As a reimagining of one of Jane Eyre’s most mysterious characters, Wide Sargasso Sea offers a more nuanced look at the sociopolitical forces that drive a woman like Antoinette to madness. Rhys calls attention to the harmful impacts of colonialism and patriarchal values by depicting Antoinette’s struggle to maintain agency in a world which refuses to allow her any. Examining these influences ultimately humanizes Brontë’s silenced madwoman, and giving her a voice allows Rhys to challenge the oppressive social values that Jane Eyre reflects. Antoinette is not the sole narrator of the novel, however, and including Mr. Rochester as a second narrator works to emphasize the discrepancies between his point of view as a colonizer and her lived experience as a colonial subject. By placing their voices side by side, Rhys shows how those in power can silence narratives which question their authority and rewrite them to maintain control. This structure hints at the novel’s central conflict between the oppressed and their oppressors. While Wide Sargasso Sea is most explicitly about the interpersonal tension between Antoinette and Mr. Rochester, its primary concern is about Antoinette’s pursuit of freedom and belonging in the face of an unwavering colonial power.  

    From the earliest moments of the novel, Rhys emphasizes the dark history of colonialism in Jamaica and foreshadows the doomed fate that Antoinette will eventually meet. What once was a lush, tropical paradise has become diseased and marred by death, and the formerly rich Coulibri Estate appears run-down. With its dark connotations, this initial imagery reflects the immense suffering that occurred there prior to the Emancipation Act as well as the unease that continues to persist as white families like the Cosways face the ridicule and resentment of their former slaves. The poisoning and subsequent death of Annette Cosway’s horse, a symbol of movement and access to the world, highlights the growing isolation that the family experiences as a result of the shifting power dynamics of their world. Unable to support her two young children as a widow ostracized from her community, Annette marries Mr. Mason, a wealthy Englishman who sets his sights on revitalizing Coulibri. Young Antoinette watches as her mother warns him against displaying his riches, arguing that their Black neighbors will view such behavior as an act of aggression, while Mr. Mason promptly dismisses her voice. The consequences of this unbalanced relationship become apparent as their neighbors burn Coulibri to the ground, an event that serves as the novel’s inciting incident. Infuriated by her husband’s unwillingness to acknowledge her perspective, Annette flies into a mad rage which sets the stage for her daughter’s own struggle to find freedom.

    In the aftermath of her mother’s descent into madness, Antoinette sinks further into isolation until Mr. Rochester arrives to marry her, and this moment represents the introduction of a colonizing force into her own life. The last event that Antoinette narrates is her departure from the convent and her ominous dream about walking through a dark forest with a strange man guiding her, both of which precede her ill-suited marriage. Mr. Rochester’s voice takes over once the pair marries, however, and this narrative shift represents the way in which he conquers her life. Although he admits that his own family tricked him into marrying Antoinette, he does so purely for economic gain and cares little about who his wife truly is. This perspective aligns him with the primary historical motivations for colonialism and establishes him as a domineering character. Throughout the novel’s rising action, Rochester, who goes unnamed, struggles to understand the unfamiliar culture he finds himself in but does little to connect with Antoinette on a personal level. He dismisses her fears, judges her perceptions, and objectifies her, all of which reflect his inherent sense of superiority.

    As Antoinette and Rochester spend more together, their relationship becomes increasingly strained and causes Antoinette to begin spiraling downward just as her mother did. A letter from Daniel Cosway, Antoinette’s vengeful half-brother, suggests to Rochester that his wife may be predisposed to madness, and he allows this information to dictate how he treats his wife without genuinely evaluating how truthful it is. Antoinette laments the growing distance between them as it reminds her of her isolated childhood, and in a final attempt to reclaim her agency, she begs Christophine to use obeah in order to make him love her again. This brief reappearance of Antoinette’s narrative voice reflects her challenge of Rochester’s authority over her, although the return back to his perspective emphasizes the futility of her struggle. She puts the substance that Christophine gave her in Rochester’s drink, causing him to run from the house and sleep with Amélie upon his return. 

These acts of infidelity ultimately cause Antoinette to spiral just as her mother did upon witnessing the consequences of Mr. Mason’s unwillingness to acknowledge her perspective. The climax of the novel occurs when Rochester sees Antoinette in this fallen state, with her hair “uncombed and dull” and her eyes “inflamed and staring.” This condition is the result of her inability to feel a sense of belonging within her oppressive relationship, and Rochester responds to her behavior with even more hatred. In the novel’s falling action, Rochester’s colonial perspective plays out literally as he locks his wife in the attic of his English estate. Stripped of everything she has ever known, Antoinette loses her sense of self and turns into the madwoman that Rochester convinced her she was. This final shift serves as the connecting point between Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre as Antoinette dreams of a fire and then wakes to walk down the dark hall with a candle, a nod to the climax of Brontë’s novel in which Bertha reclaims her agency by burning Thornfield Hall and jumping to her death.