Study Guide

Wide Sargasso Sea The Supernatural

By Jean Rhys

The Supernatural

I was suddenly very much afraid […] I was certain that hidden in the room (behind the old black press?) there was a dead man's dried hand, white chicken feathers, a cock with its throat cut, dying slowly, slowly. Drop by drop the blood was falling into a red basin and I imagined I could hear it. No one had every spoken to me about obeah – but I knew what I would find if I dared to look. Then Christophine came in smiling and pleased to see me. Nothing alarming ever happened and I forgot, or told myself I had forgotten. (I.1.6.3)

This quote is awfully strange because Antoinette seems to know without knowing that there's an obeah charm in the room. How does she know what a charm looks like if nobody's ever talked about it? Is it possible that she's repressed what she's heard, just as she tells herself in the passage above that she's forgotten what she's seen in Christophine's room? The passage above is a great one to look at if you want to try to disentangle the weird dynamic of rumor and denial that goes into obeah's mystique.

I heard someone say something about bad luck and remembered that it was very unlucky to kill a parrot, or even to see a parrot die. (I.1.8.19)

It seems ridiculous that a parrot on fire could dispel a riot, but there you have it. The scene attests to the way superstitions operate: what a community believes to be true can generate its own objective reality.

But we have our own Saint, the skeleton of a girl of fourteen under the altar of the convent chapel. The Relics. But how did the nuns get them out there, I ask myself? In a cabin trunk? Specially packed for the hold? How? But here she is, and St. Innocenzia is her name. We do not know her story; she is not in the book. (I.2.4.2)

The novel creates its own mythical saint to suggest an analogy with Antoinette, who herself gets locked up in the hold of a ship and gets transported in the opposite direction – to England and Europe, rather than the Caribbean. The convent's worship of a girl's skeleton invites parallels with obeah rituals (the dried, shriveled hand of Quote #1 above). These similarities suggest that the lines separating obeah from Christianity, black magic from religion, are not quite so clear-cut as they appear.

So many things are sins, why? Another sin, to think that. However, happily, Sister Marie Augustine says thoughts are not sins, if they are driven away at once. You say Lord save me, I perish. I find it very comforting to know exactly what must be done. All the same, I did not pray so often after that and soon, hardly at all. I felt bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe. (I.2.5.3)

Again, Antoinette's religious education contains magical elements. "Lord save me, I perish" is Antoinette's abracadabra, the magical password that drives away her sins, but it also echoes Christophine's ominous mumbling in Quote #9.

Turning around she saw me and laughed loudly. "Your husban' he outside the door and he looked like he see zombi. Must be he tired of the sweet honeymoon too." (II.4.1.32)

By claiming that Rochester looks as if he's seen a zombie (i.e., Antoinette), Amélie suggests that zombies are not mythical creatures, but can refer to anyone who has undergone some traumatic event. In this way, Amélie demystifies the mystique –and the terror – a zombie generates by reducing the term to a casual insult.

I had reached the forest and you cannot mistake the forest. It is hostile […] Under the orange trees I noticed little bunches of flowers tied with grass. (II.4.3.2)

Lost in the forest, Rochester comes across an obeah offering, emphasizing obeah's close association with the land itself.

A zombi is a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead. A zombi can also be the spirit of a place, usually malignant but sometimes to be propitiated with sacrifices or offerings of flowers and fruit […] They cry out in the wind that is their voice, they rage in the sea that is their anger. (II.4.3.28)

On reading about obeah, Rochester realizes that the flowers he saw in Quote #6 was one such offering to appease the ghost of Père Lilievre, who was rumored to haunt the area. But the passage also asks us to consider what characters also serve as spirits who have to be plied with flowers and fruit, that "cry out" and "rage" – yup, that's Antoinette we're talking about. Makes you take a second look at all those flowers in their honeymoon house, doesn't it?

"So you believe in that tim-tim story about obeah, you hear when you so high? All that foolishness and folly. Too besides, that is not for béké. Bad, bad trouble come when béké meddle with that." (II.5.1.37)

Christophine's words are somewhat disingenuous here because she does end up giving Antoinette an obeah potion. But her words are also loaded in that she's already been imprisoned by the békés, or whites, for practicing obeah, which was associated with slave mutinies, particularly in Haiti. Obeah terrifies precisely because it's a cultural expression, not a magical one: the voice of protest for a community, not a species of witchcraft or wizardry. Christophine's use of the word "trouble" also echoes the first line of the novel, where "trouble" refers to the turmoil after the Emancipation Act was passed in 1833.

She said something I did not hear. Then she took a sharp stick and drew lines and circles on the earth under the tree, then rubbed them out with her foot.

"If you talk to him first I do what you ask me." (II.5.2.9)

This quote shows how Christophine's obeah works as much through psychological manipulation as it does through its various incantations, rituals, and potions. Christophine gives Antoinette a condition that Christophine has no way of enforcing: once she's given up the potion, there's no way to stop Antoinette from doing whatever she wants with it, whether she talks to Rochester or not. Christophine's words throughout their exchange seems to indicate that she knows what will happen – "bad, bad trouble" – if Antoinette uses the powder. Then why does she give Antoinette the powder? Her intentions continue to remain mysterious.

I drank some more rum and, drinking, I drew a house surrounded by trees. A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman – a child's scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one for the body, a triangle for a skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet. But it was an English house. (II.6.8.17)

There's an awful lot of drinking in the novel, and you could say that rum and alcohol like the obeah powder alter states of mind. Christophine's obeah seems to have seeped into Rochester's consciousness here as he too draws shapes (see Quote #9) in order to influence reality. His clumsy sketch here provides a blueprint for his eventual confinement of Antoinette to his manor house.