Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys
Wide Sargasso Sea Theme of Language and Communication
Language in Wide Sargasso Sea isn't just a medium for communicating thoughts and feelings, but a social force that actually shapes the fates of the characters. It marks a character's place in society, as when the black characters use a dialect of English that sounds broken or even obscene to the white characters. It can signal the introduction of a foreign or exotic element, as when Christophine speaks in patois, a dialect of French spoken in the Caribbean. In the form of gossip or lies, language can inspire as much fear and distrust as an actual threat, and it can manufacture scandals that ruin people's lives. As a product of language itself, the novel wrestles with the medium, drawing attention to the ways in which stories are told and received.
Questions About Language and Communication
- How is the history of Antoinette's childhood and family told by different characters? How does Antoinette's version contrast with Daniel's, for example, or Christophine's? How do rumors – what the unnamed "they" say in Part I, for example – represent Antoinette's family history?
- What are some successful and unsuccessful instances of communication in the book? Compare and contrast the dialogues between Annette and Mr. Mason, Antoinette and Rochester, and Christophine and Rochester, among others.
- How is language an actual force in the book? Consider, for example, how Christophine's power depends on what people say she can do, or how powerful simply applying a label on a person – such as "mad" – can be.
- Rochester talks a lot about the "secret" of the island and the "secret" Antoinette can't tell. What do you think the secret is? How does this secret relate to the project of the book as a whole to tell the untold story of Jane Eyre's "madwoman in the attic"?
Chew on This
Antoinette's tragic view of life and her deep suspicion of Rochester leads her to reject an open dialogue with him about her past, and with it the possibility of a genuine relationship.
By leaving open the question of whether Christophine's obeah actually works, the novel focuses attention on how much rumor, or the mythology that the community has constructed around obeah, contributes to obeah's so-called "magical" power.