Jean Rhys | Critical Essay by Anthony E. Luengo

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of Jean Rhys.
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Buy the Critical Essay by Helen Tiffin

Critical Essay by Anthony E. Luengo

SOURCE: "Wide Sargasso Sea and the Gothic Mode," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 15, No. 1, April, 1976, pp. 229-45.

In the following essay, Luengo discusses gothic themes and motifs in Wide Sargasso Sea, especially the significance of landscape, the occult, and the characterization of victim and villain. "In the final analysis," writes Luengo, "Wide Sargasso Sea must be read as a novel about anxiety."

Critics have so far failed to place Wide Sargasso Sea within its proper literary context, the Gothic mode of fiction. This is not to say that it should be considered a Gothic novel in the traditional and strictest sense of the term. More than time separates its author from the late eighteenth century world of such quintessentially Gothic novelists as Ann Radcliffe and "Monk" Lewis. Nowhere as sentimental as Radcliffe, much less sensationalistic than Lewis, Rhys moves much deeper than either into the unstable mental world of her characters, much as Charlotte and Emily Brontë were to do when they helped to transform the tired clichés and conventions of the Gothic into powerful tools for exploring the turbid depths of the human spirit.

One might perhaps hazard the term "neo-Gothic" to describe novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Wide Sargasso Sea and the numerous American writers of fiction from Charles Brockden Brown through Hawthorne, Poe and Melville to Faulkner, Capote and McCullers who, as one important commentator on the "American Gothic" sub-species puts it, deal:

… with the exaggerated and the grotesque, not as they are verifiable in any external landscape or sociological observation of manners and men, but as they correspond in quality to our deepest fears and guilts as projected in our dreams or lived through in "extreme situations."

It is tempting, of course, to use the term "Caribbean Gothic" with reference to Wide Sargasso Sea but in the absence of a body of West Indian writing in a similar vein, the term remains largely meaningless. The novel must therefore be discussed within the wider context of the Gothic tradition. While no definite sources can be accurately pinned down, one finds in Rhys much that is reminiscent of writers as widely separated in time and place as Emily Brontë and William Faulkner. In recognizing such similarities, one is simply recognizing the literary richness of the novel.

Like all novels in the Gothic and neo-Gothic mode, Wide Sargasso Sea is remarkable in its evocation of landscape. Both narrators of the novel evince, to slightly paraphrase Ramchand, a "sensuous feel" for a land that is at once over-poweringly beautiful and mysteriously menacing. At the most superficial level this makes the work intoxicatingly "atmospheric." Colours and smells predominate as indeed they do in the many scenes of pastoral charm strewn throughout Radcliffe's writings. Compare, for example, Rochester's account of his sensations as he stands on the veranda of the honeymoon retreat at Granbois for the first time with one of Radcliffe's typical descriptions of the Mediterranean lowlands at the foot of the Alps. Here is Rochester:

Standing on the veranda I breathed the sweetness of the air. Cloves I could smell and cinnamon, roses and orange blossom. And an intoxicating freshness as if all this had never been breathed before.

Here is Radcliffe's more mannered prose:

The gay tints of cultivation once more beautified the landscape; for the lowlands were coloured with the richest hues, which a luxuriant climate, and an industrious people can awaken into life. Groves of orange and lemon perfumed the air, their ripe fruit glowing among the foliage; while, sloping to the plains, extensive vineyards spread their treasures.

But even as unprofound a writer as Radcliffe attempts to make her carefully wrought landscape pictures perform more than merely a decorative function. In short, her landscapes are made to convey, in however uncomplex a way, the subjective states of her characters, especially those of her overly sensitive young heroines such as Emily (The Mysteries of Udolpho): gloomy, precipitous heights reflect her terror, sunlit, gentle valley slopes and pasturelands her peace of soul. This "projective method" of landscape description, as we have already noted above, becomes a valuable tool in the hands of neo-Gothic writers in England and America, and Rhys, working in the same tradition, uses it to great effect. As Rochester ascends towards Granbois (shades of Emily ascending to the gloomy pile of Montoni's castle!), the sense of impending danger is conveyed thus:

The road climbed upward. On one side the wall of green, on the other a steep drop to the ravine below. We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. These hills would close in on you.

The subjective nature of landscape description in the novel has been recognized by Ramchand though, ever preoccupied with psycho-historical factors, he fails to acknowledge Rhys's indebtedness to Gothic and neo-Gothic fiction for the method. Thus the dense tropical forest which symbolises the increasing gloom and confusion of Rochester's mind should be seen as a latter-day descendent of the many dark woods that appear in the novel's late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century literary ancestors. In desperate search of the truth, Rochester moves through the forest:

I had reached the forest and you cannot mistake a forest. It is hostile. The path was overgrown but it was possible to follow it. I went on without looking at the tall trees on either side…. How can one discover truth I thought and that thought led me nowhere…. I found that the undergrowth and creepers caught at my legs and the trees closed over my head….

The sense of menace is here more pronounced that it is in similar scenes in Radcliffe owing, I feel, to the greater importance given the function of the forest in neo-Gothic fiction, especially as it developed in America. Fiedler makes the point that the haunted forest provided a handy solution to a basic problem that faced the Gothic in the New World: what to substitute for the centuries-old castle of the European Gothic writers? Hawthorne, perhaps the most quintessential of American Gothic writers, exploits to the full the symbolic implications of the dark forest in such superb allegories on the nature of good and evil as The Scarlet Letter and "Young Goodman Brown." Rhys's technique is much the same: her Caribbean jungles at once provide a strikingly visual and textured terror and a convenient mirror in which to reflect the inner turmoil of her two main characters. Thus we can trace Rochester's changing moods by his "changing attitudes to a seemingly changing land." Antoinette, in contrast, is unnervingly consistent in her view of the forest: it is an absolutely diabolical force that presses close on the walls of her Edenic garden (her recurring erotic dream at the convent), and which, in fact, is seen at one point early in the narrative to actually overwhelm the garden at her beloved Coulibri:

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild…. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking….

As in American Gothic then, nature, especially in its wilder aspects, takes on in Wide Sargasso Sea the importance that had in original Gothic fiction been given to architecture. In his vastly informative if not very profound history of the Gothic novel, Montague Summers rightly stresses the central role played by the many castles, manors, convents and abbeys in the novels of Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis and the many less adept practitioners of Gothic fictional art. By the time of the Brontës, architecture (Wuthering Heights, Thornfield Hall) takes second place to the portrayal of character, especially as reflected in the natural landscape. In America, Poe liberated neo-Gothic fiction even further from the confines of the original "haunted castle." Not surprisingly, Wide Sargasso Sea provides little in the way of haunted interiors. Coulibri is, if anything, a place of refuge for Antoinette from the outside darkness, as indeed is the convent in its own morbid way, "… my refuge, a place of sunshine and of death." The shabby cottage at Granbois is more pathetic than frightening, "… more awkward than ugly, a little sad as if it knew it couldn't last," though at times one can feel Rhys pushing description in the direction of the traditional Gothic:

But the feeling of security had left me. I looked round suspiciously. The door into her room could be bolted, a stout wooden bar pushed across the other. This was the last room in the house…. I went back into the dressing-room and looked out of the window. I saw a clay road…. Beyond the road various half-hidden outbuildings.

One quality that Coulibri and Granbois very definitely share is their extraordinary remoteness, a geographical isolation which, of course, symbolises the spiritual separation of the protagonists from the mainstays of normality. Antoinette's mother suffers because of the isolation of Coulibri (her favourite word is "marooned"), and this eventually turns her mad. Granbois is even more remote, high in the hills, shut in by the forest, on an island inhabited, according to Antoinette, by four "hermits."

The presence of ruins in Wide Sargasso Sea should also be seen in terms of the book's literary ancestry. As in the European Gothic novel, they are expressive not so much of the end of a feudal order (in the West Indian context, the plantation system) as they are of a romantic statement of deeper, more universal significance of the kind made by Radcliffe in the following passage:

The view of the ruins was very striking; the three chief masses, great and solemn, without being beautiful. They spoke at once to the imagination, with the force and simplicity of truth, the nothingness and brevity of this life—"generations have beheld us and passed away, as you now behold us and shall pass away: they thought of the generations before them as you now think of them, and as future ages shall think of you. We have witnessed this, yet we remain; the voices that revelled beneath us are heard no more, yet the winds of Heaven still sound in our ivy."

Much the same kind of romantic, contemplative mood (though much more is left implied than actually stated) descends on Rochester in the midst of his desperate trek through the forest referred to above:

Here were the ruins of a stone house and round the ruins rose trees that had grown to an incredible height. At the back of the ruins a wild orange tree covered with fruit, the leaves a dark green. A beautiful place. And calm—so calm that it seemed foolish to think or plan.

The ruins, to be sure, fulfill a definite purpose in the narrative: they embody the increasingly terrifying enigma of Antoinette, her ancestry and her island which Rochester is finding he cannot solve. At the same time, the almost mind-annihilating calm which they momentarily induce in him broaden the meaning of the scene: what is suggested, I believe, is a Radcliffean or romantic apprehension of mutability.

Brief yet striking, the "ruins scene" in Wide Sargasso Sea is typical of the economic and effective use that Rhys makes of the conventional machinery of the Gothic. Her narrative remains uncluttered with the prodigious use of much of the traditional claptrap. Fearsome approaching footsteps; shadowy figures and flickering lights in the dark; strange voices and music form out of nowhere; mysterious portraits; doors suddenly slamming or grating bloodcurdlingly on their rusty hinges: all that is left out. Tempestuous atmospheric conditions in which, as one historian of the Gothic has correctly noted, the Gothic spirit delighted, makes an appearance only once (and this in the hurricane zone!).

One must not forget either the moon which inevitably provided the dim illumination for the Gothic night as, for example, in the following passage from Lewis's The Monk, a description rich with the stock ingredients of the traditional Gothic:

The castle, which stood full in my sight, formed an object equally awful and picturesque. Its ponderous walls, tinged by the moon with solemn brightness; its old and partly ruined towers, lifting themselves into the clouds….

Rhys does not indulge in such stagey effects, but rather connects the moon with terrifying intimacy to the subjective states of her two main characters. Thus Antoinette relates to Rochester the incident in which she sleeps in a hammock on the veranda under the full moon. She concludes the account with the question:

"Do you think that too," she said, "that I have slept too long in the moonlight?"

The question is indirect but its meaning is nonetheless clear. Rhys is consistent in her application of the moon image to Antoinette, the climactic and most horrifying flicker (superbly pinpointing her deteriorated mental state) coming when Rochester refers in the final section of his narration to her "blank hating moonstruck face." The same consistency of application holds with regard to Rochester, though the moon takes on a different resonance in his case. It is made to express his sense of desperate alienation, "Not night or darkness as I knew it but night with blazing stars, an alien moon…." He also associates it with the heavily scented river flowers which hold promise of an intense, almost self-annihilating dark sexuality:

I was longing for night and darkness and the time when the moonflowers open.

     Blot out the moon,
     Pull down the stars.
     Love in the dark, for we're for the dark
            So soon, so soon.

Rhys has here moved way beyond the calculated theatricality of the traditional Gothic. To her credit, she comes close in spirit at this point to that outstanding achievement of nineteenth century neo-Gothic, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.

Rhys's use and control of the machinery of, what Summers has called, the "terror-Gothic" is even more remarkable in the area of magic and superstition. Here she makes more lavish use of the materials available to her but they are at no time allowed to get out of hand. She completely avoids both the lurid diablerie of Lewis's The Monk and the reneging "explained supernatural" of Radcliffe. In Wide Sargasso Sea discussion of obeah revolves around the figure of Christophine. As a child, Antoinette hears the talk of the other servants concerning Christophine's supposed necromantic activities and, not surprisingly, her already fevered imagination conjures up terrors whenever she enters the servant's room:

I was certain that hidden in the room (behind the old black press?) there was a dead man's dried hand, white chicken feathers, a cock with its throat cut, dying slowly, slowly. Drop by drop the blood was falling into a red basin and I imagined I could hear it.

This is as sensational as Rhys ever becomes in her treatment of obeah (and this is purely imagined). Antoinette sees "the girls from the bay-side" bringing suspicious offerings of fruit and vegetables to Christophine, and seemingly more reliable proof of evil doings comes to Rochester in the warning of Daniel and the letter from Fraser. But Daniel's vindictiveness and Fraser's vague reference to Christophine's "nonsense" make their testimony not very trustworthy. Even when Antoinette turns in desperation to Christophine for some kind of magical cure to the unbearable tensions between Rochester and herself, the reader is not made privy to the consultation; the sly words of Christophine are calculatedly chosen to create a sense of ambiguity:

"So already you frightened eh?" And when I saw her expression I took my purse from my pocket and threw it on the bed.

"You don't have to give me money. I do this foolishness because you beg me—not for money."

"Is it foolishness?" I said, whispering and she laughed again, but softly.

"If béké say it foolishness, then it foolishness. Béké clever like the devil. More clever than God. Ain't so? Now listen and I will tell you what to do."

We never in fact hear what Antoinette is told. We only know that she departs with something wrapped in a leaf "cold and smooth" against her skin, some kind of natural drug as it turns out which she gives to Rochester in a glass of wine. But this is hardly black magic. Far from being a wicked devil-woman in the mould of Lewis's Matilda (The Monk) Christophine comes across as the most sane, perceptive and dignified character in the novel. If she does dabble in obeah, we can surmise that it is mainly for practical purposes, her forte a kind of natural bush medicine for which the authorities (quite irrationally) have little sympathy.

Obeah is also used in the novel to heighten the enigma of Antoinette and her island which, as pointed out above, disorients Rochester. Thus when he comes upon the ruins of the stone house in the forest, he finds propitiatory bunches of flowers strewn on the ground; questioning the unsmiling Baptiste soon after he receives only brief, elusive answers. In this way then Rhys, as with the figure of Christophine, makes her materials narratively purposeful and essential to the thematic import of her fiction.

Still drawing upon elements from the realm of magic and superstition, Rhys puts to good service that eerie visitant to the nighttime world of the Gothic and neo-Gothic—the ghost. To be sure, she does not, as Lewis does, present us with actual ghosts. Neither does she follow the practice of Gothic writers like Walpole and Radcliffe who, as Railo has correctly noted, talk a lot about ghosts (especially hinting at their imminent appearance), but never actually introduce them. Radcliffe's ghosts, like so much else that is apparently supernatural in her work, are either explained away or discussed in the spirit of eighteenth century rationalism as, for example, in the discussion between the Baron de Saint Foix and Count De Villefort in the last volume of The Mysteries of Udolpho.

For Rhys a ghost is a mental phenomenon, the product, like Macbeth's dagger, of the "heat-oppressed brain." It thus becomes, like the landscape, an expression of the anguish of her main characters. In the midst of her recurring dream of conflagration at Thornfield Hall, Antoinette sees the ghost of a "woman with streaming hair … surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her [her mother]." Antoinette herself becomes a ghost in the eyes of Rochester a death-in-life figure as she sinks deeper and deeper into madness:

She was only a ghost. A ghost in the gray daylight. Nothing left but hopelessness. Say die and I will die. Say die and watch me die.

In becoming a ghost, she is becoming for Rochester one with her ancestors, themselves ghosts with their "White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter." It is appropriate that Rochester should end his section of the narrative with such spectral images as he faces head-on the full horror of his situation.

In transforming the conventional machinery of the "terror-Gothic" Rhys gives new life as well to the conventions of characterization (in other words, to the stereotypes) of the Gothic and neo-Gothic that have come down to her. In her portrayal of Rochester and Antoinette she works with four important character types: the Gothic villain, the young hero, the "persecuted woman" or "maiden in flight," and the femme fatale. We must now discuss her use of these types before we can reach a conclusion concerning what the novel is ultimately all about.

The Gothic Villain, as many literary historians and critics have indicated, is the closest literary ancestor of the type that was to become known in the Romantic period as the "Byronic Hero." Rochester, as he is portrayed in Jane Eyre, comes definitely out of this mould: he has been a guilt-haunted wanderer, "harsh … grim … almost histrionically cynical," his face marked with the standard features of his type (prominent forehead, full, black, well-defined eyebrows and piercing dark eyes, grim mouth and chin, black whiskers). In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives us a more youthful Rochester, an initially self-deluding, fortune-hunting Englishman who comes to a gradual and deeply unsettling realisation of his Creole wife's mental instability. As he first presents himself to us, he is a romantic suitor, "… I bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her," to outward appearances like many another colourless and virtuous young hero (more calculating than most, perhaps) from the world of Gothic and neo-Gothic fiction: Theodore and Edmund in The Castle of Otranto, Valancourt in The Mysteries of Udolpho, Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights but to name a few. They serve in their respective novels as foils to the darker (and more memorable) personalities of Manfred, Montoni, Heathcliff and the many other Gothic villains and near villains who achieve a kind of apotheosis in Byron's work. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, Rochester does not remain the young hero for long, as he pointedly states: "A short youth mine was." Subjected to shock after shock, he goes through a metamorphosis, not only psychologically in the direction of neurosis, but, from a purely literary standpoint, in the direction of the Gothic/Byronic villain/hero type.

A foreshadowing of the transformation that is to take place comes early in Rochester's narration when he sees himself as a Faustian figure:

I have sold my soul or you [his father] have sold it, and after all is it such a bad bargain?

The reference is fleeting but no doubt calculated, introducing as it does the "diabolic bargain" (the willing choice of damnation) which, as Fiedler has perceptively pointed out, is at the center of the Gothic novel and its descendents. Later in the narrative, Christophine, in anger, accuses Rochester of being "wicked like Satan self," an accusation hardly justified in terms of the action itself, but which in the light of the literary tradition in which the author is working is highly connotative. Finally, there is Grace Poole's account of her reaction to Rochester's offer of extra remuneration for keeping the mad Antoinette: "I don't serve the devil for no money." Rochester has by this time become the Byronic figure, "misery in his eyes," who is much more fully developed in Jane Eyre. Rhys, it can be seen, had Brontë's Rochester very much in mind as she created her own version of the character. She is careful to have her Rochester anticipate what he is to become in later life and in another fiction. From the viewpoint of characterization then, Rhys's Rochester needs the complement of Charlotte Brontë's if he is to be fully understood.

Rhys's Antoinette, in contrast, has only the most tenuous relationship with the grotesquely insane "Bertha" of Brontë's novel. As depicted in Wide Sargasso Sea, she is not the type of raging mad woman, but rather a complex amalgam of two stock figures of Gothic and neo-Gothic fiction: the "persecuted woman" and the femme fatale.

The most immediate literary ancestor of the "persecuted woman" of Gothic fiction, as Praz has pointed out, was Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, the gentle, virtuous, melancholic maiden, pursued, persecuted and seduced by the lecherous Lovelace. Walpole and Lewis retained the frankly sexual nature of the pursuit, though Radcliffe, not surprisingly, considerably toned down the erotic element. Typical of her general method, Rhys internalises the image of flight in order to make it speak of the terrible anguish of her heroine. She begins with the external, objective depiction of persecution and flight, the recurring scenes early in the book in which the hapless Antoinette is harassed by the recently freed blacks:

I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed me singing, "Go away white cockroach, go away, go away." I walked fast but she walked faster. "White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away."

As the external menace gives way to a steadily deepening anxiety, the images become charged with eroticism, welling up in Antoinette's recurring nightmare in which she is followed into the forest near Coulibri by one man, "his face black with hatred." Antoinette exists, in effect, in a state of continuous flight, from the blacks, from Rochester himself (her initial resistance to marriage and, later on, her flight to Christophine), from the terrors of her own soul.

To be sure, Antoinette is more than merely a Radcliffean innocent in danger. The complexity of her characterization comes in Rhys showing her to be at once victim and femme fatale. In Rochester's eyes she becomes understandably very much the latter, a dangerous woman, like her ancestors before her, who must be watched:

The way they walk and talk and scream or try to kill (themselves or you) if you laugh back at them. Yes, they've got to be watched. For the time comes when they try to kill…. She's one of them….

As it is, she robs him of his youth and peace of soul (forgetting for the moment the happiness which he does eventually find in Jane Eyre). At one point in the narrative she even mocks his God:

"You are always calling on God," she said. "Do you believe in God?"

"Of course, of course I believe in the power and wisdom of my creator."

She raised her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned down in a questioning mocking way.

This is not to call Antoinette Satanic after the fashion of, say, Lewis' Matilda: that would be to exaggerate, Matilda is presented as a witch, a woman actively in the service of the Devil. Rhys, as we have noted already, avoids Lewis' excesses. Her method is much more subtle. She creates around Antoinette, as she does around Rochester, a sense of damnation that grows naturally out of the narrative action. Again, a process of internalisation takes place: Antoinette is first told by the servants (early in the book, first by Godfrey, then by Myra) that she and her kind are destined to hell. In time, she herself comes to believe this, dreaming of damnation at the convent and even embracing it in fits of ecstatic self-condemnation:

All the same, I did not pray so often after that and soon, hardly at all. I felt bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe.

But such moments of desperate, heaven-defying happiness predictably give way to a state of unrelieved inner torment from which her only release can be death:

"Say die and I will die. You don't believe me? Then try, try, say die and watch me die."

In the final analysis, Wide Sargasso Sea must be read as a novel about anxiety. This is to be expected. As Praz has commented:

… an anxiety with no possibility of escape is the main theme of the Gothic tales….

But the anxiety conveyed in Rhys's novel goes much deeper than the shallow fears and terrors felt by the one-dimensional characters in the novels of Walpole, Radcliffe and Lewis. The anxiety that haunts Rochester and, especially, Antoinette is caused by the disintegration of the self. In Rochester's case an initial self-deluding confidence is rapidly undermined and he feels, for the first time in his life, a dreadful sense of alienation. In Antoinette's case the dilemma is stated specifically in terms of a crisis of identity:

"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 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 I was ever born at all."

One is reminded here of the character of Joe Christmas in Faulkner's Light in August who, like Antoinette, lives in a nightmare world because he does not know who he is or where he belongs. To create this nightmare of identity adrift, both Faulkner and Rhys make imaginatively powerful and deeply meaningful use of the conventions of the Gothic mode. Thus, like all good writers, they at once relate to literary tradition and make a statement that is relevant to their own time.

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