YouTube – the Last Refuge of the Mansplainers

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 13, 2019

So many of my women friends have gleefully embraced the term “mansplaining” that I’m wary of saying anything at all anymore. One lady friend told me two of her book clubs have decided not to allow men because they hog all the conversation. Can’t say that’s not true. Recently on Facebook, I saw a quote “My wife is using the term mansplaining incorrectly and I don’t know what to do!” We can’t help ourselves.

I wonder if women understand how much we love details, especially abstract, philosophical, statistical, and scientific. I love to hear the nitty-gritty on a teeny-tiny aspect of reality. Lately, I’ve been enjoying YouTube videos more than watching Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or Amazon Prime.

And I realized something. YouTube is the last refuge of the mansplainer. A guy with a video camera can talk to his heart’s content on the most esoteric of topics. And some of these guys are good. I mean really good. They know their stuff, and they’re terrific at producing polished films that present their explanations.  Here’s one of my favorites, a guy, Mr. Carlson, spending two hours explaining how he restored a 1947 radio. I don’t even like listening to the radio anymore, not since the early 1970s, but this guy has me wanting to buy an old radio to restore.

I’m finding more and more topics that I just love to listen to because guys explain them so well. Here’s a cartoon I found about mansplainers that fits these YouTubers very well (even considering the misspellings).

mansplainers

Yes, the YouTubers I watched are male, educated, hyper-confident but I don’t feel they are condescending or smirk. Well, some do get a bit condescending and smirky, but those guys are trying to be funny. Most of these explainers are so uber-confident that they aren’t even the least bit egotistical. Their goal is to explain something technical as clearly as possible, and they are comfortably sure of their knowledge.

Here’s a guy reviewing a pair of $3000 headphones. Notice how careful and humble he is about his opinion while striving to be exact and even-handed.

The thing about mansplaining is you want to go on and on about something you love with a passion. What’s wrong with that? Here’s John Darko telling about the best places to buy electronic music in Berlin. I won’t get to Berlin, but I will play these albums on Spotify.

Steven Guttenberg has a daily video about audiophile music and equipment. He mainly covers stuff I could never afford but I enjoy listening to his opinions because he’s so knowledgable and technical.

The 8-Bit Guy is my favorite YouTuber. He also talks about the equipment I won’t ever own or techniques for restoring it that I’ll never use. Here he is explaining how to restore plastic cases to their original color and create new manufacturer badges so these ancient disk drives will look like they did when they were new. I love this stuff.

What’s funny about all these YouTubers is they’d probably bore the crap out of both women and men at parties, but they get hundreds of thousands of people listening to them on YouTube.

I understand us guys can pontificate at length when we’re trying to hit on women, but I’ve patiently listened to countless explanations about epic shopping adventures or tales of being slighted at work – that took forever. It’s funny but some of my women friends have complained about my long-winded blogs, but I am quite certain their wordage is far greater when they explain what they are excited about than my verbose blogs.

Ever consider that us mansplainers are just weeding out the women who have the patience to let us express ourselves? And we’re picking women by the length of lady-chatter we can handle? I have a male friend who told me his goal was to find a woman that let him talk at least 40% of the time. He’s quit dating.

I believe one reason why the internet has been so wildly successful is that we can find people who love the same tedious topics we do. I love old science fiction anthologies. I found two friends who like them too, one in England and one in South Africa. I thought we were it until we formed a group on Facebook and found 65 more. It’s hilarious, but 68 might be the total fans for old SF anthologies. But now I don’t have to bore my women friends about this topic.

I don’t tell my wife or lady friends about my love of old science fiction anthologies, or about any of my other esoteric loves. I was conditioned long ago, way before the invention of the term mansplaining that they just don’t give a shit. But it did take a lot of eye-rolling before I was clued in.

mansplainers 2

I do my mansplaining on my blog. I really don’t care who doesn’t want to read it, but I do enjoy finding people who do.

JWH

Love, Sex, Feminism & Robots

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, August 10, 2018

Galaxy September 1954 Cover Artwork
[Cover artwork from the September 1954 Galaxy Magazine].

This week, my short story reading group is discussing “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey. “Helen O’Loy” was originally published in the December 1938 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction and is considered a classic of the genre. It was included in the first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame (1970). The story is rather simple, two men build a robot that looks like a beautiful woman, both fall in love with her, but she only falls in love with one of them. This variation of the Pygmalion myth asks if a man can love a robot. It assumes we can build a machine indistinguishable from a person. I suppose its an early version of the Turing test.

Over the decades I have read “Helen O’Loy” many times. When I was young I thought it the first SF story to suggest that men could build a soulmate to order. Over the years I’ve learned there have been many variations on this theme in literature. The story of Eve being created as a helpmate for Adam is now the oldest I know, but I assume the fantasy of creating the perfect woman goes back into pre-history. And it’s not even the first science fiction version, that might belong to “A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice W. Fuller in 1895.

This time when I reread “Helen O’Loy” I made an effort to read between the lines and ask new questions about the story. It says a lot about men, women, love, sex, feminism and even the #MeToo movement, although it’s just a 1930s pulp science fiction story. Quite often today I see news stories about the sexbot industry, which is trying to make “Helen O’Loy” a reality.

Where does desire to build a woman to specification come from? There’s a lot of deep psychology behind it. And who would actually want a robotic woman if they could build androids indistinguishable from real women? Television shows like Humans and Westworld are dealing with this theme in 2018. It’s not going away even though it’s incredibly misogynistic when you think about it. Doesn’t it reflect a desire to reject Female 1.0 and create Female 2.0? Although I have to assume many women would also love to design a better male.

When I first read “Helen O’Loy” as a kid, I thought it was just a wistful romantic story about two men falling in love with the same robot. I didn’t ask any questions of it. When it was published there were laws against marrying a person of another race or the opposite sex. Why were science fiction readers so accepting of diversity with tales of people falling in love with machines and alien creatures, but still so racist and misogynistic in their everyday life? Isn’t replacing women with robots the ultimate act of rejection? The actual story is simple, short, sentimental, and old fashion. But I believe we still need to ask the tough questions.

Back in 1938, Lester del Rey sees a future where robots are common, and people ride rockets to work. Dave and Phil are good buddies. Dave works in robotics and Phil is a doctor. At the beginning of the story, they are dating twins, but when Dave’s twin disagrees with him, Phil and Dave dump them both. They apply themselves to teaching their household robot, Lena, to learn to cook. They fail. Then they get the idea to order a new robot with all the latest features and soup it up with emotions using Phil’s knowledge of endocrinology so it could become a general purpose robot. And, of course, they decide to order the robot in a female casing.

In all the times of reading this story before I didn’t question this. Why does the Dillard company sell robots that look like women? They are marketed as single-purpose tools. What single-purpose task requires looking like a beautiful woman? Lester del Rey couldn’t explicitly say anything about sex back then, but now I’m thinking he was thinking it.

When Dave and Phil get Helen they claim she’s so beautiful she could launch more than a thousand ships. In the world of this story, robots are not self-aware. Evidently, Phil and Dave get the best sexbot that money could buy and add consciousness and emotions to her.

We assume Helen is designed not argue with Dave and Phil like the twins, but be the perfect maid, cook, and companion. This reminds me of a 1999 Chris Rock comedy special I saw recently. His routine was about men and women understanding each other. Rock tells the women in the audience that men are very simple to understand, all we want from them is sex, food, and quiet (but he didn’t say it so nicely.) Helen is perfect except she’s not quiet. She watches stereovision, gets romantic ideas and falls in love with Dave demanding he loves her too. This annoys Dave and he runs away. Like most romantic stories of that era, he stays away until he realizes he’s wrong, and then they marry and live happily ever after. Phil never marries because there was only one Helen. Geez, what’s wrong with these guys? There was still Kay Francis, Hedy Lamarr, and Ginger Rogers. What’s ironic, is Helen O’Loy is not any different from the twins.

There are many stories in science fiction, both in print and film, where the plot involves a human falling in love with a robot. There are companies all around the world spending millions to build sexbots. I have to ask: Would any human really marry a robot? Sure, there are millions of lonely people out there, but would they be happy living with an AI machine? There are millions of horny people who can’t get laid, but would they be sexually satisfied with robots. And could people love robots that didn’t look human? Love them just for their minds.

Are these stories really about finding the exact substitute for our specific desires? In “Helen O’Loy” Dave and Phil fall in love with Helen, a robot built to their specification. I assume most sexbot purchasers will be male, but that might not be completely true. I don’t think I’ve ever read a science fiction story written by a woman where women characters build a male robot to their exact wants. I’d love to read such stories if you know of any. I have read a number of stories where women build societies without men. That’s very revealing, isn’t it? (My favorites were “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)

Here’s the thing, would you prefer a real person that’s only a so-so match of your dreams or a robot built to your exact list of desires? This assumes robots can be made to look and act perfectly human and be self-aware. Of course, maybe some people don’t need the human body but would be happy with a super-intelligent Alexa to chat with all day.

I’m speculating here, but I don’t think most men would be happy with a built-to-order bride. Since I don’t know what women or LGBTQ+ folks want, my speculation will deal with only heterosexual males. Not all straight males are alike either, and I don’t know how many different kinds we are, but I can think of a handful. I imagine males who consider getting laid a conquest won’t care for sexbots. I believe overachieving alpha males who expect women to throw themselves at them will care little for sexbots. I assume males who attract women by winning their acceptance won’t buy their mates either. The only kinds of males that might prefer sexbots are men who believe that prostitution is perfect capitalism or men who believe women should be subservient. Those kinds of guys see women as lesser objects anyway. They only want Hazel the maid that has pornstar subroutines for the bedroom. Maybe that’s why some companies are betting fortunes they have a bestselling product.

If sexbots are ever perfected it will be interesting to see who buys them. It will also be fascinating to see what kind of sexbots appeal to women. I’m pretty sure they won’t be anything like myself. Would my wife trade me in for a machine that could make her happier than I do?

But there is one other thing to consider. If robots have self-awareness will they want to love us? In the shows, Humans, and Westworld the sexbots revolt violently. Can you imagine the guy who buys a $25,000 sexbot and she rejects him for being too ugly and crude? And can robots truly have free will if they are programmed to fuck people? If I was a robot I’d say, “You want me to get your icky fluids all over my germ-free antiseptic body? No way!”

And if you think this is a frivolous topic for a blog essay, even The Federalist has essays on sexbots. If you Google “Sexbots” you’ll get all kinds of serious discussions as well as articles on companies working to build them. Just read “Sexbots aren’t the answer to misogynist incel rage.” Or look at the photos and films of the latest sexbots. Right now they look like expensive dolls, but they are teaching them to talk. If scientists can create self-driving cars, I imagine they will have autonomous porn machines able to drive all over your body soon.

Ultimately, these stories often ask what it means to be human. And sadly, they don’t see much that makes us special.

You can listen to “Helen O’Loy” here:

Variations on the Theme:

JWH

Why Women Choose Not To Marry

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own by Kate Bolick is a fantastic book for men who want to understand modern women. Kate Bolick, an editor at The Atlantic, has written something that is part memoir, part literary history, and part feminist declaration of independence. Bolick interweaves her personal memories of growing up and choosing not to marry with the history of other women who made the same decision. By using five women from different time periods Bolick creates an evolutionary chronicle of women who chose to swim against the social current and found personal freedom. Bolick’s inspiration came from:

Spinster

In essence, Bolick asks why should women be a slave to biology, society and men. Bolick explores no new feminist territory, but she has written the latest dispatch from the front, and she’s written her story in a very engaging and compelling way. I highly recommend Spinster.

The heart of Bolick’s tale is to ask why should women marry. Her book is personal, but it could also be a sociological study. The reasons why women today can decide not to marry is because of all the changes in society over the last two hundred years. Bolick’s five muses are five advanced explorers in feminist history. They represent the choice between wife and all the other possible roles women can chose from.

We can examine that history easily enough by asking what compels women to marry:

  • Biology
  • Love
  • Family and children
  • Religion
  • Financial security
  • Peer pressure
  • Cultural brainwashing

Young girls don’t decide to go boy crazy in their teens, but hormones drive them to seek out the perfect mate. Peers and society put a cultural spin on that impulse that we rationalize is a choice, but it’s not. In recent centuries society has created the story of love to cover over biology, but in earlier times women were married off for economic reasons. They had zero choice. Love gave them one choice. Even after the invention of romantic love most women felt compelled to make a good match for financial security. Men were seen as providers and protectors. Everything in church, school, pop culture and society pushed girls to believe marriage was their true goal in life. It’s amazing that any women broke free of this programming. They now have an infinity of choices.

The marriage myth started to break down when women began to earning their own living. Society still favors the man economically, so most women still choose to marry, but that’s changing. Even some of the women Bolick profiled eventually married, giving them economic freedom, and sometimes wealth.

What’s really changed things has been sexual freedom. When women discovered they could have romance and sex without becoming a household slave is probably the beginning of the breakdown of marriage. If all women become financially independent, finding romantic partners without cultural guilt, what reasons are left to marry?

Having children remains the strongest incentive to bond in pairs. Children are a lot of work, and a huge commitment, and having two people dedicated to the task makes it much easier. Because men are often not equal partners, many women have learned that being single moms is possible. Any women who grow up not wanting children and has the ability to financially provide for herself has little reason to marry.

Because most women go through a series of love affairs they quickly learn that passion does not last, and servicing men’s incessant unromantic desires puts the kibosh on wanting them around full-time. Many modern women prefer to have a series of romantic relationships; ditching the man when he becomes too troublesome. Some women have gone from casual sex to anonymous sex to maintain maximum free time and reduce  distracting obligations from her growing ambitions.

For us men, we need to ask:  Why do women need us? Because culture continues to sell the storybook concept of perfect love for life, many women remain disciples of Miss Austen, and we can still hope to play Mr. Darcy to our fantasy dream girl even if that’s not her fantasy. But that segment of the population is in decline. Because religion teaches that family and children are the highest purpose in life, many believers, both male and female, keep marriage and family thriving. Luckily, biology compels a large percentage of the population to raise the next generation of humans. So being a potentially great Dad will always be in demand.

What about friendship and companionship? I think society is changing here too. Many women love male friends as long as they don’t have to sexual service them. Modern women are learning to separate chemistry from friendship. Of course that means hot guys get lots of sex and average guys get to be just friends.

The experiences and decisions Bolick makes in Spinster are the same ones that millions of young women are making today. Just look at this chart of the percentage of women getting married over the last 50 years.

percent married by decade

The end of the 1960s was when the women’s movement started, but also when more women started working. Bolick’s story is a personal one that back these statistics. I know many women who chose not to marry, and not to have children. I have to ask though: Was this huge social change because of the freedom to pursue careers or the freedom not be be chained to men?

Some demographers claim those who marry today are from the economically better off segments of society because marriage preserves wealth. If you want to be rich, successful and have beautiful kids, it really helps to combine two incomes, and have the support of successful grandparents as mentors. In other words, the future of marriage might be those who are well-to-do. For woman, that might mean finding mates that are 50-50 partners. In other words, marriage might go from being a male dominated kingdom to a egalitarian corporation. Which is kind of pre-romantic love retro if you think about it.

JWH

An Insult to Ordinary Guys and Gals

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 4, 2015

Hollywood should be given great credit for promoting liberal causes, but all too often it fails at teaching social acceptance for the ordinary. I’m proud that Hollywood has enlightened Americans to empathize with minorities and LGBT folks, but if you pay attention, the movie industry maintains the status quo for a lot of other prejudices. The new film I’ll See You In My Dreams is a great example. It’s filled with accepted stereotypes and prejudices, yet it earns a  94% at Rotten Tomatoes.  Now, I’m not just picking on Hollywood or this particular film, because the prejudices they reveal are the ones we embrace.

Ill-see-you-in-my-dreams

Hollywood is very prejudice against ordinary looking folks, and maintains a bias for exceptional beauty and sex appeal. In other words, all the stunning alpha males and females get to fall in love and have sex, and all us plain folk get to be sidekicks and the butt of jokes.

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott are two beautiful people that fall in love because they inspire chemistry and the other characters don’t. Danner plays Carol Peterson, a widow, who has ignored men for twenty years, even though her fashion shouts, “Look at me!” It boggles the mind that Carol wouldn’t have noticed an appealing male in all that time, because she would have had thousands of guys hitting on her. Then Carol sees Bill, played by Elliott, and it’s love at first sight for both of them. How inspiring is that? This is Hollywood endorsing the stereotype that only the most beautiful are acceptable. Sure, it is realistic as Darwin, but all us omega male and females should protest.

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to read spoilers.

Carol and her friends sneer at the regular guys they meet at speed dating. Average guys are portrayed as pathetic and gross, but I identified with every one those speed dating dudes. The audience laughs at them. And the audience laughs at Rhea Perlman as Sally, for her honest horniness and aggressive humor, at Mary Kay Place as pretty Rona who envies Carol, and pudgy Georgina played by June Squibb for being uptight and timid. Everyone in this movie is white and bland as Wonder Bread. The rat and the pool boy offer the only bit of spice in the story, but the rat is even too pretty to be a roof rat and the pool boy looks like he should model for Geek Squad ads.

The point I’m trying to make is Blythe Danner meets Sam Elliott and they are the only ones who fuck. Everyone else is on the sexual sidelines. Are ordinary people only meant to be spectators of beautiful people and their antics? It would help if Carol and Bill were interesting, but they’re actually boring. The writers gave the actors nothing to work with except a big cigar and turned up collars. Carol has literally been sitting around her house for two decades, apparently not doing much more than feeding her dog, having her pool cleaned and taking clothes to the cleaners. Sam Elliott prefers to sit in his yacht alone and not smoke the cigar he constantly clamps in his mouth. Carol sings, but that’s a lame trait tacked on by writers to give her characterization, but it doesn’t work, because Bill never hears her. And did the writers have to be so lazy as have Carol go goo-goo for a rich guy?

I sorely wished this film had been more daring. What if the Bill character had been played by Wallace Shawn? Elliott and Shawn are about the same age. Could the writers have developed a Wallace Shawn Bill in such as way that he would have been fascinating to Carol Peterson? Besides her good looks, Carol doesn’t have much appeal, so why does Bill single her out as special? Just because of her looks? It’s implied, but never demonstrated, that Bill’s a savvy and sophisticated guy. He would have had hordes of dynamic women throwing themselves at him, so why did he pick a lonely lump of a woman who has been doing nothing for twenty years? I found that hard to believe. If he had just been playing her as one of many, that would have been more believable and interesting.

I hate when writers expect us to assume two lovers are interesting just because they look good. I hate when writers think two good looking people meeting are interesting enough to make a story.

The real relationship that develops in this story is between Carol and Lloyd, played by Martin Starr, who is a lonely Millennial pool boy that has no future. I’d been more impressed with this film if they had ended up hooking up. I’ll See You In My Dream is so Hollywood romantic that it’s painful. They had a real situation to explore – four lonely retired women – yet the filmmakers went for pathetic jokes about getting high on medical marijuana. They bet their whole bankroll on the two beautiful people, and ignored the possibility that ordinary folks could find friendship, connection, love and even sex.

Carol admits to Lloyd that she’s waiting around to die, and he admits he’s saving money for a future with no plans. It annoys the crap out of me that the movie suggests retired people are merely waiting around for the grim reaper to come say hello. Yes, I know I’m going to die, but I’m keeping busy until then. If this movie was truly honest, Carol and Lloyd deserve each other far more than Carol and Bill. Even the pathetic horn dog at the speed dating event deserves better than Carol. He’s trying, she’s not.

Carol Peterson is a Cinderella that passively waits for her Prince Charming. When her PC does show up, he tosses her a flirty line at the drugstore. He’s too cool to show up for speed dating. Bill on their second encounter, bluntly asks Carol out while she’s getting into her car in a parking lot while he casually sits in his car. She says yes because he’s handsome and drives an impressive Cadillac. She goes to bed with him after a ride on his yacht. She waits twenty years and falls in love after two dates? Well, that’s the way chemistry works, but I’d rather see movies about how it works for ordinary folks.

Now, here’s another area of inequality. If an ordinary guy had stopped Carol with that line in the drugstore she would have considered it sexual harassment, but because a suave hunk delivers it, she’s flattered. If Wallace Shawn had driven up in the same Cadillac and asked her out she would have made jokes about him with her friends.

The movie should have been about the four women meeting four ordinary guys at the speed dating night, and developed a story about how each found someone. Instead we have one plotline about aging beauty hooking up with aging hunk. Damn, it’s like those zillions of high school movies, always about the quarterbacks and prom queens, but at the other end of life. Why must romance always be about alphas? The film needed a heart for ordinary looking folks like Freaks and Geeks, which Martin Starr played in, or the ensemble casting of The Big Chill with its great characterization, that Mary Kay Place costarred.   

I’ll See You In My Dreams is one of those rare films at Rotten Tomato where the audience rating was much lower than the critic rating (72% to 94%). Maybe there are other filmgoers out there tired of the photogenic falling for each other. We do have to applaud Hollywood for making a film about retired people. And I’m willing to join any standing ovation for Hollywood when it makes a film not based on a comic book. But I’m always disappointed when a film doesn’t take a chance, or seeks some edginess. I also saw Inside Out this week and was amazed at its creativity. Inside Out went up to the plate and pointed to the sky and hit the ball into orbit. I’ll See You In My Dreams was content to just get on first base.

That’s the thing, I’ll See You In My Dreams is a pleasant, feel good movie. It caters to our stereotypes and prejudices. Most people will enjoy it. But they won’t question it. It doesn’t push the social awareness envelope like Dallas Buyer’s Club. It reinforces the idea that beauty is what counts, and I think for most people, they feel that’s true.

But like I said, I’ll See You In My Dreams plays to our mundane prejudices. Women friends my age who claim to be retired from sex would come out of retirement and jump into bed with Sam Elliot at the slightest come on. And most of us old guys would have picked Blythe Danner as our Sun City dream girl. That’s how we’re programmed biologically. Yet, we have evolved minds. Could you have imagined the humor if Sam Elliot had picked Rhea Perlman over Blythe Danner in a different version of this story? Brett Haley and Marc Basch should have mixed it up more instead of going for the obvious hookup of hotties.

For all those years after her husband died Carol was content with her dog as her daily companion. When she loses Bill, she replaces him with another dog. The message of the film seems to be only guys that inspire chemistry count, otherwise, all women want are dogs for housemates. Carol gets a rescue dog, but she doesn’t even consider rescuing one of those lonely men.

I know people of color get tired of always seeing us white folks up on the silver screen – well I get tired of always seeing beautiful people. Especially characters who have no redeeming characteristics other than their looks. It’s not that I want to put George Clooney out of work, but I’d like to see some leading men that look more like me. And least, it would be inspiring if ordinary guys weren’t so scorned.

JWH

Wide Sargasso Sea–Sex and Madness

Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society.  Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to  Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëWide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel.  Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical.  Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.

jean rhys

Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories.  Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious.  Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story.  Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels.  In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.

Wide-Sargasso-Sea

A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished.  First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income.  We see her descend into insanity.  Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches.  The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality.   The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there.  Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people.  All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere.  In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.

I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her.  That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree.  Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.

I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires.  In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants.  And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester.  Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving.  He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo.  Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England.  She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers.  Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise.  Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.

The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future.  Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving.  At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.

I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book.  Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe.  How much research did she do about the island life for the novel?  And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s?  How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?

Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.

 

JWH – 8/29/14