Death and Decay in Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea”: A Mixtape

Cover of “Wide Sargasso Sea”

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is an anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The novel gives a voice to the anonymous Bertha Mason and explores her experiences before her journey to England and subsequent categorization as the “madwoman in the attic”. The major themes and issues that characterize the novel are race relations, identity, prejudice, and isolation. These themes are conveyed via the relationships that the speaker and her family have with the community as well as their intersectional positionality as white Creoles in Jamaica. This intersectionality contributes to the external tension that is felt throughout the novel, as both Antoinette and Annette are hated by the local population — former slaves that see the family as “white cockroaches” — and are rejected by their British counterparts. Thus, this tension and lack of belonging, as well as the mysterious and tragic events that surround the estate; contribute to a sense of perpetual precarity and unsettledness. Hence, for the purpose of this mixtape assignment, I will be curating a collection of songs that assist in critically analyzing the relationship between the landscape, as well as the events that occur at Coulibri with the larger tensions that characterize the novel.

Within the first few pages of the novel, there is an overwhelming sense of tragedy and unease. The speaker states, “How could [Annette] know that Mr. Luttrell would be the first who grew tired of waiting? One calm evening he shot his dog, swam out to sea and was gone for always” (17). Similarly, “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan echoes this sentiment as the first line reads, “Spend all your time waiting” and goes on to describe death as a “beautiful release…empty…weightless”. Here, the diction used to describe Mr. Luttrell’s death parallels the sentiments vocalized in McLachlan’s lyrics, particularly the notion that his death is one that was “calm”; instigated by resignation and a lack of compensation from the English. Thus, the effect of colonialism is made explicit and creates a haunting and sorrowful atmosphere that is reflected in McLachlan’s haunting voice. Furthermore, the speaker experiences another death, her younger brother Pierre, as a result of colonial resentment. In the first part of the novel, Antoinette’s mother becomes obsessed with Pierre’s welfare, as he “stagger[s] when he walked and c[annot] speak distinctly” (19). As a result, when the fire occurs at Coulibri and Pierre is burned to death in his sleep; we hear McLachlan’s voice again here: “You’re in the arms of the angel//May you find some comfort here”. This lyric rings true especially when the speaker describes Pierre’s body as having “no life at all and his eyes [are] rolled up so that you only [see] the whites” (39). This moment is quite horrifying, especially paired with the visual image of Annette’s burned hair and hands. Thus, “Angel” illustrates this horror as well as the reader’s hope that he will be able to find peace and comfort in death as he was unable to in life.

In addition to this, the unsettled tone persists in the speaker’s descriptions of the landscape, particularly her garden: “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell”. This mixture of death and life as well as a beauty that is unsettling and frightening, parallels Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. Although Holiday’s song is primarily about the lynching of Black bodies in the South, I think that there is something to be gained from analyzing her lyrics in this context. “Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh//Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh”, elicits the vivid olfactory imagery that the speaker alludes to as she describes the mixture of “dead flowers” and “the fresh living smell”. This continues, “[Octopus orchid] was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it” (19). The fear and trepidation that the speaker expresses here is alluded to in Holiday’s song as she describes “strange fruit…swingin’ in the Southern breeze”. Thus, although either speaker describes a horror that is relative to their experience, there is a shared sense of dread and disquiet. This is due to the fact that the speaker’s garden has overgrown because of the lack of black bodies to contain and manage its growth in a post-colonial Jamaica. Therefore, in some ways, the garden is haunted by the individuals that cared for it as there is “no more slavery” (19). This is significant as Holiday’s song reveals the horrors of racism and lack of reconciliation between white and Black folks in the American South at the time.

Lastly, the erasure of Coulibri that occurs at the end of Part One in the novel is connected to “Goodbye Blue Sky” by Pink Floyd. This song came to mind immediately as it describes a child’s experience of witnessing the WWII bombings. In the novel, the speaker describes seeing Coulibri burn to the ground:

“The house was burning, the yellow-red sky was like sunset and I knew that I would never see Coulibri again. Nothing would be left…There would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned” (44–5)

Similarly, Pink Floyd states, “Did you see the frightened ones? Did you hear the falling bombs?…The flames are all long gone, but the pain lingers on. Goodbye, blue sky”. Just as Antoinette experiences a loss of innocence as she witnesses the end of her childhood and the erasure of her home - Floyd laments the immense trauma that comes with witnessing death and destruction, as well as the lasting scars that remain after the damage is done.

Overall, I have chosen three songs that I think analyze the relationship between the landscape, the events that occur at Coulibri as well as the larger tensions that encompass these themes in the novel.

Works Cited:

“Angel.” Spotify, 15 July 1997, open.spotify.com/track/6G8fblD9DbcEmaKOKDy3XL?si=d9sEJbPbQZq8KemJlIz_RQ&nd=1.

“Billie Holiday — Strange Fruit.” Genius, 46375–06–11, genius.com/Billie-holiday-strange-fruit-lyrics.

Floyd, Pink. “Goodbye Blue Sky — 2011 Remastered Version.” Spotify, 30 Nov. 1979, open.spotify.com/track/0ESdtt9cjGZUkUbaubSrv2?si=DEkxDbzySDqwAaiXtrpzjA.

Holiday, Billie. “Strange Fruit.” Spotify, 1 Jan. 1957, open.spotify.com/track/1CTex49P0iWwzUGsMNjgaV?si=RXhG87NnTAqMiR07eW4VLg&nd=1.

McLachlan, Sarah. “Sarah McLachlan — Angel Lyrics | AZLyrics.Com.” AZ Lyrics, 1997, www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/sarahmclachlan/angel.html.

“Pink Floyd — Goodbye Blue Sky.” Genius, 30 Nov. 1979, genius.com/Pink-floyd-goodbye-blue-sky-lyrics.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company. W.W.Norton&Company, 1992.

“Wide Sargasso Sea.” The Letterpress Project, 25 July 2019, www.letterpressproject.co.uk/inspiring-older-readers/2019-07-25/wide-sargasso-sea.

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