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Madness as a Transculturally Pampered Trope to Jeopardise the Miniature-Meaningful Narratives: A Postcolonial Reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea


Madness as a Transculturally Pampered Trope to Jeopardise the Miniature-Meaningful Narratives: A Postcolonial Reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

Jhilam Ganguly

PhD Research Scholar

Department of English and Foreign Language

Guru Ghasidas Vishwavidyalaya (Central University),

Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India



Madness has had numerous expressions in literature and culture traversing the miles and centuries. While the Baul tradition (of Bengal) is internationally esteemed a legacy of the ‘mad minstrels’; the totems, relics and rites of various other parts of the globe have been conveniently disdained to be discharging lunacy, and thus sabotaging the normal. Normalcy, a highly intrigued idea in itself, leaves abnormality at bay – since anything infringing on the accepted system of behaviours is codified as the abnormal. Michel Foucault has surveyed the European society to identify mental sickness as a stifling method of ‘othering’, where the afflicted is put under surveillance and observed by the functional authorities to define the parameters of the rational self. The hiatus between the colonial and the postcolonial discourses further problematizes the representations of mental illness. The present paper intends to look into the concerned pressing factors for a sound understanding of the socio-political problematic dispersed around.

Keywords: Madness, Normalcy, Abnormality, Psychoanalysis, Postcolonialism, Othering, Otherness, Aestheticised

Ania Loomba in her Colonialism/Postcolonialism (2005) has beautifully dovetailed the pan-European tendency to project the colonies and the colonial subjects endowed with some occult energy which might annihilate the alien selves to madness. Loomba takes recourse to three distinct fictional representations of such ‘maddening colonial encounter’ –William Savage from The Deceivers (1952) by John Masters, Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad and a passage from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) telling the author’s misgivings about anything related to the ‘oriental’. The character of William Savage is developed to suffer in ghastly consequences as Loomba records, “Now his empathy turns into potential deculturation –he is seduced by Kali into abandoning Western civilization, and becoming a real Deceiver…his Christian self is torn asunder by a frenzied desire for Kali…”(2005: 116). Kurtz, though at times appears to be suffering from imperial greed, is made to forsake no chance to create the impression that his soul has gone mad due to a long and too wild an exposure to the ‘heart of darkness’. Therefore, any form of lenient gesture towards the colonized end has recurrently been seen as detrimental to the European depiction of the selfhood in both fictional and non-fictional narratives. That is, if the European ‘self’ identifies too much with the alien condition, she/he would inevitably conflate the ‘self’ and the ‘other’, and thus fall a prey to madness. The colonized ‘other’, therefore, is doubly marginalized by the deliberated diagram of madness.

However, myriads of counter-narratives in fictional, non-fictional or musical forms have come up from the hearts of the erstwhile colonies in the last five to seven decades to write back; more troubled perhaps is the position of the West Indian Creoles with mixed blood and ancestries pitted against the extended history of slave trade. Writers like Anthony Trollope have notoriously commented on the West Indian Creoles “as a degenerate race belonging  neither to Africa nor to Europe, with no language but ‘their broken English’”(James 17). None perhaps has recorded their dolour with a sonic resonance better than Jean Rhys through her novel ‘Wide Sagasso Sea’ (1966). The colonized others at least are not without their own tales to tell which have enabled them to carve out niches in the cultural map of the world pertaining to their indigenous and ingenous narratives. The West Indian Creoles on the other hand struggle to contour their affinity to their cultural past of mainland Europe and undergo a harder slog to acculturate to the host cultures of the West Indies.

                    ‘ “There is always the other side, always.”’(82)

                                                             Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

Published in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea is slotted against the 1840s’ West Indies and the story proceeds as a re-telling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The latter pivots on the unfolding of the person of ‘angelic’ Jane to her maturation and fulfilling marriage to Mr. Rochester at the cost of the eradication of Rochester’s first wife, ‘the madwoman in the attic’, ostensibly fashioned after the Victorian anathema of the female-as-monster. Bronte’s novel deprives Bertha Mason of her agency sprucely. She is being observed and her movements are narrated by her husband and others mostly in animalistic and eerie terms:

‘In the deep shade, at the further end of the  room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’(Bronte 327-8)

Bronte invests all possible means and pretexts given the union between Rochester and Jane pass the Victorian scrutiny. Rochester is desperate to leave the impression that he has been tricked into a loveless marriage only at the face of the charge of bigamy levied by Richard Mason on his wedding night with Jane. He admits of being married already but with one unsuitable Bertha Mason, who is “mad; and she came of a mad family; -idiots and maniacs through generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard! –as I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before” (326). Likewise, the first wife is demanded to be tossed out, and her troubled mental health heralding destruction upon herself and the ones that surround her is detected as the most comfortable outlet. Jean Rhys responds to this overtly lopsided narrative with Bertha Mason nee Antoinette at the centre. She intends to write a prequel instead of a sequel to Bronte’s with a rather complex trajectory questioning the waywardness of Rochester’s rendering.

Coulibri estate as the precise location, Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the West Indies with the events intersected sparsely through the 1840s, hence necessarily eclipsed by the Emancipation Act of 1833 which ostracized the practice of slavery all over England and its colonies. At the end of the assigned apprenticeship for seven years, the slaves attained full liberty in 1838. Accordingly, the British Government declared a compensation for the slave owners against each freed slave whereas no such aid was granted to the slaves themselves. This inevitably led to a widespread tension across the colonies. Moreover, the fall of the price of sugar and the compensation reaching the planters’ creditors in most of the cases rather than the planters themselves relegated the Creole slave-owners to a miserable state –subjected to financial dilapidation as well as roars of derision from the natives. Elizabeth Nunez-Harell in her The Paradoxes of Belonging: The White West Indian Woman in Fiction (1985) catches the experiences of white Creole woman like Annette or Antoinette thus: “an outcast, a sort of freak rejected by both Europe and England, whose blood she shares, and by the black West Indian people, whose culture and home have been hers for two generations or more”(281). From the very outset Antoinette senses the contempt stored for them in the island from the address ‘white cockroaches’, the jeers hurled upon her mother’s habit of riding in shabby clothes or her mother’s horse being poisoned to death beneath the frangipani tree. However, she first realizes the complicated equation with her vicinity through the decayed bonding between herself and Tia, a black girl. The latter’s words ‘Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than the white nigger’(10) keep on travelling between Antoinette’s ego, super ego and the id for the rest of her life.  Annette’s social upgradation by her re-marriage to the wealthy Mr. Mason ignites the coloured folk in the vicinity who finally set their estate on fire leading to Pierre’s (Annette’s son) death and Annette’s losing control over her own nerves gradually. Amidst these chaos and clutters marring her years of adolescence and after, Antoinette clings to the image of England garnered from her favourite picture ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ after the 1832 poem by Lord Tennyson. Therefore, her search for home and abode perhaps pushes her to acquiesce to her arranged marriage to an Englishman, who mimics Bronte’s Rochester. Rhys has made a very calculated move by leaving her version of Rochester unnamed, ostensibly after many such coloniser-Rochesters with no uniqueness of the self. Both the versions of Rochesters are furious to assert that they have been trapped into the marriage against their will, where Bronte’s makes no mention of the Antoinette’s inheritance that was written away to himself immediately after the marriage according to the then existing law of Britain pertaining to these realms. Rhys, however, makes hers growl to penetrate underneath:

‘They bought me, me with your paltry money. You helped them to do it. You deceived me, betrayed me, and you’ll do worse if you get the chance…


…If I was for hell let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy you hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.


She lifted her eyes. Blank lovely eyes. Mad eyes. A mad girl…’ (110)

Rhys thus slowly weaves the backstory of Antoinette’s following the line of lunacy bolstered by Rochester’s ardent wish to fashion her scrupulously after the image  as drawn by Daniel Cosway or Daniel Boyd (as Antoinette claims) in the letter sent to him. Christophine, the Martinique guardian of Antoinette, thus challenges Rochester in his face once:

‘…It is in your mind to pretend she is mad. I know it. The doctors say what you tell them to say. That man Richard he say what you want him to say –glad and willing too, I know. She will be like her mother. You do that for money? But you wicked like Satan self!’(103-4)

Rhys’ Rochester eventually starts fancying in reducing his wife’s being to a non-living entity. The first ploy embraced by him is changing Antoinette’s name to Bertha despite the repeated objections from her side –‘Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name’ (94). She is no better than a zombie any more owing her breath to him. Christophine registers Rochester’s taking resort to obeah practices so that Antoinette is left derelict of her spirit:

‘But you don’t love. All you want is to break her up. And it help you break her up

She tell me in the middle of all this you start calling her names. Marionette. Some word so.

That word mean doll, eh? Because she don’t speak. You want to force her to cry and to speak’ (99)

Rochester, on the other hand, has no compunctions for sleeping with the maid Amelie but searches for sameness between her and Antoinette. He admits of intervening into Antoinette’s being in unapologetic terms: ‘Like a doll. Even when she threatened me with the bottle she had a marionette quality’ (96) or ‘The doll had a doll’s voice’(110). He relishes to act as the puppeteer controlling her speech, laughter and tears; enjoying a typical Victorian mode of absolutism over each aspect of his wife:

‘She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. So pleased, so satisfied.

Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover, for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.’(107)

Psychoanalytically speaking, Antoinette’s obsession with the looking glass at sporadic occasions in the text draws a lot from Jacques Lacan’s insight into the imaginary or the mirror stage. Lacan holds the mirror stage as the “homologue for the Mother/Child symbolic relation”. Lacan goes on to identify the child as the signifier and the mirror image as the signified: as the child finds no difference between her/himself and her/his mother, s/he sees no separation between her/himself and the reflection. Angela Smith in her Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea from Penguin Modern Classics prudently observes that Antoinette’s desire for her mother’s hair as ‘a soft black cloak to cover’ her, ‘hide’ her and keep her ‘safe’ is roughly rejected,  and is substituted by another image of possible healing which she finds in Tia. Antoinette is again disillusioned to find her as a part of the howling mob that turns their Coulibri estate to ashes:

‘When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumbled up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.’(24)

Long after, her perception as the madwoman in the attic while looking back to her childhood necessarily relates to her entering into the symbolic order; when she realizes that it was a time when she failed separate her identity from the mirror image:

‘There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?’(117)

Antoinette’s consequences echo those of her mother’s, a white Creole woman dragged into the similar ghetto of mental sickness amidst precarious circumtances – married an Englishman but conflated his demands of her and her vague sense of the engulfing void. Christophine recalls the dire set of events that led her to such extent: ‘They drive her to it. When she lose her son she lose herself for a while and they shut her away. They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad…her husban’ he go off, he leave her. They won’t let me see her. I try, but no. They won’t let Antoinette see her. In the end – mad I don’t know –she give up, she care for nothing…’(101)

Topographically, Sargasso Sea is the tract of the North Atlantic Ocean stretching between the West Indies and the Azores, in the Horse Latitudes. The name Sargasso derives from the spread of floating weed on its surface. Moreover, one of the myths about the place constitutes that the weed could have fastened the ships robbing them of their ability to move. Antoinette and Annette are metaphorically entagled into the archipelago across the sea, unable to escape. After Bronte’s Rochester, Rhys’ also harps on his wife’s Creole lineage: ‘Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either’ (40). With a peculiar sense of satisfaction about his racial-cultural superiority to his wife’s, Rochester scorns Antoinette’s ‘otherness’. His vindictiveness goads on him to practice the colonial obeah to rob her of her spirit to madness – ‘Very 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 laugter’ (111-2). Antoinette’s expectation of England as sanctorum away from Coluibri’s howls and jeers is dashed by the imposition of the colonial patriarch Rochester –‘she’s mad but mine, mine…If she smiles or weeps or both. For me’ (107). Rochester abhors the Antoinette’s endeared honeymoon island of Granbois unmistakably because he sees the land and its wildness with mountains, hills, rivers and rain as an extension of the alienness of her beauty and spirit. As the unhindered hues and rhythms of Granbois bolsters Rochester’s metropolitan aberration to a strange sense of alienation,  Antoinett’s longing for England as the assured address of affection is gradually changed to a dream of violence and destruction into the locked attic of Thornfield Hall, which directly confronts the place that existed in her dreams. Rhys questions the physicality of geographical location itself when Christophine warns Antoinette beforehand that Britain is largely a fantasy. In response to Antoinette’s bafflement if she does not believe in the existence of England, Christophine replies:

‘I don’t say I don’t believe, I say I don’t know, I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it. Besides I ask myself is this place like they tell us? Some say one thing, some different, I hear it cold to freeze your bones and they thief your money, clever like the devil…If there is this place at all, I never see it, that is one thing sure’.

Rhys has laid emphasis on the ‘broken English’ of the coloured people and the text is littered with the disparate patois of several characters. Rhys has brought in enough clues to uphold the sheer dichotomy between the black and white at different layers transversely through the fractured experiences of a fragmented community. The Creoles also miss no chance to harp on their ‘negrophobia’. Thus, from the very outset Antoinette’s introduction of others’ physical appearances are mindfully or unmindfully abundant in colour-binaries, and Annette repeatedly uses the word ‘marooned’. Rhys situates Antoinette at a nervous junction where, on the one hand, she is subject to re-naming – a practice recurrent and rampant throughout the dark years of slave trading; on the other, she has the habit of holding her left wrist with her right hand making a manacle, which obliquely imitates her ancestors’  conduct on the island.

Frantz Fanon, the postcolonial psychoanalyst, has probed deep into the mindscape of the colonized to find that colonialism has actually disoriented the psyche of the oppressed by intruding into their subjectivity. Fanon furthers his study to identify the whole trajectory of colonialism as psychopathological leaving every entity within it diseased. In a fictional vein colonizers like Mason and Rochester have turned maniacs to impose their assumed superiority on the female counterparts, the coloured people of the island feel vindictive towards the whiteness of the erstwhile planters; and people like Anette and Antoinette struggle hard to countour their niches in between. However, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’(1985) has critiqued ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ with Christophine, at the navel of her argument. Rochester confronts Christophine with legal troubles upon her practices of the obeah, and the latter’s story remains unfinished even after playing the real guardian for the heroine since the beginning. Therefore, she too ends as a silenced creature. The whole of the nineteenth century British literature is in fact overshadowed by an extremely powerful xenophobic anxiety. Medley of fictional-exotic characters pose a threat to the British consciousness. Deborah Root offers a brilliant explanation to why a group of people, locations, things and cultures are called exotic :

‘Exoticism in its commodified form appears as a sophisticated appreciation of other cultures or as an aestheticized nostalgia for a different place or time, but the content of exotic images links it closely to colonialism and to contemporary systems of economic and cultural domination. The process of exotification is another kind of cultural cannibalism…Differences clearly do exist between cultures, and the issue is not that these are noticed but how these come to be aestheticized and by whom…(a process that seems to relate to the fascination with cultural differences as display of grotesquerie in early museums).(30)

The habit of positioning the different or the other into the superior-inferior binary verily damages any interaction between cultures, which at times provokes a more dangerous propensity of what Louise Kalpan calls “fetishism strategy” i.e. cultural appropriation of the other or the unfamiliar as familiar or native. Texts like Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) bear testimony to the fact that thronging of such phobias and orientations gets translated into the ghastly mien of racism.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New Work: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove P, 1967. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.

James, Louis. Caribbean Literature in English. New York: Longman, 1999. Print.

Kalpan, Louise J. Cultures of Fetishism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Mongia, Padmini.  Contemporary Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. New Delhi: OUP, 1997. Print.

Nayar, Pramod K. Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory: From Structuralism to Ecocriticism. Noida: Pearson, 2019. Print.

Nunez-Harell, Elizabeth. “The Paradoxes of Belonging: The White West Indian Woman in Fiction”. Modern Fiction Studies. 31.2 (Summer 1987). 281-293. Print.

Panda, Prasenjit. “Liberating ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ from the Textual Oppression to a Fairy Land: An alternative reading of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea”. Bodhi International Journal of Research in Humanities, Arts and Science. 1.11 (2017). 5-9. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Angela Smith. London: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.

Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, and the Commodification of Difference. Boulder, Colorado: Westview P, 1996. Print.

Sarkar, Parama. Postcolonial Literatures. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2016. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”. Critical Inquiry. 12.1 (Autumn 1985). 243-261. Print.