Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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How has Rhys transformed Bertha's story in Wide Sargasso Sea? Thinking about Antoinette's childhood, cultural heritage, cultural displacement, and loss of personal identity (including her name), can we make a case for her madness? What does it add to this theme of madness to have it narrated alternately by Rochester and Antoinette?

Quick answer:

By transforming the Jane Eyre story to tell it from Bertha/Antionette's point of view, Rhys helps readers gain sympathy for how she has been driven mad by patriarchy and colonialism, such as by having her identity robbed through renaming and by displacement to England. Showing both Antionette's and Rochester's point of view, Rhys sensitizes us to how cultural difference and Rochester's insecurities led to Antoinette's madness.

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In learning about Antoinette's childhood in the Caribbean, her affinity for the island and its culture, and the way the marriage with Rochester is imposed on her, "Bertha" moves from a nameless, monstrous, and repulsive "other" to a human being we learn to have sympathy for. We see in Rhys's retelling a troubled young Rochester who is unable to communicate well with his wife and who trusts slander from other men rather than confront Antoinette with his fears.

The men charged in looking out for Antoinette's interests let her down by putting her entire fortune in Rochester's power so that he can use the money to control her. He is shown as vindictive in robbing her of her name, a classic way colonizers degraded their subjects. By taking away her vibrant, island-oriented name to replace it with with something British and dull, he imposes his wishes for her identity on her.

He also forces her to move to England against her will. Separated from the nature she loves and forced to contend with a cold, forbidding landscape that she has no affinity for, we can understand how Antoinette turned to madness. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is locked up as a result of being mad; in Rhys's retelling, she is driven mad by Rochester and then locked up as a result of what he has done to her.

It helps the have the story told from both Antoinette's and Rochester's points of view, because this shows how profound the gap in culture is that separates them. They see the world differently, and in the absence of Rochester's ability to communicate his vulnerabilities, we know the two are on a collision course to disaster.

We also see how very insecure Rochester is, especially about his masculinity, and how this colors his perceptions of Antionette, whom he can only perceive in terms of himself. It helps us to understand Antionette's madness to see it as the product of conflicting worldviews and patriarchal power.

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