Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*England. Although only the brief third section of the novel actually takes place in England, the country’s influence reverberates throughout. All the people in power are English: Antoinette’s father, stepfather, stepbrother, and husband; Aunt Cora’s husband; the island police; and the people in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Antoinette admires an English girl in a painting called “The Miller’s Daughter” but identifies with Tia, an African American girl. Antoinette cannot believe that England is real, just as Christophine does not believe its reality because she has not seen it. Christophine prophetically calls it a “cold thief place.” Even when Antoinette is taken to England, it seems real to her only once, when she is allowed to visit the countryside and see its grass, water, and trees. Otherwise she compares the house in which she is imprisoned to “cardboard” and thinks that she and her husband became lost on their way from the West Indies. For Antoinette, England is a cold place, and she is left longing for the passion and beauty of the West Indies.

*West Indies

*West Indies. Island chain separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean from the Atlantic Ocean, colonized by European powers. Antoinette blames her lack of identity on having grown up there. Her husband mistrusts his bride because of her foreign ways and blames the islands for tricking him into a loveless marriage. In contrast to England, the West Indies are warm and seductive, with the power to make people behave irrationally. Antoinette’s final desperate act is an attempt to return home.


*Jamaica. Island in the West Indies taken from the Spanish by the British, who made fortunes using slaves to raise sugarcane. Since emancipation in 1834, many freed slaves have grown to hate their impoverished former masters. Antoinette’s deceased father is a decadent, rich Englishman, her mother a beautiful young Creole from Martinique. After her father’s death and emancipation, the former slaves poison Antoinette’s mother’s horse, call the women “white cockroaches,” and burn their home. The English people in Jamaica scorn and gossip about the family.


Colibri. Jamaican estate where Antoinette spends her childhood. Like its row of royal palms which have been either cut down or have fallen, Antoinette is proud but lost. The...

(The entire section is 995 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s characters fall into mental instability as a result of the rejection and isolation that dominate their lives. Rhys does not give a sentimental version of her characters’ declines but offers a detached journalistic account from two perspectives. The novel is divided into three sections. Section 1 is narrated by Antoinette, who describes the rejection that penetrates her early childhood. She also narrates section 3, which further depicts isolation as she is placed in an alien environment in England. Section 2 is narrated by her husband, Rochester, who offers his perspective on the peculiarities of life in the islands and of life with Antoinette. This shift in narrators is effective because it allows readers to understand each character’s dilemma.

To set the atmosphere of rejection, Rhys opens the novel with Antoinette describing the attitudes of the Spanish Town residents toward her mother, Annette. Many factors contribute to Annette’s nonacceptance by the local residents, who believe that Annette is out of place because she was born in Martinique rather than Jamaica. They believe that she is far too young for her husband, so they question her motives for marrying him. They also talk about Pierre, her son, who was born with a mental disability. In addition, because the wounds of slavery have not healed, enmity exists between former slaves and landholders. Annette had been accustomed to social status when...

(The entire section is 598 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jean Rhys’s works are known for depicting females as spontaneous and fragile and males as cold and destructive. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, to distinguish between the oppressors and the victims is difficult. Both genders seem to be at the mercy of their environments. Annette is the victim of historical prejudices resulting from the abolition of slavery. Antoinette is the victim of growing up in a family that was filled with rejection, leaving her unable to communicate with others. Rochester is the victim of being reared in European society and then being transported to a new environment where he is surrounded by the freedom of island culture. Each character must struggle to survive in difficult or unfamiliar conditions.

Rhys avoids sentimentality for her victims and reports journalistically. In isolation, the female characters struggle to form some sense of self-identity, but they seem always to be grasping for smoke. Rhys seems to suggest that women too often base their identities on their ties with others. Women pursue dependent roles and seem to lack identity in isolation. With an absence of self, women are continually grasping and often slide into mental instability.

Some critics claim that Rhys writes of cold-hearted men who take advantage of weak, dependent women. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester takes Antoinette’s dowry and shares a passionate beginning with her before turning away from her, leaving her in a...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea between 1945 and 1966. Critic Elizabeth Nunez-Harrell writes in ‘‘The Paradoxes of Belonging: The...

(The entire section is 834 words.)

Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Point of View
The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, Antoinette is the only narrator. In the second part,...

(The entire section is 1106 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Rhys based her character Antoinette Cosway on Bertha Mason, the madwoman in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Compare the depictions of...

(The entire section is 114 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Wide Sargasso Sea was adapted as a film in 1993 by Carol Angier, John Dugian, and Jan Sharpe. The Australian film stars Karina...

(The entire section is 104 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

In Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel Jane Eyre, Rhys found the inspiration for Wide Sargasso Sea. Jane Eyre traces the...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Allen,Walter, review, in New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1967, p. 5.

Alvarez, A., ‘‘The...

(The entire section is 517 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Anderson, Sherwood. “The Book of the Grotesque.” In Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. This first chapter gives a thorough explanation of “grotesqueness,” the inability to communicate with others. The rejection that results further strengthens the barriers against communication. Anderson’s explanation facilitates an understanding of the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. These seven hundred pages give a thorough discussion of Rhys’s early life, her schooling, her clash of cultural backgrounds, her chorus line experience, her...

(The entire section is 429 words.)