Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid & Edwidge Danticat

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Caribbean Literature Theme and Culture in the Oeuvre of Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat


by Swati Srivastava, published in Issue XIII, February 2016

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Swati SrivastavaSwati Srivastava is an MA and PhD in English Literature. She has extensively worked on feminist writers and diaspora authors. Her subject to research in PhD was a comparative study on Bharati Mukherjee and Manju Kapur. Swati has also been teaching English for 8 years in undergraduate classes.

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This paper focuses on Caribbean women writers through their writings. It is an attempt to explore the Caribbean region, culture and tradition as well as female experience since the 1890 till the present day. Caribbean women claim, that there is general critical consent that the principal women writers in English from the Caribbean are Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, and Edwidge Danticat, as a literary artist, with respect to form and style, is only an extension of an already complex and multiform English literary tradition.

These writers have entered the mainstream of American readership and publish in many genres: romance, mystery, science fiction and literary fiction. While issues of identity and race are still prominent, the ranges of human issues are also topics of contemporary Caribbean women Literature.


Keywords: Innocence, relationship, history, modernist, realm, colonialism



The voice of Caribbean women writer is no longer silent. Through their writing they challenge the male intervention, as well as Caribbean specific histories, culture and the main concerns of underrepresented women from West Indian descent. Their novel deals with the social problems, ethnic and cultural identity, domestic abuse, mother daughter relationship, rape, migration, exile and also familiar themes in Caribbean women writing.

This paper is an attempt to study Caribbean women writers, their Literature, theme and culture since 1890 through the oeuvre of three women writers, Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979), Jamaica Kincaid (1949 -) and Edwidge Danticat (1969 -). The similarity in the writing of these women writers as their writing shares a similarity in theme. Moreover, the mother daughter relationship remains pivotal in the formation of daughter identity is a recurring theme in these writers. As Rhys’ Julia her mother was “the warm centre of the world” (1931 106). She has profound attachment for her mother and longs for her love, warmth and approval. Kincaid’s Annie John, after leaving her mother land and mother in anger, does not find peace within herself. The same theme continues in the second novel Lucy with the same character name. Danticat’s Sophie Caco and her problematic relationship with her mother Martine.

They write about modernist, post modernist and feminist concerns, there female characters suffered in the dominating society, where patriarchal power at its core. These writers even give their characters voices through their own personal experiences, therefore, there is autobiographical and semi autobiographical elements present in their works. Traces of resistance and self assertion can be seen in their novels.

Jean Rhys (1890 – 1979) was born on 24th August 1890 in Roseau Dominica, an island of the British West Indies. Rhys was of Creole heritage; her father was British while her mother was a native white West Indian. Her real name was Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, later she changed her name. In 1907, at the age of sixteen, she moved to England for schooling, but after the death of her father she was forced to discontinue her studies. She then drifted into a series of jobs that included chorus girl, mannequin, and artist’s model, before working as a volunteer during World War I. In 1919 she married a minor Dutch writer by the name of Jean Lenglet. The couple had two children, a daughter and a son who died in infancy. During the 1920s they traveled haphazardly about the continent, occasionally taking up residence in Paris, where they lived as Bohemian artists and were exposed to the developing genre of modernism. The feelings of displacement Rhys must have experienced during this time, as throughout her life are manifest in her works, most of which deal with drifting and marginalized women transplanted far from their roots.

In 1927 she published The Left Bank and Other Stories under her penname. This was followed by the novels Postures (1928, American title Quartet), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939). The scholar Francis Wyndham, who was instrumental to Rhys’s rediscovery in the second half of the twentieth century, has stated that all of these novels are rather autobiographical in nature and deal with essentially the same female protagonist at different stages of her life. Indeed, Rhys once declared, “I have only ever written about myself.”

Although her novels and short stories met with moderate success, Jean Rhys disappeared completely from the public eye between the years of 1939 and 1957, and was widely believed to be dead. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, she went on to marry two other men, both of whom passed away and left her a widow. Rhys then retired to England, where she shunned literary circles, lived in poverty, and developed a fondness for alcohol that would haunt her rest of her life. In 1949 she was arrested for assaulting neighbors and police, and in 1958, after the BBC aired a dramatization of Good Morning, Midnight, she was rediscovered as one of Britain’s great writers. The much-revised Wide Sargasso Sea, which Rhys had been working on for years, was finally published in 1966, and it was awarded the W.H. Smith literary award the following year. In recognition of her literary contributions, Rhys was honored as a Commander of the British Empire in 1978. She died on May 14, 1979.

Her novels characters struggle to make their life different, from society, open hostile and especially from the men intervention, however, each time in a skirmish for money and power, they ultimately ruins themselves. In her writing the woman are cast in a setting in which the outcome seems inevitable. In Rhys’s time, as Todd Bender writes, “the female is given by society a limited number of roles to play. She is paid or rewarded only when she plays these roles to perfection” (100). As in being independent (woman could only be a prostitute) was neither encouraged nor rewarded by society, as their rightful place was in their home.

When Rhys’ first husband was thrown into prison around 1924, she found herself alone and penniless in Paris. The same happens to Marya, protagonist, of her first novel Quartet. She was asked by an English couple the Heidlers, to stay with them till her husband released from jail.She quickly realizes that life in their circle revolves around categorization: the Heidlers classify everybody they meet, including her. They were

… fitting the inhabitants…into their proper places in the scheme of things. The Beautiful Young Men, the Dazzlers, the Middle Westerners, the Down-and-Outs, the Freaks who never would do anything, the Freaks who just possibly might… She felt a sudden, devastating realisation of the essential craziness of existence. She thought again: people are very rum. With all their little arrangements, prisons and drains and things, tucked away where nobody can see.

Marya tries to make something substantial of her life in order to withstand the unreality of her surroundings however, she was unable to decide and has no self control she was lost in the sea of social niceties. In the starting of the novel Marya is being described as unhappy and depressed as the way she interact with the people and with Esther De Solla in the novel. In the end she is rejected by both men: Mr. Heidler, because she goes back to her husband, and her husband, because of her affair with another man.

In After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie, the character Julia appears to have no instinct for self preservation. She is receiving money from her ex-lover. She rejects Mr. MacKenzie’s final check to her in a moment of pride, but her story ends with her going back to beg money from him.

Voyage in the Dark (1934) Anna Morgan, a young girl in her late teens, relocated to England from her native place West Indies. The novel depicts the experiences of Anna’s life in England are a voyage in the cold and dark. Anna’s nostalgia for the West Indies includes memories of her desire to be black, to be part of the culture she was drawn to, and of Francine, a black caretaker of Anna’s childhood who was warm and cheerful.

In Good Morning, Midnight (1939) portrayal of female alienation. The aging, destitute protagonist, Sasha Jensen, returns to Paris after an absence of many years, determined to drink herself to death. Sasha in her hotel room all alone utters aloud in front of a mirrior:

My life… is really a complicated affair of cafes where they like me and cafes where they don’t, streets that are friendly, streets that aren’t, rooms where I might be happy, rooms where I shall never be, looking – glasses that I don’t, dresses that will be lucky, dresses that won’t, and so on (1939, 46).

Wide Sargasso Sea (1969) a retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of the mad wife in the attic. It is a sequel, to Jane Eyre, similarly, Bertha is compared primarily to Jane. It is alienation that leads the characters of the novel to the destructive acts at its center. Annette, driven by her family’s exclusion from white society, is driven to seek remarriage to the wealthy Mr. Mason, a union that ultimately brings about the tragic loss of her son, her home, and her sanity. The mob at Coulibri, angry at the disenfranchisement and exclusion that the Mason’s opulent house symbolizes, is driven to commit the violence and arson that destroys Annette and Antoinette’s family. Later in the novel, Daniel Cosway, the mixed-race, illegitimate child of Alexander Cosway, is obsessed with avenging his marginalized existence. His exclusion from the Cosway family leads him to write a series of letters to Rochester maligning Antoinette and her family. These letters disturb Rochester, and form the catalyst for his ultimate distrust and distaste for Antoinette. The consequences of alienation become both increasingly isolating as well as increasingly dire as the novel progresses. Race and class difference leads an entire mob to burn down the house at Coulibri, and the family escapes damaged but together. However, the family is drawn apart, and by the end, Antoinette is alienated even from herself. Rochester denies her even her own identity by repeatedly calling her “Bertha,” and in her madness and captivity she speaks of “the ghost of a woman they say haunts this place,” unaware that she is referring to herself.

            Jamaica Kincaid (1949 -) is an Antiguan-American novelist, essayist, gardener, and gardening writer. She was born in St. John’s, Antigua, which is part of the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson, her mother, Annie Richardson, was an émigré from Dominica. Her stepfather, David Drew, was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. Kincaid’s maternal grandmother, a Carib Indian, also played an important role in her early life. Kincaid’s biological father, Roderick Potter, was never involved in her upbringing. Her family was poor: they had no electricity, running water, or plumbing in their home.

In 1966, at the age of 17, Kincaid was sent to the United States to work as an au pair for an affluent family in Scarsdale, New York. She was expected to send money home to her family, but she would not. She received letters from home, but she did not open them. It was in this state of self-exile that Kincaid would shape her new life away from the unhappiness she had felt in Antigua. After working for three years and taking night classes at a community college, Kincaid won a full-scholarship to Franconia College in New Hampshire. However, after a year of feeling too old to be a student, Kincaid dropped out of school, returned to New York, secured a job writing interviews for a teen-age girls magazine, and changed her name to Jamaica Kincaid. She eventually became a staff writer at the New Yorker and one of our most renowned novelists. Her Caribbean birthplace continues to inspire her fiction, Annie John (1985), Lucy (1990), The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), Mr. Potter (2002) and See Now Then (2013). Kincaid married her editor’s son, Allen Shawn, and they had a daughter, Annie, in 1985 and a son, Harold, in 1989. Kincaid and her family reside in North Bennington, Vermont. She is currently a visiting lecturer on African and African American Studies and on English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University.

Her writing explores colonialism and colonial legacy, post colonialism and neo-colonialism, gender and sexuality, renaming, mother-daughter relationships, British and American imperialism, colonial education, writing, racism, class, power, and adolescence. In her most recent novel, See Now Then, she explores the theme of time for the first time. She comments in an interview:

I hope never to be at peace! I hope to make my life manageable, and I think it’s fairly manageable now. But — oh, I would never accept peace. That seems death. As I sit here enjoying myself to a degree, I never give up thinking about the way I came into the world, how my ancestors came from Africa to the West Indies as slaves. I just could never forget it. Or forgive it. It’s like a big wave that’s still pulsing. (Jamaica Kincaid, in an interview with the New York Times, 1990)

 Her first novel Annie John (1985), novel focuses on a universal, tragic, and often comic theme: the loss of childhood. Annie like Jamaica Kincaid is an only child of her mother growing up in Antigua in the 1950s and 1960s. It begins in paradise. Annie is 10 years old. She lives an orderly and affection filled existence with her mother and father in a small house he has built, which her mother keeps perfectly in order. Annie adores her mother and loves being in her presence, helping her with her daily tasks, dressing like her, being made to feel cherished and protected by her mother’s knowledge and special rigour. At the end of her school years, Annie decides to leave Antigua and her family, but not without a measure of sorrow, especially for the mother she once knew and never ceases to mourn.

The second novel Lucy (1990), based on the mother daughter relationship, a strong bond that Lucy cannot fully break is the one between herself and her mother. The presence of Lucy’s mother in her mind haunts her while she is in America, though the mother never physically appeared in America. In an effort to silence her mother’s voice, Lucy refuses to open any of her mother’s letters. Likewise, when the bonds and obligations towards her family in America become too strong, she severs those as well by moving into her own apartment. Here Kincaid illustrates Lucy’s attempts to detach herself and develop an independent identity; she questions whether or not complete detachment is possible or desirable. It is again like her first novel is an autobiographical work by the writer. At the end of the book, Lucy expresses a desire for attachment she wish she could love someone so much that she would die for it.

The third novel The Autobiography of My Mother (1996), depicts the story of a young girl who lost her mother at the time of her birth. Xuela creates a picture of the whole woman in her imagination and at last imagines an entire history for her. At the same time, Xuela begins to think about her father, a remote man who visits her only occasionally, a policeman whose life seems to suggest the possibilities of power.

The fourth novel Mr. Potter (2002) depicts the story of a common man, it is an attempt to make sense of conditions where conditions are harsh beyond description, and where sense is a luxury, if not a fiction. Though the character of Mr. Potter the author tries to present the picture of her real father, this novel seems to bask in the author’s godlike power: not so much to give life, as to withhold it.

The fifth novel See Now Then (2013) a marriage is revealed in all its joys and agonies. It’s a group portrait in the omniscient third person, similar to To the Lighthouse, in which the point of view passes seamlessly from one family member to another. The novel portrays the real family of Kincaid. Mr. Sweet, the father of the family, as the agoraphobic, intensely limited, and solitary man Shawn has described himself to be in his own memoirs. It refers to Mrs. Sweet as the author of novels about the Caribbean including Mr. Potter (the title of Kincaid’s own 2002 novel), and describes her virtuosic gardening and her conversion to Judaism—that is, it represents Kincaid exactly as the public figure she has become over four decades of writing.

Kincaid writings focuses on the roles of gender and sexuality through her Caribbean female characters, all these women seem to suffer a lot and more or less experiences the same sufferings. The environment shapes the lives of the characters in her novels. To explain the role of gender and sexuality in Caribbean Literature, Barbara Bush notes:

Black women were further differentiated from white women in a sexual sense. From the tales of early travelers to Africa, West Indian whites gleaned a superficial and inaccurate impression of West African sexual mores, polygyny in particular. They were appalled by the idea of a man having more than one wife in some West African societies, whilst refusing to admit to the hypocritical double standard (chastity for women, sexual license for men), which existed in their own society. Polygamy gave them an excuse to perpetuate this double standard on the plantation in a particularly invidious way. In the eyes of white men, the sexual function of black women placed them in a separate category to black men. Out of this basic division grew the belief that slave women had different aspirations, needs and functions (1)

Edwidge Danticat (1969 – ) is considered to be one of the most talented authors in the United States. She is awarded Pushcart Short Story Prize (1995) and fiction awards from The Carribean Writer, Seventeen, and Essence magazines. The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Diaspora in the United States.

Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969, when she was small her parents’ immigrants to New York, and she stay with her aunt in Haiti. As a child she was influenced by Haitian practice of storytelling as most of the population was illiterate in those days. She started writing since she was nine. At the age of twenty six in 1995, she became a finalist for the National Book Award for her work Krik? Krak! (1995), it’s a collection of short stories. The short stories focus on recurring themes such as migration, sexuality, gender and history. Her love for Haiti and Haitian culture deeply influenced her writing. She is proud of her origin and culture which can even be experienced in her writings. Her theme of writing is based on national identity, mother daughter relationships, injustice, poverty and diasporic politics.

Danticat graduated from Barnard College in New York City in 1990 with a B.A. in French literature. She received an M.F.A. degree from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in 1993. Her master’s thesis, a partly autobiographical account of the relationships between several generations of Haitian women, was published as Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. This novel speaks of four generations of Haitian women who must overcome their poverty and powerlessness. It explores some disturbing familial traditions – most importantly the rural practice of testing a daughter to confirm that she is still a virgin. After completing her MFA, Danticat has taught creative writing at the New York University and the University of Miami. She lives in Miami with her husband and daughters.

Her second novel The Farming of Bones (1998), used as its title the Haitian term for harvesting cane. It was set against the background of the massacre of Haitian emigrants by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937. Amabelle, the main character is a Haitian woman in her twenties living in the Dominican Republic in the 1930’s. Orphaned as a child, she was adopted by a Dominican family and raised almost as a sister to Señora Valencia, who is the same age as Amabelle. The novel also focus on the mother-daughter relationship is another common theme in Danticat’s work.

The third novel Behind the Mountains (2002) also stems from Danticat’s own childhood and adaptation to a new life in Brooklyn, New York. The protagonist, Celiane Esperance and her family escape a politically unstable and impoverished Haiti. After years of separation, Celiane reunites with her family in Brooklyn, where she is shocked by life in the new city.

The fourth novel The Dew Breaker (2004) it explore the history of Haiti, a series of interconnected stories about a Haitian immigrant who had tortured and murdered dissidents during the repressive rule of Franƈois Duvalier.

The fifth novel Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti 1490 (2005) it presents the Haiti’s beautiful Queen Anacaona was the wife of one of her island’s rulers, and a composer of songs and poems, making her popular among her people. Haiti was relatively quiet until the Spanish conquistadors discovered the island and began to settle there in 1492. The Spaniards treated the natives very cruelly, and when the natives revolted, the Spanish governor of Haiti ordered the arrests of several native nobles, including Anacaona, who was eventually captured and executed, to the horror of her people.

The sixth novel Claire of the Sea Light (2013) depicts the spirals outward from the disappearance of a young girl to tell the stories of the friends and neighbours searching for her in the Haitian seaside town of Ville Rose. The novel portrays a town scarred by violence, corruption, class disparities and social taboo, which is also a town of hope, dreams, love and sensuality. But these are enmeshed rather than opposing elements. Love leads to violence, dreams lead to corruption.

Her own life and immigrant experiences have provided background and inspiration for her writing. As many of her characters are living in between two worlds, as immigrant often belonging to neither world. Danticat’s writings combine the cultural and economical experiences in Haiti and America. Her concern for Haitian immigrants led her to work with the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees (NCHR) which fights for immigration rights for Haitians in the United States. She has collected books to send to Haitian schools and visited American schools with a heavy population of Haitian students.

Jean Rhys novels are set in West Indian; her characters are presented as a poetic dramatization of main Caribbean issues, the conflict cultural, consciousness and roots of Caribbean society and history. She often employs stream of consciousness narration technique. As her characters enters in and out of the minds of various characters and depicting complicated thoughts. Her works features anxiety resulting from being isolated from society. Her novels are been considered as self on display and a further understanding of women’s self. They provide readers pleasure both subtle and deep.

Kincaid draws her colonial literary heritage to explore her experience; she critiques and redefines that heritage, she believes in the importance of knowing one’s history. She often employs stream of consciousness technique in her novels. Through her writing often depicts issue of race, gender, class, social issues through the domestic realm, betrayal by mother, loss of innocence, identity confusion caused by colonialism and socio politics. She captures complex emotions and exposes divisive issues in a deceptively simple style.

Danticat style is a combination of both light and dark which brings life to her works. Her act of balancing is a pleasure to read. She even tries to combine the cultural and personal experiences of both the places Haiti and America. Her extraordinary and restraint style convey tremendous emotional impact. Her Sophie frees herself through a multi-cultural, multi-national, women’s support group. Sophie engages in this group ritual not only to free herself, and support the other women, but also to create a brighter future for her daughter. Senora Valencia and Amabelle at the end of the book, only the recognition that in Senora’s eyes she had been as much of an activist as she could be and in Amabelle’s the loss was too great to justify clinging to a corrupt system of power.

The new woman brought a change in Literature, originality in narration and the source of the female character’s problem. The social, economical and political conditions shaped the new form of Literature by Caribbean women writers. There writings based on personal realm of relationship and individual growth, often the most personal matters are shown to be embedded in societal environment, modernist, post-modernist and feminist concerns. There female characters generally suffer in the dominating society, where patriarchal power at its core.










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