Scenes of Sacrifice: Violence as Female Agency in Wide Sargasso Sea and Beloved
By Elizabeth Winter
Facing domination and restriction at the hands of husbands, masters, and wider society, how can women reclaim agency and resist their oppressors? Examining two 20th century novels, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as well as their 19th century origin texts, this article posits that violence directed towards the self emerges as one of the few forms of agency available to women, and particularly women of color in the texts, who are harshly limited by their white patriarchal contexts. Employing René Girard’s theory of sacrifice, I argue that the women’s self-harming violence serves as a form of self-sacrifice in both texts, halting otherwise endless cycles of vengeful violence and affirming communities outside of the dominant white patriarchal order. Beginning with Wide Sargasso Sea, I argue that Antoinette’s self-sacrifice offers escape from her double racial and gendered oppressions and disrupts an otherwise endless cycle of colonial violence. I then consider Beloved, contesting that sacrifice’s dually ritual and violent nature functions in the context of motherhood. I argue Sethe’s murder of her child provides her agency, but an agency tainted by slavery that still requires a second sacrifice to affirm a female African American community. Finally, I turn to the ways in which the two 20th century novels retell Jane Eyre and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl respectively. With their revisions, the new texts perform symbolic violence on the white patriarchal limitations that constrict the originals, this symbolic, literary violence ultimately offering the most productive, rather than destructive, avenue to female agency and resistance.
“She threw them all away but you,” an older slave woman tells the young Sethe early in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (62). The woman speaks of Sethe’s mother, who “threw away” the children she bore after being “taken up” or raped by the crew of her slave ship (62). First made captive as a result of her race, Sethe’s mother also experiences horrific sexual violence at the hands of the crew. Her race and gender, together, leave her doubly oppressed. Even her female capacity for motherhood is appropriated as she gives birth to children who are the products of violent transgressions made against her. Although the children contain a part of herself, it is only in their violent destruction—throwing them away—that she can reassert control over her body and motherhood.
The OED defines violence as “the deliberate act of physical force,” “vehemence of emotion, behavior or language,” or else “the violation or breach of something” (“Violence”). That violence is “deliberate” and an “act” implies the agency possessed by those who exercise it. The old slave woman’s incantatory refrain of “threw” (“The others from more whites she also threw away. Without names, she threw them”) underscores the only way that Sethe’s mother can deliberately exercise force—through violence (62). Tossing her children from the boat or otherwise leaving them to die, Sethe’s mother uses this violence to claim the agency—although imperfect—to refuse her oppressors’ domination. It is only Sethe, the child of the black man to whom she consented and “put her arms around” (62), who she allows to live. Traditional gender roles associate violence with men, physically powerful individuals with the ability to destroy and exert force. Women, however, are conventionally depicted as the givers of life, healing and nurturing rather than destroying. Violence’s definition as “violation” becomes even more apt, then, when it is women, like Sethe’s mother, who wield it, their acts doubly violating as they transgress gendered expectations of the so-called weaker sex.
In this article, I will consider female agency and its exercise through violence in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The two 20th century novels are linked by the violence running rife throughout their plots and by the marginalized voices of women of color that they illuminate. As retellings of earlier 19th century texts, the novels also have violence inherent in their forms, their revisions enacting symbolic violence on the originals. As I will argue, this literary violence acknowledges how the earlier works are embedded within the dominant white male discourse and attempt to create space for new or previously excluded voices.
Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea reimagines Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester’s attic-bound wife, “Bertha Antoinetta Mason.” Rhys rechristens Bertha as Antoinette Cosway and begins her tale before the start of Jane Eyre’s plot. Wide Sargasso Sea follows Antoinette’s tumultuous childhood as a white Creole girl in post-abolition Jamaica, her marriage to Rochester, and her ultimate death, when she throws herself from the roof of Rochester’s burning manor.
Like Wide Sargasso Sea, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, Beloved, positions itself within an existing literary tradition. Morrison draws from historical accounts of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave woman who attempted to kill her children and then herself. Morrison’s novel also revises a slave narrative tradition that includes Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the text upon which my analyses of her retelling will focus. In her text, Morrison reimagines Garner as Sethe, who cuts her daughter Beloved’s throat when slave catchers arrive to reclaim their runaway human property. Beginning years after Beloved’s death, the novel explores the lingering grief and guilt of Sethe and her youngest daughter Denver.
Both Antoinette and Sethe experience devastating violence at the hands of their husbands, masters, or white patriarchal society broadly. Alternately rendered victims and perpetrators, the women find themselves entrenched in cycles of violent oppression and violent resistance. Yet, the violent acts that define both novels—Antoinette’s leap from Rochester’s roof and Sethe’s infanticide—are those enacted by female characters, not on their oppressors, but on themselves (or in Sethe’s case an extension of herself in the form of her child). Although disturbing, the women’s actions do not emerge from self-loathing or capitulation to societal pressures, but rather from specific aims—to personally escape subjugation or to save a child from enslavement. For both women, only through this self-harming violence can they claim agency over their lives which their societies would otherwise deny them.
Although Antoinette and Sethe’s similar acts of self-harming violence may seem coincidental, Toni Morrison claims this willingness to do violence to the self is “peculiar to women” (“A Conversation” 19). “The best thing that is in us is also the thing that makes us sabotage ourselves,” she says (19). More than sabotage, this “peculiar” violence can be understood as sacrifice, violence to the self for a larger purpose or for the benefit of others. René Girard’s theories of violent sacrifice describe it as a ritual act which can resolve violent conflict within communities. When a member of one tribe kills a member of another, Girard explains, his aggression requires equal retribution from the victim’s tribe. The retributive killing of the first murderer creates a new victim and requires yet another violent act, perpetuating an endless cycle. Sacrifice, however, directs violence at a scapegoat, a marginalized individual whose death demands no reprisal. Uniting to direct violence towards the sacrificial scapegoat, the community is reinforced through their ritual violence, stopping the otherwise endless cycle of vengeance.
Girard’s theories of sacrificial and cyclical violence fail to consider gender, however. As Luce Irigaray points out, sacrificial rites provide the foundation for society and yet “are almost universally in the hands of men,” excluding women from their community-defining power (8). Irigaray further argues that while women are excluded from performing rites, their duties as wives and mothers render them “a totem before any designated, identified or represented totem”—the first victims of sacrifice undergirding society (13). Rhys and Morrison, however, interrogate woman’s position as the passive object of sacrifice, offering their protagonists access to their own sacrificial rites.
Beginning with Wide Sargasso Sea, I will explore how violent sacrifice serves as a form of agency for Antoinette to resist her Western and patriarchal oppressors, though her agency is still limited. Diverging from Girard’s original theory, Antoinette’s self-sacrifice offers a feminist alternative. Sacrificing herself, she claims the position of object and subject of the sacrifice. No longer silent, the scapegoat’s voice can at last be heard in Antoinette’s narrative. Through violent sacrifice, she takes control of her life and the violent cycle that otherwise dictates it. Rather than reinforcing, Antoinette’s sacrifice subverts prevailing white patriarchal structures and creates the possibility for alternative communities among the marginalized, rather than only the dominant.
Moving on to Beloved, I will consider sacrifice’s dually destructive and healing functions within the neo-slave narrative, examining both Sethe’s murder of her baby daughter and the community’s exorcism of Beloved. While Sethe’s initial sacrifice grants her agency over her child that the slave system would otherwise deny her, the agency she claims is tainted with slavery’s violence. To begin to heal from the horrors of the past, Sethe and her community must come together to sacrifice Beloved’s re-embodiment, the specter of a traumatic past, reinforcing their own community as they do so. Although both Antoinette and Sethe’s violence brings them agency, it is also essential to recognize the high personal costs the women pay for this agency and the restrictive conditions which render their violence necessary.
Lastly, I will move beyond the violence of the novels’ plots, considering how violence exists within their forms, which retell earlier 19th century texts. With their revisions, Rhys and Morrison do violence to their origin texts. Like Sethe’s mother, they seek to “throw away” parts of the earlier narratives, doing violence to those aspects that are defined by white male-dominated discourse. Rhys’s novel reveals the limitations of Jane Eyre and violently creates space for new non-Western voices like Antoinette’s, while seemingly condemning Western literary tradition. Morrison rends the veil of propriety that is held firmly over Jacobs’s traditional slave narrative. She exposes the visceral horrors of slavery and thereby does violence to her readers, whom she refuses to accommodate. Not purely destructive, however, the authors also use their retellings to extend the earlier female authors’ efforts to claim agency beyond the limits of white patriarchal discourses.
Part I: Cyclical Violence and the Search for Agency in Wide Sargasso Sea
Published only four years after Jamaican independence, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea transports readers back to another transitional period in the island’s history—the then-English colony’s abolition of slavery in 1834. Although abolition, like decolonization a century later, was touted by the English as evidence of their own progressive and moral mindset, Rhys’s novel exposes the ongoing violence and division on the island, with relations between colonizers and colonized primarily characterized by violent white domination and violent black resistance.
Rhys’s protagonist, Antoinette, is a reimagined Bertha Mason and a self-identified white “Creole.” While a number of scholars interpret Antoinette/Bertha as “a madwoman of mixed race” (Winter 92), Sue Thomas most aptly contends that according to Victorian understanding, Bertha is considered raced, not due to black ancestry, but because of her “susceptibility to moral degeneration and physical and intellectual adaptation to a tropical climate” as someone born in Jamaica (Thomas 51). As a Creole, Antoinette straddles the boundaries between colonizer and colonized, white and black. Because of her ambiguous racial position and her status as a woman, Antoinette acts at some moments as oppressor, and others as oppressed. As a woman, her struggle against her patriarchal oppressors often parallels the struggles of colonized Jamaicans against their white oppressors, while the oppression she faces due to her Creole status both parallels and opposes the colonized struggle at different moments.
In the setting of post-abolition Jamaica, the white colonizers use violence (or its threat, codified in legal codes) to maintain their hegemonic control, and the newly emancipated Jamaicans attempt to resist their continued oppression with violence. Frantz Fanon explains that colonized peoples like the emancipated Jamaicans “had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force” (42). Eventually, they learn this “language” of violence and “express themselves with force,” communicating back to their dominators with the same force that has been used to control them (Fanon 42). While the oppressed hope that using violence directly against their oppressors will provide them agency over their lives and a way to free themselves, their violence only sparks further retribution. This pattern follows Girard’s theory that one act of violence sparks what I will call “vengeful” or “retributive violence,” which in turn produces a new victim in need of avenging and a cycle in which retribution endlessly begets retribution. Rhys’s Jamaica exhibits this cycle of violent action and counter-action, with colonizers asserting dominance with force and colonized responding in kind, sparking still more retribution.
While the emancipated Jamaicans employ vengeful violence directly against their oppressors and remain trapped within a cycle of colonial violence, Antoinette enacts violence on herself as a form of sacrifice, ending her life in exchange for agency. Antoinette’s sacrifice, an act which is “without risk of vengeance” according to Girard (13), halts the cycle of violence in her own life, as she decisively removes herself from further giving or receiving violence. Antoinette’s act diverges from Girard’s model, however, as she is not a helpless victim, but also the enactor of the sacrifice. While Girard proposes that sacrifice “reinforce[s] the social fabric” by uniting a community against a scapegoat (8), Rhys gives the scapegoat a voice through Antoinette, allowing her self-sacrifice to undermine the white patriarchal society which would dominate her. With her sacrifice, Antoinette exchanges her life for the brief yet powerful agency that her society has long denied her as a woman and a Creole. With this agency, Antoinette can reclaim her body and mind from Rochester’s oppressive control, subverting his dominant social power even more strikingly because her sacrifice cannot be further retaliated against.
Although Rhys’s text is set in post-abolition Jamaica, the racial hierarchy of the colonial system maintains its force. Whites continue to oppress and degrade their black servants, using violence or its threat to ensure their dominance. The Masons’ servant, Christophine, scoffs at the assertion that slavery is over, remarking that the new wave of white colonizers “have Letter of the Law” which is the “same thing” (26). The law simply threatens the violence of the “jail house and chain gang” for those who defy it (26). The threat of this violence allows the English to maintain their position atop the old racial hierarchy. Though slavery is lawfully ended, their violence constructs a “more cunning” version of slavery and its racial oppression to keep whites in control (26). At several moments in the text, though, the formerly enslaved Jamaicans attempt to claim agency by directing violence back on their oppressors.
When the Masons’ former slaves burn the family estate, they seek retribution against their wealthy white oppressors. The colonized population uses fire to speak back or “express themselves” to their oppressors through the only language colonialism has allowed them: “force” or violence (Fanon 42). Their rebellion is not an original one, as fire was a common method of slave rebellion. Antoinette herself observes, “many of the old estate houses were burned. You saw ruins all over the place” (133). Their use of this particular violence again highlights the black Jamaicans’ continued bondage, even if slavery is legally ended. Trevor Hope interprets these ruined estates as “domestic archives of the destruction associated with slave rebellions and post-emancipation resentments” (63). More broadly, they are also ruins of the violent cycle that has long dominated relations between colonizers and colonized, serving as a lingering legacy even after the explicit violence of slavery stops. The “domestic” nature of the ruins also suggests the power of domestic structures to physically enclose and figuratively restrict agency. The servants hope that in destroying the manor—the physical and domestic structure of their oppression—they can also destroy the rigid racial hierarchy that often leaves them powerless.
The violence the former slaves direct against their oppressors is retaliatory and vengeful, however, and thus does not allow them to achieve the full freedom and agency they desire. That the Mason estate, Coulibri, becomes just another one of “many” ruined estate houses also indicates the futility of the colonized Jamaicans’ rebellion. Theirs, like other past acts of arson, may scorch the houses, but the littered “ruins” of their colonized oppression remain a defining feature of the landscape, just as their lowly status remains the same. The retributive violence thus necessitates still more violent rebellions and retribution that will continue from both sides.
Even as the Masons flee the former slaves’ violence and their burning estate, Aunt Cora plays her part in the ongoing cycle and assures the blacks that the violence will continue. She threatens that the servants “will find out. Very shortly” that they too can burn in “eternal fire” with “never a drop of sangoree to cool [their] burning tongue[s]” (44). Promising violent retribution to come, Cora refuses to concede additional power to the colonized servants or the act they have committed. She does not grant them her fear or submission, but is already looking for her way back to the dominant position on the racial hierarchy through more vengeful violence. Cora’s threat of retribution also parallels the fire the blacks have set on Coulibri and escalates the violence still further. While the colonized harm the family with earthly flames set on their home, Cora’s reference to “eternal fire” implies the blacks’ death and a definitive punishment that will arrive “shortly.” Even death, ostensibly, cannot put an end to the violent retribution the servants will face, as the scorching flames of hell, to which she condemns them, are “eternal.”
The colonized blacks’ vengeful attack also aligns with Girard’s analyses of the cycle of violence as it “make[s] a victim out of the guilty party,” in this case, the white colonizers (26). One black Jamaican servant woman recognizes the Masons’ newfound victimhood and begins to cry for the family, even as another of her fellow servants demands, “When [the white masters] ever cry for you?” (44). Although it seems illogical for the oppressed woman to weep for her oppressors, her tears indicate how the whites’ new sympathetic victimhood robs the blacks of a potentially triumphant act of agentic resistance and negates any power they hoped to claim. In addition to sympathy, it is likely that the servant woman’s tears indicate her fear of the violent retribution which is sure to follow her fellow servants’ attack.
This cycle of vengeful violence also keeps the colonial community deeply divided along racial lines, even incorporating children like Antoinette into its structure. Although Antoinette has forged a friendship with Tia, the daughter of one of her family’s servants, their attempt to form community is harshly undermined by the colonial society’s violence. As her family flees their burning house, Antoinette runs toward Tia and away from her own family. She seeks her friend’s acceptance and understanding despite the racial violence swirling around them. Antoinette’s attempt to cross the white/black, colonizer/colonized divide faces violent rejection, however, when Tia throws a stone that cuts and scars Antoinette’s face. Participating in this scene of vengeful violence, Tia reminds Antoinette that playing the roles of (mostly) colonizer and colonized, they must remain on opposite sides of society. Yet, strangely, Tia cries as she throws the stone. Antoinette recounts the “blood on my face, tears on hers,” making it “as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass” (45). This moment of identity is striking, as Antoinette’s liminal position between white and back often renders her uncertain of her identity, yet here the two girls’ connection is undeniable. While those around them engage in vengeful violence, Tia’s tears indicate her violence merely capitulates to society’s grim reality, unable to escape its continual cycle. The two girls are mirror images, and yet they are trapped, worlds apart.
Although the colonized Jamaicans reveal the violent cycle based on racial divisions, Antoinette reveals a similar cycle in a gendered context. Her struggle against her husband’s dual patriarchal and Western oppressions both parallels and intersects with the struggle of colonizer and colonized in the West Indies. This is not unique to Antoinette but rather part of what Kari Winter calls the long history of “the association of the status of women with that of slaves” (5). For nineteenth-century women, marriage signified the husband’s “legal ownership of his wife’s person, property and issue” and “permanently prevented the autonomy of women” (Winter 4). Orlando Patterson describes slavery as a state of domination that functions “as a substitute for death,” “only as long as the slave acquiesced in his powerlessness” (5). Building from Patterson’s definition, Winter convincingly argues that women under these social conditions are, like slaves, “socially dead” as “persons who do not exist except in relation to fathers, husbands or brothers” (5). Of course, these categories of race and gender are not mutually exclusive, often overlapping to create a gradation in social power and standing. The connection between women and slaves’ conditions persists, both groups maintaining physical life only by accepting “social death” in the form of subjugation to masters, fathers, and husbands.
Antoinette’s subjugated condition as a non-Western Creole woman further exposes similarities and intersections between patriarchal and racial oppression. Just as white men like Antoinette’s father and other West Indian colonizers claimed the native Jamaicans’ land as their property during colonization, Rochester takes control of Antoinette’s body and mind. Elaine Scarry’s Consent and the Body describes the body as “palpable ground” that, like territory, has “specifiable boundaries” that can be trespassed (868). Rochester quite clearly “trespasses” on the “ground” that is Antoinette’s body and mind, legally possessing her body through their marriage and enclosing it in the domestic space of his manor. She is specifically contained in the attic where her movement and therefore also her agency to act freely are literally constricted. If we consider the gothic house and “domestic space… as an extension of the female body,” Antoinette’s position as property becomes increasingly clear (Mulvey-Roberts 107). Just as the bounds of the house and the domestic constrict her, Antoinette’s gendered body is a limitation and constriction which prevents her from holding agency.
In addition to dominating Antoinette’s body, Rochester also violently colonizes his wife’s identity. During the couple’s honeymoon, Rochester rechristens Antoinette as “Bertha,” despite her protests that he is “trying to make [her] into someone else” (147). His abrupt renaming of Antoinette again mimics a colonizer’s naming of the new land he conquers, with little consideration of the history that has come before. It was also custom for colonizers or slaveholders to name their slaves in eighteenth and nineteenth century Jamaica (Burnard 326). Therefore, in renaming her, Rochester could also be read as conferring slave status onto his wife. Calling Antoinette “Bertha,” Rochester denies the Jamaican origins implicit in her flowery French name, the name change symbolizing a deeper violence that is occurring. Antoinette herself notes that when Rochester calls her Bertha, she “saw Antoinette drifting out the window” (180). He replaces her heritage and identity, linked closely with her Martinique-born mother “Annette,” with an abruptly short and starkly English name that destroys the non-Western identity that came before. Sent “out the window,” the Jamaican parts of Antoinette’s identity are harshly excluded from the colonial space of Rochester’s English manor. When Rochester erases Antoinette’s identity, he deprives her of the agency to do anything more than drift passively. Rochester’s renaming, like his oppressive confinement of Antoinette, violently separates Antoinette from the Jamaican parts of her identity (“her scents, her pretty clothes, and her looking glass”) (180). As a result, trapped in the captivity of her marriage and attic prison, Antoinette laments that “they have taken everything away” (180).
Indeed, even before Antoinette’s attic captivity, Rochester deprives her of control over her very life. After the couple’s marriage in Jamaica, Antoinette tells Rochester she wishes to die then, while she is happy. Rochester’s domination is so absolute that even Antoinette believes her husband has complete control over her life, underscoring Winter’s discussion of “socially dead” women. Rochester has only to “say die and [she] will die” (92). Antoinette’s seemingly absolute submission to Rochester also indicates the violence his mere words can do, in this case potentially ending her life. Although she claims to desire death, Antoinette cannot bring an end to her own life. Instead, she requires Rochester to enable this death for her. Dependent on Rochester for life as well as death, Antoinette lacks all agency under his control. After Antoinette expresses her wish to die, Rochester remarks that he “watched her die many times. In my way not in hers” (92). Here, Rochester plays with multiple meanings of “die”—to stop living, and to have an orgasm. Even in her “death,” Rochester insists on maintaining control, so she may only “die” in “his way”—sexually—not, as she seems to wish, with the end of her life. His ability to cause Antoinette’s “death” through sex also implies Rochester’s use of sexual violence and domination. His ability to make her “die” on his terms emphasizes his absolute domination, and her lack of agency over not just her body, but her life and death generally.
Given that Antoinette’s patriarchal oppression often resembles the domination of the colonized Jamaicans, it is logical that she would attempt to regain her agency with a similarly vengeful violence. When her brother comes to see her, for instance, she “rushed at [him] with a knife” and “bit his arm” (183). However, her attempts to speak back to the violence of her imprisonment and mental domination only necessitate what Girard calls “yet another act of vengeance” from Rochester back to Antoinette (26). Just as the black servants at her family estate received threats of the whites’ impending retribution after their fiery revolt, Antoinette’s “red and swollen” wrists after her vengeful attack reveal the continuation of the cycle (181). She too has failed to gain meaningful agency with retributive violence. Instead, she bears evidence of even greater physical restraint and imprisonment on her wrists, representing her continued lack of power over her body and the domination of her life inflicted by the men around her. Her mental state remains similarly oppressed in its continued uncertainty, no more agentic after her violence. She still doesn’t “know what [she] is like now” and wonders, “What am I doing in this place and who am I?” because of Rochester’s attacks on her identity (180). While her retributive violence on her oppressors attempts to claim agency over her body and identity, it only results in counter-violence and greater restraint, which leaves her, like the colonized Jamaicans, more limited and trapped within a cycle of violence than before.
Breaking the Cycle with Fire and Flight
At the end of the novel, Antoinette’s violence shifts from direct and vengeful attacks on her captors to focus on herself. Though her jump from the roof of Rochester’s manor first seems to resemble another instance of retributive violence’s backlash, Antoinette’s violence against herself instead operates as self-sacrifice. Unlike vengeful violence, this new form of violence cannot be negated by retributive counteraction. As a result, self-sacrifice is able to break the violent cycle and provide Antoinette agency, although at a devastating cost. In many ways aligning with Girard’s descriptions of sacrifice, Antoinette’s self-sacrifice is grimly “decisive” and “self-contained” as it brings about her death, preventing the possibility of Rochester’s further oppression or retaliation (Girard 26). As she stands on the roof, although Rochester cries, “Bertha!” behind her, Antoinette does not heed his last attempt to control her or keep her within a domestic prison. Even if Rochester intends to save her from the fire, his efforts to keep her alive would also hold her captive in a life which deprives her of agency. His choice to call out “Bertha,” a name and identity Antoinette has not chosen or accepted for herself, reveals the limitations of any kind intentions Rochester may possess. He will fail to recreate his control over her, however, because of her sacrifice.
With her self-sacrifice, Antoinette asserts control over the “death” Rochester previously claimed would only occur according to his desires. She exchanges her life for a moment of agency which she may use to escape her confining conditions. Whereas vengeance transforms the original oppressor into a victim and briefly exonerates the oppressor from guilt, Antoinette’s self-sacrifice spares Rochester from direct attack. She thereby preserves his guilt and her own sympathetic victimhood. At last she can die in her way, without Rochester’s aid, interference, or the continuation of a cycle of violent retribution.
In addition to stopping the cycle, Antoinette’s self-sacrifice successfully grants her the agency her earlier vengeful violence could not. Diverging from Girard’s model, Antoinette sacrifices herself, taking on the position of both object and, more importantly, subject of her sacrifice. Enacting violence on herself and claiming this sacrificial rite, Antoinette gains control over the cycle so she cannot be forced back into a place of oppression. While Girard writes that ritual sacrifice reinforces communities who unite to direct violence towards a marginalized individual, a “scapegoat” (26), Rhys gives voice to this scapegoat who, in claiming violent sacrifice for herself, resists rather than reinforces dominant society. Enacting sacrifice herself, Antoinette takes control of the violence, instead of becoming a passive sacrificial victim or object used to affirm others’ social cohesion. Now, free from Rochester’s control, Antoinette draws him after her into the dangerous flames. Depriving him of her body to dominate and burning down the manor—a mechanism of his patriarchal oppression—Antoinette’s sacrifice topples the literal (house) and figurative (social hierarchy) structures that allow Rochester to oppress her and the violent cycle to continue. Her self-sacrifice also undermines her society as it provides her with agency that she should not, as a woman and a non-Westerner, be able to access, according to existing dominant power structures.
While Rochester previously controlled every part of Antoinette, so that she did not know “who I am and where is my country and where do I belong” (102), her violence returns her power to act and know her surroundings. Walking towards the roof as the flames surge around her, she finally “know[s] why [she] was brought here and what [she has] to do” (190). Her focus on “knowing” and “doing” indicates the new power she can finally exercise to control her mind and body when she sets her death into motion. The eerie image of Antoinette walking with her candle “to light [her] along the dark passage” also underscores the final clarity she finds in her self-sacrifice (190). The candle she wields is a symbol of her final agency, allowing her to illuminate a path towards the “light” of freedom, but also, fittingly, a death that will lend Antoinette and her story a brilliant visibility lacking in Brontë’s original text. Her movement along a dark passage recalls images of the birth canal, suggesting the rebirth into a freer agentic life that is brought about by Antoinette’s self-sacrifice. Unlike Brontë’s secondhand description of Bertha’s death as a crazed fall, Antoinette’s death concludes the novel. No longer a haunting and insubstantial presence lurking in the back of Jane Eyre’s plot, Rhys’s depiction of Antoinette’s flaming leap makes this “madwoman in the attic” more visible than ever. Antoinette’s hope ultimately lies with fire, both the small flame of the candle, giving her a clear path, and the larger fire that gives her the power to set herself and her story free from Rochester’s dominating power and Brontë’s earlier constricting narrative.
Antoinette’s use of fire in her self-sacrifice also fittingly parallels the formerly enslaved Jamaicans’ violent revenge early in the novel. While during this first fire, Antoinette was the former slave owner attacked by slaves, the second fire positions Antoinette as a slave in revolt against a white master. Fire’s reappearance again draws out Antoinette’s dual and overlapping oppressions, opposing her female, wifely position to Rochester’s male dominance and her raced, Creole status to Rochester’s staunch Englishness. Like the colonized Jamaicans, Antoinette uses fire to target the manor house specifically as a symbol of Rochester’s Western and patriarchal dominion. Rochester has used the manor to enclose Antoinette, rendering her with no more agency than an insubstantial ghost, like the one she believes she sees when she passes her own reflection in a mirror (188). Like this ghost-self who is “surrounded by a gilt frame,” Antoinette is imprisoned in the confines of the domestic space and Western society’s expectations (188). Just as the frame seems beautiful and valuable from the outside, Rochester’s manor seems to offer social elevation or marital love. Because it is “gilt” or gilded, however, the beauty of the frame is a thin veneer, covering a base sinister in its ability to physically enclose. The manor also symbolizes Rochester’s wealth and status as the master of the house, attributes which allow him to dominate all within. This wealth and status is underpinned, as with the gilt frame, by the labor of colonized peoples in the West Indies and by Antoinette’s family’s slave-owning fortune. Antoinette’s self-sacrifice, however, allows her to begin to break from her confinement.
With the fire of her self-sacrifice, Antoinette will attempt, like the Jamaicans, to change the landscape. She turns the structure of Rochester’s domination into ruins and diminishes his power to oppress. She notes earlier that she believes people and their homes are intimately connected. Her mother “was part of Coulibri” and was therefore destroyed along with the Jamaican manor (133). The destruction of Rochester’s manor in the course of her self-sacrifice then further symbolizes Antoinette’s resistance and agency, as she likely believes that destroying the manor could wound Rochester himself. Indeed, Brontë’s text details the blindness and crippling injuries Rochester suffers from Bertha’s fire. His reputation, too, could suffer, as the fire makes her experiences visible, elucidating the oppression that has occurred within the gilded cage of the manor. Antoinette’s sacrificial violence then gives her the agency to speak back to Rochester’s oppression more effectively than a physical attack or other vengeful violence could. This self-sacrifice succeeds in providing her agency even as it leaves destruction in her wake.
Beyond its allusions to slave rebellion, fire also reinforces the sacrificial nature of Antoinette’s violence. While honeymooning with Antoinette in Jamaica, Rochester observes “a large moth, so large that I thought it was a bird” that “blundered into one of the candles” (81). Here, Rhys nods to Bronte’s original text, which briefly features a West Indian moth in Rochester’s garden. Although seemingly anachronistic, Brontë’s moth foreshadows the coming revelation of Bertha’s presence. Imagining a similar moth who flies into a candle flame, Rhys highlights what Hope calls its “incendiary tendencies” (Hope 68). Although Hope presents several interpretations, most compelling is his analysis of the moth as an avatar of Antoinette, due to their shared avian and incendiary characteristics (68). Hope describes the moth’s—and, I would add, Antoinette’s—attraction to deadly flames as “self-immolation” (68). Although “immolation” has come to be associated with death or consumption by fire, the term is often also linked with suicide protest. Immolation is defined by the OED as “sacrifice,” making “self-immolation” the equivalent to “self-sacrifice” (“Immolation”). As Antoinette walks towards the manor’s roof, her attraction to the “protector” flames—which will paradoxically bring her demise—also symbolizes the passion and warmth of her Jamaican identity (189). Her attraction to the flames is equally as instinctive and destructive as that of her moth counterpart. Terming Antoinette’s violence against herself “self-immolation” helps further conceptualize it as a sacrifice that gives her agency to protest her condition. Her sacrifice becomes a disturbing yet profoundly agentic form of resistance that frees her from Rochester’s oppression, even at the cost of her life.
Antoinette’s self-immolation also suggests links to the Indian practice of sati, in which widows cast themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. The debate surrounding this practice, declared by Ania Loomba to be a “spectacular form of patriarchal violence,” with some finding the women oppressed “archetypal victims” and others “free agents” embodying the “devoted and chaste” (209-210), could also be applied to Antoinette’s self-sacrifice. That Antoinette must resort to self-sacrifice to resist colonial and patriarchal oppression exposes both her severe restrictions as well as her defiant commitment to agency. Unlike the women performing sati, however, Antoinette’s fire does not represent submissive chastity. Rather it is her flaming anger and sexuality, breaking free from white patriarchal containment.
Like fire, Rhys’s use of a flight motif emphasizes the agency Antoinette gains from her self-sacrifice. As Antoinette stands on the roof of the burning manor, the wind “caught [her] hair and it streamed out like wings” (189-190). Her newfound “wings” emerge at this particular moment from her decision to sacrifice herself. Suggesting the power of flight and freedom, they reveal the agency Antoinette has found through her violence to transcend the physical bounds of her attic prison. Her “wings” also position Antoinette as a reincarnation of the parrot who fled the flames of her childhood home. Though Coco “made an effort to fly down,” he failed because his wings were “clipped” by the English Mr. Mason, a stand-in for white colonial oppression (43). As a result of the imperialist desire to dominate and possess nature, Coco’s natural capacity for flight—and therefore his freedom—is limited. Hope notes that Coco’s clipped wings also represent the parallel limitation man places on woman when he confines her to the domestic (Hope 69). Situated in the midst of these struggles of race and gender, Antoinette’s position again highlights the parallel and intersecting struggles of Jamaican colonial subjects and women.
As the parrot attempts to fly from the flaming wreckage of the manor during the first fire, its captivating and striking death allows Antoinette and her family to escape unharmed. Because it is “very unlucky to kill a parrot,” the superstitious Jamaicans draw back in fear of the curse the parrot’s death may bring (43). Antoinette’s death too will leave a punishing curse on Rochester and her English oppressors as it puts an end to the violent cycle which gives them their power to oppress. Contrasting Antoinette with the parrot (and Brontë’s Bertha) who simply perishes after the fall, Rhys highlights the triumph of Antoinette’s leap, rather than the horrifying result of the fall. The last scene in Rhys’s text describes Antoinette setting out to light the blaze and take the leap which she has just dreamed in detail. Within the bounds of Rhys’s text, however, Antoinette never hits the ground. While, like Coco, she has previously been “clipped” and her agency and passions trapped within Rochester’s manor, Antoinette’s violence gives her back her wings. Dreaming of the jump she will take, with the fire she has set raging behind her, Antoinette gains the agency to fly beyond the manor’s control, both escaping and rebelling through her self-sacrifice.
Illuminated by the flames of her own making and leaping into flight like a bird, at last Antoinette and her story are not only violently visible, but a sight from which we cannot look away. The association of Antoinette’s death with both birds and fire is also apt as these images together suggest a phoenix, engulfed in flames only to later rise from the ashes. This phoenix-like imagery suggests that in her death Antoinette opts to sacrifice her physical life in order to escape the “social death” she has experienced thus far, living in a state of captivity and erasure at the hands of her English husband. Like a phoenix’s death by flame, Antoinette’s sacrifice ends her physical life, but offers opportunities for a new, more free and agentic existence. Orlando Patterson argues that “social death” continues as long as the oppressed submit to their state of powerlessness in order to avoid actual physical death. With her self-sacrifice, however, Antoinette refuses to exist without agency in “social death.” She will sacrifice her physical life to gain agency and exist beyond her husband’s power. With sacrifice, she claims a rebirth that could be called a “social life,” in opposition to her earlier “social death.” Rhys’s text is perhaps itself the best representation of the “social life” that Antoinette achieves with her physical death. Though her violence has a high cost and ends her life, Rhys’s novel illuminates the agency of Antoinette’s death. She gives Antoinette a complex and profoundly human voice to express her identity and experiences, as Brontë’s depiction of the dangerous and rabid madwoman in the attic does not.
Triumph and Limitation
Despite the triumph and agency implied in Rhys’s imagery, it is essential to consider the unsettling limits of Antoinette’s sacrifice. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese notes that slaves sometimes used “extreme forms of resistance—murder, self-mutilation, infanticide, suicide”—because they, like Antoinette, had limited means of fighting back (qtd. in Winter 116). Fox-Genovese clearly interprets the message of these slaves’ violence which “captured the essence of self-definition: You cannot do that to me, whatever the price I must pay to prevent you” (qtd. in Winter 116). Winter expands this claim to gothic heroines of the same period, noting that for many fictional heroines “the ultimate act of resistance against oppression is to choose death over powerlessness” (116). Here, in her rewriting of a gothic novel, Rhys seems to assert the same view for Antoinette. Indeed, suicide, which Christianity’s rise made increasingly taboo, has historically been associated with agency. John Locke argues, for instance, that though God grants man natural personal liberty, or the agency to direct his life, “he has not liberty to destroy himself” (4). This agency would transgress God’s dominion over human life and destiny.
While Rhys’s text, recalling its traditional gothic predecessors, highlights the agency of violence directed at the self, other female authors of the gothic period “advocated survival over suicide [for their heroines], suggesting that to choose life is a more powerful act of resistance than to choose death, when one has a choice” (Winter 116). Lisa Guenther’s discussion of self-harm in the context of solitary confinement aptly conceptualizes the complex and contested effects of this violence. She writes, “The prisoner who bashes his own body against the walls of a rec yard is both refusing and confirming the abyss of solitary confinement. The self-battering body makes a statement of sorts: these walls might confine me absolutely, but I absolutely refuse to be confined!” (2). Similarly, that Antoinette’s only capacity to claim agency and stop the violent cycle in her life is in self-sacrifice and death reveals the severe gendered and racial restrictions she faces and remains a crucial limit to the agency she does acquire, however striking.
Additionally, while Antoinette’s sacrifice can put a stop to the violence haunting her own life, it would be naïve to claim that her sacrifice stops all of the colonial system’s violence. Kari Winter notes that “female gothic novelists and slave narrators,” and I would add Rhys as well, “understood, however that the deaths of subjugated peoples rarely change the power structure” and that “white men were little affected by these deaths” (116). While Brontë’s text informs us that Rochester is in fact changed—physically crippled and spiritually humbled after Bertha’s death—it is hard to imagine much change in the ongoing resentments occurring in Jamaica or other British colonies, although the cycle within Antoinette’s individual life has ceased.
Still, there is evidence that Antoinette’s sacrifice harkens to a larger ripple effect—or at least an intent beyond her own triumphant and troubling act of liberation. As she stands on the edge of the roof, Antoinette envisions her black childhood playmate, Tia. Although absent since the start of the novel and Antoinette’s experience of violent rejection, now when the wind blows her hair back off her face, Antoinette calls out “Tia” as she jumps (190). Jennifer Gilchrist picks up on Rhys’s shift away from Antoinette’s disturbing fate to an image of Tia’s more hopeful one, arguing that in contrast to Antoinette’s air of “(romantic) futility,” Tia’s final image is that of a “young, black Martiniquan-Jamaican, free, laughing, and teasing Antoinette to jump” (24). For Gilchrist, this last image indicates that “Tia, and perhaps black West Indians in general, will be fine” (24). Our last thought is not of Antoinette or of Jane who will take her place as Rochester’s wife—but rather the colonized subject who managed, at least for a moment, to see Antoinette in a way that transcended their opposing roles of former slave and former slave holder.
Even more than offering the hopeful image of a free Jamaican girl, I propose that Antoinette’s call to Tia is the most radical act of her sacrifice. One can imagine that with Antoinette’s hair lifting off her face and streaming behind her, the scar that Tia’s rock made on Antoinette’s face many years ago is exposed. Suddenly, Antoinette can remember the only individual in her life who accepted her for her in-between, Creole identity. With this reminder and resolve, Antoinette refuses Rochester’s calls and his continued domination. Instead, she jumps into what she imagines is “the pool at Coulibri,” where she shared joyful memories of an unlikely friendship with Tia (190). Antoinette will sacrifice herself in a final attempt to bridge the gap between colonizer and colonized—or at least the distance between herself and Tia—reaching out to her childhood friend and the Jamaican parts of her identity that she imagines in the sky as she leaps. Although Antoinette’s sacrifice will certainly not put an end to every instance of colonial violence, it can perhaps allow her the agency to reach out to Tia one last time. Not only refusing to reinforce the dominant white male society, Antoinette’s self-sacrifice actually creates the possibility for an alternative community that transcends racial and colonial barriers. While Tia’s tearfully-enacted vengeful violence previously held them apart, Antoinette’s sacrificial violence now reaches across the racial divide that society has deemed irreconcilable. As Antoinette takes control of the cycle of violence through her sacrifice, Rhys suggests there is indeed hope for healing the rift colonialism has wrought; a hope particularly anchored in female community. Ultimately, despite her devastating personal fate, Antoinette’s last sacrificial act of violence offers a brilliant hope that these seemingly inexhaustible systems of oppression can be overcome, and by the most unexpected of individuals.
Part II: Murderous Motherhood: Sacrifice and Maternal Agency in Beloved
In her celebrated work on motherhood, Adrienne Rich argues that “we need to understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in patriarchal culture” (225). Motherhood is, for Rich, a violent institution. It leaves its mark on both the mother who is forced to endure the institution’s patriarchal limits, and on the child who becomes “a piece of reality, of the world which can be acted on… by a woman restricted from acting on anything else” (38). As a result, relations between mother and child often reflect power relations of patriarchal society. Toni Morrison’s Beloved specifically considers the power and powerlessness of slave mothers in the American slave system. Many scholars see slave motherhood as either power or powerlessness. Helene Moglen argues that “one social function that blacks cannot be denied in the nightmare world of slavery: [is] that of mothering” (28) and Hortense Spillers contends that motherhood “loses its sacredness in slavery” (75). Morrison’s novel, however, interrogates slave motherhood’s duality as a source of agency and as an instrument of oppression.
Morrison’s novel focuses primarily on Sethe, a character inspired by historical accounts of Margaret Garner, the escaped slave woman who killed her daughter when she was captured as a fugitive. While Jean Rhys grapples with a wife’s struggle to claim agency and resist her husband-oppressor, Morrison imagines the challenge for a slave mother to possess agency over her own life as well as the lives of her children when the American slave system designates all of them human property. Like Antoinette, Sethe’s agency emerges from her use of sacrifice that is “peculiarly” female and “[self-]sabotaging” (“A Conversation” 585). In Morrison’s text, however, Sethe’s peculiarly female violence is also particularly rooted in motherhood.
Girard’s model of sacrifice, which he calls alternately “ritual” and “savage” (9-10), is again useful here to draw out the dual nature of Sethe’s violence. Girard himself considers classical examples of infanticide as sacrifice, describing Medea’s murder of her children as both “ceremony” and “crime” (10). Girard is most interested, however, in the role of Medea’s children as scapegoats who bear the overflow of Medea’s violent impulses in her struggle with Jason. He fails to consider the children as extensions of the mother herself, or the significance of the mother as the enactor of sacrifice. Morrison’s text, however, interrogates the link between motherhood and sacrifice, illuminating the paradoxically empowering and brutal aspects of both.
Just as Antoinette turns violence onto herself to claim agency over her life and the vengeful cycles that have dominated it, Sethe employs violence against her children who are extensions of herself. Sacrificing Beloved’s life, Sethe keeps her daughter from returning to slavery and violently asserts her motherhood within a slave system which would degrade and erase it. Even as it grants her agency to resist her oppressors, Sethe’s highly individual sacrifice remains tainted by slavery’s violent trauma and its practice of human ownership. It is only with a second sacrifice, the female community’s exorcism of Beloved, that the women can gain the agency to affirm a female community or, as Girard writes, “reinforce the social fabric” that white society would deny and diminish (8). Forging a new communal motherhood, the women can cast out enough of slavery’s trauma to begin to heal and rediscover their individual subjectivities.
Contested Slave Motherhood
Although relying on slave women to bear children and reproduce the slave population, the slave system generally sought to degrade and diminish relationships between slave mothers and their offspring. Spillers explains one rationale: “If kinship were possible, the property relations would be undermined, since the offspring would then ‘belong’ to a mother and a father,” when their first relation must be as property to the master (Spiller 75). As a result, maternal relations were reduced to legal links which conferred slave status onto children who would follow “the condition of the slave mother” (79). Paradoxically, the primary connection between mother and child was what robbed the mother of any parental right. Female slaves were especially valued for their ability to reproduce and multiply their masters’ slave property. As former slave Harriet Jacobs attests, “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock” (Jacobs 49). The slave catchers in Morrison’s text exhibit similar attitudes, noting that Sethe has “at least ten breeding years left” (Morrison 149). With their focus on “breeding,” the men only recognize Sethe as livestock and valuable property. Such a focus on the functionality of female reproduction and matrilineal inheritance caused some 19th century scholars to declare motherhood a degraded and “negating feature of human community” (Spillers 80). Rather than a bond of love and protection, in the slave system, “Mother right” or a mother’s connection to her children conferred only a life of enslavement and oppression onto her children.
Even before she has her own children, Sethe experiences the debasement of motherhood within slavery through her relationship with her own mother, whom she barely knows. Cared for by another slave woman who is responsible for the plantation’s slave children, Sethe remembers that “I didn’t see [my mother] but a few times out in the fields” (60). The two are so disconnected that Sethe’s mother instructs Sethe to “know [her] by this mark” burned into her skin because “I am the only one got this mark now” (61). Ostensibly made by slave traders to claim their human property, the brand signifies her mother’s past of horror and loss—“her violent possession through rape and enslavement” (Mullen 122). Despite her branding’s violent origins, Sethe’s mother reappropriates her scar as a symbol of her connection to her daughter as well as her human individuality when she links the mark to her motherhood. From within a society that would define her as an interchangeable beast, her motherhood—although marred by slavery—begins to offer her a site of agency and resistance, a power within her powerlessness.
A generation later, Sethe’s maternal connection to her own children is even more directly degraded not by distance, but rather by her slave masters’ physically and psychologically violent abuse. Sethe tells her fellow former slave Paul D how white boys on the plantation “took my milk” while her master, “schoolteacher,” looked on (17). While Paul D is most horrified by her experience of physical violence—that Sethe was whipped while she was pregnant—she can only repeat, “And they took my milk!” to his inquiries. She is fixated on this violating rape of her motherhood or what Moglen calls the white men’s “appropriation of maternal nurturance as eroticized violence” (26). In suckling Sethe, the white boys diminish her to a cow or other breeding livestock. Sethe exists only for their sustenance or sexual pleasure, not for meaningful relationships of her own. Although violently eroticized in this scene, the boys’ attack also recalls the work of countless black wet-nurses who fed white children during slavery (and afterwards). While not all black women were physically “held… down” and made to relinquish their breastmilk as Sethe is in this scene (17), many slave women still had no choice but to place their white masters’ children above their own. According to Marcus Wood, “slave mother’s milk,” this crucial symbol of motherly connection, “was stolen in vast, unknown, incalculable quantities” (2). The use of wet-nurses also added a “uniquely gendered type of exploitation for [already] commodified women” (West and Knight 51). As the grown boys forcibly suckle a black woman, they powerfully represent white society’s consumption of the black body.
When Sethe tells her mistress of the boys’ actions, she is brutally whipped and left with her own distinctive scar. A direct result of her masters’ violation and her attempt to assert her motherhood, Sethe’s mark can be read as a symbol of her fraught maternity. Like her own mother’s mark of commodification, the branching “chokecherry tree” scarring Sethe’s back is an inscription of both the oppression she has faced and the connections she maintains with her children despite that oppression (16). The harsh repeated sound in the tree’s name and the jarring combination of the violent verb “choke” with the sweet fruit “cherry” further reinforce its link to Sethe’s motherhood, a role which, despite its love and sweetness, has left her scarred and violated. According to Jean Wyatt, Sethe’s back “has been appropriated and reified as a tablet on which the slave masters have inscribed their code” (Wyatt 217). Though its position on her back means she has “never seen [the tree] and never will” (Morrison 16), Sethe knows it is there. While the mark is a reminder of the trauma haunting her body and mind, it also suggests the hope and strength in her continued connection to her children. Although “her back skin had been dead for years” and can feel no sensation, Sethe claims the tree “grows there still” (17). The scar’s tree shape also echoes a genealogical tree, a symbol for new life and growth. Just as a family tree tracks the growth and branching of a family, Sethe’s scar symbolizes her position as the “trunk” of her family, the second generation linking the roots of her family with the new generation’s “blossoms” (Rody “Toni” 107). Just as Sethe’s motherhood motivates her to resist domination and offers the possibility of new life, the tree creates new branches and hope for recovery after trauma.
Not only a representation of the regenerative and healing forces of motherhood, Sethe’s mark also indicates the strength and beauty of maternity. First described to Sethe as a tree by a white woman, Wyatt reads this account of its grim beauty as “an act of poetic detachment” that “masks suffering” (217). Sethe’s use of this metaphor years later, Wyatt argues, indicates her inability to “seize the word” and “master” her subjective experience of pain (217). I would argue, however, that Sethe’s reading of the mark as a tree, like her mother’s description of her own scar, reappropriates her flesh as something generative rather than purely painful. Morrison carefully avoids romanticized or detached descriptions of Sethe’s scar, occasionally pulling back from metaphorical descriptions to remind readers the tree is actually a “revolting clump of scars” (21). When Morrison does choose to compare the tree’s beauty to that of “a sculpture” that is “like the decorative work of an ironsmith too passionate for display,” her choice then is pointed as well as poetic (17). Likening the markings on Sethe’s back to high forms of art like “sculpture” and “decoration” invests a striking degree of value in Sethe’s body. Her motherhood invests this beauty within her, a beauty and value that emerges not despite her past subjugation but as a direct result of it. It is also notable that the art Sethe’s body resembles is far from delicate, but rather like “ironwork” or “sculpture.” Her scar reveals the strength and determination that her motherhood and her struggle to protect it within slavery have inscribed in her person.
Despite the slave system’s attempts at degradation, Sethe’s motherhood prompts her to orchestrate her family’s escape to freedom and thereby resist slavery’s violence. Recounting their escape, Sethe says, “I did it. I got us all out. Without Halle too. Up till then it was the only thing I ever did on my own” (162). Sethe’s repetition of “I” and her insistence that she performed this act “on my own” emphasizes her determination to possess agency over her children’s fates rather than relinquish them to slave owners. Sethe’s desire to protect her children is the impetus for her first attempt at individual agency or “the only thing [she] ever did on [her] own.” Sethe again claims her motherhood as a form of agency when she ensures that she gives birth to her daughter Denver in freedom. Despite horrific injuries, labor pains, and her companion’s insistence that “you the dumbest thing on this here earth,” Sethe climbs into a boat on the Ohio River to deliver her child (83). Although Sethe only delivers the baby on the water and does not yet cross to free land, Denver’s birth serves as a reversal of the Middle Passage—that suspended journey at sea which brought many people from Africa into slavery. While Saidiya Hartman notes that “the Middle Passage was the birth canal” reconstituting free Africans as slaves, now conversely, Sethe’s birth canal serves as a second Middle Passage for Denver (103). Suspended on the water’s currents, this symbolic return to sea transforms Denver’s future from slave to free. While slave society seeks to claim Sethe’s body so that it can produce more slave children, Sethe’s delivery of Denver in freedom transforms her maternal body from a site of domination into a site of resistance. Rather than passing on her enslavement, she employs her motherhood as agency to resist and confer freedom onto her child.
Although Sethe’s motherhood motivates her to claim this agency and resist her slave masters, slavery’s cyclical violence ensures white slave owners will respond to Sethe’s resistance, reasserting their violent power over Sethe and her children with renewed force. When the slave catchers arrive for violent revenge and the restoration of their property, Sethe seems at their mercy, with few pathways to control her life. Morrison’s narrator opens the account of the slave catchers by describing “the four horsemen” who arrive at 124 (148). Alluding to the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, the horsemen signal an apocalypse or abrupt end to the free life Sethe and her family have found in Ohio. Although heavy-handed, the biblical nature of this allusion effectively suggests this scene’s inevitability. The men’s elevated position on “horseback” communicates their physical and almost militaristic dominance, as do their weapons. Channeling the slave catchers’ thoughts, the narrator goes on to describe “the futility of outsmarting a whiteman and the hopelessness of outrunning a rifle” that the family in 124 will now face (148). The repeated emphasis on “futility” and “hopelessness” further underscores the seemingly inescapable devastation about to befall Sethe’s family. The narrator would have us believe Sethe has no ability to escape or fight back against these men who are armed with superior strength, deadly weapons, and the Fugitive Slave Law’s force. To fight back directly, the narrator implies, will result in beatings or other torture, and certainly a return to slavery.
As though sensing the doom the horsemen bring, all the characters in the yard at 124—except for Sethe—freeze at the white men’s approach, sensing their lack of agency. One former slave, Stamp Paid, is “standing in the woodpile with an ax” (149). Armed with the ax, he could attempt to defend Sethe’s family against the whites, yet the whites observe that instead he is “making low, cat noises” (149). Although Stamp Paid is an agent of the Underground Railroad and no stranger to subversion, he likely recognizes the hopelessness of a direct challenge to these four men fortified by rifles and the law. For all her spiritual and social power, Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, is similarly passive. She is “standing stock-still” as the white men approach the shed where Sethe and her children have fled (149). Recognizing the menacing force of the whites’ authority, Baby sees no possibility but to remain physically passive while the whites violently reassert their domination over Sethe and her children.
Unlike her frozen and helpless companions, Sethe once more asserts her motherhood as agency when she turns violence on herself—through the bodies of her children. As the men approach, Sethe takes a handsaw and begins to cut the throats of each of her children, whom she considers the most valuable “parts of her[self]” (149). In striking contrast to the individuals outside who are diminished to animal noises or extreme passivity, Sethe calmly and determinedly employs violence to assert her maternal agency over the lives of her children. Even after the white men enter the shed, she “swung the baby toward the wall, missed and tried to connect a second time” (149). Sacrificing her children’s physical lives, Sethe aims to prevent their return to the “social death” or “total powerlessness” that is life within slavery (Patterson 1, 38). Although she must use an unthinkably violent sacrifice, Sethe claims the agency to resist white domination and assert her “Mother right” over her children.
Sethe’s simultaneously dark and loving violence reveals its sacrificial nature. While Sethe’s choice of a handsaw, likely on-hand in the woodshed, may have been a practical one, the tool also requires that she struggle closely against her children’s bodies when she attempts to kill them. When Sethe recalls “what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin” of her daughter, her memory of the act feels tender and reverent even in its brutality (251). That Sethe must “drag” the saw which is equipped with violent “teeth” like that of a beast, against something so “little” and precious, communicates her reluctance as well as her steadfast determination to do “what it took” to save her child by killing her. Sethe also remembers how she had “to hold her [daughter’s] face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body” (251). The connection between mother and daughter is clear as Sethe experiences her child’s death in her own body, “absorbing” and “squeezing” her daughter’s body into her own. Sethe would like nothing more than to protect Beloved’s life, the last moments of which she cherishes. Still she chooses to sacrifice the “parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful” (163), paradoxically preserving her children’s sacred nature with her disturbing violence which she believes will keep them from slavery’s taint. Referring to Beloved’s body as “adored,” Sethe further emphasizes the love that underlies her devastating violence. The OED defines “adored” as “worshipped or venerated,” adding to the ritual and sacrificial sense of Sethe’s violence (“Adore”). Fittingly, Sethe repeatedly recalls how the baby’s blood “soaked her fingers like oil” (5). While water cleanses, Beloved’s oil-like blood will leave a residue on Sethe, the oil-blood marking or anointing her. Beloved’s ability to anoint foreshadows the continued influence the child will hold over Sethe’s life and suggests the child’s connection to Christ, the ultimate emblem of sacrifice.
While early accounts of male slave suicide were traditionally associated with principled resistance to oppression, tales of female slaves’ suicide or infanticide were considered abject submission. Richard Bell writes that strictly gendered expectations caused even abolitionists to view women’s self-harm as “the act of a victim, not a rebel” (38). Sethe’s violent sacrifice challenges such assumptions as it asserts her powerful maternal agency and clearly defies her white oppressors. Unlike the “humiliated humanity” that characterizes contemporary accounts of female self-harm (Bell 38), Sethe’s sacrifice reveals her steadfast determination to prevent her children who are “precious and fine and beautiful” from being dirtied “so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore” in slavery (163, 251). Not only aiming to protect her children, Sethe also undermines white power by depriving them of the “precious” things they seek to possess and control. Orlando Patterson argues that total power, like that of a master over a slave, “can become a form of extreme dependence on the object of one’s power” because one must have something to dominate to remain a dominator (3). Sethe’s violence attempts to deny her masters the objects of their domination and therefore the ability to exercise some of their power. Mark Ledbetter sums up the subversive effect of Sethe’s acts when he writes, “The willingness of black persons to receive, endure, and inflict violence on themselves achieves the uncanny result of stripping the white male of his power” (54). Though she pays a high cost, Sethe’s violent insistence on agency echoes the mantra of her male counterparts—“liberty or death” (Bell 38). She rejects life within the “social death” of slavery for her children as it is not freely chosen.
Sethe’s sacrifice can also be read as resistance in that it deprives the whites of their human property. While Sethe’s first attempt to deny the whites their property through her family’s escape could still face the white’s retaliatory violence, her sacrifice is horribly definitive. Arriving at 124, the slavecatchers note that “unlike a snake or a bear, a dead nigger could not be skinned for profit” (148). As slaves’ worth lies in their ability to labor, Sethe’s violence prevents her former owners from reclaiming property of any real value by removing the life and labor power from her child. The absolute nature of Sethe’s murderous act—although disturbing—effectively stops the cycle of vengeful violence from operating within her child’s life. If her daughter is no longer alive, she cannot be punished for Sethe’s resistance.
Even as she thwarts the whites’ efforts to reclaim their ownership of her children, Sethe’s violence exerts her own maternal ownership over them. She repeatedly emphasizes that her children are “parts of herself,” asserting their intimate bond as well as her understanding of her children as possessions that belong to her alone. While sacrifice grants Sethe agency, it leaves her children with none, replicating slavery’s violence even as it resists it. Stamp Paid explains that Sethe “was trying to out-hurt the hurter” (234), his use of “trying” emphasizing the deliberate agency of her act and his repetition of “hurt” echoing the replication inherent in Sethe’s violence. In a New York Times review of Beloved, Morrison sums up the complicated moral position of Sethe’s violence. She writes, “It was absolutely the right thing to do… But it’s also the thing you have no right to do” (“Morrison Defends Women”). Despite her genuine motherly love and the dire situation, Sethe’s act remains a violation. She finds herself implicated in the violence that white slave owners have used on her and other black slaves, subsuming others in her own struggle for agency. She wields the saw’s vicious “teeth,” herself becoming monstrous even as she enacts her motherhood which has become warped within slavery.
While we would expect some mothers to sacrifice their own lives to preserve their children, Sethe performs the reverse. Just as she held the power to create and nourish her children’s lives, Sethe asserts her “Mother right” over her children’s deaths as well. Like a paternalistic slave owner insisting that slaves cannot know their best interests, Sethe demands control over every aspect of her children’s lives, from birth to death. Justifying her violence to Paul D, Sethe says, “It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible” (165). The “job” of motherhood, she believes, justifies complete control of her children’s lives. Earlier in the text, the narrator also describes how Sethe’s “knees [were] wide open as the grave” while trading sex for Beloved’s headstone (5). The space between Sethe’s legs—representing her womb and her motherhood—is depicted here as a source of both life and death. Just as Sethe’s womb and motherhood brought Beloved to life, they also bring death, both “the grave” and a literal gravestone. Although tragic and disturbing, Sethe’s case reveals how “infanticide [is] the ultimate contradiction of mothering under slavery” (Wyatt 214), when murder (or sacrifice) is the simultaneous culmination of love and transgression.
Although Sethe’s violent sacrifice offers her a definitive (if tainted) maternal agency, it too proves limited when Beloved’s reincarnation appears. Like trauma resurfacing, Beloved returns as a nineteen-year-old girl with a “little curved shadow of a smile in the kootchy-kootchy-coo place under her chin” to revoke the agency Sethe’s violence initially claimed (239). Her childlike presence and the scar marking where her neck was slit serve as constant reminders of slavery’s infecting violence. The curving scar seems almost mocking with its “shadow of a smile,” hinting at the vengeance this specter of the past has come to exact. The sole source of her agency earlier in the text, Sethe’s motherly connection to her daughter will result now in her loss of agency. Left no other path to agency, Sethe has hinged her entire subjectivity on her motherhood. Sethe declares, for instance, that “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine” (200). Her omission of the connecting verb “is” that would separate and define the relationship between Sethe and her daughter seems to close the distance between Sethe’s personhood and that of her daughter whom she considers part of herself. Indeed, bit by bit, Beloved begins to eat “up [Sethe’s] life, [she] took it swelled with it” (250). Interpreting the symbiotic relation that develops between the two women, various scholars read Beloved as vampire, zombie, or parasitic creature (Yeates). Pregnant and “swelling” with Paul D’s child, Beloved now becomes the literal and figurative mother, while Sethe is the child who is consumed by her mother’s violent and monstrous agency.
Although she is losing her very life force, Sethe allows herself to be consumed by Beloved. Sethe’s seeming need to punish herself to make up for her past violence against Beloved reveals the tendency “peculiar to women” that is also the thing that “makes [women] sabotage ourselves” (“A Conversation” 585). For Morrison, this “peculiar” thing is paradoxical motherlove. “One of the nice things that women do,” Morrison said in one interview, “is nurture and love something other than themselves… But mother love is also a killer” because it “displaces the self” (“Morrison Defends Women”). Motherlove gives women the power to create new life, but also to sabotage or “deliberately destroy” themselves because they have displaced their value beyond their own bodies and subjectivities onto their children (“Sabotage”). This self-sabotaging sacrifice, which is visible in Sethe’s early sacrifice of Beloved and in her later desire to suffer for Beloved’s benefit, does indeed provide agency in its deliberate nature. The agency acquired from these sacrifices is ultimately limited as they displace and devalue the self in favor of something or someone else. Any agency gained is on behalf of that other.
Rebirthing Agency in Exorcism
To move beyond this monstrous and self-sabotaging motherhood, so tainted by slavery’s violence, Morrison proposes a second sacrifice, reversing many aspects of the first. For instance, when Sethe realizes schoolteacher is coming to force her family back to slavery, she repeats “No. No. Nono. Nonono” as she herds her children towards the woodshed (163). Sethe’s repetition of this negation as she asserts her motherhood also echoes scholars who deemed motherhood in slavery to be a “negating feature of human community” (Spillers 80). Sethe and her violent claim on her children’s lives respond unequivocally to any infringement on her Mother right. In the second sacrifice, in contrast, as the free African American women of the Clearing surround the house Denver can only make out the syllable: “Yes, yes, yes, oh yes” (258). Paralleling and yet reversing Sethe’s actions, the women replace negation with exalted affirmation. Their words and the common voice with which they speak confirm not an individual and possessive relationship between mother and daughter, but the wider community’s bonds as they perform a sacrificial rite to which their society would otherwise deny them access. While Sethe understandably wants to push others away, the community’s repetition of “yes” provides space for others to join in. “Oh yes” they cry in an expression of simultaneous pleasure and pain, recognizing the trauma and struggles that Beloved’s ghost represents, but finding strength together and affirming their existence in a slave society which would otherwise diminish them.
The women’s collective movement further reveals their revision of Sethe’s earlier sacrifice. The women stop praying and instinctively take “a step back to the beginning” as they circle the house (259). Rather than passively waiting for past trauma to resurface unbidden, as Beloved’s ghost has, the women’s sacrificing exorcism allows them agency. As they perform their exorcising sacrifice of Beloved, they are in control of the past into which they actively “step back” and acknowledge, even as they cast it out. As Teresa Goddu writes, it is “sharing the past that makes its burden bearable” (155). Indeed, as the women sacrifice Beloved’s ghost, they recall joyful, rather than traumatic, images of the past. The women remember eating “cobbler oozing purple syrup” and watching their mothers dance (258). The focus on moments of abundance embodied by the “oozing” of sweet syrup that is vibrantly colored purple suggests the importance of embracing the past for its beauty rather than fixating only on its horror. Earlier in the text these memories of feasting actually marked the community’s resentful turn away from Sethe and her children, an exclusion that left her vulnerable to the white’s violence and sparked her own bloody sacrifice. Returning to this moment now, however, the community reconceptualizes these memories to affirm a community which now includes Sethe and Denver within its borders, leaving only Beloved—the embodiment of past trauma—outside.
As the women step back into the past, their return is notably “back to the beginning” (259). Morrison writes, “in the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like” (259). Instinctively crying out as one voice, the women produce sound that is either “before or beyond words,” according to Harryette Mullen (125). This particularly female noise recalls the sound of “moaning, keening, ululating or panting as in childbirth” (Mullen 125). While Mullen’s analysis is more focused on the women’s claim on language, her observation is apt as these allusions to childbirth suggest the community’s return to the first moments of new life, but also the beginning moments of motherhood. Returning to this inaugural moment of motherhood through their sacrifice, the women can revise a relationship that has been tainted by slavery’s desire for absolute possession. In place of the warped and violent motherhood Sethe enacted, the women create a new communal motherhood. The community therefore undergoes this sacrifice/birth as one unified body, each woman instinctively producing the sounds of childbirth and contributing to a larger, powerful chorus.
Rather than a relationship that can lead women to self-sabotage and become entrenched in slavery’s patterns of violence and isolation, the community’s reconceived motherhood is generative. “Building voice upon voice,” the women create or “build” something new for the future even as they attempt to exorcise Beloved and the past she represents (261). While after birth, the patriarchal world labelled and defined these women with its words, the women look back to a pre-linguistic moment that belongs to women alone. In this moment of the sacrifice, the women claim a voice for the voiceless, so powerful it can “[break] the back of words” (261). The women’s sacrifice and communal motherhood provides them the agency to resist or fight back against words which have often been denied them or otherwise used to limit and exclude them.
In addition to rebirthing or reconceiving motherhood generally, the women also specifically rebirth Sethe. After killing Beloved, Sethe has been haunted and then consumed by the trauma of her past. The community’s sacrifice, however, creates a “wave of sound” that ritually casts out Beloved and “baptizes” Sethe. Just as baptism brings children into the Christian faith, here the female African American community brings Sethe into its fold. Like Christianity, the women’s community is enabled by a sacrifice, in this case of Beloved who stands in for Christ. While before, Sethe was left out of the community who resentfully left her unwarned of the white slavecatchers’ approach, now the community’s sacrifice reaffirms its boundaries with Sethe inside. Also like the Christian community, the women’s use of sacrifice imbues them with a ritual power. Previously themselves the marginalized objects of domination—the scapegoats used to affirm other societies—now these African American women forcefully claim sacrifice for their own use, creating a community of scapegoats who hold agency and sacred power. While Sethe’s first sacrifice of Beloved left her marked with her daughter’s oil-like blood, now this second communal sacrifice suggests cleansing with the baptizing effects of its “waves.” Just as Christian baptism erases original sin, the community’s sacrifice will cleanse Sethe of the past’s haunting influence and of her own sinful murder of Beloved. The sacrifice will also inaugurate a new life for Sethe who can at last be recognized as more than a mother. Having lost her maternal role, Sethe is now the child, lying prone in Baby Suggs’ bed. Just as Baby Suggs once took on a maternal role, washing Sethe’s ravaged body “in sections,” Paul D begins to wash Sethe’s body bit by bit and even calls her “baby” (272). While her previous sacrifice of Beloved left her clutching her daughter’s body, seemingly attempting to merge its life with her own, Sethe’s final words signify a striking shift to individual subjectivity as she asks, “Me? Me?” (273). At last with this second sacrifice and her rebirth, Sethe is allowed her own identity beyond motherhood’s simultaneously loving and destructive power, suggesting a break in the violent cycles of slavery that have previously dominated her life.
Sacrifice appears twice within Beloved, first employed by Sethe to claim agency over her children and to assert the motherhood the slave system would otherwise deny her. While this first sacrifice offers Sethe the agency to assert her motherhood and protect her child from slavery, its violent declaration of possession also warps her motherhood. The exorcism of Beloved’s ghost is a second sacrifice with the potential to create a communal motherhood that is not so tainted by slavery’s violence. While Antoinette’s self-sacrifice in Wide Sargasso Sea gestures towards the possibility for female community, Antoinette’s mortal leap tragically prevents its realization. In Beloved, however, Sethe and Denver find a female community which in its very existence is defiant of slavery’s dehumanization and which can offer them the agency to heal from slavery’s devastation. With the female African American community, the women find the support to transcend past trauma and have hope.
Despite the second sacrifice’s suggestions of hope and healing, Morrison’s novel still offers a challenge to Girard’s claims that violent sacrifice can “restore harmony” (8). While gaining community and a reborn individual subjectivity, Morrison’s characters cannot entirely escape the dual nature of sacrifice, which remains both “crime” and “ceremony.” Exorcising Beloved, the community’s sacrifice does allow the women to “reinforce the social fabric” and this time incorporate Sethe and Denver into the community of the Clearing (8). Claiming such a female community or “kinship” is itself powerfully subversive, or as Spillers writes, “undermining” of slavery’s structures, which seek to render each individual a commodity tied only to his or her master. There must still be a scapegoat, however, who is excluded and victimized for others’ benefit. Morrison closes the novel with a focus on Beloved, whom she will not allow her readers to ignore, even if the Clearing does forget “her like a bad dream” (274). “Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name,” Morrison’s narrator says of Beloved, who is left “crouched” and unbearably lonely (274-5). Morrison’s paradoxical statement emphasizes Beloved’s centrality to this community which has defined itself with her marginalization. She, as a representation of slavery’s traumatic past, must be cast out for the community to move on, and yet her sacrifice indicates the impossibility of total harmony. There remains still an unrecoverable loss, as signaled by Morrison’s assertion that there is “certainly no clamor for a kiss” (275).
Part III: The Literary Violence of Retelling
Violence not only serves a critical function in Wide Sargasso Sea and Beloved as a force that can alternately destroy and heal characters and communities, but it also shapes the texts’ broader form. Both Wide Sargasso Sea and Beloved are retellings, drawn from nineteenth century origin texts. Wide Sargasso Sea retells Brontë’s classic gothic novel, Jane Eyre (1847), from Bertha Mason’s less-privileged perspective. While Beloved revises the female slave narrative tradition broadly, I consider her text in relation to Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the first female-authored slave narrative, published in the United States in 1861.
The genres of Rhys and Morrison’s origin texts, one a female gothic and the other a female slave narrative, reveal additional connections between their seemingly disparate novels. Kari Winter points out that, though differing greatly in context, both the female gothic and the slave narrative genres are “remarkably similar in imagery, structure, and social analysis” which they use to expose repressed and often terrifying truths about the patriarchal world and the life of women in it (13). Jane Eyre, for instance, describes the life of a free English governess. Yet Brontë often employs metaphors of enslavement and motifs of enclosure and escape to express Jane’s limited power in a patriarchal society. When it was first published, readers recognized the political nature of the novel, which advocated “for the social betterment of governesses” (Chase). Some critics even likened the text to “moral Jacobinism” and a text that inspired dangerous “rebellion at home” (Gilbert and Gubar). Jacobs’s slave narrative also gestures towards female gothics such as Brontë’s. Jacobs employs the gothic motif of the pure maiden pursued by a lustful villain. Just as Jane Eyre borrows from slave narratives to express Jane’s gendered captivity, slave narratives employ “the gothic [as] the fictional mode by which the factual horrors of slavery can be represented” (Goddu 141). Among the two genres’ convergences, most striking is their role as “sites of ideological struggle” in which women may find self-affirmation or means of resisting and protesting the dominant order (Winter 13). Brontë and Jacobs’s texts exemplify this resistance as they situate much of their agency in their written expression, which allows their normally marginalized voices to be heard more freely and clearly.
While not violent in the traditional sense of bloody physical destruction, Rhys and Morrison’s 20th century retellings do a literary violence as they revise and retell old narratives. Robert Cover ponders the connections between language and violence in his article, particularly concerning himself with the “legal word”—texts which are employed and interpreted to create violent “punitive deeds” (1620). I would argue that the words of authors like Morrison and Rhys also perform violence as they create cultural rather than legal verdicts towards their origin texts. With the words of their literary adaptations, Rhys and Morrison do not simply celebrate or update the origin texts for modern audiences. Rather, the retellings challenge the white patriarchal limitations of the origin texts and extend the agency of the female authors and protagonists that precede them. Not only critiquing earlier restrictions, the retellings then propose new narratives, demanding space for voices which were previously silenced or constrained.
Rhys’s retelling does violence to its original by disrupting the traditional Western literary discourse to create space for Bertha Mason’s previously silenced voice. While Jane Eyre argues against gendered oppression, Rhys goes further, considering race. Offering Antoinette’s voice, Rhys’s narrative violently undermines the white patriarchal limitations of Brontë’s text. Morrison’s retelling similarly does not seek to attack Jacobs, but instead does violence to the white envelope restricting her text. Tearing the envelope to reveal the visceral horrors of slavery, Morrison also does violence to her audience’s sensibilities. As she disregards the sensibilities of the white editors and audience Jacobs needed to please, Morrison produces a more emotionally vulnerable account of slavery’s devastation, supplementing Jacobs’s constricted text.
The Madwoman Speaks
Although Brontë’s female gothic, Jane Eyre, is feminist in that it critiques Jane’s specific patriarchal contexts and limitations, Rhys’s retelling exposes the limitations of the origin text’s cultural and feminist authority. Exploring Brontë’s characters and scenarios with different narrative perspectives, Rhys reveals the limitations of Jane’s sympathetic and seemingly objective narration, resulting often from Brontë’s reliance on common racial constructs of the time. Leslie Jamison characterizes Bertha’s burning of her manor-prison as an act of “destructive anger,” and indeed, Brontë portrays the incident as one of terrifying rage (“I Used to Insist”). While readers of Jane Eyre learn that Bertha has been kept in the attic for years, Jane’s narrative is far more concerned with Bertha’s violent and frightening tendencies than her long personal history of suffering. Like her West Indian homeland, which Rochester describes as a hellish inferno full of “fiery” nights and shrieks from a “bottomless pit,” Bertha is often associated with fire and untempered rage (199). Although early in the text, Jane too experiences anger and even rage at her family’s mistreatment, she learns to control her emotions so she may be cast as the “angel” in opposition to Bertha’s “demon” (Gilbert and Gubar). Posed as counterbalance to Bertha’s flames, Jane’s adult character is often associated with water, morality and moderation. With her morally pure Englishness, Jane is the angel who will reform Rochester’s prior sins—as embodied by Bertha. Extinguishing the flames Bertha has set in Rochester’s room one night (94), Jane is the opposite of Bertha, baptizing rather than corrupting Rochester.
As Jane is the novel’s protagonist, it is easy for readers to simply accept her descriptions and look no further beyond Bertha’s fiery rage. According to Jamison, a sad woman “looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant,” but if, like Bertha, a “woman’s anger [harms] other people [it] threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged” (“I Used to Insist”). In other words, the moment Bertha expresses her anger in a striking and agentic way, she loses any chance for sympathy or recognition of the complex emotions behind her act of violence. Crucial too is the racial division of the two women, which Brontë is bent on preserving. Jane, as a white Englishwoman, largely adheres to Victorian customs and can therefore be sympathetic and even elegant in her suffering. Depictions of Bertha’s anger, however, imply a lack of civilization, a dangerous racial “Otherness.” Jamison’s argument here is not unlike Girard’s claims about what I have called vengeful or retributive violence. Engaging in actions too focused on angry vengeance deprives Bertha of sympathetic victimhood. Portraying all of Bertha’s violence, both vengeful and self-sacrificing as unbridled rage, Brontë reduces her to a raced caricature and deprives her of readers’ compassion.
Not until Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea are readers exposed to what Jamison calls the “deep veins of sadness running beneath an otherwise opaque act of angry destruction” (“I Used to Insist”). What Jane casts as vengefully destructive violence and the crazed fall of a madwoman, Rhys excavates as an act which is a nuanced mix of anger, sadness and search for agency. While Brontë’s Bertha is senseless and monstrous in her anger and violence, Rhys exposes Antoinette’s abused, isolated, and profoundly human psyche. In an interview, Rhys explained that after reading Bertha’s character in Jane Eyre, “She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d like to write her a life” (qtd. in Harrison 128). Wishing to “write her life” would imply Bertha’s life already existed and simply received little attention. Notably, however, Rhys declares she will “write her a life,” creating life where there was previously no life at all. Her diction here suggests then that Bertha’s appearance in Jane Eyre was not a life, but only a construction meant to serve a plot. Provided with Antoinette’s “life” and her intimate and often troubled first-person narration (“What am I doing in this place and who am I?” (Rhys 180)), we discover Antoinette’s violence directed against herself and others is not purely rage and destruction. Instead it is a self-sacrifice performed in a disturbing and yet still rational search for agency. As Rhys gives voice and full life to Antoinette, she creates a new cultural verdict that violently undermines the Western frame implicit in Brontë’s earlier animalistic construction of a racial Other.
Given only the view of Bertha’s rabid anger in Jane Eyre, it is easy to cast her as a demonic obstruction to Jane’s plotline. Gilbert and Gubar argue that as Jane’s “truest and darkest double,” Bertha must die before Jane can achieve the culmination of her female bildungsroman—integration into British society as Rochester’s wife (360). In Jane Eyre, Bertha’s life must be sacrificed, not in a quest for personal agency like Antoinette’s in Wide Sargasso Sea, but for Jane’s benefit. The sacrifice of Bertha’s life functions legally by allowing Rochester to remarry, and personally by empowering Jane to reunite with Rochester as a partner. Because Rochester is blinded, crippled, and viewed by some scholars as “symbolically castrated” by Bertha’s fire (Chase), Jane can create a more equal union with a man who was previously her social and physical superior. Only after Bertha’s sacrifice can Jane challenge Rochester’s patriarchal dominance and find a degree of equality. The essential condition undergirding Jane’s seemingly feminist triumph, however, is her status as an Englishwoman and the implication that Bertha, as a Creole woman, could not find the same equality with her English husband. Instead, the Creole woman is the obstacle whose removal is necessary for the Englishwoman’s success.
Although some feminist critics celebrate Bertha’s death for enabling Jane’s feminist triumph—Gilbert and Gubar call it a “signal” of Jane’s freedom (367)—reading Bertha’s violence as a sacrifice for Jane’s benefit is troubling. Though this event brings Jane, the Englishwoman, freedom from her figurative slavery, the Creole woman becomes even more constricted. She enables an Englishwoman’s happy ending and is then conveniently forgotten in a pattern that recalls imperialism’s exploitative violence. For Gayatri Spivak, this “epistemic violence of imperialism” continues in Wide Sargasso Sea with “the construction of a self-immolating colonial subject [used] for the glorification of the social mission of the colonizer,” despite Rhys’s efforts to excavate Bertha/Antoinette’s life (251). While Spivak claims the only improvement is that “the woman from the colonies is not sacrificed as an insane animal for her sister’s consolidation,” she fails to consider the resistance inherent in Antoinette’s violence (251).
While Wide Sargasso Sea does enable us to see many of the imperialist limitations of Jane Eyre, Antoinette’s self-immolation is far from the capitulation Spivak implies. Rhys’s reimagined account of Antoinette’s death describes a self-sacrifice that provides Antoinette agency and an avenue of triumphant resistance, albeit a troubling one. Whereas Bertha’s demise is described from a distance, relayed to Jane by a witness, the dream that foreshadows Antoinette’s impending jump is narrated in first-person. Bertha is said to stand on the roof “waving her arms… and shouting out” like a madwoman until her jump leaves her “smashed on the pavement” (Brontë 275). In contrast, when Antoinette recounts how “I called ‘Tia’ and jumped and woke,” she speaks clearly, her words emphasizing her search for community (171). While to capitulate to imperialism would be to continue to exist in the endless cycles of colonial violence, Antoinette employs a horrible and yet powerful agency to take control of her fate the only way she can. Far from “glorifying” or justifying the colonizer, Antoinette’s visually and rhetorically striking self-sacrifice illuminates and condemns the effects of racial and gendered oppression. Rhys’s reformulations of Antoinette and her death do violence to the original text, which cannot be interpreted the same way after reading Antoinette’s previously absent perspective, which negates some of the original’s cultural power.
In addition to revising the content of Jane Eyre to challenge the novel’s imperialist frame, Rhys also does violence to the original literary style with her revision. Disrupting traditional Western literary conventions, Rhys violently inserts herself into the discourse and creates a new space within the English literary tradition for disenfranchised voices such as Antoinette’s. As a 19th century gothic novel, Jane Eyre largely adheres to the Western literary conventions of the time. Jane is a pure English girl who fiercely upholds her morals, even when Mr. Rochester offers the potential for corruption. As Gilbert and Gubar point out, the novel also contains references to John Bunyan’s 17th century work, The Pilgrim’s Progress, further revealing its integration into a lengthy Western literary tradition (336). Like The Pilgrim’s Progress, Jane’s narrative is strictly linear, progressing teleologically from one stage of life to the next, with each clearly marked by a change of location. Jane also begins her writing with a clear purpose and occasionally addresses the “Reader” directly. Overall, Brontë’s stylistic and generic choices situate her text firmly within the Western literary canon and its cultural ideals.
Though Wide Sargasso Sea is also narrated in the first-person, Rhys’s style diverges sharply from the original. Like Hélène Cixous’s “écriture feminine,” Rhys’s is a particularly feminine style that is often cyclic, inscribing women outside of Western literature’s traditionally “phallocentric” or patriarchy-promoting language and discourses. This phallocentric language or what Derrida calls “phallogocentrism” fixates on linearity and certainty as well as “dual hierarchies and oppositions” which have served to “colonize” women (Clement and Cixous 65). While Jane Eyre remains largely embedded in a linear and phallocentric discourse despite its female authorship, Rhys’s text does not proceed logically from one moment to the next. Nor does it consider the reader’s comprehension. Often Antoinette offers only her stream of consciousness with little explanation. While reading a map, for instance, Antoinette says at one moment with little explanation, “The Yorkshire and Lincolnshire wolds. Wolds? Does that mean hills? How high?” (101). Readers wind along with her musing and questioning rather than being fed a linear and straightforward narrative as in Jane Eyre. Images appear and reappear, sometimes inexplicably reassembled in a style Trevor Hope calls “decoupage/collage” (68). Left for readers to decode, Rhys’s images create a new means of communicating Antoinette’s experiences that cannot be adequately expressed in a traditional Western patriarchal discourse.
Rhys’s retelling also violates and defies the binaries inherent in Western tradition by blending multiple cultures, lingering in Antoinette’s liminality and in sensual feeling rather than fact. Like l’écriture feminine, Antoinette’s is a voice of multiplicity, often blending with the voices of others. Parroting her servant Christophine, Antoinette adopts black West Indian dialectal speech patterns to explain the Englishwomen’s distaste for her mother “because she pretty like pretty self” (3). Antoinette’s narration is also full of repeated questioning (“When was last night? […] I don’t remember yesterday” (163)) and what Ciolkowski calls “Creole uncertainty,” a style that gestures towards Antoinette’s non-Western heritage (342). Rhys’s disregard for linearity, her liminality and her uncertainty simultaneously challenge the Western cultural tradition even as her “women’s text” is able to “disrupt the framework of masculine discourse” (Harrison 53). With her protagonist and unorthodox style, Rhys reclaims the space to write a woman’s text that can escape phallocentric limitations.
Notably, however, Rochester’s traditionally Western and male voice narrates the middle section of Wide Sargasso Sea. Serving as a foil to Antoinette’s narration, Rochester’s first-person perspective is enclosed by two book-ending sections of Antoinette’s narration. While Antoinette has been locked within the attic space of Rochester’s manor and also figuratively contained within the bounds of Jane’s original narrative, here Rhys captures the white Englishman. She can revise and assert her own literary power over him. Reading Antoinette’s experiences first and last, we cannot help but question and lose sympathy for Rochester’s voice. We cringe when he calls Antoinette “Bertha,” knowing from Antoinette’s voice that he is “trying to make [Antoinette] into someone else” (133). We are also skeptical of his perceptions, which appear dour and rigid beside Antoinette’s colorful and intoxicating voice. Within her own novel, Rhys replicates the undermining and violating effect she aims to have on Jane Eyre as a whole, revealing Rochester’s prejudiced and incomplete narration and the ways in which phallocentric Western literature has fallen short in its understanding and empathy for non-Western subjects.
Rhys furthers her violence and performs another textual reversal when she deprives Rochester of a name in Wide Sargasso Sea. Although references to Jane Eyre make clear that the man who narrates the second section is Rochester, he is never explicitly named, in another subversion of Western literary desire for certainty. In her criticism, Spivak refers to this character only as “the Man” (253). While some scholars argue that Rochester’s namelessness indicates the god-like power he holds even within Rhys’s retelling (Fayad), I contend his namelessness does violence to Brontë’s Rochester. In both texts, Antoinette’s name is repeatedly defined by men—first her surname changing from Cosway to Mason with her mother’s marriage, and later her first name changing to Bertha because of Rochester’s preference. Language is repeatedly used to dominate her. Now, in Antoinette’s textual domain, it is Rochester’s name that is erased and with it his patriarchal power and generational identity. Just as he has decided what Antoinette should be called in Jane Eyre and in their relationship in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys leaves it up to her readers what to call Rochester, whether it be “the Man” or some other name. She exhibits her dominance over Rochester in her novel, claiming control over the same words which are so often used as a form of white male control over the marginalized individuals like Bertha.
Beyond her stylistic violence and revisions, Rhys’s attack on not only Jane Eyre’s specific imperialist limitations, but Western patriarchal literature as a whole, can be read in the flames engulfing Rochester’s house. When Antoinette burns down Rochester’s mansion, she describes it as a “cardboard house” in a “cardboard world” and denies that it is in England, which is “a fiction” (181). These cardboard structures reference the cardboard covers of books and the fictive depiction of England that constitute Brontë’s text and forcefully enclose Bertha within Jane Eyre (Spivak). The cardboard book covers further represent how Western literature as a whole has exerted power over marginalized subjects like Antoinette, defining and constricting them. Trapped in Brontë’s book and Brontë’s world, Bertha has no voice and little agency. Using Rhys’s cardboard metaphor, Spivak again reads Antoinette as submitting to her original literary and cardboard confines. When Antoinette sees “the woman with streaming hair” in the mirror, Spivak argues, it signals Antoinette’s surrender to the role of the mad Creole woman prescribed by Brontë’s text. I argue, however, that with her self-sacrifice, Antoinette does not remain confined in the cardboard house and its confining roles—she burns it. Her violent self-sacrifice gives her the agency to break out of not only Rochester’s manor-prison but also her cardboard literary one—the plot of Jane Eyre and Western literature broadly. Leaping from the confines of her novel/house, Antoinette refuses to be confined or defined as “Bertha” when Rochester calls out behind her. Reading Antoinette’s revised fire as a feminist reversal of the witch hunt also suggests a purifying quality. As she imagines the violent destruction of Western literature’s cardboard confines, Rhys suggests the opening of new spaces for more voices like Antoinette’s.
Accessing Antoinette’s life and perspective through Rhys’s text does violence to the original by undermining and even suggesting the destruction of the original so that it can powerfully assert itself into the existing discourse. Creating a new life where Jane Eyre—limited by racial prejudice—primarily saw a plot device, Wide Sargasso Sea undermines Jane’s narration. Rhys reveals imperialism’s devastating effects and renders it impossible to read the original in the same way, performing a sort of violence. As Joseph Walker aptly contends, Antoinette’s story “violently breaks apart the accepted structure of the discourse and builds it anew” (48). Rhys insists on claiming a space and a voice within the English literary tradition, all the while challenging its dominance and reshaping it.
Beneath the Veil
While Morrison’s Beloved does not directly recreate the plot of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the two texts feature female slave protagonists and share a number of key similarities. Motherhood is central to both narratives, as the primary site of both women’s identities and the source of their resistance to slavery. It is Linda Brent’s “mother’s love for [her] children” that gives her a “determined will” to survive and resist her lascivious master, Dr. Flint (74). While Sethe runs away from Sweet Home after a rape of her motherhood (the theft of her breastmilk), Brent escapes into hiding after being pursued and raped by her master. Like Sethe, Brent sacrifices herself, undergoing extreme physical restriction while confined in her “loophole of retreat” in order to help her children. She proclaims everything she “suffered [is] for the sake of having [her] children free” (117). Like Sethe, this self-sacrifice rooted in motherhood gives Brent agency to resist Dr. Flint. One immediately apparent difference dividing the two works, however, is the authorizing presence of the white editors who preface and conclude Jacobs’s text.
Opening with a white editor’s preface was customary for 19th century slave narratives. In Jacobs’s case, the abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child, advocates for and authorizes the text so that it may be published. Even as it claims Jacobs’s authentic authorship, the presence of her white voice (and the voices of the white friends who close the narrative) signals the censorship of the text by the whites who edited, published, and now sanction the start of Jacobs’s text for the public. James Olney highlights this irony in a number of similar narratives, arguing that although each is prefaced by a white editor or friend who claims the text is left “unvarnished,” in fact “the varnish is laid on very thickly” (62). Lydia Maria Child similarly notes that she only “pruned excrescences a little” and has “not added anything to the incidents” (7). Although Child is an abolitionist who supports and enables the publishing of Jacobs’s work, Olney’s research of the genre reveals that despite her protest of slavery, Childs may have had considerable influence over Jacobs’s writings. In addition to editing or censorship, the placement of the white friends’ voices, both before and after Jacobs’s narrative, suggests a continued enclosure of her text, diminishing some of the freedom and agency her narrative might otherwise grant her.
Still, as the first female slave narrative published in the U.S., Jacobs’s text is groundbreaking in its effort to speak out against slavery with a female voice. While her narrative does face restraint and require authorization from her white editors, Incidents is ultimately a political text, advocating for abolition. Despite her position as a woman and a former slave, Jacobs remarkably uses her narrative to become a political agent and enact rhetorical violence on the slave system in a historical moment when women were not expected to have any power beyond the domestic sphere. Though her text is perhaps restricted from relating certain of her personal experiences, often these omissions are what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese calls “shrewd” and “calculated judgments” to preserve her readership (6). To similar ends, Jacobs also emphasizes her continued adherence to “northeastern, middle-class female norms” of virtue and femininity (Fox-Genovese 6). Stephanie Li writes that in the course of adhering to these norms, such focus on motherhood “at times becomes a limited and inadequate point of identification” although it is “astute from a political perspective” (20). Even more than “astute,” Jacobs’s use of motherhood as the primary site of her agency is subversive. Paving the way for characters like Morrison’s Sethe, Jacobs finds agency within a role that has been deemed a negating feature of her society and is assumed to lack any political power. She transforms motherhood into a connection between herself and her white female readers and employs motherhood’s violation “as the ultimate justification for opposition to slavery” (Fox-Genovese 6). Despite some scholars’ seeming dismissal of texts that are “sealed within a white envelope” (Sekora 502), Jacobs manages to transform her text into a political weapon, establishing connections with her white female readers so they may advocate on her behalf against the slave system.
Over a century later, Morrison’s retelling seeks to fully realize the agency that Jacobs begins to exert in her own narrative by doing violence to the white envelope and refusing to accommodate readers’ comfort. While in her preface, Child claims she will “take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn” (8), certain obfuscations of those “proceedings too terrible to relate” to a sensitive white audience still occur within the text (“Site” 110). For instance, though Child claims her influence was small, she notes elsewhere that “I put the savage cruelties into one chapter, entitled ‘Neighboring Planters,’ in order that those who would shrink from ‘supping upon horrors’ might omit them” (qtd. in Yellin xxii). While seemingly a subtle shift, here Child clearly restricts Jacobs’s expression to preserve the comfort of white readers. Without regard to the truth of Jacobs’s experiences, Child relegates unpleasant experiences to “neighboring” plantations, outside of the text’s primary plot. Jacobs writes, for instance, “I was never cruelly over-worked; I was never lacerated with the whip from head to foot… I was never branded with hot iron, or torn by bloodhounds” (96). While enumerating a series of slavery’s terrors for her readers, Jacobs is careful to frame them as experiences she is grateful to have avoided. Her list style and refrain of “I was never” add distance between herself and this violence, rather than communicating greater gravity. Jacobs passes by each violent act quickly, before the devastating human implications can sink in for the reader. Morrison notes that early slave narratives like Jacobs’s had to make their tales “palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate” their suffering, although often this meant “they were silent about many things” (“Goddu handout”). Limiting the former slave woman’s expression to suit her own and other readers’ sensibilities, Child and other whites have done a restricting violence to Jacobs’s text.
The violence of Morrison’s retelling seeks to remedy this earlier restriction as she discards consideration for readers’ comfort. Morrison herself suggests the violence inherent in her act of retelling when she says that a century after Emancipation, her “job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over ‘proceedings too terrible to relate’” (“Site” 110). While “withdrawing” the veil, as Child claims to do, might offer readers moderated glimpses of slavery’s horror, Morrison “rips” off the veil. Just as Antoinette sets fire to the “cardboard covers” of Western literature which keep her enclosed, Morrison tears the white envelope’s protection away from readers. She refuses to look away from the devastation of slavery, which pervades the whole of Beloved.
While Child’s edits sequester the worst of the violence of Jacobs’s narrative into one chapter, Morrison does not allow her characters’ suffering to remain a distant abstraction. Not only is violence present on Sweet Home plantation where there are “boys hanging in the trees” (198) and Sethe’s back is “opened up,” but violence also haunts Sethe and Denver in freedom. Rather than escaping violence, Morrison’s characters reveal slavery’s continued effects, which take the form of the angry baby’s ghost or the mark imprinted on Sethe’s back. Sethe repeats, “they took my milk!” in conversation with Paul D (17), 17 years later still fixated on this violation of her body and her motherhood. While Jacobs rushes through a list of horrors experienced by others, Morrison’s characters repeatedly return to discussion of the same traumatic violence they have personally experienced as well as its lingering effects. Fixing violence at the center of her work, Morrison sacrifices her readers’ comfort and sensitivity. The reader cannot escape the violence of the text any more than the characters can.
Morrison’s slow and repetitive descriptions of violence not only expose readers to the violence of slavery but also embroil them within its traumatic memory. Her cyclical narration mirrors the way slavery’s trauma painfully resurfaces. As Caroline Rody writes, the novel “loops around events, dramatizing pain’s effect on memory” for Morrison’s characters and the “innumerable unknown people” whom they represent (“Toni” 100). Even before its looping descriptions, the first lines of Morrison’s novel create a violent experience for the reader. Morrison claims she takes “the risk of unsettling him or her” by plunging immediately into the world of the novel (“Goddu handout”): “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom” (3). Left without immediate context or explanation, it takes a few lines for the reader to understand that 124 is a house and that it is spiteful because it is haunted by a baby’s ghost. With her short sentences, Morrison intends for her reader to feel “snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign” (“Goddu handout”). The forceful words (“snatched” and “thrown”) in Morrison’s commentary reveal the violent “shared experience” she intends to create between her readers (“Goddu handout”). The readers are thrust violently and immediately into the story, creating a literary echo of the experiences of slaves who were also “snatched” from one life and forced into another in captivity. Morrison’s immediate and immersive style again contrasts with Jacobs’s accounts of the violence of neighboring plantations or Frederick Douglass’s observations of Aunt Hester’s rape made from a nearby closet, which place the narrator at a distance from the violence (Narrative of the Life 51). While the traditional slave narrators stood in for the reader who is also safely distant from the violence, Morrison allows for no comfortable separation. Her abrupt and jolting style assaults the distancing effect of these earlier texts. Even after the jarring opening, Morrison’s lack of linearity or chapter numbers violates the reader’s comfort, continually forcing them back into that unsettling experience of disorientation and trauma.
Further breaking Jacobs’s narrative free of her white editors’ limitations, Morrison’s text highlights violence that transgresses the norms of motherhood and femininity that Jacobs works hard to preserve for her own political purposes. Discussing Dr. Flint’s advances, for instance, Jacobs speaks only in abstraction about how he would “whisper foul words in my ear” or “people my mind with unclean images” as he pressures her to change her “line of policy” and submit to him sexually (27). These words and images are never made explicit, however, nor is “this line of policy” elaborated beyond Jacob’s determination to generally “elude” Dr. Flint. While it is likely that Jacobs was repeatedly raped by her master, her omissions and obscurations allow her female readers to get a sense of slavery’s horror without fully compromising Jacobs’s sympathetic nature. Jacobs only occasionally tests the boundaries of Victorian motherhood. She remarks “how much easier it would be to see her [child] die than to see her master beat her” or that “sometimes I wished that he might die in infancy” (75, 54). Jacobs never acts on her comments, which are almost immediately recanted or followed by prayers for her children’s lives. Her transgressive thoughts suggest slavery’s potential to violate motherhood, although she cannot confront this potential reality directly for risk of losing her audiences’ sympathy and readership.
Morrison’s retelling is able to realize the terrifying reality suggested by Jacobs’s “wishing” for her children’s death. Exposing slavery’s warping effect on motherhood, Sethe violates past and present expectations when she harms her children, and even more when she shows little repentance. “I stopped him,” she says of her former master who was coming to claim her children, “I took and put my babies where they’d be safe” (165). Full of verbs, Sethe’s statement emphasizes the actions she has taken to “stop,” “take” and “put” her babies into safety, carrying Jacobs’s wishes to their graphic and devastating conclusions. Sethe recognizes that slavery has altered her mothering role. She tells Paul D, “it ain’t my job to know what’s worse. It’s my job to know what is and to keep them away from what I know is terrible” (166). Sethe is unafraid to define her “job” as a mother as she sees fit and to act according to her beliefs about the necessity of keeping her children from slavery. Indeed, Morrison presents a revised version of motherhood’s birth “blood-rite/right” with Sethe’s murder, in which she claims a “right” to her daughter’s life. In a 20th century context, Morrison’s retelling can violate her readers’ comfort with Sethe’s horrific act where Jacobs could not. With Sethe, Morrison extends the powerful and tainted agency that Jacobs considers, forcing readers to grapple with slavery’s effects.
As Morrison’s clear confrontation with Sethe’s violence indicates, no one avoids implication in slavery’s violence in her retelling. According to Baby Suggs, there is “not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief” (5). “Packed” into homes, she implies that the widespread and clearly inescapable grief of generations of dead and suffering individuals leaves little space for the living to move on. Babies too, like the one inhabiting 124, are tainted by slavery’s violence and full of “venom,” although they are traditionally thought to be pure as they newly enter the world (3). In Jacobs’s quest for tangible political change, she is careful to direct her anger towards slavery in the abstract. “O slavery,” she begins some of her denunciations and laments (208), rather than accusing her white readers. Sethe, however, flies at Mr. Bodwin at the end of her novel. Running after a white man who actually helped her family, she finds “the ice pick is not in her hand; it is her hand” (262). Although Sethe does not succeed in harming Bodwin, Morrison implies that everyone, abolitionist and slave owner, white and black, is implicated in slavery and its legacy. In this instance, neither Sethe nor Bodwin are entirely guiltless. While her text might be more jarring for readers, particularly white readers, Morrison has little concern for comfort or the promise of a quick solution to past horrors. Rather, her text seeks to simply “bear witness” to the past in a way that Jacobs’s earlier text could not (“Goddu handout”), now revealing more authentically all the anger and resentment left by slavery.
The “bearing witness” that Morrison aims to achieve with Beloved is more than a general recounting of history, but rather of a particularly African American history that was previously restricted in Jacobs’s text. While Jacobs wrote primarily for a white audience who could further her abolitionist goals, Morrison asserts that she writes for an African American community. She said in one interview, “I wanted [my writing] to come from inside the culture, and speak to people inside the culture” (“Ghosts”). Although, admittedly, Beloved has gained widespread recognition and even a Pulitzer Prize, Morrison’s stated intent in her writing was not to seek mainstream white recognition. Her acceptance into a traditional canon might then itself be considered a sort of violence against those same restrictions which required Jacobs’s 19th century work to be bolstered by multiple white friends.
Morrison’s use of dialect within Beloved furthers her aim to create a text from and for the African American community. Fox-Genovese aptly notes that “none of the former slaves whose stories make up the novel speak in the conventions of domestic fiction, or even in standard English” (10). This is quite unlike Jacobs’s narrative, which depicts Jacobs and her family members speaking in standard English. Employing raw descriptions of violence and non-standard dialect, Morrison abandons the “gentility that dominates the tone of Incidents” (Fox-Genovese 10). Instead she molds language to best communicate from inside the culture what she imagines are slave experiences. She even makes up new words, like “rememory” to describe Sethe’s personal process of remembering. Beloved also speaks in barely comprehensible sentences, saying things like “tell me your earrings” (63). Although they fail to signify as traditional sentences, Beloved’s alternative constructions effectively convey her desire to know more about Sethe and her mysterious and instinctive knowledge of the family’s past. Her sentences, which require readers to piece together her meanings out of reassembled images, offer another instance of Morrison’s disorienting style. Just as the characters do not know what memories or pains from past trauma will next resurface, and must attempt to piece them together when they do, the reader must sift through Morrison’s fragmented language and imagery. With her use of dialect and nontraditional sentence structure, Morrison says she puts the “authority back into the hands of the slave,” offering her characters the ability to speak with their unique and unconventional voices (qtd. in Rody “Daughter’s” 21). Free of the conventions imposed by white editors and the rigid structuring of their enveloping voices, here the characters each have the space and the authority to express themselves more freely and authentically.
Even more than “reopening” discussion, as Fox-Genovese claims, Morrison revises the conversation that was begun over a century prior. Assaulting the restrictions put upon these past texts as well as the comfort of her modern readers, Morrison completes the story that could not be fully written a hundred years prior, and in writing it for people inside the African American culture, rather than white readers, she defines the discussion on her own terms. With her violence she imagines a narrative that extends the agency Jacobs first begins to claim with her own text. Beloved exposes the horrifying interior life of slaves previously concealed to shield audiences and even plunges her readers inside this violence, making the very reading of her text mirror disorienting cycles of trauma. Although Morrison’s novel may be painful and disorienting to read, her assault on the confining white envelope and her readers’ sensibilities allows for the trauma of slavery to be more authentically represented.
Violence is central to the plots of both Morrison’s Beloved and Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and to their choice of form as well. As retellings, both novels mined origin texts and reformulated them to alter their predecessors. Rhys’s retelling highlights Jane Eyre’s limitation within Western literature’s white patriarchal prejudices. Rhys’s novel violates and undermines the expectations of this canon, which she implies must be purified or even destroyed to make way not only for the voices of women like Jane, but voices from women of all races, including Creoles like Antoinette. Morrison similarly does violence to the white frame enclosing Jacobs’s text and refuses to accommodate the reader’s comfort to more honestly confront slavery’s violence and its implications.
While Antoinette sets fire to the “cardboard covers” of Western literature and Morrison violently rends the veil laid over earlier slave narratives, both women are notably most interested in violating the white or white patriarchal frames surrounding the earlier narratives. Although the earlier texts are certainly limited and flawed, the retellings build from rather than violently destroy their predecessors which are themselves “sites of ideological struggles,” aiming to claim agency of their own even within restrictive contexts. While Antoinette and Sethe must do highly destructive violence as they sacrifice themselves, the violent retellings that Rhys and Morrison perform are more productive. Employing their 20th century contexts, they build upon the agency the women before them have claimed with their texts and offer alternative, less limited narratives.
Much of this article has been committed to illuminating the agency and resistance, as well as the devastating contexts, of Antoinette and Sethe’s respective violence. Although agentic and communicating a striking message of resistance, “Deaths rarely change the power structure,” as Kari Winter writes (116). Certainly, these women and their self-sacrifices alone cannot alter national or global systems of colonialism and slavery. Instead, as I have aimed to argue, the women claim a momentary power over their lives—disrupting if not deconstructing the societal forces which otherwise rule their lives and often leave them dominated and powerless. They claim violent rites of sacrifice which as society’s marginalized scapegoats they should not be able to perform, yet which they now wield to create their own communities. Even more significant than the individual moments of sacrifice and violence, however, is the telling of these moments of agency and resistance. Morrison and Rhys perform this telling as they revise earlier texts, attending to the voices of women of color who were silenced or restricted. They expose these women’s voices and their violence, with all its complications, both triumphant and disturbing.
If both authors’ aim was to revise and improve the origin texts, we might wonder, why not write an entirely new story? Why were the origin texts necessary at all? Saidiya Hartman articulates the processes that Rhys and Morrison engage in, noting that “writing the history of the dominated requires not only the interrogation of dominant narratives and the exposure of their contingent and partisan character but also the reclamation of archival material for contrary purposes” (“Scenes” 3). Spivak similarly writes that “the ‘subaltern’ cannot appear without the thought of the ‘elite’” (10). As Morrison’s work especially suggests, to revive the voices of “the dominated,” be they captive Creole wives or slave mothers, it is necessary to go back and acknowledge the struggle and horror of the past, to begin to look towards a better future.
Although both authors’ plots depict violent sacrifices that largely follow Girard’s model, halting cycles of violence and reaffirming community, their literary retellings propose another form of violence. Grounding themselves in original texts which already function as “sites of ideological struggle,” the authors themselves will not use actual violence but rather their words to transcend white phallocentric discourses to stand against the violence that has dominated their societies and kept earlier texts restricted. Through language and words these female writers find a new rite that is productive rather than simply destructive.
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