Contemporary critical assessments

Modernist approaches

These tend to avoid racial and political commentary on the novel. They focus instead on such aspects of form as: 

  • Jean Rhys' pared down style
  • Her interest in representing the inner life and fragmented identities of her characters via stream of consciousness
  • Her use of multiple narratives

Wide Sargasso Sea presents a challenge to these approaches. Although the novel retains Rhys' characteristic style, it is not set in an early twentieth century urban world but a century earlier in the Caribbean. The novel also has links with earlier, non-Modernist kinds of writing like the Gothic.

Feminist approaches

An approach through the novel's treatment of female experience is a standard critical perspective. The novel was published as the ‘second wave' of the feminist movement was getting under way in the 1960s, so that many of its early (and later) readers had a particular interest in examining literary texts from this perspective.

Jane Eyre, too, has been the focus for feminist approaches. One of the most famous was by two American academics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. In 1979 they published The Madwoman in the Attic; the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. In this study, they took Bertha Mason as a symbolic figure, one who represents the way in which women's voices were silenced or suppressed in nineteenth century society and the way in which that affected literary texts. Wide Sargasso Sea can be seen as another, fictional, treatment of the same theme. For more information on this, see the Texts in detail > Jane Eyre > Critical attitudes to Jane Eyre > Feminist criticism and literary history.

Feminist literary criticism is broadly based and makes use of a range of other critical perspectives. One frequent adoption is to make use of psychoanalytical criticism, particularly in relation to female characters.

Psychoanalytical criticism

This approach is derived from the ideas of Sigmund Freud and uses some of the techniques of psychoanalysis to interpret literature. Critics might consider the way in which the unconscious aspects of a character's mind are represented or the degree to which a character has repressed experience. Like Freud and Carl Jung, they may also investigate the significance of dreams, fairy tales and myths as ways of accessing the unconscious.

A good example of a critic making use of this approach for feminist purposes can be found in Elizabeth Baer's The Sisterhood of Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway from a collection of essays called The Voyage In; Fictions of Female Development published in 1983.

‘The second dream/chapter in Antoinette's life/novel occurs during her stay at the Mount Calvary convent; again the dream is triggered by strangers. Her stepfather has visited her and announced his intention to withdraw her from the convent and introduce her to some ‘English friends'. He refers of course, to Rochester. Although Antoinette cannot consciously or rationally know what her fate will be as a result of this meeting, she has a strong sense of foreboding…

… this dream, far more concrete and threatening than the first, warns of the quickening approach of Rochester. It revises the fairy tale marriage and honeymoon of Antoinette and Rochester, revealing the bride's sexual initiation to be a loss of power and control. The sudden transformation, a commonplace in fairy tales, turns the natural forest into a cultivated garden: her marriage is a trap, an imprisonment. Ultimately it is a descent into madness.'

Post-colonial approaches

Challenging European cultural supremacy

One important strand within post-colonial approaches concerns their challenge to classic Western and European literary texts. They object to the way in which such texts claim a universal significance on the grounds that they are ‘great' works of art and have value in all cultures and for all times. Post-colonial critics analyse such texts and identify where white, Western values are being promoted at the expense of other cultures and the way in which these other cultures are marginalised.

This approach is also concerned with the way in which Western cultures construct Non-Western cultures as ‘the Other'. In Western literary texts, this can result in colonial territories being represented in contradictory ways:

  • As decadent and lazy
  • As exotic and seductive.

A revised perspective

Post-colonial criticism emerges in parallel with new writings from former colonies. In these writings, the authors tell the story of colonisation from the perspective of their people. They ‘write back' to challenge and revise the colonial version of their history and experience. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the best known of such writings and it has been the subject of a good deal of scrutiny from a post-colonial perspective.

However, the author and the novel pose a challenge to this approach. 

  • Jean Rhys' white Creole background has meant that some critics were reluctant to include her in a distinctively Caribbean literary tradition because she was a white woman from a formerly slave owning family and she had spent a long exile in Europe
  • The racial divisions in the novel are not clear-cut. Antoinette herself identifies with  black characters, like Christophine and Tia. Rochester's Englishness also comes under unfavourable scrutiny in Part two of the novel.

Post-colonial approaches and Christophine

Several post-colonial analyses of the novel focus on the figure of Christophine and the complex role she has in the novel. One of the best-known is by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, published in 1985:

‘Christophine is the first interpreter and named speaking subject in the text. ‘The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self' Christophine had said', we read in the book's opening paragraph. I have taught this book five times [but] … it is part of the political argument I am making that all these students blithely stepped over this paragraph without asking or knowing what Christophine's patois, so-called incorrect English, might mean.

Christophine is, of course, a commodified person. ‘She was your father's wedding present to me' explains Antoinette's mother, ‘one of his presents'. Yet Rhys assigns her some crucial functions in the text. It is Christophine who judges that black ritual practices are culture-specific and cannot be used by whites as cheap remedies for social evils, such as Rochester's lack of love for Antoinette. Most important, it is Christophine alone whom Rhys allows to offer a hard analysis of Rochester's actions, to challenge him in a face-to-face encounter … Her analysis is powerful enough for the white man to be afraid: ‘I no longer felt dazed, tired, half-hypnotised, but alert and wary, ready to defend myself'.

On the other hand, post-colonial critics have pointed out that Christophine's characterisation is very stereotyped. Spivak herself dealt with this issue and it has been taken up by other critics. In 1993, Maria Olaussen connected Christophine to the stereotype of the black ‘mammy', a nurturing black servant figure found in many novels and films:

‘Christophine's most important function as a powerful protector and nursing mother-figure is … introduced against the backdrop of the information that she was a wedding gift. The life of the white family is now in the hands of a person who was once their property…
When her own mother pushes her away and finds her ‘useless', Antoinette turns to Christophine for the mothering she needs. It is Antoinette who finds Christophine useful … Antoinette's mother, the white lady, develops only her feminine qualities in spite of their distressing situation. These qualities, such as beauty, fragility, dependence, and passivity make it impossible for her to change actively their situation. They make her unable to care for her daughter or to perform the most necessary household tasks. Antoinette's mother concentrates her energies on survival in a feminine way in that she does everything to get a new husband…
Christophine's function in the novel has to be understood within the overall context of the white woman's tale.'

Historicist approaches

Wide Sargasso Sea is an historical novel and historicist critics have been interested in Jean Rhys' choice of the post-slavery period in the Caribbean as the historical setting for her story. They have examined ways in which Rhys' own identity as a white Creole was shaped by this history and why she identified this period as a crucial one in the history of racial division in the Caribbean.

Maggie Humm, writing in 1991, examined the British post-war context in which Rhys was rewriting and revising the manuscript of Wide Sargasso Sea. The 1950s and 60s were decades in which there was considerable immigration from the Caribbean into Britain. A process of ‘colonisation in reverse' was in progress. This new cultural situation conditioned, she argues, not only Jean Rhys' writing of the novel but also its reception by readers and critics.

Humm also makes a case for the text as conditioned by Rhys' and her husband's frail health in these years. She says that Jean Rhys was ambivalent and sometimes even hostile about receiving care from black nurses in hospital. However, in her characterisation of Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea, she was able to resolve these tensions in a nurturing figure who countered the racism at work in the wider British culture and within Rhys herself.

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