Antoinette Mason is the most fully realized of Jean Rhys’s protagonists. While the protagonists of her earlier novels are constrained by Rhys’s adherence to barely fictionalized autobiography, in Wide Sargasso Sea, her effort to invest the madwoman of Jane Eyre with humanity drawn from her own knowledge of West Indian history and geography has produced both a woman more completely realized as an imaginative creation—and, perhaps ironically, more fully the embodiment of Rhys’s own spiritual life.
Antoinette’s husband and antagonist, Edward Rochester, embodies the very difficult circumstances of Rhys’s own life in Europe and England after she emigrated there from Dominica at the age of sixteen. The two characters are rooted in the islands on which Rhys lived, England and the West Indies, which are in many ways mutually dependent yet antagonistic domains: tropical south and cold north, rain forest and metropolis, the New World and the Old. From those extremities come their contrary personalities, which make a happy, settled life impossible.
The sole similarity between these two characters’ psyches derives from their need as children to reduce their vulnerability, to protect themselves, which prompts Rochester to mask his true feelings from other people and Antoinette to hide from people in the bush of Coulibri Estate. The damage done in childhood is the key to the investment each has in the conduct of the...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
Antoinette Cosway, later Bertha Mason Rochester, whose story constitutes a revisionist treatment of events culminating in her transformation into the famed madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Antoinette, the protagonist and narrator of approximately one-half of the story, reflects on her youth and the loneliness and isolation that she experienced as a white Creole child in the predominantly black West Indies. Having outlived most of her family, she halfheartedly submits to a marriage with the British Mr. Rochester that has been arranged by her stepbrother. In reality, this union is a business deal whereby Antoinette’s inheritance is consigned to Rochester in return for his accepting responsibility for her. This latter point proves important as whispers and insinuations spread about Antoinette, her beautiful mother, and her younger brother, individuals thought to have “slept too long in the moonlight,” who exhibit the madness supposedly present in all white Creoles. Antoinette’s naïveté about life outside the West Indies contrasts sharply with Rochester’s comparative worldliness. Her query to her soon-to-be husband reveals her troubled vulnerability—she speaks not of love or even romance but of rest: “Can you give me peace?” This attitude exposes a young woman who has deferred to the decisions of the men in her life—her father, stepbrother, and husband—while depending on old and subservient women for what little emotional support and nurturance she has received. She becomes a woman who cannot act and who is increasingly defined by men, as symbolized by Rochester’s arbitrarily changing her name from Antoinette to Bertha. When her husband rejects her because of his growing preoccupation with her possible madness, Antoinette, denying her own resources, consults the black arts for a spell to bring love to their marriage. When this desperate attempt fails, she becomes blank, a shell destined for the profound madness chronicled in Jane Eyre.
Mr. Rochester, a young British gentleman, the second son of a proper English family who is forced by the law of primogeniture...
(The entire section is 912 words.)