Spivak, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Attempts to construct the Third World Women as a signifier remind us the hegemonic
definition of literature is itself caught within the history of Imperialism. A full literary
reinscription cannot easily flourish in the imperialist fracture or discontinuity, covered over by an alien legal system masquerading as Law as such, an alien ideology established as only Truth, and a set of human sciences busy establishing the native as self-consolidating the Other (Spivak, 1985:254)

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In “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Gayatri Spivak suggests that the role of Charlotte Brontë’s character Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic,  in the novel  Jane Eyre, presents ambiguous boundaries between human and animal. Bertha is an insane woman from the colonies, locked in the house, and the main cause of her husband’s unhappiness. Rochester’s wife is mad but she is alive,  thus he cannot marry his beloved Jane Eyre.


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Nevertheless, when Bertha’s nurse Grace Poole narrates the incident which Bertha attacks Richard Mason, Poole emphasizes that it was when Richard said he could not interfere legally between herself and her husband that she flew at him. It was the word “legally” that provoked the violent reaction, what means that Bertha’s reaction was not caused by her innate bestiality. She was very aware of the role of Law in the colonies.

By recreating Brontë’s Bertha Mason as her protagonist Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys strives to maintain her humanity, as well as her sanity. However, as Rhys’ protagonist compares her situation of disempowerment, a white Creole woman in the Caribbean, to the situation of Tia, a black servant,  her identification is problematic, as Spivak argues, because Tia, a black girl in the colonies,  is the Other who could never be self due to the divisions imposed by colonialism. The polarity self/other is clearly defined in a context which provides Antoinette with colonial privileges. In this sense, if the polarities English/Caribbean,  metropolis/colonies or masculine/feminine disempower Antoinette, she is still the self that suppresses Tia as the Other.

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In the last chapter of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette sees herself as Bronte’s Bertha,  recognizing herself as the ghost in Thornfield Hall. Here, Spivak compares Antoinette
with Narcissus who becomes mad as he recognizes his other as himself. Antoinette discovers that she is her own other. As a white woman in the colonies, Antoinette plays an ambivalent role because she is also an instrument of imperialism.

It’s worth noting that in Rhys’ narrative, England is not the metropolis but a cardboard house which means Bronte’s novel and the imagination of the novelist. Antoinette realizes that she was taken there to see herself as Brontë’s character, Bertha Mason, thus providing the character with reasoning and humanity. Within Bronté’s fiction, Antoinette decides to set a fire in Rochester’s house, ending with her life. By destroying Brontë’s novel, she aims to deconstruct the story of the Caribbean madwoman in the attic, a violent woman who impedes her husband’s happiness with the Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre.

Spivak reads this allegory as epistemic violence which construes a self-sacrificing colonial subject, Antoinette, for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer. Thus the colonial subject is consolidated by the death of the Other. As Rhys’ novel has two narrators, Spivak affirms that Rhys takes the risk of writing from the “wrong side”, not only from the point of view of Antoinette, a daughter of a slave owner but also from the perspective of an Englishman in the colonies. Rhys sees the husband as a victim of patriarchy, not an agent of imperialism.

Furthermore, the elder black servant Christophine suggests the limits of Rhys’ discourse. Firstly, she was a commodity, a gift from Antoinette’s father to her mother. Secondly, she becomes peripheral to the novel because she does not fit as part of a narrative written in the interest of the white Creole woman. In the end, Christophine walks away and disappears.

Spivak concludes by affirming that no critique of imperialism can efface the Other, transforming it into a self because the project of imperialism has defined with clarity “what might have been absolutely Other.”

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