Racial Identity and Ambiguity in Wide Sargasso Sea

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1969

In her unfinished autobiography, Smile Please, Jean Rhys records her childhood longing to be black: ‘‘[My mother] loved babies, any babies. Once I heard her say that black babies were prettier than white ones. Was this the reason why I prayed so ardently to be black, and would run to the looking-glass in the morning to see if the miracle had happened? And though it never had, I tried again. Dear God, let me be black.’’ In an unpublished manuscript entitled ‘‘Black Exercise Book,’’ Rhys suggests that she can boast a distant black ancestor: ‘‘My great grandfather and his beautiful Spanish wife. Spanish? I wonder.'' In questioning the ethnic heritage of this presumably darker skinned woman, Rhys questions the stories her family has told about their ethnicity. On at least one occasion, in ‘‘The Bible Is Modern,’’ Rhys called herself "black" to imply her alienation from English culture. As Judith L. Raiskin writes, ‘‘While Rhys did not identify herself racially as other than white Creole, her self-identification as... 'black' is a political stance meant to position her in opposition to the metropolitan colonizing culture.’’ In desiring to be black, in searching for a black ancestor, and in aligning herself with black West Indians, Rhys complicated the boundaries between black and white so stark in her time, and even starker in the mid-nineteenth century, the timeframe of her best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.

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Certainly race and racial difference are complicated categories in a novel set just after the emancipation of slavery in the British colonies. The heroine of the novel, Antoinette Cosway, otherwise known as Bertha Mason, is called at one point a ‘‘white nigger.’’ Similarly, the Cosway/Mason family's servant Mannie is called a ‘‘black Englishman.’’ Held up as opposites, pairing the categories of ''white'' with ''nigger'' and ''black'' with ''Englishman’’ seems to be paradoxical. As Lee Erwin argues in his article '‘‘Like in a Looking Glass': History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea,'' such terms indicate an ''interchangeability of racial positions.’’ What becomes apparent, however, is that these words have meaning beyond simple racial designations, and really speak to the competing meanings attached to race throughout the novel. What it means to be black or white in Wide Sargasso Sea depends on who's telling the story. Racial difference takes on widely different meanings as the novel is narrated variously by Antoinette and Edward Rochester. Erwin suggests that Rochester ''interprets racial difference in moral and sexual terms,’’ that blackness implies sexual and moral perversion, while whiteness stands for purity. Meanwhile, Erwin says that Antoinette views race ‘‘in terms of historically specific shifts in class and economic power.'' Feeling neither black nor white, Antoinette is torn between the discourses of what race means.

Antoinette's main desire in this novel is to belong—whether with her mother, with her first (and only) friend Tia, or with her husband Edward Rochester. She is, in turn, rejected by each one. Time and again this rejection is coded as a rejection based on racial difference. Rejected alike by her white Creole mother, by her black friend, and by her English husband, to what racial and ethnic category does Antoinette belong? As a child, Antoinette sees the gulf emerge between her and Tia. Angry at her friend, Antoinette calls Tia a "nigger." This racial slur immediately shifts the meaning of their petty argument. Antoinette does not need to prove that she is right because she is white. Designating Tia as a ‘‘cheating nigger,’’ Antoinette reduces her friend to a stereotype. Tia counters by calling Antoinette a ‘‘white...

(The entire section contains 8276 words.)

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