It is difficult to define Creole existence in Caribbean literature. Descended from colonial ancestors, people of the West Indies possess the values and birthed power of the hegemonic culture, but yet they wield a level of responsibility to the other half of their birth: the cultural lineage of the native people. This loss of identity results in a void of the self, a place where Creole characters find themselves torn between two warring cultures and questioning allegiance to either. In her article "The Daughter’s Return: African-American and Caribbean Women’s Fictions of History", author Caroline Rody expounds the role of the mother in African-American and Caribbean literature. Rody notes that post-colonial writers tend to weave a tragedy around the potential loss of a mother and the accompanying cultural-identity, and the subsequent replacement with a nanny (Rody 821). The loss of the feminine figure is a gaping wound within the morality of protagonists of Caribbean literature; the widening from the self and culture, the loss of identity correlates evenly with the departure of the mother. But even this interpretation of the nanny becomes altered when taken from another point of view; the same qualities within a female character can be interpreted as pure to her own people, and evil from the European. While hegemonic power eventually fades, indigenous sovereignty is eternal and inevitable; the nanny character and obeahwoman of West Indian literature personify the rise of self-awareness in a hegemonic social-structure.
Post-colonial societies sought to establish a recollection of the self, to establish their separation from Britain and British language, culture, and education, and by doing so, the role of a revolutionary character is imperative. Rody states: [African and Caribbean women’s literature] conjure[s] ancestry, these daughters of traumatized, marginalized lineages asserts above all that they can indeed ‘tell time,’ and that they know that their time to tell has come” (Rody 16). English colonizers attempted to “breed” the culture out of, not only the inhabitants of the islands, but out of history as well. The West Indies, as its native children were taught, had no history while the English colonizers were fruitful. Living without history and knowledge of their past produced a desire to raise the level of collective conscious among the people of the West Indies. This disconnection, as Rody suggested, manufactures a “writing back” mechanism – the oppressed writers create an arena to re-establish a past and to document their history.
To be rid of England and its influences, protagonists of African-American and Caribbean post-colonial texts must eradicate the rule of the maternal and paternal elements within a characters development. This symbolic detachment from blood illustrates the character’s separation of culture and the necessary departure of dominating England, or “the Mother country.” The nanny represents a replacement figure, a literal isthmus between the past-new world order of British dominance and a resettling of pre-hegemonic existence. The nanny in English context is an icon of “an institutionalized mother surrogate responsible for rearing several generations of middle- and upper-class Englishmen” (Drummond 32). Imagine Mary Poppins escorting children through the front doors of Buckingham Palace, waving the St. George’s flag, and singing “Rule, Britannia!” for a mental image of Drummond’s characterization. The Caribbean Nanny is similar to this image, but rather waving the British flag, she tosses it back to the ocean, back to where it came from in the first place.
The nanny character of Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea is such a character. Rhys introduces the reader to Christophine stating that “she was much blacker – blue-black with a thin face and straight features. She wore a black dress, heavy gold earrings and a yellow handkerchief – carefully tied with the two high points in front. No other negro woman wore black, or tied her handkerchief Martinique fashion” (Rhys 12). Christophine personifies “blackness” in the book. She does not reject who she is, she models it on her body just like the color of her clothes, and she alone ties her handkerchief in “Martinique” fashion – in celebration of her people and heritage. Christophine acts as a barrier between Antoinette, a woman trapped between two cultures and identities, and the imposing English influence. Christophine practices obeah, or the “black” arts, which to Anglo and Anglophiles, would be deemed heretical or evil. To Christophine and to others within the island, obeah practice is a connection to the past.
Richard Mason, a symbol of a colonial England, attempts to relocate from England to the Caribbean in order to re-establish his wealth through marriage is revealed when the keen-eyed Christophine sees his ways. Mason’s actions are symbolic of methods used by England to subvert attention away from Caribbean cultures’ sovereignty and the legitimacy of the culture themselves. Mason’s actions force Antoinette into a downward spiral of self-questioning and self-hatred. Similar to Antoinette, colonized cultures are forced to redefine themselves when faced with hegemony.
H. Adlai Murdock states in Displacing Marginality: “Any shift toward the initiation of a transformational temporality of difference must re-site the original rupture in order to dis-place (sic) and re-place(sic) this alienation, creating a discontinuous Creole subjectivity which draws on the uncanny doubleness of this differential discourse to develop alterative modes of authentication” (89). Resistance against a controlling culture results in a misplacement of likeness and identity, and the adoption of English values creates cultural hybridity among indigenous people. The narrative of colonized cultures reflect this abandonment of culture and a questioning of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, cultured and savage. Christophine does not stand idly by as her personal culture and ideals are replaced with European ones, instead she grasps onto the oldest and dearest practice of her people, obeah. Wide Sargasso Sea author, Jean Rhys, uses this as an illustration of Christophine’s reluctance to succumb to English culture; this umbrage against Anglican-rule manifests itself beyond the practice of obeah, the character becomes influential beyond her status as a child caretaker and becomes an insightful outer character. Here, she confronts Richard Mason, a symbol of European pillaging of culture, a man whose marriage to Antoinette acts as more a financial transaction rather than marriage: “Her brother!” she spat on the floor. “Richard Mason is no brother to her. You think you fool me? You want her money but you don’t want her. It is in your mind to pretend that she is mad. I know it. The doctors say what you tell them to say. That man Richard he say what you want to say – glad and willing too, I know. She will be like her mother. You do that for money? But you wicked like Satan self!” (Rhys 96)
Richard Mason rejects Caribbean culture and eagerly awaits his departure from the islands. Antoinette straddles a cultural divide; she possesses the “whiteness” which labels her “first world” and also the “blackness” which labels her “third world,” it is this aspect of her Caribbean-ness which Richard Mason rejects:
“You have lived alone far too long Antoinette. You imagine enmity which doesn’t exist. Always one extreme or the other. Didn’t you fly at me like a little wild cat when I said nigger. Not nigger, nor even negro. Black people I must say.”
“You don’t like, or even recognize, the good in them,” she said, “and you won’t believe in the other side.”
“They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous,” said Mason. “I know that.”
“They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I don’t understand,” Mr. Mason always said. “I don’t understand at all.”
Wide Sargasso Sea projects a family in decay, the white aristocratic failure to adapt to change in the wake of black awareness and empowerment, the character of Christophine carries the weight of this awareness and remains protective of the “white” Antoinette.
Another family in crisis can be seen in The Orchid House, a tale of a crumbling family, the decline of a planter family re-establishing a working definition of caste systems against “a background of hatred and destruction” (Rody 56). The family in The Orchid House represents a level of insecurity and instability in the crumbling English empire in the West Indies. The family has been tattered by war, the patriarchal figure, the man responsible for maintaining the family’s high-class lifestyle, returns home from battle as a drug addict. The father has lost control of his own body, succumbing to the colonization of narcotic addiction while his family must contend with the emancipation of the local classes. The family lives in fear as a freshly freed peoples become aware of their own power; but because the locals have not tested the limits these powers, it is unclear exactly to what degree it will be used. Majolie, the obeahwoman, is positioned as a threatening figure within The Orchid House. Her attempts to poison the child Hel illustrates, not the poignant evil undertone of Caribbean people, but the fear that manifests within European descendants among local culture. Similar to Rhys’ Christophine, Majolie personifies black awareness and the wielded power. Majolie’s actions only strike fear into European people.
Allfrey choice of narrator, Lally the nurse, was challenged by Caribbean literature scholars stating that “[Lally] is to slavishly faithful to her employees and too sentimentally portrayed to be quite credible” (Paravisini-Gilbert). Because Allfrey was white, critics viewed the narrator’s faithfulness in direct comparison with her servitude, creates an aura of incredibility. Yet, the character of Lally gives the reader a rare opportunity to regard the slow growth in awareness of a black house worker who exists on the brink of emancipation.
Similar to Wide Sargasso Sea’s culturally misplaced Antoinette, Lally serves on the other side of the epoch: still unable to identify herself with her racial comrades, but distant enough from crumbling Anglican rule that she becomes empowered rather than de-powered. Through the eyes of Lally, the reader is subject to witness a society at a cultural turning point, a relinquishing of colonial rule and the emancipation of its slaves. Where Lally begins the book recognizing that her inability to understand the conversations of her “master” family, she eventually becomes aware of the imbalance of rights of her people when discussing protests during a conversation with the family:
“Organize them for what?” I asked.
“To stand up for their rights,” Miss Joan said.
“Poor people have never had any rights in this place. Everybody knows that. Most of them are poor because they are lazy.”
“No, Lally, that’s unjust,” Miss Joan told me gently.
Lally possesses the reasoning to understand Miss Joan’s guidance despite her faulted conclusion. But this guidance reflects well on Lally, who speaks of her jealousy for Baptiste because “he could hear and understand Miss Joan’s special words, words which would never perfectly reach my ears. Sooner or later those words would come through to me; Baptiste would tell his mother, and Christophine, when she’d had more than a pint of black rum, would tell me.”
To the white inhabitants of the islands, the common anglo-view of indigenous peoples is that they are lazy, uneducated, and non-threatening. Hegemonic societies, within Caribbean literature, exist in a disintegrating state – the power that they once held over the native people eventually crumbles. The transition between the epoch of colonial rule to hegemonic rule requires a literary character who must personify the history and the cultural sanctity of its people. The native actions of Majolie and Christophine’s outspoken tongue penetrate the sanctity of white people and frames awareness of power in, not only the black population, but also of women. The nanny and other empowered women embody awareness and the celebration of the native people. Prepotency fades, but the power of the Nanny and the obeahwoman who eternal, personified within the characters Christophine, Lally, and Majolie.
Allfrey, Phyllis Shand. The Orchid House. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
Drummond, Lee. “The Transatlantic Nanny: Notes on a Comparative Semiotics of the Family in English Speaking Societies.” American Ethnologist 5.1. (Feb. 1978): pp. 30-43.
Edmonson, Belinda. “Race Priviledge, and the Politics of (Re)Writing History: An Analysis of the Novels of Michelle Cliff.” Callalo 16.1. (Winter 1993): pp 180-191.
Lenz, Brooke. “Postcolonial Fiction and the Outsider Within: Toward a Literary Practice of Feminist Standpoint Theory.” NWSA Journal 16.2. (Summer 2004): pp 98-121..
Murdoch, H. Adlai. “(Dis)placing Marginality: Cultural Identity and Creole Resistance in Glissant and Maximin.” Research in African Literatures 25.2. (Summer 1994): pp. 81-102.
Paravisini-Gilbert, Lizabeth. Foreward. The Orchid House. By Phyllis Shand Allfrey. New Brunswick, NJ” Rutgers University Press, 1997.