Despite the sympathy Rhys expressed for Antoinette's situation in her letters, in the actual novel the prevailing attitude is critical. It's not that the novel disapproves of anyone necessarily, but it's trying to evaluate everything with a critical eye. There are no heroines or villains in the novel. The novel seeks to create a balanced view of the forces that push and pull each and every single character – it seeks to understand, not to praise or condemn. Rochester may be a loser for marrying a girl for her money, then locking her up in his attic, but the novel tries to give Rochester the benefit of the doubt by letting him tell the story from his perspective. Instead of an evil guy, we get someone who is vulnerable, naïve, sometimes well-intentioned, and not particularly brilliant, trying to make the best of an overwhelming situation. Antoinette may be the heroine and the inspiration for the story, but the novel also shows how her own limited way of looking at the world contributes to her unhappiness.
We've got a lot of genres here, but they can all really be explained by the genre of "literary fiction." Wide Sargasso Sea is very in-your-face about the fact that it's tackling one of the classics of Victorian fiction, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Its language is loaded with allusions to everything from the Bible on up to Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater, peppered with a few popular Caribbean and music hall songs. This kind of self-conscious literary riffing is pretty much what you get with "literary fiction," a genre that aspires to be stylistically innovative and shuns commercial appeal.
As part and parcel of this stylistic innovation, the novel subverts other literary genres: enter "Coming of Age," "Historical Fiction," "Horror and Gothic Fiction," and "Modernism." Usually in a coming-of-age story, we get some kind of maturity as a character transitions from childhood to adulthood, but with Wide Sargasso Sea, surprise, we don't get maturity (unless burning down a house is your idea of maturity).
In "Historical Fiction," we usually get some concrete historical dates, personages, and events to get our bearings, but the novel makes only sparing references to historical events that are, nevertheless, absolutely critical to our understanding of the novel (see the brief mention of the Emancipation Act on the very first page).
The novel certainly has its fair share of ghosts and creepy houses, the mainstays of "Horror and Gothic Fiction," but the novel is only scary if you believe that Christophine can work supernatural wonders.
Finally, Jean Rhys's previous novels were all in the high Modernist vein – some famous ones include Good Morning, Midnight and Voyage in the Dark. They are very stylized, very innovative, very complex, but largely set in bohemian Paris or London. By setting the majority of her novel in the Caribbean, Rhys makes Modernist style speak to the many important social and political issues of the time.
The title of the novel refers to the Sargasso Sea, a vast area of the northern Atlantic Ocean which is home to sargassum, a kind of seaweed. The Sargasso Sea is legendary for being an oceanic black hole, where ships get ensnared by huge forests of floating seaweed, or drift helplessly when the wind ceases to blow.
The title invites the reader to consider how the characters can be thought of as trapped in their own Sargasso Seas. They may be suspended in the murky passage between two worlds, between England and Jamaica, for example, or between racial identities, as Antoinette struggles with her white Creole heritage. But the terrors of the Sargasso Sea are also largely mythical, the product of sailor lore rather than historical or scientific fact. By linking itself to this mythical tradition, the novel asks the reader to consider the role of stories and fictions in the characters' lives, particularly when it comes to encountering experiences that are foreign, alien, and strange.
To answer this question, we first have to figure out what the ending isn't. It is certainly true that Wide Sargasso Sea is a kind of prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. (For more on the Jane Eyre connection, see "In A Nutshell.") But we can't take for granted that what holds true for Jane Eyre holds true for Wide Sargasso Sea as well. Thus, while in Jane Eyre, Antoinette (called Bertha in Jane Eyre) sets Thornfield Hall on fire and leaps to her death, in Wide Sargasso Sea we never actually see Antoinette doing any of this except in her dream. In fact, the novel's last lines are ambiguous:
Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.
It is certainly possible that Antoinette will set fire to Thornfield Hall, but this becomes only one possibility among others. For "passage," the very last word of the novel, asks us to consider all of the different ways that Antoinette is passing from one state to another – physically, certainly, but psychologically, culturally, even politically as well.
Does Antoinette's appeal to black characters such as Tia and Christophine in her dream imply that she rejects her white Creole identity for a black Caribbean one, symbolized by her setting the house on fire just as the black rioters did to Coulibri earlier in the novel? Then why not show her actually doing this? Why keep it in a dream?
Or is the "passage" a passage into selfhood, a way of recovering from the psychological trauma that troubled her from childhood and into adulthood with her relationship with Rochester? As Part III progresses, she transitions from having no knowledge of who she is to remembering everything. Thus the fact that she has dreamed her dream for the last time, a dream that incorporates scenes from her entire life, could be a way of overcoming a life-long, self-destructive pattern of behavior.
Or is the passage a literary one, a passage that signals Antoinette's final emergence from behind the shadowy fiction of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre? With this view, Antoinette is neither a political heroine or psychologically cured, but just a dramatic representation of how voices are silenced in the great texts of English literature.
These are just a few of the possible outcomes, so go ahead – get lost in the novel for a while and see what you come up with. Appropriately for a novel that is itself a re-reading of a literary classic, the ending of Wide Sargasso Sea invites endless re-readings and interpretations.
While the novel never gives us the exact year, we know that the novel is set in Jamaica at some point after 1834. (By the end of Part I, Antoinette mentions that she enters the convent in 1839 [I.2.4.1].) While in Jane Eyre the events take place in the 1800s, Rhys moves the events up thirty years during a time of social and political upheaval in Jamaica, which is at the time a British colony.
The novel opens a few years after Britain passed the Emancipation Act of 1833, which went into effect a year later (fifteen years before the French, and nearly thirty years before the Americans, we should add). While slaveholders were promised compensation for freeing their slaves, many slaveholders, like Antoinette's father, Mr. Cosway, and her neighbor, Mr. Luttrell, never received payment and were ruined. The newly freed slaves, on the other hand, are stuck in an apprenticeship system for four years following the act which is just as bad as slavery: they're forced to apprentice for their former owners, and the punishment for escaping was just as bad as the punishment under slavery. Not surprisingly, the former slaves continue to bear a major grudge against their former owners, and riots are common. Because so many plantations go under, many English investors arrive at the island seeking a good deal – people like the Luttrells and Mr. Mason, and, indirectly, Rochester. It's tough to pity the former slaveholders, we know, and one important question is whether you feel that Rhys's novel seems at all nostalgic for that period in Jamaican history.
In Part II, the novel moves to Granbois, the Cosway estate outside Massacre, Dominica. Unlike Jamaica, Dominica has flip-flopped between British and French imperial control over the years. At the time, it is also known as a stronghold of the Caribs, an indigenous Caribbean people. In the past, the Caribs have periodically staged insurgencies against the British and the French. The name of the town "Massacre" refers to a particularly bloody massacre of the Caribs, but nobody who lives there remembers the massacre itself. It's just another creepy name, as far as they're concerned. (Learn more.) The name "Granbois," meaning "big tree" or "big wood," underscores the creepiness of the locale. There's nothing wrong with big trees in general, but in the novel, big trees echo the dark forests of Antoinette's nightmares.
The novel ends in Thornfield Hall, England, Rochester's home. Unlike Parts I and II, where we get lush descriptions of the Caribbean, we don't see much of England since most of it is from Antoinette's point of view, who's locked up in the attic. It's no wonder that she thinks she's stuck in a world made of cardboard, and not in England. Her belief that she's living in a world made of paper is a not-so-subtle hint that the novel has returned to the primary landscape of Jane Eyre, the Victorian novel which it freely adapts.
While the language is simple and easy to follow, the themes are complex, and it can be confusing sorting through all the different points of view.
We're not talking super-hard vocabulary or weird syntax here. The language in Wide Sargasso Sea is simple, but every word is weighted with enormous significance. Take the first line for example:
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.
There's nothing in those two sentences that a fifth-grader couldn't understand, but they open up a whole world for the reader. With the first line, you know you're not getting a comedy. You're in a time and place when "trouble," whatever it is, is a common occurrence. You're entering a situation that calls for a community to come together, and in the novel's world, that community has to be racially homogenous. You know with the next line that the narrator's family doesn't fit within the category of "white people," and, as the novel goes on, you know that just because they're not "white," doesn't mean that they're black, either – they're Creoles. Throughout the novel, everyday language is masterfully engineered to describe extraordinary situations.
Antoinette explains to Rochester that she "loved" the land because she "had nothing else to love" (II.6.3.36). You could say the land is itself a character in the novel. The description of the land sets the tone for the whole drama, as it reflects the various characters' emotions – lust and innocence, hope and despair, love and fear. From the lush gardens of Coulibri in Part I to the dense forests of Granbois in Part II, the land pulses with Technicolor brilliance. It's no wonder that Antoinette's only whiff of happiness in Part III occurs outside, in the English countryside, instead of in the miserable little room in which she's imprisoned. (For a fuller discussion of specific passages, see our discussion of "Contrasting Regions" under "Themes.")
The birds and animals in Wide Sargasso Sea are usually allegories for the struggles of the individual characters. Coco isn't just a pyromaniacal parrot who ends up saving everyone's lives, but a voice for Antoinette's own conflicted identity when he calls out, "Qui est là?" Cockroaches obviously echo the term "white cockroach," a derogatory epithet applied to white Creoles, but fireflies and moths also populate the novel's emotional life. A black-and-white goat appears after Rochester speaks with Daniel, as a symbol perhaps of Daniel's racial status or his moral duplicity, or Rochester's ambivalence regarding Daniel. And so forth, and so on. Like the land, the birds and the beasts of Wide Sargasso Sea are veritable actors in the drama of the novel, the extras in the background who sometimes steal the scene.
To all the fashionistas out there, you know how you feel when you've got the dress on. It could be vintage couture or an absolute steal you picked up at some post-post-clearance sale, but it fits you just right in all the right places. Men want you and women want to be you – or know where you bought it. For Antoinette, that dress is her red dress. It symbolizes her femininity, and, infused with the fragrance of Caribbean flowers and spices, it also symbolizes her Creole identity. It has an almost magical power to revive her in Part III, and the fact that it looks like a fire when it's spread out on the floor suggests one way that she can wreak her revenge on Rochester. The white dress, on the other hand, is associated with male dominance, rather than feminine chastity or wedded bliss. White is the color favored by her mother, and white is the color of the dress Antoinette wears in her nightmare.
Fire in the novel is associated with rebellion, both political and emotional. In Part I, ex-slaves set fire to Coulibri as an expression of their discontent, partly with Mr. Mason's plan to import slaves from the East Indies. Antoinette's dream of setting fire to Thornfield Hall in Part III suggests a parallel between the ex-slaves' protest and her own protest against Rochester and the patriarchal system he embodies.
The novel is a patchwork of various first-person narratives, told directly to the reader (Antoinette, Rochester) or told to another character (Grace Poole). Moreover, the narratives often relate the same events from different perspectives. For example, the events in Antoinette's childhood are relayed in Antoinette's narrative in Part I, then told from various gossipy points of view (Daniel, Amélie, Christophine, among them) to Rochester, then Antoinette again retells the story in an abbreviated form to Rochester. In all this story-telling, the novel never gives us access to the truth of what happens from the point of view of some impartial or omniscient observer, so it's easy to get lost in an endless spiral of who says what about whom.
Due to the tragic circumstances of her early life, Antoinette enters into adulthood with serious questions about the possibility of happiness, particularly when it comes to romantic love. She's already seen how her mother's trust in Mr. Mason as a source of financial security and physical well-being was totally betrayed. In the convent, she's surrounded by a community of women who have effectively repressed any physical desire they have for the sake of a purely celibate, spiritual love. Mr. Mason's suggestion that Antoinette is now ready to be married understandably fills her with dread.
In the early days of their marriage, Antoinette's fears about marriage seem unfounded. Rochester doesn't seem to be such a bad guy, and she starts to feel safe around him – so safe, in fact, that she enjoys a sexually satisfying relationship with him.
Alas, there's no happy ending in sight for Antoinette. Her blissful honeymoon is interrupted when Rochester receives a letter from Daniel Cosway/Boyd, who makes all kinds of allegations about her family and her own previous romantic attachments.
Desperate to recover the happiness she had with Rochester in the early days of their marriage, Antoinette decides to drug him into having sex with her. Unfortunately, this plan backfires as he gets her back right where it hurts the most: sex with Amélie, a woman who has repeatedly insulted her. And even more painfully, she has to listen to the whole thing go down because she's in the next room.
We've already discussed the problems with determining exactly what happens in the ending (See "What's Up with the Ending?"). But even if Antoinette doesn't actually die at the end, she experiences a kind of psychological death by virtue of the fact that she loses a firm grasp of her sense of self. Rochester's re-naming her Bertha and confining her to the attic destroys the woman known as Antoinette by re-drawing the boundaries of her identity.
Part I of the novel does most of the work of setting up the initial situation for us. We learn about the host of factors that contribute to Antoinette's unstable childhood. With her father dead and her family's finances in shambles, Antoinette and her family occupy a kind of no-man's-land in Jamaican society. Shunned by both whites and blacks, they make do for a couple of years until Annette realizes one day that she doesn't have the resources to raise her children well. So she has to provide for them in the only way she can as a white Creole woman – get hitched to someone rich and white. Enter Mr. Mason. But instead of giving her family security, her marriage with Mr. Mason ends up costing Annette her home, her son, her sanity – and her life. Annette's tragic experience is, for Antoinette, a legacy of insecurity and deep skepticism – really, fear – of society and of love, of her sexuality and her sense of self.
We know it's odd to describe a marriage as a conflict, but in Antoinette's turbulent world, marriage is an incredibly fraught thing. Marriage isn't a union of two people in love, but a financial arrangement manufactured by her stepfather and her stepbrother. Instead of insuring her security, her apparently well-intentioned stepfather's goal, Antoinette's wealth is signed over to Rochester, thus resulting in her loss of economic freedom. To be fair, Rochester in the beginning seems to have some genuine feeling for Antoinette – remember the part where he promises to trust her if she trusts him? But whether this promise can withstand all the baggage they bring into the relationship…well, that's why their marriage is a conflict.
Even though Daniel's letter is filled with all kinds of spiteful, self-aggrandizing comments that inspire skepticism in the reader, it preys on all of Rochester's insecurities. The fact that Antoinette's family might have a history of madness and degeneration brings out his ugly racial prejudices about Antoinette's being a white Creole. The fact that Antoinette might have had a relationship with Sandi Cosway brings out his own shame about having to marry someone for money and not for love, a luxury only the eldest son in the family can afford. Rochester isn't enraged after he receives the letter; he feels like it's saying something he already knows precisely because it plays on his insecurities. He doesn't really give Antoinette a chance to defend herself. From this point on, their course of their relationship has irrevocably changed.
Yes, we realize that there is a sexual climax at the climax of this novel. In the novel, sex isn't just a physical act, but a battleground on which all of the forces that shape the characters collide; orgasm isn't just a physical consummation, but an assertion of power of one will over another. When Rochester ingests the obeah powder, he sleeps with Antoinette, but he's also rendered into a virtual zombie: he loses his will, his reason, his identity, the very feeling of being a live, sentient human being. He punishes Antoinette by sleeping with Amélie, who has openly mocked Antoinette for being a "white cockroach." Rochester's infidelity absolutely destroys Antoinette and her hopes for happiness.
The climax, or climaxes, of the novel generate(s) a series of reactions that worsen the situation. Instead of talking things over reasonably, everyone – Antoinette, Rochester, and to a lesser degree Christophine – seems to feed off each other's volatile emotions until they become lost in a blazing mess of acrimony. In such a state, neither Antoinette nor Rochester seems able to distinguish love from hate, and they both alternate between fiery rage and icy calm. It's difficult to know who to believe or who to sympathize with at this point.
Rochester has Antoinette declared insane, ships her back to England, and locks her up in his attic. Confining her in this way is really only finishing off geographically what he's done to her on a physical and emotional level. Having already appropriated her fortune, he now lays claim to her entire person, symbolically indicated by the fact that he re-names her "Bertha." In Part III, Antoinette's narrative reflects this loss of self through her constant questioning of who and where she is.
While it may seem that the novel concludes with Antoinette's setting fire to Thornfield Hall, technically it's only in her dream where she sets fire to the house. The novel actually ends with Antoinette waking up from her dream and walking down a "dark passage." It's true that she says that she finally knows what she has to do, but she never specifies what this mysterious task is. For a fuller discussion of the ending, see our "What's Up with the Ending?" But let's just note here that the open-endedness of the ending seems fitting for a novel that has been driven by conflicting perspectives, a novel that has never given us readers the "truth" of what happened from an impartial or omniscient point of view. No one in the novel is exempt from its relentless perspectival clashing, not even the seemingly cool and calculating Rochester, and the novel isn't about to let us off the hook either.
After a troubled childhood and adolescence, Antoinette meets and marries Edward Rochester.
While their honeymoon is passionate at first, it cools drastically when Rochester receives a letter containing malicious gossip about Antoinette. It becomes downright frigid when Antoinette drugs Rochester and Rochester sleeps with Antoinette's maid.
Rochester hides Antoinette away in his estate in England, but she escapes with murderous dreams of setting fire to the whole place.