Month: décembre, 2010

Giving Voice to the Other Side

Wide Sargasso Sea’s Grace Pool’s monologue introduces the spreading gossips upon the return of the master and his young wife, Grace having been hired from the colonies, before their arrival. Grace unfolds her doubts after having started taking care of Antoinette/Bertha. The speaking out of her mind is followed by Mrs. Eff – Mrs. Fairfax from Jane Eyre – plea in favor of her master’s character and the buying out of Grace, who finds her own personal advantages in the situation. She then recalls the transformation of the house and describes her impression of isolation. It is concluded with a last statement about Antoinette doubtful lunacy.

Jean Rhys often repeats throughout the novel, that “there is always the other side”. Wide Sargasso Sea in itself is the possibility of giving voice to Antoinette/Bertha, a minor and stereotyped character from Jane Eyre. This revision goes also for Grace Poole who is given a part to play in the last section of the novel.

Charlotte Brontë is not tender towards the character of the lunatic’s keeper: the quiet Mrs. Poole is an alcoholic, often identified to Bertha with the laugh she takes the blame for, she is plain, not interesting, taciturn and she does not say a word (“a monosyllabic, person of few words”). Jane even says at one point:

I can’t think she can ever have been pretty, […] I hastened to drive from my mind the hateful notion I had been conceiving respecting Grace Poole; it disgusted me.

With this singular intervention, Jean Rhys raises first the possibility of an explanation for such a personality. She depicts her as an oppressed character: by giving voice to the other side, she restores a balance. As a climax of these “other sides” restitutions, there is no truth, but only narratives: after having read Antoinette, then Rochester’s accounts, the reader is made full aware that none of the narrators is reliable.

But she also undermines the fact that her silence is something linked to Rochester’s oppression : her unflattering work is a non-choice according to her social background. The passage finally re-unifies all the female characters all locked up under the same roof.

I – The reader is given access to the consciousness of a character who never explains herself in the Ur-text

Grace articulates doubts about those conditions, for it involves her responsibility into an act of which she is not sure to understand all the impact – she shows her restraints on moral and legal grounds. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax had run an ad which did not reveal any of the specificity of the task; moreover, it lies about the nature of the “work” in itself (itself being Bertha). This way, Jean Rhys creates with Grace Poole a character rooted in innocence, who was tricked and brought into committing herself into a role she never aimed at taking: there is an idea of something inescapable once you have stepped in it, an idea of fate linked to Antoinette’s own downfall into becoming Bertha. She becomes fully aware afterwards, and it is also a way for the author of portraying someone whose credulity has been abused, and who is not equipped enough for refusing the money.

Her claim “I don’t serve the devil for no money” – is a paradox: it conveys Grace’s feeling that the situation is “wrong”, feeling enhanced by Rochester’s willingness to give her a fortune to do it and keep her mouth shut. The language Grace uses places her supposedly at the bottom of the social ladder; and although she claims that she will not let herself corrupted, a few words and the doubling of the money are way enough to quiet down her last scruples, for she is indeed replaceable. It is an economic opportunity (as The Godfather used to say: “I’ll make an offer he won’t refuse”).

The other side, it’s also the revision of Mrs. Fairfax. Indeed she appears quite sour and harsh. Her empathy with his feelings makes his will even more a priority. She agrees without remorse to collaborate against anything that could hurt her protégé. This is a re-reading of the very nice Mrs. Fairfax from Jane Eyre. This is one Mrs. Fairfax who is ready to silence anyone and locks up a foreign woman in an attic.

Mrs. Eff has set up an ad which is vague, does not say anything specific about the work; Bertha/Antoinette’s identity is denied. She is neither young, nor old. She has no age, timeless as a ghost; and indeed, the comments made by Grace describes her as “thin”, “shivering” person, as if Antoinette had no outline. Even Grace does “not know what to think”: there is no definition possible, not a “young girl” and not “an old woman”, she has now become the non-human “thing”, stripped of her humanity – and Mrs. Fairfax’s point of view is associated with it.

She is seen as Rochester’s hand that executes his orders and implements the “No more gossip” clause. She is the one to threaten; she decides to pay Grace only the double and gives her no choice but to accept the deal after denying her singularity. She shows contempt for the lower class.

II – The passage is an embedded narrative, “a mosaic of voices” (Maurel)

Grace is introduced on a third-person narrative basis, as an account addressed to Leah, under the form of a direct speech. But then, within the use of brackets, Mrs. Fairfax and other voices are reported, in indirect speech.

Grace’s point of view seems to be privileged: besides her words, we can know her thoughts. This external narrator introduces us to a more remote point of view upon Rochester’s situation; in a sense, Grace, because she is unknown to most of the other characters and their story, is the most neutral one. This is reinforced by the heavy use of “said”: she unfolds facts and seems to give us a simple and unbiased account of what she hears and witnesses, free of any personal interest.

On the other hand, Mrs. Eff is on Rochester’s side, she selects the lines she wishes to read to Grace. It clearly states Mrs. Fairfax’s opinion as biased, when she kindly speaks of her Master later on. She trusts him and wishes to follow his instructions because she is emotionally attached to him.

Here we get to have a genuine portrait of Rochester, by a love-caring woman. But even this positive description is contrasted: first, it is a nostalgic vision of Rochester, as a child. Her indulgence comes from the fact that she still considers him as the boy she has raised, who can do no harm. “I knew”, “he was” imply that the knowledge is past, the information is not updated.

Plus, by saying “out of all knowledge”, Mrs. Eff herself recognizes his change goes beyond her understanding of him.

The possibility of knowledge – truth – left to Grace, according to the unreliability of the other speaking narrators, remains subjective to her own observation. The verb “know” is repeated 7 times, opens and ends the passage, thus conveying the idea – added to the very numerous “I”s – that there is as much knowledge as there are narratives. Grace’s knowledge, therefore truth, is intuitive: it is based on her feelings and experience only, and it denies Antoinette her status as a lunatic.

Rochester is now portrayed as a wealthy man, thanks to his father and brother’s deaths, but also to his own economic conquest through marriage in the West Indies. He is not the unfortunate needy son sent away any more; he has started to change/alter his past, and so the construction of his story & identity.

Throughout the second part, he has tried to find, then to decide of a truth behind the gaps in the narrative of Antoinette’s identity. He has now started planning the setting up of his own truth.

First, his narrative starts blurring the track: his marital situation when he returns is not explained; it has to be guessed: with “hints”. Like there will be hints about Bertha’s presence in Jane Eyre.

It is a narrative of his own: although Rochester is not physically present, his voice is heard through the reading of his letter [L12]. It is heard and imposed: “You will listen to what the master has to say”. Rochester’s voice is subjecting; there is no objection possible for the subaltern, HE is the dominating voice, even over Grace’s narrative.

Changing the past starts by silencing it. Silence is present in the terms of the agreement (L6), it is the condition to be accepted under His roof; it expresses the oppression of dissident voices. One voice allowed, one side – which is his. “Let me hear no more about it” is an injunction to silence. He will not listen: by denying the existence of a problem, He frees himself from all responsibilities.

In The Turn of a Screw: the governess is very well-paid but under the condition of not whispering a word about the children to the Master who hired her – which implies the existence of a mystery, a secret that she will be alone to deal with. The consequence is the isolation of the subalterns who have to take care of the “problem”, but no right to speak of it. Which again is a reading that allows some sympathy for the character of Grace Poole.

The rhetorical question – “How could she stop them from talking?” – introduces a counteracting force. Indeed, rumors are unstoppable; they are an invisible force that spreads out and cannot be targeted, therefore hindered. Despite his henchwoman, Big Brochester cannot watch them all.

The use of future in the passage (“Servants will talk…”) underscores its actualization, added to the “gossip” – the threat of the “they”, undistinguished, therefore dangerous. There is almost an irony about it: before, Antoinette was the victim of gossip, and Rochester contributed to give them credit. Now it is reversed: he is the target, and sees it as a disease that needs to be cured, purified.

III – Reconstructing the Narrative: Repressing the Other(s) to Own Oneself

On the last two pages of the second part, this is what we can read: “Very soon she’ll join all the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough.” Then: “I can wait – for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie…” This silence aims at oppressing, but also at repressing.

To make silence and subjection prevail, Rochester corrupts through the lure of money. In the West Indies, when Antoinette was still in power of herself, he could not control what was said around him. Now that he “owns” the money, he can impose his will and construct his story and his identity. Rochester, in the logic of his secret and his new economic power, fires everyone. But to initiate and enforce his own story, he uses his power to oppress and repress voices around him.

This « they » (repeated several times), opening the passage, undermines a threat from the outside.

In fact, one reason for Grace Poole to accept the deal is that she feels threatened as a woman. Grace is shown as self-reflective upon the situation of her sex and her social class. The mosaic of voices is turned into a unity that draws up greater difficulties “in a black and cruel world for a woman”. The “I“ turns into a “we”, “Mrs Eff and Leah and me”, “All of us”. The voice of Mrs. Fairfax is introduced in the passage by the pronoun “I”, without any bracket. There is a multiplicity of I in the text, a unity among the female characters and their common condition as women, under Rochester’s roof. They come and accept Rochester’s oppression to protect themselves from a greater oppression. Grace trades one oppression for another, but a more bearable one as far as “all of them” are concerned, that is to say “all of them except that girl who lives in her own darkness”, and who was left with no choice at all.

Rochester offers her – as Thoreau would put it – Shelter, Food, Clothes and Fuel. Added to the isolation, everything she needs to subsist and be protected – in exchange for her freedom. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech. Grace too will be locked up, with no chance of developing herself, spending all her time with a non-speaking lunatic. Indeed, this compromise she makes may underline her lack of certainty and possibilities due to her social background. [In Jane Eyre, she is called “MRS” Poole and has a son somewhere outside. She might need financial support for her son and for herself. Jean Rhys sort of turns her into a single and unfortunate mother, by characterizing her as “a woman”.]

Under his roof and under the rule of silence, Rochester owns them. He owns them economically, emotionally, but also sexually. He is their father and their husband: his patriarchal power is also performed through the oppression and repression of the collective identity of women. I actually read this last part as symbolic, with the ‘gate’, the ‘trees’ outside, and ‘above all’ the ‘thick walls’ of the rooms, the ‘walls’ imprisoning the ‘all’. “Crimson and white rooms” clearly gives space to an interpretation of sexual confinement – or at least a place where sexuality is voiceless – with the idea of blood/virginity, and the thick walls possibly referring to the hymen, unbreakable under Rochester’s roof.

Therefore, by including this passage, Jean Rhys does some justice to one forgotten character from the original sketch of Brontë. She gives Grace Poole some depth by drawing a self-reflective character who has her own reasons to conclude this seemingly pact with the devil. She has stripped herself of part of her integrity and moral principles in exchange for a shelter, financial and social protection, but she nevertheless keeps some awareness about it.

The “object” of the oppression and repression may be locked up in the attic; yet the collective memory is oppressed and repressed behind the thickness of every wall, that both protect and isolate from the world, and from others.


  • Laura E. Ciolkowski, Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire. Hofstra University, 1997.
  • Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Charting the Empty Spaces of Jean Rhys’s « Wide Sargasso Sea ». University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  • Lee Erwin, « Like in a Looking-Glass »: History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea. Duke University Press, 1989.
  • Carine M. Mardorossian, Shutting up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double-Entendre in Jean Rhys’s « Wide Sargasso Sea ». The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
    Nancy Pell, Resistance, Rebellion, and Marriage: The Economics of Jane Eyre. University of California Press, 1977.
  • Michael Thorpe, « The Other Side »: Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.