In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys deals with identity through two major characters: Antoinette and her husband, Rochester. The novel compares English and Caribbean identities and explores the effect of conflicting identities within these various characters. Through this exploration, Rhys explores the idea that identity is both something that is inherited and acquired.
It is important to note the meaning of the title of the novel. The Sargasso Sea embodies the conflict Antoinette feels about her opposing Caribbean and English identities. The Sargasso Sea is a calm stretch of sea that is surrounded by some of the strongest and deadliest currents in the world. The Sargasso Sea is so calm and its surrounding currents so strong that any seaweed or debris deposited into the Sargasso Sea is very unlikely to escape (Encyclopedia Britannica). This embodies the experience of Antoinette, she is caught between two cultures and becomes the depository of differing cultural characteristics, such as when Rochester starts molding her into his concept of an English woman, and when Antoinette appropriates characteristics of the black Caribbean culture into her own identity.
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Antoinette’s identity crisis is a result of her being continually denied acceptance into any particular culture, and her own refusal to accept certain parts of her identity. Antoinette is a part of the European white culture she’s inherited from her family and the Caribbean culture she was born into. Antoinette both fears and admires the Caribbean culture and the sense of identity that her black servants have. Antoinette admits to wanting to “be like” Tia and looks up to Christophine as a kind of maternal figure (27). Antoinette appropriates a Caribbean identity into her own identity, but the black servants and other Caribbeans she encounters do not accept her, rather they see her as a threat. Antoinette describes to Rochester how a girl would sing “a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all,” (61). Antoinette is rejected by other white Europeans because of her family’s financial status and the fact that they are Creole.
As a Creole, Antoinette is forced to inhabit two identities that she feels she doesn’t belong to in a culture that will not accept her. This impedes Antoinette’s ability to discern her true identity. Because of her rejection from both cultures, when her manor burns down Antoinette resolves to recreate her identity; this is her motivation for marrying Rochester: in order to hide from her Caribbean identity and acquire an English identity. This part of the novel establishes that Antoinette has two distinct identities: the identity she has inherited (an English/Creole identity) and the identity she has tried to appropriate for herself (a Caribbean identity).
Antoinette further explores her Caribbean identity through her friendship/rivalry with Tia. Antoinette claims she wants to be like Tia and sees a kind of strength and confidence in Tia that Antoinette lacks. When Tia steals Antoinette’s money and pretty dress, Antoinette is forced to wear Tia’s dirty, old dress. Antoinette and Tia’s roles reverse; this symbolizes the ability to acquire identities, in this case Antoinette attempting to take on a Caribbean identity and reject her English identity. When Tia throws a rock at Antoinette, it represents the Caribbeans rejecting Antoinette from Caribbean culture and Antoinette losing the Caribbean identity she grew up with. Rhys described how tightly bound Tia was with Antoinette’s identity, Antoinette claiming “we had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her,” (27) and Antoinette was looking at Tia as through a “looking glass,” (27) implying that Tia represented the Caribbean half of Antoinette’s identity. This event signifies Antoinette’s attempt to abandon a black/Caribbean identity and attempt to create a more white/Creole identity as she moves to Spanish Town.
Rochester, or Antoinette’s husband, narrates a large portion of the novel, from the point he and Antoinette get married. Rochester himself experiences a slight identity crisis while in the West Indies and devastatingly manipulates Antoinette’s identity. Rochester’s move from England to the West Indies is a journey away his place of power into a land that is foreign and ostracizing because of his English identity. It is at this point that Rochester begins to despise Antoinette’s Caribbean associations and characteristics. Rochester disapproves of Antoinette’s Caribbean identity and her ability to identify with the black Caribbean servants. He tries to imagine her as any generic English girl, and proceeds to twist and manipulate her identity.
Rochester renames Antoinette to Bertha in order to estrange her from her Creole-ness and possibly to disassociate her with the name of her mother, who also went mad. In renaming Antoinette, Rochester confuses her sense of identity even further. Earlier in the novel Antoinette remembered kissing a mirror, where her physical self and reflected self represented her two conflicting identities, and when she kissed her reflection they were fused. As Rochester changes her name and later locks Antoinette in the attic without a mirror, she does not know her own name or her physical identity, as Antoinette explains, “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?” (107); even the slightest bit of identity Antoinette had before this was aggressively attacked and erased by Rochester, leaving Antoinette a “ghost” to herself and the world (108).
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Rochester also mockingly calls Antoinette “Marionette,” criticizing her for her lack of identity. Rochester completely denies the Caribbean identity in his wife, and instead he attempts to assert his English identity onto her and everyone else he meets in the Caribbean. Rochester begins to think Antoinette has inherited the madness of her family and even questions whether she is wholly white.
Even though Rochester despises the Caribbean and its culture, he unknowingly becomes a part of and practices obeah. When Antoinette begs Christophine to make a love potion for Rochester, Rochester discovers this and effectively turns the obeah spell against Antoinette. This suggests that even though Rochester works so hard to separate himself from the Caribbean, his involvement with obeah inevitably leaves a mark of Caribbean identity on him. This also supports the idea that identity is something that can be acquired, even unknowingly. However, Christophine warns that if white people were to use obeah it would not work the same way as if a black Caribbean has used obeah. So even though Rochester has acquired some kind of Caribbean identity, it is only a perversion of a true Caribbean identity.
Through these examples it is evident that identity is both something inherited and acquired. Antoinette adopts a Caribbean identity and feels ostracized by her English peers and sense of English identity. Rochester has a strong sense of English identity and attempts to erase all traces of Caribbean identity in Antoinette, and in the process even partakes in Caribbean culture himself. Antoinette’s fabrication of identities and Rochester’s later manipulation leads Antoinette to have no identity and she eventually slips into madness.
Word Count: 1,300
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