by Angelica Brewer
Intertextuality, according to Romita Choudhury, is “a deliberate, self-conscious reply of one text to another, [and] has significant implications for [postcolonial] discourse” (315). In her essay “‘Is there a ghost, a zombie there?’ Postcolonial Intertextuality and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Choudhury argues that postcolonial intertextual works are “framed by domination and subversion, the possibilities of diverse forms and content … [which] ultimately converge towards a unified domain of true and nameless resistance” (315). Jean Rhys’s 1966 postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea addresses the ethics of domination and subversion by having Mr. Rochester, the erstwhile romantic hero of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, exploit his Creole wife’s fear of zombification through obeah—a syncretization of French Catholicism and “African-based belief systems … analogous to voudou”—in order to dominate her (Aizenberg 463). Understanding the nuances of obeah and zombification allows for a deeper comprehension of the supernatural void into which Rhys deposits her audience. Wide Sargasso Sea engages and subverts Brontë’s late-nineteenth-century canonical novel by upending the reader’s certainty as to the identity of Jane Eyre’s true antagonist and undermines the assumed primacy of Jane’s supernatural world. Rhys’s prose, in turn, casts an obeah-like spell on the reader as, indeed, it becomes virtually impossible to revisit Jane Eyre without interpolating Wide Sargasso Sea’s supernatural influence.
Wide Sargasso Sea chronicles the events preceding Rochester’s confinement of his Jamaican-born Creole wife, Antoinette Cosway (the “reconfigured” Bertha Antoinetta Mason of Jane Eyre) to his attic in Thornfield Hall (Aizenberg 464). Told partly through her perspective, Wide Sargasso Sea relates Antoinette’s upbringing in the West Indies as the daughter of a widowed French “Martinique girl” following the Emancipation Act of 1833 (Rhys 9). While the Emancipation Act technically outlawed slavery in Britain and in her foreign outposts, it left the ‘freed’ slaves uncompensated for their labor and, at least nominally, reliant upon their former owners for sources of sustenance, shelter, and occasional employment (9). With her own English father dead, her family’s plantation, Coulibri Estate, has “gone wild … No more slavery—[which meant no more work; for,] why should anybody work?” (11).
Antoinette details her alienation as a “white nigger” and recounts a violent uprising in which her father’s emancipated slaves—“not presented as a product of a savage nature, but of a colonial history”—burn down Coulibri (Rhys 14; Carr 54). Her infirm younger brother dies from injuries sustained in the fire and this drives Antoinette’s mother to insanity and premature death. Ostracized, orphaned, and uncertain of her identity or place, Antoinette is coerced into an arranged marriage with a ‘proper’ Englishman, who remains unnamed, but is clearly an unfledged, pre-Byronic Mr. Rochester.
The narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea shifts from Antoinette’s vague, uncertain prose to Rochester’s self-absorbed perspective of patriarchal reasoning and entitlement. An outcast himself, Rochester is denied by primogeniture, a British patrilineal inheritance law dictating that since he is not firstborn, Rochester is precluded from inheriting his father’s wealth (Rhys 41). He must, therefore, make his own way in the world and is ‘forced’ into pursuing a profitable marriage in the Caribbean islands, “not [at] the end of the world, only the last stage of [his] interminable journey” (38–39). With their marriage loveless and volatile, Rochester nevertheless enjoys his position of white privilege and newly acquired wealth, and seeks excuses during vulnerable moments of young Antoinette’s life to defend his reprehensible behavior by portraying himself as a wronged party and suffering master of an ungovernable foreign wife.
Furious with a spouse he does not love and abetted by the sudden, fortuitous death of his older brother, Rochester returns to his newly inherited estate in England and immures Antoinette in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Wide Sargasso Sea concludes with a captive Antoinette, rechristened “Bertha,” at the center of a dramatic turning point in Jane Eyre. Antoinette’s voice, now restored to the narrative, is disjointed from having been locked away in Rochester’s manor for an untold period of time, “liv[ing] in her own darkness” (Rhys 106). Determined to bring her story full-circle, Antoinette stages her own slave rebellion by setting fire to her captor’s estate and ending her life. Only through Rhys’s novel does “Brontë’s mad Creole object [finally] find … a voice, however tremulous and disjunctive; she finds a space agitated by racial and class conflicts, by identification and alienation. In short, she finds a story” (Choudhury 322).
Interspersed throughout her story is the supernatural presence summoned by obeah in zombification, that “so often sensationalized symbol of Afro-Antillean bondage,” with which Antoinette is enthralled (Aizenberg 461). In “Patterns of the Zombie in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,” Thomas Loe argues that obeah, the voodoo belief system of Rhys’s West Indies, permeates the novel and that fear of zombification is an underlying motive that directs many of its characters. Loe suggests that while “the zombie may seem to be a figure traditionally associated with black magic cults and too fanciful an allusion to be taken seriously even within the context of the hallucinatory fictive world created” by Jean Rhys, its characteristics haunt the breadth of the text (35). Wide Sargasso Sea bears the hallmarks of zombification that a majority of readers understandably “unfamiliar with voodoo or obeah … [are] consequently … unprepared rather than unwilling to recognize … Rhys’s specific allusions to zombies [function] as an important narrative patterning” (35).
Citing ethnobotanist Wade Davis’s 1982 anthropological study of zombies, Passage of Darkness, Thomas Loe discerns from Davis’s research that the “efficacy of the zombification process” largely relies upon the participant’s faith in the supernatural reach of the ritual, which “allows a victim to be conscious, but inhibits … the exercise of will power. [Thus,] the real cultural impact … [of obeah and zombification] was to instill fear that one’s ti bon ange—the essence of individuality of one’s soul—could be taken, destroying a person’s … [sense of] identity, personality, and willpower” (Loe 36).
According to Loe, it is the spectre of Antoinette’s unfortunate mother, Annette—driven to insanity with grief—who simultaneously foreshadows her daughter’s own doom and most effectively manifests the horrors of zombification, long before Rochester exploits obeah as a means of dominating his spouse. For Rochester and Antoinette, obeah functions as a stand-in for the “experience of slavery, of the disassociation of people from their will, their reduction to beasts of burden subject to a master” (Paravisini-Gerbert 39). Antoinette encapsulates “Davis’ definition of the departure of [Annette’s] ti bon ange when she prays in the convent … ‘This is for my mother … wherever her soul is wandering, for it has left her body’” (Loe 36).
Antoinette obliquely alludes to her fear of zombification when she defends her mother’s reputation and sanity to Rochester. “There are always two deaths,” she tells him, “the real one and the one people know about … There is always the other side, always” (Rhys 77). If Annette’s second death “is a release from the zombie state,” Loe suggests, “it would explain Rochester’s enigmatic remark, ‘Two at least … for the fortunate’” (36). Loe further identifies what he perceives to be the tell-tale signs of zombification when Rochester observes of his defeated wife that “soon she’ll join the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough. They can be recognized. White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter” (Rhys 103). The deathly pallor, expressionless eyes, and aimlessness are classic hallmarks of B-movie zombie possession.
Jean Rhys’s personal correspondences also indicate that that she was altogether too aware of the cultural significance of zombification and clearly saw the irony of obeah developing from a syncretization of French colonized slaves’ societies—“utterly different … based not on European models but on their own ancestral traditions”—blended with French Catholic influence (Choudhury 324; Davis 29). In fact, Rhys makes evident in Wide Sargasso Sea that the obeah practitioner from Martinique, Christophine, who “was not like the other women [for s]he was much blacker—blue-black,” is also Catholic: alongside Christophine’s “pictures of the Holy Family” in her quarters lie remnants of an obeah ritual containing “a dead man’s dried hand, white chicken feathers, [and] a cock with its throat cut, dying slowly, slowly … [its blood] falling into a red bin” (12; 18).
Rather than simply invoke obeah as a supernatural or spiritual tradition singularly and “objectively determined from an underlying social and historical reality, Wide Sargasso Sea presents it as a discursive construct deployed by the colonizer as much as by the colonized” (Mardorossian 1079). It is, after all, Rochester who first reads from The Glittering Coronet of the Isles the following passage on obeah and extrapolates its significance:
I have noticed that negroes as a rule refuse to discuss the black magic in which so many believe. Voodoo as it is called in Haiti—Obeah in some of the islands, another name in South America. They confuse matters by telling lies if pressed. The white people, sometimes credulous, pretend to dismiss the whole thing as nonsense. Cases of sudden or mysterious death are attributed to a poison known to the negroes which cannot be traced. (Rhys 64)
Rhys abruptly shifts the narrative to Antoinette, who tells the reader, “I did not look up though I saw [Rochester] at the window but rode on until I came to the rocks. People here call them Mounes Mors (the Dead Ones)” (64). Here, Antoinette’s preoccupation with zombification becomes evident only after a close reading and better understanding of obeah. The conscientious reader can now recognize the implications of obeah’s “potential for extra-textual stories and [alternate] avenues of meaning”; thus, those “Dead Ones” signify to Antoinette the far-reaching influence of zombification, not just the rocks upon which Christophine—her obeah guide—resides (Loe 34).
Jean Rhys includes this passage so that Rochester’s pursuit of obeah immediately impresses itself upon Antoinette in a supernatural way. Furthermore, it highlights Rhys’s own spell-weaving with her placement of scenes and deliberate removal of identifying words, the ideas of which are left unspoken and abandoned to the white spaces of her frequent ellipses. After all, the reader is not privy to the extent to which Rochester comprehends the nuances of obeah and zombification. It would appear that his “experience of the island and its inhabitants and his understanding of the role of … [zombification and obeah are] completely filtered through the English text” (Mardorossian 1081). Rochester’s fragmented understanding mirrors the reader’s heretofore unformed conception of obeah.
Jean Rhys methodically “fragments gaze and voice [in Wide Sargasso Sea] so that the reader is subjected to a kaleidoscope of impressions mediated by” a variety of culturally different voices—each at odds with the reader’s preconceptions of Charlotte Brontë’s Mr. Rochester and Bertha/Antoinette (Fincham 18). The strength of the author’s deceptively uncomplicated prose “comes through its suggestiveness, its reliance on inference, and its ability to project possibilities of action and implication beyond just those of its central causal episodes”; by employing free indirect discourse and heteroglossia, for instance, Rhys demonstrates the power language possesses to divide, unite, or even control people (Loe 34).
In short, Rhys manipulates the reader by omitting tantalizing perspectives and withholding key information, such as when Antoinette lets slip her trysts with cousin Sandi; Antoinette reveals this secret long after the reader has identified her as a wholly innocent victim, and even longer after their affair has any bearing on her marriage to Rochester (Rhys 110). These deliberate absences of words, floating in ‘the white spaces of her frequent ellipses,’ lend an overwhelming sense of secrecy and magic to Wide Sargasso Sea and it is within this concisely written story that Rhys invokes obeah both within the colonial Caribbean milieu and intertextually with Jane Eyre.
But what of Rochester’s manipulation of obeah? Charles Larmore states in his essay, “The Ethics of Reading,” that the philosophy of ethics is “concerned with two distinct though interrelated questions: how we ought to live in order to live well, and how we are to treat one another” (49). Jean Rhys’s Rochester makes clear his belief in how he ought to live, but doesn’t acknowledge his failure to extend the same courtesy to his wife when he summons the power of obeah. Although Rochester reaps the benefits of living in a patriarchal colonial society, languishing in the Caribbean with “a modest competence,” beautiful estates, and an unpaid staff of servants, he sees himself as a victim of circumstance—of primogeniture (Rhys 41). His lack of empathy for a wife he does not love reveals Rochester’s self-absorption and portends how easily he will abandon any semblance of ethical behavior in order to “live well” for himself, and he freely admits that his marriage, “meant nothing to [him]. Nor did she” (45).
This personality defect bleeds over into Charlotte Brontë’s Edward Fairfax Rochester, who not only bemoans having been “cheated into espousing” the woman he calls Bertha, but himself tries to trick Jane into marriage while still legally bound to Antoinette (249). If, as Larmore states, “our ethical character shows itself most clearly in how we treat the vulnerable, since they cannot make it in our interest to treat them well,” then the Rochesters of both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre could not be more blatant in revealing the dark nature of his/their ethics (54).
David Cowart argues, however, that, in spite of his exploitation of obeah as a means of controlling Antoinette, Wide Sargasso Sea’s Rochester isn’t an evil villain, merely a deeply flawed—if “somewhat morally unformed”—young man (51). Greed drives him more than villainy and, as Christophine observes, “Money have pretty face for everybody, but for that man money pretty like pretty self, he can’t see nothing else … The man not a bad man, even if he loves money” (Rhys 68). Incapable of interpreting the world beyond a patriarchal lens, he passes “Père Lilièvre’s house, near Granbois, [where Rochester himself] is taken for a zombie,” but remains entirely oblivious to this nuance (Cowart 51). Recounting to his servant, Baptiste, “a little girl carrying a large basket on her head … [who, much to Rochester’s] astonishment … screamed loudly, threw up her arms and ran,” Rochester guilelessly wonders, “Is there a ghost, a zombi there?” (Rhys 62–63). Rhys’s words suggest to Cowart “that, morally, at least, all of his class [emphasis mine] and moral obtuseness are zombies. He is, in a word, blind or nearly blind to the real moral complexity of the world, especially the West Indian world, and this blindness anticipates the literal blindness he suffers at the end of Jane Eyre—caused” by Antoinette Cosway herself (51).
Jean Rhys skillfully “depicts the process whereby through fear, jealousy and fierce suppression [Rochester] takes on the role of cruel patriarch, a mercenary and [becomes a] possessive oppressor himself” (Carr 51). And, “while prejudice, cruelty, and hypocrisy can be found in both men and women, and in people of any race, the primary focus of [Rhys’s] attack is,” not Rochester, according to Helen Carr, but the “English patriarchy” (51–52). Rochester, the British colonial plantation owner, appropriates West Indies slave culture and invokes obeah over Antoinette as a means of manipulating and exerting control over this ‘problematic’ foreign wife who has made him wealthy. He does so by simply changing her name from the exotic French “Antoinette” to a more staid, properly English “Bertha.” The power of the name, and its implied application in obeah, become quite evident as Antoinette slowly loses her grip on reality, and likewise her will to live. Rhys contravenes his tyranny by deliberately censoring his name from the text; the reader merely infers that he is the Mr. Rochester of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Rhys 38).
As befitting a cruel tyrant, Rochester abandons any semblance of ethics when he sleeps with their servant, Amélie, within earshot of his wife; having assumed full command of his situation, he “listened for the sound [he] knew [he] should hear, the horse’s hoofs as [his] wife left the house” (Rhys 85). Rochester physically and psychically possesses Antoinette once she stops resisting the fact that he is “trying to make [her] into someone else, calling [her] by another name” (88). By renaming her, Rochester not only invokes the power of obeah (which he knows Antoinette fears), but assumes total authority over his spouse and her property, all the while justifying that “they bought me, me with [her] paltry money. [She] helped them do it … [but] she was only a ghost” because Rochester strove to make her so (102). In the end, “Antoinette is subsumed into the politics of slavery—the zombie’s origin—into the imperialist’s fear of slave rebellion, of Africans threatening Europeans. And in truth, she reacts, much as her father’s ex-slaves did, by setting a torch to the Great House” (Aizenberg 464).
Jane Eyre’s canonicity is also subsumed into Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel dismantles Jane Eyre’s “power through formal subversions and thematic contestations”; Jean Rhys does so by mirroring and reiterating supernatural themes from Jane Eyre, but in the guise of obeah (Aizenberg 463). Once the reader is attuned to the subtleties of obeah, then the act of discerning patterns and fragments of phrases not necessarily “central to the surface stories of the first-person chronological discourses” becomes relatively simple (Loe 34).
Rhys’s deliberate allusions to minute details in Charlotte Brontë’s novel allow Wide Sargasso Sea to transcend the canon, and they possess an even greater poignancy than the most obvious analogies which many readers and critics initially discern. In Jane Eyre, for instance, Rochester disguises himself as a mystical, fortune-telling gypsy, “almost as black as a crock”, a striking feature which harkens to the blackest, “blue-black” mystical obeah priestess Christophine (Brontë 164; Rhys 12). Likewise, Jane’s childhood trauma in the macabre red-room, with Mrs. Reed’s “divers parchments, her jewel-casket, and a miniature of her deceased husband … [wherein this red-room his] last words lie” calls to mind the various ghoulish accoutrements of Christophine’s obeah ceremony, with the blood of a sacrificial cock slowly dripping into a “red bin”—the macabre imagery of which haunts Antoinette in her childhood (Brontë 11; Rhys 18).
All of the power usurped from Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea is mystically reinstated in the obeah-charged fugue state that pervades the atmosphere of Jane Eyre. Essayist J. Jeffrey Franklin identifies “four primary supernatural events”—the most obvious analogies—in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which paradoxically seem to bear the fruit of Jean Rhys’s obeah in Wide Sargasso Sea (471):
… first, the “spell” of the red room; second, the entire Bertha Mason Rochester (“Vampyre,” or “Vamp-pyre”) subplot, with its female, mixed-race, voodoo fire imagery and bedside hauntings; third, Jane’s dreams, drawings, and premonitions, which … form a chain of signs and spells throughout the novel and because they all work to warn Jane by foretelling her future and that of other characters; and last, the extrasensory perception (ESP) that permits Jane and Rochester to communicate long-distance. (Franklin 471)
But, unlike with the mysterious, unfathomable depths of obeah and zombification, the “reader is intended … [really, expected] to accept [Brontë’s] supernatural as ‘real’”, to proffer one’s own ti bon ange without questioning its incongruity—its syncretization—with Jane’s Christianity (471).
Thus, the reader begins to question the primacy and legitimacy of Jane Eyre. Gail Fincham observes in her essay, “The Mind’s Eye: Focalizing ‘Nature’ in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea”, that if “the unconscious can accommodate the ‘otherness’ marginalized by European rationality, oppositions such as nature/civilization; female/male; black/white; inner/outer; madness/sanity and dreams/reality” begin to disintegrate (18). This is the obeah that Rhys has wrought. By “extricat[ing] Bertha Mason and the West Indies from their discursive bondage to the formation” of Jane Eyre’s beloved England, Jean Rhys destroys what Wayne Booth refers to as our binary tendencies toward “strong ethical traditions [which] advise us … about how to address the deceptive heroes and villains, saints and sinners” (Choudhury 321, Booth 485). The effect produces for the reader a sense of “historical knowledge that solves the mystery of Bertha Mason’s madness … As a result two very different texts are collapsed in an inclusionary [and mystical] gaze that turns … into a mutually beneficial space of enlightenment” (Choudhury 318).
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