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Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

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Published by Billie Davis

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Published by: Billie Davis on Dec 03, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/04/2013

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Feminist liberalism in
Wide Sargasso Sea
 
 by Jean RhysIn writing the novel
Wide Sargasso Sea
, it was the ambition of writer JeanRhys, to create a history and understanding of the character Bertha Rochester,infamous Creole mad wife of Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s
 Jane Eyre
. Rhysset herself up to appropriate Bronte's story, the consciousness of a woman whogoes insane (Bertha), and the perspective of an English gentleman (Rochester).It took Rhys nine years to create these characters and this story thatempathetically provided culturally accurate defense for both Bertha andRochester. Rhys herself lived in Dominica until she was sixteen and in Englandfor the remainder of her life. Rhys ' mother was Creole, like Bertha Rochester,and her father was Welsh. With this ancestry, Rhys lived in a multiculturalsetting and was likely sensitive to the differences of people of various cultures.In
Wide Sargasso Sea
, Jean Rhys confronts the possibility of another side
to Jane Eyre
. The story of Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester,
Wide Sargasso Sea
isnot only a brilliant deconstruction of Bronte’s legacy, but is also a damninghistory of colonialism in the Caribbean.Rhys wrote
Wide Sargasso Sea
between 1945 and 1966. The story of theconflicting cultures is examined in the character of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, aWest Indian. As a child she is called “white nigger” by her black playmate. Shemarries a constrained and domineering Englishman, Edward Rochester, andfollows him to his home country. Like Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s
 Jane Eyre
,she ends up confined in the attic of her husband's country house. Much of theaction of the novel takes place in the West Indies. In her madness and misery,Antoinette burns up the house and herself. Black women Rhys consideredstronger than white.The story is set just after the emancipation of the slaves, in that uneasy timewhen racial relations in the Caribbean were at their most strained, in 1839, sixyears after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part.The novel is divided into three parts. In the first, Antoinette is the onlynarrator. In the second part, Rochester takes over, but his narrative is interrupted briefly by Antoinette. In the third part, the English nurse Grace Poole is thenarrator, until Antoinette regains the narrative voice. This first-person narrationis significant because it lets the reader see the world through the subjective gazeof flawed characters. In Parts I and II, Antoinette reveals her own naivety byrelating her story. She so obviously does not understand the world she has been
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 born.As the book opens, the former slave-owners and the newly freed slaves awaitcompensation from the British government. This tension erupts as the fire atCoulibri. The black workers burn the symbol of white oppression, the plantation.In
Wide Sargasso Sea
, Rhys focuses on the differences between people whocome from various places.The symbolism of the title suggests the barriers, such as bodies of water, thatseparate people. Rochester and Bertha’s conversations comment on their difficulty of understanding one another due to their opposing upbringing andculture: It is Rochester’s inability to feel comfortable in Jamaica and Bertha’sinability to understand England that forms a barrier between them. Rochester admits that Bertha is a stranger and that he cannot empathize with her.The story is set just after the emancipation of the slaves, in that uneasy timewhen racial relations in the Caribbean were at their most strained, in 1839, sixyears after slavery was abolished in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part.
 
Rhys explores the complex relations between white and black West Indians,and between the old slaveholding West Indian families and the new Englishsettlers in the post-emancipation Caribbean. Set mainly in Jamaica andDominica (the country of Rhys’s birth) the novel describes how Antoinette became mad. In Bronte’s novel, Bertha/Antoinette is a monster, described asviolent, insane and promiscuous. Rhys creates instead a sympathetic andvulnerable young woman who seeks, unsuccessfully, to find her place, sheattempts to fill in the blanks of a fictional character's life story, creates a biography for Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway, in the beginning of the novel isa child living on the overgrown and impoverished Coulibri Estate in Jamaica. 
Antoinette
(Rhys renames her and has Rochester impose the name of Berthaon her when their relationship dissolves) is descended from the plantationowners and her father has had many children by Negro women. She can beaccepted neither by the Negro community nor by the representatives of thecolonial centre. As a white Creole she is nothing. The taint of racial impurity,coupled with the suspicion that she is mentally imbalanced brings about her inevitable downfall. 
Rochester
, who is never named in the novel, is not portrayed as an evil tyrant, but as a proud and bigoted younger brother betrayed by his family into aloveless marriage. His double standards with regards to the former slaves andAntoinette’s family involvement with them are exposed when he chooses tosleep with the maid, Amelie, thus displaying the promiscuous behavior andattraction to the Negro community which he accuses Antoinette of harboring.Their brief days of happiness at Granbois are halted by his willingness to believethe worst of Antoinette. His betrayal of her is set up before he receives theinformation from Daniel Cosway.The narrator of Part II is Edward Rochester, the hero of Charlotte Bronte’s
2
 
 Jane Eyre
. He is never named in Rhys’s novel, but the details he gives of his lifemake it clear to the reader that he is a younger version of Bronte’s character.The narration of Part II begins several months after Antoinette voiced her fearsof leaving the sanctuary of the convent for the outside world. In that time, Mr.Mason has died and his son, Richard, has arranged the marriage of Antoinette toRochester. Put ashore in the town of Massacre, Dominica with his new bride,Rochester thinks to himself,Grace Poole, another character from Bronte’s
 Jane Eyre
, begins the narration of Part III. In Bronte’s novel, Grace is the woman hired to care for Bertha/Antoinette when she is locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall, Rochester’shome in England. In Rhys’s novel, Grace tells of how Rochester’s father and brother have died and how Edward has become very wealthy. He has instructedhis housekeeper to hire Grace at extremely high wages to look out for the madwoman, Antoinette. Grace calls her “that girl who lives in her own darkness”.
English House vs. the Caribbean Spaces
Self-enclosed gardens: the garden in Coulibri and the forests in both Coulibriand Granbois, the “enclosed garden”. Antoinette dreams of a house with “thick walls”, “blazing fires and the crimson and white rooms”; places without lookingglass: the convent the house in England (Thornfield in
 Jane Eyre
)England: “a black and cruel world to a woman” for Grace.Antoinette in the house: relationships between Grace and Antoinette: Grace iskind, but in lack of understanding; a speaking, rational, perceptive and knowingsubject: “she hasn’t lost her spirit”; plans to convince Rochester to let her gohome. Signs of “madness”: look at the tapestry; loss of memory, does notremember fighting Richard.Rhys’s use of 
the
 
mirror
in
Wide Sargasso Sea
, to symbolize the duality of the self, can be seen to parallel Bronte’s. The two selves – the reflected self andthe “real'” self – are separated from each other. Antoinette relates that when she'was a child and very lonely (she) tried to kiss her (her own reflection). But theglass was between us – hard, cold. Self-wholeness is prevented by a loomingsolid wall. In women’s writing can be seen to represent patriarchal judgment,Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, illustrates how Antoinette's identity is socompletely diminished through patriarchal oppression that when she looks in themirror she does not recognize her own reflection. All the mirrors Antoinettelooks into, in order to imagine a self for her, are distorted or cracked. When themob sets fire to her house, Tia casts a stone at her.Rhys’s great achievement in her re-writing of the Bronte text is her creation of an external double to the madwoman, which transforms the bestial Bertha intoan individual woman who has been “othered” by imperialistic and patriarchaloppression. Her madness is shown throughout the novel to be a reaction tooppression.
Her dreams
merge into a circular pattern of enclosure from which Antoinettecannot escape. The first three dreams occurs after Antoinette’s literal separation
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