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Speaking Through Death in Toni Morrison' s Beloved and Jean Rhys' s Wide Sargasso Sea



Perceiving all self-destructive gestures as acts of despair might obliterate the potential meanings of resistance that the subject might have inscribed into the tragic act of effacing himself or herself. In light of the dual conception of the subject as simultaneously shaped by power and endowed with the capacity to resist it, Toni Morrison and Jean Rhys transpose their protagonists in Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea respectively from victimization and dis-empowerment to the subjective space of resistance and agency. Morrison’s and Rhys’s dramatizations of the subjugation and dehumanization of their female characters are done with the purpose of giving them voice and agency, even if their empowerment is achieved through death. Hence, what unites these characters, who belong to disjunctive spaces and times, is their decisions to resist violence and pain by effacing the self and speaking through death. The self-erasing of the female body, on which cultural and gendered violence has been inscribed, becomes a subversive act of resistance against the oppressive order.
Criterion: A Journal of Literary Criticism
Volume 6 |Issue 1 Article 11
Speaking rough Death in Toni Morrison's
Beloved and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea
Monir Birouk
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Birouk, Monir (2013) "Speaking 8rough Death in Toni Morrison's Beloved and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea," Criterion: A Journal of
Literary Criticism: Vol. 6 : Iss. 1 , Article 11.
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through death
in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jean Rhys’s
Wide Sargasso Sea
Monir Birouk
Putting an end to one’s own life or the life of one’s own
child is probably the most horrendous and shocking thing one might ever do.
Yet, life often becomes so intolerably onerous that a person can experience
release and nd redemption in the very act of destroying himself or herself.
Perceiving all self-destructive gestures as acts of despair, however, leaves us
ignorant of the potential meanings of resistance that the subject might have
inscribed into the tragic act of eacing himself or herself. In certain instances,
self-destructive acts are not so much gestures of despair as they are acts of resis-
tance that plea for the other to recognize equivalence. In other words, speaking
through death by erasing one’s self from life can become a product of and a
threat to the oppressive dominant power.
Is power so pervasive that the individual’s acts and decisions are inevitably
shaped by its structures? The question has been the site of many theoretical
debates about subjectivity. With the rise of post-structuralism in the seven-
ties and eighties of the twentieth century, theories about the unlimited scope
of power such as Althusser’s theory about ideology, Foucault’s theory about
disciplinary power, and Lacan’s theory about language inuenced the emer-
gence of many postcolonial critics of subjectivity. The conception, therefore, of
a subjectivity that is always already shaped and predetermined by the coexisting
structures of power and knowledge eventually results in a considerable theoreti-
cal investment in deconstructing the processes of othering and subjectication,
resulting in an epistemic distrust of the subject’s autonomy and agency. Yet,
the suspicion about the subject’s free will does not completely obliterate the
possibilities of resistance and agency. Although Michel Foucault, for example,
stresses the pervasiveness of power structures, he acknowledges, especially in
his later writings, the possibility of marginal resistance. For Foucault, power is
always constitutive of resistance:
Power can only be exercised over another to the extent that the latter still has
the possibility of committing suicide, of jumping out of the window, or of kill-
ing the other. That means that in the relations of power there is necessarily the
possibility of resistance, for if there is no possibility of resistance, of violent
resistance, of escape, of ruse, [or] of strategies that reverse the situation, there
would be no relations of power. (Tran 20)
Hence, for Foucault the body is not a mere site for the play of the dominant
structures of power and knowledge; it functions also as a site of resistance. This
resistance can sometimes be as radical as eacing the self, a gesture which may
subvert or bring about ssions in the hegemonic order.
In light of this dual conception of the subject as simultaneously shaped
by power and endowed with the capacity to resist it, Toni Morrison and Jean
Rhys transpose their protagonists in Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea respec-
tively from victimization and dis-empowerment to the subjective space of
resistance and agency. Morrison’s and Rhys’s dramatizations of the subjugation
and dehumanization of their female characters are done with the purpose of
giving them voice and agency, even if their empowerment is achieved through
death. Hence, what unites these characters, who belong to disjunctive spaces
and times, is their decisions to resist violence and pain by eacing the self and
speaking through death. The self-erasing of the female body, on which cultural
and gendered violence has been inscribed, becomes a subversive act of resis-
tance against the oppressive order.
Against the grain of the interpretations that circumscribe Sethe’s and
Antoinette’s self-inicted deaths as acts of despair and passivity, I argue that
their self-inicted deaths bear signs of deance and resistance. To read their
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self-eacements as mere ights and desperate escapes to end suering mutes
them and casts them as silent and submissive subjects; but above all, it emp-
ties their gestures of their purported potential for resistance. Although it is
admittedly dicult, if not impossible, to ascertain whether a self-eacing act is
carried out of despair or out of resistance, one can still make conclusions draw-
ing on signs in the narrative that gesture either towards passivity or resistance.
The means through which the self-destructive act is carried out for example, as
well as the record of the character’s acts of resistance or submission, however
minute are they, often help the reader to infer the extent to which an act of self-
destruction is deant or submissive.
Hence, the mandatory task of tracking the traces of subjugation the act of
self-eacement leaves behind should be accompanied by the corollary task of
excavating the traces of agency and signs of resistance, which may be submerged
by the interpretive discourse. To be sure, deant gestures of self-destruction are
often preceded by either open or covert gestures of resistance that challenge
the system from within and may pass due to a careless or hasty reading for
signs of consent to the dominant order. The failure to perceive these signs of
resistance occurs in a couple of critical studies of Beloved and Wide Sargasso
Sea, which will be examined in the following sections. The means through
which the self is eaced constitutes yet another helpful way of interpreting the
gesture as resistance or surrender. The bloody and aggressive nature of these
self-erasing gestures set them in contradistinction to both the romanticized
passivity that characterizes self-eacing gestures in 19th century literature and
the pathological suicides that ll Modernist novels. Perhaps we need a more
probing expression to appraise the self-eacing gestures in Beloved and Wide
Sargasso Sea than Higonnet’s depiction of 19th century romanticized suicides
as gestures of “speaking silence” (Higonnet 1986). In these postcolonial novels,
the victimized subaltern makes sure that does not pass away in silence; her self-
destruction is vengeful in nature and is often accompanied by a violent gesture
such as murder or immolation.
One can hardly agree with Foucault’s notion that “death is power’s limit”
(Simons 85); for power is hardly absent before, during, and after the self-
eacing gesture. Morrison and Rhys go beyond the liberating intent of and
Antoinette’s mortal gestures by questioning the debilitating eects of the inter-
pretive discourse after the subaltern’s embrace of death. The female characters
who speak through death in Beloved and Wide Sargasso Sea are stigmatized
and recast as outlaws. Their self-destructive acts are misread and depoliticized,
and in the case of both Sethe and Antoinette, those self-destructive acts are
perceived through a reductive ethical lens, instead of a political lens. Overall, I
perceive the inscription of death on the body not as power’s limit, but rather as
a sign whose “supplements” are perceptible in the interpretive discourse after
the self-eacing gesture, as well as in the probable “ssions and elisions” that
it might generate.
To examine the dynamics of resistance which certain acts of self-destruc-
tion bear, I will turn in the following section to the exploration of both the
“unnamed woman[‘s]” self-destruction and Sethe’s act of infanticide in Toni
Morrison’s Beloved to see the extent to which the acts are meant, in the novel,
to empower or dis-empower the self-erasing characters. The next novel that I
will examine is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which concludes with the con-
troversial scene of Antoinette’s suicide. Against the grain of the mainstream
critical appraisals of Antoinette’s character I argue that her self-death is an act
of deance against the colluding patriarchal and imperial orders. My aim in
analyzing these two novels is to call to attention the explicit and implicit signs
of resistance that the acts of self-erasure or infanticide often bear in the post-
colonial novel.
Sethe: Speaking Through
Death against the Racial Order
Perhaps there is no African-American novel that so powerfully delineates the
pathos of slavery as does Toni Morrison’s, Beloved (1987). The novel brings
into sharp focus the shattering and debilitating eects of slavery on the black
community even after their purported liberation, and it puts emphasis on the
necessity of “rememory” as an essential step on the trajectory of healing the
traumatized black psyche. My concern, however, is less with the processes of
“rememory” and healing, which a great number of critics exhausted, and more
with the black female subject whose body becomes a site whereupon pain and
subjugation were inscribed by the supremacist white racial machinery before
she spoke through death. Sethe’s horrendous act of killing her own daughter
functions in the novel as the fulcrum around which the whole narrative hinges.
Sethes gesture can also be considered as an act of self-erasure since her
children are an extension of herself; thus, ending the life of the “best part of her
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is symbolically tantamount to killing herself. For understandable purposes, the
scene has received much critical attention, but it is perceived, often through
the lenses of post-structuralist psychoanalytical theories, as a shattering eect
of the slavery system. As a result of such readings, the discourse of victimiza-
tion and historical wounds is foregrounded at the expense of that of agency
and resistance which receives a fairly pale treatment. My concern, therefore,
is to explore how Sethe is given agency through inscribing death on her chil-
dren, and how her self-consciousness is shaped not only by the memories of
enslavement but also by her ancestors’ deant gestures of eacement as well.
In the course of my analysis, I equally try to trace the ssures which Sethe’s
murderous act might have created in the slavery system, and I try to see how
her unspeakable act is interpreted by both the white supremacist institution
and the black community.
In Beloved, Morrison’s choice of a narrative mode that goes back and forth
between the past and the present instead of a linear narration is particularly
suggestive of how the historical inexorably inhabits the present. Sethe is
haunted by the brutal and dehumanizing practices to which her ancestors were
exposed during the ghastly journeys of the Middle Passage. In Morrison’s novel,
the Middle Passage is represented as a source of Sethe’s traumatic memories
as much as it is represented as a site where her ancestors tried to regain their
agency and subvert the slaveholders’ power. Self-eacing gestures to escape ill-
treatments on board ships were not uncommon. However, because of the dearth
of historiographical data which records the slaves’ self-destructions, these
gestures received less attention and are often glossed over in critical studies
of African-American literature. Although Toni Morrison’s Master’s thesis was
about suicide in the works of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf (Gillespie
410) and her novels are teeming with instances of self-death, there is still a great
gap in studies of this theme in Morrison’s works. Out of all the critical stud-
ies about Morrison’s oeuvre, to my knowledge, only one article, Katy Ryan’s
“Revolutionary Suicide in Toni Morrison’s Fiction, addresses self-destruction
in Morrison’s novels. In her article, Ryan draws attention to this gap, observing
how the scene in Beloved that depicts the slave woman who throws herself from
the ship into water often escapes the attention of critics (Ryan).
Morrison’s insertion of self-eacing gestures in her novels is an attempt
to counterbalance the prototypical image of submissive and silent slaves that
are chained and packed in miserable conditions overboard or who are over-
worked, ogged and tortured in plantations with a narrative that portrays
the slaves’ attempts to reclaim their agency. In Beloved, Morrison insists in
several instances, through the narrative voice of Beloved, that the unnamed
slave woman overboard “‘is not pushed’ into the sea but chooses to go.” This
insistence confers agency on the woman and grants her control over her body
(Ryan). The self-erasing gesture of the unnamed woman in Beloved reverses
the typical representation of self-destructions in nineteenth and Western lit-
erature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Neither a jilted lovelorn nor
a psychically disordered being, the self-eacing woman in the novel is a being
who is driven by the desire to escape the white man’s control over her body.
According to Katy Ryan, self-eacement in Morrison’s novels “functions as a
political form of resistance [and as] a break in history” (Ryan), in the sense that
it interrupts the linear ow of the white supremacist narrative and disrupts its
self-proclaimed control over time and space. In this sense, the annihilation of
the self and its ultimate disappearance through self-destruction is more than
a gesture of escape and despair; it also marks the slaveholders’ failure to exert
full control over the black in whom they perceive a protable economic poten-
tial. As Diedrich, Gates, and Perderson point out, “when losses in human lives
through disease, epidemics, or suicide were high and caused much alarm”, car-
ing for slaves and keeping them “in good shape was a major concern in the
general economy of the trade. Captains had to commit themselves to carry the
captives safe, whole, and t for sale” (Diedrich and Gates 35). Self-destructions
in this sense form hiatuses in the temporal linearity of the slavery system.
However, displacing self-destruction from passivity to resistance does not
necessarily qualify it as revolutionary. The shades of resistance, as many critics
note, vary from the most overt to the most covert and from the aggressive to
the subversive. Obviously, the self-eacing gesture of the woman who dees
the slaveholders’ orders and threats to jump overboard is not a covert gesture of
resistance, but neither is it revolutionary. I locate the resistance potential of the
unnamed slave’s gesture in the latter’s capacity, together with other transmitted
oral narratives of deance, to embed Sethe’s memory with a discourse of resis-
tance and agency. As I stated above, the Middle Passage in Morrison’s novel
survives not only as fragments of traumatic and painful memories, but also as
a space where the white racial narrative is interrupted and subverted through
a variety of resistance strategies which the slaves resort to, one of which is self-
destruction. Thanks to the shared communal memory, it is the survival of the
memory of the unnamed slave’s self-death and many other similar gestures of
slaves who are right “under the sea” which empowers Sethe, in one way or in
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another, to aspire for autonomy and regain her agency, though she does in a
brutal and indisputably unethical way.
In addition to the unnamed woman’s self-destructive act in the novel, the
reader comes across scattered cases of infanticide in the narrative. For African-
American women, it was not uncommon to dispose of the children that the
women unwillingly bore as a result of rape by white masters. In Beloved, Nan,
Sethe’s mother’s friend, told her that her mother threw all the children to
whom she gave birth during the Middle Passage from the white crew except
her because she is fathered by a black man: “she threw them all away but you.
The one from the crew she threw away on the island. The others from more
whites she also threw away” (Morrison 74). Another character in the novel, Ella,
a black slave and a member of the Underground Railroad who helped Sethe
to cross Ohio River, left her baby that she bore of a white man to die out of
neglect. These instances of infanticide with which Sethe is familiar thanks to
oral memory, must have shaped her self-conscious deant escape from Sweet
Home plantation, and ultimately her decision to inscribe death on her children.
Her mother’s experience in particular, as Henderson states, “enables Sethe to
reread or reemploy her own experiences in the context of sacrice, resistance
and mother-love” (Henderson 96). Sethe’s act, however, should not be con-
ated with her mother and Ella’s, for while her mother’s and Ella’s infanticides
are driven by hate and shame of having a mulatto child that is born out of rape,
Sethe’s self-destructive gesture is paradoxically instigated by extreme “thick”
love for her children (Morrison 164).
Sethe’s inscription of death upon her child is an outrageous act which
imposes itself on the narrative to the point of overshadowing other resistance
strategies which Sethe devised to escape the time and space enclosure which
the racial order imposes on her. Tracing these minimal strategies of resistance
(deance of Schoolteacher, escape, sending her two boys away to Cincinnati)
divulges how Toni Morrison counterbalances victimization with agency in the
novel, this tracing helps in framing Sethe’s ultimate act of slitting her child’s
throat in the realm of resistance.
Consequently, Sethe’s horric act of slitting her little girl’s throat can only
be examined in light of her desire to free herself and her children from the
shackles of slavery. At the moment when the four horsemen, Schoolteacher,
his nephew, a slave catcher and the Sheri loom in the horizon tracking Sethe
to where she thinks she is free, Sethe decides to send her children “where they
should be safe” (Morrison 163). When the horsemen approach 124 Bluestone
house, the bloody act already reached its climax: “inside, two boys bled in the
sawdust and dirt at the feet of a nigger woman holding a blood-soaked child
to her chest with one hand and an infant by the heels in the other” (Morrison
149). In Western literary depictions of infanticide, the mother’s killing of her
child is often driven by a sense of guilt and remorse as a result of illegitimate
conception out of wedlock. Accordingly, scenes of infanticide are portrayed
as inevitable punishment of the female subject’s deviation from the circum-
scribed sexual normativity. In a traditional Scottish ballad entitled “The Cruel
Mother,” the poet depicts a mother who “sat down below a thorn / Fine owers
in the valley”, and “twinned the sweet babe o’ its life / And the green leaves they
grow rarely” (Ledwon 18). The idyllic scenery in the poem serves as a backdrop
against which the mother is presented as a cruel and brutal being. In contradic-
tion to conventional literary depictions of infanticide, Morrison reverses the
trope of the fallen “bad mother” which dominate western literature, and re-
institutes the image of the “good” African-American mother who erases from
life “the best part of her” out of “too thick” love (Morrison 202), and not out
of guilt or remorse. In other words, the slave mother’s killing of her child is
a response to the choice between life-in-death or death-in-life, a choice that
radically diers from the context of sexual relationships which stereotypically
frame mainstream Western literary infanticides. Morrison blurs the boundar-
ies between death and good mothering in order to foreground Sethe’s “existen-
tial” choice. It is not, therefore, surprising that Morrison dramatizes the scene
in such an abashedly violent and bloody way.
Notwithstanding Morrison’s empowerment of her novel’s protagonist, she
does not romanticize her self-destructive act. Sethe is portrayed in the novel
neither as a heroine nor as a criminal. Although the author grants agency to the
novel’s protagonist, she is reluctant to confer any absolute ethical judgment on
her act. Indeed, Morrison problematizes Sethe’s bloody gesture, building her
narrative in a way that evades judgmental foreclosure. Despite the underlying
sympathy which she displays towards Sethe, she nonetheless maintains a kind
of moral ambiguity all through the narrative. In the novel, Sethe is both con-
demned (legally and politically through imprisonment and socially through
ostracization) and forgiven (through a reconciliation and reunion with her
community). She is almost compared to a beast “you got two feet, Sethe, not
four” (Morrison 165), but she is at the same time described in elevating terms
as an extremely aectionate loving mother. In a statement which echoes the
Keatsian negative capability, Morrison asserts that what Sethe did “was the
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right thing to do, but she had no right to do it” (Morrison and Taylor-Guthrie
272). Against mainstream critical discussions of this issue, I argue that Sethe
does not withhold moral judgment; what she withholds is absolute and uncon-
ditional judgment. Sethe’s self-destructive gesture is framed by the double-bind
of the ethical and the political; consequently, misreading it in light of only one
component of this binary will certainly yield a distorted understanding. The
dilemma, therefore, is that what Sethe does is ethically condemnable, but, at
least for her, it is politically required. The issue of the moral appraisal of self-
destructive acts is not epistemologically unrelated to that of representation.
In Beloved, the voice of Sethe is suppressed by the white racial discourse,
but more tormenting for her, by that of the black community itself. When the
four horsemen backed o upon the sight of Sethe’s murder, Schoolteacher
dehumanizes her, likening her to a horse or a hound which is enraged by exces-
sive punishment (Morrison 149). Indeed, Schoolteacher’s position is typical of
the racial discourse which strips blacks’ resistance of its political signications,
reducing it to an ahistorical act of barbarity which the slave brings with him
from the fearsome jungles of Africa. Moreover, the slavery system’s acknowledg-
ment of its responsibility for Sethe’s gruesome act is dislocated by the paternal
discourse of the white man. While Schoolteacher attributes Sethe’s inscription
of death on her child to the negative eects of the 28 days of relative freedom
that she had in 124 Bluestone house, the sheri contends that slaves needed
every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they
preferred” (Morrison 151). The white man projects his fears of cannibalism, bes-
tiality and barbarity on Sethe’s rebellious act to overshadow its emancipatory
intent. To be sure, the transparency of representing the other’s actions and
desires is always at stake, but it is more so when discourse and power coalesce
in a blatantly overt way. Morrison’s novel, Sethe’s act is discharged of any politi-
cal meaning, and incriminated by the respective discursive and coercive powers
of the media and the court. Although Sethe’s rebellious gesture is transposed
from the private to the public sphere, her bloody appeal for what Spivak calls
“comparativism” is hardly heard.
Morrison is, however, much more concerned in her novel with the black
community’s reaction to Sethe’s self-eacing gesture. The black community’s
unwillingness to understand and forgive Sethe’s murderous act marks her as an
outcast and aggravates her traumatic suering. The price was too high: ostra-
cism, limited mobility, a broken family and psychological suering. As Debra
King points out, the liberatory intent of Sethe’s self-eacing gesture “collapses
beneath the weight of social mandates dening good mothering” (Henderson
96). All in all, the re-union of Sethe with her community at the end of the novel,
the exorcism of the ghost and the disappearance of Beloved all release Sethe
from the tyranny of guilt, but do not release the reader from the troubling ques-
tions which Morrison triggers in his mind.
Yes, although Morrison ends her novel with a resolution which delivers
Sethe of her long-repressed and tantalizing guilt, she ingeniously dramatizes
Sethe’s murderous act in a way that resists easy polarizations. Although the
reader cannot fail to discern the liberating impulse of her inscription of death
on her child and, metaphorically, on herself, the reader nishes reading the
novel with big questions that touch upon the denition of mothering and the
ethical justiability of self-destructive gestures.
Antoinette: Speaking through
Death against Imperialism and
In Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys’s masterpiece, the journey of Antoi-
nette to self-erasure is marked as well by dehumanization and. Though she is
much less exposed to physical violence than Sethe is, Antoinette’s deant act of
self-erasure is precipitated by an ignominious solidarity of racial, colonial and
patriarchal violence that inscribes her, like Sethe, as a banished Caribbean who
is reduced to sheer physical existence on the margins of the metropole. In her
novel, Jean Rhys rewrites the history of the creole woman to showcase that her
self-erasure is not instigated by sheer insanity but by a long process of cultural
othering and material dispossession by the coalescing forces of British imperi-
alism, its legacies, and its patriarchy. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys does not
only divulge the vestiges of Antoinette’s defacement that Charlotte Brontë con-
ceals in Jane Eyre, but also empowers her through death. In Wide Sargasso Sea,
self-inicted death marks the fate of Antoinette as well; the latter disappears
from the narrative leaving the reader with the task of piecing together the signi-
cations of her self-erasure. Antoinette’s mortal incident is only hinted at in the
novel, a fact which complicates even further the task of interpretation. Antoi-
nette’s act unfolds in her last dream with which Rhys concludes her novel; there
in the dream, in the realm of the subconscious, she sets re to Thorneld Hall,
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and jumps from its battlements. Nevertheless, Antoinette’s self-eacement is
only concretized by Bertha in Brontë’s Jane Eyre, to which Wide Sargasso Sea
is a prequel.1 Since Antoinette’s self-erasure in Wide Sargasso Sea occurs in the
third and last chapter where Rhys moves to the narrative space of Jane Eyre,
there is no way one can read Antoinette’s self-destructive act without juxtapos-
ing both novels.
The moment of Antoinette’s self-eacement has stirred much critical
debates with regards to the questions of agency and resistance, and it is per-
ceived either as a logical conclusion to her passivity, or as a political gesture
of resistance. To jettison the claim that Antoinette is depicted in the novel
merely as a victimized and passive subject, I rst trace the resistance strate-
gies to which she resorts, before decoding the signs of resistance that wrap her
self-destructive act. The questions of the representation and interpretation of
Antoinette’s self-destruction, and the appraisal of Rhys’s enterprise to grant her
protagonist agency through death will be addressed as well.
Obviously, Antoinette is not a classic heroine nor is she presented in the
novel as a powerful resistant gure. Indeed, Rhys is much criticized for render-
ing her protagonist a passive and submissive character. While I do agree that
Antoinette is not represented as a powerful character in the way Sethe is, I stress
that these critics fail to recognize the strategies of resistance which she makes.
This failure in turn throws its shades on their understanding of her self-erasure,
stripping it of its resistance potential and placing it exclusively within the prov-
ince of victimhood and passivity.
In Rhys’s novel, Antoinette is represented as a victim of “the axiomatics
of imperialism” (Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,
247), but also as a subject who tries to subvert the gendered colonial violence
which is perpetrated on her. In a short but interesting article, Joseph Walker,
oers a compelling analysis of the radical possibilities which may develop on
the fringes of power. Inspired by bell hooks’ seminal article “Choosing the
Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” Walker argues against conceiving of
the margin as the exclusive “space of powerlessness and restriction”, while elid-
ing how it functions as a “space of radical openness . . . a profound edge” which
“nourishes one’s capacity to resist” (35). It is from her position in the margins of
imperial and patriarchal power that Antoinette sets to subvert her perpetrator’s
domination. When Rochester appropriates Antoinette’s name and identity into
1 Rhys’s novel should not be, though, taken as an explanatory prequel since it creates
a counter-discourse to that in Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
a ctional Bertha which he creates in his mind, Antoinette objects: “my name
is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?” (Rhys 81). Conscious of the power
of renaming, she asserts that “[N]ames matter. like when he wouldn’t call me
Antoinette” (Rhys 180). In her attempt to save her crumbling marriage, and to
reverse Rochester’s hateful sentiments towards her, Antoinette resorts to a mar-
ginal local source of power, obeah (also called voodoo, a folk Caribbean magic
which is contrasted with Rochester’s Christian belief in the novel). She asks her,
nurse Christophine, an Obeah black woman to prepare for her a potent which
would render peace to her conjugal relationship with Rochester. In as much as
black magic constitutes a source of resistance for Antoinette, it also stands as
one of fear and anxiety for Rochester, mainly because it belongs to the “uncon-
trollable” which escapes his Eurocentric rationality.
However, since these resistance strategies are weak in nature because they
are undertaken within the boundaries of the dominant system, “Antoinette is
doomed; her marginal space has collapsed into Rochester’s center” (Walker 46).
Once she moves to the metropole, Antoinette, now an allegedly mad person,
becomes not only more self-conscious of her subjugation, but also more violent
and aggressive. Her violent attack with a knife on Richard Mason her brother-
in-law for example thwarts the claim of her submissiveness and passivity (Rhys
184). All in all, Rhys’s protagonist is far from being totally silent and submis-
sive, and failing to recognize the mutation of her deance from what Katrak
calls “passive agency” in the West Indies to open and aggressive resistance in
the metropole will eventually lead to misreading her self-eacement, her last
gesture of resistance (Katrak 15).
My intention in the above argument, therefore, is to place Rhys’s protago-
nist in the inter-space between victimhood and resistance, although, I admit,
Antoinette’s character suers from several drawbacks that weaken but do not
negate her resistance. Doing so, I readily dismiss readings which are unable to
perceive the complicated character of Antoinette, and consequently index her
self-erasing gesture merely as a tragic accident and a permanent silence. One
proponent of such reading is Lucy Wilson whom Mardorossian cites in her arti-
cle “In Double (De)colonization and the Feminist Criticism of Wide Sargasso
Sea.” According to Mardorossian, Wilson “reads Antoinette’s suicide as the
logical outcome of her passivity and defeat which, she emphasizes, it is futile
to try and present as a positive and self-determining gesture” (Mardorossian).
Antoinette’s double gesture of setting re in Thorneld Hall and jumping from
its battlements hardly sustains Wilson’s assertion. In the novel, re is deployed
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as a means of destruction; burning Thorneld Hall—the symbol of metropoli-
tan and patriarchal power—before her self-destruction, is an aggressive act of
In Antoinette’s last dream, re reminds her of a gesture of vengeance which
she must carry out: “I looked at the dress on the oor and it was as if the re had
spread across the room. It was beautiful and reminded me of something I must
do” (Rhys 110). The dream in which Antoinette immolates Thorneld manor
house and jumps is very suggestive. Here is the celebrated passage which I
quote at length with some omissions:
I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs. . . . I heard the parrot call as
he did when he saw a stranger, Qui est la? Qui est la? and the man who hated
me was calling too, Bertha! Bertha! . . . But when I looked over the edge I saw
the pool at Coulibri. Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated,
she laughed. I heard her say, You frightened? And I heard the man’s voice, Ber-
tha! Bertha! All this I saw and heard in a fraction of a second. And the sky so
red. Someone screamed and I thought Why did I scream? I called ‘Tia!’ and
jumped and woke. (Rhys 110)
Tellingly, Antoinette’s self-death is a realization of her assertion earlier in the
novel of her identity in sinister overtones: “I will write my name in re red”
(Rhys 53). In contrast to Brontë’s Bertha who always shrieks and laughs, Rhys’s
protagonist is a subject who does not only self-consciously pose questions
about who she is and why she is brought to England (Rhys 107), but also as one
who decides to take action and wrest the power of othering from her oppressor.
Her last statement in the novel, “Now at last I know why I was brought here
and what I have to do” evidences how self-eacement in the postcolonial novel
is generally represented as an outcome of the subject’s self-knowledge and not
as a symptom of abnormality and mental disorders as it is typical of modern-
ist literary suicides. The creole’s body becomes a repository of both power and
resistance inscriptions. Since “there are always two deaths, the real one and
the one people know about” (Rhys 77), as Antoinette says, she chooses life-in-
death rather than a submissive death-in-life. What Antoinette’s act registers is
her rebellion against the conditions of her subjugation; the extent to which the
self-eacing subject succeeds in making her voice heard depends on the power
of the gesture as well as on the historical moment which frames the act.
As I said above, the moment of Antoinette’s self-eacement should be
cross-examined in the narrative spaces of both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso
Sea. In her novel, Jean Rhys tries to do justice to Antoinette’s rebellious mortal
act to save it from the Eurocentric misrepresentation. In a letter she wrote to her
editor, Rhys expresses her intention to give voice to the silenced creole woman
in Jane Eyre because she was “vexed at her [Brontë’s] portrait of the “‘tiger paper’
lunatic” that stands for ”only one side—the English side” (Letters 206–207). In
Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the creole woman’s self-destruction, like Sethe’s murderous
act in Beloved, is divested of its political signication, and annexed to madness
and lunacy. Bertha is no better than Sethe; both are dehumanized. While Sethe
is compared by Schoolteacher to an enraged hound or a horse, Antoinette’s
destructive gesture in Jane Eyre is envisaged as one of a being who occupies the
borderlines between humans and animals. In an oft-quoted passage in Brontë’s
novel, Jane describes the Creole woman as a gure who “ran backwards and
forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at rst
sight, tell: it groveled, seemingly on all fours; it snatched and growled like some
strange wild animal” (Brontë 257–58). More signicantly, Bertha appears in
the novel as the sacricial “animalistic other” whose self-death and disappear-
ance from the narrative save Brontë’s heroine from marginality and empower
her. In “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism ,” Spivak asserts
that “[Brontë’s Bertha] must play out her role, act out the transformation of
her ‘selfinto that ctive Other, set re to the house and kill herself, so that
Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British ction” (251).
Rhys’s writing back to Brontë’s novel, and her characterization of Antoinette as
a victimized and gendered colonial subject ensure that the death of the creole
mad woman in the attic is not discursively assimilated for the sake of Jane’s
So far, I traced the signs and signications of resistance and agency that
mark Antoinette’s self-destructive gesture, and I explained how Rhys tries
rst to justify Antoinette’s self-eacement as a response against colonial and
gendered violence, and second to save it from the discursive appropriation in
Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I conclude this section by an appraisal of Antoinette’s self-
erasure, raising the question of how successful is Rhys’s attempt to grant her
protagonist agency. Although I argued, against the grain of major readings of
Rhys’s novel, that Antoinette is empowered and given agency through death, I
still share some of their concerns about some of the narrative shortcomings of
the novel.
To begin, Antoinette’s self-destructive act is dramatized merely as a dream
in Rhys’s novel which closes with Antoinette waking up and walking through
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Thorneld Hall’s corridor on her way to realize it. Consequently, Antoinette’s
nal gesture is enacted and concretized within the narrative space of Brontë’s
Jane Eyre by Bertha. Rhys’s inability therefore to maintain narrative control over
the destiny of her protagonist weakens her enterprise of writing back to the
center. Besides, Antoinette’s nal gesture is ethically problematized when we
examine it in light of Rhys’s stance towards the local black subjects in the novel.
Disconcerting in the novel is Rhys’s registration of Antoinette’s self-eacing
gesture as a political act of resistance against the imperial and misogynistic
inscriptions at the expense of black subjectivity. The novel is replete with
instances of Antoinette’s racist stances against black subjects, although she
simultaneously expresses her wish to reconnect and identify with the local
culture. She denigrates for instance her black servants, and insults both Tia
and Christophine, calling the former a “cheating nigger” (Rhys 14), and the
latter an “ignorant, obstinate old negro woman” (Rhys 112). Correspondingly,
Antoinette’s speaking,throughdeath, against colonial and gendered violence is
ethically jeopardized since she replicates the same racial axioms of imperialism
which she dees. In this respect, I join Laura Ciolkowski, who argues that the
novel as a whole “discloses the complicated relationship between Antoinette’’s
complicity with and her resistance to the English imperial project” (Ciolkowski
353). Antoinette’’s act is riddled with ambivalence, being at once an instance of
native resistance and a gesture which discursively contributes to the stiing of
black voices in the novel.
To conclude, the highly ambivalent narrative construction of Rhys’s novel
is undoubtedly responsible for the nuanced meanings which Antoinette’s self-
eacing gesture bears. This ambivalence is primarily the result of two factors:
the rst is its problematic discursive relation to the British canon, and the sec-
ond is the dialogic nature of the novel which, recalling Bakhtin, is traversed
by polyphonic voices, a discursive strategy which Rhys resorts to undermine
the monologic voice of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. However, Rhys’s project to write
Bertha a life succeeds in imparting meaning on Antoinette’s double gesture of
immolation and self-eacement, saving her from being a mere sacricial gure
who must die so that Brontë’s British heroine would be rescued from margin-
ality. Rhys’s empowering of her protagonist through death remains problem-
atic however, and is certainly enervated by the fact that she writes her novel as
Spivak claims “in the interest of the white creole” (253), and at the expense of
the West Indian black subject.
To be sure, self-destruction and resistance stem from the realm of identity poli-
tics. The desire to understand how the will to die or the will to kill one’s children
far exceeds the instinctual calls of survival, how people dare sacrice their lives
to respond to violence, pain, and ignominy and how their emancipatory intents
are often appropriated when they are ltered through the distortive lenses of
the dominant power’s discursive structures motivated my re-reading of the
self-destructive scenes in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sar-
gasso Sea. Yet, underlying these politically oriented motives is a concern about
the primordial and indivisible value of human life itself. Indeed, the somewhat
naive hope to understand and limit the roots and causes of violence is what
ultimately guides this article. It is my conviction that identity politics with its
legitimate and necessary concerns about equivalence and “planetarity” should
be redressed, but by no means substituted, by the ethics of recognition and
responsibility. If there is any one important question this essay hopes to raise,
it would be this: can self-erasures of the type I discussed in this essay be elimi-
nated if their causes, gendered violence and pain, are tracked and reduced, if
not eradicated? Research about these issues, I believe, is not for mere abstract
theoretical contemplation; it is, and should be, guided by a pragmatic impulse
to lessen and minimize violence and pain in the world.
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Works Cited
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Diedrich, Maria, Henry Louis Gates and Carl Perderson. Black Imagination and the
Middle Passage. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Gillespie, Carmen. Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life
and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. Print.
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Higonnet, Margaret. “Speaking Silences: Women’s Suicide” in Susan Rubin Suleiman.
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Ledwon, Lenora. “Maternity as a Legal Fiction: Infanticide and Sir Walter Scott’s The
Heart of Midlothian.” Women’s Rights Law Reporter. New Jersey University. Fall.
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———. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 1969. Print.
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Black Imagination and the Middle Passage
  • Maria Diedrich
  • Henry Louis Gates
  • Carl Perderson
Diedrich, Maria, Henry Louis Gates and Carl Perderson. Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work
  • Carmen Gillespie
Gillespie, Carmen. Critical Companion to Toni Morrison: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 2008. Print.
Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text
  • Mae Henderson
  • Gwendolyn
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. "Toni Morrison's Beloved: Re-Membering the Body as Historical Text." Toni Morrison's Beloved: A Casebook. Nellie Mc Kay and William Andrews, ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 79-106. Print.
Speaking Silences: Women's Suicide" in Susan Rubin Suleiman. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard UP
  • Margaret Higonnet
Higonnet, Margaret. "Speaking Silences: Women's Suicide" in Susan Rubin Suleiman. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. Print.
Maternity as a Legal Fiction: Infanticide and Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian
  • Lenora Ledwon
Ledwon, Lenora. "Maternity as a Legal Fiction: Infanticide and Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian." Women's Rights Law Reporter. New Jersey University. Fall. 1996.