Megan has tutored extensively and has a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Fiction.
Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea
Most famous for her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial novel that serves as a hypothetical prequel to Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys was born in Dominica and moved, as a teenager, to England. Due in part to her foreign accent, Rhys bounced around between a lot of different jobs, but Wide Sargasso Sea was the novel that vaulted her to fame. Rhys' experience of heartbreak and being a foreigner in England helped inform the novel, which is an unofficial prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
Let's first look at the novel's characters, followed by a brief summary of the plot, and then close with an analysis of the work as a whole.
Characters in Wide Sargasso Sea
There are a lot of characters in Wide Sargasso Sea. The most important figures are listed below.
Let's first look at the Cosways:
- Antoinette Cosway Mason Rochester - The main character. After she gets married, her husband drags her back to England where she has a mental breakdown and fulfills the expectation that she is a madwoman.
- Annette Cosway Mason- Antoinette's mother. She is married first to Antoinette's father, Mr. Cosway, then marries Mr. Mason after Cosway dies. Annette dies when Antoinette is away at the convent school.
- Pierre Cosway - Antoinette's younger brother. He is sickly, and after he is trapped in a fire set by angry ex-slaves, his already poor health declines and he dies.
- Alexander Cosway - Annette's first husband.
- Aunt Cora - A distant aunt of Antoinette's, Aunt Cora is concerned about the way Antoinette is treated when it comes to her marriage, but she has no power to intervene.
- Daniel Boyd - One of Alexander Cosway's illegitimate sons. He is the one who tells Rochester about the mental illness that runs in Antoinette's family, although he exaggerates it. He does this because he is angry that Cosway never recognized him as a legitimate son.
- Sandi Cosway - Antoinette calls him her cousin, but Sandi is her half-brother. He is Alexander Cosway's son. Sandi and Antoinette are close.
Now let's look at the Masons:
- Mr. Mason - Annette's second husband. An Englishman, he has a child of his own prior to his marriage to Annette. Even when Jamaica becomes dangerous, Mason refuses to leave. When their house burns down, Annette's son is killed. It is Mason who arranges Antoinette's marriage to the unnamed English gentleman.
- Richard Mason - Antoinette's step-brother. Mr. Mason's son from his first marriage. He does nothing when Antoinette is locked up by her husband, a fact that makes Antoinette so angry she tries to kill him when he visits.
Now let's look at Mr. Rochester and his servants:
- The English Gentleman/Antoinette's Husband - Never explicitly referred to as such, the English gentleman who marries Antoinette is supposed to be Mr. Rochester from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.
- Grace Poole - Grace Poole appears in Jane Eyre. She is the primary servant to look after Antoinette after Rochester locks her in the attic. Sometimes she drinks too much. When she does, Antoinette seizes the opportunity to escape into the rest of the house, where she causes disorder.
Now let's look at the servants in Jamaica:
- Christophine Dubois - Antionette's personal servant from her first marriage.
- Mannie and Myra - Mr. Mason's servants. Mannie risks his life to assist the family when their house catches on fire, while Myra leaves Pierre to die.
- Amélie - After she accompanies Antoinette and Rochester on their honeymoon, Amélie sleeps with Rochester and then blackmails him.
And now, let's look at the friends and neighbors in Jamaica:
- Maillotte and Tia - Maillotte is Christophine's friend. Mailoette's daughter, Tia, is Antoinette's friend-turned-enemy. Tia steals Antoinette's clothes one day and also throws a rock at Antoinette.
Summary of Wide Sargasso Sea
An example of a postcolonial novel, meaning that it's a narrative that deals with the notions of decolonization and how it affects individuals, Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea depicts the story of a woman named Antoinette Cosway. Like Jean Rhys, Antoinette is white Creole, which means her ancestors were from Europe, but she was born in the Caribbean. Unlike Rhys, however, Antoinette is a heiress. In the novel, an English gentleman marries her. Although it is never explicitly confirmed, the English gentleman in question is supposed to be Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre.
During their honeymoon, Antoinette's illegitimate brother, Daniel, warns her new husband about the mental illness that supposedly runs through Antoinette's family. Antoinette's husband believes Daniel when Daniel claims that Antoinette is troubled by mental illness, too.
When Antoinette's husband forces her to move back to England with him, he also changes her name to Bertha. Ripped out of the lush and familiar surroundings of the Caribbean, Antoinette experiences cultural shock when confronted with grey and dreary London. This, combined with her crumbling marriage and her husband thinking she is insane, pushes Antoinette over the edge. Antoinette's paranoia is seen by her husband as proof that she is mentally ill and he locks her in the attic of his house, where she only sees him and one servant, Grace.
From the attic, Antoinette keeps an eye on her husband, who she has less and less contact with, especially when he meets the young governess, Jane Eyre. At the end of the novel, Antoinette decides to kill herself. For readers familiar with Jane Eyre, Rochester's first wife is responsible for the fire near the end of the book that burns down Thornfield Hall and blinds Rochester in the process.
As a postcolonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea approaches the story of Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester and his first marriage from a highly critical point of view. All the reader finds out about Mr. Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre is that she is a rich white Creole woman who became so insane and violent that he was forced to lock her away for her own safety.
But, by creating a novel that tracks the life of 'Bertha' from her childhood in Jamaica to her mistreatment by the men who control her life, Jean Rhys renders this 'madwoman' entirely empathetic and asks the reader to reassess their acceptance of the 'facts' of both Jane Eyre and the influence of colonization in places like Jamaica.
Is Antoinette doomed to a life of madness by genetics or did Mr. Rochester hasten her descent by treating her like she was mad to begin with? The reader never receives a clear answer, but it is largely implied that Mr. Rochester's behavior toward Antoinette is abusive, especially given her fragile emotional state.
Jean Rhys certainly had reason to write a postcolonial novel, a narrative that deals with the notions of decolonization and how it affects individuals, since she originally came from Dominica and had to assimilate to life in England. It certainly inspired her or at least in part, to write Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial novel that serves as sort of a hypothetical prequel to Jane Eyre.
Juggling a huge cast of characters, 'the novel details the tragic decline of a young woman ripped away from her home in Jamaica and not even given a chance to assimilate to her new life in London before being locked away in the attic of her husband's, Jane Eyre's Mr. Rochester's, house, while being renamed 'Bertha' instead of her perfectly fine name, Antoinette.
Maybe Antoinette was always fated to decline into mental illness, and maybe she wasn't. Jean Rhys' novel, narrated largely by Antoinette, provides no easy answers, but does warn against treating people poorly, in case it causes their descent into madness.
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