Other Ways of Looking: The Female Gaze in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea

Nalini Paul (English Literature: University of Glasgow)

The concept of the gaze has been a central focus of film theory since Laura Mulvey's seminal essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", published in 1975.[1] Although the term "gaze" also exists in postcolonial theory, there is a wealth of information on the male gaze in cinema, in comparison with very little having been written on the subject in terms of literary texts. The phenomenon of gazing in literature strikes relevant parallels with gazing in film theory, as well as with postcolonial theory. This paper will therefore examine the gaze as an objectifying force in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by drawing upon feminist film theory as it has developed since "Visual Pleasure".[2] Homi Bhabha's theory of the displaced colonial "I" or "eye" will also be utilised, [3] as well as bell hooks' theory of the "oppositional gaze" in Black Looks.[4]

This analysis should reveal the displaced subject as one who does possess a gaze, and will examine the presence of the female gaze in its ability to subvert patriarchal power structures in the diegesis of Rhys' narrative. The gaze will be shown to be a major determinant in what Bhabha calls the "shifting [of] forces and fixities".[5] The various levels of these shifts reveal complex interrelationships amongst the characters of Wide Sargasso Sea, a complexity that displaces the authoritative self. Thus multifaceted power structure are revealed within Rhys' narrative. The question of whether power lies within the female sphere will also be critiqued, with reference to Julia Kristeva, and applied to hooks' notion of the "oppositional gaze".[6]
In her essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Mulvey makes a distinction between "woman as image" and "man as bearer of the look".[7] Psychoanalysis in film theory makes desire a male preoccupation, insofar as the male spectator desires the female subject in the objectification of the latter in film. According to Mulvey, in the scopic arena, the female is the fetishised object that the male desires and admires in looking at. She possesses the quality of "to-be-looked-at-ness", whereas the male possess the ability to look, taking pleasure in looking at the female. Ann Kaplan, in Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera, takes this analysis a step further by explaining why, in her view, the cinematic arena itself is gendered.[8] Although the process of filming may seem objective, it is not sexually "neutral", in that the technical process itself corresponds to male sexual fantasy. As Freud reveals in his study of the differences between male and female looking, the male takes more pleasure in observing his sexual organs than the female does in observing hers.[9] Likewise, according to Freud, the male adolescent fantasises, either literally or subconsciously, about watching his parents engaging in sexual intercourse, whereas the female child does not. Thus, in Freud's view, the male is the one who takes pleasure in looking, rather than the female.  
This psychoanalytical point makes its way into film theory. As Kaplan indicates, the process of film-making is masculine in that in most cases of mainstream Hollywood cinema, a male director and/or producer is in control of the camera's gaze. In addition, the apparatus used does not draw attention to itself as a process of construction; rather, this filmic process detracts attention away from itself during the experience of watching the film, allowing the spectator to get drawn into the diegesis. The film itself is made up of many individual frames, which parallel the framed keyhole through which the adolescent boy spies upon his parents, whether literally or through fantasy.
According to Mulvey's theory, the male spectator does two simultaneous and contradictory things while engaging in the male gaze through watching a film. He loses himself in the diegesis of the film, given that the camera does not draw attention to itself as the controlling force behind the process and construction of that which is viewed; and he identifies with the male protagonist. The gaze is male in mainstream film, because the protagonist is usually male, and he is crucial to the development of the plot. His concerns become the concerns of the male spectator. The female onscreen, however, becomes a distraction to whatever "mission" the male protagonist must achieve. She stops the flow of the diegesis by virtue of her presence as female. Her lack of a penis is what makes her a threatening presence to the male spectator, who desires the male protagonist to achieve his objective(s). By virtue of her lack, the female poses the threat of castration, and given that the phallus is the male identifying signifier, this threat upsets the identity of the male spectator. Thus, in order to deal with the threat of castration, the female subject becomes a fetishised subject, her beauty exaggerated and idolised. She is objectified through the male gaze for the visual pleasure of the male spectator.
In her essay "Subjectivity and Desire: An(other) Way of Looking", Mary Ann Doane critiques Mulvey's points made in "Visual Pleasure".[10] Doane argues that man is not the exclusive bearer of "the look", but woman, given her marginal status as one outside of language, politics, and history, possesses the look of the passive female spectator. Her lack of power, resulting from her marginal status, allows only for a passive look, rather than an active gaze. Looking does not involve an exertion of power over the other, that is, the looked-at. Woman is also taken in by what she sees, leading to the problem of over-identification between herself and the film. Likewise, Doane states that woman lacks a desire of her own. Thus, woman is negated on several levels. In terms of her desire, she lacks the ability to have a desire of her own, given that she is merely a passive spectator. This passivity prevents her from being able to possess her own desire. Anything resembling a desire is actually only the desire to desire. Woman wishes she could have her own desire, but cannot.
However, subsequent theorists, including Kaja Silverman, Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, argue that film theory has erroneously attributed certain qualities to the feminine and certain to the masculine. In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, Cohan and Hark argue that qualities such as lack, castration and wounding actually serve to empower masculinity.[11] The male gaze gains social, sexual and "spectatorial" power from such qualities.[12] It is a case of one depending on the other for its existence. Thus the masculine cannot exist without these so-called feminine qualities, necessitating a revaluation of what constitutes both "masculine" and "feminine". Silverman makes similar claims in The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema, stating that classic cinema is a cultural institution which attributes lack, specularity and containment to woman, while identifying man with potency, vision and exteriority.[13] Yet, the qualities attributed to the feminine are actually necessary for all subjectivity, both male and female. Given this new approach, one can reverse the male/female polarity to achieve a "'feminization' of the male subject".[14]
In Wide Sargasso Sea, this feminisation is evident in the relationship between "Rochester" and Antoinette.[15] This relationship also points to a fragmentation of power structures and of the self/other polarity. Rochester's white English status gives him a certain degree of power, yet economically, he is dependent upon Antoinette, a white Creole, until he marries her and thereby claims her fortune for himself. Thus Rochester's objectification of Antoinette is not clearly defined by strict binaries of "self" and "other" or "gazer" and "gazed at". Although, in the case of gazing, Rochester tends to look at Antoinette in order to objectify her, this gazing is again not a clear case of a "self" gazing at an "other". This complication echoes de Lauretis' critique in Technologies of Gender (1987), that film theory makes an "unacknowledged assumption of sexual difference: that the human subject, Man, is the male".[16]
Fragmentation is also evident in Antoinette's own ethnic status, which has profound implications for the resulting power imbalances. bell hooks points to the objectification of black women in her chapter, "Selling Hot Pussy" in Black Looks. She cites the historical eroticisation of the exotic, black female body. Although Antoinette is not black, she is not white either. Her Creole status suggests that she may have black lineage somewhere in her distant past. Thus Rochester objectifies Antoinette by othering her beauty. Rochester fears this strange beauty, a fear that reveals itself in his description, "Long, sad, dark alien eyes" (Rhys, p.56). In gazing at Antoinette's eyes, Rochester reveals his awareness of Antoinette's ability to gaze at him and his subsequent desire to steal this ability from her. This comes as a result of Rochester's anxiety over loss of power, and his urge to reinforce his own sense of superiority over Antoinette by gazing at her. Rochester's use of the term "dark" indicates lack of light, lack of illumination and knowledge, while "alien" reinforces this lack through the inability of the gazer to "know" the gazed at. Rochester has decided, early in their marriage, to refuse to "know" Antoinette, solely based on her status as white Creole and, implicitly, her lack of status as English or European. Thus he often regards her with suspicion, and cannot allow himself to reconcile her world view with his. For example, he disapproves of the way in which she socialises with black people, particularly Christophine, Antoinette's maid from childhood.
10  Rochester asks Antoinette,

'Why do you hug and kiss Christophine?' I'd say. 'Why not?' 'I wouldn't hug and kiss them,' I'd say, 'I couldn't.' At this she'd laugh for a long time and never tell me why she laughed. (Rhys, p.76; Rhys's emphasis)

Here Rochester's swift movement from "Christophine" to "them" demonstrates his objectification of both Christophine and of black people. He begins by talking to Antoinette about Christophine and his objection to her affection for her. When Antoinette questions his disapproval, Rochester categorises Christophine with all of the black people of the West Indies, removing her of her individual identity and transforming her into "them". The stress on the word "I" reveals Rochester's need to assert his own individuality, to give himself authority and to validate his own opinions. Note that the line beginning "I wouldn't hug and kiss them" contains a form of the word "I" three times. This repetition reveals Rochester's insistence on asserting his authority. It also indicates his anxiety over losing such authority, and thus allows for a critique of its legitimacy. This reflects Bhabha's notion of repetition in the authority of the English text and of the colonial "I". In "Signs Taken for Wonders", Bhabha mentions the "lifeless repetition of chapter and verse" that occurs when translating the Bible from English to Hindi.[17] This translation enforces the coloniser's religion over that of the colonised, imbuing the former with authority in an attempt to hide its ambivalence. In the case of Rochester's use of the word "I", he legitimises his objectification of black people by repeating his presence in the line three times, revealing a hidden insecurity over his lack of "knowing" these "other" people. Because they are alien and threatening to his sense of security, Rochester reinforces difference between himself by pitting "I" against "them" in antagonistic anxiety.

11  Given that feminisation problematises the demarcation between "masculine" and "feminine", female desire can also be seen in a new light. In Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette speaks her desire on a number of occasions. One is when she attempts to objectify Rochester by "framing" him in the mirror, shortly after their marriage. Two wreaths of frangipani lie on the bed, and Rochester wears one, making a face in the mirror. This sneer signifies his disapproval of the way in which the garland makes him appear. But he wears it because Antoinette desires him to do so.
12  Antoinette says to her husband,

'You look like a king, an emperor.' 'God forbid,' I said and took the wreath off. It fell on the floor and as I went towards the window I stepped on it. The room was full of the scent of crushed flowers. I saw her reflection in the glass fanning herself... (Rhys, p.62).

Antoinette fetishises Rochester by identifying him as a king and emperor. She exerts her female gaze against him, making him into a hero, seeing him in the reflected mirror, and framing his identity so that he appears heroic, as she desires him to appear. Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus he rejects it by removing the garland and crushing the flowers.

13  Antoinette also speaks her desire by convincing Christophine to cast an obeah spell on Rochester, who has sexually neglected Antoinette (Rhys, pp.92-97). By turning to black witchcraft, something that does not belong to the white patriarchal power structure, Antoinette demonstrates her willingness to subvert power and thereby to express her own desire. This desire is her own because she seeks its realisation through a system that lies outside of white patriarchal law.
14  Christophine at first refuses Antoinette's pleading request, but eventually consents after Antoinette gazes at her. Thus Antoinette uses a female gaze to achieve a female desire. It is Antoinette's own desire to be loved by her husband, a desire that exists in and of itself. It is not merely, in Doane's sense, a "desire to desire". It is, rather, a desire to create a male desire which currently does not exist. Rochester does not, at this moment in the narrative, desire his wife. Antoinette subverts the male/female binary informed by psychoanalysis, by possessing her own desire, acting upon that desire, and using it to create a male desire. The lack of Rochester's desire is significant here, a lack which psychoanalysis attributes solely to women. Rather than Rochester being threatened by Antoinette's lack, he is threatened by her lack of lack, that is, her actual ability to love him.
15  Antoinette's gaze against Christophine, although it demonstrates a feminine desire that subverts male patriarchy and the male/female binary, is also problematic in terms of race. In her desperation, Antoinette objectifies Christophine, referring to her inwardly in derogatory terms:

I stared at her, thinking, 'but how can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate old negro woman, who is not certain if there is such a place as England?' She knocked out her pipe and stared back at me, her eyes had no expression at all. (Rhys, p.93)

17 The use of the word "negro" signifies Antoinette's objectification of Christophine. By gazing at Christophine, Antoinette defines her, makes her into a simple, black woman who lacks sense and reason, who does not understand white realities such as the existence of England. Although Antoinette desires the benefits of Christophine's obeah spell, when this is not immediately surrendered she dismisses Christophine's reasoning as folly, the product of a black mind that does not think the same way in which Antoinette does. Yet Christophine herself subverts this power that Antoinette attempts to exercise over her. Antoinette's objectification of Christophine is merely inward, as she does not verbally degrade Christophine. Christophine's gaze against Antoinette, however, is a subversive reaction against the white power which Antoinette attempts to exercise over Christophine in her objectification of the latter.
18  This echoes the way in which feminist film theory has not recognised black female subjectivity. In "The Oppositional Gaze", a chapter in her book Black Looks, hooks points out that the black female spectator lies outside of the binary distinction used by Mulvey which posits "woman as image, man as bearer of the look". Hence the use of psychoanalysis in feminist film theory encourages an ahistorical stance that fails to recognise the position of the black female spectator and the black female gaze. In the language of mainstream feminist film theory, "women" or "woman" is used as a universalising category that applies to white women only, without recognising its exclusion of other races. Hence white women come to represent women in general or "woman", that is, all women. It is a "totalising category", as hooks points out. [xviii] As Jane Gaines indicates in "White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory", using psychoanalysis as a model can "inadvertently reaffirm white middle-class norms". [xix]
19  Yet the degree to which subversion is liberating for the colonised (in the case of Bhabha), or the black female (in the case of hooks), is debatable. Is such subversion actually liberating for the colonised, or does it merely perpetuate the power structure that allows for gazing against the colonised in the first place? The enigmatic nature of Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea draws attention to such a debate. Christophine, in contrast to Antoinette, works outside of the system that threatens to oppress her. She refuses to act within the confines of the power structure imposed upon her. Christophine makes her exit from the narrative by walking away "without looking back"(Rhys, p. 133). Christophine has had a heated argument with Rochester over his neglect of Antoinette, her refusal to "look back" indicating her aloofness towards the power structure of the white English male. By ignoring or resisting it, she expresses her disdain for such a system. She refuses to become part of it, and thus, literally, walks away from it.
20  As Norman Denzin points out in The Cinematic Society, the female gaze exists in Hollywood film, but it tends to be a representation of the femme fatale, thus it is associated with evil, a threat to the values of western society. [xx] In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette possesses a gaze, but her eventual madness re-inscribes the canonical text of Jane Eyre. She thinks, "Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do." (Rhys, pp.155-6). She sets fire to the house so that she can become Bertha Mason of Charlotte Brontë's novel.
21  In a moment of self recognition that leads to this sense of purpose, Antoinette thinks, I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her - the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her.
22  How empowering is Antoinette's gaze, given that it leads to her madness and her own self-destruction? Yet Antoinette's definition of triumph is not constrained within a patriarchal definition of "power". According to Kristeva, women are outside of language, as they are born into a system that excludes them. As language is linked to power, women therefore lack power. This is not precisely the case for Antoinette. She is born into a system that endows her with wealth, but this is taken from her when she joins another system, the institution of marriage, as defined by English law. Thus the gilt frame can be seen to represent the new framing of Antoinette's identity, the way in which the white Victorian English system of patriarchy has defined and confined her.
23  Christophine, by contrast, is not bound by such a system, and therefore has the ability to walk away "without looking back". But because Antoinette does not have this power, she must resort to suicide in order to free herself from the literal confinement of being locked up in the attic at Thornfield Hall. Her suicide demonstrates both desperation and power. Her desperation is evident in the fact that she kills herself, but her strength lies in her ability to recognise that her life no longer belongs to her. Yet she knows who she is - she recognises her self and her own self-destruction as something beyond her control yet within it. Enough of her identity remains to recognise that her soul has been destroyed, and that what remains of her self, Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic, must therefore be annihilated.


[1]Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", reprinted from Screen, 16:3 (Autumn 1975), pp.6-18, in Contemporary Film Theory by Anthony Easthope (London: Longman Group, 1993), pp.111-124.

[2]Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Penguin Books, 1966). Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.

[3]Homi Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817", in "Race", Writing and Difference, ed. H L Gates Jr. (University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp.163-184.

[4]bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992) pp. 115-131.

[5]Bhabha, p 173.

[6]hooks, pp.115-131

[7]Mulvey, pp.111-124.

[8]E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Methuen, 1983).

[9]Freud, Sigmund, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1962, Translated and revised by James Strachey, New York, Basic Books.

[10]Mary Ann Doane, "Subjectivity and Desire: An(other) Way of Looking", reprinted from The Desire to Desire (Indiana University Press, 1987), pp.1-13, in Contemporary Film Theory by Anthony Easthope (London: Longman Group, 1993), pp.162-178.

[11]Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, ed. by Steve Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (London: Routledge, 1993).

[12]Cohan and Hark, p.2.

[13]Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988).

[14]Silverman, p.149.

[15]Note that Antoinette's husband is never named in Wide Sargasso Sea, but the intertextual narrative makes clear that he is the Rochester of Jane Eyre. Thus, for ease of reference, the name Rochester will be used to denote Antoinette's husband.

[16]Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of gender : essays on theory, film, and fiction (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press, 1987) p.130.

[17]Bhabha, p.167.

[18]hooks, p.124.

[19]Jane Gaines, "White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory", Screen, 29:4 (1988), pp.12-27.

[20]Norman Denzin, The Cinematic Society: The Voyeur's Gaze (London : Sage, 1995).

eSharp issue: spring 2004. © Nalini Paul 2004. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.