Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

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 house, killing Antoinette’s sickly brother, driving her mother into madness, and forcing her stepfather to place her in the keeping of a convent school in Spanish Town, Jamaica.

For ten years, Antoinette remains in the seclusion of the school, which fosters her own fears and forebodings. She leaves at age eighteen for her arranged marriage to Rochester, who, as the younger son—and so without an inheritance—of a wealthy father, marries her for her very large dowry. The marriage is sour from the beginning. Antoinette gives him all of her property and wealth as well as her love, but Rochester believes that he has been bought and resents his father, his brother, and his new wife as well as the people, landscape, and even the language of the colony he has been forced to make his home.

The very aspect of the landscape which was Antoinette’s refuge as a child torments Rochester with secrets he cannot penetrate. His sense of light, color, scent, touch, and taste are overwhelmed by intensity and strangeness, and he resists them as he resists his young wife’s beauty and intimate honesty about her life and feelings. He credits instead the lies and gossip he hears about her and her mother, is unfaithful to her with a servant girl, drives her former nurse and maid Christophine away, and is deeply cruel to Antoinette. The rift between them deepens on his part into hatred and on hers into madness

Rochester forces Antoinette to go to England, where he locks her in the attic of the house he inherits following the death of his father and brother. She is very far from the tropical land of which she is so much a part, and her only remembrance of it is the red dress she keeps in her wardrobe. The dress is the color of flamboyant trees and is scented with frangipani, but it also suggests warmth and fire, and she puts the dress on, careful not to wake her warder Grace Poole, before she escapes from her room with a candle, which she will use to spread flame through the house.

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

In Charlotte’s Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), a man named Rochester keeps his first wife Bertha locked in an attic. Bertha is insane and comes from the West Indies, but her past is not explained. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys accounts for Bertha’s childhood and marriage. Since Rhys herself came from the West Indies and struggled in England, the story had special significance for her.

Born on the island of Dominica in 1894, Rhys moved to England when she was sixteen years old. Jane Eyre was one of the first books she read upon her arrival. The portrayal of Bertha always disappointed her. Rhys had four novels published between 1928 and 1939, then spent twenty-seven years writing Bertha’s story. When Wide Sargasso Sea was finally completed in 1966, it earned for Rhys long-deserved acclaim.

The book’s title refers to the body of water, part of the Atlantic, between the West Indies and England. Rhys never completely adjusted to the move from her tropical island home to England and other countries of Europe. She always felt cold and imagined Bertha felt the same. Rhys had chronic financial difficulties that kept her moving. She was married three times—two of her husbands spent time in prison. She drank heavily. Rhys empathized with human suffering, regardless of the cause, and sided with heroines facing less sensitive, well-organized societies. Bertha’s ill-fated marriage to the respectable Rochester was a perfect subject for Rhys to explore in depth.

The book starts with Bertha’s point of view. As a girl, she describes the difficulties facing her family in 1830’s Jamaica. The family was once rich and owned slaves, but is currently in decline. When her mother remarries, things turn from bad to worse. Blacks surround the house one night and burn it down. Young Bertha (or Antoinette; she calls herself Antoinette) is sent to a convent to recover from the trauma. Her mother goes insane, and her stepfather leaves the island.

The second part of the book covers the ill-fated marriage. Rochester’s visit from England is arranged by the stepfather when Antoinette is seventeen years old. The couple is blissful at first: She shows him around the tropical paradise, and they often make love. Rochester soon learns of her family’s history, however, and fears that she too will become insane one day. He distances himself from her, and has a brief affair. The marriage goes quickly downhill. She drinks bottle after bottle of rum and resorts to dubious voodoo tactics to renew his interest. Nothing apparently works, so he decides to take her to England and lock her in an attic.

In the third and final part, Bertha takes decisive action. The novel’s point of view returns to her, after going back and forth between her and Rochester in the second part. Her desperate action, also described in Jane Eyre, is triumphant in Rhys’s mind. She expresses rage against the unsympathetic, male-dominated, cold-hearted, and cold-weathered environment that Rhys, too, stubbornly refused to accept as a perfect world.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

Wide Sargasso Sea allows Bertha Mason, the madwoman married to Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel, to tell her story. Rhys creates a voice, a history, and a rationale for why Bertha is mad. She has been driven insane by the cold rejection of an embittered Englishman.

In this novel Rhys integrates a mature style and sensibility with the experience of her childhood in Dominica. Wide Sargasso Sea is the most structurally demanding of her novels. She had to write in the context of a previously written novel and blend this context into the story of her own life and that of Bertha.

In Rhys’s novel, Bertha has a different name, her own name, Antoinette. She is small and delicate, rather than large and swarthy as Brontë describes her. Rochester calls her Bertha; this name is hateful to Antoinette.

The novel is structured around Antoinette and Rochester’s alternating points of view and is divided into three parts. The first and second parts alternate between the voices of Antoinette and Rochester and are set in the West Indies. The third part is limited to Antoinette’s voice, after she has come to England and has been locked in the attic of Thornfield.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, the Caribbean is depicted in rich and sensual imagery. In the novel, the Caribbean is at a turning point. The white Creole is being rendered homeless because the cruelties of slavery are coming to an end. Antoinette is called “whitey cockroach” by the blacks with whom she feels a strong sense of kinship. Nostalgia does not lead Antoinette into the misconception that the old ways were better. She also is in no position to be blind to the cruelties the former slaves visit upon their former masters.

Antoinette is caught in a double bind: There is first the conflict in her own culture and second the rejection by Rochester, who is initially attracted to her. Rhys does not totally condemn the character of Rochester. In sections of narrative told from his point of view, he accounts for his own bitterness and rejection as a second son. He is forced to marry, for money, someone of his father’s choosing, and he believes that he has been lied to about Antoinette’s mother’s mental breakdown and the hint of black blood in her ancestry. He in turn rejects and betrays Antoinette, driving her into madness.

In Rhys’s conclusion of the novel, Antoinette takes off down a dark passage thinking, “Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do.” Her last thought is about the candle: “I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.” This conclusion fits the general pattern of endings of Rhys’s novels. Rhys offers ambiguity, an oblique suggestion that somehow Antoinette will survive and perhaps triumph even in her madness.


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