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Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys’s best-known novel, contemplates the life of Bertha Mason Rochester, a minor character in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847). Rhys made a career out of writing novels and short stories that contemplated the lives of unconventional women. She wrote and published most of her fiction in the 1930s, then went out of print for several decades. The rise of feminist and postcolonial literary studies brought a renewed interest in Rhys’s work, and Wide Sargasso Sea has become a widely studied work of fiction.
Wide Sargasso Sea is divided into three parts. Part One takes place in Jamaica during the 1830s shortly after Great Britain passed the Emancipation Act and ended slavery in its West Indian colonies. Antoinette Cosway, the protagonist, narrates this section and chronicles her early life on her family’s Coulibri Estate. Following the new law, the Cosways have freed their slaves, but the estate has fallen into disarray. Antoinette and her mother Annette live there with their servants, including Antoinette’s nurse, Christophine. Like Antoinette, Christophine, is originally from Martinique. She was Mr. Cosway’s wedding present to his young wife.
Annette remarries an Englishman who has recently arrived in Jamaica to profit from the white Creole landholders’ dire economic straits. His name is Mason, and he has a son named Richard. Under Mason’s direction, Coulibri Estate thrives again and some of the formerly enslaved people who worked there even return. Others, however, resent the presence of the white family. One night, a mob gathers and burns the house down, first attacking the room in which Antoinette’s disabled brother Pierre sleeps. The mob forces the family to flee in the middle of the night.
Pierre dies from injuries sustained in the fire. The tragedy triggers a breakdown within Annette, and she is committed to a sanitarium in the country. Mason uses his wife’s hospitalization as an excuse to stay away from Jamaica. Antoinette stays for a short while with her Aunt Cora until she sends Antoinette to live and study at a convent. She remains there until she marries her husband (unnamed in the novel) whom she meets through her stepbrother.
In Part Two, Antoinette and her new husband honeymoon at a house in Dominica where she and Aunt Cora used to spend their summers. Antoinette’s husband initially dislikes the Caribbean landscape but warms to it after getting to know some of the locals. One of them, Daniel, writes a letter to Antoinette’s husband, warning him about the dark secrets in Antoinette’s family. Antoinette’s husband visits Daniel at his home on the island where Daniel continues to discourage him from loving Antoinette.
Daniel’s words turn Antoinette’s husband, who has never truly loved his wife, against her. He accuses her of having been dishonest about her origins, while also acknowledging that he, too, has not been forthcoming. One night, with Antoinette in the next room, he has a brief affair with their servant, Amélie. Antoinette becomes increasingly unstable and attacks her husband with a broken rum bottle. He bans Christophine from the house in Dominica, accusing her of exacerbating Antoinette’s instability. Christophine leaves, claiming that she has given Antoinette something to help her sleep. Antoinette will remain in this state of repose, Christophine says, until her husband demonstrates proper love for her. If he doesn’t, Antoinette will descend into madness like her mother.
Antoinette’s husband ignores Christophine’s advice. He plans to leave Dominica and return to Jamaica with his wife. While departing, he tells her that he despises her as much as she does him and that he will express his hatred as perpetual coldness.
In Part Three, Antoinette is locked away in an attic room of her husband’s estate and is cared for by a woman named Grace Poole. She dreams of escaping her quarters and walking through the corridors of the strange house. In one dream, she sets fire to the house with a lit candle. One day, after Grace falls asleep, Antoinette seizes the woman’s keys and sets out down the corridor with her candle resolved about what she must do.