Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
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...
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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.” Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette Mason’s story.
Wide Sargasso Sea takes place in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, shortly after slavery has been abolished. Antoinette is living on a dilapidated old plantation called Coulibri Estate, which sits in the tropical hills of Jamaica. Antoinette is the oldest of two children. Her younger brother, Pierre, is very sick or possibly developmentally challenged. His condition is never defined. He spends most of his time in bed.
The large plantation thrived once, but Antoinette’s widowed mother, the second wife of Antoinette’s father, is incapable of maintaining it. The family’s income relied on slave labor. Now that the slaves have been freed, they have become rebellious. They often mock Antoinette and her mother by calling them white cockroaches, insinuating that they are the worst of their race. One day they even poison Antoinette’s mother’s horse. Horseback riding had been her favorite pastime; it took her mind off all her troubles.
There are many troubles on the plantation. One of the worst things for Antoinette is that her mother very obviously favors her brother, Pierre, over her. Her mother often pushes Antoinette away and says to leave her alone. So Antoinette spends much of her time with Christophine, a black maid. Her only friend is a young black girl about her own age named Tia. They spend most of their days together until they have a fight and say things to one another that cannot be forgiven. Antoinette calls Tia a “nigger” when Tia tricks Antoinette out of her favorite dress. Tia responds by saying Antoinette is a “White nigger,” which, according to Tia, is even worse than a black one.
Relatives of a deceased neighbor show up one day and sweep into Antoinette’s mother’s life with dancing, music, and parties. Their family name is Luttrell. They lend Antoinette’s mother a horse to ride and introduce her to Mr. Mason, who will eventually marry her. While they go on their honeymoon, Antoinette and her brother stay in town with their Aunt Cora from the British side of the family.
After a year of marriage, Antoinette’s mother wants to leave the island. She can sense that trouble is brewing in the black population. Mr. Mason has no sense of what is happening. He thinks he can rule people without understanding them; he sees no trouble coming. Then one night, a large group of former slaves gather around Coulibri. They are angry but the Mason family does not know why. Mr. Mason goes out on the porch to talk to them and settle them down. He comes back inside looking shaken. There are more people out there than he had imagined, but he believes the family is safe inside—until he smells smoke.
The first clouds of smoke come from Pierre’s bedroom. Mrs. Mason had left a young black girl in the boy’s room to watch over him. When Mrs. Mason bursts into the room, all she sees is flames. The girl is gone and Pierre looks lifeless in his bed. Smoke then comes from other parts of the house, and Mr. Mason orders the family outside. They will take a carriage to town.
The crowd is not, however, going to let them through. They push forward until they hear Mr. Mason pray out loud. The prayer makes them hesitate, but it is the bird that stops them. Mrs. Mason’s parrot tries to fly out of the house. He is on fire. To kill a parrot is a bad omen, and the people drop back and let the family pass by.
When Antoinette sees Tia in the crowd, she runs toward her, thinking Tia has come as a friend. But Tia has a rock in her hand, and she throws it, hitting Antoinette hard on her forehead. Antoinette passes out from the blow.