On the Question of Identity in the Novel "Wide Sargasso Sea" of Jean Rhys

Term Paper, 2017

21 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Question of Identity in Wide Sargasso Sea

1. Introduction

2. Cultural Background

3. Identity

4. Erikson’s Theory

5. Antoinette’s Identity
5.1 Antoinette’s childhood.
5.2 Later life /Marriage to Rochester
5.3 Loss of Identity

6. Application of Erikson’s Theory

7. Conclusion



1. Introduction

“It was a song about white cockroaches. That’s me. […] And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”1

Antoinette, the female protagonist of Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea is struggling with those questions of her identity all her life. As a Creole girl, who lives in Jamaica during post-colonialism, she finds herself caught between two identities not knowing where she belongs. On the one hand, there is the black community which she knows and grows up with, on the other hand the white community which her mother tries to be a part of and forces Antoinette to fit into as well. This life between two contrasting cultures forces Antoinette into a situation of confusion and doubt which makes her question not only where she belongs but if she belongs at all. It drives her into a crisis which she is not able to escape.

Jean Rhys published her novel in 1966. Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette Cosway who is also, known under the name of Bertha, a character of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys is giving Bertha/ Antoinette a story and a reason why she became mad in the first place. The story starts in her childhood and moves on to the marriage to Mr. Rochester. The last part is set when she is already imprisoned by her husband and is setting the house on fire which accords with the story told in Jane Eyre.

For the background of the novel it is important to know that Rhys herself grew up in a situation like Antoinette’s. She as well had troubles with identifying herself when she grew up. “As a white Creole writer living in England, Rhys attempts to capture the issue of being caught between two cultures and never able to identify fully with any of them. Born to a Welsh father and a Creole (white West Indian) mother on the island of Dominica in the West Indies, Rhys was white but not English, West Indian but not black.”2 So Rhys shares part of Antoinette’s history which is probably why she was that interested in telling her story which is completely uncared-for by Brontë.

Looking at the topic of Antoinette’s identity another important term comes to mind: identity crisis. Identity and the crisis of identity had been examined in detail by the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson in his theory about identity. Taking a look at his theory and Antoinette’s story the question comes to mind, how the theory can be applied to Antoinette’s crisis and how cultural constructions of race affect Antoinette’s struggle in finding her identity. Several factors influence this thesis. Therefore the aim of this paper will be to examine why she feels drawn to both, and at the same time is not fully integrated into the black and the white communities. Furthermore this paper will take a closer look at Erik Erikson’s theory on identity and identity crisis and it will be examined how the theory can be applied to Antoinette’s situation.

To be able to reach this aim one needs to look at first at the cultural background in which Antoinette grew up. Afterwards there will be given an introduction to the term “Identity” followed by Erikson’s theory in detail. The next point will focus on Antoinette’s identity crisis. First taking a closer look at her childhood where mostly the black community plays an important role, then focussing on her married life with Mr Rochester which is more concerned with the white community. Afterwards her eventual loss of identity will be discussed. In the end Erikson’s theory will be applied to Antoinette’s situation and there will be a conclusion giving the most important results and trying to answer the research question of this paper.

2. Cultural Background

Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonial novel published in 1966, more than a hundred years after Charlotte Brontë published her novel Jane Eyre. Nevertheless Wide Sargasso Sea is seen as an prequel of Brontë’s novel as it tells the life story of Antoinette before she came to England to be imprisoned by her husband Mr. Rochester.

The beginning of the story is set in Antoinette’s childhood. According to the critic Lee Erwin she must have been born in 1822 or 1823 as she is nearly seventeen in 18393 so she was born before the Emancipation Act although most of the story is set afterwards. Antoinette grew up in Jamaica when it was still a British colony. While the island was claimed by the Spanish at first the English seized it in 1655 and so Jamaica became a colony under the English crown. Back then the most important and profitable work were the plantations.

Antoinette’s father was a planter and a slave owner as well so the Cosways belonged to the richer families on the island. Her mother was a Creole girl, born on a different island.4 Therefore it was difficult for Antoinette, as a white Creole girl herself, to be accepted by either the white or the black community as she did not really belong to either of them because a creole according to the Oxford dictionary is “a person of mixed European and black descent”5. And “though the Creoles are taught to consider England as home, they are labeled as inferior colonials but they are racially privileged in relation to the Africans. This results in creating a sharp conflict between the white and black population of the West Indies.“6 There have always been conflicts between the different races, but for Antoinette and her family it became even worse after the Emancipation Act took place in 1833. The act finally freed the slaves in the colonies but as a consequence “the suppressed hatred between blacks and whites was released and increased”7 because the blacks were finally able to take revenge on their former owners which now lost most of their power. Most of the former slaves left the plantations as they were now free men. Some of them even bought land because many of the former planters left the colonies and went back to England as without the work of the slaves they often had to sell their estates.8 Antoinette and her mother are some of the few who stayed in the colonies. And when Antoinette’s mother married again, they even gained their rich status back. But nevertheless, they were never accepted by the black community. The biggest issue now was that the former slaves had gained some power back ,and were not ready to accept the whites as their friendly cohabitants. “Also, the people in the West Indies, despite sharing the same land, did not share the same values as they differed in race, social background and a different country of origin.”9 Therefore it was difficult for them to find similarities or understanding for each other and to accept that the country belonged to both of them.

3. Identity

The concept of identity is complex and cannot be defined that easily. Therefore in this paper there will just be given a few examples and an overview of the term. The easiest definition will be found in the dictionary where identity is defined as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is”10. But there are many different theories of identity, and the opinions of theorists and critics differ vastly. The concept of identity is that difficult to define because it is constantly changing and it is influenced by different factors concerning the individual’s environment, but also the individual himself. As Voicu for example puts it, “the concept of identity defines itself in terms of sameness vs. difference”11 because the most important aspect of identity is the belonging to a group of people with which you share certain characteristics. And so the opposite of not belonging because of difference results in no identification with that certain group. “Identification is constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation.”12 Every individual identity is linked to the identities of others.

Voicu also describes identity as a “socio-cultural construct”13 and therefore comes to terms with the “cultural identity”14 because identity is influenced by many aspects such as race, gender, religion etc.

Another opinion about identity is that of Beller and Leerssen: “Identity becomes to mean being identifiable, and is closely linked to the idea of ‘permanence through time’: something remaining identical with itself from moment to moment”15. This theory of identity is more concerned with the person itself and its “sense of self”16. So, as already mentioned the individual himself is important for the concept of identity. But the individual is in need for something to identify with. As Hall puts it: “Without the others there is no self, there is no self-recognition”17. If the individual is not able to identify with anything, it may come to an identity crisis which is also part of Erik Erikson’s theory. The identity crisis will be explained in the following point in more detail as the theory, this paper will focus on, is the one by Erik Erikson.

4. Erikson’s Theory

Erik H. Erikson was an American psychoanalyst born in Germany. He was highly influenced by Freud’s psychoanalysis and was famous for his theory on psychosocial development which will be mentioned here as well. But more importantly, he is known for his work on identity and identity crisis. First of all it is important to know how Erikson defines the term identity.

Identity and identity crisis have in popular and scientific usage become terms which alternately circumscribe something so large and so seemingly self-evident that to demand a definition would almost seem petty, while at other times they designate something made so narrow for purposes of measurement that the over-all meaning is lost, and it could just as well be called something else.18

It is therefore very difficult to give a definition. But Erikson describes identity as “something that ‘comes upon you’” and as an “active tension”19. He says, “there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity”.20 To know more about his view on what identity is, one has to look deeper into his theory. What is important to know is that an identity of one person is always related to that of another or more others.21 Furthermore, identity is not a state but a process which is changing and developing from birth on to death.22 What is the most interesting time of this process is youth or adolescence because this is when the identity crisis takes place. But to be able to go into this in more detail, Erikson’s stages of development have to be taken into account.

There are eight stages. The first one is “Trust vs. Mistrust” which takes place until the child is about one and a half years old. The second is “Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt” taking place in the early childhood. The third stage is “Initiative vs. Guilt”, situated in the age of three to five. The fourth stage “Industry vs. Inferiority” takes place while the child is going to school. The fifth stage which is “Identity vs. Identity confusion” and the most interesting one is happening from the age of twelve until the age of eighteen. The sixth “Intimacy vs. Isolation” takes place as an adult until the age of forty. From age forty to age sixty-five the adult finds himself in stage seven which is “Generativity vs. Stagnation” and until the end of his life he stays in stage eight called “Integrity vs. Despair”.23 In each of these stages a crisis between the two factors takes place which can either be solved or stay unsolved depending on how strong the individual is at that certain stage of life.24 This crisis is defined by Erikson as “a necessary turning point, a crucial moment, when development must move one way or another, marshaling resources of growth, recovery, and further differentiation”25. If a crisis like this stays unsolved it may be harder to go through the next crisis in the next stage.

What is of importance for this paper is first of all stage five. This is the age of adolescence when children start looking for their own identity on their way to becoming adults. In this stage the adolescent needs to build up “trust in oneself”, whereas at the same time he fears a trusting commitment.26 Paradox issues like this one an adolescent has to face daily. The estrangement of this stage is identity confusion which happens to an adolescent if he is not able to find his identity right away. A consequence of the identity confusion is for example that adolescents start to be intolerant and even cruel to others “who are ‘different’, in skin color or cultural background”. But according to Erikson this is some kind of defense against their own identity loss.27

If the adolescent is not able to form his own identity at that stage it comes to the identity crisis. “We have recognized the same central disturbance in several conflicted young people whose sense of confusion is due, rather, to a war within themselves, and in confused rebels and destructive delinquents who war on their society.”28 The adolescent is torn between several identities and asks himself questions about who he is. “The sense of identity, then, becomes more necessary (and more problematic) wherever a wide range of possible identities is envisaged”29 as in the case of Antoinette who is caught between the two identities of the blacks and the whites.

5. Antoinette’s identity

“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.” Already the first sentence of Jean Rhys’ novel is concerned with the topic of identity which is recurring throughout the novel again and again. All her life Antoinette has to suffer from not knowing where she belongs. Because of her origin, she is neither accepted by the white nor the black population of the island. During her childhood Antoinette has to experience many racial conflicts which affect her and her family immensely.

As a member of the colonial nouveaux riches, she is felt to be inferior to England’s fine old families; as a daughter of a former slave-owning plantation-owner, she is a living reminder of the sordid origins of his affluence; as an exotic and beautiful woman raised on a tropical island, she is associated with a sensuality that both tempts and torments Rochester; as a Creole, the racial purity of her blood will always remain suspect in Rochester’s eyes.30

As Porter states here Antoinette has many racial and gender orientated stereotypes against her which she has to endure her whole life. It can be understood that she therefore has difficulties developing her own identity. She struggles because she is caught between those two identities, unsure which is the right one. “The black people consider her a hybrid that they look down upon while the British colonizers consider her an alien or an outsider.”31

Nevertheless growing up her mother is constantly trying to push her into the English community, but Antoinette feels drawn to the black community just the same. The island is her home and, especially as a child, she connects with it through the culture and the people. But as Porter mentions above, it has not only been her childhood which made it difficult for her to form an identity. Even in her marriage she does not find what she is looking for. Social, cultural and racial rejection all her life make it almost impossible for Antoinette to form her identity.32 Mr. Rochester is not understandable of his wife and racially rather intolerable, and therefore even worsens the identity confusion. This confusion eventually even results in a certain loss of identity as Antoinette is no longer able to form an identity of her own.

5.1 Antoinette’s childhood

Because of the hatred after the Emancipation Act, between the black and the white population, “Antoinette’s childhood has been replete with racial violence, discrimination, anxiety, poverty and fear. All these problems affected her desire to construct her own identity or her independent self.”33

Antoinette’s father passes away early in her life, so she and her mother and her little brother are on their own. As her mother cares more for Antoinette’s little brother and does not really build up a good relationship with her daughter, she is one of the reasons for Antoinette’s suffering. She cannot accept “her desire to associate herself with the black Caribbeans”34 as Yousef and Abu-Samra put it in their work, and therefore she is ashamed of her daughter.35 Even though a mother should be understanding and support her daughter no matter which way she chooses, Antoinette’s mother is not able to do so. Maybe that is because her mother has difficulties belonging herself. She is trying very hard to fit into the English society although she is a Creole. Eventually she gets married again, but that does not change the fact that Antoinette and her family are the target of the black population’s hate. When their house is burned down by the blacks and Antoinette’s brother dies, her mother withdraws herself completely from Antoinette and the rest of the world. “The mother/daughter identification is finally broken”36.


1 Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, London: Penguin, 1966: 63.

2 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 109.

3 Lee Erwin, “’Like in a Looking-Glass’: History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 22.2 (1989): 145.

4 Rhys 1966: 3.

5 Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

6 Tawfiq Yousef and Reem Abu-Samra, “Identity Crisis in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea Revisited.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies 7.2 (2017): 112.

7 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 112.

8 Erik Williams, From Columbus to Castro. The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, London: André Deutsch, 1970: 400.

9 Veronika Dibelková, Multiple Identities in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, University of Pardubice, 2013: 17.

10 Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Concise Oxford English Dictionary. 11th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

11 Christina-Georgiana Voicu, Exploring Cultural Identities in Jean Rhys’ Fiction, Ed. Katarzyna Grzegorek, Warschau: De Gruyter, 2014.

12 Stuart Hall, “Who needs ‘identity’?” In Paul Du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman, eds. Identity: A Reader, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000: 16

13 Voicu 2014: 16.

14 Voicu 2014: 16.

15 Manfred Beller and Joep Leerssen, Imagology: The cultural construction and literary representation of national characters. A critical survey, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001: 1

16 Beller and Leerssen 2001: 4

17 Stuart Hall, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities.” In Brian Meeks and Folke Lindahl, eds. New Caribbean Thought: A Reader, Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001: 30

18 Erik H. Erikson, Identity. Youth and Crisis. London: Faber & Faber, 1968: 15.

19 Erikson 1968: 20.

20 Erikson 1968: 130.

21 Erikson 1968: 21.

22 Erikson 1968: 23.

23 Erikson 1968: 94.

24 Erikson 1968: 95.

25 Erikson 1968: 16.

26 Erikson 1968: 128/129.

27 Erikson 1968: 132.

28 Erikson 1968: 17.

29 Erikson 1968: 245.

30 Dennis Porter, “Of Heroines and Victims: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre.” The Massachusetts Review 17.3 (1976): 546.

31 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 112.

32 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 111.

33 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 112.

34 Yousef and Abu-Samra 2017: 116.

35 Rhys 1966: 84.

36 Mona Fayad, “Unquiet Ghosts: The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (1988): 442.

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On the Question of Identity in the Novel "Wide Sargasso Sea" of Jean Rhys
University of Constance
British and American Studies
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question, identity, novel, wide, sargasso, jean, rhys
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Julia Straub (Author), 2017, On the Question of Identity in the Novel "Wide Sargasso Sea" of Jean Rhys, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464328


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