Jump to page content
The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown
Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

New Blog

Twitter @alibrown18

New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

What difference does difference make?: The Creative Deconstructions of Jean Rhys and Aimé Césaire


In a linguistic dualism paralleling those of ideological structures it often seeks to expose, critical language can seem rational and authoritative and understandable only by those trained in its idioms (even as it denies the possibility of definitive interpretations), whilst creative writing remains emotional, subjective but accessible to the intellectually-impoverished general reader. The poststructuralist critical work risks othering the creative text the binary oppositions within which it studies and complicates. A critical approach which makes a more humane kind of analysis is that adopted by creative works like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Aimé Césaire's A Tempest which, somewhat like deconstructive critics, carry out "a careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the texts" but assert their findings using similar creative styles as the canonical works - respectively Jane Eyre and The Tempest - they criticise.


If meaning is dispersed in a continual process of deferral, the concept of différence promotes the view that a literary work can not have a one-to-one correspondence with reality, a logic which also asserts that deconstructive criticism can never achieve a finite verdict on the texts which are the object of its study.1 By denying the existence of a permanent logos for the significance of words, the concept of différence promotes the view that a literary work can not have a one-to-one correspondence with reality. By extension, the logic of this denial, particularly with its alternative proposal that signification is relationally generated by what is not meant, reminds sharply that literary criticism cannot correspond directly with the work it studies. As poststructuralist readings are applied to creative texts, in the process they undermine the relationship between the two; this is both a dilemma instigated by its own logic, but also one resulting from style. Deconstructive approaches are often infected with terminology and structures of thought recruited from science.2 Thus, in a linguistic dualism paralleling those of ideological structures it often seeks to expose, critical language can seem rational and authoritative and understandable only by those trained in its idioms (even as it denies the possibility of definitive interpretations), whilst creative writing remains emotional, subjective but accessible to the intellectually-impoverished general reader. The poststructuralist critical work risks othering the creative text the binary oppositions within which it studies and complicates.

A critical approach which makes a more humane kind of analysis is that adopted by creative writers who, somewhat like deconstructive critics, carry out "a careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text," but assert their findings using similar creative styles as the canon they criticise.3 Such work does not seek to establish its own discursive arena as being distinct from that which it studies, the literary canon; rather it needs to insert itself within it, necessarily cohabitant with the existing work. Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Aimé Césaire's A Tempest draw on Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Shakespeare's The Tempest respectively.4 These works recognise that, in the light of the disruptions caused to stable, masculine, European notions of the literary canon by postcolonialism and feminism, "a canon is not a body of texts per se, but rather a set of reading practices," and they draw attention to the processes of reading which cause a reader to establish their own personal, ideologically-informed version of the literary tradition.5 Although uninformed by Derridean post-structuralism, both texts are alert to the political nature of language, of how it may inscribe racial and economic hierarchies (for example, by the significance of a word such as "white" being related to another such as "manpower" or "white gold"). But they also suggest that for the imaginative ego - of which the authors themselves, and some of their characters, are examples - words and works particularly heightened in the racial consciousness possess a political meaning in their very image and historical existence: the logos of some words' politics is so secure that even those characters who act as prototype deconstructionists, exposing the contradictions and binaries of language, fail in their mission.

Annette Cosway's choice of the word "marooned" to describe the family's situation aligns them with those displaced colonising figures of Western literature such as Robinson Crusoe (WSS 6). A phrase which expresses the emotion of a fictional character resonates powerfully because of its connection with a canonical work. As an artefact, Wide Sargasso Sea argues that reading in isolation from a literary tradition can never take place, the significance of the new work instead continually referenced against existing texts. Unlike Cesaire's A Tempest, Rhys's work is not in direct opposition to Jane Eyre as a complete reworking of it, nor does it sit alongside it as a prequel. Jane's "autobiography" was published in 1847, ten years after her marriage, locating the events experienced by the adult Jane in the 1830s (JE 396). However, Wide Sargasso Sea opens in 1839, when Antoinette is 14, too young to remember the estate's prosperity before the Emancipation Act in 1833 (WSS 6).6 Rhys's text is, therefore, cut loose from Jane Eyre, "marooned" in literary history as an implied prequel, but one which is explicitly anachronistic.

Rhys's work demonstrates how a dialogue between the art form and the culture from which it has arisen takes place without the explicit authorisation of the writer, who is to some extent de-authorised once their text enters the public sphere. In Wide Sargasso Sea, names are fluid signifiers, elusively shifting depending on who applies them: Antoinette is also affectionately doudou and Marionetta, before being renamed as the Bertha of Jane Eyre; Daniel or Esau Cosway is also Daniel Boyd; Christophene Dubois is Josephine Dubois or Pheena or "some such name" (WSS 91). The varieties of signifier reveal more about the addressors who use each name than the signified. Against this, the absence of a vocalised name for Mr. Rochester draws attention to the subconscious processes of intertextual referencing in which the reader automatically engages, even in contradiction of the novel's historical asynchrony. Signifying an extensive shift in her orientation of the book in relation to Jane Eyre, the working title when Rhys first conceived her revisionary work was "The First Mrs. Rochester" (Letters 50), but by the end of the process Rhys was adamant that "I carefully haven't named the man at all" (Letters 297). Throughout her letters, Rhys is conscious that her story is only representative of a general "legend" (Letters 271). To tie her text unambiguously to Jane Eyre through naming Rochester would have been to authorise the inevitability of the unique version of the history Rochester tells in his limited way in a realist (and therefore implicitly accurate) novel. Instead of the author making the connection, it is the reader who is coerced into a subjective naming process, renaming Wide Sargasso Sea as "The First Mrs. Rochester," as a prequel to Jane Eyre.7 The compensation for this misreading of Wide Sargasso Sea is the re-reading it forces of Jane Eyre. As each section of Wide Sargasso Sea moves the reader closer to the room inside Thornfield, the more the anachronism, the novel which occupies a position in contradiction of factual history, seems to be not Wide Sargasso Sea, but Brontë's text (and Rochester's story), which has failed to explicate that "there was more than one Antoinette" in the legend (Letters 263). In realigning the historical position occupied by both texts, the reader is made aware of their tendency to work in categorical modes of synchronous organisation - prequel and sequel, colonial and postcolonial, old work and new work.

Similarly, in A Tempest, the audience is implicated in the avoidance of a fully realised representation of the Caribbean which occurs in Shakespeare's drama. Whereas in Shakespeare's work the assumption of disguises is a mechanism which allows unwilling lovers to come together or traverse gender lines, the choosing of masks which acts as a prologue to A Tempest links a common operation of Shakespeare's art to African and Caribbean culture. This metadramatic frame implies that the cultural influences on which Shakespeare's plays are based are not uniquely Western, but that their significance similarity within other cultures is suppressed. Yet whilst the difference of Césaire's work from its predecessor is asserted strongly, as a radical and self-conscious reworking of The Tempest, A Tempest can only derive the subversive irony of its metadramatic frame because of the presence of an existing conventional drama on which to comment. A Tempest would not be so strongly implied as "a," one of many Caribbean experiences, were it not for the specific focus The Tempest, "the" only dramatised version of the Caribbean which is worth continued performance over several hundred years.

In both works, names (or their absence) show how the new character and text is irrevocably linked to the historical personae, events and texts of which they are alternative versions. Caliban's name has been given to him by Prospero's "hatred," and it insultingly reminds Caliban how Prospero has "stolen everything...even my identity" (A Tempest 20). In response, Caliban asks to be called "X," "like a man without a name" (A Tempest 20). But his attempt to reject nomenclature - to be erased from history entirely if he is not to be called by that natural but unknown name which preceded Prospero's rule and the play's frame - is still incomplete as his new name connects with the figure of Malcolm X outside the theatre. Just as Rhys denies the name Rochester to "Rochester," and exposes the way any new fictional text is automatically positioned by the reader in relation to the culture from which it has arisen, so the new name Caliban claims for himself - a signifier of nothing which in fact signifies a lot - evidences the continued racial biases of Césaire's world in the 1960s. Césaire's Caliban is a different character to Shakespeare's Caliban, who is inherited as Prospero's Caliban of A Tempest; but his attempt to state his difference by changing his name is undermined, and he can neither cast-off his old identity, nor assume a new one: his name and identity is inscribed anteriorly by the cultural history of which he always forms a mythical part.

But whilst highlighting the way identities are related to political contexts outside the text, Wide Sargasso Sea suggests also that the dispersal of meaning is not a general theoretical principle. Antoinette has a logocentric perception of a language in which words have an intrinsic meaning by virtue of their very shape and presence. She conceptualises "Englishness" not only through visual images (the picture of the Miller's daughter) but also through the image of words on the page: "Justice...I've heard that word. It's a cold word. I wrote it out...I wrote it down several times and it always looked like a damn cold lie to me" (WSS 94). Similarly:

England, rosy pink in the geography book map, but on the page opposite the words are closely crowded, heavy looking. Exports, coal, iron, wool. Then Imports and Character of Inhabitants. Names, Essex, Chelmsford on the Chelmer. The Yorkshire and Lincolnshire wolds. Wolds? Does that mean hills? How high? (WSS 70)

Language is particularly alienating when, even using her native tongue, words like "wolds" don't refer to the objects of her environment in a stable correspondence. It is not that England is not the Caribbean because England is not "too much blue, too much purple, too much green" (WSS 42); rather, England is perceived as not being the Caribbean because of the very density and tone of the adjectives with which it is described, and through which Antoinette imaginatively conceptualises it as "like a cold dark dream" (WSS 49).

For Antoinette who identifies herself with the Caribbean, England and the English language is a site which exposes her complex racial difference from her ancestral homeland. But Aunt Cora, a former slave owner, exposes those sites of difference to be within in the English language. As the most effective rhetorician in the novel, she reverses and reveals the binary language which maintains racial hierarchies. When Mr. Mason complains that "the people here won't work," adding "Look at this place - it's enough to break your heart," Aunt Cora responds with "Hearts have been broken" (WSS 17). Mason authoritatively assumes the broken heart as being white and, through the second-person "your heart," automatically assimilates Aunt Cora into this group, but his authority is critically reversed by Aunt Cora into a less specific, non-accusatory phrase. Likewise, when Mason arrogantly recourses to the stereotype of mental simplicity for the rioting, "They are children - they wouldn't hurt a fly," Aunt Cora recognises an essential capacity for violence which crosses racial lines (complicating the distinction between child and adult, native and coloniser) in her response, "Unhappily children do hurt flies" (WSS 18). Yet Aunt Cora's faculty for unveiling the ideologies enshrined by language does not extend to removing them.8 It is instead the uncanny and subversive anti-literary stance Christophene assumes, in her defiant, "Read and write I don't know. Other things I know" (WSS 104), which comes closest to achieving this. Aunt Cora exposes concepts of difference and otherness within her language; Christophene boldly and proudly asserts her difference from that language in its totality, vacating Wide Sargasso Sea on that note.

As with Aunt Cora, Ariel finds that it is impossible to criticise authority by using the same Western dialects with which that authority is constructed. Ariel exhilarates in sarcastically manipulating terminology to expose the patronising stance Gonzalo assumes towards him:

Honest Gonzalo, thank you for your clarification. Your eloquence has eased my mission and your pedagogical skill has abbreviated it, for in a few short words you have expressed my master's thought. May your words be heard! Therefore, let us turn the page. (A Tempest 35)

Further, Ariel's expansive vocabulary leads him to a continual translation of the poetic modes of The Tempest, especially in his "freedom" speech (A Tempest 58). However, his bard-like skills can not make a political injunction, elevating him within the power structures of the white rulers and, as Gregson Davis points out, unlike in Shakespeare's work, in which the magician is seen as the verbal artist himself, Ariel's poeticism is perceived as an "unsettling agenda" (A Tempest 53).9

The mulatto Ariel and the Creole family straddle racial categories and are therefore unable to assert their complete difference from the new authorities without contradicting their own linguistic origins. By contrast Caliban, as with Christophene, is the most capable of subverting those authorities because he operates completely outside the rules of the Western language game. Caliban's skill is not in automatically deploying Western registers, as Ariel's is, but in his vocal dynamism, his ability to work strategically using a variety of dialects of popular culture, Western poeticism, African chant, and the Black Power movement, depending on the context and the addressee.10 By having a variety of performative modes, his poetic speeches are not merely translations of a Shakespearean original (as Ariel's are), although they follow his form:

But the best is still the wind and the songs it sings
...its dirty sigh when it rustles through the bushes, or
its triumphant chant when it passes by breaking trees,
remnants of their terror in its beard (A Tempest 53).

This novel and imaginative speech - one not translated from The Tempest - makes a strong statement for Caliban's intellect because he shows himself to have assimilated Shakespearean lyricism, but has decided not to use as his principle tool of usurpation. As a result, the Westerners who reject his "invective," his "native" tongue, and then his poeticism as being the "savage...playing without a full deck" (A Tempest 53), are shown to be predisposed to reject Caliban simply because he is Caliban: he is expected to perform in the role of the black devil, in spite of his obvious linguistic ability which contradicts this stereotype.

But this subversive skill does not provide him with power, as he accuses Prospero:

You didn't teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders...And as for your learning, did you ever impart any of that to me? No, you took care not to. All your science you keep for yourself alone, shut up in those big books. (A Tempest 16)

By isolating the "white magic," the knowledge through which he maintains his "manpower" economy (A Tempest 23), Prospero prevents Caliban and Ariel from achieving release from those power structures.11 Both characters discover that the word "magic" stands as a synonym for "power," rather than describing the quality of imaginative artistry associated with the Shakespearean genius. Gregson Davis notes that as "Césaire's surrealism functioned as a magical instrument in his quest for his submerged cultural roots, the central concept of the 'marvelous' (le merveilleux) is equally securely linked to his recognition of an Afro-Caribbean social reality." As with the masks, the use of magic as a technical function of The Tempest (and more generally of Shakespearean drama), may also therefore deny the Caribbean experience of magic as an important force for social cohesion and morality.12 In A Tempest, magic is not "magical" by its being a transient set of romantic experiences, lyrically expressed, which are antithetical to the serious political intrigues of court (the way in which festival and heterocosm functions in Shakespeare); instead magic is that which equates to the normal "manpower" economy of the island state, a norm against which aesthetically romantic language is out of place. Similarly, in Wide Sargasso Sea, the "Letter of Law" Christophene comments on is for her the same thing as slavery: "No more slavery! She had to laugh! 'The news ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine....New ones worse than old ones - more cunning, that's all'" (WSS 11).

A linguistic sign which appears to signify a new order turns out to identify with earlier power structures. The connection which underlies old and new idioms of language reminds of Rhys's comment on the style of her work, "time and place abolished, past and present the same" (Letters 233); in turn this phrase echoes Eliot's notion of the literary tradition, as one in which the "historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence," in which:

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.13

This quotation by Eliot is framed by an argument in which the canon is seen as European and masculine, and his essay assumes that aesthetic merits will always permit a new work to take its rightful place, ignoring the very real, practical barriers to publication which face women or coloured writers who want to posit themselves as artists. Ironically in his Euro-centric and male concept of the literary "tradition," Eliot's is an forceful argument for the legitimate way Wide Sargasso Sea and A Tempest attempt to relocate existing canonical texts. The brilliance of their criticism is the inherent contradiction which is cultivated by Rhys and Césaire. As they draw together past and contemporary, shifting the canon as a whole, rather than attempting to substitute the new work in place of the traditional, they demonstrate the connections which run through colonial and postcolonial experiences, even as, by the prefix "post," the latter critical term would seem (falsely) to imply a severance with the cultural forms and attitudes of the past.

The media of both works - the novel, the formal theatre, poetry - are European in origin, and are built on several hundred years of developing schemes of production and appreciation. According to Edward Said, the development of the novel is inextricable from the development of Empire:

Of all the major literary forms, the novel is the most recent, its emergence the most debatable, its occurrence the most Western, its normative pattern of social authority the most structured; imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other."14

As they expose the biases with existing canonical works, therefore, they simultaneously recognise the fact that without the notion of a tradition, however stilted that notion may be, there could be no corrective contemporary creation. Metadrama or metafiction, self-conscious commentary on the colonial schemes and mechanisms of text, can only be realised as such if there is an established convention of drama or fiction on which they reflect. Both texts draw attention to the processes of intertextual and paratextual reading by which a conceptual canon is constructed by the reader. They imply, therefore, the ability of the lone reader as a humanistic critic (not as a literary critic reliant on theoretical discourses) to rework the "existing order" for themselves. The power of these creative-critical readings is that they uncover concepts of racial difference not by a critical language which itself metaphorically others the existing work, but by showing how the same theatrical or textual conventions and narratives can be re-deployed in a postcolonial context and achieve results which are aesthetically imaginative, and which therefore make less polemical, more poetic, demands for racial equality. This coexistence of old and new, of "past and present the same," is their optimistic vision, for, as Toni Morrison has said, "The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereadings...implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language."15

Top of Page


  1. Johnathan Culler, Deconstruction (London: Routledge, 1983) 19. Indeed, Derrida suggested this "certain experience of the impossible" was its key interest. Jacques Derrida, "Psyche: The Invention of the Other," Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1992) 311-43, at 328. [Back to text]

  2. As a continuation of the "two cultures" debate in the light of post-structuralism, the Sokal hoax and the arguments which followed it provide the most illumination on the predicament and hypocrisies of literary theory which recruits scientific discourses to endorse its claims. See Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (New York, NY: Picador, 1998). For a discussion of some forms of criticism as a "demonstration of a professional mastery" over the creative text, see David Lodge, "Literary Criticism and Literary Creation," The Arts and Sciences of Criticism, ed. Patricia Waugh and David Fuller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999) 137-152. [Back to text]

  3. Johnathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs (London: Routledge, 1981) ix. [Back to text]

  4. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Penguin, 1997), henceforth abbreviated WSS; Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, ed. Richard J. Dunn (New York: Norton, 1987), henceforth abbreviated JE; Aimé Césaire, A Tempest, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2002); William Shakespeare, The Tempest, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998) 1168-1189. [Back to text]

  5. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (London: Routledge, 1989) 189. [Back to text]

  6. For evidence that this was a deliberate decision on Rhys's part, see Jean Rhys, Letters 1931-1966 (New York: Penguin, 1985) 214. [Back to text]

  7. Caroline Rody notes that this arrangement might one day be formalised by publishers wanting to appeal to feminist readers since "Its 'intertextual' revision actually takes place...in our own readerly memories of literary history for most of us, who recapitulated literary history by reading Jane Eyre in youth and Wide Sargasso Sea later," and therefore "Rhys's revision marks a developmental stage in our careers as critical readers, which it might be satisfying to see reified on our shelves in that nice boxed set." Caroline Rody, "Burning Down the House: The Revisionary Paradigm of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea," Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, ed. Alison Booth (Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 1993) 300-25, at 301. [Back to text]

  8. The word "language" is here inflected with Saussure's more specific term "langue," as defining the system of rules which are "passively assimilated by the individual" (in this case, Mason, who unconsciously deploys the rules which define "black" as childlike workers). Jeremy Hawthorn, A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory (London: Hodder, 2000) 187. [Back to text]

  9. Gregson Davis, Aimé Césaire (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997) 159. [Back to text]

  10. The slogan "Uhuru" which is his first utterance, is the Swahili for "Freedom." Davis 157. Prospero mistakes this native phrase as being impolite, the traditional "Hello" being his preferred greeting (A Tempest 17). [Back to text]

  11. In foregrounding the relationship between Prospero, Ariel and Caliban, Césaire's work draws attention to the vicious circle, present in Shakespeare's text, which Said explained as the way in which "European imperialism made itself palatable to itself." For Ariel to subject himself largely obediently to Prospero's whims, whilst appealing to his conscience as the way he will earn his freedom, is to accept the "European judgement on the undeveloped, backward, or degenerate nature of [his] own society," a degeneracy embodied concurrently by Caliban, who with his "invective," fails to perform in the acquiescent mode which Ariel proves it is possible to play. This justifies the continuation of Prospero's "educational" rule. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Chatto, 1993) 230. Césaire's work also implies that such a circle continues to exist in the postcolonial context, as the attempt to break racism is not unified. The different reactionary stances embodied in the pair - the physical opposition of Caliban (A Tempest 26), and the intellectual humanism of Ariel who, like Gandhi, believes in a credo of "no violence, and no submission either" (A Tempest 27) - undermines their mutual aim for freedom. As well as remarking on the power structures of colonialism, the play is therefore a powerful call for postcolonial "brotherhood," for a unified black consciousness (captured in Césaire's term "Négritude") which transcends individual differences. For a brief discussion of the history and significance of Négritude, see Ashcroft et al. 123-5. [Back to text]

  12. Davis 73. [Back to text]

  13. T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," 20th Century Literary Criticism: A Reader, ed. David Lodge (London: Longman, 1972) 71-77, at 72. [Back to text]

  14. Said 84. [Back to text]

  15. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992) xii. [Back to text]

Top of Page

Works Cited

Top of Page

Your Comments on "What difference does difference make?: The Creative Deconstructions of Jean Rhys and Aimé Césaire"

To add your thoughts about this page, use the comment form below.

Top of Page

Top of Page

This page was published on March 26, 2005 | Keywords: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, Aime Cesaire, deconstruction

The content of this website is Copyright © 2016 using a Creative Commons Licence. One term of this copyright policy is that plagiarism is theft. If you use information from this website in your own work, you should use the correct citation.

Valid XHTML 1.0. Link opens in a new browser window. Level A conformance icon, W3C-WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0. Labelled with ICRA. Link opens in a new browser window.