Antoinette and her family do not fit in with the white people in Spanish Town. According to Christophine, the Jamaican ladies do not approve of Antoinette's mother, Annette, because she is too beautiful and young for her husband, and because she comes from Martinique (which was then a French colony, whereas Jamaica was an English colony). When Antoinette asks her mother why so few people visit them at Coulibri Estate since her father's death, her mother makes excuses about the road being bad and travel being difficult.
Annette's only friend is a neighbor named Mr. Luttrell, who suddenly and mysteriously shoots his dog and swims out to sea, never to return. His house is abandoned, and his tragedy incites widespread gossip. Annette, who has little money and whose clothes become increasingly shabby, rides her horse every day even though the servants jeer at her. One day, Antoinette finds her mother's horse lying dead under a tree. Godfrey, a servant, confirms that the animal has been poisoned.
A doctor from Spanish Town comes to check on Pierre, Antoinette's disabled younger brother. After the doctor's visit, Antoinette's mother is suddenly changed: She never leaves the house but walks up and down the glacis, or verandah, in plain view of the laughing servants. As her mother grows stranger and more distant, Antoinette spends time in their overgrown garden. She also visits with the servant, Christophine, who sings her songs from her island home of Martinique.
The other women from the bayside are terrified of Christophine, who reportedly has magic powers. When Antoinette asks her mother about Christophine, Annette replies that Christophine was a wedding present from Antoinette's father, and that she has been with them a long time. Annette assures her daughter that Christophine has her reasons for staying with them, and that her presence has protected them in many ways. When Antoinette reminds her mother that the servants Godfrey and Sass stayed with them after her father's death, her mother snaps at her, saying that Sass would leave them any day and that Godfrey is a deceitful and lazy rascal. Antoinette begins to worry that Christophine might leave them. She then fans her mother, who looks tired and ragged, but her mother turns away and asks to be left alone.
Narrated by Antoinette, Part One of Wide Sargasso Sea focuses on her childhood at Coulibri after the death of her father, Alexander Cosway. Antoinette's vague and fragmentary memories focus on glimpses of tropical landscape, descriptions of her mother, and examples of her childhood isolation. Racial tensions and the disapproval of the white Jamaican ladies pervade these memories. Danger lurks in all of these scenes; in fact, the novel begins with the explicit warning, "when trouble comes, close ranks." Rhys sets a tone of eerie silence in this West Indian landscape—the calm before the storm of racial violence.
In a state of disrepair and decay, the Coulibri Estate represents the downfall of the colonial empire and the aftermath of its exploitative reign in the West Indies. The bizarre tale about Mr. Luttrell speaks to the mood of apprehension among the island's whites, who fear the revenge of the black ex-slaves. Antoinette, as the narrator, seems particularly preoccupied with morbidity and decay. The text is replete with images of death and rotting, such as the flies that hover over the carcass of Annette's poisoned horse.
Religious symbols and imagery also dominate the novel's opening passages. Godfrey constantly speaks about a Lord who makes no distinction between blacks and whites. Remembering the garden, Antoinette compares it to the Garden of Eden in the Bible. Like Eden, Antoinette's garden is a symbol of corrupted innocence: it has given itself over to wildness and a savage overgrowth that marks the entire estate. It is in this atmosphere of impurity and decay that Antoinette and her mother become increasingly isolated and misanthropic.
Antoinette and her mother are complete outsiders in their community, not unlike Christophine. Like Christophine, Annette is a foreigner in Jamaica, having lived in Martinique; she wears the French Caribbean fashions that other Jamaican women avoid. Antoinette feels as estranged as her mother when others call her a "white cockroach" and when Tia accuses her and her family of not being like "real white people." Accepted by neither white nor black society, Antoinette feels great shame.