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Ethnocentrism is an Ugly Word

There is a psychology behind the actions and inhibitions of every person, the reasons why the are the way they are. People have emotions and biases that can sometimes be ignorant, hurtful, and unpleasant. This is not to say that it is not natural, nor that any person is apart from the rest. It is human nature to be made uncomfortable in positions one has not become accustomed to, and it is normal to feel biased against a certain cause. Ethnocentrism is defined as the belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group. Both of the Englishmen in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea are depicted as ethnocentric. Although they are this way in different ways, the author makes it abundantly clear that they are extremely ignorant to the situation of living in Jamaica.

Annette is the protagonist’s mother, a widow of a former slave owner. Alexander Cosway, her deceased husband, has left her his estate named Coulibri. Cosway was a slave owner on the Coulibri estate, which developed a bad reputation for the family amongst the people of the town. Since some of the Jamaicans of the island were used as slaves, they are resentful against the Cosway family. Annette is also originally from Martinique, which is shunned upon by the citizens of Spanish Town. Due to the animosity of the townspeople, Annette and her daughter and son are ostracized. “She still rode about every morning not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby” (18). Annette also lost her entire source of income due to the loss of her husband, so when a wealthy Englishman named Mr. Mason came into her life, she was more than willing to marry him in order to save herself and her children from poverty and hunger. Upon Annette’s marriage to Mr. Mason, she is constantly urging him to move away from Jamaica, to go somewhere where they can start anew, but Mason has his own priorities. Mr. Mason is obsessed with restoring the decaying Coulibri estate in order to become more prosperous. He believes that he can renovate the estate and live there with his new family with no complications, and that it is completely acceptable. Mason does not realize that the people of Spanish Town feel Annette was not a threat when she was poor, and now that she is wealthy again, she has more power and they are jealous and threatened. The people of Spanish Town eventually burn down the Coulibri estate as an angry mob, and while they riot in their yard, the Mason family is forced to escape the flames. During the fire, Annette’s son, Pierre, is trapped in his room and dies soon after from asphyxiation. Mason’s plans of a new family, restoration and prosperity burn with the house. After this incident, Mason directly and indirectly drives Annette to insanity, for he cannot understand what she has been through, and therefore cannot help her recover from her trauma.

Ethnocentrism is the most likely reason for Mason’s naïveté, for it is made clear that even when he and his new family are being attacked by an angry mob, he is unaware of such violent activities in the world. As he steps outside to try and calm the mob, he returns pale and says: “More of them than I thought, and in a nasty mood too. They will repent in the morning. I foresee gifts of tamarinds in syrup and ginger sweets tomorrow” (35). It can be assumed that these actions of violence occur rarely if not ever from where Mason spawns. He cannot understand why people would feel vexed due to the fact that their family had a past involving slave ownership. He is unable to function under these circumstances of disorder. All he can do is convince himself and try to convince others that everything is not what it seems, that everything is safe. Mr. Mason was brought up in a safe environment, where everything was very stable and there were no threats. It was also a common belief during that time that slaves were not people, but they were property or animals. Masons upbringing tells him that the Jamaicans from Spanish Town are not capable of revolts or riots. They are not capable of jealousy or of feeling threatened. Slaves are inhuman, and for this reason are not able to react this way. The Englishman fails in Part One of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, he cuts his losses and he separates himself from his past.

Rochester is depicted as a cynical, mean-hearted man in Part Two of the novel. Rochester is the youngest of his family, and for that reason, he does not have any right to the inheritances of his father. He goes to Jamaica to pursue economic stability in his life, and finds Antoinette, the protagonist of the story. He marries Antoinette because she has a substantial dowry, which makes him independent of his family. Without her, he is considered insignificant, and he uses her for reasons of status instead of love. Rochester grows to dislike his marital situation even after he has acquired Antoinette’s dowry, and bought his own estate in England. He is happy with what he has obtained through the marriage, but anything that reminds him of his insecurities and what he had to do to prove himself, makes him feel discomfort. England seems to be the only thing Rochester has really grown to be comfortable with. Upon Rochester’s arrival to Jamaica, he begins to criticize his new environment: “Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (63). England is a place known for its overcast skies and rain, which blocks sunlight and makes colors less vibrant. The gray sky influences the earth beneath it and makes everything depressing and dull. This is what Rochester had grown accustomed to, and the feeling of life and color is different to him. His new setting in Jamaica is different, but Rochester seems prejudiced against anything that does not remind him of home. Rochester has resentment towards Jamaica because he feels as though it is a punishment for him. He has no right to his father’s will, and so he has to go to Jamaica to find his own path. He believes this to be unfair because his brother gets everything without trying while he has to work for it and marry someone he does not necessarily like in a place that he despises. In his perception, Jamaica is uncivilized and very different than England in that it is wild and colorful. Eventually, Rochester even suggests that he sometimes envisions Antoinette as a pretty white British woman, and goes as far as to change her name to Bertha, and eventually Marionette. After some time, Rochester brings Antoinette back across the Atlantic to England. He acquires a British estate, and locks her in the attic.

Mr. Rochester’s actions signify extensive signs of insecurity due to his inheritance and his ashamedness of his Creole wife, Antoinette. He feels cheated out of life, and because he is self-centered, he drove his wife crazy in order to gain what he wanted. Rochester is a materialistic person with no cares for anyone but himself. He feels contempt against Antoinette because not only is she not English, but she also reminds him of a sector of his life that he regrets. He does not want to be reminded of how he married a minority for status reasons, or how a woman of her ethnicity was better off financially than he was at a certain point in time. Jamaica represents slavery to Rochester, and slavery was made illegal in 1774. Now, more than sixty years later, Rochester has to face not only the failure of himself, but also the failure of the white man. This reminder is one of discomfort, and is not desirable.

To the Englishmen in Wide Sargasso Sea, England is a safe and stable place, and Jamaica is a place where all goes wrong. The men in this novel seem either naïve or threatened by Jamaica, due to ethnocentrism. They believe themselves to be superior to the rest, and do not attempt to put others on their level. To Rochester, Antoinette’s opinions are of no relevance or importance. This is also applicable to Mr. Mason and Annette. To believe that one’s ethnic background is superior to another’s leads only to turmoil within one’s self or the others affected by this mindset. Both Englishmen drove their wives insane because of their casual views on life and their ignorance. Their upbringing led them to believe that what their society teaches them should be regurgitated everywhere else in the world, and that if any other society strays from their origin, it is wrong. The ignorance of the Europeans led to the downfall of many unique cultures, as can be seen today. The majority of the world is westernized, English is the most commonly accepted language in the world, television is considered a necessary item in a household, and cleanliness and clothing are required. This begs the question: what is truly correct? There is no answer. One’s own society will lead a person living in it to believe that his or her own way of living is good, as long as it works. Survival is the only necessary requirement of life, and as long as this is achieved, this way is sufficient and good. Globalization has led to conformity, and now everything is close to the same and there is no turning back.

Bibliography

Rhys, Jean, and Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.

Literature


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