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.