Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Engl242

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Spivak has been described as "one of the leading literary theorists and cultural critics of our times."

Wide Sargasso Sea and a Critique of Imperialism

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes primarily on Wide Sargasso Sea, the prequel to Jane Eyre written by Jean Rhys; she uses that novel as a touch point to explain some of her views on feminism, modernity, imperialism, and the subaltern.

Spivak on Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea is a book about a girl named Antoinette whose mother goes crazy after being left without money, becoming a complete social outcast when her husband dies. As a child, Antoinette is forced to carry all of these burdens on her back. Once she grows up, the additional weight of being forced to marry a man who she doesn't love and who doesn't love her is added on to her already heavy baggage. She hopes that maybe they will grow to love each other and even tries to poison him with love; her desires are dashed when her nursemaid, Christophine, points out that her husband, Rochester, is a man with no other interests but himself, money, and power. As time goes on, Rochester decides that Antoinette is insane, so he locks her in an attic, thus sealing her fate as mad.


  • There is forever a question left in the reader's mind of whether Antoinette really was crazy and Rochester simply fell in her trap, or whether she only went mad once she realized she was not going to receive the love she so desperately yearned for and was locked up like an animal. In the end, it seemed that her only way out was to do the unthinkable: light the house on fire and run.
    • "She don't come to your beautiful house to beg you to marry with her. No, it's you come all the long way to her house -- it's you beg her to marry. And she love you and she give you all she have" (WSS, 130). At this point, Christophine has Rochester figured out; she knows he married Antoinette only for her money and has no intention of giving her anything she wants or needs, including love. Christophine challenges Rochester, "Now you say you don't love her and you break her up" (WSS, 130). In the end, Rochester is so ashamed of his marriage and, one may hope, in the entirety of his actions, so he does what any proud man does: he tries to hide his "mistake" by locking her in an attic, sealing her fate and never realizing that he has imposed her madness on them both.


  • By turning a woman into an animal in Jane Eyre, it gives Rochester the 'right' to keep her locked away. Spivak suggests "that Bertha's function in Jane Eyre is to render indeterminate the boundary between human and animal and thereby to weaken her entitlement under the spirit if not the letter of the law" (241). When Bertha is seen as an animal, Rochester becomes 'justified' in the eyes of Britain. But, once we see Antoinette's cause for madness and how she was continually ill-treated in her life, Rochester's justification is gone, and we see that he is, in fact, the probable foundation for her dehumanization that has taken full effect by the time Jane Eyre is brought into the story.


  • Spivak further speculates that what Jean Rhys accomplishes with Wide Sargasso Sea is the humanization of the mad woman in the attic. Spivak states, "In Rhys' retelling, it is the dissimulation that Bertha discerns in the word 'legally'--not an innate bestiality--that prompts her violent reaction" (242). It is noted that Rhys "keeps Bertha's humanity, indeed her sanity as critic of imperialism, intact" (242). Again, the idea that Bertha may not actually be mad if left to her own devices seems apparent. Antoinette turned Bertha Mason is simply representing an attack on imperialism that needed to take place. It is important to understand that her actions are all reactions, she does nothing without reason and again we see cause to blame Rochester for her madness.


Spivak on Feminism

Spivak is known for her feminist views and her literary criticism. Her criticism of Wide Sargasso Sea notes that the women in the book are examples of what imperialism has done to women: they were seen merely as tools for “childbearing and soul making” (241); they had no say in anything and they had little to no title or status in society if they were not married.

  • As Spivak saw the role of women in Wide Sargasso Sea, they had no voice without a husband, they weren't fully human. We see the imperialism that was forced on women of the time as played out by the husband in the novel, Rochester. When we see that he has renamed Antoinette, against her will, continuing to call her Bertha until she submissively gives in, Spivak tells us that through this Rhys is suggesting "that so intimate a thing as personal and human identity might be determined by the politics of imperialism" (242).


Spivak on Modernity

Spivak begins her essay with the reminder that 19th century British literature was written in the context of imperialism, and should thus be read within the context of imperialism. The British had a goal to represent themselves to themselves with a justified humanity. Proof and thought that their actions were alright because those actions helped shape Britain into the superpower it had become. Spivak has this to say: "It should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England's social mission, was a crucial part of the cultural representation of England to the English." (240) The British were writing to the self about the self versus the other. Using the other as a justification for colonization, violence, and imperialism.

  • Spivak has strong feelings about the British and their representation of imperialism through their literature. She mentions "the Third World" and how those cultures were put on hold during the time that Britain was colonizing the world. Her feelings toward imperialism are negative: she points out that “It should be not be possible to read nineteenth- century British without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission…” (240) and she goes on and connects it to the Third World. In her words, "the Third World" is “distant cultures, exploited but with rich intact literary heritage waiting to be recovered...” (240)


Other vs. Self

Being raised in a black community in Jamaica, by Christophine, a black servant, Antoinette was surrounded by more black people than white people. Her mother died, leaving Antoinette alone in the world except for Christophine who was the only person who cared enough about Antoinette to figure out the truth about Rochester. She knew that he didn’t love Antoinette, but instead married her for her money and stayed with her because he couldn’t give up the power or face the shame of his mistakes. This is why Antoinette never felt like she belonged or was part of the white society.

  • In Spivak's essay she picked out a quote about how Antoinette describes herself, and as shes doing this she talks about how she sees herself as a black girl: "We [Antoinette and Tia] stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like a looking glass" (241). Like in a mirror, she sees herself in the face of Tia.
  • Furthering the method used by Gayatri explain this idea of Britain writing itself to itself and that is that British are Narcissistic. "In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Narcissus' madness is disclosed when he recognizes his Other as his self: 'Iste ego sum.'" (242) Not only does this quotation work to explain Britain's role, but it also helps to explain another aspect of Bertha's madness. The book has a motif of mirrors, of Antoinette seeing herself in someone else. It makes sense, then, that over time, Antoinette/Bertha's madness grows from years of constantly recognizing her other as herself. She only burns the house down when she spies herself in a mirror and recognizes the woman from her dream and knows that her mission is to burn the house down. I would surmise that Spivak may be alluding to a possibility of Britain slowly driving itself mad, like Bertha, in its representation of itself to itself.
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Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Goldsmiths, University of London.

Figuring the Subaltern

Gayatri Spivak is perhaps best known for her essay, "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In it, she has four main points; the wikipedia cite linked to above says these points are: "1) Problematize the Western subject and see how it is still operational in poststructualist theory; 2) Re-read Marx to find a more radical decentering of the subject that also leaves room for the formation of class identifications that are non-essentialist; 3) Argue that Western intellectual production reinforces the logic of Western economic expansion; 4) Perform a close reading of sati to analyze the discourses of the West and the possibilities for speech that the subaltern woman has (or does not have) within that framework."

  • We see Spivak reiterating these points with her reading of Wide Sargasso Sea and the course readings when she writes, "No perspective critical of imperialism can turn the Other into a self, because the project of imperialism has always already historically refracted what might have been the absolutely Other into a domesticated Other that consolidates the imperialist self." (246) In the footnote, she even tells us that this is her main argument for her "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Rhys seems to use Spivak's idea writing Antoinette as the "absolutely other" becoming the "domesticated" Bertha Mason when Rochester renames her, thus consolidating the "imperialist self" of Britain.
  • Spivak says that subaltern is not "just a classy word for oppressed, for Other, for somebody who's not getting a piece of the pie... In postcolonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern - a space of difference." [1]



About the Author

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was born in Calutta, West Begal, India in 1942. She attended the University of Caulutta where she got her undergraduate degree in English and graduated with honors. Later she did her graduate work at Cornell where she revived her MA in English. She then taught at the University of Iowa and got her PhD. She is known for her literary criticism. Presently she is in the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. [2] [3]

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Who Sings the Nation-State? A book co-authored by Spivak and Judith Butler. Described as "a conversation between two of the smartest and most relevant theorists of gender and culture on the planet- [the book] disects the problem of the nation in the era of globalization."


Additional Resources

  • For further discussion: [4]
  • Spivak says that The ideal relation to the Other is "an embrace, an act of love." [5]
  • The most complete and interesting site on Spivak's work that I found. [6]