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February 10, 2011

forays into postcolonial literature

A couple of weeks ago, flying to California, I finished Jane Eyre and bristled a bit at the way the narrator shapes our emotional responses in line with her own rather specific moral worldview. The very next day, as I flew back to Boston, I read Jean Rhys' 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the life of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason before she is taken to England to be the madwoman on the third floor of Thornfield Hall.

In Jane Eyre, the first Mrs. Rochester is the inscrutable, horrifying Other. A sexually licentious madwoman, she is the precise opposite of the reasonable, composed Jane. Jane has a "little pale face," whereas Bertha--a "Creole"--has dark hair and features. Rochester says that he longed for "the antipode of the Creole" and found it in Jane.

In rebellion against Jane Eyre, the Dominica-born Jean Rhys starts her story with Antoinette's childhood (not Jane's) and allows Antoinette to narrate much of it. (According to Wide Sargasso Sea, "Bertha" is not her preferred name but is a hated nickname applied to her by Rochester.) Rhy's novel is not the converse of Jane Eyre; it doesn't replace one narrator's subjectivity and values with another. Instead, it deliberately shifts among voices, so that Rochester narrates parts of the plot and emerges as a partially sympathetic character, just as Antoinette seems both pitiable and frightening. Whereas Jane Eyre resolves suspense by revealing what Rochester has thought and done, Wide Sargasso Sea leaves us deeply uncertain about whether Antoinette is mad at all, and whether her madness is hereditary or caused by other people.

Because Rhys' novel takes place in Jamaica and Dominica shortly after the emancipation of slaves on those islands, the book has a new "other": black people. Antoinette is white, the daughter of slave-owners. Some of the current debate about Wide Sargasso Sea concerns the degree to which the black West Indians are represented fairly and given adequate voice. Unlike Bertha in Jane Eyre, they do speak--at considerable length--but they are not narrators and their inner thoughts are relatively mysterious. This debate seems appropriate to me, but I can only say that Christophine (an ex-slave and spiritual healer) is my favorite character. If I were transported into the world of the novel, I would much rather talk to and learn from her than any of the white people. (That is a statement about the novel, not about me.)

Since finishing Wide Sargasso Sea, I have also read J.G. Farrell's, The Siege of Krishnapur, a 1973 novel (and Booker-prize winner) that is often described as post-colonial. Pankaj Mishra explains that there was a Victorian genre of the "Mutiny novel," in which a dashing and attractive young couple meet on the voyage "out" to India, find themselves in the middle of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, have many hair-raising escapes, and live happily ever after. The Siege of Krishnapur is a parody of this genre.

It begins with a rather arch description of young English ladies and gentlemen flirting in Calcutta. This sentence is typical: "Although he generally liked sad things, such as autumn, death, ruins, and unhappy love affairs, Fleury was nevertheless dismayed by the morbid turn the conversation had taken."

The racism of the Empire is scathingly satirized, although native Indian characters have no speaking roles (with the exception of one young prince with a British education). Some of the young ladies and gentlemen find themselves besieged in the fictional town of Krishnapur, where they behave in rather valorous and chivalrous fashion. But they are also beset by scurvy, cholera, and famine, which degrades them sufficiently that by the time their rescue party arrives, they stink and look horrifying. Meanwhile, the travesty of their "civilizing" mission has been thoroughly debunked. They have even fired busts of great Western thinkers like cannon balls into the Sepoy lines, literally killing the Indians with Shakespeare. (But Keats' curls make him an ineffective missile).

Ferrell and Rhys were white Britons who wrote relatively early post-colonial novels that debunked imperial fiction. Of the two, Wide Sargasso Sea is incomparably a greater work, in large part because Rhys' imagination encompasses the colonized as well as the colonizers.

February 10, 2011 11:01 AM | category: fine arts | Comments



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