Jane Eyre is a rather tenebrous sketch. Or, rather, she is difficult to draw; a poor model for at times she is quite still, at others chaffing, altering her pose. At times she is triumphant — sparring with Aunt Reed or Mr. Rochester — at others she is the picture of bland quiescence — a good pupil, an easily satisfied subject. And yet Jane Eyre's "flightiness" — her paradoxical character traits — is also her greatest feature. In her Brontë creates a real heroine, a richly complex and torn character. Not everyone in the novel, however, receives such painterly treatment. Mr. Rochester is blustering and rude, to be sure, but a Byronic figurine he remains: the dark, mysterious hero on horseback who quite literally trips into the arms of a good, reformatory woman. And Bertha Mason, who inhabits the top floor of Thornfield, is a true grotesque: she is an obliquely rendered lunatic who stalks the attic. Bertha also has a nasty penchant for starting fires.
In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys imagines Bertha and Rochester — whose relations precede Jane's arrival on the scene — in the West Indies. Rhys gives Rochester and Bertha the same kind of interiority that is bestowed on the humble governess, Jane, by Brontë. They tell their stories in a flowing stream of consciousness. Bertha names herself, as it were; she becomes Antoinette. She is not only a benign and lyrical thinker, her childhood isolation and persecution are similar, in some ways, to Jane's. Unlike Jane, though, Antoinette has no escape: no books and not, for a long while, any friends or a school. What for Jane is the fear and excitement of stepping outside (of Gateshead, Lowood or Thornfield) becomes for Antoinette, lashed and burned out of her first home, a preternatural dread. "How can they know what it is like outside!" she cries as she is forced to leave her convent school. Yet Antoinette's honeymoon home in Granbois soon becomes as suffocating to her as the world is dizzying. Mr. Rochester responds to Antoinette's dissatisfaction and his own:
Wherever I went I would be talked about. I drank some more rum and, drinking, I drew a house surrounded by trees. A large house. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman — a child's scribble, a dot for a head, a larger one for the body, a triangle for a skirt, slanting lines for arms and feet. But it was an English house. English trees. I wonder if I should ever see England again.
Mr. Rochester makes Antoinette's life a kind of panopticon: her removal to his sketched house in England resembles nothing so much as a colonial penal trip in reverse. Antoinette becomes Bertha, renamed by Rochester, and is whisked away on a veritable slave ship to an English House. There she sits, a knitting prisoner — a poor sketch, all angles and shadows — watched by the inmates of Thornfield. She is, in effect, written out of her own story — the story that becomes Jane Eyre.
In what ways does Mr. Rochester come to view the island and its people as a prison of sorts? If so, does he construct England as a place of freedom and rationality to which he can escape?
Antoinette inhabits several homes throughout the book. How do the descriptions of these houses — as spaces of comfort or mystery or terror — correspond and differ with Jane's? Compare Granbois and Thornfield, as well as Gateshead and Coulibri.
How do Jane and Antoinette conceive of freedom in relation to these enclosed spaces?
How does the imagery of conflagration — of roofs on fire, if you will, — affect the characters in the story after Coulibri in Wide Sargasso Sea and Thornfield in Jane Eyre? Are these primarily destructive or redemptive experiences for the characters in the book?
How do Antoinette and Jane respond to their respective institutional spaces, their schools?
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Last modified 10 January 2004