Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

Start Free Trial

Themes and Meanings

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The main themes of the novel arise from the incompatibility of the couple, who come from cultures and domains remote from each other. Not long after their wedding, Antoinette asks Rochester if England, as a friend of hers had written, was “like a cold dark dream.” He answers, annoyed, “that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.” Antoinette asks how “rivers and mountains and the sea” can be unreal, and he responds by asking how “millions of people, their houses and their streets” can be unreal. The unreality of each other’s worlds and the consequences for their relationship are conveyed structurally by shifting the narration from Antoinette to Rochester and then to Antoinette again in the three sections of the novel.

The West Indies is established early as a place of menacing beauty. The garden at Coulibri Estate is depicted as the paradisiacal Garden of Eden that had “gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell.” The orchid’s tendrils snake down from the tree, and the child Antoinette says that she “never went near it.” Years later, the landscape overpowers Rochester, recently come from England: “Everything is too much.... Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.” Irreality suffuses the latter half of the novel. In England, Antoinette is certain that the ship lost the way to England and that this world is made of cardboard.

Another structuring device contributing to the unreal aura is the dream that recurs to Antoinette three times: as a child, as a young woman, and at the end of the novel. The successive dreams add detail and specificity to the event in the first dream, in which she is walking in the forest and is being followed by someone who hates her but who keeps out of sight. At the end of the novel, the actual world and the dreamworld unite, and her weapon against the one who hates her is in the red of her dress, of the flamboyant tree, of the flames that burned the house at Coulibri, of the fireplace in her attic room, and of the candle igniting the curtains and carpets and walls of Thornfield Hall.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Race Relations and Prejudice
How people of different races get along and what prejudices they hold are major themes in this book. As the book opens, the former slaveowners and the newly freed slaves await compensation from the British government. In this time of change—the novel begins in 1839, five years after slavery had ended and one year after the apprenticeship system of forced black labor had ended—the relations between black and white West Indians were tense. This tension erupts as the fire at Coulibri. The black workers burn the symbol of white oppression, the plantation house. Further, the newly arriving English colonists—represented in the book by Mr. Mason and Edward Rochester—are prejudiced against blacks. Mr. Mason calls them children and believes blacks make bad workers. Rochester describes blacks through racist characterizations. Both Mr. Mason and Rochester want Antoinette to disown her black half-siblings and other relatives. This prejudice is also evident in their fears of miscegenation. Rochester is disgusted with himself after he sleeps with a half-black woman, and he questions Antoinette's racial heritage. Antoinette's presumably sexual relationship with her black cousin Sandi causes Rochester to declare her insane and lock her in the attic at Thornfield Hall. Likewise, Annette Cosway's sexual liaison...

(This entire section contains 984 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with a black caretaker is the mark of her insanity. In her dream at the end of the novel, Antoinette envisions a harmony between blacks and whites that has eluded her in life. By burning down Thornfield Hall, the symbol of her oppression in marriage, she imaginatively aligns herself with the blacks who burned down their symbol of oppression, Coulibri. Such alignment, however, seems only possible in the imagination. Antoinette's early friendship with the black child Tia is marred by the racial slurs each uses to describe the other. Years later, locked in the attic, Antoinette dreams of a reconciliation with Tia. However, as many West Indian critics have pointed out, such a possibility remains illusory, a mad woman's fantasy.

Throughout the novel, the isolation of its major characters is a major theme. Characters are variously isolated by geography, social position, race, and insanity. At the beginning of the novel, the Cosway family is isolated by living at Coulibri, a plantation far from Spanish Town, the center of white civilization on Jamaica. This geographic isolation is highlighted by the death of Annette's horse. Without transportation, the Cosway family is, in the words of Annette, "marooned." As white former slaveowners, the Cosways are further isolated. Former slaves have abandoned the family, and the recently freed blacks despise their old oppressors. Later, Edward Rochester feels as though he has been exiled from England. Feeling no affinity for the lush Caribbean surroundings, he feels alone, even in marriage. Antoinette experiences a similar alienation when she is locked in the attic of Rochester's English home. These feelings of isolation are emotional as well as geographical. Antoinette tries to find love—from her mother, from Tia, and from Rochester—but time and again her advances are spurned. Rochester similarly feels locked out from his father's affection. As a child, Antoinette is a social outcast; her family's poverty separates them from other white families on Jamaica. Called a ''white nigger'' she seems to belong neither to black nor white society. Her mother, as a native of Martinique, finds no friends among white Jamaican society. The black servant Christophine is held at bay by other black servants. From Martinique like her mistress, Christophine's ways seem foreign and frightening to the Jamaicans. The extent to which Antoinette and her mother feel isolated is finally manifested in their insanity. Locked away from society, Antoinette and Annette are marked as outcasts. Unaware of the passage of time or how they came to be imprisoned, both face the ultimate isolation of being unable to communicate at all.

The novel presents many black and white doubles. This doubling ties back into the theme of racial difference and prejudice, as the novel explores both what brings women of different races together and what separates them. As young girls, Tia and Antoinette are doubles. They play together like sisters, but they also seem to be mirror reflections of the other. This is especially apparent when Tia dons Antoinette's dress and leaves her own ragged outfit for Antoinette. Dressed in the black girl's clothes, Antoinette becomes the ''white nigger'' that Tia has called her. Wearing Tia's dress, Antoinette is rejected by her mother and white society as an outsider, much as white society would reject Tia because of her race. Later, when Tia throws a rock at Antoinette, the blood streaming down Antoinette's face is a reflection of the tears streaming down Tia's. They each hurt because of the racial gulf that separates them. In Part II, Rochester sees Amelie as a black reflection of Antoinette. He notes that the two could be sisters. By sleeping with Amelie, he then symbolically trades one sister for the other. In many ways, Amelie is the embodiment of the blackness he sees in Antoinette. Rochester does not quite trust that Antoinette is all white. The repulsion he feels upon waking up in Amelie's arms is matched by the repulsion he felt toward his wife when she seduced him with ''black'' magic. Antoinette and her mother Annette are another example of black and white doubles. Annette's blackness is metaphorical; as an insane and "impure" woman (she engages in a miscegenational relationship with her black caretaker), she has lost her claims on white society. The similarity of their names and fates links Annette to Antoinette. Rochester tries to erase this doubleness by changing Antoinette's name to Bertha. He is afraid that Annette's promiscuity and insanity, which have ''blackened'' her name, will taint her daughter. In many ways, Antoinette can only become close to her mother by following a similar life path, ultimately leading to her own affair with a black man and her eventual insanity.


Chapter Summaries