The works I have chosen to compare and contrast are, George Bernard Shaw’s stage play Pygmalion, the story of a working class single woman wishing to change herself, and an upper middle class educated man acting as tutor; and Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) was written in the 1960s and was seen as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s, Jane Eyre. It focuses on Mr Rochesters first wife Bertha prior to her arrival in England. Bertha, whose real name Antoinette Cosway is a passive Creole woman from Jamaica caught between two cultures.
Whist there are the obvious differences between these pieces, with Wide Sargasso Sea being a novel set on a tropical island, and Pygmalion a stage play based on a flower girl from London, there are similarities from the outset. Other people base both these works upon much older works. WSS based upon Jane Eyre, and Pygmalion a reworking of the Greek tale in which a sculptor falls in love with his female statue. These seemingly innocent tales also contain subtle attacks upon the audience/reader and their way of life. Shaw adapts the subtext and plot of the play to attack the British Class system.
Instead of taking an inanimate object and bringing it to life, Shaw takes a lower class woman and passes her off as high-class royalty. While some of the audience at the time may have considered this as being brought to life, Shaw uses his play to show that the only real difference between classes is education and the way someone speaks. Yet his attack on the system is not an obvious overt critique but cleverly, woven into the story of Eliza the lower class woman forever concerned about her character, and Higgins the upper class educator who stubbornly will not change his ways and believes he is always right.
Whist he abhors the idle upper and chattering middle classes more than the working class. This is obvious by his comparison between Eliza’s father and Freddie, describing Doolittle as “the most original moralist in England” (Shaw Pygmalion Act 5 p88), someone who Higgins is cautions when arguing with as he on several occasions has found himself losing ground, whilst Freddie is referred to as “that young fool” (Shaw Pygmalion act five p104). Pygmalion is not dissimilar to Cindirella, where the poor and lowly girl is transformed into a princess and marries her prince.
Again, Shaw disappoints the audience by not giving them the fairy tale ending which was commonplace at the time, instead making Eliza a strong independent woman who does not want her prince (Higgins) and he does not want her. The show ends with them as equals yet both giving ground more out of courtesy than subjugation. Higgins telling Eliza to order a ham and gloves only to find that she is one-step ahead of him. While Higgins needs Eliza to organize his life, she needs him for financial support.
Pygmalion is divided up into five acts in which the characters are introduced, the plot unfolds, and then an ending is produced, and contains stage directions for the characters to follow. Yet it does not describe the characters in to much detail apart from their attire.
“She is not at all a romantic figure she is perhaps eighteen perhaps twenty, hardly older… Her features are no worse than theirs, but her condition leaves something to be desired, and she needs the services of a dentist”. Shaw, Pygmalion Act 1 Page 10) While the novel WSS is played out in three parts of unequal length, the first part is narrated by Antoinette, then her husband, and finally by Berth, who is Antoinette, but by now has changed so much that she has almost become a ghost of someone else. Whist the change Eliza makes is dramatic from her first appearance, she is and remains the same woman we first are introduced to yet has become stronger, more confident, more alive and full of colour than her initial drab bawdy character.
Antoinette’s transformation into Betha takes the opposite approach and the colour and life being portrayed is that of her surroundings, while she becomes the drab grey figure in the attic. The narration in parts one and two portray vivid surroundings, sights and smells that contrast greatly against Pygmalion’s grubby beginnings waiting for a cab outside St Pauls “standing on the veranda I breathed the sweetness of the air, cloves I could smell and cinnamon, roses and orange blossom.
And an intoxicating freshness as if all this had never been breathed before” (WSS p44) whilst the most description we receive from Shaw is of Eliza’s character “She wears a little sailor hat of black straw that has long been exposed to the dust and soot of London” (Pygmalion Act one page 11). The description in Pygmalion is only to assist those producing the play; the eventual look and feel of the set will be decided by someone other than the writer. Whilst WSS descriptive passages assist the reader, imagine in their minds wonderful tropical islands of scent and sunshine.
These two pieces of work at first would seem worlds apart, yet under closer examination reveal similarities, both works examine the lives of women who go through dramatic changes in their lives, although Eliza’s changes are at her request, she approaches Higgins asking for lessons “I want to be a lady in a flower shop”. (Pygmalion act two P26/27), Antoinettes changes are mainly brought about by other people, her father dying, mother marrying then going insane, being trapped in a world between two cultures that do not accept her, and yet having no sign of her trying to escape this world.
The change in Eliza’s language gives her power towards the end of the play, where she is able to converse at Higgins level putting them on an equal footing, which had been impossible before due to the language barrier, Eliza started out a comical figure for the audience, who then transforms into one of them. While in WSS, language is also a barrier to Rochester as the locals speak Patios and he has difficulty understanding them.
‘Then she looked at me, shook her head, and muttered in Patois before she went out’. WSS p64) This language barrier cause’s distrust between Rochester and Antoinette. Language is also an issue for the reader at the start in this book, where we have Godfrey, and Christophine, who have different dialects and speak in ways the reader would not easily understand. This makes us stand back from what is going on, and is only with the help of Antoinette’s first person narrative that we are brought into this world. Another comparison between the two are the challenging of preconceived ideas regarding people.
WSS challenges 1960’s ideas regarding race, values, gender and colonialism, specifically regarding the Creole, and black community, but also making the reader think about the colonial past, with characters who do not understand their surroundings such as Rochester or Mr Mason who does not understand how dangerous the locals can be even with Annette’s warnings. His assumption ‘They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous. ‘ (WSS page 16) shows Mason is a ‘typically of the time’ stiff upper-lipped Englishman.
When Annette responds that “they can be cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand” (WSS p16) he confirms his inability to comprehend the locals “‘No I don’t understand at all” (WSS P16), he is also at this point telling us he does not understand Annette and her ‘in his mind’ irrational fear of the locals, and perhaps also pointing out issues within society at the time regarding immigration. While Shaw deals with challenging women’s place in society, by supporting equality and education for all as a means of bringing about change to the poor.
Wide Sargasso Sea, also contains parental rejection that influences the main characters, Antoinette is rejected by her mother especially after her brother dies, the rejection between mother and daughter is an emotional experience, Antoinette initially receives the attention she has craved from her mother only to be rejected “No No No, and then flung me from her” (WSS page 26) that moment casts a shadow over the rest of Antoinette’s relationships throughout the book. We also have Rochester who has been rejected by his father, and married off whilst his brother inherits the family fortune.
Whilst Rhys had no real influence with this as Bronte has already given us this part of Rochesters history, Rhys re-emphasises this. We then have Daniel claiming to be Antoinette’s brother, abandoned by his white father and causing trouble between Antoinette and Rochester. We also encounter in both books the selling of family, in WSS Daniel is asking for money in a malicious way from Rochester after exposing secrets from Antoinette’s past, while Doolittle in Pygmalion is selling his daughter in an almost comical situation.
Higgins and Doolittle barter, haggle and ague about who should keep Eliza, initially Higgins is revolted at the thought of someone selling their daughter, as would have been the audience of the time, however Doolittle’s response that he can not afford morals works with Higgins, and makes him questions his initial judgement. WSS has the narrator through out giving a voice to the story, with its voice changing reflecting different sides to the story helping the reader look at all view points.
Shaw has also given his play a voice for the social messages he wishes to get across, in that of Eliza’s father. Here is a character the play could easily do without, he serves no real purpose to the plot, but he does act as Shaw’s own moralistic orator throughout, he spouts views from the working mans perspective, perhaps giving the audience its only real insight into a large portion of the population (Pygmalion page 47).