Discuss the idea that the struggle between narrative voices is also a struggle between cultures in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Everything about Wide Sargasso Sea suggests a struggle between two opposing forces, and it is a struggle the author, Jean Rhys, understood in her own life. Her father was a Welsh doctor and her mother was a white Creole, and she spent her growing-up years on a Caribbean island at a time of English colonialism. She was part of two worlds, influenced by and suffering the effects of both of them.

This dichotomy is evident in this novel, as well. The story is narrated by two distinctively different people: Antoinette Cosway Mason and Edward Rochester. She is a white Creole woman who is from a place that is tropical, warm, and rather untamed; he is from England, a place that is rigid, cold, and civilized. It is not surprising, then, that the way they see the world and how they respond to it are in constant conflict.

Rochester was born into a patriarchal world and therefore lives his life with a sense of patriarchal entitlement. He is distinctly uncomfortable with dark skin and accuses Antoinette of being less than pure white, something he cannot abide in her. She looks dark and wild to him because she is different than the women he grew up with, and it is something alien, evil, and distinctly inferior in his eyes. He is forced to marry her and finds it impossible to see her as anything but a valueless foreigner.

While Antoinette is drawn to the sights and settings of her tropical home, she is ostracized in this paradise because her father was once a slave owner. This makes her a pariah among the blacks, and her family's poverty makes her undesirable to the whites. These things create in her a sense of isolation, and she finds solace only in the convent school she is able to attend for a time. When she marries Rochester, she loves him and tries to conform herself to his expectations, even going so far as to make their home into a kind of British manor. To no avail. 

Antoinette, the protagonist, is in a constant battle with Rochester, her husband and the antagonist of the novel. She only knows of England through the words of others, and she assumes it is "like a cold dark dream." (Later, when she is imprisoned at Thornfield, she probably feels as if that is literally true.) Rochester sees his wife's home country in much the same way. He says,

“that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.”

To Antoinette, the “rivers and mountains and the sea” are the most real things in the world; to Rochester, “millions of people, their houses and their streets” could not possibly be a dream, as she suggests. 

These two people see the world in distinctly different ways, and those perspectives will do nothing but create division between them. They should not have gotten married because there is no way they could find a way to respect, admire, or understand each other--or the worlds from which they came. The problem for Antoinette is that she loves Rochester, and he is unwilling to try to feel anything for her.

“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. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.” 

She is too much; he loves too little.

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