Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Jamaica Kincaid’s Ovando
- Pages: 15
- Word count: 3646
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Before starting this essay, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the term ‘postcolonial gothic’ is quite difficult to define accurately. For the most part of this essay, I will be taking for granted the fact that these texts are essentially postcolonial in form, in so far as they are texts that have ’emerged in their present form out of the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding the tension with imperial power. ‘ It is with this certainty in mind that I will be looking more specifically at the gothic elements of the pieces, which separate the texts from other typically postcolonial works.
Nevertheless, certain distinguishing postcolonial features will arise throughout the essay and this will be especially explicit when I look at the contextual aspects of the pieces. Turcotte identifies the fact that ‘it is certainly possible to argue that the generic qualities of the Gothic mode lend themselves to articulating the colonial experience in as much as each emerges out of a condition of deracination and uncertainty, of the familiar transposed into unfamiliar space. 2 As such, the idea of displacement presents itself clearly though the two texts.
In Wide Sargasso Sea for instance, we feel a strong sense of Rochester’s alienation in Jamaica: ”Is it true,’ she said, ‘that England is like a dream? Because one of my friends who married an Englishman wrote and told me so. She said this place like London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up. ‘ ‘Well,’ I answered annoyed, ‘that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.
‘But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal? ‘ And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal? (67) He finds it impossible to feel comfortable in Jamaica and it is Antoinette’s equivalent inability to understand England that forms a barrier between the couple. The gulf between their different backgrounds and upbringings is particularly evident through this conversation and it becomes increasingly clear that Rochester sees Antoinette as alien and inaccessible to him: I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did. (78) Therefore, we see the postcolonial notion of the ‘other’ featuring in the novel.
When we learn that Rochester views Antoinette in such a manner – as ‘that which is unfamiliar and extraneous to a dominant subjectivity’3 – a certain unease is created, which amplifies the gothic tone of the novel. The reader senses his discomfort with her ethnicity, as he talks derogatively about her: I did not relish going back to England in the role of rejected suitor jilted by this Creole girl. (65) This prejudice seems to develop into a deep-seated fear of contamination from the Creole woman with ‘long, dark, sad alien eyes… [who] looked very much like Amelie. ‘ (105) Further supporting his discomfort with her ethnic origin is the fact that he insists upon calling her Bertha, despite her objections: ‘Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. ‘ (121)
His renaming of Antoinette suggests that he wants to make her sound more English and, since she shares her name with her mother, he also appears to want to detach her from her family and her creole heritage. Antoinette is a white creole and throughout the novel, the reader senses that Rochester feels betrayed by his experience – he has gone to Jamaica in order to marry a wealthy heiress, whose skin is white like his own. As such, at first sight, things do appear to resemble normality for him and it is only when he gets to know her better that the differences in their make up show through.
To pinpoint this sensation more precisely, we need to look at an idea stemming from displacement, that Freud identified as ‘the condition of the uncanny, where the home is unhomely – where the heimlich becomes unheimlich – and yet remains sufficiently familiar to disorient and disempower. ‘4 This is certainly the situation in which Rochester finds himself and this is epitomised when Rochester begins to see Antoinette as a doll: ‘She lifted her eyes. Blank lovely eyes. Mad eyes… I scarcely recognised her voice. No warmth, no sweetness.
The doll had doll’s voice, a breathless but curiously different voice. ‘ (140) Freud claimed that a favourable condition for the uncanny is when there is uncertainty as to whether an object is alive or not and this is certainly the way in which Rochester views Antoinette. Therefore, although on the surface everything appears to be normal, all the things around Rochester have a peculiar unfamiliarity for him. The character of Antoinette also suffers such alienation when she arrives in England and is confined to her room: ‘Now they have taken everything away.
What am I doing in this place and who am I? ‘ (147) The reader senses that without her country and the things around her that are familiar to her, she has lost her own identity. The notions of displacement and the uncanny are very disturbing in essence. They infuse the novel with a sense of unease and a sense of disturbance in the characters that the readers can relate to. Similarly, in Ovando many of these features of displacement and the uncanny are evident and the anxiety and dread that this imposes on the reader is what gives this story its gothic overtones.
The character of Ovando symbolises the imperial power in the story and the narrator represents the native peoples, crushed by the colonisers. The impact of Ovando on the narrator’s land is profound and the imposition of his European culture appears to contribute to this effect: ‘He carries with him the following things: bibles, cathedrals, museums… libraries’ (3) Although these things represent the treasures of culture in their European environment, the narrator appears to be recognising the fact that these things do not belong in their New World environment.
Through enforcing these things on the new land, Ovando is conforming to what is described in “The Empire Writes Back” as ‘the political and cultural monocentrism of the colonial enterprise… of the European world. ‘5 Furthermore, Ovando enforces his religious beliefs on the natives and this becomes clear when he tries to justify his actions by referring to ‘fate’ and the narrator states: ‘I could have brought a stop to what was an invasion to me, a discovery to him; after all, I too knew of divinities and eternities and unalterable events. ‘ (4)
Ovando fails to see that the natives have their own belief systems in place and his ignorance is exemplified by the fact that the narrator appears to realise Ovando’s downfall, acknowledging his ignorance. Although he does not condone the colonisers’ actions in any way, there is a degree of understanding on the part of the narrator -who represents the natives – that does appear to be present in Ovando: ‘To the stranger’s eye (Ovando’s) everything in my world appears as if it were made anew each night as I sleep, by gods in their heavenly chambers’ (7)
The narrator is acknowledging the fact that Ovando and the Imperial powers on the whole failed to realise that the New World – ironically named by the imperialists – was not in fact ‘new’. These countries had their own pasts and their own traditions that the narrow-minded colonisers, who had their eyes ‘half-shut’ (6), failed to recognise or appreciate. Although of course this narrative is written from the biased perspective of the natives (Kincaid’s background supports this fact) the historical accounts of colonisation do essentially support the notion of the blinkered imperialists.
As a consequence of this and the lack of integration into native lifestyle by the colonisers, they fail to see that their European traditions are displaced in this new environment and, through imposing them, they create a rift between themselves and the natives. More obviously present in Ovando is the notion of the uncanny. Standing alongside this sense of displacement, the presence of the uncanny promotes a very daunting and disturbing feel in the piece.
Turcotte directs the notion of the uncanny in postcolonial literature in particular to the notion of ‘physical perversion… here] nature, it seemed to many, was out of kilter. ‘6 Throughout this short story, everything is out of kilter in effect. For instance, when Ovando is looking at the map, Kincaid distorts reality and time: ‘Using the forefinger of his left hand, he traced on his map a line. Months later his finger came to a stop. It was a point not too far from where he had started. ‘ (6) This distortion of time is disorientating to the reader and the narrator describes other events, which are equally impossible.
When for instance the narrator describes the protest put to Ovando about his unfair treatment of the natives, he undergoes a process of metamorphosis: ‘But Ovando could not hear me, for by this time his head had taken the shape of a groundworm, which has no ears. ‘ (10) Although the narrator is clearly illustrating his refusal to hear the pleas of the natives, it becomes clear that nothing is impossible in the story. Kincaid writes: ‘The moment in which the words could be said was the moment in which the words would be true. ‘ (8) – and the reader recognises that whatever is said in the story simply has to be accepted as the truth.
The author gives words an enormous amount of command and authority and, as such, the power of words in this story exceeds the influence of the reader to interpret the events for themselves. Therefore, it could be deemed that Kincaid is confiscating the power of interpretation from the reader in order to highlight the way in which power was taken away from the natives – and the unease and discomfort that this creates adds to the gothic effect of the story. Morrow and McGraph acknowledge that after the 1830 and ’40s the gothic became ‘increasingly fascinated with the psyche of the gothic personality.
This is particularly obvious in Ovando, with Kincaid’s in-depth exploration of the mental workings of the coloniser. The supposed superiority of the European colonisers, over the natives is apparent through the character of Ovando, who insists upon ‘possess[ing]’ the natives. Similarly, we have insight into the workings of the colonised people. We see their bitter retrospection at their welcoming attitude towards the colonisers: ‘”Ovando,” I said, “Ovando,” and I smiled at him and threw my arms open to embrace this stinky relic of a person.
Many people have said that this was my first big mistake, and I always ay, How could it be a mistake to show sympathy to another human being, on first meeting? ‘ (3) Although this is not symbolic of the ‘gothic personality’ in the same way that Ovando’s thoughts are, the juxtaposition of this welcoming, warm attitude highlights the deviousness of Ovando’s thinking, as he deliberately takes advantage of people who were prepared to share their land with him.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, there is no equally explicit demonic gothic personality as there is in Ovando. However, there are dark qualities lurking in both Antoinette and Rochester. With Antoinette, of course, her personality creates an amount of unease in the reader, particularly since we aware of the fate of the character she is rooted in from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Additionally, with Rochester’s unease about the fact that ‘her mother was mad’ (129), the reader is constantly haunted by the notion that she will turn out like her mother.
Obviously, these anxieties turn out to be justified as we see her realisation of her supposed responsibility: ‘I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. ‘ (155-6) Antoinette burns down the house, believing in her misery that this is her destiny. This, in itself, is quite a morbid notion that amplifies her state of despair and gloom. McGraph and Morrow acknowledge that ‘the new gothicist would take as a starting place the concern with interior entropy – spiritual and emotional breakdown… 8
Therefore the recognition of Antoinette’s despair means that, although this insight into her psyche does not mirror the horror and gruesomeness of the gothic personality in Ovando, the extent of her despair instils a deep sense of dismay in the reader and supports the gothic nature of the text. The respective writers also employ various literary techniques in the pieces, which indicate that the texts are postcolonial gothic in nature. For instance, the entire notion of gothic literature is suggestive of ‘horror, madness, monstrosity, death, disease, terror, evil and weird sexuality’9 and many of these qualities are prevalent in Ovando.
The imagery used in Ovando conforms to these horrific characteristics customary in gothic literature and the physical appearance of Ovando corresponds to this in particular: Not a shred of flesh was left on his bones; he was a complete skeleton except for his brain, which remained, and was growing smaller by the millennium. He stank’ (3) This gruesome image of Ovando can only provoke horror and disgust in the reader and the nightmarish qualities of such gothic literature present themselves clearly here.
Similarly, the physical appearance of Ovando continues to worsen into the form of the devil: ‘He had also grown horns on either side of his head, and from these he hung various instruments of torture; his tongue he made forked. ‘ (9) This demonic image is possibly one of the darkest images that can be drawn upon and, as such, Kincaid is portraying the character of Ovando in the most evil way possible. The idea that he personally ‘made’ his tongue forked also draws to mind images of masochism that, again, are dark in nature.
This use of graphic and disturbing imagery draws all the qualities of ‘horror, madness, monstrosity… ‘ together to form a deeply disturbing text conforming to the conventions of gothic writing. The structure of Ovando also allows the piece to fit into the genre of gothic literature successfully. The piece is dreamlike in that it has no fixed structure and it moves through the action with no real sense of succession at all. Events do not lead into one another, but the reader gets the sense of dreamlike disorder with the physical world constantly changing.
It is this constant flux in the story that creates a disturbing sense of disorder in the piece, which, no doubt, reflects the disorder created by the invasion of the colonisers. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys uses some very graphic images that are disturbing in nature and as such conform to the gothic style. During the fire, we hear Antoinette’s retelling of events, as she realises that their pet parrot is stuck in the burning house: ‘I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell down screeching.
He was all on fire. ‘ (36) This horrific image of the bird being burned alive equates to the burning images of the devil in Ovando and highlights the notion of suffering in the text. The colonial experience clearly caused suffering and anguish and this conveyance of pain is an effective means of expressing this. Rhys also refers frequently to the notion of obeah, which relates to black magic and spirit theft. Antoinette accuses Rochester of obeah, through trying to change her name, but she is also guilty of its practice when she puts a love potion in his wine.
This exploration of the unknown and the ghosts that Christophine knows about, although ‘that is not what she calls them’ (113) creates an eerie and supernatural dimension in the piece. The use of such ideas by Rhys is concordant with the daunting elements that define the gothic genre. In Ovando in particular, the gothic literary technique of inversion is also employed throughout. McGraph and Marrow identify the use of inversion as a gothic effect, ‘where terror and unreason subverted consensus and rationality, where passion was transformed into disgust, love turned to hatred and good engendered evil.
The narrator appears to acknowledge throughout that good can engender evil. When Ovando arrived on the island, of course, the narrator was eager to accept him: For I loved him then, not the way I would love my mother, or my child, but with that more general and spontaneous kind of love that I feel when I see any human being. ‘ (3) The good in Ovando, however, is overtaken by greed and self-love, epitomised in the masturbation episode where ‘Ovando gently passes his hands down his own back, through the crevices of his private parts… ‘ (11-12).
Therefore, the reader senses that the imperial powers were all subjected to this inversion driven by greed in effect, and this literary technique is an effective way of mirroring this inversion of good to bad in human beings. Similarly in Wide Sargasso Sea, some of these features of inversion can also seen to be employed by Rhys. Rochester’s worsening feelings towards Antionette indicate this and such an overturn in emotions that epitomises the gothic tone and alteration from passion to disgust can be seen when Rochester sleeps with Amelie.
No sooner has he slept with her, did he begin to feel discontented with her appearance: ‘… her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought… I had no wish to touch her and she knew it, for she got up at once and began to dress. ‘ (115-6) His darkest fears appear to surface through her, with his acknowledgement of how native she looks and the hint that he worries further that she could be related to Antoinette. Having previously stated: ‘Perhaps they are related, I thought.
It’s possible, it’s even probable in this damned place. (105) -the way in which he sees her this morning strongly rouses the deep-seated fear of incestuous relations in him. These issues in themselves are dark and gothic in that sense, although the fact that these issues are only hinted at makes them far more ominous in some respects. Looking at the works from a contextual perspective, it is interesting to see that Gelder concludes that ‘Postcolonial nations can re-animate the traumas of their colonial pasts to produce Gothic narratives. ’11 This can be seen explicitly in Ovando through the character of Frey Nicolas de Ovando.
Although he appears to be a fictitious character, he was undoubtedly named after a sixteenth century governor in the Dominican Republic. Friar Nicolas de Ovando was governor from 1502 to 1509 and during this time, he was renowned for his cruel treatment of the native Taino tribe. It is reported that, in order to gain more power over the tribes, he arranged a feast for the tribe chiefs and then burnt down the house where it was held. Furthermore, any people who survived the fire were tortured and killed.
There is no question that Kincaid’s character was created in direct reference to him and the cruelty of the character of Ovando in her novel supports this fact: ‘One morning, Ovando arose from his bed. Assisted by people he had forcibly placed in various stages of social and spiritual degradation… ‘ (9) This demonstrates explicitly the blame that Kincaid attributes to Ovando for the pain and suffering caused. She dispels any notions of fate or necessity and lays the burden on the shoulder of the one character who, in addition to clearly being the general described above, broadly represents the imperial nations.
It is clear that Kincaid is drawing upon real life horrors for her story and Turcotte identifies this technique: ‘From its inception the Gothic has dealt with fears and themes which are endemic in the colonial experience: isolation, entrapment, fear of pursuit and fear of the unknown. ’12 Therefore we see that the gothic genre is particularly apt for expressing the distresses caused by the process of colonisation. This process of the re-animation of traumas from people’s colonial pasts is repeated in a sense through Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
She is retelling a Gothic story that already exists in Jane Eyre, giving depth and, indeed, a life to Rochester’s mad wife in the attic. Spivak recognises that Rhys takes Bronte’s Jane Eyre and ‘rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native. ’13 This would suggest that, just as the madwoman in the attic has no voice in Jane Eyre, neither does the colonised persons in colonial and postcolonial literature.
Therefore, Rhys is giving them the voice they have been deprived of. Many things point to the fact that this was her deliberate intention and we can assume that her personal reward from doing such a thing is clear when we hear other accounts of prejudice in her works: ‘I had discovered that if I called myself English they would snub me haughtily: ‘You’re not English; you’re a horrid colonial. ”14 Jean Rhys was a white Creole like this character and, as such, the closeness of the character to the novelist makes it difficult to detach the two.
Therefore, it is clear that the gothic genre for Rhys is an effective means of conveying the personal trauma she has experienced as a result of prejudice, stemming from colonisation. In conclusion, it is clear to see that these texts can be defined as postcolonial gothic. As postcolonial texts, they also possess many of the distinguishing features of gothic texts. The aptness of the gothic genre as a means of reiterating colonial pasts is evident throughout, as the horror and disruption that it conveys so well is symbolic of the anxiety and heartache that the process of colonisation created for those people ensnared in its progression.