page 1 of 2
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.
Take a Study Break!