(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Antoinette’s immediate family consists only of her impoverished, widowed mother and her idiot brother; a small number of black servants remain at the dilapidated Coulibri estate. Rejected by blacks and whites because of her mixed heritage and her family’s poverty, Antoinette drifts through a troubled and lonely childhood. Her mother ignores her, pushing her away without emotion of any kind, and only Christophine, the servant from Martinique, is kind and nurturing.

Annette Cosway, Antoinette’s mother, still young and beautiful, fights for survival by using her beauty, her only resource, marrying Mr. Mason, a wealthy Englishman. This rescue does not last long, however; one night an angry mob of newly freed slaves burns down Coulibri. Antoinette’s brother dies. Antoinette is physically attacked. The terror of the night drives Antoinette’s mother completely insane.

For six weeks Antoinette lies ill at her Aunt Cora’s. After regaining her strength, Antoinette attends convent school. Mount Calvary convent provides a refuge of sorts. Antoinette first prays there for the freedom of death, then stops praying and feels “bolder, happier, more free. But not so safe.”

Antoinette’s stepfather visits her and finally tells her she will soon be leaving. Just prior to her departure from the convent, she dreams of herself dressed in white following a man with eyes of hatred into the dark of the jungle. She awakens and recalls the dream as one of “Hell,” and the hot chocolate she is given to calm her recalls her mother’s funeral, one year prior.

The Englishman proceeds on horseback with his new bride, Antoinette, to their honeymoon house, Grandbois. The rain, the colors, the mountains, and even the servants all seem “too much” to him, too bright, too vibrant. All of this world seems uncivilized, including his new wife, and already he regrets this marriage. When Antoinette refused at the last minute to marry, the Englishman persuasively reassured her, most concerned with having to return to England “in the role of the rejected suitor jilted by this Creole girl.” After he settles into the house, he writes to his father but leaves out any anxiety regarding his marriage. The Englishman marries for money: Antoinette owns property.

At Grandbois, their differences are inescapable, although initially Antoinette enchants him. He desires the alien nature of the island passionately. He...

(The entire section is 999 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Summary

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 1 Summary

Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea attempts to fill in the blanks of a fictional character's life story. Here Rhys creates a biography for...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2 Summary

The narrator of Part II is Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. He is never named in Rhys's novel, but the...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 3 Summary

Grace Poole, another character from Bronte's Jane Eyre, begins the narration of Part III. In Bronte's novel, Grace is the woman hired...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Chapter Summaries

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 1, Section 1 Summary

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is an exploration of the life of a literary character from another novel. In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a character is referred to as the mad wife of Edward Rochester. Her name is Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Bronte depicts her as a Creole woman raised in Jamaica and calls her Antoinette Mason; three generations of her family members have been mad. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys attempts to give Bertha a more full characterization. In a review for London’s Independent, Laura Fish states that Wide Sargasso Sea “gives voice to neglected, silenced, and unacknowledged stories.” This includes stories about “gender, class, race and madness.”...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 1, Section 2 Summary

Antoinette is recuperating at her Aunt Cora’s house in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Antoinette has been in bed for several weeks. She finds that her long hair has been cut off and is surprised that she does not recall anyone cutting it. She also has no memory of how she arrived at her aunt’s house. When she asks about her brother, her aunt tells her that Pierre is dead. Her aunt also says that Antoinette’s mother has been taken to the country to regain her health. Antoinette recalls having heard her mother shouting before she left. Her mother threatened to kill Mr. Mason, her husband. She called him a coward.

A few weeks later, Antoinette travels with Christophine to visit her mother. When they reach the house where her...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 1 Summary

The majority of Part Two is told through the character of Edward Rochester. Richard Mason, the son of Antoinette's stepfather, has arranged a marriage between Antoinette and Edward Rochester. Part Two begins after their wedding. The couple has gone to the tropical mountains of one of the Windward Islands, celebrating their honeymoon. They are staying at a small estate that was once owned by Antoinette's mother. Antoinette feels very much at home there, calling out the names of many of the people they pass on their journey to her mother's home. Rochester comments on the language Antoinette speaks to her old acquaintances. It is not French, but a derivative, referred to as "debased French patois." Everything feels very exotic for...

(The entire section is 566 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 2 Summary

Rochester flashes back to when he first came to Jamaica, before he and Antoinette were married. He claims that the island and its people were “brightly coloured,” but they seemed very strange and he had no feelings for any of them, even Antoinette. He merely went about doing what was expected of him. He smiled at her, kissed her hand, and danced when it was expected of him. It was all a role for him. He was so unauthentic in dealing with the people that he was surprised no one noticed. The white people, in particular, appeared to see nothing lacking in his manner. If anyone showed any doubt about his performance, he saw it only on the faces of the black people. One expression he noticed on many faces, both white and black, was...

(The entire section is 439 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 3 Summary

The setting returns to Antoinette’s and Richard’s honeymoon. It is late afternoon when Rochester enters the dining room where supper is being set up. He is taken by surprise by Antoinette’s beauty. He had never noticed it before. As they eat, Antoinette asks questions about Rochester’s home country, England. She has heard England referred to as a dream and wants to know if this is true. Rochester tells her that the island on which they are staying is like a dream to him. In essence, he points out that the definition of a dream can be applied to both, depending on one’s experience with each place. If one is familiar with a place, it does not seem like a dream. But if one has never visited a place or is new to it, then it...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 4 Summary

Rochester receives a letter from a man who claims to be Daniel Cosway, an illegitimate son of Antoinette’s father. He tells Rochester his version of Antoinette’s family history. He begins his letter by telling Rochester that the Mason family has deceived him because they have not revealed all the details of Antoinette’s background. Then he provides details.

Daniel states that Antoinette’s father came from an evil family that was also fraught with madness. Both Antoinette’s father and grandfather were victims of madness, Daniel writes. After Antoinette’s father died, her mother married Mr. Mason, whom Daniel claims truly loved her. But this was not good enough for the woman. She went crazy like her first...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 5 Summary

Antoinette resumes narration. She has come to Christophine’s house to tell the old woman that her husband, Rochester, does not love her. Rochester might even hate her. He no longer sleeps with her, and all the servants know they are not doing well in their relationship. Antoinette can no longer stand Rochester’s silences and cold treatment. She does not know what to do, so she has come to Christophine to seek advice.

Christophine is quiet as she thinks. She knows what Antoinette should do, but the task would be very difficult. Finally she tells Antoinette to leave Rochester. If she leaves him, he will miss her, Christophine says. Only then can they renew their relationship. Antoinette cannot fathom doing this. She...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 6 Summary

Rochester takes over the narration. He is at home while Antoinette is at Christophine’s. Baptiste tells Rochester where Antoinette has gone. While Rochester waits for Antoinette’s return, another letter arrives for him from Daniel. Before reading the letter, Rochester quizzes Amelie about Daniel; he wants to know if Daniel is Amelie’s friend. Amelie says he is not. Nonetheless, Rochester tells Amelie to tell Daniel that he no longer wants to receive letters from him. The letters make him angry. Then he asks if Daniel’s last name is Cosway. Amelie responds that some people say that is his name and some people say it is not, but Daniel refers to himself as a Cosway. There are apparently many questions about Daniel’s...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 7 Summary

Rochester continues to narrate, but his voice sounds more cynical and mean. He ponders the approaching hurricane season and how the winds will tear down the trees. From that observation he easily moves on to more personal reflections, contemplating his revenge. He is not specific about the details of this revenge; he merely seems satisfied that the time for his revenge has come. He imagines trees stripped of their limbs and the howling and shrieking of storm winds.

He mentions how he once loved poetry and music in his youth, but now he hates them both. He alludes to pity but then asks if there is no pity for him. With this statement, readers can imagine he has heard that people have expressed pity for Antoinette but not...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 2, Section 8 Summary

Rochester and Antoinette are leaving Granbois. When Rochester looks at his wife’s face, he notices it is expressionless. She stares blankly ahead of her without one tear. Rochester concludes that Antoinette has no tears inside her; she is incapable of feeling any emotion. In contrast, when Rochester looks back at the old house, he feels sadness. The house will fall apart, he is sure. The forest will claim it now that there is no one left to take care of it. Rochester also notes that Baptiste looks very different. There is nothing in Baptiste’s treatment of Rochester to denote that he is Rochester’s servant. Although Baptiste has remained polite in his dealings with him, Rochester is well aware of the undercurrent of...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 3, Section 1 Summary

Rochester’s father and brother have both died, so the family estate and fortune now belong to Rochester. After living in Jamaica for a while, Rochester returns to England. Grace Poole has been employed at the estate. Her sole responsibility is to look after Antoinette. Rochester wants nothing more to do with his wife and has set up an apartment for her in a special section of the house. Grace is to stay with Antoinette at all times.

Antoinette once again returns as the narrator. It is obvious that she is confused. Her memory seems scattered; she does not know why she is in this cold, dark place. She does not know what it is she is required to do.

At night after Grace has fallen asleep, sometimes Antoinette...

(The entire section is 590 words.)