The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

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.

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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 marriage.

Rochester learned to hide his feelings so long ago that he cannot remember when, but he is sharply aware of the division within him. During his narration, he is curiously outside the story because his consciousness is halved: One side acts and talks as he finds expedient, while the other monitors the first half, measuring his own duplicitousness. Thus alienated from himself, he holds Antoinette at a distance. “I watched her critically,” he says as they start for their honeymoon house. Later he admits, “I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.” His remoteness turns easily into paranoia and hatred for her and everything in her world. As he leaves the island, he confesses, “I was tired of these people.... And I hated the place.... Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness.”

For Antoinette, the pain of her lonely childhood, the burning of her house by the mob, and her mother’s subsequent madness made her especially needy as a woman for a life of some tranquillity and calm. She conducts her part of the marriage completely toward that end, arranging an idyllic honeymoon in her own house in the Jamaican hills, cool, secluded, near a lovely bathing pool, graced by extravagant sunsets and riotous flowers. She helps restore Rochester to health after a fever, health that brings with it a savage desire for her. She submits to him, and the will to live she had lost as a child returns.

What she takes as love from him, however, is a deception masking a monstrous hatred, and its unmasking destroys her fragile sanity. Yet Antoinette’s madness has a clarity that makes Rochester’s supposedly normal life appear as it is, cankered and quite mad.

Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 912

Antoinette Cosway

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...

(The entire section contains 3933 words.)

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