In her twentieth-century adaptation of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys addresses issues of post-colonialism which are only alluded to in Brontë's twentieth-century work. Tumultuous gender and racial dynamics run throughout the work as categories of oppressor and dispossessed are both established and simultaneously negated. As a Creole woman living in the turbulent societal period following the emancipation of the slaves, Antoinette Cosway resides as a white outcast or "cockroach" in Caribbean society. Antoinette'position in society is indicative of the social upheaval that occurred as the first wave of colonialism in the West Indies came to an end.
Rochester symbolizes the new type of colonizer, an Englishman who lacks the historical legacy of the Creole population and respects neither the Creoles nor the black population in the islands. Rochester's dominating position in the Indies is replicated in his domination of Antoinette, for by the end of the novel, Rochester is able to obliterate Antoinette's background, family ties, cultural identity, and even her name. In this sense, Rochester's marriage contract with Antoinette becomes a type of colonialism in and of itself. Antoinette's fate is ultimately decided by both Rochester and her male relatives; not only her ethnic background but her gender places Antoinette in a clearly-defined category of dispossessed in Wide Sargasso Sea. However, the line between victor and vanquished is not always manifest and impermeable. Objectively, Christophine resides at the bottom rung of the societal hierarchy in the West Indies, however, she is depicted as a powerful character in the novel. When Rochester's and Antoinette's relationship begins to disintegrate, the supremacy of Christophine's position becomes evident.
In one scene between Rochester and Christophine, Rochester is forced into a subservient role to Antoinette's da; for this brief interlude, Rochester takes on the role of colonized as Christophine becomes the man's symbolic master.
"And then," she went on in her judge's voice, "you make love to her till she drunk with it, no rum could make her drunk like that, till she can't do without it. It's she can't see the sun any more. Only you she see. But all you want is to break her up."
(Not the way you mean, I thought)
"But she hold out eh? She hold out."
(Yes, she held out. A pity)
"So you pretend to believe all the lies that damn bastard tell you."
(That damn bastard tell you)
Now every word she said was echoed, echoed loudly in my head.
"So that you can leave her alone."
(Leave her alone)
"Not telling her why."
"No more love, eh?"
(No more love)
"And that," I said coldly, "is where you took charge, isn't it? You tried to poison me."
"Poison you? But look me trouble, the man crazy! She come to me to ask me for something to make you love her again and I tell her no I don't meddle in that for béké. I tell her it's foolishness."
"And even if it's no foolishness, it's too strong for béké."
(Too strong for béké. Too strong)
"But she cry and beg me."
(She cry and beg me)
"So I give her something for love."
"But you don't love. All you want is to break her up. And it help you break her up."
(Break her up)
"She tell me in the middle of all this you start calling her names. Marionette. Some word so."
(Marionette, Antoinette, Marionetta, Antoinetta)
"That word mean doll, eh? Because she don't speak. You want to force her to cry and to speak."
(Force her to cry and to speak)
"But she won't. So you think up something else. You bring that worthless girl to play with next door and you talk and laugh and love so that she hear everything. You mean her to hear."
Yes, that didn't just happen. I meant it.
(I lay awake all night long after they were asleep, and as soon as it was light I got up and dressed and saddled Preston. And I came to you. Oh Christophine. O Pheena, Pheena, help me.) [153-154]
Christophine's position of power is evident in the way her words and dictates become embedded within Rochester's mind, so that her language becomes a series of repetitive idioms in his conscious.
What is the purpose of the repetition theme in this passage? Referring again to ideas of colonizer and colonized, dominator and dominated, what does this theme of repetition in the interlude indicate about such societal categorizations in Rhys' novel? What does it mean that Rochester's inner thoughts assume the stylizations and grammatical structure of Christophine's?
Where has the theme of vocal repetition appeared elsewhere in the novel? How are these different instances connected to the work as a whole?
Rochester labels Antoinette as a "Marionette," or a doll. How is voice related to being empowered in the colonizing world? Is Antoinette doll-like in her refusal to speak? Why does she not speak to Rochester when he begins to be disillusioned with the marriage?
What is the purpose of having Antoinette's voice interject in the end? Why does Rochester's parroting of Christophine end and Antoinette's thoughts take over the italicized form?
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Last modified 11 January 2004