Metaphorical Representation Of Colonialism In Wide Sargasso Sea

In Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester is portrayed as the metaphorical coloniser, who dominates the women he comes into contact with, exploiting and utilising them like his colonised possessions. To explore this process, the voodoo figure of the zombi is used, a traumatised victim deprived of all free will by a sorceress bokor, who uses the zombi as a source of labour. It is a concept that critics like Lauro have traditionally postulated, with Rochester as the colonising bokor while Antoinette serves as his zombi. However, ‘the politics of imperialism,’ that are in constant interplays in the novel indicate that “there is always another side.”

 In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys likens her version of the Rochester character to the bokor – connecting him to the English fascination with the Afro-Caribbean occult through his reading of the fictional ‘The Glittering Coronet of Isles.’ Rochester’s subsequent exploration of his Caribbean home leads to connections of the idea of the spirit Zombi, and by the end of the novel Rochester triumphs in having finally made Antionette into a zombie when he declares her to be his “breathless and indifferent” doll. While the zombi analogy is drawn from Rhy’s personal experiences in the later 19th and early 20th century Dominica, her portrayal of Rochester is hardly without reason. Brontë herself frequently compares Rochester to a colonizer or a tyrant in Jane Eyre, with her eponymous heroine at one point calling him “a sultan” with a “grand Turk’s whole seraglio.” However, the nuanced problem of defining Rochester into one singular category of coloniser presents us with the issue of ‘personal and human identity.’ Rochester withdraws from this expectation of colonisation, he does not turn Antionette into an ideal British wife, he locks her away and abandons her holdings. Rhys explores this reluctance by having Rochester repeatedly compose letters to his father regarding his marriage to Antoinette: “I will never be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love,” he declares, “I have sold my soul or you have sold it.” Far from being the one-dimensional bokor, extending the empire by creating British heirs, he is seemingly a reluctant colonist. Through the politics of imperialism and as a mere representation of the British Coloniser, Rochester thusly must be a digressing character, who embraces all of the roles without any regard for doing so. However, Rochester is shown to be reluctant to perform his duties an “advances and retreats' on his part, calculated to overcome her 'doubts and hesitations' as quickly as possible. His assertion that 'everything is finished, for better or for worse' sounds like a parody of the traditional marriage vows, and suggests that Antoinette's fate is sealed once and for all.

This leads us onto the ‘figure of Antoinette,’ and the intricate construction of her which coxes’ readers to recognise that the unique ‘creole’ identity she labels herself with is neither black nor white, neither colonizer of colonised. Instead, she is composed of a mixture of socially ascribed qualities that negate themselves, leaving only autonomous femininity that she sees modelled in Christophine and her Caribbean culture. Drake describes her triumph at the end of the novel “her ultimate regaining of an identity stolen by cultural imperialism.” This is pieced together throughout the novel, where Antoinette tries to gain acceptance amongst whites to form her identity. The extreme social labels can be witnessed in the very first words of her narrative “they say.” The impersonal pronoun “they,” prescribes a lack of autonomy to Antoinette. As a girl who is increasingly desperate for social acceptance, her identity transitions between attempting to fit into the role of the Caribbean native, and then that of the stereotypical white English girl. With her marriage to Rochester and the increasing love she begins to feel for him, she assimilates into the English qualities prescribed in the novel, such as the dependence on men and the reluctance to leave Rochester as “he is her husband after all.” However, equally significant is when Antoinette expresses to Christophine her deep desire for Rochester to accept her; she is prompted to look to her black nurse to grant this through an obeah potion. Drake further comments that “Antoinette wants to use the potion to complete her assimilation to England and whiteness’ thereby earning an identity which ‘might be determined by the politics of imperialism.’ When the potion fails, Antionette’s identity is reconsidered, her non-whiteness and her non-blackness, as “she is not béké like you, but she is béké, and not like us either.”

It is only at the end of the novel where Antoniette’s identity is removed from the Zombi notion. Despite attempts to eradicate her identity completely, Antoniette finally forms a secure sense of self, thus freeing her from the restrictive labels of a colonial world. Rhys constructs this for the symbolic looking-glass motif. Critics Gilbert and Gubar both note that the mirror represents the “voice” of male consent, by controlling the image of women similar to how the bokor does. It is shown through Annette, who in her attempts to conform, is enslaved to the patriarchy, who hopes for a better life “every time she is passed the looking glass,” because it reflects the male dictated norm. As critic Fayad comments “the mother seeks the approval of a real mirror that is to decide her reintegration into society through marriage.’ In a similar manner to that of her mother, Antoinette is prescribed the image of the looking glass, however, she undermines its masculine rhetoric. Antionette, in seeing her features in the mirrors of Thornfield Hall, rejects the prescribed role of “lunatic.” She calls for Christophine for aid, discovering her own sense of character in the heat from the wall of fire that separates her from the mirror’s symbolic influence. It becomes a call back to Christophine’s remark that “she is creole girl, and she has the sun in her.” This association of light, warmth and fire to the character of Antoinette signifies her connection to the Caribbean and links her vibrancy to the flamboyant colours of the island. By the end of the novel, she is not the zombi undermined by colonialism, but rather a powerful creature who takes freedom into her own hands. 

16 August 2021
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