Wide Sargasso Sea is a story told through lenses, through frames, through structures. A fiction in the purest sense of the word, Wide Sargasso Sea fabricates the “truth” behind Jane Eyre, and in so doing lays bare the structures that implicitly govern Brontë’s text. Wide Sargasso Sea is first a story of colonialism, highlighting the “imperial possessions” that, in Jane Eyre, “are as usefully there, anonymous and collective, as the outcast populations” (Edward Said 719). As a story of colonialism it is also a story of race and a story of industrialization, one people subjugated to the other, the colonized a productive means to the consumptive ends of the colonists. But at the heart of this layered structure is a more basic structure, that of the family. The continued subjugation of native by colonist, black by white, worker by master, is made possible by the continuation of the familial structure. As the fundamental collective human unit, the ideology of the family is reproduced in society as a whole. The consumptive nature of Western colonialism and industrialization, the master/slave dichotomy, finds its simple origin in the Western family unit, and then, even more narrowly defined, the husband/wife relationship. As Slavoj Žižek argues in “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing,” the specifically Western structure of courtly love exacerbates the “Real” of “sexual difference,” entrenching asymmetry as the predominant form of interrelationship between the sexes (1197). Wide Sargasso Sea takes difference and asymmetry as its central conceit, repeating it at every level of the colonial narrative. Jean Rhys critiques the Western industrial complex, the ceaseless, horrifying need to consume, but more importantly, she critiques the mechanism of courtly love that feeds on the bodies of women, reducing them to voiceless non-entities or raving monsters in a never-ending cycle of objectification and violence.
In Wide Sargasso Sea the structural nature of courtly love is a largely invisible ideology. The colonists, especially, are immersed, oblivious to the workings of the system that dictates their lives. It is a lineal system, passed from generation to generation, which Rhys spends part one of the book depicting. Bertha Mason’s true name is Antoinette Cosway, the child of a philandering plantation owner and his second wife Annette, “far too young for him they thought, and, worse still, a Martinique girl” (15). Already, the colonial system is present. Already, the “they” of the system, the panoptic eye, is active, looking for any deviation of lineage, of the “traditional” family unit. When the Emancipation Act passes, “They,” the system, the white colonials, “close ranks” (15). Old Cosway dies. The Cosway family—a widow, two children (one mentally disabled), and a handful of former slaves with nowhere else to go—is left to its fate. The Emancipation Act destabilizes the colonial structure and so it collapses in on itself, retreating to its basic, stable, indissoluble unit: the family. The Cosway household was never stable, but while the superstructure of colonialism remained intact familial disarray was simply material for gossip. As soon as the superstructure is gone, however, the community regroups and the Cosways are ejected from it. The colonial system runs on families. In Wide Sargasso Sea the dynastic nature of colonialism is a stark reality.
It does not take long for “they,” for the system, to reassert itself over the Cosways. Five years pass from Old Cosway’s death. The white community recovers from its trauma and begins to rebuild, starting with the family. Suitors come to Coulibri to court Annette and soon she is remarried, this time to a Mr. Mason. Lineage—the estate, the dynasty—is reestablished, through the restoration of the family unit. This time, however, the man of the household is an outsider, an English man who is “so without a doubt English” (30). The system reverses, the larger superstructure imposing itself from the top, down, upon the Cosway family. As a white creole, Annette is “without a doubt not English, but no white nigger either” (30). As a widow she falls outside the family construct; as a creole she falls outside the racial, colonial construct as well. In marrying Mason familial, racial, and class borders are simultaneously restored. This reintegration of the Cosway’s into society is signaled by the change in name: they are no longer Cosway but Mason. The family unit is restored.
Restoration comes at the cost, a distinctly female cost. Annette is permanently scarred by her family’s isolation. Mason tries to reassure her of their security within the new community, but her otherness has been made all to clear. The daughter of a colonial on Martinique, sent to marry another colonial on Jamaica, and then married off, once more, to a colonial from England, Annette’s status as an object within the system is apparent. She has exchange value insofar as she plays her role within the system of the family. Her whiteness and her class are only valuable, only real, within the bounds of marriage to a white, wealthy man. In her five years of exile, Annette, denied her subjectivity by the system, finds herself an object entirely lacking in agency, “marooned” (16) in the world of the Other. Her reintegration into the system does not resolve the matter. Her identity as object has been thoroughly entrenched. Mason’s empty gestures to her subjectivity only drive her further into madness and despair. Once made aware of the truth of her role she can never forget it. Mason, as an agent of the system, is more thoroughly immersed in the ideology of it than the Cosways were before the collapse: “‘No, I don’t understand,’ Mr. Mason always said. ‘I don’t understand at all’” (28). He does not see Annette splintering before his eyes, and when the final break occurs, when Coulibri burns and Pierre dies, he cannot understand her hysteria, her Otherness, the “Real that resists symbolization” (Žižek 1197). When the colonial mask falls away all that Mason can see is a madwoman, a monster, not realizing that he, they, the system, is what made her so.
Fractured again the family unit falls once more outside the colonial system. This time, however, an agent of the system (Mason) remains to mitigate the fallout. Rather than be marooned like her mother, Antoinette is cloistered, enrolling (or rather, is enrolled by Mason) in convent school. Her Otherness is inscribed within a space sanctioned by the system, instead of being left outside the system as her mother was. Mason visits her every year until she is seventeen, “a grown woman” (48), her exchange value fully realized. Antoinette is ready to be reintegrated into the familial, and thus, the colonial, system. Her value, like her mother’s before her, is as an object within the colonial system that ensures continued lineal control. She is a surrogate for the transference of the Cosway estate from its steward (Mason) to its new master (Rochester). Her marriage to Rochester establishes a new husband/wife unit upon which the white, colonial system can continue to build. Rhys uses this marriage, however, to illuminate the underlying ideology of the whole system. Colonial violence does not spring from nothing; it is rooted in the quiet, intimate violence of courtly love.
Slavoj Žižek sees courtly love as a “libidinal economy” (1181). It is this economy that forms the basis for the entire colonial economy. Within the libidinal economy, as seen above with Annette and Antoinette, women are commodities to be exchanged. As long as the female remains an object, the greater system of commodity and exchange remains stable. Any deviation in the foundational economy threatens the whole. In the colonial, industrial economy, slavery is the apparatus that ensures the ongoing welfare of the system. Analogously, courtly love is the apparatus that ensures the ongoing welfare of the familial system. The apparatus deprives “the Lady” of her “concrete features,” reducing her to an “abstract ideal” (Žižek 1182). The Lady “functions as an inhuman partner in the sense of a radical Otherness . . . as such, she is simultaneously a kind of automaton” (1182). Entirely inhuman, entirely Other, the Lady is reduced to a mechanism within the apparatus, completely devoid of subjectivity, an “empty surface,” a “kind of “black hole” in reality” (1183). The subject, the colonial agent, uses the Lady as a “mirror on to which [he] projects his narcissistic ideal” (1183). In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, the mechanism of courtly love is complicated by Emancipation. With the superstructure of slavery abolished, the exchange relationship between master and slave, colonist and native, white and black, must be renegotiated. Some slaves continue to serve their old masters. Others enter into the economy as relative equals with their former masters. In either case, the system is destabilized. The Cosway family straddles the breach. They are the masters of the plantation, but they serve the English industrial machine across the Atlantic. They are the colonists, but they did not always live in the West Indies. They are white, but not entirely. Antoinette, as the center of the text is entirely indeterminate. She personifies the Otherness of the islands, the Otherness that stands in opposition to colonial Englishness. The system of courtly love attempts to integrate her as the Lady, but her Otherness, her not-quite-whiteness, her not-quite-Englishness, is even more radical than what the system allows for. Rhys uses Antoinette’s liminal position in society to highlight the utter destructiveness of the libidinal economy.
The ideology of libidinal economy, courtly love, is so innocuous that Rochester, the subject in the relationship, is not fully aware of the part that he plays within the greater system. He is the younger child of a wealthy family and, though wealthy in comparison to most people in the West Indies, does not stand to inherit any of his father’s estate. His marriage to Antoinette is arranged in order for him to procure his own estate through the law of coverture: what is hers will become his. He is driven by his family’s expectations; “I have a modest competence now,” he thinks. “I will never be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love . . . . I have sold my soul or you have sold it” (59). Even as a subject, he recognizes his subjectivity, his whiteness, his masculinity, as a function of the system, another hollow mechanism. He tries to embrace his role, tries to relish the opiate of the Lady that is his supposed reward: “after all is it such a bad bargain? The girl is thought to be beautiful, she is beautiful” (59). “They” tell him that she is beautiful, that he will be happy, but her beauty, her body, is simply payment for his continued acquiescence. He does not marry Antoinette out of passion, and yet, by marrying her, the rules of courtly love determine their relationship from the start. The system is so firmly entrenched in Western culture, the influence of “they” is so strong upon them, that Rochester is forced to participate in the system despite both he and Antoinette’s reluctance. The day before their wedding Antoinette refuses to be married, “afraid of what may happen” (66). Rochester assures her that, once married, “there would not be any more reason to be afraid” (66). He promises her peace, happiness, safety” (66) but her only answer is a nod. In accepting her role Antoinette accepts her objectification and thus gives up her voice. The wedding itself “meant nothing to [him]” and “Nor did she, the girl [he] was to marry” (65). As Rochester ruefully recalls, “I played the part I was expected to play . . . . I must have given a faultless performance” (65). Even in consoling her he plays the role of dutiful husband. Antoinette’s hysteria threatens the system, her Otherness threatening to break out of her costume as Lady, and so Rochester makes promises, silencing her with kisses. There is no passion. Looking back to the wedding day he could “hardly remember what she looked like” (65). Courtly love is “thoroughly a matter of courtesy and etiquette; it has nothing to do with some elementary passion” (Žižek 1183). It is a “strict fictional formula” (1183), masochistic: “the most intimate desires become objects of contract and composed negotiation” (1185). Rhys uses Rochester’s detachment to illustrate this contractual quality of the courtly love complex, emphasizing its connection with the economic superstructure of colonialism.
As courtly love is as a fundamentally masochistic system, the “very kernel of the [subject’s] being is externalized in the staged game towards which he maintains his constant distance” (Žižek 1184). Rochester is constantly characterized as cold and unfeeling, directly contrasted with the hyper-sensory environment of the West Indies. The Other is too much for him to process, and so he distances himself, remaining aloof, refusing to make real connections with islanders as Antoinette does, or make any sort of attempt to understand the culture he is immersed in. It is “a beautiful place,” he thinks, “with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness” (73). He wants the secret it holds but he cannot have it. The masochist (Rochester) must remain separate, must endure the “meaningless demands” of his Lady (Antoinette) because that is the contract he agreed to (1182). The masochist suffers his bondage. This suffering, however, is an illusion constructed by the sufferer himself, the blank space of the “Lady-Object” (1186) serving his own narcissistic subjectivization. Antoinette is the vehicle for Rochester’s identity, in that, by marrying her, he enters into the economy of industrial colonialism as a landowning, white, man. In the fateful turn of the tragedy, Rochester’s subjectivization sparks a reversal, a destabilization: the Lady falls in love with her man. The “object of love changes into the subject the moment it answers the call of love” (1193), but the masochist cannot accept such a reversal: “the subject refuses the role of an object-instrument of the enjoyment of his Other” (1184). Rochester, the masochist, “is hystericized . . . . horrified at the prospect of being reduced in the eyes of the Other to objet a” (1184). Granbois, where Antoinette and Rochester go for their honeymoon, becomes the very “passage à l’acte,” the “stage” where Rochester moves “from ordinary behavior” to the “violent act itself” (Žižek 1184; note 16). In this moment, passion turns to hate, adoration to revulsion. Rochester’s simultaneous agreement to and rejection of the terms of courtly love leads directly to this collapse, which, for Žižek, marks the transition from masochism to sadism (1184). Every scrap of love that Antoinette offers, Rochester refuses, driving her to the breaking point.
Rochester leans on his paranoia of the other to justify his hatred of Antoinette. But, where the sadist hates the Lady with the passion he once adored her with, Rochester is cold, calculating, and ruthless. He feels duped by the system, his marriage to a lascivious madwoman orchestrated to ensure his participation in the game. His hatred flows from pride, not passion, and so his violence is of a different sort. He does not attack Antoinette with a machete, like the man Christophine speaks of (125). Rather, Rochester rejects Antoinette’s very personhood, her subjectivity, rebuffing every last gesture of love she proffers. Antoinette grows more desperate, more hysterical, her behavior only serving to confirm Rochester’s suspicions. “All you want is to break her up,” Christophine says. He need never lift a hand to do so. When he has sex with Amélie, the serving girl, in the room adjacent to his wife, it is the killing blow of their relationship, a purely sadistic indulgence. The Lady, having at last offered herself freely to the subject as a subject, is rejected in favour of an indentured object. Any love Antoinette feels for Rochester is gone, and yet, she is bound to him by the system. Held together by an external force their hate for one another grows deeper, Rochester colder, Antoinette more frenzied. Perhaps here, only, in the active flame of hatred, is Antoinette’s subjectivity recognized, but this only once she has been removed from the social apparatus. Her perceived madness delegitimizes the marriage contract, devalues her within the libidinal economy, and pushes her into the field of the Other like her mother before. And, in the end, Rochester takes even her hate from her: “You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself” (140). These are the words of a sadist, a hysteric madman. Yet Antoinette is the hysterical one, and Rochester a victim of a malicious, manipulative woman. Antoinette is forced to marry a man she never loved, and when at last she tries to love him, he destroys her. She begs for death early on: “Say die and I will die. You don’t believe me? Then try, try, say die and watch me die” (77). Rochester will not let her. And in the end, once he has taken everything from her, her “false heavens” and “damned magic,” her “hate” and her “beauty” (140), he withholds this final release. “Say die and I will die,” he thinks, “Say die and watch me die” (140). Even now, with “[n]othing left but hopelessness,” he dwells on her pain, her last request, and coldly refuses her this final mercy (140). Courtly love is the incipient system of the Western industrial complex, the atrocity from which every atrocity of colonialism is learned. Rochester and Antoinette’s marriage takes this most perverse of performances to its logical end. In courtly love, women are reduced to tinder, as slaves are in the colonial system, fuel for the furnace of a horrific machine.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2000. Print.
Said, Edward. “Narrative and Social Space.” Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 718-734. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing.” 1181-1197. PDF.