Wide Sargasso Sea: An Elegy of Class Conflict in Jamaica*

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  • ABSTRACT

    This paper is to scrutinize Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea through a Marxist criticism. While critics were industriously excavating discourses of feminism, post-colonialism, and racism in the novel, they tended to regard the Marxist attribute as supplementary material and to diminish the significance not considering as an independent subject to be examined. However, the novel, in which all the major relationships are based on capital, exemplifies class conflict between the bourgeois and the proletariat. Marx and Engels believe that the foundation of our society is capital and that society evolves through class conflict to obtain more capital, and thus they assert people’s relations are the product of the commodification of individuals. Furthering their study, Louis Althusser specifies the power system through the (repressive) state apparatus and the ideological state apparatus. With the theories of the thinkers’ above, this paper analyzes the relationship between Annette and Mason, Antoinette and her nameless husband, allegedly Rochester, Rochester and Amelie, and Rochester and Daniel Cosway. This paper offers an alternative reading of a classical feminist and post-colonial text.


  • KEYWORD

    Jean Rhys , Wide Sargasso Sea , Marx , Althusser , Subjectivity

  • I

    Carine Melkom Mardorossian posits, “The history of Rhys criticism is characterized by a succession of polarizations that cannot be explained solely as a result of the complexities of her work and that testify to the disparity of diachronic as well as synchronic reading process” (80). Specifying Mardorossian’s claim, other critics of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) have explicated many kinds of discourses embedded in the novel such as intertextuality or metatextuality with Emily Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Height (1847) and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), hegemonic (post)colonial collision, race—black, Creole, white — conflict, ethnic complication among Afro-Jamaicans, Creole Jamaicans, and the English, colored women’s confrontation with white androcentric hierarchical domain, ideological imperialism, and so forth.1 However, their focuses have rarely dwelled on Marxist or capitalistic conflict in the novel even though its presence is palpable and significant. The critics have tended to restrain themselves in the arenas of the issues that a Caribbean text normally exposes, or is expected to expose, and to neglect issues rather rudimentary and indispensible—the matter of living and surviving, and more realistic and tangible—that is, the material.

    Karl Marx saw that society evolved through the collisions of the haves and the have-nots. The bourgeois, property owners, want to sustain their hegemony, which is constructed on the material, by manipulating the proletariat, labor workers, in various ways. One of the essential means that the bourgeois employ is ideology because it is the core engine that initiates and eventually substantiates the ways people think. Marx, and his followers, saw the bourgeois as the subject that produces and maneuvers ideology in favor for themselves while the proletariat are the object of the practice of ideology. Our thought, values, identities, and cultures are all subject to ideology and we cannot be free from the intervention of it.2 The sociopolitical issues mentioned above are actually the products of deology. Then what is the initiative of ideology? Marx believed that the nitiative was material. Simply people move by material—to obtain, multiply, manage, and prolong it. The material atmosphere ascertains people’s sociopolitical class and financial stability. Material and its commodification are the key elements that determine people’s actions, relations, and choices. Such Marxist conflicts are manifest in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. The relationships between characters are predominantly based on material. Annette’s marriage to Mr Mason, Mason’s desertion of Annette to a remote place, Antoinette’s marriage to the nameless English man, the husband’s confinement of Antoinette in the attic, the husband’s one night stand with Amelie, and even Cosway’s blackmail prove the presence of ideology and illustrate an exemplary discourse of Marxism. In order to contextualize these ideas, the paper first meditates on the concept of ideology borrowing from Marx’s and Louis Althusser’s discourses and explicates the application of ideology in Rhys’ fiction. Then it scrutinizes the relationships of the characters in context of Marxist criticism and offers an alternative reading of the classical text of (post)colonialism, feminism, and racism.

    1For some examples, see Lydon, Kimmey, and Kim for intertextuality or metatextuality. Articles related to other issues can be easily found through an internet search.  2Perhaps, Jacques Lacan’s Real Order could be idealistically the place of ideology free. However, Lacan himself had a hard time explaining the Real Order with language because language is also a product of the Symbolic Order. Once we use language, our perceptions are spontaneously constrained by the system.

    II

    Ideology in short is a belief system. Whatever we perceive as natural—for instance, ethics, virtues, values, and principles—is in fact what we are indoctrinated to receive as natural. Ideologies are products of regularly reiterated social, political, and ritual practices, but they are not the final products because they continuously metamorphose as time and place change and as hegemony changes. Furthering Marx’s and Althusser’s definition of ideology, John Fiske posits, “Ideology is not, then, a static set of ideas through which we view the world but a dynamic social practice, constantly in process, constantly reproducing itself in the ordinary workings of [state] apparatuses” (307). The ruling class generates ideology to subjugate the working class and to sustain their power through education, religion, politics, philosophy, and so forth. Althusser, for instance, once alleged that the dominant Ideological State Apparatus should be the educational apparatus because education is a major tool for the ruling class to instill ideology into the mind of the working class without much resistance. Education takes a significant role in forming culture as well. Education here does not only mean formal systematic education of school but also informal unsystematic acquisition through books, newspapers, TV shows, and any other forms of mass media. As education interacts with culture, they constitute ideologies at both communal and individual levels.

    Through education, people, dominantly proletarians, spontaneously embrace ideologies—for instance, classism, patriotism, religion, individualism, consumerism, and American dream—in order for their presence to be acknowledged and for their voice to be heard.3 Ideologies are so naturalized that people do not even recognize the fact that they are subjugated to them regardless of their intention. Consequently people become products of ideologies and slaves to them. Penetrating the core of the bourgeois conspiracy, Marx dismantles the entity of ideology. Marx claims that people are “programmed,” for example, to believe their desires for higher social class “natural,” and fall into false ideality or “false consciousness” (Tyson 58). Within the false consciousness, the goal of people’s life becomes the accumulation of capital, through which they want to secure their prestigious sociopolitical rank. Human society, Marx asserts, evolves through clashes between “classes” of people to obtain more material or commodities. History, in other words, is the continuation of the exchange—subversion and capitulation—of commodities and commodification.

    Collinearly, Marx sees economics as the “base” of society because all social and political activities are performed by economic causes or material circumstances. For example, the primary goal of the colonizer is to secure material circumstances by usurping the colonized. And they begin to establish new social, political, and cultural atmospheres for their own advantages, which Marx calls “superstructure” (Tyson 54). Guarding the base and constructing the superstructure frequently occur at the same time; however, without the base, no superstructure can survive. That is why economics is always vital in war of power: on the one side, bourgeois want to maintain their hegemony by securing the base; on the other side, proletarians want to take it over from the bourgeois and to constitute a new hegemony. In the midst of such strife, society repeats progress, regression, and reproduction.

    Marx regards the state as the generator of ideologies and the dynamo of (repressive) power. The state is embodied in the form of an apparatus or apparatuses that sustain the ruling class in the position of power; it corroborates the status of the bourgeois through physical repression and ideological colonization. In “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Louis Althusser encapsulates the Marxist theory of the state as follows:

    In other words, it is the state power what the bourgeois want to sustain and at the same time what the proletariat want to extort from the bourgeois, and people use the state apparatus to perpetuate the state power or to score it.

    Althusser furthers the Marxist theory of the state by specifying the structure of the State Apparatus. He splits the state apparatus into two kinds: (Repressive) State Apparatus and Ideological State Apparatus.4 The former predominantly functions “by violence,” while the latter “by ideology.” Since “every State Apparatus, whether Repressive or Ideological, ‘functions’ both by violence and by ideology,” the distinction between the two Apparatuses is made by its predominant means to dominate the working class. In case of slavery, for example, the (Repressive) State Apparatus enforced slaves to obey to their masters, and if they did not obey, they would have been physically punished. The ruling class used police or army to subjugate them. At the same time the Ideological State Apparatus created the myth of inferiority of slaves and justified slaves’ humble sociopolitical position. Slaves were educated or indoctrinated to believe that they were not good enough to be autonomous and thus it was natural for them to be enslaved. Likewise, the ruling class manipulates religion, education, and tradition to legitimize the ruling ideology. The two Apparatuses collaborate to achieve the ultimate goal of the ruling class—sustaining the state power.

    3In her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that the Subaltern’s voice is buried in that of the dominance and as a result it cannot be heard.  4Althusser uses the word “Repressive” in parentheses because the word can also be applied to Ideological State Apparatus. All kinds of State Apparatuses can be repressive as they pursue the state power.

    III

    In Wide Sargasso Sea, Annette’s and Antoinette’s stories are structured in symmetry. The configuration of their experiences essentially exemplifies class conflict between the bourgeois and the proletariat. The two marry Englishmen, and also both at the end are deserted and confined in “prison.” Both subscribe to the English subjectivity and both are entrapped by it. As for the difference, Antoinette’s story is more enumerated than Annette’s. Annette attempts to restore her bourgeois status through marriage, which was dwindled by the Emancipation Act and the death of her husband; Antoinette desires for Englishness but is deprived by the “phantom” of capitalism—the nameless husband (allegedly Edward Rochester) and his illusory father—in the name of “English Law.”5

    The Englishness or the English subjectivity, which Annette and Antoinette are subordinated to, is an ideology. Here, the concepts of subject and subjectivity are induced by the cultural embodiment or the entity of ideology. John Fiske elaborates it as he differentiates the subject from the individual:

    In other words, the subject is socially constructed by culture, tradition, religion, and education. And our subjectivity, then, is “a lifelong process of negotiating our way, consciously and unconsciously, among the constraints and freedoms offered at any given moment in time by the society in which we live” because it is not “merely a product of our own individual will and desire” but that of interaction and compromise between individual identity and its cultural and ideological milieu (Tyson 284).

    According to Althusser, subjectivity is fortified by the repressive state apparatus and the ideological state apparatus. Through corporal enforcement, on the one hand, the repressive state apparatus protects the privilege of the English people while controling the majority of Jamaicans; on the other hand, the ideological state apparatus creates degrading myths and stereotypes of native Jamaicans and people of mixed ethnicity and simultaneously educates them the “superiority” of the English people. Thus it becomes “natural” for Annette and Antoinette to long for England. Slavoj Zízék asserts, “An ideology is really ‘holding us’ only when we do not feel any opposition between it and reality—that is, when the ideology succeeds in determining the mode of our everyday experience of reality itself” (325). Annette and later Antoinette are entrapped by the English subjectivity but they do not realize it. The presence of the English subjectivity is subtle—obvious but at the same time impalpable. The ambivalence is well described by Christophine in her conversation with Antoinette.

    What Christophine, Annette, and Antoinette perceive as “England” is something none of them has experienced directly. It is a fantasy. Based on the fantasy, however, their reality is adjudged. Borrowing from the Lacanian theory of the Real, Zizek marks such a phenomenon as “ideological illusion” or “ideological fantasy,” which is engendered by “a discordance between what people are effectively doing and what they think they are doing” (320). For example, Annette thinks herself that she is trying to escape from the latent peril from black people when she pleads with Mason to leave for England. Her demand seems to be derived from the reality of tangible threat. Nevertheless, it is evident that she is unconsciously guided by the ideological fantasy of England. Zizek avers, “It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy-framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself” (324). In other words, Annette’s decisions and actions are engendered by her “dream”— the ideological illusion of England that the ruling class has created for its own interest drive. Analogously, Antoinette is born with restraint as a Creole. Even though she was guaranteed at her birth with financial affluence of her plantation owner father, she could be neither an English nor a white. That means, she could not avoid the shade of the English and the white. As a way of escape, therefore she determined to find an English “prince” who could fulfill the incomplete part of her life. And that is the way, she thinks, she could solidify her social position, which turned out to be just a fantasy of hers.

    It is “the fetishism of commodities” that leads Annette to Mason and vice versa, and the nameless Englishman to Antoinette. In other words, Annette’s and Antoinette’s marriages are contracted when their desires for the exchange and/or sign values of the counterpart’s arrive in the middle ground. They strive for different values from each other: while Annette covets Mason’s capital and Englishness, Mason indulges in Annette’s body and indigenousness; analogously, while Antoinette desires for a social class of superiority, which her capital could not guarantee, her bride-groom craves after her money. The goals of Mason’s and Rochester’s are identical because it is a nature of the bourgeois to constantly revolutionize “the instruments of production and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society” (Marx 257). But on the other hand, Annette and Antoinette are obviously subject to the ideological illusion and do not recognize the danger in which they are involved through marriage. A capitalist does not invest more than the value of the product. The cost of production “hinges on the cost of reproduction, how much it takes to keep the system going from one day to the next. And what is produced must be worth more than those costs. The cost of keeping human workers [in this case, Annette or Antoinette] alive is, for Marx [Mason and Rochester], therefore the basic unit for determining exchange value” (Rivkin and Ryan 236). In other words, capitalists Mason and Rochester will retain Annette and Antoinette as long as their value and usability last, but once Mason confronts the end of Annette’s usability and Rochester ensures the ownership of Antoinette’s property, the two women are no longer needed. Then, they have to be purged by the ruling class. The prison, as many feminist critics have interpreted, can be the space of androcentric domination and patriarchy;6 however, for a Marxist, it is a place of impotence and emasculation of economic capability. It is the completion of bourgeois extortion.

    The ruling class masters the latent logic of subjectivity. Subjectivity is an unavoidable psychological snare for the working class; but for the ruling class, it is a tool to manipulate the ruled. For example, for Mason to be a “black Englishman,”7 that is to admit ostensibly the black subjectivity, is nothing but an alternative means to generate capital. Through his marriage, he paints himself as part of the community because he needs the belongingness— more accurately, the black people’s recognition of his black subjectivity—for the expansion of his wealth. His “black subjectivity” is a visual showcase of his identity and a concealment of capitalistic avarice.

    The perception of the ruling class is more clearly demonstrated by Rochester and his father. Rochester’s father exists only in letters. His presence is not physical; yet, it is invisible, ideological, authoritative, dogmatic, and “legitimate.” Rochester’s letter corroborates it.

    Claiming that his father would construe his situation well, Rochester actually affirms on the conspiracy that he and his father collaborate in order to usurp Antoinette’s wealth. The English law, primogeniture, as Youngjoo Kim asserts, pressures Rochester to make his own fortune through a marriage to the daughter of a wealthy planter (103) but at the same time bestows on him the privilege to legally own every property that used to be in his wife’s ownership. Upon the marriage, “[t]he thirty thousand pounds have been paid to [him] without question or condition” (39). At once the husband scores the fortune, he does not need Antoinette any more. By asking his father to talk little about his “affairs,” he foretells his plan to get rid of Antoinette. And this plan is initiated for both his and his father’s sake.

    In fact, from the beginning of his married life, Antoinette was “meant nothing” to him. His treatment of her was pretentious and insincere. Rochester discloses, “When at last I met her I bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her. I play the part I was expected to play. She never had anything to do with me at all. Every movement I made was an effort of will and sometimes I wondered that no one noticed this” (44, emphasis added). In other words, the wedding was simply a contract for him to obtain Antoinette’s property, and after the wedding he performed his character as husband as expected by others. However, while Rochester was giving “a faultless performance,” there was not an “expression of doubt or curiosity” on a white face but a black one (44). That is, the proletariat penetrated the bourgeois’ mind even though Antoinette was not able to discern it clearly.

    Antoinette’s husband and father-in-law are ideologically identical in serving English law. It was a law of patriarchy, capitalism, and imperialism of the nineteenth century.8 The law did not permit women to practice sociopolitical rights. It legitimized British colonization over other countries and Britain’s transportation of agricultural products and industrial goods from the colonized land to the royal palace at a low or no cost. It was like a “Dracula” octopus that sucked the “blood” of other nations through the suckers on the legs. As a result, the English became more affluent and influential while the colonized struggled in poverty. The repressive English apparatus placed itself in a superior position in terms of economics, the base of hegemony, and the ideological English apparatus simultaneously built up superstructure and maneuvered the mind of colonized people. An emblematic example of the English apparatus is Anoinette’s husband attending upon his father—the royal palace.

    In the interior of colonization is capitalism. French sociologist Jean Ziegler and many others have disclosed numerous cases of capitalistic invasion masked in the name of democracy. Recent US-Iraq war, for example, is portrayed as “oil war” by many learned people. Many countries were reluctant to ostensibly stand against Lybia’s Gaddafi, even though he was internationally known as a notorious dictator, because of the complication of their own economic interest. Even the “official” communist Republic of China is heavily investing on natural resources in Africa in order to secure a superior position in future energy war.9 Analogously, Mason, Antoinette’s husband, and Antoinette’s husband’s father appear as solicitors of colonization but at the same time they are subjects of capitalism. It is capitalism that drives them to marriage.

    As mentioned earlier, ideology is structured by intentional and unintentional programing. It is to make the proletariat believe what the bourgeois want them to believe. As a method of programing, Rochester chooses to call Antoinette “Bertha,” Antoinette’s mother’s name, even though she refuses it. Antoinette resists, “Berth is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah, too” (95). The name did matter to her. When she was not called Antoinette, she experienced hallucination that her soul was apart from her body, and it was lethal enough for her to see herself “drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her lookingglass” (116). However, Antoinette’s resistance did not affect the husband. He simply answers, “Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha” (86). Calling her by her mother’s name, the husband implicitly establishes an apparatus of his power. Antoinette’s mother Bertha was a victim of the ruling class and an example of the failure of the proletariat. Bertha had challenged the ruling class in order to ensure her social position but was defeated and restrained at the end. Calling Antoinette Bertha is a way of indoctrination pushing her to the edge on the one hand, and on the other hand it works as a precursor of her destination. Also the naming gives him privilege and a feeling of superiority over Antoinette. Rochester feels uncertain in his position as bourgeoise because he has barely obtained the position by marrying Antoinette and usurping her fortune. Calling Antoinette Bertha, he attempts to stabilize the uncertainty by intentionally placing Antoinette in the position of inferiority and proletariat, and thus she “must be Bertha” (87).

    Rochester’s sexual relationship with Amelie can also be explained by capitalism. Sleeping with Amelie meant to Rochester to display his control and power over Antoinette’s possession. It was his practice of a new hegemony that he had gained through marriage. However, on the other hand, for Amelie, it was a trial of her scheme for uplifting herself to a position of bourgeois. The fact that she took the “large present” from Rochester “with no thanks” proves that she was the one who controled the relationship between herself and Rochester (90). That is, having sex with Rochester was a planned incident by her. She says, “It’s long time I know what I want to do,” and she wants to go to Rio because “[t]here were rich men in Rio” (90). Amelie has the same agenda for her life as Rochester. She witnessed how Rochester obtained his wealth and secured his position as bourgeois, and she will find a rich man and reiterate Rochester’s work for herself. As Rochester says to Amelie, “You are beautiful enough to get anything you want” (90), it is certain that she will use her body as a commodity to gain what sha has long planned.

    Villain Daniel/Esau Cosway too cannot hide his own agenda for money in the beginning. The purpose of his revelation of the family “secret” is not to publicize the “truth” of the family for the sake of Rochester but to anyhow obtain five hundred pounds from Rochester. But the masterful Rochester would not give in to Daniel but assures himself to utilize Daniel’s story for his own advantage in the relationship with Antoinette. For Rochester, it is not important to know whether Daniel’s story is true or not; what is important is that with the story he can secure a “legitimate” excuse to corroborate his power over Antoinette.

    5Even though Antoinette’s husband’s name is not mentioned in the novel, only for convenience’s sake, the commonly accepted name Edward Rochester is adopted in this paper.  6Related examples can be found in Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality (1976) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guber’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1980).  7Even though Mason is an Englishman, he tries to be accepted as a member of black people’s community in Coulibri by marrying one of native residents. It is a hypocritical and calculated gesture of Mason’s, which is here called “black Englishman,” in order to manipulate the proletariat.  8Youngjoo Kim also sees Rochester as “the enforcer of imperial and patriarchal Englishness” (102).  9For more details, see the BBC article, “China in Africa: Developing Ties.”

    IV

    In an unpublished letter to Selma Vaz Dias in October 1957, Jean Rhys wrote,

    Rhys’ creation of Annette, Antoinette, and other characters and their conflict was not simply a parodic sequel of the great Jane Eyre but also a recreation of nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jamaica, which was the aftermath of colonial occupations and the colonizers’ maltreatment and exploitation in both ideological and physical ways. The Spanish occupation on the Jamaican soil produced a race called Creole and racial divisions between the natives and the colonizers. Later the British occupation and the import of slaves complicated the racial division more. Such racial divisions as the English, Creole, black people became interweaved with capitalism and eventually created an ambivalent class like “white nigger.” The race alone could not empower enough for the individual to secure the social class; but he/she needed capital. Material became the crucial means or “base” to sustain their social class that was initiated by race. That is why Annette and Antoinette had to find an English man to marry; and that is why Mason had to marry an indigenous woman, and Rochester a wealthy woman.

    Marx and Engels saw history “nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which . . . modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity” (57). By “a completely changed activity,” they meant revolution. They believed that revolution could establish a new hegemony and new power systems which would revise the restraint of the current power system. The fallacy of their theory, however, is that they overlooked the fact that the new hegemony would eventually reiterate the “problematic” practice of the old one. The successful actualization of Marxist theory takes place only in the world of ideal, and that is the reality, which is proven by world history. The Republic of China, for example, proves the gap between the reality and the ideal of Marxism. In a similar sense, there is no revolution in Wide Sargasso Sea. Annette ends her life inscrutably and Antoinette burns herself in the attic. Both are defeated in the game of hegemony, and the haves continue to sustain their class. Their dreams were completely ruined by the bourgeois English men. It is an elegy of class conflict in Jamaica. Her burning means little to the bourgeois Rochester, as he marries a much younger English girl after all.

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