Identity Crisis for the Creole Woman:

A Search for Self in Wide Sargasso Sea

Stephanie Coartney

 

     “‘And how will you like that’ I thought, as I kissed him.  ‘How will you like being made exactly like other people?’” (Rhys 22).  In this excerpt from Jean Rhys’s highly acclaimed novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the character Antoinette wistfully ponders the notion of possessing a socially acceptable identity as she tucks her disabled brother in bed.  Echoing through the novel with a haunting sense of irony, this question plagues Antoinette while she struggles to develop her own identity in the face of cultural and racial rejection.  Because she is a Creole woman living in the English colony of Jamaica, Antoinette quickly learns that the English as well as Caribbean society consider her an outsider, one whose place in the world is ranked disgracefully below the two cultures of which she is composed.  Through social ostracism, legal restrictions and negative verbal labeling, the society dominated by male colonizers seeks to confuse the Creole woman’s notion of self, thereby conquering not only a class of people, but also the threat that individuals such as Antoinette pose to socially constructed norms involving race and gender.

     Although some literary critics view Rhys’s representation of Antoinette as the classic case of a woman’s descent into madness to escape masculine domination, the novel itself can more effectively serve as “a reconceptualization of the very concept of identity”

(Emery 167).  In a conversation with her husband in Part II of the novel, Antoinette laments with frustration, “So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (Rhys 61). It is in this fit of exasperation that she displays the “uncertainty of cultural identity” and “sense of estrangement” commonly felt by West Indians according to one literary critic (Emery 167).  Thus, Wide Sargasso Sea provides readers with an illustration of the confused, often contradictory qualities imposed on Creoles by the societies between which they are torn.  In spite of male imperialists’ efforts to erase all aspects of an identity within Antoinette, however, Rhys masterfully creates a new sense of self within her that embraces all the opposing qualities comprising her character.

     Antoinette’s classification as a Creole, or the mixed product of Caribbean black and European white races, presents one major aspect of her character in which she receives conflicting social messages regarding her overall identity.  Even though Antoinette and her family live amidst the black culture itself in Jamaica, they have continuously faced discrimination and disrespect by the black majority since Britain’s Emancipation Act freed colonial slaves.  As a result of the Cosways’ previous dependence on slave labor, which has become a quickly evaporating source of wealth, their diminished reputation and decline in social status create the prime conditions for racial revenge.   Antoinette recounts numerous instances of black slander and violence against her family, ranging from the hate-inspired labels of “white cockroaches” and “white niggers” to the vicious black mob’s burning of the estate at Coulubri (25). Rejected by the black culture in which she has been raised, Antoinette begins to doubt her right to claim the island, the only homeland she has ever known, as a part of her identity.  She later conveys these feelings of uncertainty and desperation to Rochester when she tells him, “I loved [the island] because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often” (78). 

     In the same way that Creoles suffer rejection by the black community of which they are a part, they are also treated as “the other” by their white European counterparts whose political power and wealth allow them to maintain significant influence over Caribbean society.  Due to the white colonizers’ inability to fully understand Creole lifestyle and culture, they create harmful stereotypes and rank those of mixed races as inferior to themselves.  An example of the pervasive cultural barriers between whites and Creoles exists in their different behaviors toward the native blacks on the island.  For instance, Rochester’s reaction of disgust at the sight of Antoinette demonstrating physical affection for blacks, such as Christophine, shows the persistent European mentality of viewing members of a race formerly enslaved as objects rather than people (54).  Growing up among a majority of black people, Antoinette, however, sees Christophine as part of her family and finds it only natural to hug and kiss her regardless of her race.  Misunderstandings and societal differences, such as this one, in turn prevent Antoinette from feeling accepted by members of her white background and prohibit her from identifying herself as thus.

     As a result of her rejection as a Creole by both the white colonizers and the colonized blacks, Antoinette is presented with conflicting aspects of her identity which threaten to crush her developing sense of self.  Literary critic Mona Fayad notes in her essay,  “Unquiet Ghosts,” that readers can witness the extreme influence social labels have on Antoinette from the very first words of her narrative, “They say” (226).  Fayad argues that Antoinette’s emphasis on the opinions of the “judgmental “they”” of society indicates her lack of an autonomous self that can grow independent of others’ prescribed notions regarding her Creole background (226).  As Antoinette becomes increasingly desperate in search for social acceptance, she transitions between attempting to fit herself into first the role of Caribbean native and then that of a white English girl.  Through interactions with a black playmate named Tia, the reader observes Antoinette taking on more black characteristics in her attempts at friendship with a dark-skinned child.  Such a progression towards being termed a “white nigger” alarms her mother, whose efforts to associate herself with whites have led to her engagement to the Englishman known as Mr. Mason.  Critic Lee Erwin offers his agreement on this aspect of Antoinette’s quest for belonging in his statement, “Having been subjected to both her mother’s attempts to make her “white” and to the metropolitan view that the effort is a failure, Antoinette will try to be black, not an anomalous “white nigger”” (209).  After Mr. Mason becomes her stepfather, she tries to assert her blackness again by calling him her “white pappy,” a term the editor Judith Raiskin notes Jamaican slaves sarcastically used to refer to their master (Rhys 20).  Not only does this act symbolize Antoinette’s efforts to identify herself as black, but it also displays the sense of bondage she feels under the white patriarchal system personified in the character of Mr. Mason.

     Like her mother before her, Antoinette tries to gain acceptance among whites as well in order to form her identity.  With her marriage to Rochester and the increasing love she begins to feel for him, she gradually assumes more English qualities, such as a dependence on men and reluctance to leave Rochester for the simple reason that “he is my husband after all” (66).  Equally significant, Antoinette expresses to Christophine her deep desire for Rochester to love and accept her, which prompts her to look to her black nurse to grant this wish through an obeah potion.  In a critical essay titled “Race and Caribbean Culture,” author Sandra Drake mentions that “Antoinette wants to use the spell to complete her assimilation to England and to whiteness” (198), thereby at last earning a definite identity for herself.  When the potion ultimately fails to produce the desired effects, Antoinette is forced to recognize her non-whiteness as well as her non-blackness because as Christophine states to Rochester, “She is not béké like you, but she is béké, and not like us either” (93). 

     An additional way in which society negatively influences the development of Antoinette’s identity takes shape in Rochester’s patronizing treatment of his wife and merciless desire for control over her.  Upon arriving in Jamaica, Rochester immediately finds the island to be “a beautiful place- wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing secret loveliness” (51-52).  Like Antoinette herself, whom he describes as stunningly attractive with “long, sad, dark alien eyes” (39), the island’s vivid colors and enchanting scents allure Rochester in their beauty; however, a dream-like sense of the unfamiliar creates feelings of uneasiness within him.  In conjunction with the notion of the dominant white male’s feelings of powerlessness in a foreign land, literary critic Mona Fayad presents an intriguing explanation for Rochester’s motives to exert control over Antoinette.  She states, “Threatened by the ‘wild’ nature of the place and by the

reminder that white man is not the sole master of this miniature world, he seeks to embody his fear in a form he can deal with.  Thus he immediately associates the island with woman…” (231).  By forming such labels of Antoinette as temptress, witch, doll, hysteric and ghost, Rochester seeks to control her view of herself and therefore gain power over his own insecurities, which are embodied in her and the unfamiliar Caribbean culture.

     Despite society’s attempts to eradicate the identity of the Creole woman, Antoinette finally forms a secure sense of self at the end of the novel, thus freeing her from the restrictive labels and cruel rejection she has been forced to endure.  Rhys uses a variety of recurring images in her writing to indicate Antoinette’s internal struggles and transformations that ultimately allow her to define herself independent of cultural and gender stereotypes.  For example, the looking glass motif remains one of the most notable of these images, following Antoinette and her family throughout the entire story.  In the words of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the appearance of the mirror represents the “voice” of male consent or the standard image of women that men, the dominant social group, try to impose upon them (38).  By controlling the way in which women view themselves, the patriarchal European society has the power to continue its subjugation of females and maintain the status quo.  This notion is clearly illustrated in Rhys’s portrayal of Annette, the Creole mother of Antoinette who, in her desperate attempts to conform to “white” standards, becomes enslaved to the system of patriarchy.  In the first part of Antoinette’s narrative, she describes her mother as being forced to hope and plan for a better life “every time she passed a looking glass” (10) because it reflects the male dictated norm that she must be dependent on a man to survive in life.  As one literary critic observes, “The mother seeks constantly the approval of a real mirror that is to decide her future and hopes of reintegration into society through marriage” (Fayad 228). 

     This extreme bondage to patriarchal colonization can also be linked to what her daughter notes as the “frown [that] came between her black eyebrows, deep-it might have been cut with a knife” (Rhys 11).  Although Antoinette tries to physically smooth out the heavily entrenched crease in her mother’s brow, Annette pushes her away as if in submission to her designated role as a woman in England’s male-dominated society.  When Antoinette grows older and encounters the same relentless system of patriarchy in the form of arranged marriage and the loss of her inheritance, Rhys uses an eerily similar selection of words to describe this noticeable aspect of her appearance as well.  Through Rochester’s eyes, readers observe a “frown between [Antoinette’s] thick eyebrows, deep as if it had been cut with a knife;” however, as he continues to study her while she sleeps, “her face grew smooth and very young again, she even seemed to smile” (83).  Unlike her mother, Antoinette is able to erase the worn crease on her forehead, foreshadowing the eventual overthrow of patriarchal influence over her identity.

     In Part III of the novel, Rhys again introduces the image of the looking glass, this time demonstrating not the iron grip of masculine dominance, but rather Antoinette’s ultimate rejection of society’s prescribed image of her.  The scene involves Antoinette wandering the corridors of Thornfield Hall before suddenly beholding in a mirror “the ghost, the man with the streaming hair” who was rumored to haunt the mansion (111-112).  Antoinette claims that she knows the woman reflected back to her, and, in turn, the reader can recognize this image of her as the same hysteric but silent ghost that society labeled her insane mother.  Because the looking glass has the ability to symbolize men’s definition of female identity, Antoinette realizes that she has been branded by the dominant men in her life, namely Rochester and Richard Mason, with the same label of “the lunatic” that her mother received.  Rather than believing this image of herself, however, Antoinette rejects it, anxiously calling upon Christophine for aid and discovering her own strength of character in the intense heat from the wall of fire that rises to separate her from the mirror’s symbolic influence.  It is in this brilliant glow that her own unique identity takes shape, and she uses it to destroy the power that patriarchy and colonization exerted over her life in the past.

     Attempting to convince Rochester of Antoinette’s inner stoicism, Christophine once remarks that “she is Creole girl, and she have the sun in her” (95).  This association of light and warmth with the character of Antoinette signifies her strong connection to the Caribbean environment and links her vibrant personality with the flamboyant colors of the island itself.  Although she is eventually imprisoned within the dark, frigid confines of Thornfield Hall, it seems it is during this time of isolation when Antoinette finally realizes the impact her homeland and Christophine’s feminist teachings have had on her character.  Critic Sandra Drake comments that Christophine represents “a model of female independence and self-reliance for Antoinette” (197), and her unceasing devotion to her young charge truly succeeds in providing Antoinette with a firmer sense of self. 

     Similarly, readers witness her strong identification with her Caribbean heritage through the use of such symbols as fire and the red dress, which still carries the sweet aroma of tropical flowers.  Antoinette so closely associates herself with this brilliantly colored garment that she confidently informs Grace Poole, “If I had been wearing my red dress Richard would have known me” (110).  Equally important to Antoinette’s identity, the beauty and heat of fire remind her of something she feels she must do and call her to act in a way that expresses her true character.  This deed carried out in a dream and later upon waking involves the use of that fire, symbolizing her own rekindled personality, to burn down the “cardboard house” she sees as Thornfield Hall.  Representing the deceptive psychological illusions used by social systems to make the Creole woman believe she has no identity, the flimsy “cardboard house” is ultimately engulfed by the flames of Antoinette’s furious resistance to demands that she deny the woman she now knows herself to be.

     In spite of its relative brevity, Wide Sargasso Sea contains an extraordinary amount of depth and a seemingly limitless number of facets from which one can discover new truths.  Rhys’s intricate construction of Antoinette coaxes readers to delve more deeply into her character and recognize that the unique identity she develops labels her neither black nor white, neither colonizer nor colonized.  Instead, this strong Creole woman is composed of a mixture of socially ascribed qualities that negate themselves, leaving only the autonomous femininity she sees modeled in Christophine and her rich Caribbean culture.  One literary critic describes Antoinette’s triumph at the end of the novel “her ultimate regaining of an identity stolen by cultural imperialism” (Drake 205).  On the contrary, however, Rhys does not portray a character who recovers her sense of self from the merciless clutches of an unjust society, but rather discovers it amidst the very social constraints that culture imposes upon her. 

 

Works Cited

 

Drake, Sandra. “Race and Caribbean Culture as Thematics of Liberation in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: Norton, 1999. 193-206. Rpt. of “All That Foolishness/ All That Foolishness: Race and Caribbean Culture as Thematics of Liberation in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Critica 2, no. 2 (Fall 1990): 97-112.

 

Emery, Mary Lou. “Modernist Crosscurrents.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: Norton, 1999. 161-173. Rpt. of Jean Rhys at “World’s End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990) 7-20.

 

Erwin, Lee. “History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: Norton, 1999. 207- 216. Rpt. of “ ‘Like in a Looking Glass’: History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 22.2 (Winter 1989): 143-58.

 

Fayad, Mona. “Unquiet Ghosts: The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: Norton, 1999. 225-240. Rpt. in Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (Autumn 1988): 437-52.

 

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Women Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP,1979. 38.

 

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: Norton, 1999.