A MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC: A FEMINIST STUDY OF JEAN RHYS’ WIDE SARGASSO SEA

 They say when trouble comes close  ranks, and so the white people did. But  we were not in their ranks.

Directly after the French Revolution in 1789, topics revolving around women fighting for their rights started taking a centre stage in the books written under the post- colonial genre. The Industrial Revolution was garnering momentum especially in London during those times and England became one of the leading hubs in explorations and new avenues along with Spain and France. Rich men belonging to the landed gentry started getting involved in the modus operandi of colonising the newly discovered lands, especially North America and the ‘virgin’ lands of the Caribbean islands. But in an overview of the entire scenario, either in England or the colonised land, women followed to consider the back seat for themselves with limited roles in society.

“THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA”, a multi-layered and complex novella by the Caribbean writer Jean Rhys is specifically written from the perspective of a ‘creole’ women (a mixed breed of the black slaves from Africa and the early French settlers, forming half of the West Indian population), Set in wild, magical Jamaican scenery, in the aftermath of emancipation. Anoinette Mason, the woman in the novella is a small supporting character in “JANE EYRE” by Charlotte Bronte.

The title of the novel refers to the Sargasso Sea, a vast area of the northern Atlantic Ocean which is home to sargassum, a kind of sea weed. The Sargasso Sea is legendary for being an oceanic black hole, where ships get ensnared by huge forests of floating seaweed, or drift helplessly when the wind ceases to blow.The title invites the reader to consider how the characters can be thought of as trapped in their own Sargasso Seas. They may be suspended in the murky passage between two worlds of England and Jamaica or between racial identities.

In Bronte’s novel, the above female character is named as Bertha Mason is introduced to Jane Eyre the protagonist, in latter half novel as ‘a mad woman in the attic’ and remains as an undefined character till the end of the novel. According to Mr. Rochester, the main hero of the novel was dubiously married to the West Indian woman, when he went to visit his estates in the Caribbean colonies when he was young.
On the other hand, Rhys’ novella narrates Bertha story from the ‘other’s’ point of view. Bertha was a pseudo name given to Antoinette by Rochester after their marriage. Since the very childhood, Antoinette was forced to go through various depressing phases in her life like her father’s early death and her mother’s cold and uncomfortable behaviour towards her. Devoid of an unstable childhood, Antoinette always dreamt of death, blood and ‘losing her way in a dense and black forest’.The novella best portrays the stances when Antoinette was racially discarded by her friends and neighbours as a ‘white cockroach’. She was creole who resided with her French mother in an English colony further surrounded by black servants like Christophene and others. The writer throw light on the part that being a women in a post- colonial society could resemble a ‘marginalised’ character itself but being a colonised along with the earlier category was a state of ‘double marginalisation’, which included two binary constructs i.e. male/ female and coloniser/ colonised.

Since the very beginning of the novella, objectification of Antoinette has taken the centre stage. She was even used as a pawn by her step father and brother to do good business with Mr. Rochester. The repercussions of her depressed life were later felt as well when Antoinette was unable to save her married life with Rochester, who never loved his wife but wanted to control her as a property (as she was a creole) and later cheated on her with a housemaid. April A. Gordon explains that men of the nineteenth century dominated women economically, and this was based on patriarchal ideology. Antoinette’s choices are limited. She is dependant on her husband and cannot leave him to make a better life for herself.When Mr. Rochester marries Antoinette, he “expects an English Victorian woman” . Mr. Rochester soon comes to the conclusion that Antoinette is not acting the way a lady should. Mr. Rochester reflects “She is a Creole with strange behaviour”.Raging and screaming at Mr. Rochester is her own way of refusing and putting a stop to the many years of exclusion and dominance which she believes drove her mother to asylum. Anja Loomba explains that “within the frameworks of psychoanalytic discourse, anti-colonial resistance is coded as madness”.Mr. Rochester expects Antoinette to uphold Victorian values while he dose not. As a man in a patriarchal institution, he gives himself the right to be adulterous and attend to his sexual needs while he refuses the same right for women.Jackson and Jones argue that having sexual encounters with natives is also a way that colonizers show power and the authority of the patriarchy.

Situation started getting worse as the only point of being together for both of them was an insatiable hunger for sex by both the patners. In order to save her marriage which was falling apart, Antoinette also took help from Christophene but all of the generosity ended up with futile results. Situation got worse when Christophene suggested Rochester of leaving Antoinette and his returning back to England. Rochester was agreeing to the words, until consideration of a second marriage proposal slipped off from Chistophene’s mouth. Victorian ideologies of racial and cultural superiority, power relations and nothingness and degradation of cultural and social values are evident through the behaviour of the characters in the novella.

Readers get the evidence of women’s voices being suppressed in the novella when Christophene is ordered to leave the house as she opens her mouth against Rochester’s oppressive behaviour towards Bertha. Dominance of the coloniser country could also be seen as a patriarchal society whereby widow remarriages were not allowed. The woman is portrayed as a figure that constantly fights for her own independence but is forcibly pushed to follow the traditional roles delineated by the societal norms. Rochester not only asserts his rights by dumping her sensuality, but also to her very identity, by changing her name to bertha. In addition, when he takes Antoinette to England, the Thornfield Hall, place where they put up after marriage symbolises the similar European cultural supremacy.

Rhys further celebrates the idea that a woman constrained within such a society can never break the set ties. Even if she wants to negate those objectifying views she has to negotiate the sufferings caused by such domination. Her psychological disintegration and descent towards madness is a journey which ultimately becomes the mirror opposite to that of the wholesome goodness of the innocent Jane Eyre, as depicted by Bronte.

Wide Sargasso Sea speaks of the history of cruelty and suffering that lies behind some of the West’s accumulated wealth, a history in which Jane Eyre is secret and mysterious, and only appears in brief glimpses. This book gives voice to neglected, silenced and unacknowledged stories, exploring different inflections of marginality.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY :

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Classics, 2000.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane. Eyre. London: Penguin books.

Loomba,Anja.Colonialism/Postcolonialism the New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge Second Edition, 2005.

Olaussen, Maria. Three Types of Feminist Criticism.

Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness. New York:Avon Books.1972.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

 

RAMANDEEP KAUR

Roll no. 1154

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