Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea is a postcolonial novel written in 1966 by Jean Rhys of the Dominican Republic. This novel is often read as a postmodern and postcolonial response to Jane Eyre.1 It is divided into three parts: Part I (narrated by Antoinette), Part II (narrated by Rochester), and Part III (narrated by a transformed Antoinette). The story is designed to be a prequel to Jane Eyre and extensive intertextual references are made throughout the novel.
Part I introduces the reader to Antoinette and her mother, Annette, who live on a small Caribbean island without the father who died before the story begins. Almost immediately, the reader is confronted with the strong sense of discomfort that these two characters feel due to the fact that their race (a kind of creole) does not match that of the natives. This social strain is compounded with the setting in which the story takes place. In particular the abolition of slavery in the colonies left these former slave owners in a position where persistent hatred prevents them from interacting with the other people on the island. Annette is described as possibly having mental instabilities and her only remaining friend inexplicably shoots his dog and swims out to sea, never to be seen again.
As the story progresses Antoinette befriends a black girl named Tia. This relationship demonstrates the conflicted self view that Antoinette adopts. While she is a white former slave owner, she tends to identify with the black islanders and feels great pain when their house is burned down by the very people she longs to join. After the burning, Antoinette goes to a covenant. She doesn't interact well with the other girls and has a short conflict with religion.
Part II begins with a shift in perspective and time. The story is being told by the unnamed, newly married husband of Antoinette (assumed to be Jane Eyre's Rochester), while the two are on their honeymoon. During this period Rochester describes the Caribbean as overwhelmingly colorful and exotic. The reader also gets a short background on their marriage where it becomes clear that Rochester is marrying Antoinette for the dowry and doesn't really love her. In spite of Antoinette's naivety, the black servants seem to recognize Rochester's intentions and as a result express a great deal of resentment towards him-- especially Christophine, Antoinette's former slave and apparent mother figure. As their honeymoon progresses Antoinette begins to sense that her husband doesn't love him and goes to Christophine's home in the town. There, Christophine reluctantly makes a "potion" for Antoinette so that she may force her husband to fall in love with her. During this time Rochester answers Daniel Cosway's second letter by visiting him at his home. There Cosway insinuates that Antoinette slept with Sandi as a young girl and demands a £500 bribe to keep quiet. Rochester is extremely upset and leaves immediately. That night Rochester brings up his conversation with Daniel, which infuriates Antoinette and prompts her to insist upon the true story. Rochester agrees with Christophine's suggestion that he and his wife should spend some time apart. That night Antoinette puts the potion into Rochester's wine. The next day, Rochester awakens with a fever. Believing to be poisoned by his wife, he runs outside to the forest and the decrepit house he had found earlier. When he finally returns later that night, he sleeps with Amélie. The next day Antoinette runs to Christophine who cares for her for three days. Upon her return, Rochester is accused of Antoinette's hysterical state by Christopine, who also returns. Christophine even begs Rochester to let his wife remarry and keep half of her money. Rochester becomes angry and decides to write his father in England to inform him of their intent to return home. As they prepare to leave the Caribbean, it becomes apparent that Rochester intends to lock Antoinette away so that she will become "a memory to be avoided."
Part III is narrated by an almost unrecognizable version of Antoinette. It is set in England, but the descriptions are almost surrealist and contribute to Antoinette's disbelief that she is actually in Great Britain. She is being kept in the attic of Rochester's home under the watch of one of his servants, Grace Poole, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Rochester's father and brother have since died and he has inherited the fortune. Meanwhile, Antoinette is not even afforded a mirror in her attic space, and actually forgets who she is as a result. One night after Grace falls asleep, Antoinette steals her keys and escapes into the world she believes is made of cardboard. In the next section she wakes up to find wounds on her wrists and is informed that she tried to attack her stepbrother, Richard Mason. That night, she once again dreams that she steals the keys from Grace and this time burns down the house with a candle. Then she wakes up and grabs a candle, intending to act upon her dream.
Themes and Motifs
Race is a prevalent topic though the entirety of this piece. Hybridity and colonialism are two examples of racially inspired ideas that are expressed. There are many divisions within groups of people who have the same color of skin. For example, Christophine, who acts as a sort of mother figure for Antoinette, has dark skin but is treated differently because she is not Jamaican but instead hails from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Also, there is a clear disparity between the whites born in England and the creoles, people who live in the Caribbean and although they possess black ancestry, have white skin.
In the Caribbean, there is a large population of mixed-race people, usually because white slave owners would often rape and impregnate their black female slaves. It is implied that Sandi and Daniel Cosway are born this way. Speaking of Antoinette's now deceased father, Alexander Cosway, and her mother, Annette, people familiar with their past say, "And all those women! She never did anything to stop him - she encouraged him. Presents and smiles for the bastards every Christmas" (29).
Finally, it is interesting to note that Antoinette and her mother do not share the same racist views as the other whites on the island. Both women understand the importance of black slaves in their lives, and Antoinette seems to identify more closely with the blacks in the story than the whites.
The theme of feminism and the dependence of women on men is prevalent throughout the novel. Miss Germaine and Helene de Plana, two of the young women at the convent school, represent the feminine ideals that are Antoinette is meant to emulate. Such values expected of women at the time were properness, mild tempers, chastity, beauty, elegance, and good manners. Such values seem to be contradictory to what Antoinette represents, who possesses a quite fiery temper, as demonstrated by her fight with Tia at the beginning of the novel.
Annette, Antoinette’s mother, attempts to use men as a means to gain financial and, as a result, social status. She marries Mr. Mason, a wealthy white man, with the hope that she may be able to escape Coulibri and return to her previous status among her peers, one of wealth, power, and importance.
Antoinette marries Rochester, a white man who hopes to gain the inheritance left to Antoinette by her late father, Alexander Cosway. In society at this time, a single woman, no matter how wealthy, didn’t possess the same type of social power as men did. It appears as though Antoinette does truly love Rochester, but it is clear that Rochester is using Antoinette simply as a means to gain wealth. Eventually, both Antoinette and Annette are driven insane as a result of their dependence on men.
Mysticism and Religion
Obeah is the term used to refer to the type of religious practices in the Caribbean that combine both a type of Western African Voodoo and some of the beliefs of Roman Catholicism. The practice of this “religion” is engaged in heavily by Christophine, who is likely arrested for her rehearsal of the magic.
The fact that Christophine, and likely many other inhabitants of the Caribbean, are willing to combine the practices associated with their African ancestors with the practices of their conquerors (Roman Catholicism), demonstrates the hybridization of these people. As demonstrated by the arrest of Christophine, this “combination” of different cultures can find no place in the society of the colonizers.
Jean Rhys: Background
Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams was born on August 24, 1890 in Roseau, Dominca. She died on May 14, 1979 in Exeter, England. Her mother was Creole of Scottish descent, and her father was Welsh. This made her also Creole, in a predominantly white Roseau society. Because she is Creole, she had a good idea of the circumstances in the Carribean to write about Antoinette in "Wide Sargasso Sea". It is also noted in many biographies that a visit to Rhys’ great-grandfather’s plantation significantly impacted her writing. The estate and house of her great-grandfather was completely devastated after riots in the area. Although she had published many other works before 1966, the release of "Wide Sargasso Sea" made Rhys respected by the literary critics and scholars for her work. She was married three times, with husbands Jean Lenglet, Leslie Tilden-Smith, and Max Hamer. In Elaine Savory’s book about Jean Rhys, she notes that Rhys’ "Smile Please" is the closest to an autobiography of all Rhys’ works. Savory also mentions Rhys’ lack of belonging and identity can be attributed to her choice to have many perspectives in the novel Wide Sargasso Sea. This lack of identity and belonging also explains her lifestyle, always moving around and not staying in one place for too long. Many believe she suffered from alcoholism.
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is a novel about the classic victorian woman. The central character, Jane Eyre becomes the governess at Thornfield Manor under Rochester's employment. Throughout the story, a mad woman, Rochester's wife from the caribbean maintains residence in the attic. Wide Sargasso Sea takes up this character and tries to provide a pretext for her condition.
- "Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible-- the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths wre overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell" (10)2.
This juxtaposition of life and death is an example of a theme that continues throughout the story. The "tree of life" is again referenced on page 16.
- "We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass" (27).
This illustrates the suffering that Antoinette feels as an outsider.
- "But I soon forgot about happiness... 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" (34).
This excerpt shows the battle that Antoinette has with her religious experience, and the eventual attitude she adopts.
- "It was like that morning when I found the dead horse. Say nothing and it may not be true" (35).
Antoinette is constantly creating her own reality. Here she believes that by pretending something didn't happen, she can completely erase the event from reality. This attitude is prevalent in her character and can be seen throughout the course of the novel (pg. 67 and pg. 108 in particular).
- "A cock crowed loudly and I remembered the night before which we had spent in the town... I lay awake listening to cocks crowing all night... and I felt peaceful" (40).
The cock is a biblical reference to Peter's denial and Judas's betrayal of Jesus. It is interesting that in this particular excerpt Antoinette maintains a sense of peacefulness. The crowing cock is also mentioned on pg. 71 and pg. 97.
- "She was blacker than most and her clothes, even the handkerchief round her head were subdued in colour" (43).
This description of Christophine is an example of the racism that persists in the story. This excerpt was immediately preceded by colorful descriptions of the natural environment that included descriptions such as the "wall of green," "too much purple, too much green," "pure and sweet, a beautiful colour against the thick green leaf," ect.
- "Die then. Sleep. It is all that I can give you.... I wonder if she ever guessed how near she came to dying. In her own way, not in mine. It was not a safe game to play-- in that place. Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness. Better not know how close. Better not think, never for a moment. Not close. The same... 'You are safe,' I'd say to her and myself. 'Shut your eyes. Rest' (56).
This passage is interesting for many reasons. The change in syntax and perspective with respect to the surrounding text puts emphasis upon this soliloquy. Her the reader gets a chance to examine the character of the only major non-caribbean character.
- "The contemptuous wind passes, not caring for these abject things. (Let them live.) Howling, shrieking, laughing the wind blast passes... Yet I think of my revenge and hurricanes. Words rush through my head (deeds too). Words. Pity is one of them. It gives me no rest. Pity like a naked new-born babe striding in the blast" (98).
Here the author personifies nature's fury and applies it to Rochester during his soliloquy, which includes a famous quotation from MacBeth's last doubting monologue. One interpretation of this passage could be that the hurricane represents Rochester while the tree symbolizes his wife. Personification persists in this section and is again seen on pg. 100 when the "shabby white house" calls, "Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation."
- "You hate me and I hate you. We'll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you'll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing" (102).
Here the reader sees the horrifying extent of Antoinette's transformation. She is absolutely consumed by hatred and is nearly unrecognizable as the little girl who played in the pool with Tia.
- "I was tired of these people. I disliked their laughter and their tears... I hated the place. I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her" (103).
This is Rochester's chance to proclaim his hatred. All of the things that once seemed so wonderful to him now only supply him with hatred. Here the reader gets a chance to observe this character's transformation.
- "That stupid boy followed us, the basket balanced on his head, He used the back of his hand to wipe away his tears. Who would have thought that any boy would cry like that. For nothing. Nothing..." (104).
Here Rochester makes fun of the boy, but the boy represents his torment: both were promised a dream (Rochester a wife and the boy a place in the new world) and both were denied happiness.
- "That was the life and death kiss and you only know along time afterwards what it is, the life and death kiss. The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye" (110).
This is a reference to Peter's three denials of Jesus after Judas's betrayal with a kiss.
- Wide Sargasso Sea at The Penguin Readers' Group Website
- Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1999. 1-112.
- Section of Jean Rhys by Elaine Savory
- Jean Rhys Wikipedia Article