Consider the role of parent-child relationships in Wide Sargasso Sea, examining themes of power, identity, and abandonment.
Rhys gives us few examples of healthy parent-child relationships in the novel, creating a fictional world in which family—like nationality, race, and gender—becomes dangerously unstable and fragmented. All identities are disrupted in the novel, leaving Rochester and Antoinette to struggle alone with a daunting question: "Who am I?" Both characters are rejected by their parents and thrust into a world that does not embrace or affirm them. Parallels to their situations appear throughout the novel, particularly in the situation of Daniel, whose father, Alexander Cosway, treats him with open contempt. Unnatural and grotesque, this childhood rejection aggravates these characters' sense of isolation. Questions of family in the novel also highlight the legacy of slavery and the paternal role taken by slave owners, who exploited and abused their "children."
How do the characterizations of Antoinette and her mother restructure the way we think of "madness"? Does the downfall of these two women seem more related to a genetic trait or the cruelty of others? Is Antoinette's "madness" really caused by Rochester, or does his treatment of her merely exacerbate her condition?
Antoinette and her mother appear to be driven to madness by a world in which they are neither accepted nor loved. Rhys thereby suggests that insanity is less a genetic trait than an environmentally triggered one. In doing so, she contests the notion that emotionally unstable people are biologically inferior or tainted. Rhys suggests that female "hysteria," a condition applied as a label to many women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, results from the repressive and suffocating dependence of women in a world of men. Her characterizations of Antoinette and Annette, both associated with the racially mixed world of the West Indies, attribute insanity to a sadness exacerbated and cultivated by others—a sadness that stems from their cultural displacement rather than their exotic background. Rhys thereby humanizes the image of the raving Creole heiress that Brontë paints in Jane Eyre, inviting us to sympathize with the mental breakdown of a lonely, misunderstood woman.
Why does Christophine turn Antoinette on to liquor? How do we account for the fact that Antoinette seems on the verge of madness after she has gone to Christophine for help? Is her old nurse complicit in Antoinette's sudden decline?
Christophine plays both a maternal and paternal role in Antoinette's life, providing comfort and protection, but sometimes abusing her power and influence. Christophine's motives are not always clear, and there is some suggestion that she cannot be implicitly trusted. For instance, when Annette tells her daughter that Christophine "had her reasons for staying" with them, she undercuts Christophine's loyalty and suggests that her actions are simply self-serving. Later, when she has received the potion from Christophine, Antoinette hears the cock crowing, and begins to wonder if the old woman has betrayed her. When the love potion makes Rochester flat-out sick rather than merely sick with love, Christophine's honesty comes into a question, and we wonder if she has not deliberately harmed him. Christophine's decision to give Antoinette sleeping drugs and then feed her alcohol is also suspicious, suggesting that she does play a part in the woman's decline.
1. Compare and contrast Antoinette and Rochester's religious and spiritual beliefs. How do their ideas regarding fate, death, and salvation shape their actions and behaviors? Do they feel empowered by or at the mercy of a divine order?
2. Does Rhys's ending serve as a subversive rewriting of Brontë's fiction? Does Wide Sargasso Sea pay homage to Jane Eyre or does it aggressively critique the literary classic? Can Rhys's novel truly be appreciated as a work on its own?
3. Compare Antoinette and Rochester's attitudes towards servants. How do questions of social class shape the power dynamics operating between characters?
4. Compare and contrast the characters of Rochester and Antoinette. How are they different, and in what ways are they similar? How do their different cultural and social backgrounds account for the failure of their relationship?