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On the Heroine’s Otherness in Wide Sargasso Sea

Author ChengLin
Tutor ZhangMeiMei
School Jilin University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Wide Sargasso Sea otherness racial conflicts cultural hegemony patriarchy self-identity
CLC I561.074
Type Master's thesis
Year 2012
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Culminating Jean Rhys’ career, fusing together the themes of all her other novelsand bringing them to their highest form, Wide Sargasso Sea is the perfect conclusionof a life of writing spent in the attempt to exorcise inner demons and struggles.Because of its hybridity, its medley of cultural references and moods, the extremepassion and fears it unfolds, it is Jean Rhys’ most problematic novel, revealing herown psychological complexity and the inner conflicts that tore her mind apart and thatis variously reflected in all her heroines. With them, Jean Rhys shared the Caribbeanorigins and the difficult integration into British society that resulted in a mental splitthat she in writing, her characters in living, will try to resolve.In Wide Sargasso Sea, in particular, the parallels between herself and her heroineare so extensive, including a special sensitivity, a troubled childhood and a painfulstruggle for identity, and for a place in society, any society, that they brought back tothe author memories of a remote but still disturbing past. Because of this kind ofsimilarity, it is necessary to analyze the heroine’s identity in the novel which will helpus understand the work itself and the author.In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys rewrites the image of the mad woman BerthaMason from Charlotte Bront’s Jane Eyre. It has been the object of different criticalreading since its publication, some stressing its feminist vindication, somecontemplating its representation of colonialism and racial politics. However, there isstill little study on the heroine’s identity and this thesis tries to analyze Antoinette’sidentity by applying postcolonial and feminist theories on “the other”.“The other” which is relative to “the self” is an essential concept inpost-colonialism and feminism. The other is important in defining the identity of thesubject. In post-colonial theory, the colonized are often recognized as “the other” bythe colonizers in order to confirm their existence as the subject. Then the colonizedothers are marginalized by colonial discourse, identified by their difference from the centre and, perhaps crucially, become the focus of mastery by the imperial “ego”. Therelationship between the colonizers and the colonized is in fact a relationship of power,hegemony and domination. The colonized subject can only gain his identity assomewhat “the other”, thus dependent and inferior. In addition, the concept of “theother” is also applied by feminists. In a patriarchal society, woman is placed into anasymmetric relationship with man: he is the “One”; she is the “Other”. Women havelost the position as subjects under the male domination. They can not speak forthemselves and finally turn to the unrealistic and imaginative “other”. With regard towomen’s identities in a colonial and patriarchal society, such as the Third World,post-colonialism and feminism to some extent converge on this point.Just based on the above theories on “the other”, this thesis tries to explore theheroine’s otherness in Wide Sargasso Sea. In the novel, Jean Rhys places her heroineAntoinette in an English colony after Emancipation Act. Because of her identity as awhite Creole woman, Antoinette is regarded as “the other” both by the whites and theblacks. She is “at sea” between two continents and unable to reach either shore.Meanwhile, as a woman, she can not avoid the tragedy of being objectified by thepatriarchy. This thesis sets out to analyze Antoinette’s misery of being othered as aresult of racial conflicts, European cultural hegemony and patriarchy. However, thisthesis is not only limited to the analysis on these external problems, but also probesinto psychological relevance of these conflicts and examines the heroine’s quest forher self-identity. And this analysis is also illuminated by Jean Rhys’ own experiences.To some extent, through Antoinette’s story, Jean Rhys tries to find a solution to theproblems which herself and all the marginalized, female others have faced. Thesolution is to stop trying to merge with either of the two worlds where they do notbelong, but to assert and be themselves. The real victory is to accept the self, differentfrom all others but true and stronger. Though it is a long and difficult process, theywill finally gain self-identity with their own uniqueness.Set in Jamaica after the Emancipation Act, the story emphasizes the conflictsbetween the blacks and the whites which have a serious impact on Antoinette, who isrepudiated by both and is considered as “the other”, an outcast. The blacks call her “white cockroach” for her ex-slave owner ancestry and the whites call her “whitenigger” because of her native blood. Having lost her father at an early age, Antoinettecan only seek security from her mother, Annette. However, her relationship with hermother is full of rejection, and she believes that Annette is ashamed of her for herattachment to the blacks. Discarded by her mother, Antoinette tries to find solace inher only friend Tia; but when the races are facing off, friendship falls victim to hatred.Struck in the head by Tia’s stone, Antoinette later learns that the wound on herforehead will not only leave a physical scar, but also an eternally emotional scar.Apart from the hatred from the blacks, Antoinette also suffers from the alienation ofthe whites although they share the same origin. As white Creoles, Antoinette and hermother are abandoned by the real whites because of their connection with the nativepeople. Trapped in the antagonism between the blacks and the whites and subjected tothe abandonment of the whites, Antoinette has no space to claim in either world. Sheis pushed to the status as the other.In Jamaica, because of the long-term colonialism, there is no doubt that theEnglish culture is superior to the native Caribbean culture in terms of race, class andmoney. Disowned by the island people, Antoinette turns to England for peace andsafety, certainly an understandable goal. However, she dose not realize that it is theEnglish who finally lead her to the hell. She is subjugated by the European hegemonicpower which has uprooted her previous identification. The cultural mainstreamdefines Christophine, Antoinette’s surrogate mother, and Tia, her only friend asinferior, and she half-consciously accepts these definitions, not realizing that thesystem will also define her as a subhuman.In addition, as a woman, Antoinette is inevitably oppressed by the patriarchywhich contends that women are inferior to men and have to be dependent on men. Sheis married to an Englishman by her stepfather and half-brother and deprived of all herwealth. The reason behind is that in England, a typical patriarchal society, the husbandhas the right to deserve his wife’s property and all her possessions. Being pennilessand dependent on her husband, Antoinette’s fate as the other is doomed. Unable tofind a unified sense of self in her relationship with her mother and Cristophine, Antoinette attempts to look for it in her husband. However, for the husband (namedRochester in Jane Eyre), she is just a means to get what he desires. Once hisfascination with her difference has worn off and he learns about her family story, hedraws away from her, reducing her to his sexual slave. Moreover, Rochester goesdeeper to make Antoinette his subordinate. He renames Antoinette “Bertha” andcoerces his wife to subsume her identity and all the cultural and personal associationsthat go along with it into one he has constructed for her. Finally Antoinette succumbsas a slave to Rochester and becomes the objected other he uses to deal with hisanxieties about the Caribbean culture while establishing social and economicrespectability in his own.Having analyzed Antoinette’s otherness resulted from racial conflicts, Europeancultural hegemony and patriarchy and these external factors, this thesis then turns toexplore the reasons for the internal division that torments Antoinette and her quest forself-identity. Because Antoinette lives between the world of white Europeans and thatof black colonials, both cultures have left a peculiar mark on her which causes a lot ofopposing forces within herself. Though she strives to find a place in one world or theother, she is rejected by both. There is nothing and nobody that can help Antoinette inher quest for self-identity, but there is much against her. As a child, she can not getlove from her mother; after marriage, she is subjugated by her husband. It is reallydifficult for her to find a unified sense of self in such a society, but she does not stoptrying. Finally, she is taken to England, we learn from Jane Eyre that there, inEngland, she is confined in Thornfield Hall and completely loses her freedom. Buteven within such a limited environment, Antoinette still finds ways of escapingRochester’s control. As the author shows, although Rochester may have succeeded inmaking her his prisoner, he has not taken away her will to oppose him. She makesefforts to escape from the space of “living death” to which Rochester has condemnedher and find her self-identity. After her dream of burning down Thornfield Hall,Antoinette now knows what she has to do. The final jump in her dream seeminglytakes her to her real homeland, inhabited by her alone but where she can finally andtruly be herself. After all her impossible attempts to find confirmation in the two different communities, she realizes that her strength lies in her uniqueness, in thecomplexity of her personality, and the solution is to stop trying to mingle with twoworlds where she neither belongs and to be somebody.Meanwhile, the discussion of Antoinette’s otherness is also illuminated by JeanRhys’ own experiences because of the author’s specially national and cultural identity.Through analyzing Antoinette’s otherness, the thesis demonstrates Jean Rhys’indictments on colonialism and patriarchy. More importantly, through Antoinette, sheseemingly wants to find a way for all the white Creole women who face the samesituation.

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