By: Ayu Trinawangsari
Postcolonial literature is a body of literary writing that reacts to the discourse of colonization. It is also a literary critique to texts that carry racist or colonial undertones. Postcolonial fiction writers might interact with the traditional colonial discourse by attempting to modify or subvert it. Wide Sargasso Sea is postcolonial novel which was written as prequel to Jane Eyre by charlotte Bronte. Postcolonial literature works through the process of writing back, rewriting, and reading. This describes the interpretation of well-known literature from the perspective of the formerly colonized. In wide Sargasso Sea, the protagonist is shown to be re-named and exploited in several ways.
Wide Sargasso Sea is the novel by Dominican born author, Jean Rhys. It is important postcolonial novel which is set against the background of a significant historic event that is globally looked upon as a step in the direction of world free of racial discrimination. The event is the emancipation act in 1833.
In 1833, the British government passed the Emancipation Act which is said that the slave owners of the colonies would have to free their slaves before 1839. These slave owners would receive compensation by the state for their trouble. But the compensation was not as high as the market value of slaves at the time. The first page of wide Sargasso Sea state that “some will wait for a long time” (p.3). This quotation means that the former slave-owners and the newly freed slaves await compensation from the British government. This waiting drove a lot of planters into despair and poverty. In this case, include the Cosway’s family.
Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story about Antoinette Cosway and her family. As with many postcolonial works, Wide Sargasso Sea deals with the theme of racial inequality. There are three races exposed in this novel: white, black, and Creole. Antoinette’s family is neither belongs to white community nor black. “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks” (p.3). This is the opening of the novel, which sets the tone of impending racial unrest and Antoinette’s feelings of alienation.
The novel was divided into three parts. The story begins in 1839, six years after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part. Part one of the novel is set in the Jamaica. Antoinette is the narrator of part one. She describes her family’s isolation and poverty in the wake of emancipation. Antoinette lives with her widowed mother, Annette, and her sickly younger brother, Pierre, in Coulibri estate. Coulibri is a beautiful place, but since the death of her father and the emancipation act of 1833, it has fallen into decay. Antoinette’s father, Mr cosway, was a planter and a slave owner (p.14).
The emancipation of act explain the way to another sort of discrimination, that of Creoles. Creoles are people of European descent born in the West Indies or Spanish America. The French dialect spoken by this people. Legally and politically, they have been racially connected to black communities while culturally they have been distinct people, and that is resented as overt racism.
Antoinette is a Creole girl (p.47), white nigger (p.21). When her family has to give up their slave, they go bankrupt. They become poorer than the slaves that used to work for them. These ex-slaves start to mock their former employees, as we can read that they was called the white cockroach (p.7). They hated more by black people. “Black nigger better than white nigger” (p.8). Antoinette’s only friend is Tia, a black girl, but the friendship soon ends. Tia steals her dress and takes her pennies (p.9). When the mob sets fire to her house, Antoinette runs toward Tia, but throws a jagged rock at Antoinette, cutting her forehead and drawing blood (p.23).
Antoinette life changes when her mother remarries with an English man, Mr. Mason. Mr. Mason is a new comer who has made great profit on buying up the estates of bankrupt planters. Antoinette’s family are wealthy once again, they have money and eat English food (p.16). Mr. Mason engaged new servants and has the house repaired (p.13). But soon it becomes clear that this happy intermezzo can not last. Mr. Mason does not understand the situation in Jamaica and does not care for its inhabitants (p.14). He treats the blacks and the coloured peoples as lazy children, which infuriates them. These circumstance lead to an attack on the Coulibri estate. An angry mob set fire to the house. When the family can finally escape, the mob laughs and throws stones at them.
“I wish I could tell him that put of here is not at all like English people think it is.” (p.15).
This quotation spoken by Antoinette, this shows that the gap between cultures left Mr. Mason ignorant and naïve. He did not understand why the blacks would hate them more if they had money. He underestimated the level of rage brewing in the black community around him. This misunderstanding set the stage for the tragic fire at Coulibri. All of this fact represents how racial or cultural differences influences Antoinette’s family life.
Part two of the novel is set on the island of Dominica, at an estate called Granbois, near the village of massacre, where Antoinette and her husband go for their honeymoon. The narrator of part two is Antoinette’s husband, an Englishman who remains nameless. He knows little about his wife. His marriage is arranged by his father, and he also has dealt with Richard mason (p.43). Antoinette’s husband is portrayed as a proud and bigoted younger brother betrayed by his family into a loveless marriage.
When the couple arrived at Granbois, Antoinette’s inherited estate, the man feels uncomfortable around the servants and his strange young wife. Antoinette’s husband behavior is less easily justifiable. He blackmails Christophine, the black nanny, and he threatens to have her arrested if she does not leave his premise. After receiving the letter from Danil Cosway -one of old cosway’s illegitimate children- which is said that Antoinette comes from a family of derelicts and has madness in her blood, Antoinette’s husband begin to detect signs of her insanity. He does not love Antoinette but wants to control her. He then sleeps with his coloured servant to anger his Creole wife. He very obvious looks down on all the black, coloured and Creole people. He even locks his wife up in the third part of the story. These situation shows racial discrimination by the superior race as Englishman (former colonizer).
Antoinette’s husband is trying to regain control of his surroundings along with controlling Antoinette. His hatred comes from his inability to understand and find comfort in nature as Antoinette and the other people do. He is afraid and refuses to be taken in by the beauty and abundance around him. This situation shows the conflict of value between two cultures, West Indian (Jamaica) and colonial. West Indian values were based on living in harmony with nature. The colonials sought to conquer nature and the people associated with it for their own purposes. This situation can bee seen in the quotation below:
“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain, I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and it magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it” (p.112).
These quotations are Antoinette’s husband’s words toward the end of part two.
Part three of the novel is set in England, where Antoinette is locked away in a garret room in her husband’s house, under the watch of a servant, Grace Poole.
The newly arriving English colonists, represented in the novel by Mr. Mason and Antoinette’s husband, are prejudiced against black. Mr. Mason calls them children and believes blacks make bad workers. Antoinette’s husband describes blacks through racist characterizations.
The story of the Cosway’s family in wide Sargasso Sea is an example of the racial discrimination against the creoles due to the emancipation act. By exploring the subject of racism, it seems to show us that it comes in many forms, and hat no straightforward solution for this problem has yet been found.