Painting with Words: Natural and Spiritual Landscapes in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Lauren Smith MA '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

This essay is Part II of the author's "Painting with Words: Natural and Spiritual Landscapes in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea."

In her intervention into Brontë's ethnocentric representation of this white, Creole, colonial subject, Jean Rhys recodes and rehumanizes Bertha. Her project is to cast thus off the dark shroud of vampirism that weighs upon her in Jane Eyre. She is interested in Antoinette/Bertha's interpellation into the postcolonial landscape of crumbling imperial ideologies, collapsing social orders, and unsettling moral ambiguity. Like Brontë, she is also interested in using the natural landscape as a metaphor for her protagonists' psychological and spiritual states. Her sympathetic portrait of Antoinette reveals that her descent into madness is the result of this nexus of crises, rather than a condition of her sociocultural identity or geographic location. In many respects, Rhys was motivated to rewrite Bertha's history not only because Brontë's depiction of the madwoman in the attic is narrowly ethnocentric but also because Bertha's story is similar to her own.

Born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams around 1890 in Dominica and relocated to England in her teens, Rhys led a decidedly uprooted life. Many of her fictional characters are marked by the dislocation and sense of alienation she would have felt living in metropolitan centers far from her West Indian birthplace. As the child of former slaveholders who spent most of her adult life in Europe, Rhys was intensely ambivalent towards both the Caribbean and England (Savory 3). Indeed, as Delia Konzett argues,

[i]n Rhys's work it is no longer the moral failure of a dominant white European culture alone that creates the social and cultural inadequacies of colonial and racial oppression. Instead, the very notion of Western humanism and morality, as Rhys attempts to show, contains with its liberal discourses of emancipation the structural elements of social oppression. Rhys's modernism, in this sense, reflects the structural contingencies and binarisms on which discourses of belonging and displacements, majority and minority, social privilege and deprivation are construed. Her heroines are not merely battling with the concrete forces of oppression but, more significantly, with those that they perpetuate from within their own unconscious and assumed notions of humanism and humanity. [133]

The heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette/Bertha finds herself at precisely the center of these dialectical discourses. Her divided consciousness reflects not only the loss of social support (i.e. her father, mother, and friend Tia) but the loss of a larger social, moral, and religious order. She finds that since Emancipation, her family has been demoted to the lesser race of "white niggers," leading her mother to cry, "now we are marooned�now what will become of us?" (18). Having lost their class privilege and a colonial center to call "home," Antoinette's family is at the intersection of political upheaval. Ignored by her formerly bourgeois mother and shunned by the newly emancipated black community, Antoinette's own identity is no longer linked to stable race and class signifiers. In this regard, "Rhys's characters are not just divided through the unconscious or alienated by what Perry Meisel calls the "myth of the modern," the loss of a natural self: they fragment most importantly through suppressed histories and eclipsed geo-cultural locations (Emery 16).

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette and Rochester's responses to this deteriorating moral and social order are allegorized in their engagement with the natural world. Rhys's natural landscapes and imagery, like Brontë's, are potent markers of her characters' psychological, moral, and religious states. However, unlike Brontë, Rhys's characters' rapport with nature is far more experiential, disorienting, and alienating than Jane's transporting and clarifying panoramas. For Rhys, the natural world acts more as a mirror than a touchstone for psychological states and moral beliefs. Rather than signs of a higher power, Antoinette sees her own fragmented identity in the blur of foliage, flairs of bright colors, and ambiguously coded hues and shadows of the island. When she is at odds with the world and detached from her loved ones, she feels lost in the exotic flora. And when describing the islands' natural formations, she is not transported to a higher self-awareness or awareness of a higher power; it always seems clear that nature will not extend its benevolence in her time of need. Unlike Jane, Antoinette does not long for human companionship after gazing upon the natural landscape. Rather, as in the following passage, she feels isolated from others and stews in her own misanthropy.

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think, �It's better than people.' Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin -- once I saw a snake. All better than people.

Better. Better, better than people.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else. Not myself any longer.

I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look. [28]

Antoinette wanders aimlessly down an unmarked path, losing herself in her thoughts just as she becomes lost in the forest. She recounts the fragments of sights, sounds, and tactile sensations she feels as she walks along. An indifferent blade of grass cuts her, and the sight of sun splashed red and yellow flowers empties her of thought. She spots a snake yet records no reaction of fear or temptation, indicating that this natural landscape is encoded with an ambiguous morality, or amorality, versus clear-cut Christian good and evil. The cloudless blue sky seems an expanse of blackness rather than an affirmation of God's infinity or omnipotence. In this abstract skyscape, blue and black conflate illogically to mirror Antoinette's dark sense of alienation, which eventually leads her through a door towards the depersonalizing thought that she is "not myself any longer." Her immersion in this wilderness only confirms her detachment from others. The morally ambiguous grass, insects, flowers and sky are, she decides, "all better than people."

Alternatively, when Antoinette experiences a fleeting moment of security, she projects her sense of reassurance onto her natural surroundings. On the night of a local dance, Antoinette feels safe as she looks at her house from the town below. "From a long way off I saw the shadow of our house high up on its stone foundations. There was a smell of ferns and river water and I felt safe again, as if I was one of the righteous. (Godfrey said that we were not righteous. One day when he was drunk he told me that we were all damned and no use praying.)" (33). Momentarily comforted by the sight of her house on its stone foundations, an image of a precariously balanced colonial order, Antoinette inhales the scent of ferns and water and feels "righteous." However, although Antoinette's sensory perceptions may allow her meaningful engagement with the world, they cannot ultimately be trusted. Her comforting sense of entitlement is quickly subsumed by Godfrey's reminder of the fallacy of racial superiority and of the godless world the European colonialists have carved out for themselves on the island.

Influenced by her experiences with the conflict and contradictions of a declining imperial regime, Rhys's "textuality demonstrates a refusal to be absolutely coherent and therefore an acceptance of unresolved ambiguity, ambiguity which permits creative innovation and which is in effect politically anarchist, in the sense of resisting centralized and authoritative readings of experience" (Savory x). In other words, Rhys's interlocking political and artistic visions shape the contour of her modernist literary aesthetic. Her adaptation of modernist aesthetics is in many ways an intervention into Victorian social ideologies and literary stylistics. Rhys's experimentation with artistic conventions allows her to question social norms and, in Wide Sargasso Sea, to critique her society's uncritical subscriptions to imperialism. Writing in a mode that interrogates nineteenth-century narratives of moderate and balanced description (which we find in Brontë's carefully composed word-paintings), Rhys admits to and utilizes a narrative of fluid, uneven, and overlapping observations. In the aforementioned passages, where Antoinette describes the island's natural landscape, Rhys resists the unity and moderation of Brontë's word-paintings and offers instead abstracted images of colors, sights, and smells. Explaining the possible roots of Rhys's unique attitude towards the spoken and written word, Elaine Savory argues,

It is virtually impossible to overestimate the formative years in Dominica as shaping the idea of language Rhys worked with. The tension between the West Indian, white Creole accent she had as a young woman and could produce even in old age and the middle-class English voice she mainly used towards the end of her life reflects her response to British middle-class, largely literary conventions. But her Caribbean childhood must have taught her that language is almost always a layered means of communication, with hidden codes and contrasting registers. [10]

Rhys's use of "layered means of communication" and "hidden codes" was influenced by her origins in the Caribbean as well as by the modernist literary movement evolving around her. Similar to her contemporaries Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, and Ford, Rhys was interested in themes of identity, fragmented consciousness, and self-alienation. Rhys questions the relationship between the real and unreal, the tangible and the abstract, intuition and sensory perception. Moreover, her emphasis on point of view, natural imagery, and imaginative engagement with the visual world marks her own brand of modernist writing. As Wheeler observes, "Wide Sargasso Sea is an experiment with a new style and technique, with imagery of more depth, colour, vigour, and intensity -- a different individuation, definition, and focus than anything Rhys had written before (Wheeler 115).

As suggested above, Rhys's experimentation with visually oriented writing in Wide Sargasso Sea is both a response to and continuation of Brontë's Victorian word-painting in Jane Eyre. Her narratives of lush foliage and cool bathing holes, while infused with the modernist aesthetic of her day, are in fact indebted to Brontë's word-paintings of dark mountaintops and thick forests. Flaxman makes the important observation that modernists like Woolf and Eliot (and Rhys), self-consciously play with

realistic, impressionistic, and expressionistic modes of vision transmitted from the painting theories of [their] day�The influence of word-painting and the consequent fragmentation of narrative in works of Eliot and Woolf move both the novel and poetry toward a static form more characteristic of the visual arts -- particularly of painting -- than of the verbal arts of poetry and fiction. (131)

Rhys deviates from the aesthetics of Victorian word-painting in similar ways in that her main narrative often "freezes" when she arrives at descriptions of the natural world. For instance, after Antoinette has procured Christophine's assistance with the love potion, she paints an image of that day's sights and sensations.

I can remember every second of that morning, if I shut my eyes I can see the deep blue colour of the sky and the mango leaves, the pink and red hibiscus, the yellow handkerchief she wore round her head, tied in the Martinique fashion with the sharp points in front, but now I see everything still, fixed for ever like the colours in a stained-glass window. Only the clouds move. It was wrapped in a leaf, what she had given me, and I felt it cool and smooth against my skin. [118]

Antoinette's recollection of this scene interrupts the narrative flow of this chapter, causing the reader to pause on her descriptions much like one would pause to gaze upon a painting. In her mind's eye she sees clusters of green mango leaves and pink hibiscus, a flash of Christophine's yellow handkerchief, the deep blue color of the sky. Everything is still and fixed "like the colours in a stained-glass window." Unlike Jane, who is transported to the heights and depths of emotion by panoramas of peaks and valleys, Antoinette is mesmerized, even immobilized, by the static scene. Her description of the morning reads more like an abstract still-life painting than an engraving of a sublime landscape. Rather than attaining stabilizing self-revelation, she can only be sure of the "cool and smooth" sensation of the leaf against her skin. Her senses are engaged in the world, however they do not bring her greater insight into her troubled relationship with Rochester. As Flaxman suggests, life for modernists "is a ceaseless succession of sensations, that all is flux and duration. In order to experience life, according to this attitude, one must not create self-contained structures such as the structures of narrative art but, rather, one must attempt to register the fragmented truths of modern life, with its endless change" (132). Rhys was similarly resistant to "self-contained structures" like narrative art, and her composition of the natural scenery here is illustrative of this stylistic choice.

Perhaps one of the most direct reinscriptions of Brontë's sublime landscapes occurs when Rochester describes his view of the island's terrain. To compose this scene, Rhys appropriates the distinctive traits of Victorian word-painting but also incorporates her own modernist techniques. Compared to the broad strokes of Brontë's grand panoramas, Rhys's lines of description here are much shorter, mirroring the random sensations experienced by the observer. After his arrival on the island, Rochester finds himself immersed in a world of "too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near" (70). This landscape is not a balance of peaks and valleys, light and shade, or bright and dark colors. It is a dizzying blur of over-stimulation of sensory excess. When Rochester takes in the view of hills, his gaze does not invoke a cinematic sweep from distant mountaintops to rolling hills; rather, he notices a single treacherous ravine that seems only to lead downwards without any redeeming summit of grandeur to balance it out.

The road climbed upward. On one side the wall of green, on the other a steep drop to the ravine below. We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. Those hills would close in on you.

"What an extreme green," was all I could say. [69]

Contrary to the inspiring views of benevolent nature found in Jane Eyre, this scene does not illustrate the grand scale of God's omnipresence or infinitude. It is a "wild but menacing" place that overwhelms and inundates rather than exalts and elevates the senses. The ambiguity of its wildness confirms nothing. All Rochester can do is note its contours and his alienation from its inscrutable extremities. He observes later that the profusion of plant life paradoxically empties and negates it of meaning: "It was all very brightly colour, very strange, but it meant nothing to me" (76). As a British citizen complicit with the colonial enterprise, he is aware of his questionable motives for marrying the daughter of a white Creole, plantation owner for her dowry. Indeed, Daniel affirms in his letter to Rochester that the state of the island's natural environment does in fact mirror the tumultuous political climate: "then comes the Emancipation Act and trouble for some of the high and mighties. Nobody would work for the young woman and her two children and that place Coulibri goes quickly to bush as all does out here when nobody toil and labour on the land" (96). Although Rhys portrays Rochester with some sympathy, and dwells at length on his disorienting stay in the West Indies, she is primarily interested in rewriting the story of the maligned white Creole, Antoinette.

Alienated socially, culturally, and morally from everyone around her, Antoinette easily loses perspective. Unlike Jane, she has no sublime landscape to reference as she matures into adulthood. Cliffs are a barrier rather than a vantage point, and the greenery engulfs rather than calms. Far from the benevolent natural world that inspires Jane's renewed Christianity, Rhys's island seems to be behind God's back and her characters estranged from their religious faith. Rhys complicates the spiritual landscape of the island by setting Christophine's obeah practices in dialogue the colonialists' Christianity. While Chritophine's spirituality is a stable signifier of her maternal benevolence and good-intentions, the Christian faith is refracted through obviously contradictory epistemologies. As Veronica Gregg notes, the "imperial imposition is achieved and remains in place by its dependencies on its Others and through the manipulation of a Judeo-Christian ethic in the service of imperialist economic expansion" (45-6).

Through her static descriptions of the island's natural landscape, as well as Antoinette's point of view from within the fecund jungle, Rhys invokes the island's troubled moral landscape. A Christian God is largely absent from the wooded pathways and wild gardens. Snakes appear from time to time yet, contrary to the cunning serpent in Genesis, seem harmless or indifferent to the island's inhabitants. Nature is not benevolent but not entirely cruel either. In the passage below, Antoinette alludes to the fallen state of the island when describing her family's garden.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible -- the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered -- then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it. [19]

Contrary to Brontë's grandiose panoramas of distant peaks and rocky brooks, Rhys's garden is a familiar scene composed on a much smaller scale. The viewer here is observing the world from deep within the foliage, rather than commanding a view from afar. With its creeping vines and fragrant flowers, the verdant flora encroaches and intoxicates. The light here is green and the air laden with a heavy fragrance. One gets the feeling here that the octopus orchid, when not flowering innocuously, is slowly winding its tentacles around the observer in a potentially lethal chokehold. The garden is almost made inaccessible by the overgrown path and the orchids maintain a cool distance from curious hands. Antoinette tells us that in spite of the alluring beauty of the "white, mauve, deep purples" of the orchid she "never went near it." Whereas Jane can always see beyond her gate to a scene "which the horizon only bounded," Antoinette is trapped within the garden yet simultaneously alienated from it. And while Jane's gaze rushes upwards to jagged peaks only to plummet down to torrid becks, creating a kind of "kinesis within stasis," Antoinette's quiet observations reveal a motionless tableaux of what would be tranquility if it weren't for the disturbing "snaky looking" orchid and wild tree of life.

In many ways, Rhys parallel's Antoinette growth from childhood to womanhood with Jane's. Her bildungsroman, however, is punctuated by a landscape of alienation, split consciousness, and madness rather than communion, clarity, and Christianity. When Antoinette looks out into the natural world for the originary Garden, or clear signs of good and evil, she sees only her own ambiguous morality and divided consciousness looking back at her. Immersed in the lush foliage and splashes of distracting color, she cannot achieve the clarifying perspective of Jane's sublime panoramas. In her apocalyptic dream at the end of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette (now Bertha) sees the tree of life in flames. Images of her birthplace rush into focus only to fade quickly into the gloom of Thornfield. "Then I turned round and saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it. I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora's patchwork, all colours, I saw the orchids and the stephanoties and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver, and the soft green velvet of the moss on the garden wall" (189). In constructing this final image, Rhys continues to draw upon Brontë's word-painting techniques while inserting her own modernist aesthetic. She paints a picture of Antoinette's garden, replete with familiar flowers and foliage. However, unlike the "kinesis within stasis" typical of Brontë's movement from craggy peaks down to quiet stones below, Rhys constructs impressionistic "still-life's" comprised of scattered images of natural scenery. And while Jane finds balance and moderation through her encounters with the sublime, Antoinette finds only disillusionment in the abstracted jungle terrain. Ultimately, Rhys's modernist adaptation of Victorian word-painting does not lack metaphoric unity, but, like her protagonist's descent into madness, is haunted by what could have been.

Related Materials

Works Cited

Adjarian, M.M., "Between and Beyond Boundaries in Wide Sargasso Sea." College Literature. 22.1 (1995): pp. 59-93.

Bender, Todd K. Literary Impressionism in Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and Charlotte Brontë. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc. 1997.

Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Ed. Pierrette M. Frickey. Washington D.C: Three Continents Press, 1990.

Emery, Mary Lou. Jean Rhys at "World's End": Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Flaxman, Rhoda L. Victorian Word-Painting and Narrative: Toward the Blending of Genres. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

Gregg, Veronica Marie. Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Konzett, Delia Caparoso. Ethnic Modernisms. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2002.

Maurel, Sylvie. Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1966.

Thomas, Sue. The Worlding of Jean Rhys. Westport and London: Greendwood Press, 1999.

Wheeler, Kathleen. Modernist Women Writers and Narrative Art. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Main Web Page Caribbean Jean Rhys

Last modified 21 May 2004