creoles’ historical participation in slavery. He does not see madness as restricted to the Cosway women (“There is madness in that family. Old Cosway die raving like his father before him”) and identifies it as induced by the white Creoles’ collective guilt (“. . . soon the madness that is in her, and in all these white Creoles, come out” ([96, italics mine]). What Rochester hears, however, is not a critique of race relations in the Caribbean but a corroboration of his imperialist and patriarchal preconceptions.
Thus, Wide Sargasso Sea “demonstrates that giving voice to oppressed peoples is more complicated than merely conferring narrative authority upon speakers” (Winterhalter 215). The novel deconstructs the opposition between silence and voice and, in so doing, questions the Western assumption that the speaker is always the one in power. Silences in the novel become a “way of speaking” insofar as they are examined in terms of their effects and not simply as effects of an oppressive power. 14 They are shown to operate alongside the things said as discursive elements that ensure effects of power and knowledge according to who is speaking, his/her context and position of power. For instance, even though both white and black Creoles in Wide Sargasso Sea tamper with the notion of a monolithic and linear History which is fundamental to Eurocentric ways of thinking, the narrative establishes a distinction between the effects of these different groups’ denial or silencing of their past.
Before being reduced to silence by their British husbands, Annette and Antoinette obsessively silence their own implication in the island’s historical and social relations. When her daughter asks her about Christophine, Old Cosway’s “wedding present,” Antoinette’s mother does not want her to “pester and bother [her] about all these things that happened long ago” (21). Antoinette herself points out that “some things happen and are there for always even though you forget why or when” (Wide Sargasso Sea 82, italics mine). When their garden’s state of abandon is positioned historically (“All Coulibri Estate had gone wild like the garden, gone to bush. No more slavery—why should anybody work?”), she does not remember and therefore does not oppose it to the pre-Emancipation condition of the Estate: “This never saddened me. I did not remember the place when it was prosperous” (19). 15 We discover that her British stepfather “Mr Mason’s lectures” had indeed made her “shy about [her] coloured relatives” (50), since she refrains from telling us about her “affair” with Sandi until the very end of the novel. Rochester’s inquiry about a village’s appellation also confirms Antoinette’s tendency to forgetfulness:
‘And who was massacred here? Slaves?’
‘Oh no.’ She sounded shocked. ‘Not slaves. Something must have happened a long time ago. Nobody remembers now.’(65–66)
Although the white Creoles repeatedly deny their own historical and cultural participation in a colonizing process and their complicity with the master narrative, the text resists any facile equation between their situation and Antoinette’s which the [End Page 1082] reader might make because of her “forgetfulness.” According to Mary Lou Emery, “[b]y enduring sexual slaveries and identifying with native and black peoples, the protagonists of Rhys’s novels share their histories and occupy their places or places similar to theirs” (178). 16 This occupation is, however, precisely what the novel problematizes. Early in the novel, Antoinette turns to her childhood friend Tia to get her approval, thus seeking yet again to obliterate the difference history and culture has set up between them and to identify with black and mulatto female voices. Tia’s reaction, however, prevents us from turning her into Antoinette’s defining other. It forces, as it were, a recognition of the very difference which Antoinette is trying to ignore:
I saw Tia and her mother and I ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not. When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face . . . We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.(45)
One can now recognize the irony inherent in the old servant Godfrey’s words at the beginning of the novel: “When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it.” He is giving his white creole employers some of their own medicine, coming up with clichés and denying differences (“The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for Him” ) in order to evade responsibility for the horse’s killing. By contrast to the white Creoles’ attempts at silencing the past, the black characters’ silences signify both their silencing by stereotype-informed discourses and their resistance to appropriation and misreading. Baptiste, another servant who was born on the island, refuses to recognize the existence of a French pavé road where Edward could actually see one with his own eyes:
I said, ‘There was a road here once, where did it lead to?’
‘No road,’ he said.
‘But I saw it. A pavé road like the French made in the islands.’
By foregrounding “ignorance” while alluding to a deeper meaning, the black Creoles effect an opposing strategy using the same categories that constitute the discourses of 19th-century bourgeois society. They continuously shift from assuming an ignorant attitude which is in keeping with the way they are stereotyped by the dominant discourse (“Still I remain an ignorant man and I do not make up this story,” Daniel says to Rochester ) to hinting at an underlying “truth” that Edward will necessarily read as a universal secret and an omnipresent cause. They turn ignorance, usually read as innocent passivity, into a potent and performative force, sending [End Page 1083] Edward on a wild goose chase for the truth to which he thinks their ignorance is pointing. They are thus largely responsible for maintaining his belief in a fundamental secret that the place and its inhabitants would be harboring and which he tries to attain through a wife he now clearly identifies as colored: “She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it . . . . Very soon she’ll join all the others who know the secret and will not tell it” (Wide Sargasso Sea 172). While the British silence alternative histories because they can only register the impact of an occurrence when it fits their prescribed values, the black Creoles’ silences point to their resistance.
Similarly, stereotypes which typically construct the other as a “generalized” object of knowledge are, in Wide Sargasso Sea, constantly manipulated to challenge such assumed positions of knowing. Whereas stereotypes’ claims to absolute knowledge usually aim to discourage one from any further inquiry about the stereotyped category, the question of who is speaking to whom in the novel reveals and unsettles the process by which stereotypes become loci of control and power. Mason’s and Rochester’s use of stereotypes exposes their arrogance and paternalism and shows that the abolition of slavery has far from eradicated the set of attitudes on which the concept of Englishness depends. The white Creoles are complicitous with this hegemonic discourse insofar as they too rely on this type of gross generalizations (although usually out of fear or anger). The black Creoles’ use of stereotypes, however, requires us to shift the meaning from the content of the stereotype to its discursive context.
By juxtaposing the black and white Creoles’ stereotyping, Rhys reminds us that blackness is not an essential identity but a discursive event. Although Edward uses clichés to establish commonalities between his wife and the black subaltern, the African Creoles resist this excision of the cultural, class and historical contexts that are constitutive of their identity. Instead of emphasizing a shared identity with Antoinette on the grounds that she is “colored,” Tia and later Amélie contest this essentializing move and dismiss any commonality by resorting to stereotypes such as “white nigger” and “white cockroach.” This reversal not only makes impossible any facile identification that would allow Antoinette to evade her implication in the history of slavery, but it also refutes the blood-based notion of racial identity rooted in British racial classifications. While the white Creoles are torn between a residual “white bias” and a vague feeling of guilt that makes them assume a paternalistic attitude towards the ex-African people, the black Creoles refuse to let their differences from the ex-planters be subsumed. Antoinette thus remains caught between two ways of defining racial community, all the while continuing to deny her family’s involvement in the history of slavery. She explains to Rochester that “[white cockroach] is what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders [her own relatives had nothing to do with it] . . . I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why I was ever born at all” (102, italics mine).
Instead of erasing the other’s difference, the colonialist mode of representation in Wide Sargasso Sea ends up revealing its own constructedness. The process by which 19th-century symbolic practices aimed at fixing the meaning of “blackness” gets exposed precisely because its various categories of classification contradict each [End Page 1084] other. That blackness is an effect of the discursive context and not an essential identity is made clear by the various stages Antoinette’s racial identity goes through in Rochester’s eyes or by the difference its intersection with class makes in the whites’ perceptions (the colored Sandi is accepted among white people as one of their own, Daniel Cosway is not). As Hall explains (and the novel demonstrates):
The fact is that ‘black’ has never just been there. . . . It has always been an unstable identity, psychically, culturally and politically. It, too, is a narrative, a story, a history. Something constructed, told, spoken, not simply found. . . . Of course Jamaica is a black society, [people] say. In reality it is a society of black and brown people who lived for three or four hundred years without ever being able to speak of themselves as ‘black.’
The black Creoles’ parodic “reverse” discourse offers a point of resistance that destabilizes the foundational categories on which the colonizers construct their identity. They use the same categories as the speakers of the dominant stereotype-informed discourse and yet do not reproduce the same stereotypical and essentialist assumptions. Rather, these are redeployed to make explicit the sociocultural constructions like “blackness” or gender that could otherwise pass as prediscursive and establish a globalizing subject. As Brathwaite points out, “it was in language that the slave was perhaps most successfully imprisoned by his master, and it was in his (mis)use of it that he perhaps most effectively rebelled” (Folk Culture 31).
The investigation of the historical contexts in and about which Wide Sargasso Sea was written corroborates an interpretation which acknowledges Rhys’s insight into the workings of imperial and patriarchal ideologies. The novel is about the post-emancipation period when “the legal castes of slavery [were] replaced by the more complicated divisions of a class-race-color system of stratification” (Hall 281) and the old slaves came to form the landless rural proletariat. It was written, however, in a period witnessing the ebbing of an old colonial order and the emergence of a nationalist tradition. 17 Both contexts (of and in the novel) are often referred to as “the best and worst of times” since they represented liberation, hope, cultural and intellectual regeneration as well as continued political and economic dependence. As Christophine points out in the novel, slave emancipation hardly meant that the British colonizers had relinquished control: “No more slavery! She had to laugh! These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got Magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones—more cunning, that’s all” (26). Similarly, the ending of colonial rule in the middle decades of the 20th century gave way to a new manifestation of [End Page 1085] imperialism, since the neocolonial societies’ involvement in contemporary capitalism insured the maintenance of an unequal international relation of economic and political power.
When she set out to rewrite Jane Eyre, Rhys deliberately shifted dates to write about post-emancipation times; indeed, Jane Eyre’s acquisition of the recently published Marmion locates the events occurring in Brontë’s novel around 1808 and not after 1833 (Gregg 83). This change of dates, significant insofar as Rhys otherwise strictly respects the parameters set by Brontë’s text, suggests that she herself might have had in mind the parallel between post-emancipation years and the independence period I am establishing here. But even if that were not the case, the sociopolitical context in which she was writing Wide Sargasso Sea makes it improbable that Rhys, whose insights into the workings of gender ideology have often been acclaimed, would be so unaware of the operations of racist ideology as to crudely reproduce racial stereotypes. Indeed, Wide Sargasso Sea and its representation of black Creoles was bound to be informed by the process of decolonization and its attendant celebration of the black perspective that had been started in the 1930s. The decades during which Rhys was working on the novel witnessed the development of the (lower-class) black Creoles’ challenge to the dominant cultural system of white bias and their increasing and positive identification with blackness. The movement, which was to culminate in Rastafarianism in post-independence Jamaica, eventually substituted “black roots” for the white models that had constituted cultural authority. 18 The novel was published just four years after Jamaica’s independence and should also be placed in the context of the Caribbean Artists Movement in England, the Négritude movement in Paris in 1930, the Jamaican arts movement of the 1920s–1940s, the Black Power of the 1960s and most significantly the Frome “riots” and labor strikes of the 1930s. The 1930s social protests were later identified as catalyst for the decolonizing process and labeled “the second social revolution” (Parry et al. 294; Marshall, qted in Gregg 25), the first revolution being of course the period of Emancipation depicted in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Rather than downplay Rhys’s control over her material and see the novel as a mere reflection of her internally divided white colonial female subject position, I have argued that the novel’s narrative structure, its complexities of ethnicities and race as well as the historical context in and about which it was written attest to Rhys’s understanding of white and black Creoles alike. By distancing herself from her white Creole protagonist, Rhys challenges the realist conventions which identify the ideological position of the first person narrator with the norms of the text and contradicts Spivak’s contention that the narrative was “written in the interest of the white Creole.” Although the nameless husband’s narrative voice dominates two thirds of the novel, his values do not represent the authoritative ideology of the text. Similarly, even though we only have access to the black characters’ perspectives through the two major narratives, the representation of their practices and of their complex interplay with colonial discourses and strategies does not reproduce but exposes the colonialist ways of thinking to which Antoinette and Rochester ascribe.
Wide Sargasso Sea thus foregrounds the discursive frameworks which thwart an “authentic” knowledge of the black Creoles, but it does not do so by occluding Afro-Caribbean resistance. It highlights both the controlling processes which silence the [End Page 1086] black subaltern and the sites of resistance which undermine colonial authority from within. Although this paradox seems to point to a middle ground between the competing readings by Parry and Spivak that frame this essay, Wide Sargasso Sea does not exactly balance these polarized positions. Indeed, while Parry celebrates Christophine’s defiance of the exigencies of colonialist discourses, Wide Sargasso Sea reveals the black nurse’s articulatedness and “frontal assault against antagonists” as the very condition of possibility for the absolute exercise of colonial power. The “deliberated deafness to the native voice where it is to be heard” is not, as Parry contends, an attribute of Spivak’s reading strategy but of the imperialist discourse that has already appropriated and redeployed Christophine’s “counter-discourse” as criminality through a process Spivak has done much to expose. What distinguishes the novel’s model of resistance from Parry’s conception of the “native as historical subject and agent of an oppositional discourse” is that it is precisely when the oppositionality of black cultural practices such as black magic is asserted in the British colonialist script but denied by the “natives” as “foolishness” that the colonizer is most threatened.
Although Spivak’s ultimate answer to “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is “no,” she points to ways in which the subaltern can speak with her body as in the case, for instance, of the menstruating widow Bhaduri’s suicide at the end of “Can the Subaltern Speak?” or of the heroine Dopdi’s insistence at remaining publicly naked after being subjected to multiple rapes in Devi’s story “Draupadi.” As Spivak herself points out, these acts are not, however, highly subversive. They were not only seen in the immediate context as “absurd, a case of delirium rather than sanity,” but they also failed to have any effect on the indigenous or colonial males whose constructions doubly marginalize the subaltern woman. Spivak consequently concludes that “the subaltern as female cannot be heard or read” (“Can the Subaltern Speak?” 308). In Wide Sargasso Sea, the subversive potential of alternative knowledges Spivak recognizes here is taken further since it is presented as having potent effects on the British and Euro-Creole colonizers. Obeah is largely responsible, for instance, for sending Rochester packing home to England. In the section devoted to his narrative, Rochester does not once mention his father’s and brother’s deaths as the reasons for his departure but instead obsessively rehashes his discomfort vis-à-vis the Caribbean landscape and people. Unable to comprehend “the hidden place,” he leaves behind “the secret he would never know” (172) and returns to his “cardboard house” in England where he can safely and unambiguously recast as madness his wife’s association with the resisting opaqueness of the West Indies.
Carine M. Mardorossian is an assistant professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
* I would like to thank Amanda Anderson, Stephanie Foote, Janet Lyon, Hena Maes-Jelinek, and Mireille Rosello for their invaluable help and suggestions. I am also indebted to two anonymous reviewers as well as to those who attended my presentation of a version of this paper at the 1993 Twentieth-Century Literature Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
The title of this essay references Gayatri Spivak’s important essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” as well as the plot of Jane Eyre in which the subaltern is literally “shut up” in the attic. My combination of Spivak’s essay with Jane Eyre is meant to provide a grounding for an examination of speech and silence in relation to both physical and textual space.
1. See Parry’s influential essay “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse.”
2. Spivak discusses the colonialist perspectives of these two approaches respectively in “A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A Woman’s Text From the Third World” and in “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice.” This thesis is derived from a study of indigenous and imperialist historical archives documenting the practice of sati in 19th-century India which shows that the widow’s voice is caught between indigenous patriarchal and colonial constructions and can therefore not be heard (see “Rani of Sirmur”). Feminists who have taken up Spivak’s views in their own work on colonialism are Firdous Azim in The Colonial Rise of the Novel, Jenny Sharpe in Allegories of Empire, and Rey Chow in Writing Diaspora.
3. According to the influential Caribbean critic Brathwaite, Rhys’s “socio-cultural background and orientation” makes it impossible for her to grasp the experience of the primarily black and poor West Indian people (Contradictory Omens 35). Moira Ferguson similarly argues that “the text favors Jean Rhys’s class—the former white planter class” and “does not allow the implied victors [Christophine] . . . to be articulated as victors” (115). Mary Lou Emery and Veronica Gregg also object to Rhys’s representation of black and mulatto people and see her insight into the workings of ideologies as limited to dismantling Rochester’s, i.e. the British colonialist’s discursive constructions of his female Other (Antoinette). Rhys is thus perceived as unaware of the operations of imperial history when it comes to her black and colored Others and guilty of “the usurpation of race/blackness in the service of gender” (Gregg 46). Aparajita Sagar’s interpretation is similar to Gregg’s; Sagar recognizes in the novel an anti-linear narrative (that resists conventional history and epistemology) but also, however, “a corrected and single-minded Caribbean history” that compromises the first project in its racism towards the black and colored characters (159). Judith Gardiner and Theresa O’Connor identify a racist ideology in Rhys’s writing (Gardiner 48; O’Connor 36), and Caroline Rody agrees that the text’s evocation of racial history (or lack thereof) might be read as complicit with colonialist discourse (307). For critics who praise Rhys’s treatment of black subjectivities, see Lucy Wilson and Elaine Campbell.
4. My use of the term patchwork is not incidental here: Antoinette’s two mother substitutes Christophine and Aunt Cora (who are also the two most resolute and astute characters in the novel) are associated with this motif. Christophine had a patchwork counterpane in her room and Aunt Cora’s patchwork is one of the last things she remembers about “home” before her suicide (189). I read the term not only as a metaphor for Antoinette’s divided self but as a metaphor for my own act of reading, i.e., of patching together this polyphonic narrative’s scattered meanings and voices.
5. An interesting narrative about Sass emerges when we patch together all the fragments of information that are scattered through Antoinette’s often imperceptive account: his mother, Annette explains, “pranced off and left him” when “he was a little skeleton” (22); his name derives from “Disastrous” (131), which implies that he might be one of Old Cosway’s illegitimate children (“And all those women! . . . Presents and smiles for the bastards every christmas” ).
6. Antoinette is seventeen when she leaves the convent in 1839. Emancipation was implemented in 1834. That she does not remember the place when it was prosperous but does remember its being safe (“My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed—all belonged to the past” ) not only situates the crumbling of the plantation system before emancipation (wouldn’t she recall being prosperous since she was twelve when she experienced it?) but also recalls a time when whiteness did not require economic solvency to be considered a privilege.
7. Following Genette and Rimmon-Kenan, I am using the term “focalization” to distinguish the person who does the seeing (in an ideological as well as perceptual sense) from the person who does the speaking (narrator); this helps distinguish between the terms “perspective” and “narration” which tend to get conflated when we use the phrase “point of view” (Genette 206; Rimmon-Kenan 71–86). When the adult narrator tells us about herself as a child in Wide Sargasso Sea, we talk of “external” focalization when the language is that of the narrator at the time of narration and of internal focalization when the perceptions of the experiencing child “color” the narrator’s language (Rimmon-Kenan 83–85). Rimmon-Kenan explains that “the overall language of a text is that of the narrator, but focalization can ‘colour’ it in a way which makes it appear as a transposition of the perceptions of a separate agent” (82).
8. Later, he reiterates the trope of the infantile black and of the isolated, unmarried woman who suffers from delusions and paranoia: “They are children—they wouldn’t hurt flies” (35).
9. This discrepancy is also largely responsible for the ambivalent critical response to the novel’s final scene: the ending is either interpreted as triumphantly asserting Antoinette’s identification with the black Creole community (Campbell 63; Emery 59; James, “Sun Fire” 127; Tiffin 339) or, inversely, as reinforcing the impossibility of transcending racial barriers (Brathwaite 36; Wilson 69). Both of these responses, however, have generally assumed an unproblematic equivalence between Rhys’s stance and her protagonist’s at the expense of the black creole perspective and need to be challenged insofar as such identification does not do justice to the thoughtful and complex representation of the black characters in the novel.
10. See Brathwaite’s Contradictory Omens for examples of black influence on the dominant sections of the society: “Many white creole ladies, for instance, were using the kind of headties worn by the African slave women and cleaned their teeth with ‘chaw-stick[s]’” (18).
11. In a more recent article written for Wasafiri in response to Peter Hulme’s review of Rhys criticism in the same journal, Brathwaite powerfully reiterates his criticism of the appropriation of racial difference, but he now discusses it as “something that does not apply willy-nilly to Jean Rhys but to those who now seek to use her in their Caribbean &/or postcolonial &/or womanist &/or wonderland paradigms” (76).
12. The critic Louis James refers us to the “Guerre Nègre” in Dominica to elucidate this scene. The taking of census in 1844, i.e., “of names,” misled the freed population into believing that slavery was going to be reinstated and generated riots and incidents similar to the burning of Coulibri (Jean Rhys 47). That the very idea of “taking census” could cause such unrest and violent reaction is explained by M.G. Lewis’ in his Journal of a West Indian Proprietor (1834): “They find no change produced in them [by Christianity], except the alteration of their name, and hence they conclude that this name contains in it some secret power” (290–1).
13. Mary Lou Emery makes this claim about the historical significance of various Caribbean cultural practices such as Obeah in her book Jean Rhys at ‘World’s End.’
14. Similarly, in her essay “Women’s Silence as a Ritual of Truth,” Patricia Laurence argues that the silences of the female characters in the fiction of Austen, Brontë, and Woolf should not be read as a sign of passivity and submission but as a discourse of enlightened interiority and an alternative way of knowing. In his History of Sexuality: Vol 1, Foucault also warns us against reducing silence to a prohibitive device: “There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses” (27).
16. In “Mirror and Mask,” Helen Tiffin also sees Antoinette as “finally sharing the history that apparently divided her from the Blacks” (338).
17. The break-up of the British empire took place between the mid 1940s and the mid 1960s and even though Rhys completed Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, it was partly written by 1945.
18. See Stuart Hall’s “Religious Ideologies”: “This ‘reversal’ was cultural and ideological rather than political or economic. But its consequences were nevertheless profound. Jamaica became, for the first time in its history, culturally black” (288).