Writing the In-Betweens: Ghostly Metafiction and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

Note: We are pleased to offer this brief break in our hiatus to bring to you a post by our lead editor, Esther Wolfe. Keep an eye out for the abstract to her article later in the summer.

The layered spectrality and ghostliness of metafiction is imbedded at the level of its definition and etymology. Often described as fiction about fiction, metafiction discusses or analyzes a work of fiction and/or the conventions and function of fiction itself. As a narrative style, metafiction is deeply self-referential, constantly alluding to its own materiality, construction, and invention. In this way, by writing fiction about fiction, metafiction occupies a ghostly place within literature; blurring the categories of “subject” and “object” of narration, as well as destabilizing the boundaries of what is “inside” and “outside” fiction itself.

Metafiction also occupies a ghostly temporal space. The frequent use of rewriting in metafiction fundamentally ruptures categories of present and past. By creating rewritings or prequels, which are written after the works that inspire them but are meant to take place before, metafiction subverts and disorders categories of linear time. In addition, it can be argued that metafiction’s function of speculating upon speculation is inherently tied to concerns with futurity, further complicating its temporal orientation.

The ghostly materiality and temporality of metafiction is further reflected in the etymology of the prefix, “meta.” “Meta” denotes “before and after” as well as “within and beyond.” In addition, “meta” also refers to “a change of condition,” designating metafiction as a site of transformation, an extraterritorial zone between multiple forms of being. It is precisely these types of “in-betweenness” that make metafiction a spectral, ghostly form–ultimately, metafiction is about writing over and inside of what is already there, writing the implicit in-betweens of fictions.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, author Jean Rhys creates a metafictional rewriting of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Set in post-emancipation Jamaica, the novel traces the life of Antoinette Cosway, better known as Bertha Mason, as she becomes the first wife of Edward Rochester and finally, the notorious “madwoman in the attic.” While not immediately identifiable as a ghost story, Wide Sargasso Sea articulates several complex forms of haunting, including spectral politics of gender and representation, Imperial power and the construction of postcolonial identity, and the ghostly structure and materiality of metafiction. In addition, the implicit dialogue between Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Rhys’s rewriting importantly illustrates how invoking spectrality and ghostliness can be used both as a violent form of oppression and as a means of liberation, intervention, and resistance.

Throughout Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Bertha’s ghostliness is fundamentally rooted in her intersecting forms of violent marginalization within multiple types of space. Marginalization inherently describes this intersection of spectrality and violence—to be marginalized describes both institutional oppression and the literal space of the margin, an in-between space of border and blankness. Bertha is literally marginalized in the physical space of the attic, locked away in the secret boundaries and borders of the house. This literal marginalization also mirrors her place within patriarchal and colonial English society: as a white Jamaican Creole woman, Bertha occupies a ghostly social space of liminality and displacement, neither English nor native. This ghostliness is further reinforced by the marginalizing treatment of Bertha’s speech: in Jane Eyre, she is given no language, destabilizing boundaries between subject and object. Bertha’s speech is also marginalized in the sense that she is spoken for, both by Rochester and by the other characters in the text, who often mistakenly attribute her speech and actions to Grace Poole. In this way, Bertha also occupies a textual periphery, relegated to the extraterritorial spaces between lines and meanings, the literal margins and border spaces of the text. However, this marginalized representation also extends beyond textual boundary. As Gayatri Spivak notes, Brontë’s authorship renders Bertha “a figure produced by the axiomatics of Imperialism” (121). As an English woman writing an Othered colonial subject, Brontë directly participates in this marginalization, ultimately creating in her representation an “allegory of the general epistemic violence of Imperialism, the construction of the self-immolating colonial subject for the glorification of the social missin of the colonizer” (Spivak 127). Both there and not there, visible in erasure, Bertha is violently marginalized, forced into a spectral space of in-between, destabilizing boundaries of inside and outside, self and other, subject and object, center and periphery. In this way, Bertha’s ghostliness in Brontë’s Jane Eyre is inherently violent and abusive.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys also employs a motif of ghostliness and haunting. However, this use of ghostliness is used specifically in opposition to and criticism of that of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In Rhys’ fiction, by writing the “in-betweens” of Jane Eyre, Antoinette is given a voice, with which she is able to narrate her own history and embodied experiences. However, this representation is also spectral. Antoinette narrates the first half of the book (ending in her marriage to Rochester), while the majority of the second half of the book is narrated by Rochester himself. This split in narration again emphasizes Antoinette’s spectrality, her status as an absent-presence in the text, displacing boundaries between subject and object. However, Rhys’s emphasis on the ghostliness and spectrality of Antoinette’s subjectivity and erasure is used critically. By making Rochester the narrator after his and Antoinette’s marriage, Rhys also makes marriage the moment of erasure and of displaced subjectivity. Here, Rhys uses ghostliness to point to Bertha’s oppression and abuse within imperialist and patriarchal structures, illustrating how marriage rendered Antoinette ghostly through dislocation and erasure. Ghostliness is used not as a form of oppression and erasure, but as a method for pointing to oppression and interrogating it.

A similarly critical treatment of spectrality comes at the end of the novel, this time with regards to Antoinette’s madness. Throughout the text, the inherent ghostliness of Antoinette’s fragmented subjectivity, the result of trauma and marginalization, informs her slowly unraveling mind. In the last section of the text, Antoinette enacts the famous scene of Brontë’s Jane Eyre, setting fire to Rochester’s house and committing suicide by leaping from the roof. Here, the narrative voice changes from Rochester to Antoinette, returning her to the articulated “I” of subjectivity in the moment of her madness and suicide. In this way, Rhys makes a powerful criticism by showing that for the marginalized and oppressed, suicide and madness become a radical means by which to express ownership over the self. Rhys’s subversive use of ghostliness is literalized in the moment when Antoinette catches sight of herself in the mirror, “I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then I saw her—the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her” (169). Looking into the mirror, the site of displaced subjectivity, Antoinette acknowledges her fragmentation and takes possession of it: she “recognizes” herself as the ghost. This moment of recognition is the catalyst of the action of the scene; she then sets the house ablaze and leaps. In this way, the ghostliness used to oppress Antoinette becomes the very material of her self-liberation, used to construct both resistant identity and subversive action.

Rhys’s metafiction is also ghostly in a postcolonial context. By rewriting the English novel, Rhys powerfully subverts and deconstructs colonial hierarchies of representation and knowledge production. In the act of writing the in-betweens, Rhys challenges Imperial authorial ownership over and creation of “non-Western” narratives and histories. In addition, the act of writing the ghostly in-betweens of Jane Eyre challenges the Imperial narrative that renders the “non-West” merely as a space for creating and articulating European identity, subjectivity and self-hood. While Spivak also points out that Rhys “rewrites a canonical English book within the European novelistic tradition in the interest of the white Creole rather than the native” (130), the ghostliness of Rhys’s metafiction is used both to resist the oppressive erasure of Bertha Mason in Brontë’s Jane Eyre and challenge certain Imperial structures of power, as well as to articulate a sense of postcolonial Caribbean identity.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys writes the in-betweens of Brontë’s fiction, bringing the character of Antoinette/Bertha into greater visibility. However, this narrative space is not intended to eliminate Antoinette’s spectrality and ghostliness, but rather to subversively utilize and call attention to it. While the spectrality of Bertha in Brontë’s Jane Eyre is oppressive, invoking layers of hegemonic power, the ghostliness of Antoinette in Rhys’s text is employed critically, as a means of engaging with oppressive marginalization and colonial power in order to create resistant identities. The conversation between Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea illustrates how motifs of ghostliness can be used both as oppressive forms of institutional violence and as subversive acts of intervention and resistance. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this duality was articulated by Rhys herself. On her motivations for writing Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys says, “She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I’d like to write her a life” (Qtd. in Fayad 437). In the act of writing the in-betweens, Rhys confronts the silencing use of spectrality and finds within it a method of speaking back.


Works Cited:

“etymology meta.” Google. Google, n.d 3 May. 2014.

Fayad, Mona. “Unquiet Ghosts: The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.” Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (1988): 437-452. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. UK: Andre Deutsch, 1966. Print.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. Print.