Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys
Tools of Characterization
Race is integral to the way these characters interact in the novel. Often, the first thing we learn about characters is their race because it's the first thing that Antoinette and Rochester notice about a person, and we get everything from their point of view. The novel draws on racial categories specific to nineteenth-century Jamaica:
Black: A person descended from the African slaves imported by British and French plantation owners. Christophine, Godfrey, Amélie, and most of the servants are black. Despite the Emancipation Act of 1833, blacks in Jamaica are still an economic and political under-class at the time of the novel.
White (also called béké): A person of European origin. Edward Rochester and Mr. Mason are white characters. But then there are the Creoles…
Creole: In the nineteenth century, "Creole" does not mean someone of mixed racial origin, but a white person of European origin born in the Caribbean. Antoinette, her mother, and her brother are all Creole characters. Technically they're white, so you'll often hear them referred to as "white Creoles." But even though they're white, it was commonly believed that the island climate "contaminated" their race, making them lesser whites, so to speak. You'll notice that the characters are called "white cockroaches" or "white niggers," derogatory terms for white Creoles.
Colored: A person of mixed racial origin, both black and white and/or Creole. Their social position is similar to that of blacks, but because of their mixed racial origin, there is more possibility for economic mobility. Sandi Cosway and his father are examples of colored characters.
Carib: Indigenous to the Caribbean. Although we don't meet anyone clearly identified as Carib, some characters such as Antoinette have a strong belief that neither whites nor blacks have prior claim to the islands because the islands were already inhabited by the Caribs and other indigenous peoples. The name of the town Massacre invokes this history (see our discussion in "Setting").
Speech and Dialogue
Since the events are told from a character's point of view, speech and dialogue are critical to our understanding of the characters. We get scene after scene of clashing perspectives, where the attempt to have a real dialogue, if there is one, often fails miserably. Think, for example, of Antoinette's attempt to clear her name with Rochester, or Annette's attempt to convince Mr. Mason that it is no longer safe for them at Coulibri. In addition, stray phrases of patois, the dialectal English spoken by the black Caribbeans, and the pompous diction associated with the white English settler class shape the social world of the novel.
Type of Being
Whether there's any real magic going on in the world of the novel is up for debate. But the novel keeps presenting characters that are like zombies, ghosts, or puppets. Such beings freak us out because they look human but are not; they're on the border between life and death, the animate and inanimate. Antoinette's doll-like demeanor after her relationship with Rochester is ruined, Annette's zombie-esque behavior after she finds out her son is ill, Rochester's trance-like state during his dialogue with Christophine, and even Pierre's mysterious illness all mark instances where the characters are taken out of their comfort zone and become transformed.