- 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...