Sunday, May 9, 2010

Modern Library Top 100: #94 - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Around the same time a few white kids in your typical suburban high school--my typical suburban high school, weirdly enough--rallied around the American flag to say they weren't too fond of a multiracial America, thank you very much, I was turning the final page on Jean Rhys's celebrated meditation on racial identity. I doubt any of those boys has read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I'm sure they would find it instructive. It's as racist as they are.

Jean Rhys first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, and was appalled at the revolting portrayal of Bertha Mason, the Jamaican creole madwoman banished to the attic of Thornfield Hall. A creole herself, Rhys decided to give Bertha her due, writing a prequel of sorts describing Bertha's youth as white girl growing up in Jamaica in the wake of emancipation. Rhys does her best to rehabilitate Mason's image, along the way tackling BIG ISSUES like the existential anguish of being in a economically dominant minority, or the pain of growing up in a nice big house that's falling apart because your mother couldn't afford to pay her former slaves enough to keep it up. And why are all the black people so mean to Bertha (here called Antoinette) anyway? The horror!

So no, I did not like this novel. To be charitable, Rhys is definitely on point vis-a-vis Victorian gender relations. She does a very good job of painting Antoinette's husband as the domineering weasel who effectively forces her into madness, his appropriation of her so complete that he even succeeds in renaming her. (Not that complete, of course, because she does eventually burn his house down in Jane Eyre. But still). But woo boy, nobody would accuse Rhys of being racially sensitive (except, of course, sensitive to the plight of white people).

Christophine, the principal black person in the novel, is a wise old woman who practices voodoo, and shepherds Antoinette throughout the narrative. She's the very definition of the magical negro, and she's just as offensive as Uncle Remus. Sandi Cosway is another black person who pops up, and he happens to be the love of Antoinette's life. He arrives for a single page to save her from a schoolyard beating, then disappears entirely from the story for his trouble. But hey, we're at least told that Sandi and Antoinette were engaged, so that's....something, I guess. The rest of the black characters either burn down Antoinette's childhood home, steal her clothes, kill her brother, call her names, or seduce her husband. Some critics have defended Rhys's portrayal of black Jamaicans, since the story is told from the point of view of a 19th century genteel Creole woman, reflecting what would have been her feelings on race. Bullfeathers, I say.

Anyway, I guess the point of this all is that it really shouldn't be so hard to step outside yourself and write a sympathetic fully-realized character outside your own experience. But for whatever reason people keep fucking it up. I've long railed against Hollywood's (a collection of white men if there ever was one) treatment of women as either baby-crazy psychopaths (I'm looking at you, Judy Greer) or bland objects of adolescent desire (oh hi, Zooey Deschanel!). And obviously it's not just about gender. Going back a wee bit further, Robinson Crusoe's boy Friday wasn't exactly a positive step forward in race relations.

So maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on Wide Sargasso Sea. It's just another pearl in a necklace of failure. And besides, it's not a total drag. But if it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century, we deserve better.

1 comment:

Brendan K said...

I get what you're saying. Judy Greeg and Zooey Deschanel ARE pretty hot.