Wide Sargasso Sea is the life story of Antoinette Mason, chronicling her solitary girlhood on her family estate in Jamaica, her coming of age in a convent school, and her early marriage to Edward Rochester, which ends disastrously in her madness and destruction. Antoinette is the mad wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a figure with whom Jean Rhys identified and was fascinated for much of her life. Instead of the raving animal who is Bronte’s character, Rhys’s Antoinette is a doomed but utterly sympathetic and understandable heroine who is unable to remedy the circumstances inflicted on her by history, family, and fate.
As a white Creole child on her family’s Coulibri Estate, with her father dead and her mother distraught with poverty, Antoinette belongs neither in the society of the recently freed slaves, who despise all white people, nor in that of the local whites, who reject her mother, Annette, for being a Martiniquoise, pretty, widowed, and poor. Cut off from all society and security, Antoinette finds a kind of painful solace in the wild bush and rain forest, which both attract and terrify her with their lushness and mysterious, menacing forms. She grows up as a wild child, until her mother marries one Mr. Mason, wealthy and recently arrived from England. The local blacks, however, fearing that the new prosperity at the estate might mean importation of indentured workers from India, one night form a mob and burn down the...
(The entire section is 603 words.)