The specter of slavery and entrapment pervades Wide Sargasso Sea. The ex-slaves who worked on the sugar plantations of wealthy Creoles figure prominently in Part One of the novel, which is set in the West Indies in the early nineteenth century. Although the Emancipation Act has freed the slaves by the time of Antoinette’s childhood, compensation has not been granted to the island’s black population, breeding hostility and resentment between servants and their white employers. Annette, Antoinette’s mother, is particularly attuned to the animosity that colors many employer-employee interactions.
Enslavement shapes many of the relationships in Rhys’s novel—not just those between blacks and whites. Annette feels helplessly imprisoned at Coulibri Estate after the death of her husband, repeating the word “marooned” over and over again. Likewise, Antoinette is doomed to a form of enslavement in her love for and dependency upon her husband. Women’s childlike dependence on fathers and husbands represents a figurative slavery that is made literal in Antoinette’s ultimate physical captivity.
Subtleties of race and the intricacies of Jamaica’s social hierarchy play an important role in the development of the novel’s main themes. Whites born in England are distinguished from the white Creoles, descendants of Europeans who have lived in the West Indies for one or more generations. Further complicating the social structure is the population of black ex-slaves who maintain their own kinds of stratification. Christophine, for instance, stands apart from the Jamaican servants because she is originally from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Furthermore, there is a large mixed-race population, as white slave owners throughout the Caribbean and the Americas were notorious for raping and impregnating female slaves. Sandi and Daniel Cosway, two of Alexander Cosway’s illegitimate children, both occupy this middle ground between black and white society.
Interaction between these racial groups is often antagonistic. Antoinette and her mother, however, do not share the purely racist views of other whites on the island. Both women recognize their dependence on the black servants who care for them, feeling a respect that often borders on fear and resentment. In this manner, power structures based on race always appear to be on the brink of reversal.
Womanhood intertwines with issues of enslavement and madness in Rhys’s novel. Ideals of proper feminine deportment are presented to Antoinette when she is a girl at the convent school. Two of the other Creole girls, Miss Germaine and Helene de Plana, embody the feminine virtues that Antoinette is to learn and emulate: namely, beauty, chastity and mild, even-tempered manners. Mother St. Justine’s praises of the “poised” and “imperturbable” sisters suggest an ideal of womanhood that is at odds with Antoinette’s own hot and fiery nature. Indeed, it is Antoinette’s passion that contributes to her melancholy and implied madness.
Rhys also explores her female characters’ legal and financial dependence on the men around them. After the death of her first husband, Antoinette’s mother sees her second marriage as an opportunity to escape from her life at Coulibri and regain status among her peers. For the men in the novel, marriage increases their wealth by granting them access to their wives’ inheritance. In both cases, womanhood is synonymous with a kind of childlike dependence on the nearest man. Indeed, it is this dependence that precipitates the demise of both Antoinette and Annette. Both women marry white Englishmen in the hopes of assuaging their fears as vulnerable outsiders, but the men betray and abandon them.
Madness in Wide Sargasso Sea is intricately linked with images of heat, fire, and female sexuality. Madness is Antoinette’s inheritance: her father was mad, according to his bastard son Daniel, as was her mother, Annette. Antoinette’s upbringing and environment exacerbate her inherited condition, as she feels rejected and displaced, with no one to love her. She becomes paranoid and solitary, prone to vivid dreams and violent outbursts. It is significant that women like Antoinette and her mother are the most susceptible to madness, pushed as they are into childlike servitude and feminine docility. Their madness consigns them to live invisible, shameful lives. The predominance of insanity in the novel forces us to question whose recollections are trustworthy. The fragmented memory of a madwoman like Antoinette opens up the possibility for alternate stories and imagined realities.
In the Caribbean portrayed in the novel, an atmosphere of sickness reflects the perverse and unnatural subjugation of blacks by whites and of women by men. Repression explodes into fevers, fits, and madness, so that the body says what the mouth cannot. Both Antoinette and Rochester suffer near-fatal fevers, as if to mark their feelings of persecution and fear of the outside world.
Images of disease, rot, and illness also suggest the moral and financial decline of Antoinette’s family. Disease works as a kind of moral retribution, in that the Cosway family, after generations of abuse, inherits a legacy of alcoholism, madness, and deformity (the young boy Pierre is degenerate). Antoinette naïvely believes her family’s cure lies abroad, in England. On the night of the fire, she leans over the crib of her sleeping brother to assure him that, once Mr. Mason takes them to England, he will “be cured, made like other people.” However, England offers no cure, as Antoinette herself further deteriorates when she is there.
Death seemingly hovers over Antoinette’s every moment. One of the first memories she recounts from her childhood is that of her mother’s poisoned horse, lying dead in the heat and swarming with flies. This image creates a mood of sinister anticipation and points to an evil undercurrent haunting Coulibri. The death of the horse also foreshadows the deaths of Pierre, Antoinette’s mother, Aunt Cora, and Mr. Mason, all of which leave Antoinette without a family. So attuned to death’s presence in her childhood tale, Antoinette foreshadows her own violent end.
At Coulibri, allusions to zombies and ghosts further contribute to the eerie mood. Christophine’s supernatural tales, drawn from voodoo legends, share Antoinette’s fascination with death. Antoinette incorporates these superstitions, using a stick as a protective talisman and believing that her mother has become a zombie—a body without a soul. It is Antoinette’s faith in an invisible world that accounts for her peculiar preoccupation with death.
In his decision to take Antoinette away from Jamaica, Rochester bitterly thinks to himself, “No more false heavens. No more damned magic.” The Windward Islands, where Granbois is located, are home to the magical, syncretic religions of their black inhabitants. Christophine’s unique powers, which command respect from her peers, derive from her expertise in obeah practices and her knowledge in casting spells. Antoinette incorporates Christophine’s superstitious beliefs, leading her to read signs and symbols in the natural world. On the night of the fire, for instance, Antoinette shrinks in horror when she sees her mother’s parrot burn alive, believing it is bad luck to kill a parrot or watch one die. This knowledge of magic is Antoinette’s one source of power and independence.
Fires recur throughout the novel, representing destruction, damnation, and smoldering passions. In Part One, Antoinette describes the fire that burned down Coulibri Estate and triggered her mother’s collapse into madness. In Part Two, Rochester describes the use of candles at night, paying particular attention to the moths that burn themselves in the flames. These descriptions not only recall the grotesque death of Annette’s bird, but they also mirror Antoinette’s perverse fascination with fire and foreshadow her own tragic end.
Coco, Annette’s pet parrot, enacts Antoinette’s own doom. With his wings clipped by Mr. Mason—notably, an Englishman—the bird is shackled and maimed, mirroring Antoinette’s own flightless dependency. As Antoinette recalls, “[Coco] made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.” This passage presages the apocalyptic dream that ends the novel, including Antoinette’s fiery fall from the attic. As omens and warnings, birds invite Antoinette to invest meaning and significance in the natural world. When she sees a cock crowing alongside Christophine’s house, Antoinette thinks, “That is for betrayal, but who is the traitor?” As with the parrot, the appearance of the cock portends danger.
Antoinette’s recurring forest dream introduces a cool, dark, unknown landscape that contrasts sharply with Jamaica’s colorful brightness. A nightmare that is also a premonition, the dream takes place among “tall dark trees” that lead to an enclosed stone garden. Following a sinister and faceless man, Antoinette finds herself in a foreign place that portends her future captivity in England. Another forest omen resides in the name of the honeymoon estate, Granbois, which translates into “great forest.” Like Antoinette’s dream, this name foretells her move to the cold forests of England. It is here at Granbois that her husband loses himself in the woods, stumbling upon the haunting ruins of a stone house. Rochester’s eerie experience in the forest echoes his wife’s dream; in fact, it provides the second half of her nightmarish prediction. In the forest, he seems to be gazing upon the consequences of his own actions: a ruined house in the woods, a clear image of his English estate that will be burned and abandoned.
Antoinette compares the garden at Coulibri Estate to the biblical Garden of Eden, with its luxurious excess and lost innocence. In her own words, the garden has “gone wild,” assaulting the senses with its brilliant colors, pungent odors, and tangling overgrowth. The flowers look vaguely sinister; Antoinette describes one orchid as being “snaky looking,” recalling the biblical fall and man’s decline into greed and sensuality. The decadent Creole lifestyle as portrayed in the novel—predicated upon exploitation, wealth, and ease—finds its natural counterpart in the fallen garden.