ean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is a modernist revision of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The female protagonists of both novels share many traits of character and circumstance, most notable of which being a marriage to Mr. Rochester. Jane can assert notions of female individuality and self-respect because she operates in a society based on Christian virtues of justice and fairness. The modernist revision by Rhys, however, defines the world as a rotting paradise, literally a place where the values of Jane's world fail to exist. Antoinette Cosway, the fated heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, is culturally divided between worlds of hating races. This racial tension not only undermines any feelings of security she might possess but fatally marks Antoinette as a character unable to survive in an immoral universe. Good and evil become indistinguishable as races mix; misfortune becomes obvious as a paradise based on merciless slavery attempts to right itself. The blacks of Jamaica have been emancipated, yet justice exists nowhere for the female hero. Whereas Jane Eyre details a woman's relentless struggle for emotional and spiritual satisfaction, Wide Sargasso Sea depicts a woman unable to find security because of the burdens of her society. An incompatible marriage, a familial history of madness — these are simply struggles that Antoinette attempts to endure. But the proverbial garden has already fallen, and as a woman she is banished to a world of pain and frustration where she has no control.
Antoinette's problems are deeply rooted in colonialism. The violence of both her family's and country's pasts have hindered her ability to live a full, happy life. Antoinette becomes obsessed with security and protection, looking for comfort with the victims of slavery. Rhys's postcolonial lens characterizes Antoinette as existing between the harshly divided worlds of blacks and whites, between formers slaves and former slave owners. As a Creole woman, Antoinette's relationship to the black population combines hatred and pity, wants of acceptance and desires for separation. During such an ebb and flow of emotions Antoinette first forms a relationship with Tia, a black girl of approximately the same age. After blacks set fire to Coulibri, the family escapes from ther burning mansion, and Antoinette runs toward Tia. She is unable to hate the blacks despite their violent reactions to her presence: "As I ran I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not" (Rhys, p. 45). Antoinette identifies with a different racial group, at the same time that she flees from the result of its violent actions. She cannot fully come to terms with her own guilt and its resulting isolation.
Antoinette's life becomes a continuous struggle to find a place where she may be happy and peaceful. She exists in a society in which actions have no redemptive value. Antoinette's notion that she could in fact live and thrive among a different race deteriorates after her interaction with Tia. Tia literally shatters the idea when she throws a rock that pierces Antoinette's face, causing her to bleed: "When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but 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 if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass" (Rhys, p. 45). This act confirms that Antoinette is not wanted by the black population; she must remain separate and isolated from them, despite her intense desire to gain safety and security tamong them. Her reference to a looking glass is at once absurd and at the same time crucial to understanding the roots of her fate. Her connection to a crying Tia symbolizes her connection to both pain and suffering. Antoinette's face bleeds, demonstrating a physical pain. Yet, she internalizes Tia's tears and makes them her own as she realizes that she can no longer be comfortable with an identity that straddles such opposing worlds. This rift is later a major source of her complete emotional breakdown.
Although both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea concern issues of justice and social fairness, these novels operate in entirely different settings. The settings created by both authors clearly connect to their beliefs whether or not good and evil are separate entities and whether or not the universe is an inherently fair place. Jamaica, the setting of much of Wide Sargasso Sea, is a lost Eden — full of social injustice and cultural tension. Despite her estrangement from much of her home's population, Antoinette has an affinity for this land. She is engrossed by its exoticism and wildness, yet at the same time she understands that its forbidding future is both harsh and bleak. It is almost as if the lush wildness of her home has become too ripe and is beginning to rot: "Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew here. But it had grown wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with that fresh living smell." The Biblical reference to the lost paradise continues: "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" (Rhys p. 19). Almost all that had previously existed in a peaceful harmony had become a changing, dying place. Rhys does not doubt the proverbial garden's existence, but she sees its demise as a result of a society built on human suffering. Those still living in this dying place are therefore banished to a life of uncertain moral footing and unclear values.
Antoinette and Rochester's marriage, and its eventual unraveling, exemplifies the immoral world view of Rhys. Antoinette thrives during the early part of her honeymoon; physical pleasure is only matched with her thrill of isolated happiness. Yet Rochester fails to offer the protection for which his new bride yearns, remaining emotionally and morally unformed. Antoinette offers herself to Rochester in every possible way, but he refuses to give any of himself. He is a cold Englishman, incapable of aiding his Creole bride to find any semblance of safety in his arms. "'You are safe,' I'd say. She'd like that — to be told 'you are safe.' Or I'd touch her face gently and touch tears. Tears — nothing! Words — less than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did no think or feel as I did," (Rhys, p. 93). Rochester finds Antoinette's otherness greatly incompatible with his personal feelings, although he intellectually comprehends her desires. He is aware, yet unable to act accordingly. Unlike the Rochester who appears in Brontë's novel, Rhys's character does not grow morally or spiritually.
Rhys's Rochester believes that life in Jamaica may exist with different rules and requirements than those of Victorian English society. Rochester does not grant legitimacy to his marriage, his wife, or the land he temporarily occupies. Like Rhys, Rochester sees no moral hierarchy to dictate his actions. The sensuality apparent during their honeymoon therefore reflects not only isolated episodes of sexual fulfillment but also a foreboding of the eventual unraveling of his marriage. He is initially intoxicated by her erotic sensuality, and comments, "one afternoon the sight of a dress which she'd left lying on her bedroom floor made me breathless and savage with desire," (Rhys, p. 93). He awakes, almost hung-over from love making, drunk with physical passion and emotional stagnation. He can put aside true consideration of his actions because he exists in a world that is not real to him — thus his use of the word "savage" to reflect feelings rooted not in his emotions but rather in his physical environment. He continually uses lunar images when describing his bride, for in reality he considers her a priority only in the hiding darkness of night. Antoinette has no chance of being a moral compass or emotional outlet for Rochester because he does not grant her any consideration during day time hours.
Once the letter arrives from Daniel Cosway, which symbolizes a the intrusion of the outside world, Antoinette cannot even occupy her husband's interests at bedtime. Once Rochester believes that his actions are being judged outside Granbois, he must consider everything with a distinctly upright edge. Acting with neither emotion nor love, Rochester avoids any morally ambiguous situation because he lacks the tools to make an informed decision regarding his actions. Apart from a corrupt colonial government, there is no overall force to distinguish good from evil. Neither legal nor spiritual laws apply to these lands, and Rochester does not bring with him any sense of right and wrong.
Rochester's reaction to the natural world of the Caribbean not only directly correlates to his feelings for his wife but also explains his inability to offer Antoinette any security. Rochester cannot rationally enjoy the natural beauty he sees and feels. Continually wishing to dominate, he is instantly at odds with tangible feelings in a way that he cannot define: "It was a beautiful place — wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I'd find myself thinking, "what I see is nothing — I want what it hides — that is not nothing" (Rhys, p. 87). Rochester is unable to simply enjoy the natural splendor of the islands because it threatens his strict, controlling character. Because he is not morally developed enough to appreciate the ambiguities of his surroundings, he comes to despise them: "I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness." He continues relating the natural world to his wife, "Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it" (Rhys, p. 172). Rochester looks to answer the undefined universe, to solve problems with answers he has yet to discover the questions for. Struggling to define this world is a fruitless pursuit because it is inherently incomprehensible and illogical. The world of Wide Sargasso Sea is not the just and moral realm of Jane Eyre of which Brontë's Rochester is an obvious product. It is instead an incomprehensible sphere lacking absolute truths.
Daniel Cosway's letter to Mr. Rochester traps Antoinette, cementing her fate as a feminine heroine without the power to determine her own happiness. Rochester's reaction to it reveals his true feelings for Antoinette. It also reveals that he no longer perceives her as exotically alluring but savage and rude. It is of course an outside correspondence that changes Rochester's opinions of his bride. Again, Antoinette's cultural divide makes Rochester's classification that much easier to apply. She can longer able to align herself with the black population but remains tainted by any past association. Her world, unlike Jane Eyre's, holds no possibility for redemption. After running away from Thornfield in the middle of the night, Jane nearly perishes as she seeks shelter. Turned away into cold, harsh rain, Jane prepares herself for death. St. John Rivers saves her just in time: "'All men must die, said a voice quite close at hand; 'but all are not condemned to meet a lingering and premature doom, such as yours would be if you perished here of want" (Brontë, p. 286). Jane's character exists in a world of continual hope, derived in part from her own spirituality and the Christian kindness of others. The world of Wide Sargasso Sea is tainted by colonialism and the slave trade. It is therefore impossible for Antoinette to improve her situation in a world where upward movement based on moral goodness does not exist.
The female heroines of both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea rely upon various forms of spirituality during troubling times in their respective relationships with Mr. Rochester. Whereas morality and spirituality unite in Jane Eyre, they do not in Rhys's novel. Jane is told to "flee temptation!" and a begging Rochester by the visage of her mother in a dream (Brontë, p. 272). She obliges and escapes into the night. Her faith allows Jane to persevere through harsh conditions she arrives at a minister's door. Wide Sargasso Sea entirely inverts such a notion of spirituality. Antoinette does look for guidance to the mother-figure of Christophine, but she wants to evoke temptation, not flee it. She turns to obeah, or black magic, to entice her husband, pleading, "Christophine, if he, my husband, could come to me one night. Once more. I would make him love me" (Rhys, p. 113). She longs to return to those nights that characterized the beginning of her honeymoon, to those times when she could make Rochester drunk with pleasure. While Jane, moral and upright as ever, must fend off Rochester enticements, Antoinette uses so-called primitive means to allure her husband. These differing actions exist because the two characters exist in fundamentally different imagined worlds.
A meaningful, mutually fulfilling marriage between Antoinette and Rochester is not possible because they exist in world where temporary paradise was created by a gross social injustice. The setting Rhys creates is not capable of allowing a successful marriage between persons differing so greatly in their emotional needs. Brontë's imagined world is virtuous, clearly demonstrated by the way in which Rochester proposes to Jane. It is surely not an arranged marriage for profit as in Wide Sargasso Sea but rather a coming together of two people who need each other for emotional and spiritual satisfaction. Rochester's proposal to Jane is explicitly linked to a worship service: "He put me off his knee, rose and reverently lifting his hat from his brow, and bending his sightless eyes to the earth, he stood in mute devotion. Only the last words of the worship were audible" (Brontë, p. 382). Rochester's disability represents a moral resurrection; although physically blind, he can finally see his love for Jane clearly. Guided by a higher being, Rochester remedies his previously abhorrent behavior: "'I thank my Maker that in the midst of judgment He has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto'" (Brontë, p. 382). Jane's happy ending, "Reader, I married him," is possible because of the spiritual and social forces Brontë creates in her imagined setting.
In contrast, Antoinette and Rochester's marriage in Jamaica, rather then representing the positive end result of a moral journey, is the beginning of the end for Antoinette. The marriage not only drives her mad but literally and figuratively separates her from her beloved homeland. She dies in England and comes to hate the lost paradise of the islands before her departure. Her failed relationship reveals the utter lack of redemption available to her. Robbed of her name, her spirit, and her money, Antoinette crumbles upon understanding that hope no longer exists in any capacity:
If my father, my real father was alive you wouldn't come back here in a hurry after he'd finished with you. If he was alive. Do you know what you've done to me? It's not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it. It's just somewhere else where I have been unhappy, and all the other things are nothing to what has happened here. I hate it now like I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you. [Rhys, p. 147]
The temporary paradise of Antoinette's childhood, to which she obviously refers in the mention of her father, was based upon human suffering. Antoinette, wiwho has no hope in her present or past life, is forced to turn into herself. With Antoinette's insanity Rhys argues that justice is not available to any member of any race. Although the slave trade has officially ended, its consequences remain irreversible.
Greed is mentioned frequently in Wide Sargasso Sea, to explain both Rochester's motives for marrying Antoinette Cosway and the present chaos resulting from the slave trade. The paradise that Antoinette long searched for in her childhood and tried to possess during her honeymoon was constructed upon a great social injustice. Her marriage to Rochester was based on similarly wicked foundation, thus connecting her personal problems to the greater political dilemmas of her homeland. Antoinette, acting as the mad woman in the attic at Thornfield, states: "Then I heard a clock ticking and it was made of gold. Gold is the idol they worship" (Rhys, p. 188). The religious aspect so noticeable in Jane Eyre is not possible in Rhys's novel because of a spirituality directed to earthly possession and wealth. Later Christophine criticizes Rochester's reasons for marrying Antoinette: "Everybody know that you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up, because you jealous of her. She is more better than you, she have better blood in her and she don't care for money — it's nothing for her" (Rhys, p. 152). The greed has overwhelmed most of the characters, and Antoinette's life has been ruined in the process. Those interested in financial gain exemplify a wicked world where actions do not have direct consequences. True Christian justice does not exist in this modern novel because no character can right the wrongs of his or her past. Rhys's characters have less possibility for salvation than Brontë's Victorian ones, simply because their world is not fair or ordered.
If Wide Sargasso Sea begins after the fall of Eden, Jane Eyre ends with its re-creation. These novels work towards different directions — Wide Sargasso Sea details the demise of the heroine in an unjust world whereas Jane Eyre depicts a protagonist able to find fulfillment in the presence of a spiritual justice. In following the progression of Jane's character, the reader cannot help but notice her gratitude to a benevolent world order. Her happy ending is clearly a result of a world where salvation is possible: "I hold myself supremely blest — blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was very nearer to her mate than I am; ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh" (Brontë, p. 384). Not only does Jane's statement about her marriage to Rochester represent supreme happiness from her point of view, but it also makes a very important Biblical reference. She relates herself to Eve, created from the "bone" of Adam. By using the image of these characters from Genesis, Brontë emphasizes that she believes good and evil are fundamentally separate. By the end of her novel she has in fact reversed the Biblical tale, bringing Adam and Eve back to their enchanted paradise.
Jean Rhys's novel ends with the implied death of its heroine; the woman surrenders after learning that not even human laws can bring order to her chaotic universe. Despite her trouble thoughts, Antoinette believes that she can legally change her position. Her step-brother, Richard Mason, comes to visit her at Thornfield and reveals that he is unable to legally intervene in her marital problems. Not even government intervention and human law can right the wrongs suffered by Antoinette; it is of course far too late for any type of spiritual remedy. Grace Poole describes Antoinette's desperate attempts to save herself from bitter unhappiness: "I was in the room but I didn't hear all he said except 'I cannot interfere legally between yourself and your husband'. It was when he said 'legally' that you flew at him and when he twisted the knife out of your hand you bit him" (Rhys, p. 184). With this last recourse abandoned, Antoinette finally takes action into her own hands, harming her brother and eventually trying to kill her husband. Her eventual death signifies that not even a woman's personal strength and determination are enough to correct a malevolent, patriarchal world order.
Although Rhys makes use of the exoticism and "otherness" of the Caribbean, she asserts that the unfairness suffered by Antoinette is not simply limited to the West Indies. Antoinette loses her life in England, in this "cold cardboard house where I walk at night" (Rhys, p. 181). Rhys's England is not like Brontë's, justice finds so meaning here. She mentions England in a worldly context, bringing to mind its far-reaching influences. As a postcolonial author, Rhys challengesthe notion of England as a bastion of justice and fairness: "England, rosy pink in the geography book map, but on the page opposite the words are closely crowded, heavy looking. Exports coal, iron, wool" (Rhys, p. 111). Antoinette, who fears a vast cultural change, also knows that Europe might hold problems of its own. Besides foreshadowing of her imminent demise in that foreign land, Antoinette's characterization of the place represents a voice from the colony. In examining the land of the colonizers, she firmly attests that it is to blame in part for the fall of a poorly constructed paradise. More than simply the slave owners have benefited from its riches, Rhys explains. There is notdefinite characteristic or place that frees a person from culpability in her imagined world.
The fire Antoinette creates at the close of Wide Sargasso Sea brings about the end of her struggle for happiness and security. Her fire clearly echoes the one set at Coulibri by the former slaves. In both instances the repressed act upon their oppressors, and we see a direct alignment with a group for which Antoinette could never completely belong. The end of Rhys's narrative demonstrates once and for all that redemption is not possible for the heroine of her novel. The destruction of Coulibri by the emancipated blacks represented their desire to gain vengeance for the injustices they suffered; this act was their revolt against the oppressive forces of colonialism. Antoinette burns down Thornfield to battle the patriarchal forces that have kept her married to a man whom she despises. The fire does not, however, bring about a happy ending for Antoinette — in fact Rochester is permitted to marry his true love. This unfairness is central to Wide Sargasso Sea's literary purpose: remedies fail to exist because of larger, structural imbalance. Coulibri's destruction gave only a momentary satisfaction to the former slaves forced to live still among postcolonial oppression, and the end of Thornfield simply meant the death of Antoinette Cosway and the marriage of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. The modernist heroine's life is a sacrifice to a world too corrupt to even notice.
The subversive structure of Wide Sargasso Sea's narrative not only reveals Rhys imagined world view, but also demonstrates a fundamental difference in style from Jane Eyre. Brontë's work offers only Jane's perspective on the events that occur chronologically. Such a structure already has inherent order, an order that does not exist in any aspect of Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys's novel has much displacement. The narrative moves forward at different paces, and certain flashbacks are described in various manners. More importantly, more than simply one character is granted an internal monologue in this novel. This barrage of voices appears to create a more chaotic setting, making it easier for Rhys to use a heroine whose spirit is never able to find a comfortable and secure place. The increase in characters that are granted an internal voice only serves to create a more readily available sense of isolation: more characters speak through their thoughts because there is no other character suitable to relay their inner most emotions. Each statement offered points to the moral relativity of Wide Sargasso Sea. Without one direct narrator it is impossible to have one set of rules impartially applied to all.
Jean Rhys's attempt to reexamine a Victorian masterpiece is inherently political. One must read Wide Sargasso Sea with the analytic lenses of feminism, postcolonialism, and modernism. From its narrative structure to the voices of its characters, this novel is clearly not a work of Victorian literature, despite its setting in that period. Antoinette Cosway, also known by Brontë's readers as Bertha Mason, is a female character unable ever to find security or happiness. The fallen paradise that surrounded her life in the Caribbean was never in fact a heaven-like place. This fact plagues her internal demons as she desperately attempts to escape her fate as a tragic heroine. Antoinette Cosway is divided between two cultures, and not simply between the black and white populations of Jamaica. She is caught between existing in a Victorian time characterized by a modern writer. Her allegiance to Victorian ideals explains why she fights so hard to keep her relationship with her husband and her isolated life at Granbois intact. It is, however, her modern characterization by Rhys that causes her to fail. She cannot survive an imagined world where justice is lost and actions are not redemptive. Jane Eyre's individuality and strong perseverance are only possible because she still exits in a just world. Chaos appears when that world begins to examine itself, free its slaves, and question the horrors of its past. It is in this chaos that Antoinette Cosway is burned alive.
- The Inagined Worlds of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre
- Dreams in Wide Sargasso Sea
- Wide Sargasso Sea and the blossoming of hate: Victorian and modern endings
- Confinement and Freedom in Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre (1847). New York: W. W. Norton, 2001
Cowart, David. Literary Symbiosis. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Staley, Thomas F. Jean Rhys: A Critical Study. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979
Last modified 21 May 2004