‘From structure to narrative voice, place, and characterisation, dichotomies are integral to these novels.’ With this statement in mind, compare and contrast the ways in which ‘Spies’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ make use of contrast and opposition. In the course of your writing make clear how your interpretation of the text has been influenced by other reader’s views, as well as by consideration of relevant contextual factors.
In the novels ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, henceforth referred to as ‘WSS’, and ‘Spies’, authors Rhys and Frayn explore dichotomies of culture. Cultural clashes are manifested through characters and their relationships, the conflicting cultures are divided by contrasting racial and religious standpoints, demonstrating how authors make use of contrast and opposition to explore cultural differences.
Both authors use characterisation as a foundation to examine the discrimination against minority cultures, proving it to be a timeless issue. In both novels, the characters epitomise their culture, more specifically in ‘WSS’, Rhys highlights the cultural clash between the West Indies and nineteenth-century Britain by using the marriage between Antoinette and Rochester as the focal point for the binaries of the two cultures the characters come to represent. Their marital incompatibility is a visual representation of the clash of two cultures, Dennis Porter concludes Antoinette as a ‘passive victim’ of Rochester’s dominant force, echoing British colonialism. When labelling Antoinette as a ‘child’, he suppresses her, this characterisation reflects the inferiority of her homeland while under British control, as colonies were perceived as ‘child-like’, their marriage is emblematic of this. This drives forward Rhys’ anti-colonial standpoint, reiterating the oppression that remained after the Emancipation Act in 1933. The contrast of the couples’ cultural perspectives exposes Rochester as a double colonialist. Postcolonial feminist criticism discusses how Rochester domination and power over their marriage derives from patriarchal and colonial ideologies. McLeod implies that Antoinette is living under the negative effects of these concepts as Rochester and Mr Mason manipulate her to rethink the cultural values of indigenous women, who are perceived as uncultured for their values and behaviours that oppose England’s. The painting of ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ inexplicitly encourages Antoinette to be more ‘like an English girl’. Rhys uses the simile to present the contrast between the appreciation of English women and those of Caribbean descent. Western feminine expectations of Englishness are upheld in the Victorian context of this novel. This is indicated when she “look[s] away” from “Myra [who] had thin arms with big hands” to the girl with “brown curls and blue eyes”. Antoinette’s adoption of the western concept is evident through her growing dislike of the indigenous women’s appearance as she imitates the English girl “wearing the white dress”, this signifies the process of assimilation taking place as Antoinette shifts towards English culture. Rhys uses the colonialist’s disapproval of Antoinette’s attire to discuss her own dampened expectations of England and the ‘casually cruel’ people she encountered in her late teens, who were racially discriminative while she studied in England. Cultural dichotomies are integral to the novel as they present historical tensions between the British Empire and colonised places.
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Relationships in both ‘WSS’ and ‘Spies’ feature the assertion of cultural dominance to project the European fears on the uncanny that is masked by objective knowledge, this marginalises the child narrators as they are ‘accepted by neither [culture]’ (Thomas Stanley). Contrasting to Rhys’ intensions, Frayn uses Stephen and Keith’s friendship to show the cultural tension between the British and German-Jews in wartime Britain. Stephen becomes a metaphorical victim of the Nazi regime under Keith’s control, Frayn alludes to this by positioning Stephen’s ethnicity at the heart of his oppression. The inexplicit reference to Nazism demonstrates an extreme dichotomy of cultures, which is supported by Topping who suggests Keith’s bullying is a ‘microcosm of the cold, well-organized Nazi machine of annihilation’. The subtext of the novel supports the critic’s argument as the boys’ friendship becomes a passive-aggressive exploration of the social injustice in the Second World War. Yet, Topping’s argument trivialises genocide, and exaggerates the concept of bullying to fit the wider issue of cultural conflict. Despite Keith being microcosmic of dictatorship, it can be argued his controlling behaviour is a coping mechanism and form of escapism from his domestically abusive household, diverting itself from being an attack towards Stephen or subconsciously – the Jewish community.
Both unreliable first-person narrators are torn between two opposing cultures, their development into adulthood reflects their mistreatment by society. Tyler opposes Topping’s comment, suggesting Keith lacks emotional stability, thus he ‘needs Stephen, as his […] “loyal squire” to regain control of the setting – parallel to Rochester when he is seduced by the exoticism of the landscape, signifying his insecurity as the other and fear of miscegenation which fuel his control. Regarding characterisation, Keith’s behaviour echoes Britain’s dependence on foreign countries to remain stable during WW2, to avoid the collapse of its imperial power. Perhaps Frayn’s decision to end the friendship is symbolic of the collapse of Britain’s financial and economic independence between 1940-1942, highlighting the significance of cultural economics in society and the consequences of ‘exploiting […] external relationships, [as they] coexist and interact with others’ (Said, 32), emphasising the importance of recognising the interdependence of countries, noting that in both novels, Britain exploited foreign land and dominated cultures for financial gain. When comparing both texts, it’s evident that socioeconomic inequality has a hand in the protagonists’ mistreatment; the relationship dynamics between the characters demonstrate the cultural opposition in the novels, Tyler suggests the characters are dependent upon their culturally inferior partner to feel racially ‘superior’, echoed in ‘WSS’ when Rochester described Antoinette as a ‘creole of pure English descent’ but dehumanises her through his description of her foreign ‘alien eyes’. However, Koparanoglu suggests that Tia’s friendship with Antoinette also ‘undermines the racial superiority’ in the text, when referring to her with the racial slur ‘white cockroach, Tia’s unfiltered language illustrates the ‘socio-economic and political changes that have taken place after the abolition of slavery’, and the adjustment of the racial indifference, showing the contrast of power.
‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ uses religion to challenge the Victorian idea of Englishness. Antoinette’s dream features the ‘enclosed garden’, referencing the ‘Song of Solomon 4:12’; describing it as ‘Hell’. Le Gallez notes, the "enclosed garden" and the ascent up the steps, prefigures Antoinette's imprisonment at Thornfield, this signifies her liminality between the Jamaican and English cultures. Freudian Dreamwork theory underpins the concept of ‘escapism’, when Antoinette’s dress ‘trail[s] in the dirt’, she shows a sign of respect to her Caribbean ethnicity, implying she no longer wants to be a ‘pretty English girl’; this defiance of English tradition suggests Antoinette is reverting to her learned Jamaican culture, subconsciously wanting to escape the patriarchal, and colonial culture engulfing her. Her dynamic opposition of the patriarchal realm of England is presented through her destruction of Thornfield Hall, the building is symbolic of the system of patriarchal and colonial oppression prevalent in both geographical places, that dominates and confines the creole heroine, in igniting it she frees herself from oppression. The bifurcation of the dream ‘we are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden,’ foretells Antoinette's future relocation to England as she experiences her rite of passage. Rochester’s colonisation of his wife is a method to minimise his feeling of displacement, his attempt to feel ‘at home’ in the Caribbean, which is a common concept of pastoral. His objectification of Antoinette exhibits how the ‘traditional pastoral figure […] turns into a puppet in someone else’s fantasy of ‘home’ (Huggan & Tiffin). Therefore, by changing her location, Antoinette’s voice is muted as her identification with her original culture is lost. By not attempting to ‘save herself’, Antoinette has momentarily given into the ideals of England by being submissive to her husband and tolerating his xenophobia disguised by his dominance.
Likewise to Rhys, Frayn characterises opposing ethnic families by using oxymoronic concepts such as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’. The Haywards’ are an archetype for white superiority, which is biblically glorified in ‘Spies’, and their domestic arrangements are aligned with the ‘Holy Family’. Mr Hayward’s sanctimony distorts Stephen’s perception of the reality of the distorted household. A psychoanalytic critic would explore how the characters of Keith, in ‘Spies’ and Rochester in ‘WSS’ embody betrayal despite their Christian upbringing as they oppress their submissive partner through psychological abuse. The intolerant culture both male characters were raised influenced them when “imposing an alien pattern upon [their partner]” (Calvo & Webber). Keith uses psychologically abusive behaviour, including the silent treatment, threats, and demeaning nicknames such as, ‘old chap’, to assert his control, equal to Rochester who refers to Antoinette as a ‘vain, silly creature’, despite his fears of disapproval of Obeah, his psychological control imitates the spiritual act.
Place is relied on heavily by the authors when representing cultural dichotomies in the narratives. Each author incorporates cultural opposition to challenge western ideals that are represented in socially and racially segregated places, such as social normalities and belief systems. To reinforce this, sensory imagery, such as the room being ‘full of the scent of crushed flowers’, is used to demonstrate the cultural shock Rochester experiences in the West Indies. The imagery of the binary landscapes symbolises Rochester’s repugnance of the exotic with its intense colour palette as it represents Antoinette’s free spirit and passionate nature associated with Jamaican culture. Smith (2004) notes this is Rochester’s assumption that his ‘creole wife[‘s]’ behaviour is a ‘condition of her sociocultural identity or geographical location’, using the animalistic imagery ‘red-eyed’ and ‘[gazed] wildly’ to foretell her descent to madness. Rhys lends language used in ‘Jane Eyre’, wrote one century prior to highlight the lack of social progression when stereotyping women belonging to an opposing culture, this is a feature of postcolonial literature used to silence minority characters; the antagonist’s power to ‘block [the ‘creole girl’s’] narrative from emerging’, restates Rhys’ belief that the only side of the story is ‘the English side’.
Rhys develops cultural opposition through place. Binarism of colour is widespread in the text as the Caribbean colour imagery is directly opposed to England’s, which is constructed in a dark, grey palette. Antoinette’s deep connection with nature shows her appreciation and celebration for cultural differences, which is developed from her sense of alienation as although her skin tone aligns her with her English patriots, she inhabits the flamboyant Caribbean. The vibrant colour palette of the Caribbean provides cultural vitality to the landscape, this is the predominant attribute within the environment, as it brims the culture with strength and life. Ethnic stereotyping is concealed in nature to demonstrate opposition of place; supported by Edward Said’s ideas of orientalism that highlights Mr Mason’s use of cultural art to educate Antoinette on an idealised interpretation of England by importing paintings to her family home. The romanticised ‘fields […] of gold colour’ and the modest beauty of the ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ contrasts to a later description of the place being ‘a cold, dark dream’, implying the painting is an inaccurate representation of 19th century England. The contrast in imagery portrays the gulf between the Caribbean and European culture.
In ‘Spies’, place represents the contrast of race and ethnicity in socio-economic circumstances within the post-war period. The contrast of landscape supports the cultural oppositions within society; the imagery of the houses and their position in the close is an epitome of this, the Wheatley’s ‘lowly’ status derives from their ‘faintly embarrassing’ house with the ‘old, cracked […] render’ at the bottom of the close, contrasted to the ‘Chollerton’ house at the top of the close. This is named after a seaside town - exemplifying the class divide in wartime as the lower class wouldn’t have been financially equipped to vacate. The adjective ‘cracked’ of the Wheatley’s property breaks the façade of financially unstable; physically displaying their financial struggle as a non-white ethnic family in the close, aesthetically marking them as the ‘other’ in society. The proxemics display the social standings of the families.
In a similar vein, the embankment acts as a barrier between classes as the tunnel isolates the ‘tumbledown hovels’ from the ‘flawlessly white’ houses – emphasising the contrast within the 1940s hierarchal society as the surrounding areas of the close are impoverished and full of ‘debris’. Frayn’s imagery highlights the dynamic opposition between the landscapes separated by the embankment. In a literal sense, the embankment acts as a ‘gateway’ to a rurally dilapidated place, where the occupants are in a state of deprivation, Frayn indicates that not only is it aesthetically archaic, it is prehistoric in its beliefs as an underdeveloped culture. Those who live beyond the embankment don’t appear to follow any form of societal code but acknowledge they are set apart from the more privileged, financially stable families in the Close. When spying on Mrs Hayward, the boys witness the lack of ‘War Effort’ in the area and instead face the reality of war and the ongoing desperation of society’s most vulnerable. In reference to the ‘rite of passage’, this experience serves as an awakening realisation of his mortality and breaks any idealistic views Stephen has of the world, such as the possibility of technological advancements mentioned at the start of the novel. Frayn shows Stephen’s developing understanding of the world as he furthers his journey into adulthood, his own experience of alienation from the close could conclude why he is ‘drawn to [the embankment]’ (Topping). Stephen’s discovery of topics that were once ‘alien’ to him exemplifies the cosseted existence of the boys, creating an uncanny environment around them. The embankment is a physical divide in the landscape, Frayn implements this to unveil the differing values of the people either side, by the boys surpassing the tunnel they engage with new social norms, exposing the corruptness of the society they exist in.
Cultural dichotomies of place extend beyond Stephen’s Jewish household to the Orthodox Greeks at Trewinnick. Frayn describes the unfamiliar culture in a degrading manner, referring to the place as a ‘mysterious house [occupied by the] sinister organisation’. In contrast, the Haywards’ property is ‘flawlessly white’, reflecting Stephen’s idolisation of their ‘unshakeable correctness’ and reinforcing his association with the other as the ‘undesirable’, belonging to the lower class. Frayn uses place to create feelings of displacement for his protagonist. The internal focalisation of Spies contributes to the reasons behind Stephen ‘not quite belonging’, his opposition to the close is his subconscious feeling of absence from ‘home’ – which according to Avtar Brah, is a ‘mythical place of desire [in Stephen’s] diasporic imagination’. Frayn reinforces this concept as no single location can act as a secure home environment for the Wheatley’s. Diaspora has proved an issue for the Jewish community since their original exile from Babylonian, thus the idea of home not existing is contextually accurate. Stephen’s desire to be ‘home’ is explored through the ‘pull of opposites’ in England, leaving him feeling ‘displaced’ as a refugee. Topping states that ‘Stephen’s [uneasy feeling of] otherness’ in England would correspond to a post-colonial critic’s understanding of his ethnic otherness and dual nationality, which results in him longing ‘to be elsewhere’. A postcolonial lens would suggest that Frayn’s intentions complement McLeod’s discussion on the theory of diaspora as he argues that refugees who settle in Western locations, like Stephen’s family, ‘often […] feel they [don’t] belong in the ‘new country’, and face discrimination against their cultural practices, this is historically proven during the Second World War, where Jews were subjected to intense racism, xenophobia, and persecution in the West – demonstrated during the Holocaust (1941-1945). This stresses the importance of place on a wider scale and the impact it has on the historical events eluded to in the novel.
Both authors not only use place to represent racial and social dichotomies, but also to explore religious differences. Religious opposition manifests physically and socially in both novels, featuring the motif of trees to explore the juxtaposition between Heaven and Hell. Frayn places the ‘German Spy’ in his bildungsroman novel, by the Elder Tree (also known as a Judas Tree), which according to mythology, is spiritually associated with the devil. Germanic folklore believed the spirit dwelled in its trunk and the ‘sour smell of the elders’ was associated with the biblical story in which Judas Iscariot hanged himself on this shrub (Matthew 27:1-5). Stephen recalls being told that the Elder wouldn’t ‘burn on a bonfire’. A New Historicist perspective might argue that parents concealed the sacrilegious act of burning Elder wood from their children, to avoid ‘bring[ing] the devil into [their] house’, which was still a prevalent religious superstition in 1940s British society. Read in the context of New Historicism, Rochester’s study of ‘The Glittering Coronet of Isles’, connects him to the English fascination with Afro-Caribbean culture, the book states that the ‘cases of [inexplicable] death[s] are attributed to a poison known to [practitioners of Obeah]’, correlating to the wave of suspected poisonings that took place in Martinique between 1815 and 1830. However, according to de Mattos Frisvold, the disease was believed to be a ‘tactic for [the elimination] of Christian syncretism [to restore a] more pure African Spirituality’, highlighting the religious opposition. Antoinette’s attempt to poison Rochester is her questioning societies limited understanding of ‘why Judas did what he did’, implying that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus leads to humanities atonement, thus Antoinette’s behaviour somewhat echoes the parable and can be portrayed as a radical act of social reform, in an attempt to overthrow the cultural inferiority of her homeland. The biblical illusion of a ‘cock crow[ing] loudly’ is centred on the theme of ‘betrayal’, foreshadowing Rochester becoming ‘wicked like Satan’ towards Antoinette. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver, likewise Rochester talks of having ‘sold [his] soul’ for ‘thirty thousand pounds’. His marriage to Antoinette is an exploitive transactional gain to higher Rochester’s family social status. Judy Simons states Antoinette is ‘effectively sold into slavery, [as her] acquired inheritance [acts] as dowry. This transactional language connotes to a semantic field of slavery; under his father’s ownership, he is sculpted into a patriarchal emblem, thus his journey to the West Indies mimics the Middle Passage, or the Sargasso Sea, which is marginal between both places and cultures.
Frayn and Rhys concentrate on religion to convey cultural dominance in contrasting ways. Rhys’s focus on the contrast of ‘good and evil’ is demonstrated by opposing Obeah and Christianity, two religious’ practices from opposing cultures, foregrounded by the binary opposition of Rochester and Christophine. Authoritarian colonialist, Rochester, self-proclaims cultural superiority in the West Indies, his loathing of Antoinette’s ‘alien, disturbing’ otherness reveals his appropriation of Obeah and the uncanny control he exerts over her. Vincent Brown acknowledged Obeah as a source of ‘spiritual healing and protection’, yet it’s mischaracterised as a form of evil spirituality, thus it was prohibited by law in parts of the Caribbean, which replicated European ‘witchcraft laws’. Opposition is presented when Christophine’s called a ‘dangerous/devil from Hell’, likening her spiritual dominance to ‘devil business’. Rochester assumes Christophine’s imprisonment is due to her identification as an Obeah woman in Martinique, yet, a contrasting interpretation can be provided contextually - she may have been a victim of the apprenticeship regime established after Emancipation, whereby a widespread prison sentence was enforced on indigenous people who refused to oblige. This emphasises the cultural domination in the West Indies and contrast of power. As a postcolonial writer, Rhys attempts to unthink racisms of the West, by looking at the ‘other side of the photograph’ (Young). Moreover, this connects culture and imperialism while exploring classic realistic fiction in 19th century Europe. Rhys questions the morality of imperialism when Rochester commits the act of spirit theft, opposing British control over colonies. This act introduces Rhys's resurgence of interest in gothic imagination, the inclusion of zombification and dolls in the narrative merges two styles of writing, portraying her as a post-realist author. The gothic conventions foreshadow Antoinette’s descent into madness as a victim of colonialism by exposing the ‘colonial underpinning of Rochester’s [behaviour]’ (Angela Smith). This certifies the intertextual links between ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and ‘Jane Eyre’, for the ‘madwoman in the attic’ is Betha Antoinetta Mason. The unknown narrator’s suppressed wishes, whom Rhys refers to as Bronte’s Rochester in letters to her publisher, are surfaced when he casts an incantatory spell, transforming Antoinette into a ‘marionette doll’. Possessing her shows the power imbalanced relationship which symbolises the conflicting cultures, this is often used in the pastoral concept. In referring to her as a puppet, Rochester fulfils the role of a puppet master dominating the ‘doll’s voice’, manipulating the practice, thus mutes Antoinette's dialogue as he ‘speaks for [her]’. This was an initial title idea for the novel and perhaps links to Rhys being renamed upon her attempt to build her career in England. This is supported by Edward Said’s suggestion that Rochester asserts his cultural superiority to silence the colonised, which connotes how Christianity became the dominant voice in the British Empire.
Opposition of time is explored through narrative voice in ‘Spies’ and ‘WSS’. Both novels expand their temporal scope to move between different epochs of the characters’ lives, demonstrating a set of dissimilarities between adults and children; mankind and spiritual beings. ‘Spies’ uses analepsis to support the investigation of Stefan’s in this ‘coming of age’ tale. Anthropologist Gennep connects rites of passage to the concept of transgressing boundaries. Applying this to both novels, the central characters are ‘liminal passenger[s]’ (Turner), who are situated between two radically opposed cultures that clash, this implies Antoinette and Stephen's marginality makes them ‘allegorical figures in search of a […] cultural identity’ (Turner). These events show the dislocations in time, as the chronology is disrupted with temporal shifts or flashbacks. The double perspective demonstrates the opposed personalities of the narrators, as the nostalgic voice of Stefan contrasts significantly with the naïve, bigoted attitudes expressed by his younger self.
Whilst it’s important to discuss the opposition of both narrative voice and characterisation, there is a contrast between liminal spaces explored through life and death. Modern consciousness of the twentieth century frames the main action as occurring in an ‘alien’ past, using the motif of ghosts as liminal beings, echoed when the past erupts in the presents and deranges it. Both authors take inspiration from the Victorian ‘literary movement’, which sought to present cultural criticism and psychological values that compensate for the one-sided beliefs of the dominant […] culture” (Brennan). Ghosts are emblematic of time which symbolise the lack of social change towards women’s rights, cultural independence, and racial segregation. Although spiritual beings exist in both texts, the purpose of inclusion is opposed. In ‘Spies’, the ‘tramp’s’ lack of identity suggests without social status, his existence is unacknowledged as he moves ‘invisibly [through the close], like a ghost’, furthermore, Uncle Peter’s suspected PTSD implies that he is a ‘ghost of his former self […] in a living grave’ - linking to the Zombification in ‘WSS’, where Antoinette’s described as a ‘dead woman’. However, Rhys uses Antoinette and Annette as a mouthpiece for her own story, when writing to Francis Wyndham she spoke of ‘no longer [being] a doll, but a kind of ghost’, suggesting her loss of Caribbean culture.
In summary, cultural opposition is relevant in the novels ‘WSS and ‘Spies’, this has been shown through examining opposing cultures’ understandings’ on race, ethnicity, religion and gender. Theories of postcolonialism, feminism, ecocriticism and psychoanalysis support the argument that the authors make about being an outsider in an opposing culture, this is done through structure, narrative voice, place and characterisation.
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