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A Lost Identity: an Exploration of Form and Context in Wide Sargasso Sea

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One’s identity is very unique and personal. However, where you obtain your identity is even more important. In most cases your identity comes from your home-ground and consists of the values of the culture in which you are raised. Conversely, the book Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys explores the absence of a home-ground and tells the story of a girl’s (Antoinette) troubled life in Jamaica and eventually England. She encounters hardships due to her race and social status such as being tormented as a child to being locked away in an attic until she commits suicide. Throughout the story she has trouble finding her place in society and is isolated because of it. Within this context the text suggests a vision of disconnection from one’s identity and their home-ground as exemplified by the characterization of Antoinette. Growing up in Jamaica in the late 1800’s was very difficult for Antoinette. Although she was born in Jamaica she came from a different background: she was white, English, French, and yet lived in a black nation, she was a creole woman. Although there were white people living in Jamaica, they were of great wealth and there was no middle ground.

To find your place you either had to be black and fit in with their community and culture or be a very wealthy white person and fit in with their demographic and way of life; and the white class disassociated themselves from her family because her father had married a French Woman, “She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and, worse a Martinique girl”(Rhys 9). Unfortunately for Antoinette, after her father had passed away she became impoverished and fell down the social class ranks. Antoinette’s identity from this day is troubled. Throughout her childhood she attempted to reach out to both the blacks and whites and is rejected. The other children tormented Antoinette following her singing, “Go away white cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you. Go away” (Rhys 13). As a child her identity is questioned especially when people began to torment her, as some other kids also bullied her while she walked to her school. She did not feel safe walking the streets and felt neglected and rejected. Another significant point in her childhood is when her only childhood “friend” Tia betrayed her by stealing her money and clothes while harassing her about how she was poor and didn’t fit in in Jamaica, “Plenty of white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money…Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (Rhys 14).

This encounter was detrimental to Antoinette as she ran home and hid in her room. She had realized her place in society was lost and everybody gossiped, tormented, and teased her family. Later in the book when reflecting on her life to her husband she says, “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” (Rhys 61). Throughout these incidences during her childhood she begins to realize how much of a misfit she is in Jamaica. Antoinette is made to feel as an outsider throughout her childhood because she is not of the social class of the wealthy white people. She at one time was and fell from that social class therefore she no longer fits in with society. Since she does not fit in with either social or racial class, she cannot connect to her home-ground socially because she does not feel accepted. Moreover, as a result Antoinette becomes lonely and cannot make a connection with anybody in her social world, which leads to her troubles later in life.

According to Caribbean Studies, an article juxtaposing “Wide Sargasso Sea” and “Annie John” about how the characters upbringing tarnished their self-esteem determining their future, “By the time Antoinette reaches adolescence, however, fate of her adult identity already lies in shards…. She is a product of a childhood that has robbed her of capacity for strength, allowing Rochester to break an already broken spirit” (Stanchich 456-57). She does not feel safe anywhere and begins to feel a disconnection from her home-ground as she begins to question her social standards. Growing up in her life she had one particular caretaker with whom she feels safe with, Christophine. Christophine is from Martinique a French ruled Caribbean Island (where Antoinette’s mother was from) and was a wedding present from Antoinette’s father to her mother. She helped raise Antoinette and eventually became her surrogate mother. She was the only figure in Antoinette’s life that was always there through thick and thin and the only figure throughout the story that Antoinette can trust. Antoinette relied on her because the other members of community rejected her. She felt safe with Christophine because she had no cultural alliances with the other Jamaicans.

Christophine was not only a safe haven for Antoinette but also a good friend to her. Although Antoinette respects and loves Christophine yet at the same time fears her because the people of Jamaica tormented Antoinette as a child. Even though she respects Christophine she is always on edge because she was betrayed time and time again. While Antoinette was in Christophine’s house seeking the love potion she was looking around and saw a “heap of chicken feathers in one corner” she decided to “Not look round anymore” and Christophine asked, “So already you frightened eh?”(Rhys 70). Christophine supposedly has Obeah (magical powers), which is feared by all the people in Jamaica. Furthermore, Christophine says, “So you believe in all that tim-tim story about obeah…Too Besides, that is not for béké”(Rhys 68). This shows that once again Antoinette is attempting to fit in with a different social class in Jamaica. Christophine warns her that this is not for the béké or white people, and “bad trouble comes”(Rhys 68) when they play with it. She is almost not allowing Antoinette to meddle with the obeah magic because the white people cannot handle it nor understand it.

Although people did jeer and taunt Christophine they always respected her out of fear. Antoinette’s relationship with Christophine is similar to that with the land. She trusts it and loves it because it is what she is so used to and brings peace and serenity and yet fears it socially. She fears the social culture and how it has such great power over her and how detrimental it can be, as seen with her being tormented as a child. Juxtaposed these two relationship are very significant in the book because it shows the disconnection between Antoinette’s the social aspects of her home-ground and her identity. She grew up on the land and finds peace in it but society is so unaccepting that she cannot draw her unique personality from it. In all, this further leads Antoinette to question herself and her identity. Constantly throughout the book Antoinette questions herself and her true identity. She begins to wonder what another place in the world is like, more specifically England. She references this far away land and always dreams of heading there; since she cannot make a strong connection with Jamaica. She wants to explore the places of her past and England is where she connects herself too (before she actually goes there).

She inquires about it all the time and is keen on visiting. When discussing with Christophine about running away Antoinette says, “I have been too unhappy, I thought, it cannot last, being so unhappy, it would kill you. I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me…”(Rhys 66). She is so hopeful that England is the answer to all of her problems, that she tries not to thing of the terrible things of England as she states, “But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, I must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow” (Rhys 67). She tries so hard to keep a positive attitude about England because she is so hopeful it will change her life. By dreaming of England she is attempting to find her identity by making connections to her past. On the contrary when she reached England her opinion quickly changed. The England she experienced was extremely different from what she expected. Since she had gone into a stage of isolation and depression because she was so unhappy with her life and begun to go insane her husband locked her up in the attic of his manor to hide her from society.

In England she had officially lost her identity. She was a prisoner locked away and didn’t know who or what she is, “Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?”(Rhys 107). She doesn’t even believe she is in England. She had always dreamt of England being a marvelous place where she would find happiness and fit in with society. She believes their boat had gone off course on the way, “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England” (Rhys 107). She cannot comprehend that this is what her life has come too. Her marvelous dreams of England had failed her and her life was in fact worse here than it had been back in Jamaica and it led her to commit suicide. While locked in the attic in England she finds her identity for a split second when she asks for her red dress, “As soon as I turned the key I saw it hanging, the colour of fire and sunset. The colour of flamboyant flowers…the smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering.

The smell of the sun and the smell of the rain”(Rhys 109). For those split seconds while having a flashback she becomes happy and at peace. At this point in the book we find a glimpse of her identity. Her identity is completely disconnected from her home-ground because she can not make a solid connection to one land. She continually identifies herself with dreams of another land. A person finds their true identity when growing up. All of the experiences and changes in their life bring forth who they become as a person. Most people obtain their identity from their home-ground and what culture, virtues, and ideals they follow. In the case of Antoinette her identity was lost between her physical home-ground, Jamaica, and her ancestral home-ground, England. When in Jamaica she was horribly rejected and tormented by society because of her social status and had nothing to look forward too, she was sad and miserable. And while in England she was locked away and depressed. All she had to look forward too was hope in finding her true identity in a foreign place. There was a strong disconnection between the lands of Jamaica and England, and her identity.

When in Jamaica she dreamt of England and the joy it would bring her and while in Europe she dreamt of Jamaica and the serenity of the land. According to Twentieth-Century Literature, an article containing an analysis of the “Wide Sargasso Sea” and more specifically the difficulties of a Creole woman growing up in the post emancipation English society, “Antoinette’s narrative is literally shaped by the uncertainties of a Creole vision that is fractured by the contradictory claims of British colonial history and the culture residues of a dying West Indian plantation society” (Ciolkowski 340). Rhys specifically wrote the role of Antoinette to have this uncertainty of identity and logic of a creole woman weaving her way through the Creole social culture and the contradictory English society in search of an identity. Therefore Antoinette’s identity is indeed lost in-between two separate countries and cultures and disconnected from a specific home-ground. Ultimately, Antoinette feels lost and cannot connect her identity to a specific home-ground.

Works Cited

Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire.” Twentieth Century Literature 3rd ser. 43 (1997): 339-59. Jstor. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1992. Print. Stanchich, Maritza. “Home Is Where the Heart Breaks Identity Crisis in “Annie John” and “Wide Sargasso Sea”” Caribbean Studies 3rd ser. 2, Extended Boundaries: 13th Conference on West Indian Literature (1994): 454-57. Jstor. Web. 19 Apr. 2012.

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