Study Guide

Wide Sargasso Sea Themes

  • Race

    Race is absolutely integral to the way that the characters understand themselves and their place in society. Some writers and scholars claim that Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea portrays black characters as flat stereotypes – child-like, primitive, animalistic. But what if we were to give the novel the benefit of the doubt? That's not to say we should excuse the language. Instead, we might consider how everything is told from a character's point of view, and not necessarily the author's. It could be that these characters' expectations about race are tested by the novel itself, particularly with a Creole character such as Antoinette, who alternately identifies with both white and black communities. (See our discussion of "Race" in "Character Clues" for a rundown of racial categories operating at the time of the novel.)

    Questions About Race

    1. What are the different characters' attitudes toward race? How do these attitudes affect the way they perceive themselves and relate to other people?
    2. How are different races depicted in the novel? Do you find that the black characters are less complex or sympathetic than the white or Creole characters, or vice versa? Why?
    3. How do issues of class and gender complicate the issue of race in the novel? For example, how does the situation of a black female character such as Amélie exhibit similarities or differences with the situation of a Creole female character such as Antoinette?

    Chew on This

    While Antoinette is often critical of Rochester for his hypocritical attitude toward racial equality, Antoinette does not recognize the extent of her own racial prejudices.

    Black characters in the novel seem to lack depth or voice only because they are presented through the eyes of white or Creole characters; the novel presents black characters in this way to show how racial stereotypes contribute to the representation of non-white characters.

  • Identity

    While Antoinette's constant questioning of who she is takes center stage, many of the other characters in Wide Sargasso Sea also struggle to make sense of their identities during the tumultuous historical period described in the novel. Characters must navigate challenges to the ways that race, gender, and class affect their identities. Their mental states are often altered due to illness, alcohol, narcotics, or even obeah. Often, other characters serve as mirrors or doubles who reveal unexpected desires and commonalities, as Tia does for Antoinette.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How do race, class, gender, and culture affect the characters' identities and their attitudes toward each other?
    2. What specific events bring on identity crises for different characters? How do they respond to these crises? Do you think they come out of these crises with a stronger sense of who they are, or do you think these crises leave the characters shattered and powerless?
    3. How do the characters' relationships affect their sense of who they are? How do friendships, family relations, relationships between masters and servants, and romantic relationships empower or destroy the characters?

    Chew on This

    Ironically, Antoinette's relationships with the people closest to her in terms of race and class contribute to her breakdown; it is only in her relationships with characters from other races and classes – such as Tia and Christophine – that she feels most comfortable with herself.

    In showing how Rochester unwittingly mimics Caribbean cultural practices, such as the practice of obeah, the novel demonstrates that his effort to distinguish Caribbean characters as essentially alien and different from himself is futile.

  • 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

    1. 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?
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.

  • Love

    You're more likely to see the theme of love treated in Wide Sargasso Sea under one of its many associated emotions: desire, lust, trust, and happiness, but also hate, fear, and jealousy. Romantic love in the novel is constantly thwarted by all the baggage the characters bring into their relationship, including their past histories and their ideas about race, gender, and class. Antoinette is not necessarily exempt from the same kind of racism that marks Rochester's attitude toward herself and Amélie, as her relationship with Sandi Cosway shows. (For a longer discussion of death as a metaphor for sexuality, see "Mortality.")

    Questions About Love

    1. Think about Annette's experiences and Antoinette's religious education. How do they affect Antoinette's attitude toward romantic love?
    2. How do different characters perceive the relationship between sexual desire and love? Between love and happiness?
    3. How do male and female characters differ on issues of love, marriage, and sex? In addition to Antoinette and Rochester, you might also want to look at Christophine, Amélie, Aunt Cora, Richard Mason, and Daniel.
    4. What do Antoinette's and Rochester's sexual or romantic relationships with other characters tell us about their attitudes toward love? Consider, for example, Antoinette's relationship with Sandi Cosway or Rochester's with Amélie.

    Chew on This

    For Rochester, neither Antoinette nor Amélie are worthy of romantic love because of their racial status; instead, they are objects to be owned and enjoyed sexually.

    In the novel, marriage is often a financial transaction that deprives women of economic and political power; only women who can work outside marital boundaries such as Christophine, Amélie, and Aunt Cora can assert some control over their own lives.

  • Mortality

    While there are certainly many deaths in Wide Sargasso Sea (Antoinette's entire family, for example), neither Antoinette nor Rochester actually die. Instead, death for them becomes a potent metaphor for all of the ways in which selves can be lost, transformed, or destroyed. The novel plays on the literary tradition of equating death with orgasm in order to suggest how sex between the characters can be a form of control, rather than pleasure. The novel is also littered with people who act like zombies, beings that are both alive and dead, and ghosts, beings that are neither alive nor dead.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. What are the different ways of dying in the novel? Consider, for example, death as a metaphor for sex, death as social death or a retreat from society, death as a loss of sanity, and death as a loss of identity.
    2. What are some specific instances where characters act as if they were dead, as zombies or ghosts? What does this death-like state say about their situation or their state of mind?
    3. How can death be understood not as the loss of a self, but as a necessary step toward the development of a new understanding of the self? For example, consider different ways of reading Antoinette's last dream at the end of the novel.

    Chew on This

    In Wide Sargasso Sea, zombies, or the living dead, are used to symbolize the different ways that characters can be physically alive but socially or emotionally dead at the same time.

    Antoinette's dream of committing suicide at the end of Wide Sargasso Sea actually signifies her rejection of her racial prejudices and her ultimate identification with the black Caribbean community.

  • The Supernatural

    Obeah (called "vodou" or "voodoo" in the French-speaking Caribbean), a folk religion indigenous to the Caribbean, casts a huge shadow over this novel, though whether its magic really works is up for debate. (Read more about obeah here). Obeah seems to inspire fear more through what it's rumored to do rather than through actual feats of magic. The Haitian revolution in 1791 was thought to be initiated by a voodoo ceremony, and obeah practitioners were imprisoned because they were thought to encourage slave insurrections (Rhys 1999: 75). In Wide Sargasso Sea, obeah is often juxtaposed to Christian beliefs and to rational, scientific thought, bringing up questions about how different systems of belief operate.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. How are obeah and the practice of religion, specifically Christianity, similar? Consider, for example, the use of prayers and incantations, the importance of relics or holy/magical objects, and the figure of female practitioners, such as Christophine and Sister Marie Augustine.
    2. Do you think Christophine's magic actually "works" in the world of the novel? If not, why do you think everybody is so terrified of Christophine? How does Christophine exert her influence over other people?
    3. How do magical elements contribute to the novel's representation of life in the Caribbean?

    Chew on This

    In the novel, neither obeah nor Christianity are shown to be a superior way of understanding the world; both are shown to be belief systems that require the radical suspension of critical thought on the part of the individual.

    The novel demystifies the magic of obeah by showing how it is a culturally specific expression of a community's identity and history.

  • Power

    Wide Sargasso Sea investigates the theme of power by looking at such institutions as marriage, empire, and slavery. These institutions are all ways in which a person or a group of people can dominate others. For Antoinette and her mother, marriage is a legal arrangement that results in the loss of their economic freedom. Through characters such as Mr. Mason and the Luttrells, the novel shows how the island colonies provided a rich source of income to England, the seat of imperial power. And racial relations continue to register the effects of slavery, even after it is officially ended in 1833, as the hostility of the Cosways' former slaves attest.

    Questions About Power

    1. How does the novel register the consequences of the Emancipation Act of 1833? Have racial relations improved after the abolition of slavery, or do racial hostilities persist? What are some of the causes of persistent racial antagonism?
    2. How are the characters affected by the legal ramifications of marriage in the novel? In what ways does marriage serve the needs of a patriarchal society?
    3. How are the economic, social, and political structures of colonial Jamaica described in the novel? Can certain relationships between the characters be viewed as allegories for the exploitative system of imperialism? If so, how?
    4. Given the systems of social, economic, and political oppression described in the novel, how do characters express their resistance to these systems? Do you think their resistance is effective?

    Chew on This

    Rochester uses the rhetoric of chastity, legality, and sanity to justify his control over Antoinette and her fortune.

    What appears to the white characters as mere laziness or irrational, destructive behavior is actually an expression of protest on the part of the black Caribbean community against continuing economic and political injustices.

  • Versions of Reality

    As you read Wide Sargasso Sea, you might catch yourself asking, "OK, would somebody please tell me what's really going on here?" And you wouldn't be alone. In a novel that's written in such a deceptively simple style, all we get are different versions of events, and never what really happened. Without an objective, omniscient narrator telling us what's going on, the novel invites us to question the distinction between dream and reality, madness and sanity, superstition and reason, truth and falsity. By giving us a patchwork of different, equally compelling perspectives, the novel casts suspicion on anyone who would dare dismiss any one of those perspectives as less valid than the others.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. The novel never gives us an objective point of view, just the events as told through various characters. How does withholding the "truth" of what happened affect the way we read the novel? Is it possible that there's any "truth" to be found?
    2. How does the novel differentiate between Antoinette's and Rochester's ways of looking at the world? How are they similar? Is Antoinette in fact mad, and Rochester sane and rational?
    3. What is the relationship between Antoinette's recurring nightmares and the rest of the novel? Do dreams offer her a way to process particularly troubling events? Do they reveal hidden wishes or desires? Are they actual glimpses of the future? Or are they something else entirely? If they're only dreams, why are dream elements popping up in Rochester's reality?

    Chew on This

    Antoinette's psychological instability is not due to racial or genetic factors, as Rochester believes, but precipitated by the numerous traumatic experiences that have shattered her sense of self.

    By presenting not only different narratives, but also different representations of the same story through dreams, letters, and rumors, the novel calls attention to the different ways in which fictions contribute to our understanding of reality.

  • Contrasting Regions

    England and the Caribbean are constantly opposed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but what's more important is to think of England and the Caribbean are ideas, products of the imagination. England is just as much an exotic fiction to Antoinette and Christophine as the Caribbean is to Rochester. By exoticizing England in this way, the novel is overturning a long tradition of looking at non-European countries as other, alien, uncivilized – and thus ripe for colonial conquest, as seen in Rochester's constant attempt to get at the "secret" of the locale. Instead of being a far-off, foreign locale, the Caribbean becomes a place that reflects back on the characters' own notions of Englishness – you could say that one set of islands is a reflection of the other.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. What aspects of England and the Caribbean are described in the novel? What aspects seem to be familiar and welcoming, and what aspects seem to be exotic or hostile?
    2. How do the representations of each region reflect the characters' firsthand experience with the region, as opposed to what they may have learned through hearsay or through texts?
    3. Do any of the characters ever feel completely at home in the Caribbean? Why or why not? What do their feelings say about their relationship to Caribbean society and culture in general? And to England and English society and culture?

    Chew on This

    Antoinette's experience of homelessness in both England and the Caribbean indicates how she is doubly at a disadvantage in both societies as a Creole and as a woman.

    By reducing England to a cardboard box and accentuating the brilliant natural landscape of the Caribbean, Rhys overturns an English literary tradition of viewing the Caribbean as an exotic world home to everything foreign and hostile to English civilization, and indeed, to civilization in general.