Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys
(Note: Although the novel leaves Rochester unnamed, it is common critical practice to call the unnamed male narrator Rochester, after the character in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.)
It's hard to view Rochester as a complete villain in this novel because he gets his own narrative in Part II. We don't get a scheming, calculating, money-grubbing monster, but someone who's really conflicted about some of the choices he's made. As the second son, he inherits nothing from his father's estate, and has to marry Antoinette if only for his own financial survival. (He could also have, you know, gotten a job, but that would have conflicted with his gentlemanly pretensions…) And he's understandably humiliated by his situation. To his credit, he seems touched by Antoinette, perhaps seeing in her vulnerability a mirror of his own.
But he does end up doing some pretty awful things. He treats Antoinette horribly without giving her time to reply to Daniel's allegations. He sleeps with the maid – on his honeymoon, with his wife in the next room. He gets Antoinette declared mad and locks her up in his attic.
So how does a man who doesn't seem particularly evil end up living the rough equivalent of five straight seasons of Days of Our Lives? One huge hurdle that Rochester can't seem to overcome is his Englishness. In fact, because he's got something of an inferiority complex – second son, married a girl for her money, stuck out in a colony instead of hipper London – his Englishness is all the more important to him to shore up his ego.
Everything about the Caribbean rubs Rochester the wrong way because it isn't rational, civilized, domesticated, and scientific – to him. The Caribbean has all kinds of fantastic elements – magical elements like obeah, racial and cultural diversity, exotic natural beauty. And the women. Fiery, strong-willed women like Antoinette and Christophine. Instead of opening up to this world, Rochester exaggerates his own Englishness, growing more coldly rational and condescending as things get more and more out of control.
Even so, he seems conflicted to the very end, experiencing a twinge of regret and nostalgia as he and Antoinette leave Granbois. He's not a man entirely comfortable with exploiting other people, and not entirely comfortable with his own claim that he never loved Antoinette. Otherwise, why would he hate her so much? You might find yourself wondering what it would have taken to save their relationship, but that would have been a very different novel indeed.