Friday, April 17, 2009

Wide Sargasso Sea: The Ghosts Between Them

Wide Sargasso Sea was written by Jean Rhys (a pen name) and published in 1966 winning wide acclaim. It is a story of the life of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole, who came of age six years after the slaves were emancipated in the West Indies. It was a time when the old planter class was being displaced with new English settlers. Antoinette and her family lived in the shadow of the splendor they once enjoyed. Rhys’s novel is an effort to tell a story about the mad wife of Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre, but centering it around the issue of race and imperialism in the 19th century.

Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones and Michael Poff, MSW facilitated the film discussion. Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones is an Assistant Professor of Francophone Literature and Africana Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Michael Poff, LCSW is in private practice and specializes in child, adolescent, adult and family psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and adult psychoanalysis.

Dr. Simeon-Jones focused the discussion on the concept of the “outsider;” specifically the “crazy Creole woman” locked in the attic of her home. She interrogated the idea of sanity and who gets to judge it. In the film, the “crazy Creole woman,” Antoinette is taken to a cold and frigid place where she can not be herself and where she is belittled and observed as an oddity in another culture. The film can be seen as a commentary on the marriage between the Caribbean and Europe in which Europe has a certain image based on stereotypes and prejudices about the Caribbean people from the beginning of the relation, but it was never based on reality. Assuming much about Antoinette, but not really knowing who Antoinette is, Edward grows angry when he begins to learn about her family and past life from those who are bent on undermining her happiness. Unable to reconcile his image of a wife, from the real wife, he becomes cruel to her.

According to Dr. Simeon-Jones, Antoinette is “mad” not because of heredity, but because of a series of unfortunate circumstances that conspire against her. Her mother was plagued with problems and tragedies, poverty, loss of her son, and social ostracism; she was not available to offer a stable, affirming environment to Antoinette. She ends up locked in a room, drugged by her black warden and made to have sex with him. Antoinette witnesses this scene and it is the last she sees of her mother. Antoinette ends up in a loveless marriage in which she is poised to repeat her mother’s life. From the beginning of their relationships, her husband Edward never really loved her but was more interested in impressing his father and gaining access to her wealth.

Michael Poff discussed the internal world of the characters as a manifestation of the unconscious of the author, Jean Rhys, who lived in isolation in England and suffered from alcohol addiction and probably depression. The novel is an expression of her imagination.

If she were a patient in therapy, the analyst would ask for her associations, thoughts and feelings. Poff relied on his own emotional reaction to the entire story as additional information about what the inner life of the author might be. Her subjectivity could be characterized as pain-filled, helpless, and a regression far away from loving relationships toward a more paranoid stance. The characters in the film occupy a paranoid position because they are lacking in empathy and trust; as a result they have a need to control others and can not see any good in the other person.

This paranoid position begins with an idealization, a stance in which the beloved is seen as having no faults. Antoinette and Edward hope to find in their union, a perfect relationship. But as their togetherness brings them in touch with their own humanity, each suffers narcissistic injuries in which shame comes to predominant. Antoinette’s self-esteem is strained because she is considered a “white cockroach.” Edward’s self-esteem is challenged because he does not feel validated by his own family. His rigid thinking about femininity and masculinity, only serves to wound and enrage him when he begins to learn that Antoinette not only might not be a virgin, but that she may also be “mad.”

The couple’s problems explode because Edward begins to devalue Antoinette’s attributes that endeared her to the audience: her joy, playfulness, strong sexuality, and her eccentricities. Edward is so repulsed by these traits not only in Antoinette, but in him too – (that he might be a little crazy or a little boyish) that to acknowledge them as part of him is unthinkable and therefore he projects his unwanted traits onto Antoinette turning her into an object of revulsion.

The abundance of lower-level defenses: paranoia, splitting, magical thinking, and denial, spells doom for their marriage because both are regressed to the pre-Oedipal developmental level. In the pre-Oedipal mindset, people feel an abundance of shame. They fear people are going to ridicule and laugh at them. Edward is caught up in maintaining his image and is enraged by learning that others know things he does not. The abundance of themes of capturing, containing, cruelty, control and not letting something out points to the problem of anality;--what’s inside can’t come out because it is too dangerous. It must be controlled. Antoinette digs in the dirt looking for gold, not finding it, in the end, her shame and rage ignite and she kills both Edward and herself.

Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones is an Assistant Professor of Francophone Literature and Africana Studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Dr. Simeon-Jones received a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on the Comparative History and Literature of the Black Diaspora, from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida. She received an M.A. in French Literature and Francophone Literature: Africa and the Caribbean, from Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey; she received a B.A. in French Literature and Spanish Language & Literature, also from Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Dr. Simeon-Jones’s primary teaching and research interests include Francophone Studies: history, literature and culture, Comparative Literature of the Black Diaspora, Black Internationalism: Literary and Socio-Political Movements,Women History within the Diaspora. Her forth coming book is 19th-20th Century Literary and Socio-Political Writings of the Black Diaspora (Lexington Books; forthcoming).

Michael Poff, LCSW is in private practice, Tampa and specializes in child, adolescent, adult and family psychoanalytic psychotherapy, adult psychoanalysis. He completed training as a psychoanalyst at the Carter-Jenkins Center, Tampa in 2005. He is a supervisor to clinicians in psychoanalytic psychotherapy practice and is a psychoanalytic staff member, The Carter-Jenkins Center, Tampa. He is currently co-authoring a chapter on health and relationships, in nursing textbook: Comprehensive Women’s Health Care, edtied by Alexander, Hood, and Mallard-Johnson. For over twenty years, Mike Poff has been coordinating local annual psychoanalytic society film series and has been a field instructor, supervisor for MSW students in training, USF School of Social Work, a guest lecturer USF Department of Psychiatry and the USF School of Nursing, an outpatient psychotherapist with the Menninger/St. Joseph’s Psychiatry Center, Tampa and a Child and family psychotherapist, The Children’s Home, Tampa.

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