Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is a study of individuals who are entangled and finally consumed by their obsessions, just as divers are ensnared by the thick sargasso seaweed that surrounds the Windward Islands. Rhys’s characters are similar to the grotesques described in Sherwood Anderson’s “The Book of the Grotesque.” He describes characters who cling to singular ideas, adapting them as personal truths. Their limited perspectives act as barriers to communication that cause the sea between individuals to widen. Isolation results as characters reside within their own psychological islands. Because the memories of slavery are so fresh in their minds, the townspeople cannot let go of their hatred of white landholders. Annette cannot release either her desire for social acceptance or her fear of the blacks. Antoinette is obsessed with the need to be loved, while Christophine cannot release her faith in obeah. Finally, Rochester cannot relinquish his civilized social decorum. All these characters have become entangled in their own truths. The tighter they hold on to their particular perspectives, the more isolated and grotesque they become. Rhys demonstrates that isolation leads to psychological demise.

Isolation is not necessarily self-inflicted. At times, historical factors influence relationships. This is seen in the rejection by the blacks in Spanish Town of Annette. The Coulibri estate had been a flourishing plantation during the days of slavery, but when slavery was abolished, workers’ wages became too costly and many white “aristocrats” watched their lands decay. As property deteriorated, the respect that went along with land ownership also dwindled. The townspeople could not forget the history of slavery, and Annette could not ignore the hatred she felt directed toward her by the blacks. No communication took place, so the sea between Annette and the townspeople grew wider. After the burning of Coulibri, Annette went into complete isolation, even from her family members. Isolation drove her to madness.

Wide Sargasso Sea is also a story of cultural clashes and the isolation that results from the inability to communicate. This is best demonstrated in the character Rochester, who has been reared according to British social decorum. When he first comes into contact with the wildness of the island’s vegetation and running water, he is excited. Excitement is also revealed in the early sexual play of the newlyweds. As time passes, however, the sensuality, spontaneity, and superstition of Jamaican culture appear as aggressive abandon, which conflicts with Rochester’s disciplined background. Viewing his wife through the eyes of European civilization, Rochester begins to doubt her. He lets his British rationalization dominate his feelings. He chooses to maintain his cultural identity at the expense of his marriage. He returns to Britain with Antoinette, and she lives in isolation in an alien environment.

Some critics claim that Wide Sargasso Sea is a story of male domination. They refer to Rochester’s locking his wife up in the attic of his English estate, in the environment in which he could best assert his strength. Even in the village of Massacre, however, Antoinette had isolated herself from everyone but Christophine and the bottle. Antoinette’s love for Rochester was so great that she wanted to possess him. After all, she had bought him for thirty thousand pounds. Yet the free environment of the islands would not permit anyone to be owned. Antoinette’s desire for Rochester led her to summon Christophine to use obeah to instill desire in her husband. Antoinette’s obsession to have her husband’s love drove him away from her. Rather than be possessed by his wife, Rochester took control. He gained this control in England, where he knew the rules of domination.

Antoinette does not know how to communicate. Having lived with rejection since childhood, she has never learned how to share herself with others. She believes that she can buy a husband, but this results in further loneliness. A marriage without love offers no communication, no companionship. Her obsession to possess someone, to fill the rejection she had known all of her life, is too powerful. Antoinette’s obsession for love brings about her demise.

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