Wide Sargasso Sea Contents
- Social / political context
- Religious / philosophical context
- Literary context of Wide Sargasso Sea
- Part one: Antoinette's first narrative
- Part two: Rochester's narrative
- Part two: Antoinette's narrative
- Part two: Rochester's narrative resumes
- Part three: Grace Poole's narrative
- Part three: Antoinette's narrative
A variety of influences
The slaves who were imported from Africa brought their own religious beliefs with them and these were assimilated into black Caribbean culture. Communities of fugitive slaves (called ‘maroons') worshipped deities that can be recognised as the same as those worshipped by West African peoples in Nigeria and Dahomey.
Spirit possession has also been seen as a belief with roots in African cultures, which persisted even in those who were converted to Christianity. It was believed that possession, through dancing to drums, was a way of communicating with the gods.
Moral values were also inculcated through proverbs and folk-tales. Stories of Anansi, the trickster spider, have African origins. Anansi and other such figures usually win out against bigger, stronger animals by their cunning. This was a heartening message for a slave audience. There is something of Anansi in Tia's trickery of Antoinette.
This is a system of belief which originated in Africa, possibly among people in Ghana on the west coast of Africa. Practitioners of obeah carry out a form of witchcraft in rituals to bring a client health, love or money. They may also be paid to bring bad luck to the client's enemies.
White planters regarded obeah as a subversive practice and punished it through the law. It certainly provided a secret channel of communication for a slave community.
Christophine in the novel is both healer and witch. She is feared and respected by black characters and by Antoinette herself, who is sufficiently a West Indian to recognise and desire her influence. Christophine is also a figure who combines this aspect of slave resistance with an alert evaluation of the activities of the white authorities. Rochester, of course, will ultimately threaten her with the law.
Obeah practitioners were believed to be able to turn people into zombies by stealing their spirits or souls. Such people would then be left as the living dead.
Annette, her son Pierre and ultimately Antoinette herself, will all in turn become zombies in some respect. Antoinette says to Rochester that his act of renaming her is a form of obeah, an attempt to take her soul away and make her someone else.
Rochester too will carry some of the zombie's attributes as he denies aspects of his being in rejecting Antoinette. This is recognised by the young woman he meets in the forest who flees from him in terror.
Judith Raiskin, in her edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, says that this belief in a ‘living dead' person grew to be particularly important in the Caribbean because the slaves saw in the zombie a metaphor for their own condition as slaves.
Daniel Cosway says to Rochester that the French and English have fought like animals in the islands. The early history of conflict over colonisation can be seen as in some sense a religious war between Christians. Sixteenth century British pirate adventurers justified their attack on the French and Spanish as a holy war of Protestants versus Roman Catholics.
Cultural differences between the islands were enhanced by religious differences.
Martinique was a French colony and so Roman Catholic, while Jamaica and Barbados were British and thus Protestant. Jean Rhys makes use of these divisions in her characters and so gives her story a carefully located and specific sense of religious context.
Christianity and slavery
Roman Catholic and Anglican teachings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw no moral problem in slavery itself, although there was a desire to convert the slaves to Christianity. However, the white planters were much less keen on this. They believed, rightly as it turned out, that it would make their slaves restive and unwilling to serve once they understood the doctrine of equality before the Christian God.
Black West Indians in the British colonies converted rapidly to Christianity, largely under the influence of non-conformist religious groups, especially Baptists and Methodists working in the colonies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Black Christians like these developed a characteristic form of worship, fervent, focused on salvation and steeped in the language of the Bible.
Godfrey and Myrah are two characters in Wide Sargasso Sea whose style of speech and moral judgements indicate that they come from this religious background.
In Wide Sargasso Sea Catholicism is associated with French and Spanish influences in the islands. Antoinette goes to the convent school in Spanish Town and encounters a form of religion very different to the one she is accustomed to at home. In fact, the Christian religion is not particularly prominent in her home environment at all. Christophine is a Catholic although she also practises obeah.
In Wide Sargasso Sea the convent school is represented as a refuge: calm, sunlit and colourful. Its rules are relaxed and Antoinette associates it with peace and sensual pleasure rather than fear or punishment. It exists in contrast to the Protestant work ethic espoused by Rochester.
Although most white people on Dominica were Anglicans, Jean Rhys herself was sent to a convent school for a short time, and here she mixed with ‘coloured' or black students.
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