In the following passage, Antoinette, the protagonist and main narrator of Wide Sargasso Sea, discusses her life at a convent school. Her Aunt Cora enrolls Antoinette at this school after the Mason estate at Coulibri burns down, killing Antoinette's brother Pierre, and driving her mother, Annette, into insanity. Antoinette is not quite happy at the convent, but she enjoys the relative peace of convent life--a peace that is later shattered, when Antoinette's half-brother, Richard Mason negotiates for her marriage to Mr. Rochester.
Antoinette discusses the rhythm of life at the convent and the process of coming to terms with her Mother's illness in the paragraph below. Her voice is characteristically disjointed, and she uses light and dark imagery to describe the convent. The imagery of contrast in brightness is found throughout the text, and in the novel from which Jean Rhys took the character of Antoinette, Jane Eyre.
But I soon forgot about happiness, running down the stairs to the big stone bath where we splashed about wearing long grey cotton chemises which reached to our ankles. The smell of soap as you cautiously soaped yourself under the chemise, a trick to be learned, dressing with modesty, another trick. Great splashes of sunlight as we ran up the wooden steps of the refectory. Hot coffee and rolls and melting butter. But after the meal, now and at the hour of our death, and at midday and at six in the evening, now and at the hour of our death. Let perpetual light shine on them. This is for my mother, I would think, wherever her soul is wandering, for it has left her body. Then I remembered how she hated a strong light and loved the cool and shade. It is a different light they told me. Still, I would not say it. Soon we were back in the shifting shadows outside, more beautiful than any perpetual light could be, and soon I learnt to gabble without thinking as the others did. About changing now and the hour of our death for that is all we have.
What does Antoinette's disjointed voice reflect about her mental state? about her Caribbean (i.e. non-Western) upbringing?
How does Antoinette's experience at the convent compare with Jane Eyre's experience at Lowood school?
To what extent does Antoinette learn to act like "the others" at the convent. Could this quiet lifestyle have saved Antoinette from the propensity for insanity that she inherits?
How does light and dark imagery figure into the text? How does this compare with light and dark imagery found in Jane Eyre?
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Last modified 7 January 2004