Rootlessness and a Lack of Coherent Identity- Wide Sargasso sea by Jean Rhys & Crossing the river by Caryl Phillips

In this entry of rootlessness and lack of identity, I will be focusing on a novel that gave a voice to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Written by West Indies-born writer Jean Rhys as well as Crossing the River (1993) by the Kittitian-British novelist, essayist and playwright Caryl Phillips. Jean Rhys for instance has a history of rootlessness and an experience of a sordid side of life; a self-destructive alcoholic who referred to herself as a “doormat in a world of boots”[1] often wrote her fiction in an autobiographical sense, like Antoinette, Rhys’s Creole heritage seeps into her work and after 1834, when slavery had ended in the Caribbean islands, she was labelled as a “socialist Gwen”[2] as she took the side of the blacks and workers, against the ruling white class. In my opinion, this live activism sets her forward and apart from Caryl Phillips who in many ways is a privileged individual throughout his life. However, on the other hand, his lack of first-hand experience may allow him to be the omniscient writer who is able to see that indeed “identity is not about returning to roots” as many of the characters in his novel make the mistake of thinking that it is.

Foremost, there is a complexity of racial identity in Wide Saragossa Sea that holds the development of the novel’s vital themes such as Jamaica’s social hierarchy of race:

“I never looked at any strange negro. They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed me singing, “Go away white cockroach, go away, go away.”” (I.1.3.2)

Here we are instantly presented with a lack of identity as with Antoinette’s father’s death (a former slave owner), her family is ruined, and they are not known as individual people anymore but “cockroaches”, their innocence has been tainted with a previous persons actions.  It is very apparent that British born whites are ‘above’ Creole whites and of course blacks, Mr Rochester makes this very apparent in his opinions of their laziness and arrogance,

“They invent stories about you, and lies about me. They try to find out what we eat every day.”

“They are curious. It’s natural enough. You have lived alone far too long, Annette. You imagine enmity which doesn’t exist. Always one extreme or the other. Didn’t you fly at me like a little wild cat when I said nigger. Not nigger, nor even negro. Black people I must say.”

“You don’t like, or even recognize the good in them,” she said, “and you won’t believe in the other side.”

“They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous,” said Mr. Mason. “I know that.”

“They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.” (I.1.6.9-12)

He constantly and clearly portrays what his idea of their essentialism is, not once acknowledging that his social structure can generate such as racism, hate and the abduction of identity. Westerners were notorious for raping and impregnating female slaves and as their own result, they give this attitude of the large majority who are hybrid or other than white English as being unnecessary which has caused rootlessness for the characters of Wide Saragossa Sea; a lot of them illegitimately conceived (such as the Cosway family who try to behold a middle ground between white and black). How are they to know of their belonging and of course, when you are thrust away and cursed by your very fathers, how is even acknowledging ones identity and root possible without confusion and embarrassment. On the other hand, Antoinette often doesn’t acknowledge the extent of her own hypocrisy through her own racial prejudices; presented through the eyes of either the white or Creole characters, they lack identity too, there is no depth or voice however Antoinette attempts to speak for them “they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand”, here she may be alluding to their past and the reasons they may have for vengeance of the ‘white man’ putting them through possession and slavery.

Many factors furthermore contribute to the rootlessness and identity or lack of in the characters of Wide Saragossa Sea such as gender, class, race, culture, friendships and family relations. There is never a clear relationship shown between Antoinette and her family and friends, strangely it is those people whom she may seem closest to who contribute too her ultimate breakdown especially with those with similar race and class.

We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass. (I.1.8.29)

Here Antoinette is physically hurt by her only friend at the time Tia, although she never actually sees her throw the rock, she is aware of the friction between their two racial stances, where she doesn’t belong. Antoinette strives to be like Tia, a black woman who has her own racial identity and not a white Creole who belongs to neither the black or white communities.  This desire sets Antoinette immensely apart from the white Mr Rochester who can never understand Antoinette’s respect for these other races. She and her mother do not share such racist views, they recognise that they depend on their black servants who supposedly “care” for them but in reality, it seems that Antoinette and her mother have a fear and resentment of them as they can easily abandon and torment them by following all the other neighbours.

The question of race is certainly an important aspect in this discussion as the lack of identity and rootlessness which comes from the attitudes and confusion of race. Antoinette for instance is in the middle of both black and white communities. She belongs and is welcome by none. This sense of no belonging or ‘rootlessness’ drives the protagonist into so called madness. Whether the reader perceive her madness as genetic (as the characters imply) or a result of society is debatable, I personally believe her descend into madness is due to the faults of her culture and its determination to bring down those who are different with a vengeance.

Essayist Roshanak Naseri-sis[3] in correspondence to Wide Sargasso Sea, suggests that “Women always depend upon a male to have identity and sometimes they will not achieve one”, I disagree, Antoinette does not look to “the man” for her identity, her rootlessness and race has disabled her to find herself and Rochester certainly does not help, he in fact seems to do the opposite by oppressing her attempt to find her identity. Rochester is a confederate of colonialism, it wouldn’t be in his interest to change the status of women, peasantry or working class for the better…to help them find themselves, their identity, it is in his interest to keep them oppressed and I think Antoinette recognises that, she is outspoken and argumentative which displeases Rochester, forwarding the question of Antoinette’s sanity once again. Is it just a manifestation of Rochester or is it a result of him?  Colette Lindroth rightly suggests that “Modern, rootless, alienated, rudderless, and valueless, [Antoinette] nevertheless has a core of hard-won identity, a sense of self and privacy that remains unchanged and uncompromised”[4] features which Antoinette certainly seems to possess.

In connection, ‘Crossing the River’ holds many similarities in terms of lack of identity and rootlessness especially in association with the confusion of where “home” is. In the first story, a story of a former Eurocentric slave named Nash who goes to his native homeland in search of his roots and identity but is faced with more struggle and a sense of not belonging then he ever did before. Nash, a holy Christian, is given leave by his white master who looked after him like a son to teach in the diaspora, however upon Nash’s arrival he finds that he is rapidly running short on money and writes to his ex-master for support but on losing connections, he rapidly finds out that his motherland does not support his needs that come from the capital world and here Phillips may be suggesting that no matter where your roots lie, once you have been taught and brought up from a different culture (as Nash has clearly been westernised) it is difficult to adapt to your roots which indeed suggests that to find your identity does not mean to return to root which seems to be the cause in addition with Paul Gilroy argument that “modern black political culture has always been more interested in the relationship of identity to roots and rootedness than in seeing identity as a process of movement and mediation that is more appropriately approached via the homonym routs”.[5]

There are many issues binding within the stories of ‘Crossing the River’, race, socio politics, the idea of belonging or finding ones roots and identity, slavery  as well as adultery. The final section of the book is through Joyce, a white Englishwoman who falls in love with a black man, Travis, during World War II. Travis is a metaphorical reincarnation of the brother of Nash and Martha (who were alive a century before). Martha has an affair with Travis (due to her unhappy marriage) and conceives his baby, however he dies at war and she gives the baby up to an orphanage as it would be ‘unacceptable’ for her to raise a black baby. When she gives birth, the nurse looks at her like without knowing her history or experience, and gives her what seems to be her usual advice to every woman in her kind of situation

“You’ll be better off, love, with somebody else looking after him. Trust me. I know what I’m on about”.

She speaks to her without acknowledging her identity, she is just another woman who made a “silly mistake”. As a result of her husband’s misuse of her, abusing her and treating her as a mere object, Joyce tries to find her identity by turning to another man, similarly to Antoinette in Joyce’s Wide Saragossa Sea, the male interest actually does the opposite to helping her find her roots, instead she is also left alone in the world.

In conclusion, the central obstacle in the characters of both novels is finding “home” as Avtar Brah[6] puts it: “the question of home…is intrinsically linked with the ways which processes of inclusion or exclusion operate and are subjectively experienced under given circumstances. It is centrally about our political and personal struggles over the social regulation of belonging”. This is undoubtedly relevant to either Antoinette’s lack of identity due to her absolute rootlessness and not belonging to any social group as well as Nash’s utopian idea of where he will belong to where he actually would have if he had stayed with his “family”. Fundamentally, a sense of rootlessness and identity are features of colonialism as they best portray the storm colonialists brew within society, people are thrown and disregarded, left confused about themselves and who they are as people and where they belong. Whether it is because of the Rochester’s of the world who can control the lives of those “lesser” than him or the Edward Williams of the world who nationalises his students (Nash) and send them off, ignorant to a third world country like lambs to the slaughter.

[1] Moran, Patricia, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and The Aesthetics of Trauma, Palgrave Macmillan 2007, p115

[2] Wilson, Lucy. “‘Women Must Have Spunks’: Jean Rhys’s West Indian Outcasts.” Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Ed. Pierette M. Frickey. Washington, D. C.: Three Continents Press, 1990. 67-74.

[3] Naseri-sis, Roshanak, Female Identity in Wide Sargasso Sea, Foe, and Jack Maggs: A Comparative Study 2012, p45-57

[4] Naseri-sis, Roshanak, Female Identity in Wide Sargasso Sea, Foe, and Jack Maggs: A Comparative Study 2012, p47

[5] Smith, Carissa Turner, Women’s Spiritual Geographies of the African Diaspora: Paul Marshall’s Praise song for the Window

[6] McCluskey, Alan, Cosmopolitanism and Subversion of ‘Home’ in Caryl Phillip’s A Distant Shore, University of Nottingham

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