The "Other" Woman: Christophine in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea
The “Other” Woman:
Christophine in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea
Christophine, the Black Martinican servant in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is situated as an outsider in society immediately upon her introduction in the novel. Antoinette Cosway describes Christophine in relation to Black Jamaican women, a group to which she obviously does not belong:
“Her songs were not like Jamaican songs, and she was not like the other women. She was much blacker – blue-black with a thin face and straight features. She wore a black dress…and yellow handkerchief…No other negro woman wore black, or tied her handkerchief Martinique fashion.” (Rhys 5-6)
The complex racial and social tensions in the Caribbean are illustrated in Christophine’s exclusion by the Black Jamaican population. Although a Black Caribbean woman herself, her association with a former slave owning family and her nationality denies her an equal position among her peers. Christophine’s continued loyalty to the Cosway family may rely on the shared sense of segregation felt by both parties. Yet, it appears that although both Christophine and the Cosway family are ostracized by the Jamaican population, the servant and obeah woman commands a greater respect, and some would venture fear, from those around her – Black and White alike.
Despite her role as a secondary character, Christophine exercises a powerful influence in the novel and represents Rhys’ defiance of the colonial status quo – that of the superior White ‘master’ and the subjugated Black ‘slave’. As a woman of colour, Christophine should be doubly disadvantaged by the patriarchal imperialism that rules the West Indies in the post-emancipation period. Yet, she is in many ways likened to the White men that are apparently more civilized than she. Not only is she figured as the protectorate of Antoinette – a role that surely should have been filled by Antoinette’s absent father and later by her negligent husband – Christophine also seems to share the ideologies surrounding marriage and family that are practiced by some British men in the West Indian colonies. It is no secret that Mr. Cosway fathered illegitimate children outside his marriage to Antoinette’s mother, and Christophine herself advocates this behaviour in the lecture on independence that she delivers to Antoinette. “‘Three children I have…each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God’” (68).
As is seen in her influence over other characters in the novel, Christophine possesses a vocal authority that eventually proves essential to her repudiation of Rochester and his assumed ‘English privilege’. We are told early in the novel that “…though she could speak good English if she wanted to, and French as well as patois, she took care to talk as [the Jamaicans] talked” (6) while living in Jamaica. Christophine recognizes the agency of speech in the establishment of social and cultural hierarchy. In her only major exchange with Rochester, Christophine’s words penetrate the Englishman’s psyche in such a manner that he cannot escape the loud echo of them in his head (99). Typically, colonial discourse asserts that the words of the ‘master’ are forced upon the ‘slave’; yet this scene demonstrates an inversion of linguistic dominance that situates Christophine in a position of resounding control. Through the character of Christophine, Rhys subverts the colonial patriarchy of the Caribbean and thus, at least partially redeems the denigrated figure of the woman as well as the subjugated racial other in the British West Indies.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 1968.