“These writers explore both the social roles that confine them and the bodies that represent the confinement”. In light of this quotation, compare how the writers explore gender. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, by Jean Rhys, and ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison are both novels that respond to the issues of women that are confined to their social roles. Grace Nichols’ book, ‘The Fat Black Woman’s Poems’, supports and also contrasts the views of both Rhys and Morrison. All three texts question gender roles and oppression in society.
While Nichols is very outspoken and doesn’t let her gender confine her, the main character in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette, is restricted by social and historical roles in her society. Characters like Sula are a threat to the rigid stereotype of the serving woman, and Morrison contrasts the role of Sula with Nel, a girl who embraces the conventional belief of society that a woman should marry and settle down and serve her family. All three texts explore gender by emphasising the importance of a woman’s voice.
Nichols uses her voice to focus on her identity, and to portray her confidence. In her poem ‘Love Act’, she says “Her sorcery cut them, like a whip, she hide her triumph, and slowly stir the poison in”. This shows that Nichols knows that women aren’t weak, and have their own kind of power and intelligence, and she challenges the oppressive men that surround her. Her use of simple English and Creole reinforce her Creole identity. For example, in the poem Skin-Teeth, she says ‘Massa’ (Master) and in The Fat Black Woman Goes Shopping, she says ‘de weather so cold’.
Her use of colloquial language shows us that even though she lives in the Western world, she still speaks as they do in her homeland, and she will not change the way she speaks to conform to society’s ways. The title ‘Love act’ acts as an ironic euphemism for the degradation derived from forced sex with the planter, but one critic claimed that the rest of the poem shows that “this situation allows the slave to enter the Big House as the white planter’s mistress and then use the power of her African magic against the white family”. 1] The confident tone in her voice leads us to believe that despite being a slave, stuck in her role, she is battling against the social figures that confine her. Much like Nichols, Rhys also emphasises the importance of a woman’s voice.
She gives Antoinette a voice in her novel, even though Antoinette has a mental problem. Her pathological suffering means that her mental stability can be questioned, and Rhys gives her a voice in order for us to understand Antoinette’s complex thoughts and emotions. For example, Antoinette tells Rochester, “ I hate [the place] now like I hate you, and before I die I will show you how much I hate you. Rhys allows us to understand, through this quote, that Antoinette once loved her home. Interestingly, Antoinette and Rochester never express their love to each other, which shows Antoinette is more ready to express her love for a place than for a person.
However, Rhys giving Antoinette a voice does not change the way women are treated in the reality of the novel. Antoinette is still personified as an entrapped wife. She is trapped in patriarchal social structures of exploitation; her husband takes her to England, where she is locked away in the garret room of her husband’s house, under the watch of a servant.
This truly portrayed Antoinette’s vulnerability and confinement as Rochester’s wife, and this influences how Rhys portrays women to the readers who are familiar with the restraints on women. Nichols and Rhys use the first person narrative to reveal the character’s thoughts and to give the reader an insight into the psychological and physical problems the characters encounter. For instance, in WSS, Antoinette’s husband Rochester says, “I was tired of these people. I disliked their laughter and their tears, their flattery and envy, conceit and deceit. And I hated the place”(P141).
Because Rhys has used first person, it discloses Rochester’s most personal thoughts, and he has become a more complex and psychologically interesting character. He suffers a certain paranoia around Antoinette and her ‘family’, and this paranoia can only be truly revealed using his thoughts. Rochester, as a white male, does not connect with his surroundings, he sees it as alien, and to overcome this infamiliarity, he asserts his power and regains control over his wife. For Antoinette, her first person narrative account of her story is a key way of the reader being able to understand her pains as a lonely Creole woman.
Both Wide Sargasso Sea and The FBW’s poems give a strong voice to otherwise marginalized women and transforms them both from original tragic demise into a kind of triumphant heroism. Nichols uses humour as the main deconstructive strategy to be an efficient tool for subverting the myths that have oppressed black women. The woman’s body acquires relevance, as the poems focus on a black immigrant woman within a context of white supremacy. Nichols creates persona who she uses to represent the black female body and she constitutes a challenge to black women’s objectification in the Western (British) society, in which she is exiled.
The writer occasionally speaks in the first person, has no name, so the third-person poetic voice refers to her as ‘the fat black woman’. The fat black woman refuses to be a victim and, therefore, rejects all the traps laid by racist and sexist society by means of stereotypes that aim at constricting her into limiting roles. It is her that dictates in her poem ‘Holding My Beads’: “The power to be what I am… a woman… charting my own futures… a woman… holding my beads in my hand. : This particular quote allows us to understand that she is proud to be a woman, and she feels a certain type of strength because of her identity.
Her ‘beads’ symbolise that she believes she herself has power over her future. Nichols’ Black woman uses her body, her voice and her song to maintain her sense of selfhood, to support others and to subvert the structures that oppress her.  She refuses to accept the stereotype of the long-suffering black woman. She shows that she is strong and full of fight in her poem The Fat Black woman’s Motto On Her Bedroom Door. She says “It’s better to die in the flesh of hope, than to live in the slimness of despair”. This tells us that she has hope and is not going to live in despair, in the suffering stereotype she is given.
Much like the Fat Black Woman, Sula also rejects the stereotype, and leaves The Bottom to explore, and in doing so, she shows her community that she is not going to suffer like every other black woman. Morison has said that she wanted to help create a canon of black work, and therefore portrays Sula as more than just a wife or worker. Morrison’s work highlights the timeless and universal themes that exist within this specific struggle of gender confinement, and Sula’s character is a rebel this stereotype, and she leaves her oppressed community to explore the world.
When she returns from her ten year absence, she is “accompanied by a plague of robins”. The plague of robins symbolizes the evil that she brought with her, and how it would affect those who lived in The Bottom. The attire she returns in shows the reader that Sula has totally rebelled the stereotype of “the poor black girl”, and she was “dressed in a manner that was close to a movie star as anyone would ever see”. She is dressed in a Western style, perhaps American, and her attire alone portrays her attitude that she has no longer allowed society to confine her to the role of a reserved woman, she is now more westernized.
Morrison explores the mythic power of femininity in a poor, and isolated rural black community, where women rule as mothers, warriors, witches and storytellers… one of the most compelling writers at work today.  It has been argued that women in the community act as protectors of the community, and are stuck in the domestic role. Sula’s grandmother Eva Peace is a perfect example of this. Although she was abandoned by her husband, she kept her family away from starvation and became a matriarch in her busy household.
She cares for everyone who stays in her house, and as a mother, she helps her own son to die, in order for him to be at peace. This shows the ultimate sacrifice and reassures the reader that Eva is exactly what a woman was like in post-colonial times – a mother, housewife and helper. Rhys starts the novel with Antoinette and her family in isolation from the rest of society; they are ex-slave owners and after the Emancipation Act of Slaves in 1833 and the death of Antoinette’s father Mr Cosway, the family are left to fend for themselves.
Kenneth Ramchard described the role of the Creole in the novel as a ‘fictional statement’, that cannot ignore ‘areas of social and historical information’.  This quote shows that Antoinette’s portrayal is being restricted by the social norms of society, as she is a Creole female. Antoinette’s mother spends little time with her, so she is looked after by the servant Christophine. Antoinette’s social role of a daughter of ex-slave owners force her to be alone throughout much of her life, and she learns to enjoy her own company. Christophine acts as a surrogate mother to Antoinette, as her own mother is confined to herself.
Antoinette’s earliest memories of her mother shows signs of madness and melancholy, and throughout book she is abandoned after the fire and humiliated by the couple who look after her. This shows that Anotinette’s mother is never really a proper mother figure to her, as she is disregarded so easily by Mr Mason. It is Christophine’s voice that opens the novel, as she explains Antoinette and her family’s exclusion from Spanish Town society. Although Christophine is a woman, she still is a figure of authority, which would have been unusual in those times, as men were the primary sources of authority.
Christophine’s narrative glides from French Patois, to a Jamaican dialect, back into English, and her command of language corresponds to her powerful role in the novel. In “Three Women’s Texts” Spivak identified that the novel provides us with Christophine’s perspective as an ‘Other’ while at the same time being careful to not “contain” her in the novel”. This tells us that Christophine is a strong character, who should be allowed to freely speak her mind, and not be ‘contained’. Western writings about the Orient depict it as an irrational, weak, feminised ‘Other’, contrasted with the rational, strong, masculine West. 6] Said claimed that there was a need to create a difference between the East and the West, but in WSS Christophine’s authority rejects the usual stereotype of women being weak and reserved. Therefore, Said’s claim could be argued with, as in Christophine’s case, there is not much difference between the authority she has, and the authority Western women have. Christophine instructs Antoinette that “woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world. ” and ultimately advises Antoinette to leave her increasingly cruel husband, citing her own independence as an example to emulate.
This just ensures us of her strength, as she has gotten by her whole life without a male dominating her. The burning of Antoinette’s family home (by the freed black people) acts evokes sympathy in the reader, for the Creole family, and we realise how ill-fitted they are in the society they live in. All three texts are concerned with women’s sexuality and the body that represents social confinement. Sula, much like her mother, loves “maleness. ” They both have short, frequent affairs with whichever men they take a liking too. Helen, Sula’s Mum, is resented by the wives of these men but no body hates her.
However, Sula, who ends up stealing her best friend Nel’s husband, is resented by the whole town. The contrast in attitudes towards mother and daughter allow us to understand that while her mother was kind and generous, Sula does have an uncaring side to her. For example, when asked by Nel why she chose to sleep with Nel’s husband, Sula merely replies with “there was this space in front of me, behind me, in my head… and Jude filled it up… that’s all’. Sula does not feel any remorse in breaking up her best friend’s marriage, and even at her old, frail age she does not ask for forgiveness.
This shows that Sula just used sex as a tool to occupy her loneliness, and probably did not respect herself a great deal. Nel, however, is more respectful of her body. Her grandmother was strict and religious and this had a positive effect on Nel’s values. Sula grew up around numerous, strange men and this probably made her view her behaviour as normal, just like she witnessed as a child. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette also links her happiness to sex. She submits to her husband sexually and begins to hunger for sex as much as he. Afterward, Antoinette seems more lost, crying when Rochester whispers, “You are safe.
He feels no real tenderness for her, and this shows that once again, the woman is left suffering and stuck in a situation that she is unable to break free of. Also, Rochester has sex with Amelie (a servant who accompanies Antoinette and her husband), while Antoinette is next door. He does this to exert his power over Antoinette and to belittle her. Amelie, like Antoinette is lonely, and this sexual act with Rochester is the only way she feels wanted. Although she knows Rochester does not love her or even have feelings for her, she is content with the fact that she is wanted for single moment.
She uses sex to fill the void of loneliness, much like Antoinette does. Unlike Rhys and Morrison, Nichols demonstrates her sexuality and confidence in her body. In her poem Invitation, she says “Come up and see me sometime.. ” and she repeats this four times throughout the poem. Her use of repetition puts emphasis on her confidence and we realise that she is flirtatious, and uses her sexuality as a tool of power. There are also graphic and amusing descriptions of her breasts, thighs, front and bum, such as “My breast are huge exciting amnions of watermelon, your hands can’t cup…my thighs are twin seals, fat slick pups”.
This shows us that she is happy and proud of her body, although some may not agree. In the poem Small Questions Ask by the Fat Black Woman, she refers to Eve committing a Sin in the Garden of Eden, and says “Will like Eve… be tempted one again’. She is portraying herself as a sin, and a temptation to resist, which symbolises her confidence in her self, she knows men are lustful towards her. While Nichols focuses solely on portraying the character of a black woman, Sula also explores the male characters in the texts, and how social roles confine them.
The typical male is regarded as the provider for the family, but Morrison takes this typical male figure, and demonstrates how they are dependant on woman and incapable of raising a family, and they have an insatiable hunger causing them to commit adultery. In all of the men that Sula, her mother and Eva sleep with, they are willing to cheat on their wives to fulfill their needs. There is usually a punishment for adultery, but the women use their own personal strength and respect for each other, and they let the men get away with adultery.
While many will argue that forgiving their husbands is a sign of weakness, really it is the men that are weak for giving in to temptations. Female domination is also present with Sula and Jude (Nel’s husband), as he sleeps with her despite the fact that “she stirred a mind maybe, but not his body”. Contrary to the typical male provider role, men are incapable of raising a family in Sula. Eva was left alone to fend for her children, and Sula’s father died when she was a child, and Sula also failed to find a suitable male to start a family with.
Men were unfaithful to their wives and they even left their family, in the case of Nel and her husband. Nel’s father, although married happily to his wife, was always working away at sea, leaving Helene to raise her daughter alone. Though they are physically strong, men need women in order to be effective, and they frequently fail to be a father figure. To conclude, all three texts explore gender, through the social roles that confine them and the bodies that represent the confinement. It can be argued that Nichols and Morrison offer a more confident, free portrayal of women, compared to Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.
The use of first person emphasises the turmoil faced by the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea and also The Fat Black Woman. Unlike Nichols, Morison and Rhys use narrative techniques to show how women are both emotionally and psychologically confines in the post-colonial world. Nichols offers the fat black woman freedom and happiness, while Rhys ends Antoinette’s story with her in captivity, foreshadowing Antoinette’s next actions. All three writers effectively present their characters battling the confinement that being a woman brings; Sula and Nichols remain rebels while Antoinette fails to break free of her confinement.
Courtney from Study Moose
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