Cruelty and Insanity in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Essay
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Cruelty and Insanity in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea provides unique insight into the gradual deterioration of the human mind and spirit. On examining Antoinette and her mother Annette, the reader gains a new perspective of insanity. One realizes that these two women are mentally perturbed as a result of numerous external factors that are beyond their control.
The cruelty of life and people drive Annette and her daughter to lunacy. Neither mother nor daughter have a genetic predisposition to madness, and their downfall is an inevitable result of the actions of those around them and the unbearable nature of their living situation.
Antoinette's condition owes its beginnings to the solitude of her
childhood,…show more content…
Hence it must be said that the cruelty of their living situation, and not a genetic trait, is responsible for their dementia. Antoinette suffers another form of solitude because she grows up as an orphan. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother neglects her, preferring instead to only show concern for Antoinette?s younger brother, Pierre. Antoinette recalls trying to show her some affection, but also states, ?she pushed me away, not roughly, but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that I was useless to her.? Thus the reader recognizes that from a young age, Antoinette yearns for love and must live with the pain of being rejected by her own mother. This solitude can again be shown as one of many reasons why Antoinette is mentally unstable.
Financial decline also serves to drive Annette into madness. Annette started out as an affluent socialite and is now a destitute widow. She is unable to adapt to this new, unfamiliar position in society and longs for her privileged lifestyle. This becomes evident when
Antoinette recalls how her mother ?still planned and hoped-perhaps she had to hope every time she passed a looking glass.? Annette tries to recapture her former _prestige by riding her horse every morning, even after ?her riding clothes grew shabby?. Her horse and her riding clothes are status symbols that represented the wealth her family once had. Annette desperately holds onto these symbols in
Secondary Sources: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Anthony Luengo, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea and the Gothic Mode’ in Critical Perspectives by Jean Rhys, Pierrette Frickley, (Washington D.C: Three Continents Press, 1990) Luengo argues that Wide Sargasso Sea has yet to be placed within its ‘proper literary context’ (p.166) which he has identified as the Gothic genre. Throughout the source he compares Rhys’s work to famous yet overtly gothic works such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and Lewis’s The Monk but claims that unlike these typically Gothic novels, Rhys’s is far more compelling and strikingly Gothic. His argument states that Wide Sargasso Sea is not Gothic in the typical sense; there are no flickering candles, creaking doors or mysterious portraits, but instead the ghost is a ‘mental phenomenon’ (p.172) and can be found in the turmoil and disintegration of Antoinette’s mind. It is strongly argued that the very core of the Gothic genre is indeed not about the ‘claptrap’ (p.169) of conventionally scary elements such as dark nights and sudden noises, in its most terrifying form the Gothic genre succeeds in startling the reader with its examination of perhaps the most terrifying location of all: the human mind. Luengo refers to Radcliffe’s work as ‘unprofound’ (p.167) whereas Rhys’s work can be seen as far more covert and much more sophisticated as a piece of Gothic literature. Luengo explores the idea that being unable to escape the anxiety of the mind is the true essence of the Gothic genre. It is terror in its truest form. This anxiety is faced by the novel’s protagonist whose life is traumatised by prejudice, isolation and complete deterioration of the self as she is forced into marriage with a man who neither loves nor understands her, a man who confines her to a powerless status. In the source, in order to strengthen his argument, Luengo considers another key element of the Gothic genre: the natural surroundings. The landscapes described in the novel such as the ‘Caribbean jungles’ (p.168) evoke the tumultuous inner state of the characters. As well as pathetic fallacy Luengo touches on the idea of the Sublime, another prominent feature of The Gothic. The intoxication and beauty of the tropical forests, whilst they are magnificent to behold, also represent ‘the gloom and confusion of Rochester’s mind’ (p.167). We understand the Sublime to instil awe as well as fear, and Luengo once again supports his argument that Wide Sargasso Sea should be read as a Gothic text not only due to its exploration of the human mind, but also its exploration of the Sublime. Missy Dehn Kubitschek, ‘Charting the Empty Spaces of Wide Sargasso Sea’, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, (University of Nebraska Press, 1987) Kubitschek’s approach in her critical analysis is an interesting one, focusing on the idea of Rhys’s novel as a work that identifies with the contemporary women’s movement. The Sargasso Sea itself is an embodiment of the patriarchal system to which the protagonist falls victim, however Kubitschek argues that whilst we may not be able to avoid the system of patriarchy that exists in our society, we can ‘avoid accepting mainstream definitions of ourselves’ (p.28). She juxtaposes the character of Christophine with Antoinette to reveal ideas about women who conform to social pressures, and women who do not. Kubitschek uses the example that Christophine, whilst considered culturally inferior due to her race, does not aspire to the safety of Western culture; instead she obeys her own, accepting the fact that she can neither read nor write and remains unmarried. Antoinette, on the other hand, feels the pressure of social and political norm; she allows herself to be confined by Rochester and his culture. Kubitschek states: ‘Christophine has preserved the integrity that Antoinette surrenders’ (p.25) as a summarising statement of the comparison that she has just made. By drawing direct examples from the text, the argument found in this source becomes concrete, and we can understand with ease the point that the author is trying to make. Another dimension to the journal article is its exploration of the idea that Rhys’s novel has indeed charted the ‘empty space’ in the literary canon, as referred to in the title of the source. The epigraph by the feminist critic Elaine Showalter at the beginning of the text discusses the idea of revising pieces of literature in a way that reveals originally hidden ideas. In this sense, Kubitschek’s essay looks at Rhys’s novel as a revisionist’s plot of Jane Eyre. The ‘empty space’ is filled with Bertha Mason’s story, the character previously dismissed as the mad women in the attic in Brontë’s novel. Rhys gives voice to this previously ignored element. This neatly links to her initial argument that whilst (from Kubitschek’s point of view) patriarchy regrettably does exists, we do not necessarily have to accept it and ignore our own consciences. Instead we can find our own points of view and obey our own culture just as the character of Christophine does. Rhys has also looked at another point of view, refusing to accept and dismiss the first Mrs Rochester as simply a west-Indian lunatic. Faizal Forrester, ‘Who Stole the Soul in Wide Sargasso Sea?’ Journal of West Indian Literature, Vol.6, No.2, (University of the West Indies, 1994) Forrester presents the view that Rhys’s protagonist is a victim of an Imperialist society. He comments on the violent nature of colonisation; the fact that Antoinette is neither white nor black condemns her to a life of prejudice. He selects important quotations from the text such as ‘white nigger’ and ‘zombie eyes’ to highlight the racism of the era. The latter quotation develops the idea of Antoinette’s dead soul. He claims that Rhys’s novel is ‘haunted’ (p.32) by a protagonist who we already know to be dead. As Forrester puts it, her ‘destiny is locked within an imposed narrative of exile’ (p.34). This links to Forrester’s main point that Antoinette is a victim of racial discrimination; her social inferiority as a mixed race woman means her fate is already decided. Forrester also uses the example of the fire at Coulibri to pin point the start of Antoinette’s descent into insanity. The burning of Coulibri diminishes any claim the protagonist may have held to English culture: thus begins the disintegration of her identity and sense of self. Forrester proposes the counter-argument that in fact, ‘there is a successful syncretism’ (p.32) of different cultures within Rhys’s novel. Laura Abruna’s optimistic argument is acknowledged and then dismissed by Forrester early on in the source; unlike Abruna, he claims that Antoinette’s attempts to identify with Tia only act as an agent of division in the novel, not as a reconciliation of two different cultures. Forrester states that the character of the fully Afro-Caribbean Tia represents a ‘reflection of Antoinette’s racial difference’ (p.33). By acknowledging and ultimately disagreeing with an opposing view point, Forrester shows his consideration for other readings of the text and then puts forward his own reading which makes for a stronger, more balanced analysis. The idea of Rhys’s protagonist as a victim of history is intriguingly explored in the sense that she also victimized by ‘a literary history, Jane Eyre’ (p.38). The destiny of Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway was decided many years in advance of Rhys’s novel. Forrester claims that the novel lacks soul; Bertha Mason has already been dehumanized and disregarded as a lunatic in Brontë’s novel. He lingers on the thought-provoking idea that Wide Sargasso Sea is ‘a haunted place, spooked by pre-destination’ (p.38). As any reader of Jane Eyre would already know, the fate of Rhys’s protagonist is sealed within history and literature. Reflective Statement The three sources I have analysed all offer very different perspectives on the primary text; Luengo’s argument considers the genre whilst Kubiteschek’s and Forrester’s essays are drawn from feminist and historical perspectives respectively. In my opinion, all three secondary sources consist of convincing, solid arguments, particularly as they directly refer to and draw examples from the primary text, as well as referring to other texts and critics in order to form an argument of substance. Whilst it is highly resounding, Luengo’s argument could be seen as disparaging of other Gothic works in order to feed his own argument. However, his insightful reading of Rhys’s novel as a Gothic work is one that greatly interests me, and allows me to consider the text in its literary context. The main strength of Kubitschek’s source is its consideration of the novel as a revisionist piece of literature. It explores the feminist undertones of the novel as Rhys gives voice to a character previously disregarded. Perhaps a weakness common to both Luengo and Kubitschek’s analyses is a lack of consideration for other opinions. For example, Kubitschek does not consider the idea that is it not only the patriarchal system that victimizes Antoinette, nor does Luengo consider the novel in light of any other genre except the Gothic. This is where Forrester’s source emerges as more plausible; by considering other viewpoints, he has more grounds to justify his own argument. What is most striking about Forrester’s argument is his exploration of the lack of soul: the idea that Rhys’s novel is haunted by the deceased protagonist that had been cast aside in Brontë’s novel. To conclude, it is clear that all three sources will prove highly useful when considering the novel from a variety of angles.