Wide Sargasso Sea

by: Jean Rhys

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

Madness

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.

Disease and Decline

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

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.

Magic and Incantation

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.