Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Qui Est La?": Negative Personhood in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Qui Est La?": Negative Personhood in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea

Article excerpt

Coined by Colin Dayan to designate subjects disabled or rendered civilly dead by law, "negative personhood" haunts Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. This essay considers Rhys's exploration of the violent legacy of slavery that persists post-emancipation under patriarchal and legal regimes.

While Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is widely acknowledged as an incisive example of "the Empire writing back," critical approaches in this vein have focused primarily on the role of Rhys's polyvocal narration in realizing her postcolonial rewriting of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847). Shifting focus from "who speaks" to "who is there" (Qui est la?) and following Gayatri Spivak's injunction that we read legal codification as a constitutive part of imperial violence, this essay interprets Rhys's novel as an exacting meditation on the violence of legal discourse on personhood in the 1830s and 40s. (1) In Rhys's novel, British legal fictions proliferate examples of "negative personhood," rendering former slaves and creole women alike as socially and civilly dead. (2) Recasting the events of Jane Eyre from their original timeframe of 1790-1810 to 1830-45, Rhys deliberately situates the West Indian part of her novel after the Abolition Act (1833) and during the apprenticeship period in Jamaica (1834-38). (3) In doing so, Rhys brings the legal arguments circulating around apprenticeship and personhood in the West Indies into the heart of the story, highlighting the ways in which the law both constitutes and disables persons. As Annette's former slave Christophine declares, "No more slavery! She had to laugh! 'These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing'" (471).

In order to explore the ways in which legal developments during this period impact the events of Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS), a central part of this essay puts Jamaican anti-obeah laws and abolitionist tracts that report on the apprenticeship period in conversation with Rhys's novel. Overall, I read the law as a constitutive part of WSS because the novel not only asks the reader to think in terms of the law, but also exposes the violence of the law--a generative regime that framed and reframed the various subjects of empire in the West Indies during the apprenticeship period and beyond. Indeed, the novel narrates the legal event of dispossession: that peculiar status of being owned for your own good (the legal status of the apprentice and, in the case of Annette and Antoinette, the lunatic wife). My goal is to position WSS within what Colin Dayan has termed "the long history of [...] 'negative personhood'," a history that includes "slaves, animals, criminals, and detainees who are disabled by law." Dayan goes further, arguing that "legal thought relied on a set of fictions that rendered the meaning of persons shifting and tentative: whether in creating slaves as persons in law and criminals as dead in law, or in the perpetual re-creation of the rightless entity" (xii, emph. Dayan's). It is this "shifting and tentative" form of emptied-out personhood that Rhys explores in her novel.

The apprenticeship period in the British West Indies entailed a four- to six-year period of transition from a slave economy to a system of "free" wage labour. During that time, former slaves occupied the position of apprentices, i.e., unpaid servants, and were compelled to stay on their master's plantation (Tyson, Oldroyd, and Fleischman 202). For apprentices in Jamaica, that meant 40.5 hours of "compulsory labor" per week (Heuman). As Claudius K. Fergus concludes, "the Emancipation Act was not a charter of freedom but rather a blueprint for social control." Hence, the apprenticeship period was marked by an increased use of police force; the introduction of "special magistrates" who imposed brutal carceral punishments for infractions, such as vagrancy; and the deployment of religious instruction marshaled "to converting the formerly enslaved in order to ensure the survival, prosperity, and status quo of the planter class" (202). …

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