Antoinette Mason is the most fully realized of Jean Rhys’s protagonists. While the protagonists of her earlier novels are constrained by Rhys’s adherence to barely fictionalized autobiography, in Wide Sargasso Sea, her effort to invest the madwoman of Jane Eyre with humanity drawn from her own knowledge of West Indian history and geography has produced both a woman more completely realized as an imaginative creation—and, perhaps ironically, more fully the embodiment of Rhys’s own spiritual life.
Antoinette’s husband and antagonist, Edward Rochester, embodies the very difficult circumstances of Rhys’s own life in Europe and England after she emigrated there from Dominica at the age of sixteen. The two characters are rooted in the islands on which Rhys lived, England and the West Indies, which are in many ways mutually dependent yet antagonistic domains: tropical south and cold north, rain forest and metropolis, the New World and the Old. From those extremities come their contrary personalities, which make a happy, settled life impossible.
The sole similarity between these two characters’ psyches derives from their need as children to reduce their vulnerability, to protect themselves, which prompts Rochester to mask his true feelings from other people and Antoinette to hide from people in the bush of Coulibri Estate. The damage done in childhood is the key to the investment each has in the conduct of the...
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