Wide Sargasso Sea is the life story of Antoinette Mason, chronicling her solitary girlhood on her family estate in Jamaica, her coming of age in a convent school, and her early marriage to Edward Rochester, which ends disastrously in her madness and destruction. Antoinette is the mad wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a figure with whom Jean Rhys identified and was fascinated for much of her life. Instead of the raving animal who is Bronte’s character, Rhys’s Antoinette is a doomed but utterly sympathetic and understandable heroine who is unable to remedy the circumstances inflicted on her by history, family, and fate.
As a white Creole child on her family’s Coulibri Estate, with her father dead and her mother distraught with poverty, Antoinette belongs neither in the society of the recently freed slaves, who despise all white people, nor in that of the local whites, who reject her mother, Annette, for being a Martiniquoise, pretty, widowed, and poor. Cut off from all society and security, Antoinette finds a kind of painful solace in the wild bush and rain forest, which both attract and terrify her with their lushness and mysterious, menacing forms. She grows up as a wild child, until her mother marries one Mr. Mason, wealthy and recently arrived from England. The local blacks, however, fearing that the new prosperity at the estate might mean importation of indentured workers from India, one night form a mob and burn down the house, killing Antoinette’s sickly brother, driving her mother into madness, and forcing her stepfather to place her in the keeping of a convent school in Spanish Town, Jamaica.
For ten years, Antoinette remains in the seclusion of the school, which fosters her own fears and forebodings. She leaves at age eighteen for her arranged marriage to Rochester, who, as the younger son—and so without an inheritance—of a wealthy father, marries her for her very large dowry. The marriage is sour from the beginning. Antoinette gives him all of her property and wealth as well as her love, but Rochester believes that he has been bought and resents his father, his brother, and his new wife as well as the people, landscape, and even the language of the colony he has been forced to make his home.
The very aspect of the landscape which was Antoinette’s refuge as a child torments Rochester with secrets he cannot penetrate. His sense of light, color, scent, touch, and taste are overwhelmed by intensity and strangeness, and he resists them as he resists his young wife’s beauty and intimate honesty about her life and feelings. He credits instead the lies and gossip he hears about her and her mother, is unfaithful to her with a servant girl, drives her former nurse and maid Christophine away, and is deeply cruel to Antoinette. The rift between them deepens on his part into hatred and on hers into madness
Rochester forces Antoinette to go to England, where he locks her in the attic of the house he inherits following the death of his father and brother. She is very far from the tropical land of which she is so much a part, and her only remembrance of it is the red dress she keeps in her wardrobe. The dress is the color of flamboyant trees and is scented with frangipani, but it also suggests warmth and fire, and she puts the dress on, careful not to wake her warder Grace Poole, before she escapes from her room with a candle, which she will use to spread flame through the house.
In Charlotte’s Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), a man named Rochester keeps his first wife Bertha locked in an attic. Bertha is insane and comes from the West Indies, but her past is not explained. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys accounts for Bertha’s childhood and marriage. Since Rhys herself came from the West Indies and struggled in England, the story had special significance for her.
Born on the island of Dominica in 1894, Rhys moved to England when she was sixteen years old. Jane Eyre was one of the first books she read upon her...
(The entire section is 1,599 words.)