Although there are numerous narratives which challenge the colonial presence and power that gained precedence during the 20th century, Jean Rhys’s important novel Wide Sargasso Sea stands out as a text that critiques and condemns colonialism in a very conspicuous, clever manner. While there are several scenes in the novel which work to indict the idea and reality of colonialism, Christophine’s conversation with Mr. X is singular in its ability to challenge and ultimately negate the signification and substance of England, a sociopolitical sphere which represents imperial power and the subjugation of the masses. In a telling conversation between Christophine and Mr. X, the former asserts that she is not certain England exists and goes on to imply that the place is populated by lying thieves. These acts of erasing and then refacing England as a lackluster place function as an inversion of the prototypical colonial system, one in which the oppressed are negated through the imposition of various dehumanizing philosophies and sociocultural procedures which efface their existence and identity. In this inversion, the empire writes back with a linguistic reconstruction of an idealized imperial power which renders its own existence and personhood null.
As implied by the narrative itself, the invocation of England functions as a signifier of an imperial sphere that purports colonialist ideologies and praxis. Moreover, this imperial realm is idealized in the mind of Mr. X. This idea becomes plain when one considers Mr. X’s reflections on the land: “I have been too unhappy, I thought, it cannot last, being so unhappy, it would kill you. I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me….England, rosy pink in the geography book map, but on the page opposite the words are closely crowded, heavy looking. Exports, coals, iron, wool” (66). Through this delineation of Mr. X’s conceptions of England, the reader understands that he views the land as a sphere that can induce happiness while also recognizing its ability to generate economic wealth through exports, coals, iron, and wool. Shortly after this delineation, however, the positive image of England maintained in the mind of Mr. X is undermined by Christophine’s assertion that the place might not exist. After Mr. X notes that he would like to travel there, Christophine responds with a pointed question: “You think there is such a place?” (67). When he openly questions her assertion that England might not exist, Christophine justifies her skepticism by noting: “I never see the damn place, how I know?” (67). She goes on to note “I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it” (67). In questioning whether England is a reality, Christophine engages in a textually significant act of erasure which demonstrates that, just as an imperial power can negate the identity and importance of the people it subjugates, the subjugated others can delegitimate the oppressor’s authority and actuality by insinuating that its physical sphere of power might not exist.
In addition to engaging in an act of erasure which inverts the oppressor’s power by asserting that the physical land which signifies its presence might be fictive, Christophine negates the colonialist dynamism associated with England by reconstructing its identity, face. Rather than conforming to Mr. X’s understanding of the land as a powerful sphere replete with economic vitality, England becomes a sphere populated by thieves and liars. Specifically, Christophine asserts that she cannot trust the image of England presented by its inhabitants when she asks “Is this place like they tell us?” (67) This interrogation doubles as an insinuation that England’s representatives and advocates are likely presenting a false, elevated depiction of what the land is like to outsiders. In short, Christophine insinuates that England’s people are liars. Yet the reconstruction of the nation’s face doesn’t stop there. The immoral identity Christophine has constructed thus far moves forward when she asserts that the people of the land are thieves. In so doing, she notes that “I hear it cold to freeze your bones and they thief your money, clever like the devil. You have money in your pocket, you look again and bam! No money” (67). This inversion of England’s idealized identity culminates in Christophine asking Mr. X why he would want to travel to “this cold thief place” (67). Thus England and its people no longer exist as the embodiment of venerable power, but are now the face of evil and immorality.
Clearly, Christophine’s erasing and refacing England is not left unchallenged by the imperial power that Mr. X advocates and comes to represent. In fact, his embodiment of colonial ideas becomes plain through his summation of Christophine’s personhood in a manner that belittles her race and gender. In an internal interrogation during which he questions how authoritative her words regarding England could be, he asks himself: “How can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate old negro woman, who is not certain if there is such a place as England?” By including this demeaning, dehumanizing interrogation in the scene during which Christophine erases and refaces England, Rhys demonstrates that the contention between oppressor and oppressed remains prevalent and powerful.
As made plain by the discourse between Christophine and Mr. X regarding the existence of England, their dialogue functions as a representation of the empire writing back to the imperial powers which negate the identities of the individuals it subjugates. Through the character of Christophine, Rhys implies that the imperial England may be a fictive mental construct rather than a sociopolitical reality to be respected and revered. Rhys goes on to implicate and then ultimately incriminate England as a sphere of lying thieves through Christophine’s assertions about the clever devils who will steal one’s money. In so doing, the author expertly dismantles England’s powerful, pristine personhood by writing back with a sophisticated form of flack that involves questioning the land’s existence before implying that, if that land is real, the people that represent the place are depraved. Expertly erased and refaced through Christophine’s commentary and criticisms, England undergoes a mode of negation similar to that experienced by subjugated people trapped in the colonial web.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.