Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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The Characters

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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 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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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...

(This entire section contains 912 words.)

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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 inJane Eyre.

Mr. Rochester

Mr. Rochester, a young British gentleman, the second son of a proper English family who is forced by the law of primogeniture to secure his own fortune. His narration of the second half of the story recounts his arranged marriage to a beautiful but mysterious West Indian girl who brings to the union the fortune he seeks. Despite certain odd circumstances surrounding their marriage, only after receiving a revealing letter from a black man who claims to be a relative of his bride does Rochester realize why this marriage was so eagerly sought by her stepbrother. He also realizes that everyone but him is aware of the potential for madness that exists in his new wife’s family. Sensing that he has been the victim of a duplicitous plot, Rochester expresses hatred for the deceptive beauty of the islands, a quality that he has come to associate with Antoinette as well. Seeking only his own sanity, he returns to England with Antoinette and conceals her with a nurse in the attic of his family home. Also on his return to England, he learns that both his father and his brother have died, thus ironically providing him with the fortune that he already has secured at great cost to himself and at even greater cost to Antoinette.

Annette Cosway Mason

Annette Cosway Mason, Antoinette’s mother, who was widowed at an early age. After her first husband’s death, the family was very poor and lonely for five years. Determined to provide for her children and herself, Annette marries Mr. Mason and is happy for a time, but after the natives destroy her home and kill her son, Annette turns against Mason and tries to kill him. He places her in a separate house with servants as attendants. There her daughter witnesses the effects of madness. Vivid impressions burn indelibly into Antoinette’s mind.

Christophine Dubois

Christophine Dubois, a native of Martinique given to Annette as a wedding present by her first husband. Christophine becomes Antoinette’s nurse and is the only person who consistently supports the lonely young woman. A colorful person given to expressing bromides of conventional wisdom, Christophine receives the news of the terms of Antoinette’s marriage with the pronouncement, “All women . . . nothing but fools.” A practitioner of voodoo, she refuses to use her black arts on Rochester until Antoinette has told him herself about her family secrets. In the end, Christophine’s wisdom is not strong enough to save Antoinette.

Mr. Mason

Mr. Mason, Annette’s second husband and Antoinette’s stepfather. After Annette’s demise, Mason attempts to care for Antoinette.


Pierre, the younger brother of Antoinette, who is afflicted with the family curse of madness. Their mother dotes on him much more than on Antoinette. Pierre is killed when natives set fire to the Mason home.

Aunt Cora

Aunt Cora, a relative of the Cosways who tries to protect Antoinette’s rights and fortune after learning of Richard’s arranged marriage for Antoinette.

Richard Mason

Richard Mason, Antoinette’s stepbrother, who negotiates the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester.

Daniel Cosway

Daniel Cosway, a black man who claims to be a relative of Antoinette. He writes a letter to Rochester telling him about the taint of madness that follows Antoinette’s family.

Sandi Cosway

Sandi Cosway, Daniel’s half brother and a relative of Antoinette. Implications persist that Sandi and Antoinette are involved romantically.

Grace Poole

Grace Poole,

Mrs. Eff

Mrs. Eff, and


Leah, servants in the house in England in which Rochester confines Antoinette.


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Amelie Amelie is a ''half-caste'' servant at Rochester and Antoinette's "honeymoon-house" in Dominica. Amelie mocks Antoinette, calling her a ‘‘white cockroach.’’ Rochester, who thinks Amelie resembles Antoinette, has sex with Amelie within earshot of Antoinette. Afterwards, Amelie, who has often said that she feels sorry for Rochester, remarks ''I find it in my heart to be sorry for [Antoinette] too.’’ Amelie seems to have planned her seduction of Rochester in order to get money to leave the island.

Baptiste A black servant at the ''honeymoon-house'' on Dominica, Baptiste does not hide his disdain of Rochester.

Daniel Boyd See Daniel Cosway.

Aunt Cora The widow of a slave owner, Aunt Cora takes care of Antoinette after her mother goes insane. Aunt Cora and Mr. Mason do not get along. He blames her for not helping out the Cosway family when they were poor and isolated. Aunt Cora believes that Mr. Mason's treatment of his black workers will endanger the Cosway/Mason family. Later, Aunt Cora blames Richard Mason for arranging an unsuitable marriage for Antoinette: ‘‘It's disgraceful.. .It's shameful. You are handing over everything the child owns to a perfect stranger. Your father would have never allowed it. She should be protected, legally.’’ Aunt Cora is afraid that the marriage settlements leave Antoinette vulnerable, but is powerless to change them.

Annette Cosway The daughter and wife of slave owners, Annette Cosway leads a precarious existence as a young widow with two children in post-emancipation Jamaica. A native of Martinique, Annette is considered an outsider by Jamaican society. She is an unresponsive mother to Antoinette who craves her mother's attention. She does lavish time and energy on her mentally retarded and physically disabled son, Pierre. Fearing for the future and hoping to end her impoverishment, Annette gets the rich Mr. Mason to fall in love with her. The local gossips believe that she used the powers of her voodoo-practicing servant Christophine to entrap her second husband. After the fire at Coulibri, Annette goes insane, unable to face the deaths of her son and pet parrot. In her madness, she attacks Mr. Mason and tries to kill him. When Antoinette visits her in her confinement, Annette has become the sexual plaything of her black caregiver.

Antoinette Cosway A monster in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Antoinette Cosway, otherwise known as Bertha Mason, is the heroine of Rhys's novel. A sensitive child as the novel begins, Antoinette narrates the story of her life. Isolated from society and hungry for her mother's attention, Antoinette tries to find her rightful place in the world. The local blacks taunt her, calling her a ‘‘white cockroach,’’ and white women speak of her strangeness. In post-emancipation Jamaica, former slaves hate her because her father was a slave owner. Emancipation left the Cosways impoverished, and their poverty isolates them from white society. Antoinette seeks solace in the wild ruins of the family's formerly grand plantation, Coulibri. She feels a kinship toward the vibrant colors and lushness of the overgrown grounds. But Antoinette is banished from this Garden of Eden. After her mother, Annette, marries the wealthy Mr. Mason, she is supposed to take her place in a more ordered and orderly world. The wild Caribbean plantation is remodeled as an English country estate. This paradise is finally lost when disgruntled black servants burn Coulibri to the ground. As she watches it burn, Antoinette knows that she has lost her home forever. Later, Antoinette finds solace in a convent school where she is protected from the outside world. Antoinette loses this haven when her stepfather, Mr. Mason, arranges her marriage to Edward Rochester. Falling passionately in love with her husband, Antoinette hopes that their ''honeymoon-house'' can become a true home. Her husband, however, spurns her advances, much as her mother did. This final rejection, coupled with her earlier isolation, leads Antoinette to the brink of insanity. Eventually imprisoned in Rochester's English house, Thornfield Hall, Antoinette plots to burn it down and to take a suicide leap from its roof. In a dream vision, she imagines that she can jump back to Coulibri and into the beckoning arms of her black childhood friend, Tia. In death she hopes to find a place to belong.

Daniel Cosway DanielCosway, who is part black, claims to be Antoinette's illegitimate half-brother. He writes Rochester a letter explaining that Antoinette's mother went mad and that Antoinette has led a promiscuous life. His actions destroy all possibilities that Antoinette and Rochester will be happy in marriage. Antoinette says that Daniel is not really her brother, and that he has caused this misery out of his hatred for all white people.

Pierre Cosway Pierre Cosway, described as an ''idiot'' by the local gossips, is Antoinette's younger brother. His physical and mental disabilities serve to further isolate the Cosways in the years before Annette Cosway's marriage to Mr. Mason. Pierre dies as a result of injuries sustained in the fire that destroys Coulibri. Remorse over his death is one of the main causes of his mother's subsequent insanity. Pierre's mental disabilities also add to Rochester's suspicion that Antoinette is hereditarily predisposed to mental illness.

Sandi Cosway Sandi, the black grandson of Antoinette's father, appears fleetingly in the novel as a kind man who tries to protect Antoinette. He scares off the black children who taunt her on her way to school. Years later, his kindness makes him the subject of rumors: Daniel tells Rochester that Antoinette and Sandi were involved sexually. Locked in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette recalls Sandi's frequent visits to her after her marriage and remembers their last kiss. After her marriage to Rochester was effectively dissolved, Sandi and Antoinette did become lovers. He had offered to protect her from Rochester and had wanted to run away with her. Enraged by news of their affair, Rochester takes Antoinette to England.

Christophine Dubois Christophine, an obeah (voodoo) practitioner from Martinique, is one of three black servants to stay with the Cosway family after emancipation. A formidable character, Christophine's obeah powers are legendary among both the Jamaican blacks and whites. Christophine frightens the local black women into helping her in the Cosway kitchen. White women assume that Christophine used black magic to help Annette "catch" her second husband, Mr. Mason. Though Antoinette is also somewhat frightened of Christophine, Christophine acts as a mother figure to her. After silently noticing Antoinette's loneliness, Christophine arranges for Tia to be Antoinette's companion. Christophine also tells Annette that she is neglecting her daughter: ''She run wild, she grow up worthless. And nobody care.’’ After Antoinette grows up and gets married, Christophine is still the only person who looks out for her welfare. Unhappy that her husband has stopped loving her, Antoinette turns to Christophine for advice. Christophine tells her to leave her husband: ‘‘When man don't love you, more you try, more he hate you, man like that.’’ Refusing to listen, Antoinette begs Christophine for a magical cure. Christophine relents and provides her with a drug to seduce Rochester. As Christophine predicts, however, the drug ultimately makes Rochester hate Antoinette. Just as she tried to get Antoinette's mother to care for her child, Christophine attempts (and fails) to persuade Rochester to love his wife, if only a little.

Godfrey Godfrey is one of three black servants who remain with the Cosway family after emancipation. However, Annette does not trust him; she believes he is complicit in the poisoning of her horse. During the fire at Coulibri, Godfrey does not try to help the white family.

Josephine See Christophine Dubois.

Annette Mason See Annette Cosway.

Bertha Mason See Antoinette Cosway.

Mr. Mason Mr. Mason, Annette Cosway's second husband, is a rich Englishman who has recently come to Jamaica. Local gossip has it that he could have married any woman he wanted. The white Spanish Town ladies are surprised that he chose Annette, an impoverished widow with a disabled son and a strange daughter. Mr. Mason restores the Cosway home, Coulibri, to its former grandeur. As an Englishman, he seems ignorant of the racial politics on Jamaica. He plans to replace his black laborers with East Indian "coolies," and doesn't realize the extent to which his workers will resent this change. The fire at Coulibri takes him unawares, despite the constant warnings of Aunt Cora that black animosity toward the rich white family runs high. Mr. Mason also holds very stereotypical views about blacks: he believes that they are like harmless children. He is not comfortable with the close relations the Cosways have with their black relatives. Antoinette and Pierre have many black half-siblings—their father was a notorious womanizer— and Annette has always befriended these children. Mr. Mason demands that these ties be cut. Trying to endow Coulibri with specifically English values, Mr. Mason fills the house with English art and orders the cook to prepare English dishes. Ultimately, Mr. Mason can control neither Coulibri nor his wife. His English possessions burn in the fire and his wife goes insane. Still trying to control the fate of the Cosway family, he plans Antoinette's marriage to Rochester before he dies. But Rochester, like Mr. Mason, is unable to anglicize either Antoinette or her Caribbean possessions.

Mannie Mannie, the black groom who comes to Coulibri after Mr. Mason marries Annette Cosway, is the only new servant whom Antoinette likes. He is one of three servants to stay loyal to the Cosway/Mason family during the plantation fire. He tries to put out the fire and fearlessly confronts those who set it: ‘‘What all you are, eh? Brute beasts?’’ Shouting back, the crowd calls him a ‘‘black Englishman.’’

Richard Mason Richard Mason, Antoinette Cosway's (Bertha Mason's) stepbrother, is one of the characters who also appear in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Richard is responsible for arranging the marriage of Antoinette to Edward Rochester. Christophine and Aunt Cora each worry that the marriage settlements leave Antoinette vulnerable and dependent upon Rochester, a man the family barely knows. In both novels, Rochester blames Richard for keeping the secret of Annette Cosway/Mason's insanity and believes that Richard purposely hid evidence of Antoinette's madness and promiscuity. Antoinette/ Bertha violently attacks Richard when he visits her in her confinement in England. While he appears infrequently in Rhys's novel, Richard's actions have a profound effect on the novel's heroine.

Myra Myra, a black servant, comes to Coulibri after Mr. Mason marries Annette Cosway. Aunt Cora warns Mr. Mason that Myra cannot be trusted and that he should not discuss his plans to fire the black workers in front of her. Mr. Mason laughs off these concerns, saying that Myra and all blacks are ''children’’ who are ‘‘too damn lazy to be dangerous.’’ Aunt Cora's fears are later confirmed. When the black workers set fire to the estate, Myra is mysteriously absent. The fire begins in Pierre's room, where Myra was supposed to be watching the child.

Grace Poole Grace Poole, who narrates a short section of Part Three, is Antoinette/Bertha's nurse in England. She appears as a character also in Jane Eyre. Grace feels protected by the isolation of her position— she's alone in a large mansion with an insane woman and just two other servants. She is also glad to have the money. Her alcohol problem, which is described in some detail in Jane Eyre, is alluded to here. She is afraid of Antoinette ''when her eyes have that look'' and knows that despite her confinement, Antoinette is ‘‘still fierce.’’

Edward Rochester Antoinette's husband, and the narrator of Part Two, is clearly meant to be a young Edward Rochester, the hero of Bronte's Jane Eyre. However, Rhys never gives a name to this character in Wide Sargasso Sea. As a younger son with no prospects of inheritance, Rochester has come to Jamaica to make his fortune. He feels coerced by his father and by Antoinette's family into marrying Antoinette for her money. In a letter to his father, Rochester writes: ''I have sold my soul or you have sold it, and after all the girl is thought to be beautiful, she is beautiful. And yet...’’ Despite Antoinette's beauty, Rochester has serious reservations about her. She seems foreign and unfamiliar and, like the West Indies themselves, possibly threatening. Rochester becomes obsessed with her purity, even questioning whether she is really white. He notes her ''dark alien eyes'' and concludes that while ''of pure English descent she may be,'' her eyes ''are not English or European either.’’ After receiving a letter from Daniel Cosway, who claims to be Antoinette's half-brother, Rochester decides—erroneously—that Antoinette, like her mother, is promiscuous and insane. He trusts her even less after she drugs his wine in an attempt to make him love her. Punishing her for this transgression, Rochester has sex with the black servant Amelie within earshot of Antoinette. Rochester had earlier commented that Amelie looked like Antoinette and had speculated that they might be sisters. In substituting the black "sister" for the white, Rochester shows what he thinks of Antoinette: that she is alien, foreign, and ''other.'' Rochester comes across as racist in these scenes, repulsed by and distrustful of blacks. As Rochester and Antoinette leave their honeymoon-house, he blames her for destroying his future: ''Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.'' Out of desperation and anger, Rochester isolates his wife, withdrawing his physical affection. After he hears rumors of her affair with her black cousin, Sandi, he takes Antoinette to England. Deciding that she is insane, he locks her in the attic. Her eventual insanity becomes the confirmation of all his fears. Throughout his narration in Part Two, Rochester presents himself as a helpless victim of circumstance. In his bitterness, he lashes out at Antoinette, spurning her love and destroying her potential for happiness as well as his own.

Sass Sass is one of three black servants to stay with the Cosways after emancipation. He helps to protect the Cosway/Mason family during the fire at Coulibri.

Disastrous Thomas See Sass.

Tia Tia is Antoinette's first friend. The two swim and play together, and, for a brief while, are happy. The friendship ends after Antoinette calls Tia a "nigger." Tia retaliates by calling Antoinette a ''white nigger'' and by stealing her clothes. During the fire at Coulibri, Antoinette hopes that Tia and her mother will let her live with them. As she starts running toward Tia, Tia throws a rock at Antoinette. Staring at each other, the blood trickles down Antoinette's face while the tears fall down Tia's. Their racial difference divides them even as they feel for each other. Years later, before she goes to burn down Thornfield Hall, Antoinette imagines that Tia is beckoning her and that the two can be friends again.




Critical Essays