Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
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The main themes of Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” are familiar: racial conflict, gender conflict, and the failures of assimilating to a new homeland. The relationships featured, particularly between Annette and Mr. Mason and then Antoinette and Rochester, are fascinating studies in the brutality that creative women can suffer at the hands of “traditional” husbands, particularly of the Victorian Era depicted in the story. A good deal could also be written about the role of fire in the story, as the novel is bookended by two blazes with distinctly different purposes. More interesting still, though is the role of madness throughout the novel: the perception, the “treatment”, the stigmatization, and the results.
The timeline of the story restricts the view of Annette Cosway Mason, preventing the reader from developing a clear picture of her before her descent into madness begins. In this way, perhaps Rhys intends for us to see the mirror of Bronte’s vision of Antoinette, the influence that Antoinette herself was exposed to at a young age. Annette is a fully-formed character, if not woman, from the outset. She has been hardened by the discrimination she has endured as a Creole woman, and she faces the grim reality of being entirely ill-prepared for the emancipation of the slaves and the reality of her new social position. Since the death of her husband Alexander, Annette has been trying to make life work at their rapidly aging estate.
This hopelessness is quickly but artfully explored by Rhys through Annette’s eyes. She becomes obsessed with daily horseback rides and a routine she cultivates in an effort to pretend her way to happiness and a meaningful life. When it falls apart — the horse is poisoned — she slips into non-functioning despair. As she begins talking to herself and wandering obliviously, Antoinette tries to reach out to her mother, to bring her back to the harsh reality they face. Instead, Annette refuses her daughter. Annette’s madness is an adult problem. A solitary problem. Armed with this reticence, she seems only interested in her handicapped son — perhaps bonding over the perception of a shared helplessness.
Inevitably, just as Antoinette needs her mother most, Annette instead befriends the new neighbors and sets out on a path toward finding a new husband. Two lessons Antoinette seems to take from this experience resonate later in the story: the solitary nature of mental and emotional anguish and the seeking of meaning and self-identification through a man. Later, when Annette’s world is shattered by the fire, the return to moody, isolated, despair-filled angst is quick and decisive. The reality that Annette had never truly sought, and certainly hadn’t found, the cure for what ails her is readily apparent.
For Antoinette, the heartache of her mother’s rejection is powerful. She is orphaned by the fire in every meaningful way, deprived of the love and protection of her mother at a time when she most needs it. This sets her on a collision course with the destiny Bronte has already promised her — the same one that plagues her own mother.
Rochester is presented as a stereotypically self-interested wife-hunting Englishman of the era, seeking out a faithful servant and economic windfall under the guise of nuptial bliss. His efforts to run roughshod over Antoinette from the beginning are met with curiosity and eventually pain and confusion at the latest in a long line of betrayals by those who are supposed to support her for Antoinette.
She chooses to — or is pushed to — act out in successively less conforming ways. She challenges her husband, who recoils at the very notion of it, confronting him about his motivations and the ideals he clings to. Later, she challenges his judgment and questions his own ability to see clearly when he confronts her with her “brother’s” accusations. She knows that Rochester has betrayed her, and that he sees her how he wishes to, and beyond the pain of this, she struggles with the impossibility that she has been let down again. From the nervous moments before their wedding, Antoinette had her doubts that Rochester could fill the chasm of emotional need in her heart. Now, as her suspicions are confirmed, she finds that she lacks the tools necessary to escape the situation.
On the other hand, Rochester is able to conveniently sweep away any potential conflict in his own heart about his behavior under the label of his wife’s “madness”. She is clearly not capable of functioning in a traditional setting, his reasoning goes, so therefore there must not be any merit to any of the points she raises. Of course, the doubts she raises about the supposed information he’s been fed, and the fleeting flickers of the independent spirit she once cherished, lead him to conclude that while she might be crazy, she is not harmless. For this reason, she meets her unfortunate future: locked away in an attic, condemned to descend deeper and deeper into the anguish of an unsupported life. The irony, that Rochester is able to tell himself he is in fact “taking care of her” is thick.
Antoinette’s upbringing and way of thinking in a turbulent time make her naturally suited to stand out among the proper, the traditional, and the repressed. Her struggles with rejection and solitude give her tormentor the perfect cover for stowing her away, a virtual prisoner in her own husband’s house. As she tells him, in perhaps their final lucid and meaningful discussion, that he should let her go, returning some of her money and setting her free, the reader is struck by the gravity of the moment. Antoinette herself can see that the hopelessness she feels is closing in on her, and that her descent into madness is precariously close. But still she fights for a way out, another glimpse at the outside world and another chance to make it, albeit again on her own. Alas, it is not to be. Far better for her husband to “look after her” by stowing her in the attic — ensuring that he remains firmly in control of her and extinguishing her last hope.