‘Blanks in my memory that cannot be filled up’: Psychological Disorientation and the Voice of Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea

Alexis Brown, University of Oxford

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys offers a rewriting of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to tell the story of Bertha Mason, beginning with her early life as Antoinette Cosway on the island of Coulibri, Jamaica. Told in three parts vacillating between the narrative perspective of Anoinette and Mr. Rochester, the character of Christophine, Antoinette’s nurse, makes a frequent appearance, with her particular mix of Patois, Creole and French marking her as a product of Jamaica’s colonial heritage, an element that has attracted a considerable amount of postcolonial critics to the text. This essay makes the claim that Christophine’s voice, in its various permutations throughout the novel’s narrative, defies colonial domestication by producing profoundly disorientating and fragmenting effects on Rochester, the colonial white male. By drawing on Roger Luckhurst’s formulation of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, this paper reverses Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s paradigm of Christophine as the ‘domesticated Other’ to suggest that the disorienting force of the colonized other can offer a narrative agency and form of resistance in postcolonial texts.

The character of Christophine has been an avid point of contention for critics since the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Competing interpretations have attempted to paint Christophine as the defiant, self-articulated native female, while others have compared her to the ‘black mammy’, another inscription of stereotypical colonial roles.1 Numerous critics have fallen somewhere in between, but all agree that understanding the role of Christophine is essential to any reading of the novel. Spivak calls Christophine the ‘tangential character’ of the novel, a ‘commodified person’, and her essay, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, ignited a firestorm of Rhys criticism after it was published in 1985.2 ‘Christophine’, Spivak writes,

cannot be contained by a novel which rewrites a canonical English text within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native. No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self.3

To Spivak, Christophine is ‘simply driven out of the story’, after her final encounter with Rochester, ‘with neither narrative nor characterological explanation or justice’.4 Christophine is a construction fashioned in the image of the colonizer, formulated in opposition yet domesticated and casually discarded when her purpose becomes defunct.

Benita Parry contends that ‘what Spivak’s strategy of reading necessarily blots out is Christophine’s inscription as the native female, individual Self who defies the demands of the discriminatory discourse impinging on her person’.5 For Parry, Christophine does not ‘mark the limits of the text’s discourse’ but instead ‘disrupts it’.6 Parry is convinced that Christophine’s departure from the story is ‘both logical and entirely in character’ for someone possessing and practicing an ‘alternative tradition’.7 Carine Mardorossian, conversely, questions Christophine’s portrayal as a free, independent native woman whose voice confronts the repressive systems in place without difficulty.8 She contests the idea that Christophine is only a powerful, black Obeah woman, and agrees that many of these interpretations come dangerously close to approaching a re-inscription of stereotypical colonial roles.

Christophine’s overall significance, I intend to argue, lies in her irreconcilable status within the novel’s double narrative; the occlusions and permeations of her voice both mark the novel’s structural limits and exceed them. Though perhaps not achieving the autonomous native self that Parry ascribes her, Christophine nonetheless causes profound formal disruptions in Rochester’s narrative, as well as in Antoinette’s. My interpretation of her exit, unlike Spivak’s, allows Christophine to maintain an important narrative role, with her voice transcending her physical departure from the text. Through her voice, she functions in the novel as an essentially destabilizing force, revealing the complex mechanisms through which subjects are constituted, elided, distorted, and suppressed.

However, Christophine’s voice does more than formally disrupt Rochester’s narrative, and provide a way for her to persist within the text; rather, these disruptions are indicative of a deeper psychological disturbance and disorientation for Rochester, the completion of a psychological trauma ignited by the island’s strangeness and consummated in Christophine’s verbal assault. Keith Russell uses Bhaktin’s heteroglossia as a means of assessing how Christophine’s language functions in the text. He offers a useful analysis of her mixing of Creole, Patois, and English idiom and French to ‘illuminate the refractive space that shapes Christophine’s languages’.9 While I agree with Russell in his contention that Christophine’s voice transcends linguistic boundaries to have a ‘profound impact on the entirety of Wide Sargasso Sea’,10 his analysis does not adequately explore the psychological impact Christophine’s voice has on Rochester as his narrative draws to a close. I argue that her voice performs a kind of psychological trauma for Rochester, that the refractive space Russell describes provides a place for Christophine to actualize what Dominick LaCapra calls trauma’s ability to ‘[disarticulate] the self and [create] holes in existence’.11 Christophine becomes one of these ‘holes’ in Rochester’s narrative, unable to be articulated as Rochester sinks into insanity and suffers a loss of self.

  1. Veronica Marie Gregg, Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995), p.114. For the history of the ‘black mammy’ (a servant and nurse figure for white children) as a pervasive cultural image, see Cheryl Thurber, ‘The Development of the Mammy Image and Mythology’, Southern Women: Histories and Identities, ed. Virginia Bernhard et al. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992). []
  2. Keith Russell, ‘“Now every word she said was echoed, echoed loudly in my head”: Christophine’s Language and Refractive Space in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea’, JNT: Journal of Narrative Theory, 37.1 (Winter 2007): pp. 87–103 (p. 87). []
  3. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Inquiry 12 (1985): pp. 243–261 (p. 253). []
  4. Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts’, p. 253. []
  5. Benita Parry, ‘Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse’, Oxford Literary Review 9 (1987): pp. 27–58 (p.38). []
  6. Parry, ‘Problems’, p. 62. []
  7. Parry, ‘Problems’, p. 63. []
  8. Carine Mardorossian, ‘Shutting up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double Entendre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea’, Callaloo 22 (1999): pp. 1071–90 (p. 1071). []
  9. Russell, ‘“Now every word she said”’, p. 90. []
  10. Russell, ‘“Now every word she said”’, p. 89. []
  11. Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 41. []

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