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Wide Sargasso Sea: A Cultural Commentary

2089 words - 9 pages

Jean Rhys’ novella Wide Sargasso Sea, which was intended to be a prequel to Jane Eyre,
follows the story of Antoinette Cosway. Set in a post-colonial Caribbean and later England, this
work addresses many of the issues associated with colonialism. One such issue is the oppressive
patriarchal structure of colonial societies. This novella reflects on the experiences of women in
these patriarchal societies of the era, working to show how this system oppresses women. This
aspect of Rhys’ story can be analyzed much deeper when applying Stephen Greenblatt’s essay
Culture. Applying Greenblatt’s conception of culture as a system of mobility and constraints one
can better understand the relationship between Wide Sargasso Sea as a literary work and the
culture in which it was written, because literary texts “are cultural by virtue of social values and
contexts that they themselves successfully absorbed” (Greetblatt 227).
In his essay Greenblatt explains what he means by constraints. He defines constraints as
“the ensemble of beliefs and practices that form a given culture [which] function as a pervasive
technology of control, a set of limits within which social behavior must be contained” (Greetblatt
225). In other words, the beliefs and practices of a culture constrain the individual’s behavior.
Greenblatt goes on to discuss how culture influences literature saying that “literature . . . has
been one of the great institutions for the enforcement of cultural boundaries” (Greenblatt 226).
That is to say that often literature reinforces and perpetuates these cultural constraints.
Conversely, as Greenblatt explains, “if culture functions as a structure of limits, it also functions
as the regulator and guarantor of movement’ (Greenblatt 228). Absolute constraint is impossible;
without mobility cultural boundaries cannot be established. It is through acts of
“improvisation, experimentation, and exchange that cultural boundaries are established” (228).
Literature attempts to examine these improvisations (Greenblatt 229).
However, as Greenblatt explains, that it not to say that culture influences literature and
not the other way around. He states, “They [literary works] do not merely passively reflect the
prevailing ratio of mobility and constraints; they help to shape, articulate, and reproduce it
through their own improvisatory intelligence.” (Greenblatt 229) As writers try to improvise by
writing about these boundaries, they alter the boundaries. In summarizing the relationship
between constraint and mobility Greenblatt says that mobility is an expression of exchange, that
“a culture is a particular network of negotiations for the exchange of material goods, ideas, and
. . . people” (Greenblatt 229). He goes on saying that “the two concerns are linked, for a culture’s
narratives . . . are crucial indices of the prevailing codes governing human mobility and
constraint” (Greenblatt 229,230). Greenblatt holds that writers master...

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