By general critical consent, the principal women writers in English to emerge, so far, from the Caribbean are the properly varied trio of Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua, Paule Marshall of Brooklyn and Barbados, and Jean Rhys of Dominica - Expository introduction. A young female consciousness narrates quite a number of texts by Caribbean women who revision the popular form of the bildungsroman, charting a developing female identity from adolescence into young adulthood.
Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Kincaid’s Lucy are most celebrated novels and they have been extensively and variously discussed by critics. The immensely mixed political and social history of the Caribbean is reflected by and in its writers in these novels. It would be useful to search for common elements in the art of Kincaid and Rhys, and such attempt will be ventured here. The re-presentation of history has a major role in the project of gender.
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While the category ‘woman’ has been expanding to include women of different ethnic groups, the identity of women of Indian descent as Caribbean settlers remains elusive. The sources for finding Indian women’s voices and experiences in history are few. This recovery of diverse ethnic groups and classes of women and men, and the issues which affected them differently in the past, is still relatively virgin territory for the budding historian in this field.
Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1981) and in Jamaica Kincaid’ Lucy (1990) map out some of the areas that need to be covered, both for the enhancement of Caribbean gender historiography and, ultimately, for a more inclusive historical understanding of racial and gendered categories as these have varied or recurred over time. Homesickness and servitude – themes that recur throughout the novels – introduce another theme of importance, that of the impact that the colonial history of race and class tensions has had on relationships between women in the Caribbean historical context.
Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1981) and in Jamaica Kincaid’ Lucy (1990) expressed one of most central ideas, that writers can be informed (one is tempted to use the word ‘possess’ in its Caribbean meaning) by ancient myth without necessarily knowing it: Wide Sargasso Sea ‘varies the rainbow arc between cultures in profoundly intuitive spirit’ (Harris, 1983: 49). Wide Sargasso Sea is thus ‘inbetween’ not only because fiction and history actively intersect within its bounds, but also because it is the product of a consciousness that is itself a product of a multicultural heritage.
Leading feminist literary historians in the United States, Gilbert and Gubar (1988), mapped Rhys as a major reinterpreter of past and present women’s literary history. The political identity of Rhys was shaped as much by Dominican racial and class culture as by gender issues. Rhys’s gender constructions are particularly striking in the context of twentieth-century white feminism because she so early saw the connection between different kinds of hegemony.
But this is entirely because Rhys was of Caribbean origin. In many ways, erasing Rhys as Caribbean is emblematic of the problems inherent in the period of high northern feminism, where the complex intersections of race and class with gender were often marginalized in favor of universalist constructions of ‘the woman’, ‘the mother’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the father’ which were far more comforting and avoided difficult questions of intra-feminist divisions, most especially those of race.
Lucy has been described as Kincaid’s most avowedly feminist protagonist, an apt description that rests on the character’s uncompromising determination to take the world only in her own terms. In many ways, Lucy fits the traditional description of the feminist heroine: conscious of the unfairness of traditional gender relationships, aware of the exploitative nature of sexual practices, vowing to make a life for herself that does not include submission to a man, searching for some measure of equality of power in her relationships with both men and women.
Her resistance is focused primarily on her mother, because she symbolizes all the limitations Lucy has fought against. Her greatest failure, in Lucy’s eyes, was her willingness to dream on behalf of her sons while reducing her daughter to the most mundane of expectations. She represents and speaks for the authorities who will keep Lucy “in her place” as a young black colonial woman of very limited means and it is in her rebellion against her that Lucy enacts her “quest for the independence that will make it possible for her to write”.
Lucy portrays herself as “the artist-in-waiting”, turning her own history into the narrative of resistance with which she has filled Mariah’s notebook (Kincaid 66). A reading of Lucy in the light of feminist theory can yield numerous instances of Lucy’s acting in a way consistent with feminist expectations. In Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, the kind of religion or metaphysics always do with subverting inhumane social conventions and is therefore, almost by definition, outlaw, subversive, committed.
Also important to Rhys’s sense of the metaphysical was the hidden (to white colonials) world of African religious syncretisms and survivals known generically as obeah and feared as a source of political resistance by the colonial authorities, as were other African-derived religious beliefs held by the slaves (Simpson 1980). The history of AfricanCaribbean spirituality facing colonialism and racism has been a history of respect for the power of words as weapons in resistance to injustice.
Not surprisingly, many Caribbean writers, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Jean Rhys have found in the metaphysical traditions of African-Caribbean society a touchstone for their most important political and social concerns (Rhys 1969). When Antoinette says “These were all the people in my life” (22), the text has already folded into the substance of the character’s life centuries of West Indian history, calling attention to the continuity between slavery and postslavery conditions – the presence of the past.
The history of the West Indies, then, does not provide the context for a reading of the novel nor does it even provide its content or theme. This history comes to be the process of the text’s self-determination. Imagery, events, and characters and their interrelationships are figured as history itself. New York City stands in Lucy as the metropolitan center necessary to assure the West Indies its continued marginality. Lucy’s arrival at this metropolitan center means that she must define herself against metropolitan notions of where she, as a young black and female colonial subject, can find her place.
The story of her quest for personal independence, a postcolonial trope, must play itself against the dominant Other’s background, emerging throughout the text as a metaphor for colonial liberation. The remnants of colonial structures that forged the historical past against which Lucy must redefine herself are exemplified in the novel by the tensions between her and Mariah, through whom Kincaid explores the conflicts of power that stem from gender and race relationships in a postcolonial world.
The tensions in the relationship between the two – their mutual affection notwithstanding-have at their root Mariah’s inability to see the connection between Lucy’s anger and the power women like her held over the likes of Lucy in plantation society. Victim of Lewis’s sexism and Dinah’s nonexistent sisterhood as she is, lacking an occupation of her own that can sustain her as her world collapses, she nonetheless experiences sexism in very class specific ways.
Her experiences of oppression as a woman are worlds apart from those of Lucy, who as a black working-class woman is subjected to pressures unimaginable in Mariah’s world. Mariah, good-natured and generous as she is, cannot see the links between her wealth and comfortable circumstances and the oppression of women elsewhere. Her efforts at making life pleasant and easy for Lucy can only do little to transcend a history of class and racial oppression (Kincaid 1990). Lucy, on the other hand, can only see life as a series of political struggles, many of them affecting relationships between women.
She is keenly aware of the connection between what seems local – the destruction of the ecology of the marshlands around Mariah’s house, for example-and the need to develop and exploit resources to maintain the level of upper-class comfort Mariah and her family enjoy. From cultural hegemony to her perception of Dinah’s classist rudeness, Lucy can only imagine a world in which race and class hegemonies do not determine human relationships – they have always determined her own.
Her characteristic lucidity is precisely the quality that allows her to practice a feminism that takes into account the complexities of the social and economic world in which her life must unfold. The most provocative theme Rhys tackled in Wide Sargasso Sea is race: this too is a kind of placement, a political and economic identity which, driven by the history of white racism, can be the most difficult area for a white writer to try to unravel. Wide Sargasso Sea is a provocative metaphor of and contributor to Caribbean culture.
Rhys brought race into the debate in the first place and that was because of her Caribbean experience. But Rhys’s Caribbean-centred Wide Sargasso Sea, like those of Kincaid’s Lucy, deconstruct all easy oppositions, without demanding the price of denial of history. The collective aesthetic of Caribbean culture is made up of such individual struggles with and revisions of the met narratives of history, expressed by the remaking of received forms and influences, and offered back to the community to evaluate.
Rhys does not see the fierce sexuality between characters as destructive in Wide Sargasso Sea, but rather it is a means to abandon defences. The importance of this in relation to references in Rhys’s texts to slavery, race, class and money is that in their context sexuality is about power and trade, and thus is connected to Caribbean racial and economic history. Throughout Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and in Jamaica Kincaid’ Lucy always significantly color functions as a symbolic code. Rhys provides depth and complexity by developing such poetic metaphors within her prose.
By color, is meant both a painter’s palette and the consciousness of skin shade and the social construction of race which is so clearly an indication of a West Indian consciousness at work in Rhys’s text. By politics, is meant that color conveys a complex and detailed sense of power relations, mainly to do with how the life force, libido itself, is repressed by hierarchical social organization. Colors both carry connective meaning within Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Jamaica Kincaid’ Lucy. Wide Sargasso Sea is expressly describing the West Indies, vibrant colors are much more significant.
Some critics have noted generally that Wide Sargasso Sea construct England and France as largely cold, dark, dull or pale whereas the Caribbean is full of strong color. This is evidently not simply an observation of the difference between northern and southern locales but a reflection of a difference between feeling, activity and strength signified by vivid jewel colors on the one hand and stress, passivity, self-destructive hostility and inability to feel on the other. Dull or dark colors are often identifiable as specifically English.
In this regard, the process of naming and identifying the narrative characters is of vital importance: “We can colour the roses as we choose and mine are green, blue and purple. Underneath, I will write my name in fire red, Antoinette Mason, nee Cosway, Mount Calvary Convent, Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1839” (53). The colors that Antoinette uses to emblematize her self, to represent her identity (and to foretell and remember her fate), are the very same colors from which her husband will recoil when he first arrives in the West Indies: “Everything is too much. . . . Too much blue, too much purple, too much green.
The flowers too red. . . . And the woman is a stranger” (70). The variety of feminism to which Lucy and Wide Sargasso Sea respond is one that incorporates as a primary element an assessment of the racial differences and conflicting class interests that separate white and black women. The plots of novels by Caribbean women, as a matter of fact, revolve around woman versus woman conflicts, as writers bring to the fore of their texts their understanding of plantation societies as the least likely settings for the development of relationships of sisterhood between white, black, and colored women.
Central to both stories is the issue of what constitutes a Caribbean female subjectivity. For Kincaid, the narrative she writes must articulate a Caribbean female subjectivity that has no literary antecedents: hence, the body, as the carrier of female experience, is more authentic than the word. Still, these women authors in their narratives, give us and themselves a way of apprehending the essence of the Caribbean female history.