labingi: (ivan)
[personal profile] labingi
I have finally read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, about twenty years after first reading Jane Eyre. It is a very good book (novella). I want to address it in three ways: as fan fic, as colonial literature, and in dialogue with Jane Eyre.

Fan Fic
Briefly--because this case is open-and-shut: yes, it is fan fic. This point is fuzzy to Francis Wyndham, who wrote the introduction to the Norton Critical Edition.* The book is not, he tells us, "literally" the story of Mrs. Rochester: "it is in no sense a pastiche of Charlotte Brontë and exists in its own right, quite independent of Jane Eyre" (6). He is correct that the story stands by itself. A reader with no prior knowledge of Jane Eyre could follow it perfectly readily, with perhaps slight confusion over the minor characters one gets glimpses of near the end.

However, it is literally the story of Mrs. Rochester. Of course, it is. It calls her, and many other characters, by name. It does make some changes to Jane Eyre, notably in setting the story a little later, but in fan fic terms, we would simply call this AU, and fairly light AU: it doesn't change any of the fundamental dynamics of the story; it simply adds to them. It need not be a mere "pastiche" of Brontë's work to qualify as a literal extension of Jane Eyre. It is fan fiction, and it is high literature. It is high fan fiction literature.

* I forgive Wyndham's fan fic blindness since his introduction is apparently quite old. I feel a little more dubious about the editing of the Norton edition per se, which includes few perspectives more recent than the 1970s.



Colonial Literature
I'm glad I read this book just a few months after traveling to Haiti. That experience, though brief and superficial, made me immediately recognize Rhys's portrayal of being white in the West Indies. She grew up there, and knew whereof she spoke. I know infinitely less--and still less of how the region functioned in the early days after the abolition of slavery, but from what I know, it rang very true.

It is green, as Rochester observes. It is mind-numbingly, pervasively, almost blurredly green. Green and blue. And hot. In fact, I was surprised by how cold she sometimes described it as being, but then, I was always at sea level.

And she captured very well the profound sense of being always unsafe. For myself, I never really felt in potential danger in Haiti but twice: leaving the airport and returning to it, the two times I was unescorted. Aside from some intimidating individuals at the airport--and a policeman who teased me a little manipulatively--every Haitian I met was very friendly and not at all threatening.

And yet, never once was I fully at ease, not even with my hotel room door locked and the "do not disturb sign" set out, which I did at every moment I was in my room after my initial experience of a maid coming through my locked door while I was naked in the bathroom. Every morning, when I set foot outside of my room, it was with some sense of girding myself for battle. Every time I walked on the hotel's beach, which was rarely, I was in a state of hyper vigilance: sooner or later, vendors would appear, and I would have to decline their offers in the few words we shared. Some of my unease related to the language barrier; I'm not good with language barriers, being a verbal person but a poor absorber of foreign languages.

But mostly, it came of being white. Everywhere I went, I was white: a rich foreigner; a mark to make money off; a clueless, helpless, pampered elite with no concept of their culture, their struggles, the daily realities of their lives. I kept wondering what the caretakers at my children's orphanage really thought of me: the rich, white person waltzing in pretending to be "mother" to children I'd never met before, whose language I couldn't speak, children they cared for every day.

The entire experience was one of being in constant, low-grade unsafety, of being not-at-home, being foreign... othered. And all of it, of course, perfectly deserved.

Rhys captures this feeling exactly--up to and including the justice of it. We can, of course, discuss whether Rhys distorts the experience of the oppressed by rendering her story from the perspective of two white people and relegating the vast black majority to mysterious otherhood, the "heart of darkness" of the West Indies. Certainly. The text doesn't give a black perspective, except through the problematic frame of white narration of dialogue. Yes, the black populace gets othered into inaccessible mystery. Yes, this is biased narrative.

But what's the alternative? Rhys (like Conrad) was white. Her experiences among black peoples (like mine) were experiences of being white within a different majority culture she was perforce excluded from. No matter how much you study it (Rhys studied it a lot), you will never be inside it and will likely always write it incorrectly if you try to write from inside. So what can you do? You can not write at all, on the theory that white voices have too long dominated the discourse and should shut up. Or you can write from the perspective of a white person. This is what Rhys did, and she produced a good book.

And, albeit from my white perspective, I think she represents her black characters as fairly as the white narrative frame allows. She presents them as intelligent, knowledgeable, possessing coherent and multifaceted cultures. She portrays their justifiable rage at the "white cockroaches," but not as a monolithic, "savage" eruption. Rather, she shows them divided in many subtle ways on how to balance rage, revenge, affection for some white people, various duties, compassion, fear, various cultural affiliations, etc. She presents them as having different personalities and approaches to life, different personal histories. She creates several strong characters this way, notably Christophine, who more than anyone in either Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre calls the Rochesters' marriage for what it is and knows exactly what should be done about it--and, of course, is not listened to because Rochester relegates her to the category of "greedy, lying Negro," and thus refuses, on principle, to entertain anything she says.

Rochester is afraid in the West Indies, as would I be. He is culturally adrift. His Englishness does not serve him well. It mainly confirms the natives' view that he is cold, greedy, self-entitled, ignorant, and ineluctably foreign. He is all these things (to a degree), and like everyone, he plays to expectation: the more he gets framed as the heartless Englishman, the more he behaves like one. Ultimately, he feels surrounded by enemies, and thus refuses to heed any good advice or seek any common ground.

The chief casualty, of course, is Antoinette, whose life is considerably harder, even prior to the attic. She truly has no place. She was born in the West Indies, but as a white, former slave-holding minority, she is constantly threatened there. At the very least, she is told doesn't belong. This separation is enforced even by Christophine, who is the most positive and loving presence in her life. And yet, this is her only home. In Dominica, in particular, she finds a place where she feels relatively comfortable and accepted. But a combination of an ill-conceived marriage and the machinations of her angry colored half-brother conspire to make this comfort short-lived. It goes without saying she has no place anywhere else. She is just a madwoman and a Creole to boot: exotic, savage, bestial. She is the Other everywhere.

The take-home message for me is that systematic oppression of a people hurts everyone. It hurts the oppressed. It also oppresses the oppressors. It breeds distrust, fear, hate. It damages everyone.

(Next up: Jane Eyre in the light of Wide Sargasso Sea)
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