It is evident he central female characters’ worlds revolve around their love of their surroundings and all nature has to offer. The many stages of their respective emotional journeys are often symbolised by the parts of the natural world and its beings that encircle them. The authors have examined their fragmented identities and unconscious fears, focusing on their inner worlds, which mirror the impressions of evocative physical landscapes. The use of symbolism allows us, the reader, to gain a much deeper insight into each character.
The principal female character in Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette; left mainly to her own devices as a child, Antoinette turns inward, finding there a world that can be both peaceful and terrifying. She finds the love and comfort she most desperately yearns for in her habitat and the environment that envelops her, having grown up with neither her mother’s love nor her peers’ companionship. There are many different instances in the novel where we can see parts of Antoinette’s life almost being shown to the reader through nature and the setting of the story.
She is fascinated with nature and is very attuned to its presence. As her elaborate descriptions suggest, nature is, to her, a central character in the story, and perhaps her only friend.
For example, Antoinette’s recurring forest dream contrast with the Jamaican colourful brightness that she is so used to, as her nightmare, that is also a premonition, takes place among “tall dark trees” that lead to an enclosed stone garden.
Following a sinister and faceless man, Antoinette finds herself in a foreign place. This vision portends her future captivity in England. The fear and panic that she must have felt allows the reader to empathise what she is about to go through in chapters to come, and allows an understanding and compassion to develop which, without this incident, may have been hard to obtain. Also, the name of the honeymoon estate, Granbois, translates into “great forest” and like Antoinette’s dream, this prophesises her move to the cold forests of England.
Annette’s pet parrot, Coco, has his wings clipped by Mr. Mason, who is notably, an Englishman, and the bird is chained up and shackled. This symbolises Antoinette’s own ‘flightless’ reliance when she is locked in the attic. Antoinette recalls,
“[Coco] made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.”
This passage prefigures the catastrophic dream that ends the novel, with Antoinette’s blazing descent from the attic. As prophesies and forewarnings, birds invite Antoinette to invest meaning and significance in the natural world. For example, when she sees a cock crowing alongside Christophine’s house, and, as with the parrot, the appearance of the cock portends danger.
“That is for betrayal, but who is the traitor?”
Again the use of symbolism allows the reader to gain insight into Antoinette’s mind and way of thinking.
She compares the garden at Coulibri Estate to the biblical Garden of Eden, with its sumptuous overindulgence and vanished virtuousness. She sees the garden to have “gone wild,” attacking the senses with its dazzling colours, interweaving unkempt overgrowth, and lingering aromas. Antoinette sees the flowers as vaguely sinister in appearance, and she in fact describes on e particular orchid as being “snaky looking” as she recalls man’s deterioration into gluttony and sensuality, seen in the pages of the Bible.
The garden also symbolises Antoinette’s native Creole lifestyle, with wealth exploitation and ease acting as key aspects of existence. Antoinette’s garden, like Eden is a symbol of corrupted innocence: the wildness and savage overgrowth has taken over the estate, and it is in this ambience of rotting and decay that Antoinette and her mother become ever more disparaged and desolated.
Throughout the book we see fires recurring, symbolising obliteration, ruin, and sweltering ardour. It is in Part one that Antoinette describes the fire that burned down Coulibri Estate and prompted her mother’s psychotic breakdown. In Part two, Rochester recalls the moths that burnt themselves in the candles that were lit each night. These images not only recall the hideous demise of Coco (Annette’s bird), but they also act as a parallel of Antoinette’s perverse enthralment with fire and, indeed, foreshadow her own wretched ruin and decease.
Animals and plants dominate the imagery of this section, a glimpse of the natural world that offers insight into Rhys’s principal characters. Antoinette’s story about rats, for example, symbolises her fear of being watched and followed. The repeated images of petals falling from blooming flowers reflect the fragility of Antoinette’s beauty and the quick collapse that one careless touch might cause.
On their honeymoon, Antoinette and Rochester both appear overwhelmed by the lush tropical world. The night, with its bright stars and fragrant flowers, operates to heighten the mood of mystery and sensuality that marks the couple’s first nights together, and symbolises Antoinette’s feeling of being sexually free. She also feels emotionally free as she explores her inner gloom, and it is only at night that Antoinette speaks softly to her husband, telling him of her private melancholy. She is only able to speak to him liberally when she has the security of the dark to mask her in some way, and protect her against any harm that may be incurred.
In Part Two Section Nine, Rochester describes Antoinette as a tropical tree broken by the wind. Rochester in fact serves as the wind that has forcibly uprooted her from her native soil, as he has asserted control over the tropics. That Antoinette appears lifeless seems to confirm her earlier description of “two deaths”: she is a living corpse, a hollow shell. It is as if Rochester has appropriated obeah magic to his own cruel purposes. By thinking and wishing Antoinette dead, he has made her lifeless.
In part three section two, Antoinette’s attachment to her red dress is particularly poignant. She clings to the dress as a reminder of her past, believing she can smell the Caribbean landscape in its folds. It is by touching and staring at the dress that she loses herself in to her sensory, organic world of memories. Significantly, the dress is red; a colour that symbolizes the passion and destruction that led to her current captivity, and imminently, her demise.
‘Prue’, the leading female character in ‘Precious Bane’, is similarly intoxicated by the natural world, and the symbolism used by Mary Webb once again allows us to see much deeper into her soul. In complete contrast to her brother Gideon, she finds refuge and joy in her surroundings and cherishes all that is untouched by man. She has a harelip and it is her defect that forces her to develop an inner strength that supports her when she is betrayed both by her own brother and by the townspeople, who believe she is a witch. It is its richness that Prue saw and felt as a girl that stays by her side, and she recalls with lyrical intensity as she grows into a woman. Her narration combines simple rustic love with a profound sense of nature’s mystic truth. Woven throughout the story is the aura of the English countryside, its flora and fauna anticipating every twist and turn. Prue’s journey is symbolised through much of the description of the organic milieu.
Prue makes references to the natural beauty and symbolism from the very outset of the book, recalling her first few years when she slept in a cot of rushes and felt like a baby caterpillar. This is a symbol of the innocence and protection that the early years of childhood bring. Young babies, and, indeed, children, rarely have any knowledge of what pain, sorrow or anguish feels like: they are wrapped up and protected from harm, much like a caterpillar in its cocoon. Their world is safe, impenetrable, and secure.
Prue constantly finds her identity amongst nature’s creations, indicating she and they are one being. Highly observant and intensely perceptive, she notices each and every tiny detail in every part of ‘her world’. She is a woman ever more alive to the changing moods of nature than she is to those of man. Every chapter will entail and illustrate the fusion of human emotion with countryside and landscape.
Prue’s fascination with the corn of the estate is clearly apparent from the very beginning of the novel. In chapter one she states “everywhere you looked there was naught but gold . . . ” She sees it as something precious that should be treated with great respect. Like in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, we see the central female’s character’s world come tumbling down whenever there is a fire. The blaze in Precious Bane seems to burn Prue physically when it burns her corn, as she can almost feel the flames herself. Prue’s view that nature is as living and breathing as she is implies that it, too, can feel tangible pain.
Her association with animals and her father is another example of Prue’s correlation between nature and emotion. Her intense fear of him, and the pain that he inflicted on her is, in her eyes, like the emotions that pervade a person when thinking of a lion, as she describes him as a “ravening lion” when “his temper was up”.
Also, her family tells her that bees symbolise death, and as her father dies on the same day that a swarm of bees came from a dead gooseberry bush, this connotation stays with her. The myth is that if one didn’t tell the bees in the instance of death, they would fly away and their honey would no longer be available. Prue is a highly superstitious character, and this type of fable would be seen as true as anything that is legitimate.
The ‘dragon-flies’ episode of the novel acts as another symbol of Prue’s emotions and feelings about different people or aspects of life. As she witnesses them “coming out of their bodies”, we can see that the dragon-flies’ escape and route to freedom actually symbolises Prue’s own emotional emancipation. Kester Woodseaves allows her to love and be loved in return, and the act of evolving and becoming a new person is an exact illustration of her newfound state of being.
Prue describes all the different types of dragon-flies that reside at Sarn, stating;
” . . . the marvellous sight of the dragon-flies coming out of their bodies. We had a power of dragon-flies at Sarn, of many kinds and colours, little and big.”
This is in fact a true implication that anyone, whatever they might look like, can be who they want to be. In other words, Prue has just as much right as anyone else to be in a relationship with someone she cares for, and that her hare lip does not necessarily have to hold her back; she too can be uninhibited.
Another instance where symbolism is used to further our insight into Prue’s character is when she and Gideon visit the house in which Gideon hopes one day they both will live. As they approach the house it is in complete darkness. However, suddenly Prue sees;
” . . . a large pale light wandering from window to window downstairs and then sliding up, in a long window that seemed to go down the stairs, and beginning over again in the upper storey”.
They watch it and then it suddenly goes out. Prue says;
“It distressed me mightily that it should go out”.
Prue did not just see it as merely a light, but as a symbol of love. This shows how much emphasis and how highly placed the notion of love is within her mind. She literally breaks down and cries at the thought of love not conquering all. It can be seen that this is her viewpoint of the way she feels about Kester Woodseaves. Her world is so often filled with all that is dark and elegiac, such as her hare-lip, and hardly any friends, and hard manual labour, day in, day out. Her love for Kester shines out above all she has to contend with, and acts as a symbol of light, hope and happiness. For the light to diminish before her very eyes is incredibly upsetting, and she is left very distraught. As she walks away from the house with Gideon, they are both
” . . . as dumb as stones . . .”, implying that she is at a loss of what to think or feel; almost as if her thoughts and beliefs about life and love have diminished in some way.
Through studying each of the novels, it is clear that through the shrewd treatment of symbolism we are able to empathise with the central female characters to the extent that we consider them to be in true existence. We are able to connect with them to a much more intense degree than what would be otherwise possible. The focal comprehension is that through taking certain objects, episodes and living beings to mean more than their outward physical form, insight and understanding is developed, and without it we would hardly know the characters at all.