Jean Rhys' complex text, Wide Sargasso Sea, came about as an attempt to re-invent an identity for Rochester's mad wife, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre, as Rhys felt that Bronte had totally misrepresented Creole women and the West Indies: 'why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester's wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I'd write a story as it might really have been.' (Jean Rhys: the West Indian Novels, p144). It is clear that Rhys wanted to reclaim a voice and a subjectivity for Bertha, the silenced Creole, and to subvert the assumptions made by the Victorian text. She does so with startling results. In her quest to re-instate Bertha's identity, Rhys raises issues such as the problems of colonisation, gender relations and racial issues. She explores the themes of displacement, Creolisation and miscegenation. However, the aim of this essay is to look at the marriage contract within the text, its effects on the participants' sense of selfhood and its comparisons with the colonial encounter.
The marriage contract, for Rhys, is ultimately cast as a colonial encounter in the novel. However, the problem of displacement and a shaky sense of one's own identity are already well established in the first part of the text, long before the marriage takes place. It seems that Rhys wants to bring the problems of the Creole existence to the fore at the very beginning of the novel, and lay emphasis on Antoinette's feelings of alienation: the white Creoles are neither part of the black slave community or accepted as European either (a lack of belonging that Rhys knew all too well):
'they say when...
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...ys 109) physically displaces her, splitting her from the West Indies and any connection with a self image: 'there is no looking-glass here and I don't know what I am like now...what am I doing in this place and who am I?' (WSS 117). At this point in the novel, Rochester's role as coloniser and Antoinette's as colonised within the marriage are fully realised. Rochester, in the position of power, has successfully taken possession of Antoinette's wealth, property and identity. Antoinette, stripped of all three, has made the transition from Rhys' text to the imperial construction of the mad woman in the attic of Jane Eyre.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin, 1997.
Howells, Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
O'Connor, Teresa F. Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels. New York: New York University Press, 1986.
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