Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966 toward the end of Jean Rhys's writing career, was the most successful of Rhys's literary works. The novel was well received when it was first published and has never been out of print. It also continues to draw the interest of academics and literary critics today. The popularity of Wide Sargasso Sea might be based on several factors. The general reader might enjoy this novel for the captivating story of a lonely young woman who is driven to near madness by her need to be loved. Literary theorists, on the other hand, find Rhys's novel rich in the portrayal of the damaging effects of colonization on a conquered people and the debilitating consequences of sexual exploitation of women. Another group of readers, those interested in multiculturalism, might be drawn to Wide Sargasso Sea for the insider's view that Rhys provides of nineteenth-century life and culture on a Caribbean island.
Wide Sargasso Sea was written as Rhys's attempt to explain the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Rhys wanted to explore the reasons why Bertha Mason went mad. In doing so, Rhys fills her story with conflict. There is the clash between former slaves and their previous owners; the overall misunderstandings between the white and black races; the disparity in beliefs between the old white plantation owners and the new English immigrants who come to live on the island. There is also the battle between men and women as they try to satisfy their needs through their relationships with one another. And finally, the ultimate conflict, the interior confusion the protagonist must face between her emotional and rational state of being.
Wide Sargasso Sea was honored with the prestigious W. H. Smith Award and the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature. The novel was also selected by Random House as one of the best one hundred books of fiction written in the English language during the twentieth century.
Jean Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica, on August 24, 1890. Her father was a Welsh doctor. When she was sixteen years old, she was sent to England to live with an aunt and to attend the Perse School at Cambridge and later the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Although Dominica would influence her writing, Rhys would return to her birthplace only once, in 1936. When her father died, Rhys was forced to take on a variety of jobs in England, which included working as a chorus girl with a touring musical company, a mannequin, an artist's model, and a ghostwriter of a book about furniture.
In 1919, she moved to Paris with her husband, Jean Lenglet, a French-Dutch journalist and song-writer. In the same year, she gave birth to a son, who died when he was three weeks old. She later had a daughter. Around this same time, Rhys met Ford Madox Ford, with whom she had an affair while her husband was in jail for illegal financial transactions. Ford encouraged Rhys's writing and also wrote the introduction for Rhys's first book The Left Bank (1927), a collection of short stories. Rhys's marriage to Lenglet ended in divorce. Rhys would marry twice again. Each of these marriages left her a widow.
Rhys's first novel, published in the States as Quartet (1929) (originally published as Postures in Britain), was supposedly based on Rhys's affair with Ford. It was in this work that Rhys's sensitive, sexually attractive, vulnerable, and somewhat self-defeating heroine is first introduced, a figure that is often repeated in Rhys's later books. Subsequent works include After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930); Voyage in the Dark (1934), reportedly Rhys's most autobiographical work; and Good Morning Midnight (1939).
For the next twenty years or so, Rhys disappeared from public view. Many people thought she had died. Then in 1958, Britain's BBC produced a drama based on Rhys's Good Morning Midnight. In 1966, her Wide Sargasso Sea was published to critical acclaim.
Rhys did not receive much critical acclaim for her works during most of her lifetime, and when it finally arrived in her later years, Rhys stated that it came too late. Contemporary critics studying her work today believe that the reason for Rhys's going virtually unnoticed in the literary world was that she was ahead of her time. Feminist theorists, in particular, believe that Rhys's theme of women as exploited victims was not easily accepted in Rhys's day. After the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, however, Rhys was made a CBE (Commander of the order of the British Empire, an honor bestowed by the queen) in 1978. She was also awarded the W. H. Smith Award for her last novel, as well as the Royal Society of Literature Award and an Arts Council Bursary. She died on May 14, 1979, in Exeter. Her unfinished autobiography was published posthumously under the title Smile Please (1979).
The first part of Wide Sargasso Sea is narrated by the female protagonist, Antoinette. She explains that she lives in isolation from the rest of the population of the small Caribbean island on which her family's plantation exists. The story opens in 1839 after the recent emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. The emancipation has not only caused her family to live in poverty but also to have to face the tension of freed slaves, as both the white and the black citizens of the island sort through their new relationships.
The picture that Rhys paints in part 1 is that of isolation. Of the main characters, Antoinette appears to feel the effects of that isolation the most. She lives with her mother, Annette Cosway, and her brother, Pierre, who suffers from some unnamed mental disability. Antoinette's mother spends most of her time mothering Pierre, at Antoinette's expense. Antoinette is forced to look for affection in other places. She tries to befriend the young black children who live in the nearby countryside, but she is made fun of and even threatened. So she turns to Christophine, the woman who cooks for the family and becomes a mother figure for Antoinette. Without Christophine, Antoinette says the family would have died. Christophine introduces Antoinette to the child of a friend. The girl's name is Tia. Antoinette and Tia spend several days together, swimming and eating. But one day, Antoinette becomes angry with Tia and calls her a "nigger." It is a name she herself had been called in the past: a "white nigger." The two young girls argue, and the friendship ends.
Around this same time, Antoinette's mother makes friends with a new family of white people, whom Christophine refers to as "[t]rouble." Antoinette's mother sells the last of her jewelry to buy material to make dresses for herself and Antoinette, to make themselves presentable. And shortly afterward, Antoinette's mother marries Mr. Mason.
With Mason's money, the family estate, Coulibri, is refurbished. However, Mason is careless in his attitude toward the black servants, and Antoinette's mother becomes filled with fear that something awful will happen. Antoinette, however, feels safe. Coulibri is the only place she feels secure. Fortune does not shine on the family, however. The local black people do not like Mr. Mason, and one night they burn down the family home. As the family attempts to escape, an angry mob awaits them outside. Only when the angry blacks see the Mason family parrot, with his feathers caught on fire, attempt to fly over their heads, do the blacks disperse. The burning parrot represents an evil omen to them. As the family makes its escape, Antoinette sees Tia and starts to run to her, believing that they are still friends. But Tia hurls a rock at Antoinette, which hits her on the head and knocks her unconscious. When Antoinette later awakens from a long illness, she discovers that her brother, Pierre, has died and her mother has been taken away. Antoinette is now living with her Aunt Cora. This section ends with a description of Antoinette's experiences at a convent school.
The beginning of the second part of the story is narrated by the man who has married Antoinette. He remains unnamed throughout the story. However, since it has been acknowledged that Rhys has written Wide Sargasso Sea as a prequel to Brontë's Jane Eyre and because the details she offers about the male narrator match Brontë's male protagonist, it is easily assumed that this is Brontë's Edward Rochester.
Antoinette has left the convent school and has married Rochester. This marriage was arranged by Antoinette's stepbrother, Richard Mason. Antoinette cannot gain her inheritance unless she agrees to marry a man of Mason's choice. Rochester, the younger son of a British gentleman, has come to Jamaica for this precise reason.
• John Duigan directed a movie of Wide Sargasso Sea (1993). It starred Karina Lombard as Antoinette, Michael York as her father, Rachel Ward as her mother, Nathaniel Parker as her husband, and Claudia Robinson as Christophine. Although some critics believe that sexuality was favored over character development, the movie provides a relatively honest portrayal of two deteriorating marriages. It is currently available on DVD. Jan Louter, fascinated by the novel, made a documentary film about Rhys and her world in the Caribbean.
The newlyweds have returned to the "little estate in the Windward Islands," as Rochester describes it in a letter to his father. The place is Ganbois, property that Antoinette has inherited. Rochester is recovering from an illness, and he finds everything about the island too intense, from the colors of the landscape to the scent that Antoinette puts in her hair. Rochester does, however, promise Antoinette "peace, happiness, [and] safety," none of which he is ultimately able to give her. He is rather depressed about his marriage, wondering if he has sold his soul for money.
Forever swayed by doubt about his marriage and his wife, Rochester is easily influenced by a mysterious letter he receives from Daniel Cosway, who claims to be Antoinette's half brother. Cosway tells Rochester about Antoinette's mother's instability and suggests that Antoinette is not a virgin. In fact, Cosway names Antoinette's previous sexual partner as Sandi Cosway, her black cousin. Although prior to this letter Rochester seems to be trying to create a relationship with Antoinette, he now wants nothing to do with her. Rochester's narration ends with him reading a book about voodoo.
Antoinette now takes up the narration. She is miserable because Rochester will have nothing to do with her. She goes to Christophine and asks for a potion that will make Rochester want to make love to her. Although Christophine protests that "if the man don't love you, I can't make him love you," she gives Antoinette what she has asked for.
Rochester receives another note from Daniel, who demands that Rochester visit him, which he does. Daniel claims to be the illegitimate son of "old Cosway." Daniel is angry because Cosway never acknowledged him. Daniel also gives Rochester more details about Antoinette's affair with Sandi. When Rochester returns home, he questions Antoinette briefly but won't let her complete all her thoughts. She insists and fills him in on some of her background. In the midst of her telling, Rochester refers to Antoinette as Bertha, another reference to Brontë's Jane Eyre. Bertha, in Brontë's novel, was the mad woman who lived in the attic, Rochester's first wife.
The next morning, Rochester feels sick and recalls very little of what happened the previous night. He thinks he might have been poisoned. Later, when he is feeling better, he makes love to Amelie, a servant girl who comes with food to his room. When Antoinette confronts Rochester about his sexual encounter with Amelie, he confesses that he does not love Antoinette.
Christophine tries to help Antoinette, who is totally distraught. Rochester confronts Christophine and tells her to leave. Christophine does her best to stand up for Antoinette, asking Rochester to give back at least half of the money so Antoinette can have a new start on life. She tells him to leave Antoinette with her. But Rochester is a confused man. He looks for a sign that Antoinette loves him, but he does not find it. So he packs up all their belongings and plans to sell the house. He refers to Antoinette as his "lunatic," and he is taking her to England.
Part three begins with a new narrator, Grace Poole, another character from Brontë's novel. Poole has been hired to take care of Antoinette. Rochester's father and brother have died, making Rochester a very rich man. He is not at the English estate but rather he is traveling. Grace finds Rochester's home "safe," and she accepts the job. Then the narration is turned over to Antoinette.
Antoinette's mind is obviously caught between dream and reality. She mixes memories up with the present time, so it is not clear what is really happening and what she is imagining. However, she mentions having made love to her cousin Sandi. And she talks about how cold and isolated she is, living in the attic of Rochester's estate. She talks about setting the house on fire and then wanders back to her memories of Coulibri in flames. As this short section of the story comes to an end, Antoinette takes a burning candle in hand. "Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do," she says.
Amelie is a servant girl at Ganbois, the house to which Rochester and Antoinette go after they are married. Rochester comments that Amelie reminds him of Antoinette. The day after Antoinette has secretly slipped a potion into his wine, Rochester has sex with Amelie. He then gives Amelie money so she can leave the island.
Baptiste is a manservant at Ganbois. Although not overtly supportive of Antoinette, he does sympathize with her, especially when Rochester forces Antoinette to leave Ganbois.
Several times, Rochester refers to Antoinette as Bertha. He tells her that he likes that name and likes to think of her as Bertha. This is Rhys's reference to Brontë's story in which Bertha is Rochester's first wife.
Aunt Cora takes Antoinette into her home when Antoinette's mother is taken away. Aunt Cora does not approve of Antoinette's stepfather, Mr. Mason, nor of his son, Richard Mason. She also does not like the suitor Richard has arranged to marry Antoinette, Edward Rochester. Aunt Cora takes care of Antoinette after Coulibri burns down and Antoinette is knocked unconscious.
Annette Cosway is Antoinette's mother. Her first husband is dead when the story opens and Annette is depressed. She and her family are living in near poverty. She is the mother of two children and has little means of raising them. She leaves Antoinette on her own for most of the time. When she meets a group of rich people who befriend her, she eagerly jumps at the chance to be wed to Mr. Mason. She finds little happiness in her marriage, and with the destruction of Coulibri and the death of her son, she withdraws from reality.
The character of Antoinette is based on Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Bertha is the first wife of Brontë's protagonist Edward Rochester. In Brontë's story, Rochester kept Bertha locked up in the attic. Rhys wanted to tell the story from Bertha's point of view. So Antoinette is the younger version of Bertha, before she moved to England with her husband. Rhys's story demonstrates how Antoinette goes "mad."
Antoinette, the female protagonist, is a very young girl at the beginning of the story. Her childhood is difficult and marks her personality. Her father is dead. Her brother's dependence on her mother deprives Antoinette of motherly affection, and she is left to fend for herself. Her greatest support comes from Christophine, the woman who cooks for the family. Otherwise, Antoinette is very much on her own and is often lonely and scared.
Antoinette cannot find any place to fit in, except when she is alone. She is not as "white" as the well-to-do white plantation owners. She is also not as "black" as the freed slaves. Having Creole ancestors from the island of Martinique, she is considered an island outsider in Jamaica and Dominica. The closest she comes to a sense of security is while she is alone at Coulibri, which is burnt to the ground when she is still young. Later, when she returns to the property, she accuses her husband of further destroying her security by cursing her family home with his bitterness and the great sadness he has caused her.
Although she has fallen helplessly in love with her husband, it is an unrequited love. Rochester's unfaithfulness tortures her further, and finally she, like her mother, withdraws into a world of her own.
Daniel is the person who writes a letter to Rochester, telling him about the instability of Antoinette's mother and of Antoinette's supposed sexual encounter before she met Rochester. Daniel claims to be Antoinette's illegitimate half brother. Because of Daniel's accusations, Rochester becomes confused about his feelings for his wife and later decides that Antoinette is a "lunatic."
Pierre is Antoinette's brother. He has a mental deficiency, but his specific problem is never disclosed. Antoinette's mother provides Pierre with constant care, while disallowing Antoinette any affection. When Coulibri is burnt, Pierre suffers and dies.
Sandi is a distant cousin of Antoinette. He protects her in a brief scene when Antoinette is walking to school. Later, rumors are stirred about Antoinette and Sandi having been lovers, before Antoinette is married. Her liaison with Sandi, after Rochester forces Antoinette to leave Ganbois, enrages Rochester and is the stimulus for Rochester taking Antoinette to England. At the end of the book, Antoinette enjoys her memories of Sandi's last kiss. It may be the closest she ever comes to love.
Christophine is a servant at Coulibri. She is also Antoinette's closest confidant. Her reputation as an obeah, or practitioner of voodoo, causes some people to fear her. Antoinette does not fear Christophine and often goes to her for counsel. Christophine is a mother figure for Antoinette, someone who notices her loneliness and tries to mend it. Christophine also admonishes Antoinette's mother for her lack of affection and care toward her daughter.
After she is married and her husband loses his desire for her, Antoinette asks Christophine to make a potion so her husband will love her and want her again. Christophine is wary of using voodoo in this way. When the potion fails, Christophine is the only person who understands the effects of Antoinette's broken heart, and she tries to help Antoinette, once again. Rochester finally sends Christophine away, threatening to turn her over to the police for her illegal voodoo practice.
Mr. Luttrell is the only friend that Antoinette's mother has in the space of time between her husband's death and her marrying Mr. Mason. Luttrell lived on the plantation next to Coulibri and one day "swam out to sea and was gone for always." He represents one of the old white families who suffered economically after the emancipation of slaves.
Mannie is a manservant at Coulibri. He is one of the few black people who is loyal to Antoinette's family and who tries to extinguish the fire that destroys the house.
See Annette Cosway
Mr. Mason (no first name is ever provided) is Antoinette's stepfather, the man whom her mother marries in the first part of the story. Mason has money but lacks affection, especially for the freed slaves. He does, however, use his money to refurbish Coulibri. Ironically, it is mostly due to his de-meaning attitude toward the black community that the freed slaves rise against the family and burn the house to the ground. This and his lack of affection drive his wife mad. In his own way, he cares about Antoinette's future and tries to arrange a marriage for her before his death.
Richard is Mr. Mason's son. It is Richard who brings Rochester to the islands and sees to the details of Antoinette's marriage to Rochester. His appearances in the story are brief, but he is partially responsible for setting Antoinette onto the path to madness. He gives Rochester the power over all of Antoinette's inheritance and thus the power over her life. He reappears at the end of the story, visiting Antoinette in England. She attacks him with a knife.
Myra is a servant at Coulibri. It is suggested that Myra reports all of Mr. Mason's derogatory comments to the other black people in the community. Myra is supposed to be taking care of Antoinette's brother on the night of the fire. She mysteriously disappears just as the flames begin in the brother's room.
Grace narrates the first section of part 3. She has been hired to take care of Antoinette in England. She, like Antoinette, feels that the outside world is dangerous. She feels safe in the big house, and she receives extra money for taking special care of Antoinette, who sometimes frightens her.
Although he is never named in Wide Sargasso Sea, the male protagonist of this story is derived from Jane Eyre's Edward Rochester. He is Antoinette's husband, and he narrates most of the second part of the story. Rochester comes to the islands in search of wealth but later feels he has sold his soul when he finds his money in Antoinette's inheritance. He is the second son of an English gentleman and therefore not entitled to an inheritance of his own. He is also somewhat sickly and weak of spirit and is easily persuaded that he has been deceived. The islands are very exotic to him and not in a way that he find pleasant. He completely misreads Antoinette's needs and her love and concludes that she is a "lunatic."
At first he is taken by her, at least on a physical level. It does not take long, however, for him to be repulsed by her scent and touch. When Antoinette tries to use a love potion on him, he seeks revenge by making love to one of the servants, within hearing distance of Antoinette. This truly drives her mad. He further punishes her by taking her away from her beloved family estate. Then, when he learns of a possible affair she has with a distant cousin, he forces her to go to England with him, where he locks her away in the attic. Although Antoinette's personality is never stable, it is Rochester who pushes her over the edge.
Tia is the closest that Antoinette comes to having a childhood friend. She is the daughter of one of Christophine's friends. Christophine introduces Antoinette to Tia in hopes that the relationship might cure some of Antoinette's loneliness. For a while, Tia and Antoinette are friends, swimming together and sharing their food. One day, when Tia tricks Antoinette out of a few pennies, Antoinette refers to Tia as a "nigger." This angers Tia, and she puts on Antoinette's dress after swimming, instead of her own. The two children do not see one another until the night of the fire at Coulibri. Antoinette runs to Tia, hoping to embrace her. Tia, however, throws a rock and hits Antoinette on the head, knocking her out. Although they never see one another again, Antoinette imagines, at the end of the story as she is preparing to burn down Rochester's house in England, that Tia is waiting for her when it is all done.
Antoinette lives on a small island throughout most of this novel. The island itself represents the sense of isolation that overwhelms Antoinette throughout this story. In the beginning of the story, Antoinette and her mother and brother live far away from even the small island towns. Furthering their isolation is the fact that her mother is from another island, thus making them, in the eyes of the local people, outsiders. But it is not just the island people who isolate Antoinette's family. The other white landowners, many of them recent immigrants, have little to do with Antoinette's family because they are extremely poor. And although a handful of former slaves remain faithful to the family, most of the black people who live around them want nothing to do with them and eventually force Antoinette's family to leave by burning down their home.
In many ways, Antoinette's feelings of isolation are mirrored in her mother. Annette Cosway is a widow trying to raise two children on her own. She has the extra burden of caring for a son who suffers from a mental disability. Annette is a woman who needs to be loved but who cannot find it. She is accused of using her sexuality, however, to find a second husband, one who has sufficient money to help take care of her family. Mr. Mason is not capable of love, however, so Annette withdraws further into herself. When her son is burned to death, her final link to reality is snapped, and she collapses into the dark isolation of her own inner world.
Antoinette also is starved for love. She tries to befriend the children her own age, but is turned away because she is white and they are black. Except for one brief encounter with Tia, a young black girl, Antoinette has no childhood friends. Antoinette is further isolated because her mother is consumed with two major challenges of her own: taking care of her disabled son and searching for love, or at least searching for someone who will help ease her financial burdens. Without the reassuring love of a mother, Antoinette finds herself living in a world that is dominated only by her own thoughts, fears, and needs.
When Antoinette is forced to live with her Aunt Cora, she is isolated in different ways. First, she is not allowed to see her mother. Then, the school that she attends is run by nuns who live behind tall, gated walls. This isolates Antoinette from the local children, who often threaten her. Antoinette is also unable to return to her childhood sanctuary, that of her family's estate. She has been cut off from the only place that she had previously known.
After Antoinette marries, her sense of isolation is momentarily relieved. She has found love and is returned to the land that she loves. However, this period is short-lived, as she soon discovers that her husband does not love her. When he makes love to another woman, even the relief of living on her ancestral land is stolen from her. The estate now makes Antoinette feel only unhappiness, and she begins to withdraw further into herself. By the end of the novel, Antoinette lives in an attic room in a large house in England. Now she finds herself in a completely foreign setting, one that is cold and dark. She no longer has the vibrant colors and the warmth of her island home. Her mother, brother, and father are dead. She has been removed from her aunt and from the mother figure of Christophine. Her husband stays completely away from her. Her only companion is a hired caretaker. It is here that Antoinette falls into the deepest isolation from the world. She is so far removed that she lives halfway between dream and reality.
There are many different representations of hunger throughout this story. The story opens with Antoinette and her family living in poverty. So there is the obvious physical hunger caused by lack of food. But there is also the hunger for affection. Both mother and daughter, Annette and Antoinette, search for love. The mother tries to find that love in a man, whereas Antoinette looks for love from her mother. Later, Antoinette searches for affection from a friend, in the form of Tia. When Antoinette marries, her hungers are satisfied momentarily. The hunger for love, as well as for sexual expression, appears to be somewhat soothed. But this does not last long. As a matter of fact, in having felt love for the first time, when it is taken away from her, the hunger becomes even stronger. Her hunger to be loved eventually drives her mad.
Other hungers include the hunger for money, such as Rochester's, which makes him sell his soul in marrying Antoinette for her inheritance. There is also the hunger for land as white immigrants move to the island and establish large plantations on which to make a living. There is the hunger for freedom as ex-slaves fight for their rights and establish a new way of life. A hunger to be understood is played out between Antoinette and her husband, as mistrust builds between them. And on a more subtle level, there is Antoinette's hunger to feel safe, which is never fully realized.
Both Antoinette and her mother suffer mental breakdowns. They withdraw into their own private worlds, places deep inside of them where they are consumed by their thoughts so completely that they cannot distinguish between their fantasies and reality. They are forced there as a retreat from the circumstances of their lives. Annette's final link with reality is shattered when Coulibri burns down and her son dies. Antoinette's descent may have begun when she was a child, but it is the disintegration of her marriage and the move to England that finalize her fate. As Rhys presents it, both mother and daughter might have been saved from their collapse into madness had they received the affection and understanding that they so desperately needed.
Topics For Further Study
- Wide Sargasso Sea was inspired by Rhys's wanting to understand the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Choose one of your favorite novels, and find a secondary character that is not well developed. Then write a short story about this character, filling out her history and giving her a stronger voice. In other words, write a story from this character's point of view.
- Antoinette enjoys very few moments of happiness in this novel. Find a passage in which she at least feels somewhat distracted from her sense of isolation, and write a song as if you were she, expressing your feelings about that moment.
- Antoinette mentions several dreams that she has. Pretend you are her analyst. What do you think her dreams mean? Do not worry about being accurate. Use your imagination, but try to base your conclusions on the details of Antoinette's life and what she must be feeling.
- Research slavery in the Caribbean. Then write a narrative as if you were a slave. Try to imagine what your life would be like. Choose a specific island, and decide the circumstances of your life. Are you someone who works in the fields, or someone who works in the house? Are you married? How old are you? From which African nation did you come?
- Research women and mental health. Are women's mental issues treated differently now than they were at the turn of the twentieth century? How do they differ? Then write a paper on how Antoinette might have been treated had she lived in the twenty-first century.
- The subject of voodoo is dealt with in this novel. What is voodoo? Research this topic, and find out if it is still practiced today. Find out if there are still laws prohibiting the practice of voodoo. How do Christianity and voodoo conflict? Where is voodoo still practiced?
- Look into the phenomena referred to as the Sargasso Sea. What is it, and what causes it? Then write a paper on why you think Rhys used this as the title of her book. Explore the Sargasso Sea as a metaphor. How does this fit into the overall themes of the book?
Although not primary, the theme of race relations on the islands is woven throughout this story. The abolishment of slavery, although this happens before the story begins, affects the condition of life of Antoinette's family. Annette has no money to pay the freed slaves who used to work her family estate and this fact leads to her poverty. The anger between the white people and the black people, vestiges of the past, causes the destruction of Coulibri. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also the discussion of the mixed races, the children of white landowners and their female slaves. Antoinette's and Christophine's relationship demonstrates friendship between the races, one in which skin color might have affected the different ways both women were raised but also which shows how those differences can enhance their connection.
Point of View
Rhys uses multiple points of view in this novel. She begins with the voice of her female protagonist, Antoinette. At the start of the novel, Antoinette is a young girl, so the reader gains the child's perspective on the lives of the characters from a child's advantage. Rhys continues with this narrator through the first part of the story. In using the child as narrator, Rhys gives the reader a personal account of isolation as only a child can relate it. This device pulls the reader into the story on an emotional basis, setting the tone for the remaining parts of the story. She then switches, in the second part, to the point of view of Edward Rochester, the male protagonist. By this time, Antoinette is a newly wed young woman, and she and her surroundings are portrayed through Rochester's eyes. Rochester is not at home on the island. As a matter of fact, he feels extraordinarily alienated from everything about the island, from the colors of its vegetation to its local customs. By hearing the story from Rochester's point of view, the sense of isolation, one of the main themes of this novel, is further enhanced. Readers are also privy to Rochester's fears and doubts about Antoinette's stability, which is more objectively recorded as Antoinette slips deeper into her madness.
Antoinette regains the role of narrator in the middle of part 2. By this point, she is distraught over Rochester's inability to love her. Rhys must switch point of view at this stage because she wants the reader to witness the relationship of Antoinette and Christophine, who plot to regain Rochester's love of Antoinette. But when Antoinette loses all hope of regaining Rochester's love, the point of view once again switches back to Rochester. He has, at this point, become master of Antoinette, demanding that she leave her ancestral home and go to England.
In part 3, Rochester is completely missing from the story. So Rhys uses Grace Poole, a hired domestic, to fill in the gaps between the setting in the islands and the setting in England. Poole explains how she has been employed to take care of Antoinette who has become a rather wild and scary madwoman. After Poole's introduction to part 3, Antoinette once again gains control of the story as narrator. But her narration is distorted and unreliable. However, by this time, the story has unfolded as far as it is capable. The ending is inevitable. In using Antoinette's madness to close the story, Rhys leaves it to the imagination of the reader to fill in the blanks. Since she has based her story on Brontë's Jane Eyre, it can be assumed that Antoinette burns down the estate.
The story has several settings: Jamaica, Dominica, and England in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although Rhys does not spend a lot of time describing any of these settings, the tone of her writing changes. While her characters are in the Caribbean, there is mention of sun and light, warmth, and perfumed scents. Her characters are often outdoors, and they confront other minor characters. Even though there are many challenges for each of the characters, there is also hope of positive outcomes. There is death, but there is also marriage. There are parties and swimming and good food, even though they are infrequent. The islands also represent both the positive and the negative of wilderness. There is the beauty of the wild over-growth of vegetation and the intensity of its colors. There is also the fear, the lack of safety, where law and order does not prevail. But once the characters move to England, readers confront dark, cold, sterile, and all but complete isolation.
Contrast and Similarity
Rhys uses contrast and similarity to construct not only her setting but also her characters. She compares the lives of the rich white people with the poor, the old white landowners with the new immigrant white families. She hints of the times when the white landowners used slaves and then shows the changes that occurred with the abolition of slavery. The conflict between the white people and the black people is demonstrated, but Rhys also mentions how many people are of mixed races, thus proving the sexual encounters between the two races. When Christophine uses voodoo in order to help Antoinette win back the affections of Rochester, Rhys has Rochester turn to the law, thus exposing the contrast between the beliefs of the local black population and those of white people's sense of rational order.
Similarities prevail throughout the story also. The major, and most obvious, one is that of Annette and Antoinette, who both suffer from a lack of love and understanding, which forces them to withdraw from reality. There is also a similarity between Mr. Mason, Annette's second husband, and Edward Rochester, Antoinette's husband. Both men do not understand their wives and appear to have little sense of their own emotions. Their attentions appear to be more on sex, money, and power. They also both had little respect for the black people who served them.
Dominica's Geography and Culture
Rhys was born and spent most of her childhood on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Most of Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea is also set on this small island. Dominica is unique in that, because of its rugged landscape, much of the island has remained similar in appearance to the time that Christopher Columbus first saw it. Most of the island is covered in rain forest, receiving heavy rains each year. Dominica is the largest and most northerly of the Windward Island, with the Atlantic Ocean to its east and the Caribbean Sea to its west.
The culture of Dominica is unique. Before Columbus, the population was made up of Ciboneys people and Carib Indians. Most of them were killed when the European settlers arrived, beginning with the Spanish, followed by Great Britain and France. It was during the colonization of Dominica that slaves were brought to the islands to work on the massive sugar plantations. As a result of this combination of different cultures, Dominica's population contains characteristics that combine to make what is called Creole, or a mixing of cultures. These mixtures can be seen not only in the physical traits of its people but also in language, music, art, food, architecture, religion, dance, and dress. Many people of Dominica speak a patois, a mixture of French with other languages of the area, in particular different African languages and Spanish.
Slavery in Dominica
Between 1518 and 1870, the transatlantic slave trade dramatically increased in the Caribbean. As sugarcane began to dominate the agricultural business of the Caribbean, Africans were shipped to the island in dramatically increasing numbers to add to and replace those who had come before them. In the early sixteenth century, an average of about two thousand slaves a year were shipped to the Caribbean from Africa. At its height, which occurred between 1811 and 1834, the slave trade accounted for about thirty-two thousand additional people being brought to the islands each year. Besides providing free labor, thus giving the white population a chance to gather immense wealth, the slave trade also created a black majority in the Caribbean islands.
Due to the increasing popularity and power of antislavery societies in Britain, a bill to abolish the slave trade passed both houses in 1807. It would not be until 1834 that slavery was abolished through the entire British Empire, which included the Caribbean islands. To replace the free slave labor, many landowners imported indentured workers from Asia and India. Although these people had legal contracts, they fared not much better than the African slaves they replaced. In the meantime, sugar prices fell due to competition from other countries, and a large population of freed slaves was unemployed. Many freed slaves formed their own villages, some of them squatting on abandoned lands and growing the same crops their former owners had raised in addition to new crops such as coconuts, rice, and bananas.
After slavery was abolished, white people found themselves in the minority and were divided along status lines based on wealth. Basically, there were rich whites and poor whites. The most elite of the rich whites were the plantation owners and former slave owners. Next came the white merchants, government officials, and professionals such as doctors. The poor whites included owners of small farms, laborers, and service people, such as policemen. No matter how much money a white person had, any white person of European descent gained a privileged position over black people. The black population consisted of free persons of color, freed slaves, and slaves. Economically, most black people during this time found themselves at the bottom of the list.
Education in Dominica
In the mid-nineteenth century, rich landowners more than likely would send their children abroad to be educated, whereas the more native whites sent their children to local private schools, most of them religious based. Black children received not much more than religious training, if anything at all. Some Caribbean island governments even made it illegal to teach blacks to read or write. Most local children who did attend school went there only until age sixteen.
The Sargasso Sea
The Sargasso Sea, the heart of the Bermuda Triangle, is a two-million-square-mile ellipse of deep-blue water adrift in the central North Atlantic. It was named after a Portuguese word for seaweed, sargassum, which is found in such abundance in this sea that Christopher Columbus feared his ships might become entangled in it. The waters in this floating sea are exceptionally clear and warm, but it unfortunately is relatively lifeless.
Ford Madox Ford played a substantial role both in Rhys's personal life and in her writing. He was an established writer and the influential founder of the Transatlantic Review, for which Ernest Hemingway was the editor. This publication helped to promote many young writers of the day. According to some accounts, Ford had at least twenty major affairs with prominent women and budding stars of his time. Rhys was just one of them. Ford also encouraged Rhys's writing and wrote the introduction to her first collection of short stories. He would break off his affair with her, but Rhys used the material of their affair for one of her later novels. Ford's most important literary works include The Good Soldier, a story of adultery and deceit.
Compare & Contrast
1850s: In Dominica, black elected officials make up the majority of the general assembly. A few years later, whites push blacks out of power by demanding the British government to assign whites to seats in the assembly.
1960s: Universal adult suffrage is granted to every citizen over twenty-one years of age in Dominica, swinging the power back to the people, regardless of land ownership or wealth.
Today: Dominica enjoys full independence with a prime minister elected by the citizenry.
1850s: White children of rich landowners are sent to Europe to be educated. White children of the less elite attend religious schools locally. Black children seldom learn to read or write.
1960s: Construction of roads throughout the island allow rural children to attend schools more easily. The development of a public school system run by the government is also begun. Education is available to all races.
Today: Schools are available for all ages, from preschoolers through adults. However, there are no mandatory laws about attending school, and many children still do not attend, working full-time jobs instead.
1850s: Although the land is relatively inexpensive (ten British shillings an acre), British laws demand that large tracts of land must be purchased. This keeps the land in the hands of the rich.
1960s: Former land laborers are given a chance to purchase their own land for the first time in Dominican recent history, thus allowing them to build better houses and afford education for their children.
Today: Dominica has the largest percentage of landowners per head of population than any other island in the Caribbean. This has provided the population with economic stability.
The publication and wide critical acclaim of Wide Sargasso Sea returned Rhys to the spotlight. Her earlier popularity had faded, and her previous publications had gone out of print, leaving Rhys so lost to her public that most people thought she had died. Wide Sargasso Sea, having won two prestigious awards and being praised by literary critics as well as Rhys's general readers, caught everyone by surprise. After that, Wide Sargasso Sea remained popular. It has become, wrote a Christian Science Monitor critic, "Rhys's most famous novel." The novel portrays the plight of women, a theme that is recurrent in many of Rhys's works. The same Christian Science Monitor critic, for example, went on to state that all Rhys's female protagonists could be described in a similar way: "[T]he typical Jean Rhys heroine is a feminist's nightmare: a textbook illustration of what not to be." This view has not dissuaded feminist critics from exploring Rhys's work, however. Quite the contrary, even though Celia Marshik, writing for Studies in the Novel, claims that Rhys is "an insistent anti-feminist" who nonetheless has "created texts that feminists have claimed as their own."
Although many describe Rhys's female characters as weak and prone to acting out the role of victim, critic Jan Curtis states otherwise. Writing for Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Curtis believes that "[e]ach Rhys heroine struggles to heave herself out of the wide Sargasso sea found in every Rhys novel." Curtis goes on: "It is not until Wide Sargasso Sea that the Rhys heroine overcomes the Sargasso and discovers her strength in a fallen world of fractured consciousness and failed relationships by overcoming what [Wilson] Harris's narrator [in Palace of the Peacock] describes as the 'need in the world to provide a material nexus to bind the spirit of the universe.'"
It is hard to define Rhys, Marshik found. And rather than pigeonhole the author, Marshik concluded that Rhys "is a writer who seems to belong everywhere and nowhere." The reason for a resurgent interest in Rhys and her works, according to Tara Pepper, writing for Newsweek, is due in part to the fact that Rhys's "contemporaries were uneasy about her morally ambiguous, fractured characters and the seedy world she dwelt in, as well as wrote about." Pepper believes that Rhys's characters were too strange for the general public (especially British readers) to accept at a time when "inhabitants of former colonies were still considered culturally inferior." Today, Rhys's characters are better understood.
Wide Sargasso Sea, writes Dennis Porter for the Massachusetts Review, is "unlike her other novels with a contemporary setting," because it is based on another work of art (Jane Eyre). Although this influence strongly affected the way Rhys wrote her novel and, therefore, is not a "fully autonomous novel," it does, however, achieve "its purpose because it is a remarkable work of art in its own right." The story is written, states Porter, in a language that is lyrical, "a functional lyricism that incorporates both beauty and terror and simultaneously defines the limited consciousness of the two narrators."
Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books. In this essay, Hart discusses the concurrence of power and helplessness that flows through Jean Rhys's novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
Although an overall feeling of helplessness permeates Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, there is a current of power that lies underneath the surface of the story. Each character, no matter how helpless he or she may seem, is touched by this current. Much like the real Sargasso Sea, whose mysterious forces gather all the wandering seaweed from miles around and hold them together in a haphazard mass, so does this underlying power align Rhys's characters. As each character tries to understand her or his relationship with the other, the surge of power pulsates amidst fear and vulnerability and moves the story forward.
Rhys's opening sentence is a perfect example of this juxtaposition of helplessness and power. The novel begins: "They say when trouble comes close ranks." Like a pod of whales swimming in the ocean and suddenly realizing danger, the white islanders tightened their circle to strengthen and protect themselves. As Rhys suggests, the old white families sought power and control by coming together. The white landowners did so to protect themselves from the threat of economic disaster that the lack of slave labor caused. But just as soon as Rhys mentions this demonstration of power, she counters it by stating that her family was not included in that circle. Her family members were considered outsiders and were therefore denied the strength of the enclosed group. This pattern of power and helplessness pulsates throughout the story as well as through the individual characters. Something threatens, and the power surges for a while, as long as there is a current that continues to reinforce it. But then, inevitably, the power fades, and helplessness once again returns.
Antoinette's mother, Annette, is the first to demonstrate this pattern. In the midst of her poverty, her power comes in the form of hope. "[M]y mother still planned and hoped," Antoinette narrates. Annette rides her horse as she always has every morning. The horse is powerful, and riding him makes Annette feel strong. For brief moments in her day, she is able to return to a time when her life was better, more carefree. But those moments are short-lived when the horse is poisoned and Annette is "marooned," forced to face the helplessness that her life has become." Her power has come and gone. But later it is again restored when Annette meets Mr. Mason, a man with money. He will provide her many outlets. He will fix up the house, feed and help care for her children. He will help Annette forget about the past. As long as the marriage is fresh, Annette is empowered. She can face her neighbors and even entertain them. She is buoyant and for a moment believes that her troubles are behind her. But the power soon fades again. The same man who gives her the power takes it away. He does not really like her, her children, her house, or the people who work there. He denounces Annette's wisdom and thus brings about disaster. Where hope once fills Annette with power, despair now leaves her as lifeless as a marionette without a master. She loses her home, her son, her husband, and her will to live.
Mr. Mason, on the other hand, is filled with power; but it is not grounded in anything more substantial than money. He has many false beliefs, one of which is that he can buy everything. He buys a wife. He buys her a home, which makes him think he is the lord of the manor, and invincible. He belittles the people who helped to build the family estate and had at one time made the place vibrant. Mason believes that because the black people had been at one time purchased, they were his possessions, even though they had recently been freed. As his possessions, he thinks he can do with them what he wants. He is proven wrong.
Most of the blacks in this story are freed slaves. Even though they have received their freedom, their lot has not improved much. But even so they are not completely helpless. For a brief moment, they are able to express their will and demand to be taken seriously. Once they come together, they discover their power as a group. Unlike the white landowners who use fear to direct them, the source of the blacks' power is anger. They are fed up with Mr. Mason's arrogance, and eventually they cut him down. They throw a torch into his house, burn his home to the ground, and destroy his family.
Antoinette's story is more complicated. She often hands over her power to a double, or alter ego. First, Antoinette projects her power onto Tia, a childhood friend. As Antoinette describes her, "Tia would light a fire (fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her bare feet, I never saw her cry)." In other words, Antoinette sees Tia as stronger than she. When she bets all her pennies on her ability to turn a somersault under the water, Antoinette allows Tia to turn Antoinette's victory into a loss. Tia leaves not only with the pennies but also with Antoinette's dress. Tia is the only friend that Antoinette has. She is the liberated and more compelling version of Antoinette. Later, when Coulibri burns down, it is to Tia that Antoinette runs for solace. The destruction of the house brings Antoinette to her knees. The house is the only place that gives her strength. Tia, however, does not want to embrace Antoinette. Rather, she throws a stone and hits Antoinette on the head, knocking her unconscious. It is as if Tia is trying to knock some sense into Antoinette, as if she is saying, "Wake up and see who you truly are." But instead Antoinette falls unconscious and gives herself over to a fever. When she awakens, her life has completely changed. She has been torn away from everything familiar and is in a constant state of fear. She does not gain a sense of power until she marries.
Edward Rochester, to whom Antoinette is married, is somewhat like Mr. Mason. Rochester's power source is different, however, as he came to the island poor and only gained wealth through his marriage to Antoinette. Part of Rochester's strength is in his family name, which has made him a somewhat prestigious British gentleman. He did not gain this power on his own accord, though. The only strength that he can garner on his own is his urge to prove to his father that he has some self-worth. This urge, somewhat akin to Annette's hope, is fragile, though, and when it is tested, Rochester's only defense is to slowly destroy his adversary. Like Mason, Rochester belittles what he fears. Whereas Mason puts down the power of the black people around him, Rochester belittles Antoinette and Christophine. Antoinette has power over Rochester for a while. He lusts for her, melting at her touch. He does not like to admit this weakness and eventually becomes disgusted with himself, although he projects those feelings onto Antoinette. And when he sees that she too has a weakness for him, he breaks her spirit by having sex with Amelie, whom Rochester sees as Antoinette's double.
Amelie, unlike Antoinette, uses her body to control Rochester. After allowing him to make love to her, Amelie receives enough money from him to finance her escape from the island. Antoinette, in contrast, makes love to Rochester and loses her soul to him. She becomes addicted to his affections. And she is helpless in his presence. To compensate for this, Antoinette pursues yet another alter ego, Christophine, and implores her to make a magic love potion. Antoinette loses power over her husband. She loses confidence in herself, believing that she is helpless in regaining her husband's love. Christophine inter-cedes and empowers Antoinette, making her believe in herself again. The power surges through Antoinette as she returns to the house, confident that she can once again seduce Rochester. She is successful, but only for one night. In the morning, Antoinette's dream of Rochester returning to her turns into a nightmare. Her power is not sufficient because she assumes that she can only gain access to it through the potion. Once her power source wears out, Antoinette is lost. If she had regained Rochester through a belief in herself, she might have enjoyed a longer period of strength and happiness.
In the meantime, not strong enough to face another bout with Christophine, Rochester threatens to turn her over to the police and have her locked away. Rochester does not want to come under any more spells, whether conjured by Christophine's potions or by Antoinette's charms. He senses that Antoinette gains her power from both Christophine and from the natural energy of the island. He also realizes that the more he withdraws from Antoinette, the more powerless she becomes. Once Rochester understands this, he becomes determined to regain his strength by putting Antoinette away forever.
"Much like the real Sargasso Sea, whose mysterious forces gather all the wandering seaweed from miles around and hold them together in a haphazard mass, so does this underlying power align Rhys's characters."
But even locked in an attic, with her mind distorted by blinding illusions, Antoinette is not completely helpless. At the end of the story, when Antoinette is about to burn down Rochester's English mansion, Antoinette again thinks of her friend. It is with Tia, her childhood image of strength, that Antoinette wants to be reunited. It is through the power of the fire that Antoinette finally regains her strength.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Wide Sargasso Sea, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following article, Dalton examines the elements of the novel that appeal "to the imagination and the emotions" that she says are often left out of discussions of the wider, more political implications of the novel.
Jean Rhys, in life apparently a quite unpolitical person, has become since her death a star of the feminist and postcolonial canon. In particular, Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys's rewriting of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester's mad Creole wife, is now discussed primarily in terms of postcolonialism and the politics of race. The novel's depiction of racial tension and violence in the West Indies, derived partly from Rhys's own childhood and family history in Dominica, offers the basis for this kind of reading and for the debate over the author's sympathies in the racial conflict. What tends to be left out of the political focus, however is virtually everything that appeals to the imagination and the emotions: the vivid, dreamlike atmosphere, the poignant account of childhood trauma and loss, the disturbingly masochistic sexuality.
What Do I Read Next?
- Rhys's After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie (1930) concerns a broken woman who is cursed by her highly sensitive personality and has turned to alcohol to cure her depression. The protagonist, Julia Martin, is in the throes of a failed affair with Mr. MacKenzie, who has been supporting her but refuses to continue to do so. She returns to England only to find that her mother is dying. The strength of this novel, as with most of Rhys's works, is the insight she offers into the psychology of women who claim the role of victim.
- Sasha Jensen is the protagonist of Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight (1939). Sasha is depressed and tends to make all the wrong decisions. She has little self-worth and looks to men to help build her confidence. Once again, Rhys is able to go into the deepest thoughts of her character, thus giving her readers an intimate look at depression.
- Maryse Conde's Windward Heights (1998) takes place on the West Indian island of Guadeloupe and is inspired by Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. The male protagonist, Rayze, becomes obsessed with his love for Cathy, the daughter of the man who takes Rayze, an orphan, into his home. Cathy dies after having been married to a weak but socially prominent man. Rayze, angered by his inability to marry Cathy, wreaks havoc on the next generation. This novel, with its exotic island setting and its complex social hierarchy based on the color of one's skin, puts an interesting spin on Brontë's classic work.
- Mistress of Darkness (1976) by Christopher Nicole is set in the late eighteenth century on the island of Haiti. The story concerns the relationships between white sugar plantation owners and slaves and recounts the slave rebellion that took place during that time.
- Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) is the novel that is said to have inspired Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea. The story is about an unhappy orphan and her life as a governess at Thornfield. Her life is filled with continual challenge, but the story ends happily when she and her lover are finally reunited. This book is often credited with spawning the proliferation of romantic novels that followed it.
Literature inevitably contains unconscious motifs and fantasies, but the traces are especially evident in this passionate novel, above all in the treatment of race and its connection with sex. The concern with racial identity and the fears and fantasies of miscegenation that pervade Wide Sargasso Sea can be interpreted psychoanalytically as well as politically. At the heart of the novel is an extraordinary scene of repressed sexual desire, a revelation that embodies a myth of origin not only for the heroine but for her Creole society as well. The political dimension of the text is complicated and rendered ambiguous by these unconscious fantasies and fears.
Rhys's novel recounts the early life of Antoinette Bertha Mason, here called Antoinette Cosway before her adoption by Mr. Mason. The Cosways are Creole planters, former slave-owners ruined by emancipation. Hated by the blacks, these "old-time white people" are also, paradoxically, despised as "white niggers" by the more recent English colonists because of their long intimacy with blacks. The lush, overgrown garden of Coulibri, the Cosways' estate, is a microcosm of the moral and sexual ambiguities of their situation, a kind of corrupted Eden: "the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild … a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell." Recalled often in dream and memory, the garden is rich in symbolic overtones: "Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves, hanging from a twisted root." Like the organs of some creature midway between plant and animal, these orchids, alluring and repellent, hint at forbidden fruit, the crossing of barriers, and an unruly fecundity. They hang from "a twisted root"—perhaps that of Creole society itself in its original sins of slavery and sexual exploitation.
The masochistic sexuality of the heroine has its own twisted roots in her childhood at Coulibri. Rejected by both whites and blacks, she suffers an even deeper injury from her mother, whose love she loses to an afflicted younger brother. This loss is evoked in a poignant image: "Once I made excuses to be near her when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to cover me, hide me, keep me safe." But now, "she pushed me away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word. She wanted to sit with Pierre."
Antoinette's experience here is that of many a little girl rejected in favor of a brother; unconsciously the child attributes this rejection to a catastrophic defect in herself and her own body. In Black Sun, her study of depression, Julia Kristeva writes that the loss of a love object is experienced by a woman as castration: "such a castration starts resonating with the threat of destruction of the body's integrity, the body image, and the entire psychic system as well."
The account of Antoinette's childhood contains many suggestions of this sort of mutilation. The male power of the family has been cut off by the death of the father, followed by the suicide of their only male friend and protector, and then by the poisoning of the mother's horse. Later the mother's second husband, Mr. Mason, clips the wings of her pet parrot. Frightening allusions to cutting and dismemberment appear in Antoinette's fantasies about the Obeah rituals practiced by her nurse, Christophine: "a dead man's dried hand … a cock with its throat cut.… Drop by drop the blood was falling." On the night when vengeful blacks set fire to Coulibri, Antoinette wishes "that I were very young again, for then I believed in my stick." This stick was just a pet piece of wood, but it had great significance: "I believed that no one could harm me when it was near me, to lose it would be a great misfortune." But this misfortune occurs: having lost her primitive confidence in her mother's love and in her own body, the girl sees herself as vulnerable, imperfect, castrated.
"At the heart of the novel is an extraordinary scene of repressed sexual desire, a revelation that embodies a myth of origin not only for the heroine but for her Creole society as well. The political dimension of the text is complicated and rendered ambiguous by these unconscious fantasies and fears."
Antoinette's sense of herself as damaged goods also appears in her friendship with the black girl Tia. Here the motifs of racial impurity—the idea of the "white nigger"—and the impurity of the damaged female body are inextricably connected. The story of the relationship with Tia is also a symbolic account of Antoinette's traumatic passage through puberty and her assumption of a soiled and damaged female sexuality. Tia is a kind of double, at once the black part of Antoinette's divided identity and a fantasied other self through whom she might pass over into the feared and envied black majority. But the friendship ends in a quarrel at a forest pool, with overtones of sexual and racial humiliation and a foretaste of death. With Antoinette's few pennies as the stake, Tia bets her that she can't do an underwater somersault, then refuses to acknowledge that she's done it. "Tia laughed and told me that it certainly look like I drown dead that time. Then she picked up the money." Antoinette calls Tia "cheating nigger," and Tia insults her back, saying "Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger." She makes off with Antoinette's clean dress, leaving her own soiled one behind.
The challenge of the underwater somersault may be seen as a promise of metamorphosis: immersion in water, as in baptism, signifies the death of the old self and the birth of the new. If Antoinette could do the somersault to Tia's satisfaction, perhaps she would emerge from the pool cleansed of her alienating whiteness, reborn black like her friend. But of course this does not happen. To get rid of her white self, Antoinette would literally have to "drown dead." Tia laughs at her for even trying. Paradoxically, she jeers at Antoinette for being her friend and thereby compromising further her precarious status as a white person. "Real white people, they got gold money," says Tia, "nobody see them come near us."
Back at Coulibri wearing Tia's soiled dress, Antoinette is laughed at again, this time by white people, her mother's elegant English visitors. Her mother, French via Martinique but "no white nigger either," refuses even to look at her. "She is ashamed of me," thinks Antoinette, "what Tia said is true."
The incident with the dress has sexual as well as racial implications. To be robbed of one's clothes, laughed at, and made to feel dirty, would be a severe social and sexual humiliation at any age, but perhaps especially for a pubescent girl. Morover, a dress is an image of the female body, a kind of second skin that both conceals and reveals, manifesting sexual status and desirability; indeed the dress—this one and others—is a recurrent trope in the novel. In putting on the dirty dress of a black girl, Antoinette is putting on her status. What seemed acceptable and even attractive in Tia means degradation and ridicule for Antoinette. Her mother has the dress burned, as if it carried the contagion of blackness. But the damage is already done: Antoinette has been contaminated by the soiled dress, representing not only her identification with Tia but also her family's ambiguous status and her own outcast condition as a girl unloved by her mother, therefore dirty, damaged, and unlovable.
The relationship with Tia reaches its violent climax on the night of the burning of Coulibri. Catching sight of Tia in the black mob, Antoinette runs to her as if to a part of herself: "We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her." Once again she tries to resolve her divided identity by somehow fusing herself with Tia, and again this is impossible. Tia throws a stone at her, wounding her forehead. "We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself, like in a looking-glass."
For some weeks after the fire, Antoinette lies ill and unconscious, perhaps signaling the onset of another kind of unconsciousness—that of repression. When she wakes up, she has indeed lost touch with something. With the separation from Tia, she is cut off from the "blackness" in herself—the innocent dirt and animality of childhood. The mingled racial world in which she has grown up has included intimacy and love as well as hatred. Now blackness and whiteness are sharply severed in her and what survives is mutilated and incomplete.
Moreover, the wound on her forehead may also signify the transformation of puberty. According to the chronology of the novel, Antoinette is about thirteen at this point. The bleeding wound suggests not only the severance from Tia and the childhood world of Coulibri, but also the bloody event that marks the end of childhood for every girl. When Antoinette regains consciousness with a bandaged head, she worries about having a scar, but her Aunt Cora reassures her, saying, "It won't spoil you on your wedding day." The illness, the blood, the bandage, the fear of bodily imperfection, and the doubts about the wedding day—all suggest menstruation, with its unconscious link with castration. And in fact, the first thing Antoinette sees on waking from her illness is her cut-off braid: "I saw my plait tied with red ribbon … I thought it was a snake."
The cut-off hair also echoes another severance—that from the mother, whose hair once enclosed the daughter in safety; now the daughter's hair is cut off. Antoinette's mother has broken down into madness after the fire and the death of her son. When Antoinette visits her, the mother flings her away, looking only for Pierre. With this renewed rejection in favor of the brother, Antoinette's sense of insufficiency is confirmed. Involved in this damaged sense of herself is the black girl in the dirty dress, a link that persists even in repression.
Concerns with sex, race, and the female body reappear in one of the most disturbing episodes in the novel, the scene in which Antoinette is harassed on her way to school by two bullies, a boy and a girl:
The boy was about fourteen and tall and big for his age, he had a white skin, a dull ugly white covered with freckles, his mouth was a negro's mouth and he had small eyes, like bits of green glass. He had the eyes of a dead fish. Worst, most horrible of all, his hair was crinkled, a negro's hair, but bright red, and his eyebrows and eyelashes were red. The girl was very black and wore no head handkerchief. Her hair had been plaited and I could smell the sickening oil she had daubed on it.
Up to this point, blacks have been presented as variously appealing or frightening, but never as physically repellent. This unknown pair, however, provoke a kind of uncanny horror and revulsion. And yet they are perhaps not entirely unknown.
In the menacing black girl, there are echoes of Tia. After the fire, Tia disappears from the narrative, suggesting that the identification with her is repressed. In this encounter that repressed identification seems to come back in the form of a persecutor. Like Tia, the girl can be seen as a double of Antoinette, here transformed, after the crisis of adolescence, into a sort of negative anti-self-the feared and despised aspects of the female body projected outwards in the person of a bad-smelling black girl.
The final confrontation with Tia was above all visual: "I saw Tia.… I looked at her and saw her face … we stared at each other.… I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass." In contrast, the bad-smelling girl says to Antoinette, "Why you won't look at me. You don't want to look at me, eh, I make you look at me." This girl too is a reflection of Antoinette, but one she is afraid to look at. What draw her to Tia has become ugly and frightening in the dark mirror of the unconscious.
Even more terrifying than the girl is her companion, not only because he is sexually threatening—"You wait," he says, "one day I catch you alone"—but because of the way he looks. What seems so dreadful is an apparent anomaly: the boy is literally white, even freckled and red-haired; yet at the same time he is somehow not white. The boy is probably an albino, or perhaps a person of mixed race, descended like many West Indians from the encounters of Scottish and English slaveholders such as Antoinette's father with black or mulatto women. In either case, the disproportionate horror he inspires in Antoinette may come from his being in a sense the very thing she herself has been called, a "white nigger," and thus still another double, a disturbing image of her own anomalous status, and also an unsettling hint that white skin is no guarantee of unmixed ancestry. In "The Uncanny," Freud writes that the double embodies the return of the repressed. In the revulsion inspired by the boy and his companion, there is indeed something uncanny—the mingled dread and sense of familiarity that mark an encounter with repressed aspects of the self.
The incident with the boy and girl has a dreamlike vividness and sense of portent; in fact, Rhys tried for a time to write the whole novel as the protagonist's dream, and three dreams remain in the final version. The most significant occurs several years after the fire, toward the end of Part I. Antoinette is boarding at a convent school, "a place of sunshine and of death" full of reminders of the dangers of female sexuality: the crypt holds the body of a fourteen-year-old saint named Innocenzia, and the girls hear of virgin martyrs and of "that flawless crystal that, once broken, can never be mended." Into this atmosphere of desperate repression comes a visit from Antoinette's stepfather, Mr. Mason, who hints at the arrival of a potential suitor from England.
That night, Antoinette dreams she is back at Coulibri, wearing a long white dress that she fears soiling, being led toward the forest by a man whose face is "black with hatred." Sick with dread, she follows him: "I make no effort to save myself.…This must happen." She is led into a garden and thinks, "It will be when I go up these steps." Stumbling on her dress, she holds onto a tree, which "sways and jerks" until the dream ends. The dream foretells the coming of Rochester and the loss of virginity. The fear of soiling the white dress makes clear the meaning of the exchange of dresses with Tia: to put on female sexuality is to be soiled and degraded, yet "This must happen." The garden in the dream is like that of Coulibri, but "the trees are different trees." The tree of life of the childhood Eden has become another kind of tree, a throbbing, jerking phallus, as the sexual act is finally accomplished in an atmosphere of fear and fatality.
The masochistic excitement of the dream is associated with indirect allusions to race and color, as if sex itself were somehow black: Antoinette's dress will be soiled like that of a black girl, and the face of the man is "black with hatred," connecting sex and race, desire and contempt. He may represent not only Rochester, who will both desire and hate her, but also the red-haired boy, the mob that burned Coulibri, the black man who will later be seen to dominate her mother. In this charged atmosphere, color has become the marker not only of conflict, but of difference, of meaning itself. The ambivalence of desire has become inseparable from racial attraction and repulsion, just as the division within the self is experienced in racial terms as the split between Antoinette and Tia.
In Part II of the novel, the narration passes from Antoinette to Rochester, although the man in Rhys's novel is not Charlotte Bronte's attractively turbulent hero, but a conventional upper-class Englishman very like male characters in Rhys's other fiction—hypocritical, coldly seductive, and fundamentally cruel. He is frightened of the place—"Not only wild, but menacing"—and repelled by the people: "I wouldn't hug and kiss them," he protests when Antoinette kisses Christophine, "I couldn't." Significantly, he criticizes Christophine for soiling her long dress by letting it trail on the floor: "it is not a clean habit." But despite his inhibitions, he is aroused by his wife's beauty and sensuality: "very soon, she was as eager for what is called loving as I was—more lost and drowned afterwards." The metaphor of drowning recalls the underwater somersault—"sure look like I drown dead that time"—and suggests the self-annihilating quality of Antoinette's erotic response.
Rochester treats her with lust unmediated by tenderness: "One day the sight of a dress she'd left lying on the bedroom floor made me breathless and savage with desire. When I was exhausted I turned away from her and slept, still without a word or a caress." The dress, separated from the woman herself, is emblematic of an empty and alienated desire.
In the honeymoon house, the couple are dangerously free. "Here I can do as I like," says Antoinette. Increasingly they liberate the dark undercurrents of sex, the sadistic and masochistic impulses held in its precarious equilibrium. For Antoinette, sexual surrender merges with the attraction to death that has haunted her since her childhood losses. "Say die and I will die," she whispers during sex, seeming to make herself dependent on Rochester for her very existence, as the child once depended on her mother. The marriage shows the deadly working of the repetition compulsion; with her husband Antoinette experiences again the coldness and contempt of that first love. To the girl convinced that she is damaged and dirty, a "white nigger," contempt and abuse mean love; they make her feel desired for what she really is. "Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness," Rochester writes. "Not close. The same."
This strange idyll is interrupted by a letter from Daniel Cosway, a man who claims to be the son of Antoinette's father by a black woman—"half-way house, as we say"—and thus Antoinette's half-brother. In the letter and a later visit, Daniel informs Rochester about Antoinette's family—"the bad blood she have from both sides." The story Daniel tells is one of drunkenness, miscegenation, and inherited madness—in other words, the standard nineteenth-century view of the "degeneracy" of the white Creole. Antoinette's mother is "a raging lunatic and worse besides"; her father was "a shameless man," with innumerable slave concubines and half-caste children. (Although Antoinette later disputes these allegations, they accord with gossip she overheard as a child.) As Rochester leaves him, Daniel says "Give my love to your wife—my sister … Pretty face, soft skin, pretty colour—not yellow like me. But my sister just the same."
Outside Daniel's house, Rochester is trans-fixed by something he sees: "a black and white goat… was staring at me and for what seemed minutes I stared back into its slanting yellow-green eyes." Symbol of lust, the goat with its mixed colors seems to stand for the sexual license of the men of Cosway's class and for the mixed race they produced. Their offspring can be of any color, as Daniel suggests: yellow like him, brown like the beautiful servant Amelie, white like the red-haired boy, perhaps even the "pretty colour" of Antoinette. This thought has already occurred fleetingly to Rochester: "Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either." Now he notices a resemblance between Antoinette and Amelie: "Perhaps they are related," he thinks. "It's possible, it's even probable in this damned place."
A similar suspicion is adumbrated in Jane Eyre in the description of Mrs. Rochester. Although the race of "the Creole" is never specified, the lurid glimpses of her are pointedly suggestive: Jane sees "a discoloured face … a savage face," "fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments," "lips swelled and dark." Rochester alludes to "the risks, the horrors, the loathings of incongruous unions." It seems unlikely that he would knowingly have married a woman of mixed race; the implication, therefore, is that even within the white Creole there lurks a germ of blackness, acquired through some secret impurity of the bloodline or perhaps, magically, through long proximity.
In Rhys's novel, Daniel Cosway's revelations cause Rochester to shun his wife's bed, driving Antoinette to seek an Obeah love charm from Christophine. The aphrodisiac works all too well, leaving Antoinette with bruises and a torn night-dress. But she is evidently not put off, quite the contrary: Christophine tells Rochester that what happened "make her love you more." For Antoinette, violence is intimacy, a confirmation of her own sense of herself as damaged, soiled, a "white nigger." But Rochester, horrified by what he has discovered about himself, takes revenge on his wife by going to bed with the servant who resembles her. The next morning, looking at Amelie, he thinks, "Impossible. And her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought."
Amelie is another of Antoinette's dark doubles, and Rochester's ambivalence toward her parallels his feelings for his wife. He is repelled by the idea that Antoinette might have the fateful drop of black blood; yet unbeknownst to him, the love charm that excites him comes out of the heart of blackness—the hut in the forest where the "blue-black" Christophine does her Obeah magic.
Rochester's mingled repulsion and attraction for both Amelie and his wife echo Antoinette's own conflicted feelings about the possibility of blackness in herself: she both wants to be black and fears that in fact she might be. This paradox in turn grows out of ambivalence toward the elements represented for Antoinette, and indeed more generally for the Western imagination, by blackness: sex, dirt, animality, both the vitality and the violence of nature. The fact that these are largely projections of the content of the unconscious itself does not diminish their power—on the contrary. Blackness and all it represents is both frightening and irresistible. In his encounter with Amelie, perhaps even in his relationship with Antoinette, Rochester is tasting the guilty pleasures of old Mr. Cosway and the other slave-owners with their concubines: the forbidden fruit in the West Indian paradise is interracial sex.
All these strands of race and sex are tied together in one powerful scene involving Antoinette's mother, and thus Antoinette herself. In the series of doubles embodying the different aspects of Antoinette's fragmented being, the most important is her mother, whose name—Annette—resembles her daughter's, and whose fate—drunkenness, madness, confinement—prefigures Antoinette's. In Daniel Cosway's story, the mother is "a raging lunatic and worse besides"—the "worse besides" evidently something so shameful that even he is unwilling to name it. On the night of the love charm, however, Antoinette tells Rochester the story of her mother's final degradation.
After the fire and the death of Pierre, Mr. Mason put the mother in the care of a colored couple. Antoinette goes to their house one day and hears crying; thinking her mother is being hurt, she runs onto the veranda and sees her mother inside: "I remember the dress she was wearing—an evening dress cut very low, and she was barefooted. There was a fat black man with a glass of rum in his hand. He said 'Drink it and you will forget.' She drank it without stopping." As Antoinette watches, the man lifts her mother up and kisses her. "I saw his mouth fasten on hers and she went all soft and limp in his arms and he laughed."
This scene depicts the nigthmare of whites in a society based on racial hierarchy: the violation of a white woman by a black man. The mother's degradation is evidently the culminating act of revenge on the owners of Coulibri: the white mistress, now broken and defenseless, is used as black women were used by their white masters. This account of the scene, however, leaves out its most disturbing aspect—the voluptuousness of the mother's response: she goes "all soft and limp" under the black man's kiss. The degrading details—the mother's captive, drunken, disheveled state and the man's coarse appearance—seem to contribute to that voluptuousness. The coercive circumstances appear not to force the mother against her own desire, but rather to allow her to give way to it. Her self-annihilating submissiveness is like that of Antoinette when she says to Rochester, "Say die and I will die." There is also an interesting slip or substitution: the mother's caretaker is originally referred to as "coloured"—mulatto—rather than "black," a distinction carefully maintained throughout the text. Here the man has become black, as though to intensify the outrage.
This scene, recounted by Antoinette years after it happens as though it were a dream, a nighttime flash of childhood memory or fantasy, has familiar meaning in psychoanalytic terms. The unseen child observer, the sexual embrace, the mother's cries, and the child's idea that the mother is being hurt all mark this as a sadomasochistic primal scene—the child's archetypal fantasy of sex between the parents as a scene of cruelty. Its most striking feature is the presence of the black man. The figures in such a fantasy need not be the real parents, but since Antoinette's real mother appears, why not her real father? The father's replacement by the black man may reflect the pervasive doubt about race and paternity in a Creole society. There is a kind of childish logic here: the father had many black women and mulatto children; here the mother has a black man—and if this one, why not others before him? (Indeed Christophine says "he take her whenever he want … That man and others.") And why not a child? The child's speculations about its own begetting are shaped here by the sexual and racial fears of her society, creating a primal scene that confirms Antoinette's notion of herself as "white nigger."
This is also, perhaps, a scene of founding or origin, not only for Antoinette but for her society. The varicolored Creole population originated mostly in sexual encounters between whites and blacks—al-though not of the kind depicted here, but rather between white men and black women. But what matters in this case is not historical reality but fantasy, both individual and social. Just as Antoinette is presumably the daughter of old Cosway and not of a black man, so too the origin of the colored population could be shown more accurately by an encounter between a white man like Cosway and a black slave concubine. But that scene would have nothing like the shocking force of this one. It would simply show the kind of nominality illicit sexual activity that poses no threat to the social structure.
A white man does not really degrade himself with a black woman, because the male is assumed to dominate the female as white dominates black. But a white woman who submits willingly to sex with a black man is seen as degrading her race as well as herself. And the possible result—pregnancy and a child of mixed race—is harder to hide and presents a greater threat to the "purity" of the white racial line than does the by-blow of a man. Had the kind of scene depicted here occurred more often in real life, white separateness and supremacy would soon have disappeared, along with white pretensions to moral superiority.
Thus this is a subversive scene of origin, a representation of what must not happen. It contains the one truly forbidden sin in this corrupt Creole paradise, and therefore in a sense its cornerstone, the fundamental taboo on which it is structured. The attraction of white men to black and brown women is openly acknowledged and everywhere evident in light-skinned offspring of uncertain paternity. The corresponding attraction of white women to black men must be entirely repressed. (Referring to this subject in a letter, Rhys writes "The men did as they liked. The women—never.") In a society founded on white hegemony, the act suggested in this scene is the most degrading and anarchic—and thus the most erotically charged, the most capable of liberating repressed desire.
The scene of the mother with the black man is at the heart of Wide Sargasso Sea, in some sense a scene of origin for the novel itself, containing its central motifs of race and sex and the connection between them. Here the sexual domination inherent in slavery is represented, but with the races of the parties reversed, as if in fulfillment of an unconscious wish. The combined horror and excitement derive from this idea of eroticized enslavement, in which elements of sexual fantasy and historical reality converge. In a society barely beyond slavery, the sadistic and masochistic aspects of sexual feeling find ready to hand a pattern, a relationship, a vocabulary of images. The sadomasochistic primal scene becomes identified with a social institution in which sex is a transaction between masters and slaves. Female sexual pleasure is seen as enslavement, and powerlessness and submission are imagined as erotically exciting.
The relationship between slave and master is suggested throughout the novel in various forms. It appears, for instance, in the marriage of Antoinette's mother with Mr. Mason, to whom she sells herself to save her family from destitution. There is a powerful image of the mother bent backward in Mason's arms, her long hair touching the floor, that suggests the same voluptuous submissiveness that appears later with the black man, and also in Antoinette's relations with Rochester. All these pairings, as well as the encounter of Rochester with Amelie, are characterized by inequality of power, economic bondage, and hints of sadistic and masochistic pleasure. Even Rochester himself feels that he was sold by his father into bondage—that of a marriage for money—although it is Antoinette who ends up confined and penniless. The relation of master to slave, with its knot of race and sex, desire and hatred, power and dependence, excitement and shame, is a kind of shadowy template behind every sexual relationship in the novel. It is perhaps involved even in the tormented love of Antoinette for her mother.
The submissiveness of the slave, however, turns eventually to rage and rebellion. As the blacks burned Coulibri, so Antoinette, at the end of the novel, burns Thornfield Hall, fulfilling the destiny created for her in Jane Eyre. In Rhys's version, the act takes place in a dream of the past: as Antoinette leaps from the ramparts she calls Tia's name, in a final attempt to rejoin the lost black self of childhood.
The issue of race in Wide Sargasso Sea goes beyond history and politics to the unconscious, where racial feelings have their deepest roots. The novel's most memorable images—the garden of Coulibri, the fire and Tia throwing the stone, the red-haired boy and the bad-smelling girl, the mother in the arms of the black man—are dreamlike in their haunting power, and like dreams they represent the conflicts of the unconscious. In its fidelity to the unresolved nature of those conflicts, Wide Sargasso Sea has a kind of painful, masochistic integrity. It is disturbingly honest in its exploration of the fantasies and the tangled, contradictory desires not only of a Creole society, but of the Western imagination itself in its continuing struggle with the dilemma of race. Its political sympathies—whether with the oppressed black majority or the dispossessed white minority—are finally as profoundly ambiguous as the unconscious conflicts in which they are rooted.
Source: Elizabeth Dalton, "Sex and Race in Wide Sargasso Sea," in Partisan Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 431–443.
In the following article, Mezei examines the narrative structure and presentation of madness in Rhys's novel.
Very soon she'll join all the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough … She's one of them. I too can wait—for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, looked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie … (Wide Sargasso Sea)
With these vengeful words, Rochester closes his narration, the disturbing story of his marriage in Jamaica to Antoinette Cosway (Mason), the first Mrs. Rochester. Soon enough Rochester has transformed Antoinette from a speaking subject into an object, an other, a locked-away madwoman—a lie. As a character and a narrator, Rochester has committed one kind of narratorial lie, but, according to Jean Rhys, the author of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, had engendered another, equally serious lie:
The Creole in Charlotte Brontë's novel is a lay figure—repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive which does. She's necessary to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls, laughs horribly, attacks all and sundry—off stage. For me (and for you I hope) she must be right on stage. She must be at least plausible with a past, the reason why Mr. Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds. (Personally, I think that one is simple. She is cold—and fire is the only warmth she knows in England). (Letters, 1931–1966)
Rochester's sin was to impose his point of view on both the narrative and Antoinette: Charlotte Brontë's was a narratorial omission: in Jane Eyre, Antoinette (Bertha) is not permitted to speak. Instead, it is Jane who speaks for her when she admonishes Rochester, "you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady … she cannot help being mad." To rectify the situation, Jean Rhys in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, allows Antoinette to narrate her own story. Thus, despite Rochester's male-diction, Antoinette does "tell it," and the telling of her secret, her memories, and her story mirrors her desperate effort to save herself from a lie.
How, as subject, does Antoinette tell her story? And does her narration hold a clue to her madness? In fact, Jean Rhys was uncertain how best to present Antoinette's point of view:
It can be done three ways. (1) Straight, Childhood, Marriage, Finale told in first person. Or it can be done (2) Man's point of view; (3) Woman's ditto both first person. Or it can be told in the third person with the writer as the Almighty. Well that is hard for me. I prefer direct thoughts and actions.
I am doing (2). (Letters)
As the novel reveals, Rhys decided to begin with Antoinette's narration, then to shift to Rochester's, and finally to close with Antoinette's disintegrating narration, introduced and contextualized by the disembodied voice of Grace Poole.
But, as Rochester feared, there are secrets shadowing Antoinette and her narration. Since the suspense in this essay lies in what I will say about the secrets, not in what they are, let me immediately alleviate the reader's suspense. First, hidden within the narrative is the textual secret representing the hidden or deferred meaning, which is the nature of Antoinette's ultimate "marooning," a secrecy as deep and seductive as the pools she swims in, but as dangerous as the madness in which she finally drowns. This "marooning" is gradually disclosed by the deliberate sequence of her opening narrative. The structural secret, which is the secret the reader must discover as he or she travels through the text, consists of Antoinette's desire (and need) for sequence. Her very sanity is tied to her ability to narrate, and here being "marooned" has consequences for both her narrative and her state of mind.
There is also, finally, the secret shaping the entire narrative—the secret of the narrative. In describing the tales of Henry James, Tzvetan Todorov observed:
we now know that Henry James' secret … resides precisely in the existence of a secret, of an absent and absolute cause, as well as in the effort to plumb this secret, to render the absent present. ("The Secret of Narrative")
Inevitably, the hunt for such a secret initiates, propels, and in effect creates the narrative. Quite simply the secret of Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette's valiant, heroic attempt to tell her story. The secret of the narrative is not her descent into madness in the figure of the madwoman locked in the attic, or her lack of madness and conventional society's excess of it, but her reason for engaging in the act of narration. Antoinette and the others "keep" their secret from Rochester (and perhaps the reader), because Rochester does not pause to unravel the story Antoinette is telling: he resists the structures and the function of her narrative, as well as its histoire; he is neither an ideal listener nor an ideal reader.
To prevent a false telling of her story by others—the lie—Antoinette must tell herself in the first person following the conventions of narrative order. When the narrative disintegrates, as it does in Part Three, so does Antoinette. When the narrative stops, Antoinette dies. By her act of narration, she retains her tenuous fragile hold on sanity, on life itself, since to narrate is to live, to order a life, to "make sense" out of it. If "narrative is a strategy for survival" (Daphne Marlatt, How to Hug a Stone), Antoinette survives only as long as she creates narratives.
"Her very sanity is tied to her ability to narrate, and here being 'marooned' has consequences for both her narrative and her state of mind."
Although, according to Kenneth Burke, the construction of symbolic actions such as the telling of stories is the "defining feature of human beings," (Language as Symbolic Action) for women narrators, this symbolic action may be a necessary strategy for survival. Antoinette joins Penelope, Scheherazade, the wicked stepmother in Snow White, and countless female narrators whose only form of control is through the weaving of words, the plotting of stories, the constructing of plots, and the telling of their own story in their voice as narrating subject, not narrated object. What is interesting about Antoinette's narration is how desperately and ingeniously she uses narrative techniques such as the "illusion of sequence" (W. J. T. Mitchell, Foreword, On Narrative) and linear chronology to delay the final secret, climax, closure of her story—her descent into madness and death.
As long as Antoinette can remember and order the events of her memories into a temporal or causal sequence, create even an illusion of sequence and maintain a measured sense of space and time, then she can hold her life and self together. Her act of narration becomes an act of affirmation and cohesion, a nod to the world and its conventions, an attempt to prevent herself from dissolving. When, in Part Three, Antoinette lies encaged in Thornfield Hall's dark, cold attic, the threads that hold her to the reality that the world perceives as sanity finally break. These threads are the elements of conventional narrative: linear chronology, sequence, narratorial lucidity, distance. She herself admits at this point that "time has no meaning"; sequence disintegrates into a confusion of present and past and ultimately into a dream which narrates her future. The relation between text-time (récit) and story-time (histoire) blurs, creating anachrony (Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse). She can neither "remember" what has happened in the past, nor what it is she must do in the future. Like her sense of time, her sense of space becomes distorted; "that afternoon we went to England" she says, describing a brief foray from her attic. Her attic is not England, a place, but a configuration of her mind, an enclosure. Finally, no longer in control of her narration, she must end it.
Rhys is a deliberately elusive writer, whose elusiveness differs from the lucid strategies of Joyce or Nabokov. She is also a modernist writer who polishes and hones her texts with a perfectionist's obsessions, and whose modernism is reflected in her method of paring away at authorial presence so that her characters may speak and act without intrusive authorial judgments and commentary. Unlike some of her contemporaries in the 1960s, she is not experimenting with the concept of narrative or narrator; her struggle with point of view and focalization concerns her desire to present a consciousness sincerely rather than to question the structures of presenting consciousness. We need, therefore, to dip and borrow and construct our own approach to her narrative, beckoned as it were by the text itself. With this in mind, we can now turn to narration in Wide Sargasso Sea and its relation to memory and madness.
An earlier version of Part One of Wide Sargasso Sea was published in Art and Literature, March 1964, and this and the endless agonizing revisions of this manuscript that took over ten years to complete, are witness to her search for perfection and purity of presentation. The changes to the earlier manuscript show her building a stronger case to justify Antoinette's state of mind and subsequent actions. Rhys removes verbs like "seem" or "thought" to allow Antoinette to speak directly, and omits "and," "but," and "then" in order to make Antoinette's discourse more disjointed and associative, to undermine the illusion of sequence. Certain deletions are indicative of her intention to allow Antionette to proffer her experiences with a greater immediacy through less commentary, therefore creating the sense of a highly impressionistic, troubled mind. For example, the earlier version had Antoinette commenting on her childhood. "I got used to a solitary life and began to distrust strangers…," which is unnecessary commentary whose signification is more effectively revealed by Antoinette's reactions to ensuing events. Similarly, the final version cuts "but it was understood that she would not approve of Tia," leaving "My mother never asked me where I had been or what I had done" to stand as an even more poignant indictment of her mother's neglect.
Rhys also adds several scenes in her final version—the poisoned horse, the first "forest" dream, a visit to her imprisoned mother, all of which strengthen the case of a troubled past for Antoinette. Despite Rhys' authorial elusiveness, by looking closely at the structures of these narrative acts, we can see how narrative becomes, for Antoinette, a strategy of survival, an attempt to maintain her hold on reality, to constrain dissolution into madness and how, finally, the act of retention helps her to remember what act (other than narration) she must commit in the future.
Part One is Antoinette's narration and the narrating (present) self seems to be speaking from the perspective (place and time) with which her narration closes—the convent, in the early hours of the morning as she falls asleep again. In this case, the narrating and experiencing self merge in the present time with which Part One closes. This first narration covers the period from Antoinette's childhood at Coulibri to age seventeen at the convent just prior to her marriage to Rochester. The narrating self is engaged in an act of memory, creating a pattern like Aunt Cora's colorful patchwork counterpane out of significant moments of her childhood. Although there is little dissonance between the two selves, for the narrating self rarely judges or comments on her younger self, there are several significant occasions in which the narrating self explicitly draws attention to her present state. At these moments, we are made aware of Antoinette's urgency, her hysteria, her desperation as if her world were closing in.
Since Antoinette is a child of silence, to whom communication, words, speech bring only unhappiness and rejection (her mother continually orders the child to leave her alone), it is a heroic effort for her to speak, even to herself. On two occasions—the poisoning of her mother's horse, and Mr. Mason's intimation of the prospect of her marriage—she shows her suspicion of words: "for I thought if I told no one it might not be true." To speak something raises it to the level of concrete reality. On the other hand, it is not her passive silence that causes her the greatest perturbation and the eventual division into two dis-associated selves, but the act of being silenced. She is silenced first by her mother, who denies her existence, and then again by Rochester who refuses to be the reader of her story. He "reads" Daniel Cosway's letter-version, but is reluctant to listen to Antoinette's version. As the couple departs from Granbois, he refuses the healing act of communication: "No, I would say—I know what I would say 'I have made a terrible mistake. Forgive me.'" But he never says it, never releases her from her imprisoning silence.
Although Part One is narrated retrospectively in the past tense, it is in the moments when Antoinette slips into the present that we catch a glimpse of the older, narrating Antoinette and the secret of her narrative. The novel opens with the ominous "They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did." Although "say" is in the gnomic present, and functions as a reminder of the outside, anonymous world of clichés, it also serves to remind us that there is a present voice, a narrator who sometimes lapses into the present. Already the troubled presence of the present is felt.
At the beginning of her story, Antoinette describes her mother:
Once I made excuses to be near her, when she brushed her hair, a soft black cloak to cover me, hide me, keep me safe. But not any longer. Not any more.
The repetition of "not any" and the slight change from "longer" to "more" implies that the second phrase is spoken by the present narrating self brooding on her loss—of her mother, of feeling "safe" and that, in the narrator's mind, past and present blur, a blurring which occurs repeatedly in Part Three and suggests a disassociated mind. Like conventional narrative, sanity apparently requires clarity of sequence and distinction.
Further along in her narrative, just before the burning of Coulibri, Antoinette slips again into a gnomic present:
There are more ways than one of being happy, better perhaps to be peaceful and contented and protected, as I feel now, peaceful for years and long years.
"As I feel now" probably refers to her sense of the convent as a refuge (or possibly to the attic, where locked in the refuge of her mind, she feels safe). She digresses from retrospection again in that same section when she remarks in the only noticeable judgment of her younger experiencing self "All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive."
The most striking emergence into the present occurs as Antoinette describes her sojourn in the convent, after Coulibri was burned and her mother locked away: "Quickly while I can, I must remember the hot classroom." Why the sense of urgency? Why must she remember? The phrase "must remember" recurs in Part Three and is in fact the secret or hidden figure of her last narrative, her link to sanity, and the motivation of her entire narrative. Must it be told quickly because soon her narrative will be taken over by another narrator and/or because she is in danger of forgetting (losing) her mind?
After Mr. Mason hints that he has a suitor for her, Antoinette enters, for the second time, a recurring nightmare where she wanders in a menacing forest, pursued by someone characterized by the fact that he hates her. This dream is narrated in the present tense. It is then an aide mémoire, spoken by Antoinette in the attic, to help her to remember what it is she must do at Thornfield, since the dream clearly shifts from Jamaica to England: "We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees." Or is the narrator, speaking from the convent, shifting from a past dream to a premonition of her future English nightmare? Then she wakes and continues in the present tense to describe Sister Marie Augustine giving her chocolate and their ensuing enigmatic discussion. Her recollection of chocolate causes a digression into the past to her mother's funeral, chocolate being the trigger of this memory. "Now the thought of her is mixed up with my dream." Antoinette's narration concludes as she goes back to bed to sleep, to dream; the last words she hears are the Sister's which lead into the future and into Rochester's narration: "Soon I will give the signal. Soon it will be tomorrow morning." This anticipation of the future is paralleled by the ending of Part Three which propels the reader into true closure only in Jane Eyre. The entire narrative ends with the future which remains, of course, to be narrated. The intertextuality of sequence between Brontë's and Rhys' novels is as significant as the intertextuality of the histoire.
Before we can leave Antoinette's narrative, there remain further secrets hidden in her story and in her telling that call for disclosure. First, her narrative appears to have certain characteristics of a monologue, of what Dorrit Cohn calls the "autobiographical monologue" in which "a lone speaker recalls his own past and tells it to himself—in chronological order" (Transparent Minds), or even of a "memory monologue." In order to describe the memory monologue Cohn quotes Claude Simon's remarks on his novel La Route des Flandres:
this author undertakes less … to tell a story than to describe the imprint left by it on a memory and a sensibility. (Transparent Minds)
Cohn then suggests that the model is not autobiographical communication (telling one's story) but the self-involvement of memory and that this imitation of a solipsistic process imposes not only a fractured chronology but also a fragmentary coverage. Cohn again quotes Simon: "I do not fill in the blanks. They remain, like so many fragments." The movement of the narration is determined not by chronology but by associative memory.
Is then Antoinette's narration not a narrative but a monologue, an autobiographical or memory monologue? I think not. Antoinette has structured her narrative deliberately and, although as we shall see, the sequence of events are connected by associative memory rather than by temporality or causality, Antoinette's narrative is forcibly contained by a motif that determines her memories and her retelling of them. Conversely as stated earlier, she herself is held together by the act of narrating. Therefore, there is a deliberate narrative presentation and strategy. Moreover, as a narrator, she is always seeking to restrain her story within the boundaries of conventional narrative temporality such as sequence, linear chronology, plausible duration. This is why she so carefully sprinkles dates and sets out duration of time throughout her telling: a date of 1839 when she enters the convent, a reference to "the first day I had to go to the convent," and explanation that "During this time, nearly eighteen months my stepfather often came to see me." These are signposts of sanity. To measure time is a measure of how closely one is in touch with reality. Accordingly, Antoinette makes an effort to measure time and to progress from childhood, to school, to marriage. Rochester called her "a lunatic who always knows the time. But never does." Pulling against chronology is her mind's tendency to work by association, to digress to the present, to compress time. After describing how she "knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look," she pauses and begins a new section, a new time: "I was a bridesmaid when my mother married Mr. Mason." Surely this is the memory association of a bride who has learned to equate marriage with tragedy and blackness. The narrating self has invaded the experiencing self and imposed her perceptions upon the younger mind. While Antoinette's strategy as narrator is to compose a conventional narrative, the boundaries of the narrative are continually under threat of disintegrating—as is Antoinette herself. For Rhys and her narrator, freedom, iconoclasm, innovation imply danger, isolation, alienation: the tenets of modernism do not hold out liberation for a bound mind, they only release that mind into a further and more horrible entrapment, particularly if that mind is female, and by definition, not free.
A monologue, whether autobiography or memory, is suitable for a mad, rambling, or childish mind that free-associates and thus reveals itself (as Benjy does in Sound and Fury, or Vardaman in As I Lay Dying), but when a narrator like Antoinette makes such a formidable effort to structure a narrative and abide by the rhetorical principles of narrative, the difference between monologue and narrative becomes the difference between madness and sanity.
Rhys, in fact, originally intended to present Antoinette in monologue, but then changed her mind, her story, and as a consequence offered the reader a more complex fiction, a fiction with a secret to be discovered:
The book began with a dream and ended with a dream (though I didn't get the last dream right for a long time). All the rest was to be a long monologue. Antoinette in her prison room remembers, loves, hates, raves, talks to imaginary people, hears imaginary voices answering and overhears meaningless conversations outside. The story, if any, to be implied, never told straight.… I remembered the last part of Voyage in the Dark written like that—time and place abolished, past and present the same—and I had been almost satisfied. Then everybody said it was "con-fused and confusing—impossible to understand, etc." and I had to cut and rewrite it (I still think I was right and they were wrong, tho' it was long ago). Still I thought "if they fussed over one part of a book, nobody will get the hang of a whole book written that way at all" or "A mad girl speaking all the time is too much!" And anyway there was a lot left to be done and could I do it? I think I was tired. Anyway after a week or two I decided to write it again as a story, a romance, but keeping the dream feeling and working up to the madness (I hoped). (Letters)
Because there is a psychological motivation for narrative, Antoinette's discourse, even if spoken, even if directed to herself (and really to whom else does she ever speak?) must be received as narrative.
Although her narrative unfolds primarily in the past, and although there is the appearance of consonance between the narrating and the experiencing selves, between the young woman of the present and the lonely child of the past, the heavy hand of present consciousness is felt throughout. But this is where Rhys is so elusive. Although in retrospective narratives, the relationship between narrating and experiencing selves varies from primary focalization on the experiencing self (and childhood) as in Great Expectations, to focalization on the present consciousness as it engages in the act of interpreting its past, and analyzing the present in the context of this past (Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu), Rhys' deliberate blurring of the two selves through allowing the present (and disturbed) consciousness of Antoinette to overtly and covertly intrude upon the narration, sows seeds of warning about the precarious state of the narrating consciousness. While Part One is evidently narrated in the past, we in fact learn as much about the present state of her mind. Antoinette's inability at times, particularly in Part Three, to distinguish between her past and present self is simultaneously a sign of her increased disturbance and of the breakdown of narrative presentation.
In Part One, Antoinette succumbs to certain narrative habits that are revelatory of her present disturbed mind. She repeats the adverbs "always" and "never." Within the opening pages, Mr. Luttrell "was gone for always"; Pierre's doctor "never came again"; Antoinette "never went near" the orchid in the wild garden at Coulibri; "The Wilderness of Coulibri never saddened me"; Christophine "never paid them"; "I never looked at any strange negro," "My mother never asked me where I had been or what I had done." In one sense the use of "always," along with the repetition of "still," ("she still rode about every morning") and "sometimes" ("some-times we left the bathing pool at midday, sometimes we stayed till late afternoon") is iterative and durative, implying continuity over a certain duration of time in the past. However, the plaintive echo of "still," "sometimes," "usually," "always," and "never" intimates a presentness in that adverbs like "still" reach into the present, and that "always," and more strongly "never" affect the present narrating Antoinette who has suffered the consequences of the string of "always" and "never" in her childhood, and now exists in a state of neverness—always. Moreover the finality and negativity of "never" (and, in the context of her discourse, of "always") imply a continual, progressing closure as her world narrows, closes in on her, and freedom, safety, and happiness are progressively cut off from her.
In other words, the repetition of adverbs (whose very repetition would connote iterativity) in fact implies the opposite—closure, a finality. The frequency and persistence of repetition evokes this sense of finality and desperate sadness.
With similar effect, Rhys often resorts to the verbal auxiliary "would." In reporting angry conversations between her mother and Mr. Mason, Antoinette describes their dialogue by reporting "he would say," "she'd speak,"; "would" is here used in the habitual mode. The impression the reader receives is again iterative—this argument occurred over and over again. Antoinette also creates this effect by remembering that "Mr. Mason always said." This use of the iterative has a psychological effect upon the reader, in that Antoinette's narration takes on a timeless urgency as if it were a universal or apocalyptic tale whose signification extends beyond the narrator and her experience, or to put it another way, the narrator's life and experience are not merely personal but also symbolic.
As Antoinette draws her narrative to its first conclusion, as she falls into her first sleep, and she seems to narrate from a region in which she is either just entering sleep or waking, a pre-or subconscious state where "only the magic and the dream are true," she sounds her most foreboding note. She has just woken from her nightmare, and asks the Sister who tends to her "such terrible things happen I said, 'why? why'?" If the reader reflects back on Part One, Antoinette's narrative has consisted entirely of the telling of "terrible things" one after the other; her narrative is obsessed with safety, her understandable desire to find refuge, the progressive diminishment of any feeling of safety, and conversely her increasing sense of isolation or, to use Antoinette's more poetic phrase, being "marooned." Rejected (and betrayed) by her mother, by Tia, the local blacks, and eventually by Mr. Mason, as first he abandons her to Rochester, and secondly, dies making her abandonment complete, Antoinette becomes increasingly marooned.
While Antoinette's narrative appears to follow a linear sequence, its deep structure is not linear but associative. Conscious of the need to present her story convincingly (even to herself), she appears to maintain a chronology, the illusion of sequence. Yet, if we look carefully at the sequence of events, we see their connexity is associative rather than temporal or causal, and that the associations are based on Antoinette's obsessions—her fear of the loss of safety, her sense of desertion and isolation—so that each episode she narrates becomes an amplification of these obsessions. She begins her story with an oblique reference to the Emancipation Act, "when trouble comes close ranks," continues with the anecdote of Mr. Luttrell's suicide, then recounts the poisoned horse incident (each episode "marooning" them further), and moves on to Pierre's feebleness, and a description to the wild garden. Eden destroyed. Safety for Antoinette implies evasion, burial, escape, enclosing oneself away from the world by assigning signs of safety to parentheses "(My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed—all belonged to the past)." For a time, she feels safe in her bed, Coulibri, the convent, and Granbois. Gradually, however, each refuge is progressively destroyed: the safety of her bed and Coulibri ruined by fire and by her mother's marriage to Mr. Mason and the invasion of the blacks, the sanctuary of the convent by the imminent arrival of a suitor and another invasive marriage which, like her mother's, culminates in fire and madness. Her final evasion is within her own mind, disassociated from time, from people, even from her own self of which the attic, dark, cold and lightless, is a perfect sign.
Antoinette's narrative in Part One ends as she falls into sleep, and another narrator, Edward Rochester, who remains unnamed although his personal signature is strongly stamped on his discourse. Rhys wanted a "cold factual" narrator to contrast with Antoinette's "emotional" account (Letters); she also felt sympathy for Rochester's plight and gave him a chance to justify himself. His narration then, unlike Antoinette's is not a confession or a matter of survival, but a self-justification, an attempt at a rational, analytic explanation of the breakdown of his marriage and of his wife. It is appropriate that the narrative now falls into his hands since, at the point when Antoinette closes her narrative, she is experiencing greater and greater distress and disassociation. Like her mother, she is suffering a division of the self where she undergoes what she calls the real death, the death of the mind, and becomes blank, doll-like, inhuman, in waiting for the second death, the death of the body. Since she is now outside herself, her story, appropriately, is told from the outside by an outsider. Rochester has married her, taken possession of her, and made her his wife, and so he now tells her story and the story of their marriage which has become his story and no longer hers. Instead of narrating her own story, Antoinette becomes a character in his narration. She does, however, resist complete marital and narratorial possession by Rochester for on two occasions she breaks into Rochester's narrative to present her point of view.
In contrast to Antoinette's narrative, Rochester's narrating self (and his narration takes the shape of a letter to his father that he will never send) is close in time to his experiencing self, and the immediacy of his language reflects the shocks suffered by his experiencing self. He speaks of "this morning" as he begins, slipping into the present because there is so little temporal distance between his two selves: "So this is Massacre," "Everything is too much." Despite Rochester's intention of presenting a reasoned explanation of the events, he is overwhelmed by the magic and sensuality of Granbois and his wife and crushed by his sense of betrayal by his own family and Antoinette's in saddling him with a mad wife. As a consequence, his mind loses its apparent clarity. His discourse, which in the beginning, although reflecting his unease, was at least ordered, becomes by the end of his narrative disjointed, wild, fragmented, impressionistic. "The tree shivers. Shivers and gathers all its strength. And waits." Unlike the Antoinette of Part One, he loses control of his narration and the structure of his narrative presentation disintegrates. This loss of control is manifested through Antoinette's invasion of his narration, first in what Rhys calls the interlude, but more pointedly, into his thoughts, her invasion is delivered in italics, between parentheses."
(I lay awake all night long after they were asleep, and as soon as it was light I got up and dressed and saddled Preston. And I came to you. Oh Christophine. On Pheena, Pheena, help me).
If to narrate is a sign of lucidity, who then has lost his mind?
It is in Rochester's narration that the author's presence as manipulator and organizer is most strongly felt since Rhys permits Antoinette to interrupt Rochester's narrative and tell her story. After Rochester receives Daniel Cosway's incriminating letter condemning Antoinette and her mother to madness, Rochester turns against his wife. At that point, Antoinette wakes from one of her sleeps and temporarily takes on the telling of her own story. Here there is dissonance between the narrating and experiencing self; this narrating Antoinette is speaking from her English attic since, in a digression, she refers to England, focalizing on her experiencing self: "I will be a different person when I live in England," but then quickly reveals her knowledge of England, a knowledge that can only come from living there and thus from the narrating self: "Summer. There are fields of corn like sugar-cane fields, but good colour and not so tall. After summer the trees are bare, then winter and snow." Thus, the narrating self asserts its disturbing and disturbed presence. As she closes her interlude, it is the narrating Antoinette speaking in the present from her attic room, with its one window high up, who observes:
but now I see everything still, fixed for ever like the colours in a stained-glass window. Only the clouds move.
Rhys also ensures that Antoinette's point of view and voice are heard even in the midst of Rochester's narrative, through extended passages of dialogue between the two that allow Antoinette to explain her past and clarify the sequence of events of her own life. Rochester reports one of their dialogues ("'Now come for a walk,' she said, 'and I will tell you a story'" in which Antoinette describes her dream of the watching rats and her moonlight sleep to explain her present state of mind.
Rochester's narration of their dialogues also becomes a mode for her clarification of sequence:
"… Is your mother alive?"
"No, she is dead, she died."
"Not long ago."
"Then why did you tell me she died when you were a child?"
"Because they told me to say so and because it is true. She did die when I was a child. There are always two deaths, the real one, and the one people know about."
In a disturbed, fragmented state of mind, Rochester simultaneously concludes his own narrative (and Antoinette remains forever silenced and absent) and leaves that place with "its beauty and magic and the secret I would never know." Antoinette's mind is broken (to use Christophine's phrase) and Rochester vows:
I too can wait—for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie.…
His vow is prophetic, for in the end all Antoinette has is her memory which becomes her life line, her death, and almost the death of Rochester. Antoinette as a remembering consciousness absorbed not in retrospection, but in the act of recollection, acts out of that memory to burn Thornfield to the ground, and to die she has become another of the heroines killed into art, noted by Gilbert and Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic. Once she has recollected the past (those moments that she wants and needs to recollect)—retention, and recollected the future (that which she must do next)—protention, Antoinette transforms memory from a passive to an active mode.
In Part Three, after a brief narrative by Grace Poole, which brings the reader to England and into the darkness, prison, or shelter where Antoinette dwells, Antoinette once again takes up her own story. In contrast to her earlier narration, she now speaks in the present, digresses into the past (analepsis), and into the future through a dream (prolepsis) that foretells the events that follow after the narrative concludes, for a narrator presumably cannot describe her own death.
As she begins this her final narrative, she says: "In this room, I wake early and lie shivering for it is very cold." The present tense indicates that the judicious distance of her first narrative is obliterated. She has lost all sense of measured time and place for she refuses to believe "this is England," and of self for she does not recognize the woman with streaming hair, surrounded by a gilt frame as herself. The structures of narrative have broken down and she is faltering, shivering, an absence. Her memory which gave her a tenuous connection to reality and her narrative its surface structure, also eludes her. An Antoinette who can no longer remember is no longer Antoinette, she has lost her true self, her centre no longer holds. The narrating self has dissolved into a completely experiencing self. She had told Rochester "I am not a forgetting person." But here, in the attic, she has forgotten.
Her last narrative act is the story of her struggle to remember, and the phrases "to remember" and "must remember" recur continually. At first she remarks: "and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason? There must be a reason. What is it that I must do?" Then, "when I got back into bed, I could remember more and think again." Slowly, in a disjointed manner, she makes a tremendous effort to remember, to disclose the secret locked in her past, and to complete her story; her mind works again by feverish association—"Looking at the tapestry one day I recognized my mother …"; "I remember watching myself"; "We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don't remember, but we lost it." Since her state of wakedness only seems to confuse her, she sinks into dream and when she wakes from it, she finally remembers: "Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do." Through dreaming and submission to her subconscious, her memory has been restored. Now, by jumping to her death, she commits one of her few acts, other than narration, and closes her life and her story.
Deprived of light and warmth and love, she has made the supreme effort of will in sleeping, in dreaming, and in waking to narrate her own story, and to bring it to conclusion herself. The secret is thus told and the telling is the secret.
Source: Kathy Mezei, "'And It Kept Its Secret': Narration, Memory, and Madness in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 4, Summer 1987, pp. 195–209.
Curtis, Jan, "The Secret of Wide Sargasso Sea," in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Spring 1990, pp. 185–97.
"The Literary Life of Jean Rhys," in Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 1991.
Marshik, Celia, "Jean Rhys," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 116–18, Spring 2002.
Pepper, Tara, "Searching for a Home," in Newsweek, September 15, 2003, p. 58.
Porter, Dennis, "Of Heroines and Victims: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Autumn 1976, pp. 540–52.
Angier, Carole, Jean Rhys: Life and Work, Pubs Overstock, June 1991.
In this biography and study, Angier links events in Rhys's life to characters and events in her stories and novels.
Bender, Todd K., ed., Literary Impressionism in Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and Charlotte Brontë, Garland Publishing, 1997.
After meeting with Joseph Conrad and then, twenty-five years later, with Jean Rhys, Ford Madox Ford is reported to have said that between these two writers, he saw the progression of modern literature toward impressionism. This text contains a collection of Ford's critical comments on impressionism, in particular the way in which Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea forces readers to rethink Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Chesler, Phyllis, Women and Madness, Doubleday, 1972.
Chesler provides a definitive study of the mental health of women who live in a patriarchal society. Her work revolutionized psychiatry, providing new definitions of feminist therapy and demonstrating how women have often been controlled by conventional psychiatry.
Savory, Elaine, Jean Rhys, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
This is a critical study of Rhys's entire life's work, including her autobiography. Savory insists on looking at all of Rhys's work, keeping the author's Caribbean background in mind. This is an excellent study that keeps previous critical analyses on race, gender, class, and nationality in mind.
Williams, Eric, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean, 1492 to 1969, Vintage Books, 1984.
Former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams outlines the common history of slavery in the Caribbean. In this book, Williams looks at the history of sugar and the free labor that provided wealth to a few and misery to over 30 million slaves.