World Literature in English
Jean Rhys's
Wide Sargasso Sea
Pin-chia Feng and Kate Liu
*Pagination in green: Wide Sargasso Sea.  Introd. Francis Wyndham  NY: Norton, 1982.  Originally published in 1966;
Pagination in red: Wide Sargasso Sea.  Ed. Judith L. Raiskin.  Norton Critical Ediction.  NY: Norton, 1999.
Synopsis, Setting, Characters

Jean Rhys-- 1890-1979
from Jean Rhys page
  Rhys's Self-Identity  as a creole writer

-- Rhys' revision of Jane Eyre.
-- Social backgrounds (Women's position in English society & colony.)
-- Obeah and "Obeah Nights"

Major Themes: 

Background: Caribbean Culture
Relevant Links
Jean Rhys (mainly from the World of Penguin
  • creole identity and a drifting life: Jean Rhys was born in Dominica in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother. She came to England when she was sixteen and then drifted into a series of jobs - chorus girl, mannequin, artist's model - after her father died. 
  • Start to write in her thirties: She began to write when the first of her three marriages broke up. She was in her thirties by then, and living in Paris, where she was encouraged by Ford Madox Ford, who also discovered D. H. Lawrence. Ford wrote an enthusiastic introduction to her first book in 1927, a collection of stories called The Left Bank. This was followed by Quartet (originally Postures, 1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). None of these books was particularly successful, perhaps because they were decades ahead of their time in theme and tone, dealing as they did with women as underdogs, exploited and exploiting their sexuality. 
  • Characters a self-reflection of Rhys?   Her first four novels are said to portray the same woman (with different names and minor details) at different stages of life, all drifting, unhappy, unstable, but with clear self-knowledge and understanding of others.
  • With the outbreak of war and subsequent failure of Good Morning, Midnight, the books went out of print and Jean Rhys literally dropped completely from sight. It was generally thought that she was dead. Nearly twenty years later she was rediscovered, largely due to the enthusiasm of the writer Francis Wyndham. She was living reclusively in Cornwall, and during those years had accumulated the stories collected in Tigers are Better-Looking. In 1966 she made a sensational reappearance with Wide Sargasso Sea, which won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W. H.Smith Award in 1966, her only comment on the latter being that 'It has come too late'. . . . She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1966 and a CBE in 1978. 
Jean Rhys, described by A. Alvarez as 'one of the finest British writers of this century', died in 1979. 
(from fiction rag) 

Her style "Rhys often wrote about women-- in various stages of their lives  -- living hand to mouth in London or Paris. The women are always on the economic edge, needing money, receiving cash and clothes from men,  drinking, sitting in cafes, and  endlessly walking. The books  are very spare, stark,  unsentimental, and wonderful." 

  Rhys's ambivalent Self-Identity
"Do you consider yourself a West Indian?" 
She shrugged.  "It was such a long time ago when I left."
"So you don't think of yourself as a West Indian writer?"
Again she shrugged, but said nothing. 
"What about English?  Do you consider yourself an English writer?"
"No!  I'm not, I'm not!  I'm not even English."
"What about a French writer?"  I asked. 
Again she shrugged and said nothing. 
"You have no desire to go back to Dominca?"
"Sometimes," she said. 

David Plante.  "Jean Rhys: A Remembrance"(275-76).  Qut in Gregg: 1.

II. "I don't belong anywhere but I get very worked up about the West Indies.  I still care.  . .  ."

III. After reading a critique of Wide Sargarso Sea.  . ., Rhys complains. . . : "Again I am in danger of really becoming a recruit.  . .I think being born in the West Indies is an influence very strong but . . .."  (Gregg 2 underline added)

  Rhys's  on Antoinette's historical background
  I. Shift of dates: 
In Jane Eyre -- Bertha confined in the attic in the first decade of the 19th century.
WSS's time frame shifted to 1830's onwards
Emancipation Act 1833
Antoinette -- a child in the 1840's, with two fathers, one (Mason) coming after the Emancipation.  
II. "More than one Antoinette"
Annette and Antoinette as victims of Emancipation and the gender/racial relationships then.
the ending of Part II (103-104). 

Jean Rhys's late, literary masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and is set in the lush, beguiling landscape of Jamaica in the 1830s. 
Born into an oppressive, colonialist society, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway meets a young Englishman who is drawn to her innocent sensuality and beauty.  After their marriage the rumours begin, poisoning her husband against her. Caught between his demands and her own precarious sense of belonging, Antoinette is driven towards madness. 
Part I: (Martinique), Jamaica: Coulibri estate,  near Spanish Town 
Part II: Granbois, Dominica, 
Part III: "Great House" England; 

Characers: Christophine, Tia, Amelie, (minor ones: Baptiste)
Annette--a French West Indian woman in a British West Indian colony; a young attractive widow in the small white community who poses a further threat to the other family units .
Mr. Luttrell --and his successors, the Luttrells
Mr. Mason called by Antoinette as the "white happy"
Aunt Cora--a poor English woman who marries an Englishman to survive; moving in between England and Jamaica-- her husband does not like her to be associated with the Cosways.
Christophine --from Martinique; a wedding gift
Antoinette, later Bertha Cosway Mason Rochester.

Jean Rhys as a creole writer--

Creole writer
Europeans born or living in the West Indies, educated to conceive of England as "home," they were also culturally marked and excluded as inferior colonials. At the same time, they were racially and institutionally privileged in relation to the African people who existed as bound labor and subalterns.... 

Toward the metropolitan Subject, the Creole often articulates a position of liminality and a poetics of ressentiment. 
Toward the West Indian mulatto and Black Others, the Creole demonstrates a sense of proprietorship that allows for the appropriation and recruitment of "race" as an accessory of power and a trope of otherness. 

Leading Questions: 
Part I: The influence of Race and Gender inequalities on family/racial relationships
  How do these racial problems influence Annette and Antoinette? 
1. Annette--What does she want?  Why is the horse so important to her?  Why is she aloof from Antoinette?   Why does she turn silent after the doctor's visit of Pierre?
2. Antoinette -- How is she different from her mother?  How does she survive?  What do her dreams mean?
Female Creole Identities
(Antoinette's explanation: "How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning" (18)
  • the Cosways/Masons vs. the others: the others in the party p. 28, hated more by the blacks 34, 
  • the horse; p. 18/10
  •  her son; p. 19/11
  •  her views of Godfry and Sass p. 22/12
  • gay and a good dancer 29
  • Annette vs. Mr. Mason -- p. 32/19; p. 35/20
  •  Coco p. 41/22
  •  What happened to her afterwards?  Antoinette's account: p. 130- 134/78
  •  the garden 19/ 10
  • her reaction to the death of the horse: pretends that it does not happen.
  • need of her mother p. 22/; rejection by her p. 26; 27;  -pushing the daughter away pp. 20; 47
    • the daughter's gradual losing of the mother p. 22; 26-27;
  • loneliness; isolation from Jamaican society: e.g. the way to the convent pp. 48
  • find refuge in nature without moving  p. 23/13; solitude 28 /16 shingle 37, be contented
  •  her dreams p. 26/15; pp. 59-60  --1st dream: sense of overall antagonism; 

  •   2nd dream: fear for the future and possibility of marriage and being confined.
  •  the second refuge in the convent  p. 53; 55; 57 (its simplistic eductaion of the world, nations seen in color p. 55; its lack of mirror,  values and order, its standard of beauty  Helene's coiffure p. 54-56)
  •  death impulse  p. 92
  Racial Relationships: Antoinette and Christophine    Christophine is practically Antoinette's caretaker, but is Antoinette intimate with Christophine? 
  • Clues: 
    • Part I: 

    • Christophine   pp. 20-21-- only one friend; quiet voice and quiet laugh; Antoinette's fear of the things hidden in Christophine's room 31
    • Part II: p. 112/ 67-- after Christophine says she does not know England, Antoinette thinks: "but how can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate old negro woman.  . ."

      Are the conflicts between Antoinette and Tia inevitable?   What is the significance of their switching clothes in one scene and looking at each other as if they're looking at a mirror in another?

    • their playing together p. 23
    • their betting p. 24
    • the black's invasion p. 45

    Racial relationship: Tia and Antoinette
      Kamau Brathwaite--"No matter what J Rhys might have made Antoinette think, Tia was historically separated from her by the ideological barriers embedded in the colonialist discourses of white supremacy"

      treatments of blacks
      An unidentified black is a source of menace and a threat to Antoinette.. . .in much of Rhys's writing there exists only the Manichaean division of "good blacks"--those who serve--and "bad blacks"--those who are hostile, threatening, unknown. . .. the relationship [between Tia and Antoinette] is based on the production of difference through the racialist stereotypes of the hardy, physically superior, animallike, lazy negro. . .[lazy black--sleep after eating] and the sensitive whilet child, on the other hand, contemplates nature, seduced by the "reve exotique."

      p. 89 The "narrative function" enacts a sentimental fiction of friendship between the black and white girls even as the "textual function" demystified and undercuts it.

      The death of her planter father and the ending of slavery reduce Antoinette and her family to penury, from white to black. "Real white people" have money.The racial superiority depneds upon the economic ascendancy achieved by unpaid black labor. Without money, Antoinette's family become niggers, isolated from the rest of white society.

      Fanon--"In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich."

      three pennies--from Christophine to Antoinette to Tia
      the presentation of the black mob: 42, 38


    Relevant Links