Wide Sargasso Sea
Part Three, Section One
At Rochester's home in England, the servant Grace Poole watches over Antoinette in the attic. Rochester's father and brother have since died, leaving him to inherit the family's fortune. He has Mrs. Eff, another servant, pay Grace Poole double her wages if she promises not to speak about Antoinette to the others in the household. Although Grace is suspicious about the odd nature of her employment, Mrs. Eff assures Grace that the master of the house is a gentle and generous man who returned from the West Indies miserable and pitiable. Only five servants remain in the household, the others having been dismissed. Grace assumes they were dismissed for spreading rumors about Rochester and his Creole wife. Grace feels safe and comfortable in the house, but fears her charge, Antoinette, whom she finds fierce and unruly.
When Antoinette wakes in the morning, she is cold and shivering. She wonders why she has been sent to this room. At first, she thought that it was a temporary arrangement and figured that she could convince Rochester to free her. But Rochester has never once visited her. Antoinette sees only Grace, who sleeps with her in the attic, counting her money at night before drinking alcohol and falling asleep. The room is sparsely furnished, with only one window, which is too high for Antoinette to look through. In an adjacent room hangs a tapestry in which Antoinette believes she sees her mother. There is no mirror in her attic prison; without her reflection, Antoinette cannot remember who she is.
The room with the tapestry leads to a locked passageway through which Antoinette hears Grace speak with another servant, Leah, without understanding what they are saying. Antoinette is haunted by the sound of whispering voices. After Grace has drunk herself to sleep, Antoinette easily obtains the keys, and she walks into an outside world that she believes is made of cardboard. Walking through the house, she does not believe she is in England, but instead thinks that she and the others have lost their way on a long ocean voyage. Antoinette remembers that, on this voyage, Rochester caught her embracing a young man who brought her food. She recalls becoming hysterical, only to be calmed by something that an unknown man gave her to drink.
Throughout the novel, Rhys prioritizes the narrative voice of the outsider. It is therefore Rochester's voice that takes precedence over Antoinette's when they are in the West Indies, as he is the more alien, estranged character in that world. When the action moves to England, Rochester disappears from the narrative, and Rhys concentrates on Antoinette's experience.
Rochester's disappearance from the narrative further suggests that he now hovers over the plot as the mastermind puppeteer, peering down into what Antoinette thinks of as her cardboard prison. He seems to be spying on her just as generations of Brontë's readers have done. This act of watching develops into a kind of pitiless voyeurism in which we, like Rochester, look in at the madwoman he has created.
Imprisoned, Antoinette overhears the disembodied voices of Grace and Leah just as she has earlier overheard the gossip of the Spanish Town ladies and the sexual play between Rochester and Amelie. Throughout her life, Antoinette gathers information when she is nearly invisible, either unseen or unacknowledged. She remains on the outskirts of most interactions, never invited to tell her own version or share her own opinions. It is this silencing that Rhys aims to redress with her novel, by giving Antoinette her own narrative voice.
Rochester's estate in England recalls the estate of Coulibri after the death of Mr. Cosway. At Rochester's house—which, although never explicitly named in Wide Sargasso Sea, is known to readers of Jane Eyre as "Thornfield Hall"—the old servants have all been sent away, just as Coulibri emptied after the death of Mr. Cosway. Suspicion pervades both estates. Just as Annette distrusted the black servants, so Rochester distrusts his own English ones. He offers money to Grace Poole in exchange for her silence and discretion. Transformed into a cynical realist, Rochester understands and accepts human greed, even though he previously condemned it in Daniel Cosway. He knows his command over his servants is tenuous, as was the Cosway's at Coulibri; authority cannot be assumed, but must be bought.
In one passage, Rhys allows us to hear Grace's private thoughts, revealing a similarity between Grace and Antoinette. Grace, like Antoinette in her time at the convent, fears the world outside of Thornfield Hall, feeling safe behind its thick stone walls. In showing Grace's vulnerability, Rhys gives her a reason for playing such a detestable part in Antoinette's cruel captivity. While Rhys never condones Grace's immoral actions, she does explain them, lending a fairness to her rewriting of Brontë's text.
Antoinette's narrative in Part Three works to humanize our conception of the Creole madwoman as shaped by Brontë's novel. Given the emptiness of Antoinette's days and her isolation from the outside world, she necessarily loses track of time and place. Otherwise, Antoinette seems to be lucid, as she questions the reasons for her captivity and abuse. We feel firsthand the horror of her entrapment, which calls to mind the slavery in her native land. The ocean voyage from the Caribbean to England, while reversing the direction of the transatlantic slave routes, recalls such images of terror, confusion, and discomfort. Interestingly, the barbarity of Antoinette's enslavement takes place on the western island that Rochester believes to be the seat of civilized logic and reason.
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