Wide Sargasso Sea
Analysis of Major Characters
The character of Antoinette derives from Charlotte Brontë's poignant and powerful depiction of a deranged Creole outcast in her gothic novel Jane Eyre. Rhys creates a prehistory for Bronte's character, tracing her development from a young solitary girl in Jamaica to a love-depraved lunatic in an English garret. By fleshing out Brontë's one-dimensional madwoman, Rhys enables us to sympathize with the mental and emotional decline of a human being. Antoinette is a far cry from the conventional female heroines of nineteenth- and even twentieth-century novels, who are often more rational and self-restrained (as is Jane Eyre herself). In Antoinette, by contrast, we see the potential dangers of a wild imagination and an acute sensitivity. Her restlessness and instability seem to stem, in some part, from her inability to belong to any particular community. As a white Creole, she straddles the European world of her ancestors and the Caribbean culture into which she is born.
Left mainly to her own devices as a child, Antoinette turns inward, finding there a world that can be both peaceful and terrifying. In the first part of the novel we witness the development of a delicate child—one who finds refuge in the closed, isolated life of the convent. Her arranged marriage distresses her, and she tries to call it off, feeling instinctively that she will be hurt. Indeed, the marriage is a mismatch of culture and custom. She and her English husband, Mr. Rochester, fail to relate to one another; and her past deeds, specifically her childhood relationship with a half-caste brother, sullies her husband's view of her. An exile within her own family, a "white cockroach" to her disdainful servants, and an oddity in the eyes of her own husband, Antoinette cannot find a peaceful place for herself. Going far beyond the pitying stance taken by Bronte, Rhys humanizes "Bertha's" tragic condition, inviting the reader to explore Antoinette's terror and anguish.
As a surrogate mother, Christophine introduces Antoinette to the black culture of the Caribbean and instills in her a sensitivity to nature and belief in the practices of obeah. Significantly, it is Christophine's voice that opens the novel, as she explains Annette's exclusion from Spanish Town society; Christophine is the voice of authority, the one who explains the world to Antoinette and explains Antoinette to the readers. With her words gliding from a French patois to a Jamaican dialect and back into English, her command of language corresponds with the power of her words and her ability to invoke magic. She seems omniscient, intimately linked with the natural and tropical world and attuned to animal and human behavior.
Christophine, much like Antoinette and her mother, is an outsider. Coming from Martinique, she dresses and speaks differently from the Jamaican blacks. She is a servant, but, unlike the other black servants who live at Coulibri, she remains loyal to the Cosway women when the family's fortunes dwindle—an alliance at which the other servants sneer. Like Antoinette and her mother, Christophine becomes the subject of cruel household gossip, although she still commands some household respect because of her knowledge of magic.
A wedding present from the old Mr. Cosway to Annette, Christophine is a commodified woman, but is still fiercely self-willed. She provides a contrast to Annette in that she exercises complete independence from men and implicitly distrusts their motives. When Mr. Rochester arrives at Granbois, he immediately senses Christophine's contempt, and he associates her with all that is perverse and foreign about his new Caribbean home and his indecipherable Creole wife. A threat to Rochester's English privilege and male authority, Christophine calmly monitors his attempts to assert dominance. She instructs Antoinette that "woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world." Christophine adopts an increasingly assertive role in protecting Antoinette when Rochester begins to challenge his wife's sanity. Ultimately, Christophine advises Antoinette to leave her increasingly cruel husband, citing her own independence as an example to emulate. Having had three children by three different fathers, Christophine remains unmarried, saying "I thank my God. I keep my money. I don't give it to no worthless man." Christophine's final confrontation with Rochester establishes her as Antoinette's more lucid spokeswoman.
Mr. Rochester, Antoinette's young husband, narrates more than a third of the novel, telling, in his own words, the story of Antoinette's mental downfall. His arrival in Jamaica and his arranged marriage to Antoinette is prefigured in the first part of the novel by the appearance of Mr. Mason, another English aristocrat seeking his fortune through a Creole heiress. However, unlike Mason, Rochester remains nameless throughout the novel, referred to only as "that man" or "my husband." In a novel in which naming is so important, Rochester's anonymity underscores the implied authority of his account. He is the nameless creator and, as a white man, his authority and privilege allow him to confer identity on others. For instance, he decides to rename his wife, calling her "Bertha" in an attempt to distance her from her lunatic mother, whose full name was Antoinette. Later, he takes away Antoinette's voice along with her name, refusing to listen to her side of the story. As he continues to fragment her identity, he creates the new name of "Marionetta," a cruel joke that reflects Antoinette's doll-like pliability. He ultimately refashions Antoinette into a raving madwoman and treats her as a ghost. Having totally rejected his Creole wife and her native customs, Rochester exaggerates his own cool, logical, and distinctly English rationale; he asserts his total English control over the Caribbean landscape and people.
Rochester's narration in Part Two reveals that he and his estranged wife are actually more similar than dissimilar. Both characters are essentially orphans, abandoned by their family members to fend for themselves. As the youngest son, Rochester legally inherits nothing from his father, who already favors the older child. Antoinette, who was persistently neglected by her mother in favor of her brother, Pierre, receives an inheritance that is tainted, at best. She is left with the burdens of a divided cultural identity, the hatred of the blacks, the contempt of the whites, and the responsibility of a dilapidated estate. Both Rochester and Antoinette struggle for some sense of place and identity, and enter the arranged marriage with apprehension and anxiety. Rhys creates further parallels between her two antagonists in their bouts with fever and their twinned experiences with dreamed or actual forests.
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