How and to what purpose does Rochester’s renaming of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as the use of the rumor as a plot device, reframe colonialist Anglo-Saxon customs?
Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea is set first on the island of Jamaica, then on the Windward Islands and, lastly, on the island of England. In these different locations and through two separate perspectives, it provokes and reframes issues surrounding identity and power. By reimagining the character of Bertha Mason (first realized in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre), Rhys reinvigorates her complicated relationship with independence and is successful in both embroidering sympathy as well as lifting some of the prejudice that has surrounded the idea of Bertha since her conception.
One prominent divergence in Wide Sargasso Sea is how, in it, Rhys renames Bertha to Antoinette — although this divergence later resolves itself when Antoinette is referred to as Bertha by her husband, Rochester, midway through the novel. In fact, the novel serves as a possible prequel to Jane Eyre; offering the reader an explanation for the animalistic “lunacy” in Brontë’s character Bertha Mason. Similarly, Rhys explores the rumor as a plot-device when Rochester receives a slanderous account from Antoinette’s half-brother, Daniel, and allows it to inform his opinions. This relates to the renaming of Antoinette to Bertha in that it reflects “other-ing”(1) tendencies of colonial powers, whereby people relied on rumor or assumption to form the identities of the oppressed. In rendering foreign people as “mysterious” or “exotic,” or in Wide Sargasso Sea as “Bertha,” or by relying on a rumor to inform opinion, those foreign people are further distanced and inaccurately established.
(1): “The construction of the other was with ‘characteristics which are alien to the western tradition’ (Pandian 1985:6)”
The novel follows Antoinette Cosway, beginning in the early 19th century on the island of Jamaica. Antoinette is the daughter of ex-slavers and she starts narrating her story five years after the death of her father. The family property, Coulibri Estate, is in disrepair; a repercussion from the Emancipation Act of 1833. And a large part of the novel focuses on the results of this act; one of which is the tension between families like the Cosway’s and the native Jamaicans. From the start, it is clear that the Cosway family is unwelcome.
“I never looked at any strange negro.” Says Antoinette. “They hated us. They called us white cockroaches.” (Rhys, 13)
These consequences, negative for the Cosway’s and other non-natives, are felt strongly by Antoinette and her family. Furthermore, they hugely impact Antoinette’s issues with her perception of self and her sense of belonging.
Antoinette’s childhood (narrated in “Part 1” of the text) plays a large role throughout the story, as well as in the formation of her identity. Because of her cultural background; her family’s poverty after the Emancipation Act; her connection with the servants; and the location in which she is raised, Antoinette considers herself an islander. However, because of the race of her parents — her father being white and her mother being from Martinique but also white — she is torn. She is certainly split culturally, if not racially. Her race is referred to as white, although never explicitly confirmed as either white or black, which is part of the territory of being “creole”(2). She is referred to as “white n•••er” at times, and she reflects on this midway through the novel in a conversation between her and her new husband Rochester:
“‘Did you hear what that girl was singing?’ Antoinette said. ‘I don’t always understand what they say or sing.’ [he replies] Or anything else. ‘It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all!’” (Rhys, 61)
This passage is rich with meaning and reveals several things about Antoinette’s identity at once. First, a broader sentiment felt by the community of ex-slavers, for when Antoinette says, “their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders” she attempts to shift the blame from herself and her family and onto the African-born slave traders. This is problematic in its attempt to erase the Cosway’s complicity in the enslavement of the native Caribbean people. Though she has been born into this tradition, and therefore has little control over the actions of her forebears, her resentment towards the islanders reveals her own entitlement and her accidental racism. Secondly, and also on the issue of race, the passage reveals the many contradictions of her identity — as a result of being born white on a Caribbean island and because of her resentment towards the four islanders — which, in turn, ties in with her being given the two names of Bertha and Antoinette (British versus French Islander: modest versus exotic). And lastly, the passage further reveals Antoinette’s identity in that it shows a deep sense of futility.
(2): The term “creole” is expanded upon by Rhys. In Creole Crossings: Domestic Fiction and the Reform of Colonial Slavery, Literature Professor Carolyn Berman writes; “How exactly does Ryhs manage to reclaim Bertha Mason’s madness by transforming what was a colonial identity crisis? Brontë’s depiction of the Creole lunatic, as I have argued, strategically conflates images of madness and colonial subjects in order to conjure a sufficiently terrible target for reform. In Wide Sargasso Sea, by contrast, Creole madness is first of all a slur propagated against Creole whites by colonials of color.” (177)
This futility felt by Antoinette is expressed in several ways: In the hot and muggy Windward Islands where they honeymoon; in the fact that neither are employed; and in Antoinette’s at-times-crippling depression. This futility and the fear that accompanies it is expressed when Rochester observes:
“[…] the feeling of something unknown and hostile was very strong. ‘I feel very much a stranger here,’ I said. ‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’ ‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.” (Rhys, 78)
This passage helps us to understand why Rochester chose to rename Antoinette to Bertha. “He never calls me Antoinette now.” She notices 10 pages prior. “He has found out it was my mother’s name” (Rhys, 68). Rochester’s feelings of the “unknown” and the “hostile” encourage him to rename his beautiful new wife. In calling her Bertha, he simultaneously distances her from her mother (who he learned, through a secondhand account, suffers from insanity) and he also renders her more European and modest, and therefore less sexually promiscuous, less hostile or insane, et cetera. Part of the deep tragedy of Wide Sargasso Sea, however, is Rochester’s inability to help Antoinette first realize and then accept her own identity and past — instead, he chooses to rename her as Bertha and to form an idea of her identity based solely upon secondhand accounts. He cannot help her to realize her own identity because he has no desire to discover it himself. He is afraid of her being an “other.”
Though Antoinette is white, she becomes less white in contrast to Rochester. From the beginning of their marriage, he is skeptical of her “pure English descent.” He considers this as he watches her run through the rain to greet someone.
“She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting…Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.” He judges her further down the page as he listens to their conversation: “The two women stood in the doorway of the hut gesticulating, talking not English but the debased French Patois they use in this island.” (Rhys, 39)
His judgement of her “alien” and “debased” identity is the primary reason for their marriage later crumbling. Though her race is white, she is culturally a “creole” person. He cannot accept the possibility that her identity is that of an “other.”
This concept is analyzed by theorist Gayatri Spivak in her essay “Wide Sargasso Sea and a Critique of Imperialism.” In it, she claims,
“In this fictive England, [Bertha] must play out her role, act out the transformation of her “self” into that fictive Other, set fire to the house and kill herself, so that Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction.” (Spivak, 243)
Spivak’s claim strengthens the idea that Rochester calls her Bertha in an attempt to familiarize her but that it has the unintended consequence of distancing her from himself. Spivak’s essay also points to a reason why colonists might have done this: by erasing or degrading the oppressed people and their history, they could set them up, rather strategically, in contrast to their white counterparts. In this novel, that counterpart would be the character of Jane Eyre.
The use of the rumor as a tool in Wide Sargasso Sea is also important to analyze when writing about racism and colonialism. Daniel Cosway, Antoinette’s half-brother writes a letter to Rochester midway through the novel in an attempt to warn him. He writes that there is,
“[…] madness in that family […] This young Mrs. Cosway is worthless and spoilt, she can’t lift a hand for herself and soon the madness that is in her, and in all these white Creoles, come out.” (Rhys, 57)
Daniel is black and, in speaking of Creole people this way, his racism towards them is explicit.
“Is your wife herself going the same way as her mother and all knowing it?” (Rhys, 59)
He asks Rochester this in a tone that suggests that he already knows the answer. Rochester’s inherent fear of the islander, as well as of the island itself, leads him to believe Daniel Cosway (a man he has never met or even heard of before) over his own wife. He begins to further question the purity of Antoinette’s whiteness and to seek out the insanity that many say goes along with being Creole.
Whether Antoinette became psychotic because of her genetics or as a result of Rochester’s treatment of her is never entirely explicit. It is most likely to be a cocktail of her dark background and of her mother’s own mental illness. But it is clearly triggered by Rochester’s maltreatment of her. After all, Rochester inherits her dowry and so she becomes financially dependent on him; he renames her (much as a God would); and he betrays her again and again. Furthermore, by the end of the novel, he has locked her away in a cold, musty attic for over a decade.
These reasons and more all contribute to the degradation of Antoinette (Bertha’s) mental well-being, and in these ways Rochester forms and reforms her identity. His fear of the unknown and his unwillingness to understand the “other” also contribute to the eventual lunacy and suicide of Antoinette Cosway — a heroine who died so that Jane Eyre could live.
This character and her life reveal broader horrors about colonialism and race. The erasure of history and the lack of perspective from the oppressed, rather than solely from the oppressor, is an ongoing issue. It remains to this day as one of the deeper tragedies of the Western world, as well as, more broadly, the world of literature. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s race and oppression are complicated. As a Creole woman, however, she remains a target for people like Rochester. Simultaneously, he becomes a representation of the white European author by misrepresenting and misunderstanding the island to which he travels, as well as the identity of the islanders who call it their home.
Rhys, Jean, Judith L. Raiskin, and Charlotte Bronte. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Sarukkai, Sundar. “The ‘Other’ in Anthropology and Philosophy.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 32, no. 24, 1997, pp. 1406–1409. www.jstor.org/stable/4405512.