Navigating the 'Wide Sargasso Sea': Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire

By Ciolkowski, Laura E. | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Navigating the 'Wide Sargasso Sea': Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire


Ciolkowski, Laura E., Twentieth Century Literature


Englishness is not a fixed identity but a series of contesting identifies, a terrain of struggle as to what it means to be English.

- Catherine Hall, White, Male, and Middle Class 26

So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.

- Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea 102

In a twentieth-century universe increasingly dazzled by fragmentary subjects and delighted by the logics of a global economy, the task of feminist inquiry must be to refuse celebrations of difference in which what is most frequently forgotten is the question of how and why such differences continue to be reproduced. Feminist inquiry must, instead, enter into the ongoing struggles over difference, participating in the battle over the meaning of gender and ethnicity, sexuality and national identity; in short, it must enlist in the tempestuous border disputes over what counts as the way things are. Jean Rhys's best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, dramatizes the persistent struggles over meaning that are at the critical center of such a feminist politics of knowledge. Wide Sargasso Sea succeeds in more than simply inserting itself into the literary and cultural frameworks of Jane Eyre, the novel that Gayatri Spivak has called a "cult text" (263) of English feminism. Wide Sargasso Sea also inquires into the production of knowledge about Englishness and, in the process, puts Englishness itself into crisis. This article is, therefore, just as much about the details of Rhys's modernist textual intervention as it is about the making of Englishness in the early nineteenth century, both before and following emancipation. I am interested in the connections forged by Rhys's text between a politics of imperialism and a politics of gender, between English nationhood and English womanhood, and between the local geographies of English fiction and the global terrain of colonialism in the nineteenth century. I would like, further, to read Rhys's text not only as an expose of empire but also as the occasion to confront the ever-shifting relations between complicity and resistance that mark all aspects of feminist thought. If Antoinette Cosway, the white West Indian woman of Wide Sargasso Sea, has come to stand for a form of "native" resistance to English patriarchal power for many contemporary feminist readers of Rhys's text (as well as for Rhys herself), she also ultimately discloses a certain complicity with the very English patriarchal logics she challenges. My reading of Wide Sargasso Sea consequently explores some of the ways in which the various feminisms of the text both unsettle and reenact many of the commonsense structures of Englishness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The competing narrative frames, authorial voices, and shifting points of view that characterize Wide Sargasso Sea reenact the struggles over meaning that are embedded within the fictions of colonial identity and English imperial control. One of Rhys's early experiments with a title for the novel, "Sargasso Sea (The Wide) Crossing Across" (Letters 204), appropriately emphasizes this relentless movement.(1) Antoinette's narrative is literally shaped by the uncertainties of a Creole(2) vision that is fractured by the contradictory claims of British colonial history and the cultural residues of a dying West Indian plantation society. Her impossible task in Wide Sargasso Sea is to negotiate between the contradictory logics of British colonialism while also wending her way through the Creole culture and postemancipation English society that continue to elude her.(3) Antoinette explains:

... a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all. …

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