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“Somewhere between coloured and white”: ambivalence and loss of bearings in Caryl Phillips’ «A View of the Empire at Sunset»

Par Mathilde Branchereau : Étudiante en Master 2 - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 14/02/2024

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[Fiche] In ((A View of the Empire at Sunset)), Caryl Phillips proposes a fictionalised version of the life of novelist Jean Rhys – a Creole woman from Dominica expatriated in Europe – as a mirror image of the decline and dissolution of the British colonial Empire over the course of the 20th century. By depicting the protagonist’s struggle to find a sense of belonging, the novel highlights how colonial subjects may be confronted to a feeling of identity ambivalence and a loss of bearings.

Introduction

Caryl Phillips’ A View of the Empire at Sunset is the story of an individual: Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, better known as novelist Jean Rhys, who grew up in Dominica, left her island for England as a teenager and struggled to find her place in the world from then on. But it is also the story of the end of the British Empire, from its heyday at the turn of the 20th century to its complete disintegration a few decades later. The two trajectories, the individual and the systemic, seem to echo and affect each other as Gwendolen grapples with a loss of bearings and of identity which she never resolves, at the same time as the Empire gradually loses its own composure.

In Chapter 6 of the novel, a ten-year-old Gwendolen climbs up a mango tree in Dominica in order to escape a tea party arranged by her mother on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s death, and provokes a scene. As she hides up there, she overhears a conversation between two servants about her:

“The child something, eh?”

Miss Ann shook her head. “It look to me like Miss Gwendolen catch somewhere between coloured and white”. (32)

The phrase is significant, as it reflects the way in which Gwendolen is perceived by the world in the rest of the novel: never fully one thing or another, constantly stuck in an in-betweenness which prevents her from finding where she belongs. This in-betweenness can be characterised as ambivalence, a key concept in Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial theory: a duality which presents itself as a split in the identity of the colonised Other. The subject is forever trapped in a loop of imitation and repetition (mimicry) of cultural signifiers, never able to create their own (Bhabha, 1994). Indeed, throughout the novel Gwendolen imitates others in an attempt to fit in, but never quite manages to make a satisfactory impression. Gwendolen’s case is complicated by the fact that, contrarily to colonised indigenous populations, she has European origins; as a Creole, she does not have any roots other than European to fall back on, and yet she does not quite seem to belong in Europe either. The object of this study will therefore be to analyse the colonial and postcolonial dynamics at play in Gwendolen’s ambivalent characterisation, especially as they pertain to cultural identity.

1. A European background

Gwendolen is the child of a Welsh doctor and a Creole woman, that is, someone of European descent who was born in the colonies. As such, she is not, racially speaking, mixed or ambivalent, and at first glance her identity seems fairly simple. She grows up in a rather sheltered environment, where there is a clear-cut division between the dominant white people and the Blacks who serve them: Francine, Gwendolen’s Black childhood friend, is a kitchen servant before anything else, and when Gwendolen’s mother decides that Francine cannot see Gwendolen anymore there is no discussion about it. We learn in Chapter 5 that “her mother was filled with antipathy towards Negroes, and clearly disapproved of any extended period of exposure to their presence” (25): despite Gwendolen’s friendship with Francine, she is never allowed to spend too much time with her or any other Black person, which creates a profound divide between the two groups. In Chapter 7, Josephine, the house cook, calls Gwendolen a “little white devil” (34), reinforcing this gap: the servants may care for Gwendolen, but she will never be part of their world.

Later on in the novel, as Gwendolen has left Dominica, this background materialises as a set of expectations placed upon her by others. Her aunt Clarice tells her: “your parents have failed to inspire you with the prevailing ideas and responsibilities of your class” (76), implying that being from a white family in the colonies she supposedly holds a superior status. Clarice believes Gwendolen should conform to English customs and attempts to erase any trace of her niece being different from other English girls: she enrolls her into a Cambridge boarding school, the pinnacle of proper English education, and reprimands her because “in England it is customary for a young lady to spend some time preparing herself before she enters the world each morning” (86).

Even when Gwendolen is grown up, other people continue to expect her to behave like a proper English lady. Upon seeing her hotel room in Paris, her husband Lenglet asks: “how are decent people supposed to live side by side with this trash?” (221), implying that Gwendolen should be above living in such a shoddy establishment. Gwendolen herself internalises these expectations and places them on herself, as even she deplores not having been able to teach her daughter properly:

Once again, her eyes settled upon her daughter’s green socks and her heart sank, for the evidence of her neglect was unequivocal. She would never, under any circumstances, let a child of hers wear anything green, let alone such ridiculous anklets. (265)

Here the hatred for the colour green probably refers to Gwendolen’s background as a stage girl (green being the colour of bad luck in the theatre), but beyond this, she remarks that she has failed to meet her own expectations of how a good mother should raise a child as according to the European family model, the mother is responsible for the children’s education.

Indeed, Gwendolen never fully manages to conform to all of these imperatives placed upon her. She plays with Francine out of her mother’s sight, she drops out of the boarding school, she continues to live in run-down hotel rooms, and she essentially abandons her daughter. As she is having her first dinner with Lenglet, he asks her if she is English and she responds “Well, I suppose I’ve tried to be, but no” (201). This admission of failure echoes the fact that, despite being racially white and in spite of her best efforts, Gwendolen can never be truly European. On the other hand, being exiled from the West Indies for so long, she also loses this part of her identity.

2. Loss of bearings

As Benedict Anderson points out in the chapter entitled “Creole pioneers” from his influential essay Imagined Communities, Creole people in the context of the British Empire have had to deal with the “fatality” of their non-metropolitan birth (Anderson, 1983): the simple fact that they were born in the colonies sets them apart from their European peers and makes them subalterns within the hierarchy of the Empire, despite being in a position of power compared to indigenous peoples and descendants of slaves in their birth places.

Gwendolen is a prime example of how ancestry and place of birth can cause a conflict of identity for a Creole person. Her father’s origins in particular remain foreign to her throughout the novel. She thinks of his birthplace as “a place called Wales” (57), denoting the fact that she has probably barely even heard of it. As she approaches the coast of England, the narrative voice tells us that “her father’s world came into view” (67), as opposed to the world of the West Indies which her father himself calls “our world” (62), including Gwendolen in it. Thus, the notion of where Gwendolen’s world, her home, is, is very clear before she leaves for England:

She knew that in the days that remained, her task was to secure the island in her mind so that whatever transpired on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, she would always be able to immediately conjure a picture of home. (56-57)

Prior to her departure, Gwendolen feels that she belongs in Dominica, which she continues to call “home” throughout the novel despite not having been there for decades. Yet, her sense of belonging slowly erodes as time passes. In the first chapter, which constitutes a prolepsis to the end of the novel, as she is packing to go back to the West Indies, she realises that

she doesn’t own anything that will be even vaguely suitable once they reach their tropical destination. In England she has come to understand that a nice bright shawl and a decent pair of shoes will typically suffice to fool most people, but back home eyes are more discerning and she will be held to higher standards. (4)

Here we see that the issue with Gwendolen’s clothes is not so much that they are unsuitable for the tropical climate, but rather that they do not fit in with the cultural expectations of the West Indies; she is supposed to belong there, but she is afraid of sticking out. She feels “trapped” in Europe (192), but the thought of going “home” makes her nervous and confused. And indeed, the sense of where exactly “home” is has become less clear over the years. In Chapter 44, Gwendolen is reunited with her sisters who have come to live in England, and she has the following exchange with Brenda:

“Will you ever go back?

“Go back where, Gwennie?”

“You know what I mean.”

“You mean home? The West Indies?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. I’m going back to Paris now.” (233-234)

Here we see that “going back” is an ambiguous expression. While Gwendolen thinks that “going back” for her sisters obviously means back to the West Indies, the association is not straightforward to Brenda, who has to characterise “home” (“The West Indies?”). Gwendolen, meanwhile, is “going back to Paris”, that is, in the opposite direction from the West Indies, to the Continent rather than to her native island. This whole exchange suggests that, while Gwendolen and her sisters still consider the West Indies as “home”, a return to it remains theoretical, perhaps even implausible; and when Gwendolen does go back “home”, she ends up feeling out of place, as we will see with the commented excerpt below.

Thus, not belonging in England and feeling out of place back home, Gwendolen ends up stuck in an unending cycle of being a misfit everywhere. The fact that she lives primarily in hotel rooms for most of her adult life reflects her inability to settle down anywhere. She lives in a perpetual state of what Homi Bhabha would call “DissemiNation” (Bhabha, 1990), a scattering of her identity due to her separation from her roots; her life and sense of self are permanently altered by the initial voyage to England at the age of sixteen.

3. Mimicry

In order to fit in despite lacking a sense of belonging, Gwendolen ends up attempting to imitate other cultural norms than her own so that she can find her place among other groups. The first instance of this in the novel is when she imitates Francine’s songs and dances as a child: “she sang songs with Francine, the words of which she seldom fully understood, and her friend taught her how to dance with a freedom below the waist that she intuitively understood to be unseemly” (24). Then later on as a teen, when she learns that she is to be sent to England, Mother Mount Calvary asks her: “Tell me, are you trying to sound like a Negress?” (50). Thus, starting in childhood, Gwendolen learns to copy and imitate other cultural norms and items than her own.

This ability becomes essential as she moves to England and has to fit in with the rest – although she never quite fools anyone. When she starts attending Mr Tree’s school, we learn that

In the evenings she would sit alone and push and pull her mouth into the shapes that she had been instructed in at school, and try to speak in a manner which she knew would please her frustrated teachers (“It’s pronounced frawth, my dear”), but she always felt cripplingly self-conscious and inevitably discontinued the practice. (100-101)

This process resembles what Homi Bhabha would call mimicry: a strategy of imitation in which the colonised appropriates the coloniser’s culture and behaviour as they visualize the power held in this dominant culture (Bhabha, 1994). This happens again when Gwendolen meets Mabel and Ethel in England, and goes from being a prudent little girl to taking up drinking and seeing men. In this manner, Gwendolen hopes to find some of the power which she sees that Mabel and Ethel have over their own lives. However, this strategy backfires, as she falls into alcoholism and becomes trapped not only in two unhappy marriages, but in Europe as a whole. As she desperately tries to belong there, she gradually loses the opportunity to go home and the social codes of the West Indies, and in the end belongs nowhere at all – as we have seen previously. Thus, where in Homi Bhabha’s theory mimicry can be used by the subaltern to take back some power from the coloniser, here the mimicry employed by Gwendolen only leaves her even more powerless.

Commented excerpt

In this excerpt, which opens Chapter 61, Gwendolen has come back to Dominica on an initiative from her husband Leslie. She has learnt in a letter from her brother Owen that the house on their mother’s Geneva estate was previously burnt down, and she and Leslie go there to see what remains of the place, before going sightseeing in Roseau.

She watched Leslie steadily backing away from what remained of the Great House. He raised his camera to his face, then suddenly he lost his footing, and as he tumbled towards the dirt, he reached out an arm and braced himself against a fall. Righting himself, he dusted down his trousers and then found a flat rock upon which to stand, and again he raised his camera. The house was as Owen’s letter had suggested she might find it – burned, but not quite to the ground. Charred beams remained where once there had been a roof, but the stone walls of the structure still allowed her to imagine the estate home that for her mother’s family had been a country retreat for well over a century. Behind her husband, and brooding on the horizon, she could see the island of Martinique. It was a perfectly beautiful day, and with the sun at its highest point, no shadows were being cast.

This morning she made plans with the Paz Hotel for a car to take them to where the uphill track began. […] When their transport arrived at the Paz, Leslie eased himself into the backseat of the car next to her, and noticing that she was nervous, he instinctively reached over and took her hand. “You said you were happy there once, and so you’ll be happy there again.” She smiled without meeting his eyes, and then turned to look out of the window as the car engine coughed to life and they began to make their slow and dusty way through the still-cobbled streets of Roseau. This was only their third morning on the island and already she was doubting the wisdom of her decision to come home. The town needed a fresh coat of paint and the people appeared poor and slovenly. What troubled her the most, however, was the fact that the Negroes stared rudely at her and her husband when they walked together in the streets and she detected insolence in their faces. It would be hard to explain to Leslie the full extent of her disappointment, so she said nothing and simply tried to hold at bay the rising tide of resentment and embarrassment that seemed primed to engulf her. 

PHILLIPS, Caryl. 2018. A View of the Empire at Sunset. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp.304-305

The chapter opens with the image of Leslie with his camera, determined to take a picture despite not being in his element, as evidenced by his fall. This gesture can be interpreted as one of power and control from a coloniser onto a colonised landscape – as Susan Sontag suggests in her series of essays On Photography (1978), the act of taking a picture is symbolically one which seeks to appropriate the world, to own what one has seen for oneself. Meanwhile, Gwendolen simply observes: she compares what she sees with what she knows from Owen’s letter, attempts to recreate her childhood memories in her mind, looks beyond the house towards Martinique, and notices the position of the sun in the sky, in a contemplative stance. She remains passive throughout the excerpt: where Leslie takes a picture, is described entering the car, taking her hand, talking to her, she simply stands or sits and remains quiet.

In the second part of the extract, we move from Gwendolen’s observations to her feelings about rediscovering her island. Where one would expect that she would be happy to be home, the lexical field relating to her emotions is rather bleak: first of all “nervous”, which could still suggest a reversal to come, but then “doubting”, “troubled”, and finally “disappointment”, “resentment” and “embarrassment”, in a crescendo of negative affects. As the car journeys through town, Gwendolen realises that she is not home, but instead has become a stranger to the island, as she and her husband are looked at “rudely” and with “insolence” – she expected her husband to be the only stranger, but comes to realise that she too is an outsider. Yet, she cannot even share these feelings with her husband, for whom it is normal to be treated as a stranger, and so she finds herself all alone, belonging neither with him nor with them, as though lost at sea, as suggested by the phrase “primed to engulf her” at the end of the extract. Similarly, by the end of her trip, as she boards the ship to go back to England, Gwendolen “broke off a piece of her heart and gently dropped it into the blue water” (324) – she has come to terms with the fact that she will never be “home” anymore.

Bibliography

ANDERSON, Benedict. 2006 (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, New York: Verso.

BHABHA, Homi K. 1990. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation”. in Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Narration. New York, London: Routledge.

---. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

PHILLIPS, Caryl. 2018. A View of the Empire at Sunset. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

SONTAG, Susan. 1978. On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

Further reading

LOPOUKHINE, Juliana, REGARD, Frédéric and WALLART, Kerry-Jane (eds.). 2020. Transnational Jean Rhys. Lines of Transmission, Lines of Flight. New York: Bloomsbury. https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/transnational-jean-rhys-9781501361319/ (see the last three chapters).

POLATTI, Alessia. 2021. “Caryl Phillips’s Rewriting of the Canonical Romance as a Genre”, Il Tolomeo, volume 23, n°1, pp.119-34, https://doi.org/10.30687/tol/2499-5975/2021/23/021.

SAVORY, Elaine. 2020. “Interview with Caryl Phillips, November 2020”, in Elaine Savory and Erica L. Johnson (eds.), Wide Sargasso Sea at 50. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.13-22, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28223-3_2.

 

Cette fiche a été rédigée dans le cadre d'un Master 2 à l'ENS de Lyon.

 

Pour citer cette ressource :

Mathilde Branchereau, "“Somewhere between coloured and white”: ambivalence and loss of bearings in Caryl Phillips’ «A View of the Empire at Sunset»", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2024. Consulté le 15/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-postcoloniale/ambivalence-and-loss-of-bearings-in-caryl-phillips-a-view-of-the-empire-at-sunset