Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Metaphor and Madness as Postcolonial Sites in Novels by Jean Rhys and Tayeb Salih

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Metaphor and Madness as Postcolonial Sites in Novels by Jean Rhys and Tayeb Salih

Article excerpt

" here must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. I But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark I passage" (Rhys 156). Thus ends Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea (first published in 1966), with Antoinette finding her way through the darkness of her attic prison, seemingly towards arson and suicide. Another form of dark passage awaits the protagonist of Tayeb Salih's novel Season of Migration to the North (first published in 1969). In the final chapter, Salih's unnamed narrator--and I am suggesting that despite his limited reliability the narrator, not his shadowy counterpart Mustafa, is the novel's protagonist--dives into the Nile River, where he struggles to overcome a moment of physical and psychological crisis. "The objects on the two shores were half visible," he says, "appearing and disappearing, veering between light and darkness. [...] Sooner or later the river's forces would pull me down into its depths. [...] Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, 'Help! Help!'" (166-69). This essay compares the striking similarities in theme and imagery in the two novels by investigating the protagonists' character arcs and the symbolic resonances of these final dark passages. I argue that, for both characters, the propensity for metaphorical patterns of thought leads perilously close to madness, even while it helps to preserve agency and personal coherence in a destructive social context. The dangerous, liminal space of madness, symbolized in both works by watery passages between land masses, becomes its own destination for Antoinette, who believes that she has been lost in the Sargasso Sea, while Salih's narrator holds out hope for imminent rescue. It is in this crucial divergence that we can locate the two writers' different portrayals of the potential for individual agency and personal relationships to mend the violent disconnections of colonialism.

Cross-cultural tensions and the restrictions that colonialism places on individual agency were central concerns for Rhys, a white Creole born in Dominica, and Salih, a Sudanese novelist who wrote in Arabic, both of whom spent many years in England. The protagonists of the novels in question live in Jamaica and Sudan respectively, countries whose legacies of British colonial rule continue, in the novels, to haunt most aspects of daily life even while official colonialism enters the slow process of decay. Partially because of their affinities for their homes, and partially in response to the social breakages to which they are subjected, both protagonists develop a heightened predilection for metaphorical thinking--for forging imaginative connections between different domains of experience, and for understanding themselves in terms of their surroundings and other people. This type of associative thinking could also be described in terms of dialogism or other relational theories, but metaphor provides a useful framework for investigating the relevant consequences of conceptual blends and breakages. Metaphor is a contested concept in critical discourse, and theories of metaphor as purely linguistic fall short here of capturing the cognitive categorizations at stake in the novels. Kenneth Burke's description of metaphor as the "extension" or "carrying over" of a concept into unexpected domains of experience comes closer (19), and Salih's minor character Richard accidentally arrives at a worthy definition of metaphor-making while describing an economist as someone who can "define the relationship between one fact and another, between one figure and another" (58). Most useful is the account provided by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their seminal work Metaphors We Live By; they describe metaphor as an inherently conceptual phenomenon whose linguistic manifestations are not primary but rather derive from the conceptual process. "The essence of metaphor" they write, "is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another" (5, emph. …

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