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The Postcolonial And Ecofeminist Lenses As The Factors For Identity In Wide Sargasso Sea

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Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel that was written as a response to the text Jane Eyre in 1966. The novel was written by Jean Rhys, who wrote the text to give a voice to Antoinette Cosway, and provide a background to her story before she became ‘the mad woman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre. As such, one of the main themes throughout the text is identity, or a lack thereof. In this speech, I will examine Antoinette’s identity crisis through the post-colonial and ecofeminist lenses.

Now before we dive into the analysis, some background on post-colonialism. Post-colonialism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the historical period or state of affairs representing the aftermath of Western colonialism. The postcolonial lens is an approach to reading literature produced in or about regions in a postcolonial state that questions how characters, events, and themes of a work reinforce or undermine understandings of cultural identity. The postcolonial lens deals with the discourse of colonisation and the power dynamics associated with it.

The Wide Sargasso Sea, as a work of postcolonial fiction captures the pathos of a society undergoing deep and bitter change. Rhys chooses to relate the essence of this conflict through the relationship of the white Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway, and her English suitor Edward Rochestor. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of extreme racial tension in nineteenth century Jamaica: the harrowing animosity that grows between white plantation owners and newly liberated black slaves, and the suspicion and hatred felt for natives of different Caribbean islands. Even more complex is the position of people of mixed race within this ethnic crucible, people such as Antoinette, who is European to the eye, but who identifies with the culture of black Jamaica. She will never be accepted by the Jamaican people, who view her as a ‘white cockroach’, a remnant of colonial cruelty, and she stands even less of a chance of acceptance into the sphere of elitist British society, due to her low socioeconomic position and her country of residence. Her birthplace dually condemns her.

The novel displays the oppression and domination of a colonial and patriarchal society under which Antoinette lived; it shows how Antoinette, under the pressure of her race and gender, is forced to abject her own identity. She doesn’t feel as if she belongs anywhere. Her outsider status is displayed in the first two sentences of the novel: ‘they say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies never approved of my mother…’. As a white Creole, Antoinette is neither treated as part of the black slave community nor accepted as a white European. This lack of belonging outlines Antoinette’s search for identity.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester, who is Antoinette’s husband, is portrayed to be an antagonist of sorts to Antoinette’s story. Jean Rhys’ attempt was to raise the voice against the colonisers and give the proper right and reverence to the colonised other through her own strong and rebellious character Antoinette. Rhys also used a clever technique of varied narrative voices to emphasise her distaste for the oppressor – Rochestor. This aspect of the novel in turn promotes an expository style, capable of disclosing the personal perspectives of both central characters. This feature becomes of paramount importance as we analyse the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester, two characters who come from diametrically opposing cultures, and yet who exhibit many biographical parallels. As Rhys allows us into the minds of Antoinette and Rochester, we see that they both struggle with a sense of belonging, culturally and within their families. Even though he is given a voice throughout the narrative, Rochester’s visceral racism and disdain for the mixing of cultures; his abhorrence and fear of the tropical landscape; and dispossession of Antoinette, portray him as the villain, and also allow Rhys to emphasise Antoinette’s lack of control over her life and subsequent loss of identity.

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Now let’s talk about ecocriticism. Ecocriticism is a rapidly emerging field of literary study that considers the relationship that human beings have to the environment. For this analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea, ecofeminism is the most applicable of the three main approaches. On the board again are the essential questions associated with this lens, including

  1. How do the roles or representations of men and women towards the environment differ in this play/film/text/etc.
  2. Where is the environment placed in the power hierarchy?
  3. How is nature empowered or oppressed in this work?
  4. What parallels can be drawn between the sufferings and oppression of groups of people (women, minorities, immigrants, etc.) and treatment of the land?

Which all fit in the ecofeminist section of ecocriticism.

Published in 1966, the novel is both of its time and ahead of it, tackling contemporary issues prevalent in 1960s culture such as the complexity of racial identity and the oppression of women, while also predating the ecofeminist movement by a few years with Rhys’s implicit suggestions that Rochester’s attitude toward the Carribean’s natural environment is of the same mind set with which he views his new wife, Antoinette, illustrating not only an association between woman and nature, but also the patriarchal desire to dominate both. Rochester’s initial reaction to the beauty of the landscape and to Antoinette is one of uneasiness, which briefly shifts to a feeling of awe, then to indifference, and finally to hatred, which, to him, justifies his abandonment of both the island and his wife.

Nature is presented as an active participant in the novel. Those who respect nature and preserve it in the novel are of superior moral and ethical value but those who are against it are depicted as evil characters, such as Rochester. Antoinette, on the other hand, is one of the characters that does respect the natural landscape. She gains comfort in relation to nature, and so she decides to unite herself with this faithful friend to end the patriarchy and oppression to which she is a victim.

Even birds as a part of the natural setting are used by Rhys to foreshadow Antoinette doomed destiny and loss of identity. Coco, Annette’s pet parrot, enacts Antoinette’s own doom. His wings have been clipped by Mr. Mason – who is notably, an Englishman – which applies to the post-colonial lens as well. The bird is shackled and maimed, mirroring Antoinette’s own flightless dependency. As Antoinette recalls, “[Coco] made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.” This passage presages the apocalyptic dream that ends the novel, including Antoinette’s fiery fall from the attic. As omens and warnings, birds invite Antoinette to invest meaning and significance in the natural world.

To recap, the importance of harmony between nature and humans, both the colonised and colonisers, is one of the most important themes of the novel. It shows how nature and its elements can play vital roles in the life of a character as Rhys endows them with power to protect her female protagonist. Antoinette as a woman is more connected to nature since both of them have man as their enemy. She is always treated as Other and she experienced a double Othering both as a woman and as a postcolonial subject. Ecofeminism and postcolonialism both add a different dimension to Antoinette’s search for identity in the Wide Sargasso Sea and give the reader an insight into the mind of an individual oppressed by both racial and gender related factors that affect her life.

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The Postcolonial And Ecofeminist Lenses As The Factors For Identity In Wide Sargasso Sea. (2021, September 30). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-postcolonial-and-ecofeminist-lenses-as-the-factors-for-identity-in-wide-sargasso-sea/
“The Postcolonial And Ecofeminist Lenses As The Factors For Identity In Wide Sargasso Sea.” Edubirdie, 30 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/the-postcolonial-and-ecofeminist-lenses-as-the-factors-for-identity-in-wide-sargasso-sea/
The Postcolonial And Ecofeminist Lenses As The Factors For Identity In Wide Sargasso Sea. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-postcolonial-and-ecofeminist-lenses-as-the-factors-for-identity-in-wide-sargasso-sea/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2022].
The Postcolonial And Ecofeminist Lenses As The Factors For Identity In Wide Sargasso Sea [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 30 [cited 2022 Dec 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-postcolonial-and-ecofeminist-lenses-as-the-factors-for-identity-in-wide-sargasso-sea/
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