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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Wide Sargasso Sea!