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Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway, during her childhood is discriminated for being “Creole” by the children she comes in contact with. Such discrimination leads to name calling such as “white cockroach” and “white nigger”. Antoinette later faces oppression by her husband, Mr. Rochester, who then changes her name to Bertha. For Annie John in Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, life is different. Annie realizes that the experiences she has during her childhood and the people she comes in contact to allow her to create her own identity. Both female protagonists in these novels face similar situations especially during childhood but they both deal with it differently. Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John and Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea through Annie’s and Antoinette’s experiences explain the importance, its connection to the past and how it becomes a part of the human identity
Names are given as a means of connecting with culture and history, it also carries a symbolic significance. As Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea states, “Names Matter: (Rhys 147). As a result of slavery and European domination, many slaves were stripped of their ancestral identity. Many if not all were denied to keep their own names which would help them in identifying their African roots. According to Burton, “…unnaming and renaming of new arrivants from Africa was for their masters, an integral part of taking possession” (Burton 41). As an African or descendant of Africans, not only is the United States but in the Caribbean as well, naming can be seen as a part of upholding culture, constructing one’s identity and sometimes a form of resistance. As Fitzpatrick explains, Africans reclaiming and retaining their name is a form of showing and understanding how they survived under the oppressive system of enslavement, and adjusting to their new strange environment” (Fitzpatrick 12). At the beginning of Kincaid’s Annie John, instead of introducing the readers directly to the protagonist by name, she tells of the childhood experiences Annie encounters and how each made an impact on her as an individual. Readers are informed of different stages of Annie’s development and by doing so Kincaid shows that the name was of significance importance until Annie became of age and can identify herself as such. At the end of the novel, Annie declares her name, “My name is Annie John” (Kincaid 130). Then there is Rhys Antoinette Cosway who is introduced to the readers as “white nigger” and “white cockroach” (Rhys 13-14), then as Antoinette, and finally as Bertha. Names are not only important as part of our identity but also as part of our past.
In both novels, Annie John and Antoinette’s name mirrors their past and their mother. Annie acknowledges her roots and is firmly rooted with her African descendants. Name is a part of tone’s “origin, color, position, and parentage” (Burton 38). In Annie John, Annie is not forced to accept who she is not and neither is she uncertain or the community she belongs to (Sandstrom 25). To show her connections to her roots, she is also named after her mother, Annie who is very attached to until she reaches puberty. As Murdoch explains, Annie “identifies with the image of the other in the form of her mother in an effort to establish a coherent self” (Murdoch 325). Similar to Annie John, Antoinette’s name reflects that of her mother, Annette. When compared to Annie, Antoinette is called by another name in order for her to lose connections with her roots. She is referred to as “white cockroach” and “white nigger” to emphasize her mixture as well as her status amongst the ex-slaves (Rhys 13-14). Further, into the novel, Antoinette is renamed Bertha by her husband Mr. Rochester. He assigns her a new name in order for her to lose connections whit who is and where she comes from. He also wants to distance her from anything that has to do with her mother. Rochester’s fear is that Antoinette will have the same fate as her mother. Giving Antoinette another name instead of her own is a form of “othering” (Tyson 420). Rochester, the epitome of the colonial masters, renames his wife because it is how he demonstrates his power within the relationship and longing to see the “ideal European woman” in her. The numerous labels given to Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea is a form of stripping her from her past. As Langston cites Veronica Gregg she states, “In renaming Antoinette Bertha, the husband does not succeed in changing her but instead splitting her identity” (166). Changing Antoinette’s name is the only way Mr. Rochester is able to separate her from her past and hope for a rebirth (Mziel 32). When Rochester sees he cannot change her to the English woman he desires, he turns her mad instead.
Having a name and accepting it is the only way one can create his or her own human identity. At the end of both novels, Annie and Antoinette find the need to separate themselves from their past. Doing so means that both women are claiming their human identity. When we think of creating our identity, we need to think of the many factors that may influence such from being created. According to Lois Tyson, “We don’t really have an identity because the word identity implies that we comprise one, singular self, but in fact, we are multiple and fragmented, consisting at any moment of many conflicting beliefs, desires, fears, anxieties, and intentions” (Tyson 257). Tyson’s explanation of identity coincides with the experiences Annie faces in the novel. Not only did the women (mother, Gwen and Red Gyal) are important but her contact with the teachers and students at school. She knows that the school wants to impose the colonial beliefs on her and she rejects it. The manner in which Kincaid presents Annie the reader can see clearly how she is detaching herself from the things and persons she loves and becoming the person she wants to be. As Rampaul clearly states, “it is necessary to remember that this identity is a result of a combination of many influences—many of which have been repressive and oppressive” (Rampaul 158).
On the other hand, there is Jean Rhys Antoinette who is not as fortunate as Annie John to own her identity but instead succumb to what Rochester has turned her into. After not being able to erase her past, he turns her into a mad woman. Renaming Antoinette to Berta was a way of telling Antoinette that he was not with her for love but for other reasons (money). Rochester uses the renaming as a way of controlling Antoinette, forcing her to be the person he wants her to be in order to please him. Antoinette does not resist his demands nor does she voice her opinion about the name change but instead she submits to his demands, giving him total power over her identity. Because Antoinette cannot connect any longer with her real self, she faces an identity crisis. As Sandstorm explains in her article, “identity crisis’ … can end negatively, leading to confusion to one’s identity and values” (Sandstrom, 9). It is evident that throughout the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, names matter indeed. “Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking glass” (Rhys 180) tells that she is not herself anymore and cannot relate to the person she had become.
Jean Rhys and Jamaica Kincaid present a complex relationship between their respective protagonist naming and how they create their identity. Even though it is not evident that Annie was objectified the way Antoinette was, the struggles in claiming who they are is evident. It is important to embrace our experiences in order to declare why we have become the person we are. Indeed, names do hold an immense power; it embraces our ancestral roots and helps in creating our own human identity.