The Quest for Racial Identity in Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea"

Essay by toto323 April 2007

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Racial discrimination is a theme that runs throughout postcolonial discourse. How people of different races get along and what prejudices they hold are major themes in Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel is a postcolonial re-writing of Jane Eyre, in which Jane Rhys explores the complex relations between white and black West Indians, and between the old slaveholding West Indian families and the new English settlers in the post-emancipation Caribbean. Rhys's novel forces readers to reexamine Bronte's novel and consider the significance of race in the nineteenth-century English novel.

Certainly race and racial difference are complicated categories in a novel set just after the emancipation of slavery in the British colonies. The novel begins in 1839, five years after slavery had ended and one year after the system of forced black labor had ended , the relations between black and white West Indians were tense. This tension reaches its peak as the black workers burn the symbol of white oppression, the plantation house.

With the imprisoned madwoman in Thornfield as both starting point and end, Rhys starts her own narrative. The narrator is the madwoman but her tale is the young Antoinette's. The theme is the fear and the possibility of losing one's whiteness. The very first sentences of the novel set the tone: "They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks." Also the black people point out that they now lack real whiteness: "Real white people, they got gold money. They didn't look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger."The heroine of the novel, Antoinette Cosway is called at one point a "white nigger." Black children insult her calling her...