Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, but tells the story of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason), the mad Mrs. Rochester of the original novel. Like Brontë, Rhys explores themes of doubling, madness, and oppression, this time against the backdrop of racial inequality in the Caribbean where Antoinette, a white Creole heiress, is married off to Mr. Rochester and later forced to relocate to England.
Doubling: Jane and Antoinette
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys parallels the experiences of Antoinette and Jane as a way to point out their similarities and create a level of sympathy for Antoinette that is absent in Brontë’s novel. Like Jane, Antoinette has a lonely childhood, rejected by her mother. In fact, Antoinette is a kind of orphan, ignored and unloved by a mother who saves all of her affection for Antoinette’s disabled brother. Moreover, although Antoinette has a close relationship with one of the household servants, Christophine—much like Jane and Bessie in Brontë’s novel—Antoinette and her family are ostracized by the rest of the black community who refer to them as “white cockroaches” and “white nigger[s].” This tension between the black community and Antoinette’s family culminates in the burning of Antoinette’s home, Coulibri, during which Antoinette, like Jane, suffers an unwarranted attack in the form of a blow to the head.
However, unlike Jane’s passionate outburst in the opening chapters of Jane Eyre, Antoinette quietly submits to the injustice she suffers, typically resorting to inaction or weak verbal assaults against her abusers. For instance, when she is chased home by a “strange negro” girl, she sits down in the garden, feeling that “everything would be worse if [she] moved. ” Antoinette is like the Sargasso Sea of the novel’s title and the zombies Rochester reads about later in the novel: lifeless, “a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead.” She is as unhappy as the young Jane, but takes no strong action against her oppressors. And, of course, we know that Antoinette really is the living dead, the character in Brontë’s novel brought back to life in Rhys’s novel and moving ever closer to her death at Thornfield.
The first action Antoinette does take occurs during the conflagration of Coulibri, when she tries to reconnect with her estranged friend, Tia. Unfortunately, Tia is only at the scene, like the rest of the black community, to harass the “white cockroaches” and she throws a rock at Antoinette. Rather than lashing out, Antoinette reverts back to her passivity, unwilling to respond in kind to Tia’s action:
I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.”
In yet another instance of doubling, Antoinette sees a reflection of all her repressed feelings: in Tia’s tears, she sees the pain she feels and cannot express.
Madness and Rage
Antoinette’s repressed feelings are finally projected outward in Parts II and III of Wide Sargasso Sea when Antoinette becomes the Bertha Mason of Brontë’s novel. She first externalizes her growing madness in Part II. After Rochester’s affair with Amélie, Rochester describes Antoinette in terms that closely parallel her characterization in Brontë’s novel: “Her hair hung uncombed and dull into her eyes which were inflamed and staring, her face was very flushed and looked swollen.” However, it is clear that in Part II Antoinette has not been wholly consumed by her madness. She is still able to voice her pain in an intelligible way when she tells Rochester how much he has hurt her: “‘It’s not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate.’” In addition, when Rochester tries to impose a new identity upon her, she asserts that her name is not Bertha. This rejection of Rochester’s renaming is important, as Antoinette later recognizes; once she has ceased to fight this renaming, she loses herself.
In the last part of the novel, Antoinette’s journey into madness is complete; Rochester has locked her away in the attic at Thornfield and she has become Bertha Mason, the mad Mrs. Rochester of Brontë’s novel, unaware of her past and confused about her present. It is only when Antoinette sees the red dress brought with her from the West Indies that she begins the process of relearning her identity. The dress is “the colour of fire and sunset” and smells “of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees”; in short, the dress reminds her of home and initiates a process of remembering that will ultimately allow Antoinette to regain her sense of self.
Self-Destruction / Self-Affirmation
This process of remembering continues in Antoinette’s third and final dream, which echoes Jane’s red-room experience in Jane Eyre. In her dream, Antoinette enters Rochester’s bedroom and finds a room of red and white. Whereas Jane’s red-room episode increases her sense of doubleness, Antoinette’s red-room experience helps to bring her back to herself. Like Jane, who saw herself in the looking-glass of the red-room at the Reed house, Antoinette sees her reflection in the mirror and finally begins to remember her past. This remembering ultimately leads to her death, which for Antoinette is a kind of freedom. She hears Mr. Rochester calling for “Bertha” as he tries to rescue her from the burning house. In a final act of regaining her sense of self, of rejecting Rochester’s renaming, Antoinette throws herself from the battlements at Thornfield.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is published by Penguin Classics (2000), ISBN 978-0141185422.
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