Wide Sargasso Sea

Unsatisfied with how Charlotte Brontë presented Mr. Rochester's Jamaican wife in Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys (1890-1979) wrote Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) to humanize the stereotypical madwoman in the attic. Raised in Dominica, Rhys wrote this prequel to Jane Eyre from a postcolonial and feminist viewpoint. Wide Sargasso Sea repositions Rochester's first wife as a victim of patriarchy, colonialism, and lifelong isolation.

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Contents
Table of contents

    Wide Sargasso Sea: a Novel by Jean Rhys

    Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 after a 27-year-long hiatus from writing. Although she had already written four novels and a short story collection, the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea earned Rhys her reputation in the literary world.

    Rhys grew up in Dominica, an island in the Caribbean that was colonized and controlled by the British from 1763 to 1978. Rhys was raised by a Welsh father and a Scottish Creole mother. She experienced isolation and oppression throughout much of her life because of her Caribbean background. She never felt as though she fit in with the indigenous Black people on the island, and her accented English distanced her as an outsider in the eyes of Europeans. Many of her novels and short stories depict these feelings of loneliness and isolation.

    Wide Sargasso Sea, Dominican Flag, StudySmarterFig 1: Rhys grew up in Dominica and her Caribbean identity became a central element in her work.

    Rhys moved to England at the age of 16, but her Caribbean identity was so deeply a part of her that many of her works focus on young women from the Caribbean. Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in response to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.

    Jane Eyre positions the Caribbean and the people who live there as wild and uncultured compared to English society. Combatting that stereotype, Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea through a feminist and postcolonial lens. The characters, especially the protagonist Antoinette, are complex, dynamic characters, just like the Caribbean setting.

    Wide Sargasso Sea Summary

    The novel is broken up into three parts: the first details Antoinette's childhood in Jamaica, the second is about her unhappy marriage to an English gentleman and the decline of her mental state, and the third focuses on her imprisonment in Mr. Rochester's attic in England.

    Part One

    The novel starts by explaining Antoinette Cosway's background. She is the white daughter of former enslavers. Her father is dead, and her mother's mental health steadily declined. Their estate is in financial shambles, and the formerly enslaved people light the house on fire. After the fire, Antoinette becomes dangerously ill for weeks. She finds out her brother died in the fire, her mother has gone completely mad, and her stepfather, Mr. Mason, spends his time traveling and rarely comes home. Antoinette enrolls in a convent school, but Mr. Mason decides he will marry her to an English gentleman when she is 17.

    Part Two

    The novel's next section alternates between Antoinette and her husband's point of view. The two marry and honeymoon in Granbois at an estate that once belonged to Antoinette's mother. Rochester, who is unnamed in the novel, is hesitant about the marriage from the beginning, and only agrees to it because Mr. Mason's son, Richard, offered him a large sum of money.

    Wide Sargasso Sea, Stacks of coins and bank notes, StudySmarterFig 2: Rochester marries Antoinette because Richard Mason offers him a large sum of money.

    Antoinette's illegitimate brother sends a letter to Rochester, warning him of Antoinette's insanity and asking for money to keep quiet. Rochester is uncomfortable around the servants and his wife, and searches for signs of her insanity. After the two argue, Antoinette has Christophine, one of the servants, make her a love potion. Rochester becomes ill after he takes it and believes Antoinette has poisoned him. One of the servant girls cares for Rochester as he is ill, and Antoinette hears the two having sex in the morning. His betrayal adds further strain to Antoinette's already deteriorating mental health. Rochester repeatedly calls her "Bertha," and Antoinette hysterically yells at him to stop. She fights back against him and bites his arm. Using her actions to justify her "insanity," Rochester decides to take her away to England.

    Part Three

    The final section of the book is once more told solely from Antoinette's point of view. She is now imprisoned on the third floor of Rochester's home in England. A servant named Grace Poole watches as Antoinette is kept hidden in the attic. She has become a victim to her mental state, no longer remembering time, place, or events. She is violent and erratic and stabs her brother when he comes to visit. Her only hope is a recurring dream of flames burning down the house and her escaping to freedom. The novel ends as she escapes her prison, holding a candle.

    Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) presents a much different version of "Bertha" and Mr. Rochester. Told from the point of view of Rochester's love interest and eventual second wife, Jane Eyre, Bertha is depicted as wild, savage, and insane. She is a dangerous woman who Rochester was tricked into marrying.

    Bertha was born in Jamaica and is known for her beauty and family fortune. Her family pressures Rochester into marrying her. Unbeknownst to him, mental disorders and insanity run in the family. Upon marriage, Bertha's mental health deteriorates. She begins running on all fours and acting demonic. He brings her to England and locks her on the third floor with a hired nurse.

    Rochester is unable to divorce Bertha because she cannot consent in her mental state. This eventually becomes a problem for him when he decides to marry Jane. Eventually, Bertha sets a fire inside the house and jumps out of the window, killing herself.

    Wide Sargasso Sea Characters

    Below are the central characters of the novel.

    Antoinette Cosway

    Based on the insane woman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, Antoinette Cosway is a young Creole girl. Antoinette grew up lonely, with a distant mother and no friends. She shows the early signs of her family's fragile mental state, which become increasingly worse after she is forced to marry Rochester. His controlling and emotionally abusive nature causes her to sink further into her "insanity." He eventually uses her precarious mental state to justify taking her away from home and locking her up in England.

    Wide Sargasso Sea, Old attic, StudySmarterFig 3: Rochester keeps Antoinette locked in the attic of his England manor.

    Rochester

    Rochester is not explicitly named, but through context clues, it is apparent that Antoinette's young husband is Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. Rochester is the youngest son of an English gentleman and traveled to Jamaica to find financial independence. He marries Antoinette for a large sum of money, but never connects with her. He is controlling and unfaithful, believing his wife is conspiring against him. He renames Antoinette Bertha in an attempt to dominate her. After witnessing Antoinette's mental collapse, he takes her to Europe and locks her in his attic.

    If you've read Jane Eyre, how did Rhys's depiction of Mr. Rochester change your opinion of his character? As the two texts are written by completely separate authors in different time periods, can we even view the two Rochesters as the same person?

    Christophine

    Antoinette's surrogate mother and faithful servant, Christophine, practices Caribbean black magic called obeah. Christophine uses the magic when Antoinette asks her to make a love potion for Rochester and later in the novel to help Antoinette regain her sanity. Christophine is both an authority figure and an outsider in the household since she came from Martinique.

    Anette

    Antoinette's mother, Anette, is young, beautiful, and isolated. She marries Mr. Mason after her first husband dies. Her mental state collapses after her family manor burns down. Mr. Mason abandons her with a Black couple who mistreat her until her death.

    Mr. Mason

    Antoinette's stepfather and a wealthy Englishman, Mr. Mason, comes to the Caribbean to make money and marries Anette for her beauty. He essentially abandons Anette and Antoinette after the fire. He decides to marry Antoinette to an Englishman when she is 17.

    Richard Mason

    The son of Mr. Mason, Richard, negotiates Antoinette's marriage with Rochester, offering him £30,000 to marry her. When Richard visits Antoinette in England, she attacks him with a knife.

    Daniel Cosway

    Antoinette's illegitimate half-brother, Daniel, is jealous of Antoinette and attempts to blackmail her to get money. He is the one who tells Rochester about the family's issues with emotional stability.

    Wide Sargasso Sea Setting

    The novel is set sometime in the late 1830s and 1840s after the British Slave Emancipation Act was passed in 1833. This freed all enslaved persons in the British empire, but it also compensated former enslavers for their "loss" (at least in theory: the Cosway family was ruined because they, like many others, never received payment from the government).

    Each of the three parts of Wide Sargasso Sea has its own physical setting. The first part is set in Antoinette's childhood home in Coulibri, near Spanish Town, Jamaica. Jamaica, at the time, was a British colony, and the country was undergoing major social and political changes. This escalated tensions between formerly enslaved persons and the enslavers. The servants in the Cosway household are hostile to Antoinette because of her family's history of enslaving people. Although they work for Antoinette's family, racial tensions and violence are apparent.

    Part two is set in Granbois in Dominica, where the Cosways have an estate outside of Massacre. The Caribs, an indigenous Caribbean people, were largely located in Dominica at this time. Hostilities between the Caribs, British, and French were high as the latter two battled for control of the island. This setting is again underscored by hostility and otherness.

    The final setting is Rochester's estate in England. Like Rochester himself, the house is never explicitly named, but readers of Jane Eyre can assume it is Thornfield Hall. Because Antoinette is locked in the attic, readers aren't given a visual description of England. The vague setting Antoinette is able to provide in her erratic state is dark, haunting, and suffocating.

    Wide Sargasso Sea Analysis

    In order to analyze Wide Sargasso Sea, we will examine the novel's response to Jane Eyre, why Mr. Rochester remains nameless, and the symbolism of important images.

    Response to Jane Eyre

    More than a prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea actively responds to Jane Eyre and its limited worldview. Jane Eyre is often considered a formative feminist text because of the protagonist's autonomy, independence, and courage. For Rhys and many others, however, Jane Eyre is still too entrenched and compliant in her patriarchal society for her to truly embody feminism.

    This is largely because of her relationship with "Bertha" (or Antionette). Instead of seeing a fellow woman imprisoned, isolated, and stripped of her humanity, Jane sees a wild, savage beast who is necessarily subdued. Jane actually feels relief when Bertha dies because now she can marry Rochester.

    It's difficult to empathize with Bertha in Jane Eyre because she is depicted as something other than human. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, Rhys gives readers background on Antoinette's complicated childhood and the circumstances of her marriage. Instead of being a violent creature, Antoinette is actually presented as a person. Her Caribbean background doesn't make her wild or savage. And Rochester is not the unknowing victim who marries a lying lunatic. Their relationship is complex and problematic, but they are both treated as human beings, which is not the case for Bertha in Jane Eyre.

    Nameless Mr. Rochester

    Antoinette's husband is unnamed throughout the entire novel. Although she reveals the names of her stepfather (Mr. Mason) and her brothers (Daniel, Richard, etc.), Antoinette does not refer to her husband by his name, only calling him "that man" or "my husband." This shows the authority Rochester has over Antoinette. He alone is able to control both of their identities. His identity remains anonymous throughout the text, while he manipulates her own, calling her "Bertha" as a display of power.

    Symbolism

    There are several symbols in the novel, with two of the predominant ones being fire and trees. In part one, the servants light a fire and burn down Antoinette's home. This is a form of protest for the injustices the Cosway family has forced upon them. It is also an attempt to stand up for themselves and fight for their freedom. Antoinette becomes obsessed with fire in part three because she sees it as her only avenue for freedom. Fire symbolizes a revolutionary force that is powerful enough to enact major change.

    Wide Sargasso Sea, House Fire, StudySmarterFig 4: Fire is a symbol of violent, revolutionary change.

    Trees are also important, representing the characters' relationship to place. When she is in Jamaica, Antoinette views the trees as beautiful, vibrant, and lively. They comfort her and offer an escape from the human world. Antoinette's nightmares about tall, strange trees foreshadow her abduction to England and the unfamiliar landscape. Rochester, likewise, feels uncomfortable around the trees in Jamaica. He gets lost and is wary of the strange, unfamiliar landscape.

    Wide Sargasso Sea Themes

    The major themes of Wide Sargasso Sea are oppression and entrapment and isolation and otherness.

    Oppression and Entrapment

    Oppression is a central theme in the novel, starting with the Cosway's former enslaved people and ending with Antoinette's entrapment in Rochester's house. Wide Sargasso Sea examines the world of the West Indies from a postcolonial standpoint. Essentially, Europeans claimed control of the islands and enslaved the indigenous peoples in order to profit off their natural landscape. In Jane Eyre, Bertha's Jamaica is presented as an exotic, savage place, but Rhys reminds readers it was, in fact, the Europeans who treated the native people cruelly and inhumanely. In the context of the colonial West Indies, Rochester comes to Jamaica with the intention of playing into the system of domination and oppression so he can make a profit.

    Already coming from a position of power, Rochester's relationship with Antoinette, a Creole, is even more unbalanced. As a woman in this time, she has little agency in her own life, and as a woman with mixed race background, she has even less. Richard Mason sells Antoinette and enables Rochester to do whatever he wants with her. She is oppressed in her marriage: emotionally abused and manipulated until she can no longer trust her own mind. Rochester uses her mental instability in order to oppress her further and traps her in a country where she has no support and an attic where she has no escape.

    Isolation and Otherness

    Antoinette felt isolated as a child because she was always viewed as Other. With her Creole background, she was ostracized by white Europeans and Black Jamaicans. Her mother's fragile mental state meant she had little connection with her family, leaving her emotionally isolated until her marriage to Rochester. From the beginning, Rochester views their relationship as more of a business deal than a marriage. He uses Antoinette's otherness as justification for treating her cruelly. Her isolation and otherness work to distance her from herself, leading to her mental collapse. Eventually, Rochester takes Antoinette back to his home in England, where he cements her isolation and status as Other by locking her in the attic alone.

    Wide Sargasso Sea - Key takeaways

    • Wide Sargasso Sea was written by Jean Rhys in the 1960s.
    • Rhys grew up in the Caribbean, where the majority of the story is set.
    • Wide Sargasso Sea is a direct response to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
    • The novel centers around Rochester's wife, who is humanized in the novel, as readers can see her background and gain access to her thoughts and emotions.
    • The main themes are oppression and entrapment and isolation and otherness.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Wide Sargasso Sea

    When is Wide Sargasso Sea set?

    It is set in the early 1800s. 

    How many pages is Wide Sargasso Sea?

    Wide Sargasso Sea is a shorter novel with 176 pages in the W. W. Norton Company edition. 

    What is the significance of Wide Sargasso Sea?

    Wide Sargasso Sea is a response to Jane Eyre, in which Rhys examines the characters of Rochester and Bertha from a feminist and postcolonial viewpoint. 

    What kind of novel is Wide Sargasso Sea?

    Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of historical fiction. 

    When was Wide Sargasso Sea written? 

    It was written in the 1960s and first published in 1966. 

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