Colonising Within the Marriage in Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys' complex text, Wide Sargasso Sea, came about as an attempt to re-invent an identity for Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre, as Rhys felt that Bronte had totally misrepresented Creole women and the West Indies: 'why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester's wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I'd write a story as it might really have been.' (Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, p144). It is clear that Rhys wanted to reclaim a voice and a subjectivity for Bertha, the silenced Creole, and to subvert the assumptions made by the Victorian text. She does so with startling results. In her quest to re-instate Bertha's identity, Rhys raises issues such as the problems of colonisation, gender relations and racial issues. She explores the themes of displacement, Creolisation and miscegenation. However, the aim of this essay is to look at the marriage contract within the text, its effects on the participants' sense of selfhood and its comparisons with the colonial encounter.
The marriage contract, for Rhys, is ultimately cast as a colonial encounter in the novel. However, the problem of displacement and a shaky sense of one's own identity are already well established in the first part of the text, long before the marriage takes place. It seems that Rhys wants to bring the problems of the Creole existence to the fore at the very beginning of the novel, and lay emphasis on Antoinette's feelings of alienation: the white Creoles are neither part of the black slave community or accepted as European either (a lack of belonging that Rhys knew all too well):
'they say when trouble comes, close ranks. And so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks' (WSS 5).
'White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you' (WSS 9).
Though this is a childish taunt in the novel, the truth of it is that nobody does want Antoinette; as Teresa O'Connor points out, not even her own mother: 'Antoinette is also alienated from the meagre remains of her family itself, and, most specifically, from her mother's love' (Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, 172).
The second part of the novel marks the beginning of the marriage between Antoinette and the English gentleman (normally identified as Rochester from Jane Eyre; he will be referred to as such for the remainder of the essay). The Marriage contract itself, interestingly, is negotiated and put into action by a series of men: Rochester's father and brother, Antoinette's stepfather and, subsequently, her step-brother, Richard Mason. When Antoinette herself puts up a half-hearted resistance to the marriage, both Rochester and Richard Mason step in to push the contract along. Already, Rhys, within the marriage, establishes action as a male characteristic and inertia as female.
As the narrative moves into part II, Rochester takes...