Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

Like many readers before me, my main question after finishing Jane Eyre was about Bertha Mason: who was she and why was she driven mad? I am always skeptical of the “madwoman in the attic” trope. It is too often used to reduce women’s rich internal lives and ignore the cause of their supposed “madness.” It is this insanity that Jean Rhys explores throughout her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, giving life to a previously static character.

Who Was Bertha Mason?

An illustration of Bertha Mason from the second edition of Jane Eyre. The image says that it is public domain and I got it from Wikimedia Commons so I think it is alright to use this image. I am not sure though?
An illustration of Bertha Mason from the
second edition of Jane Eyre (1847)

Antoinette Cosway (whose name later changes to Bertha Mason) was born into a slaveholding family in Jamaica. Shortly after her birth, all of the slaves were liberated and her father died, presumably after drinking himself to death. Naturally, the Cosways were treated terribly after their slaves were emancipated and their house fell into disrepair. The former slaves hated the Cosways which led to Bertha’s mother going insane shortly afterwards. The tension escalated with the former slaves burning down their estate, in an event hauntingly similar to Bertha Mason burning down Mr. Rochester’s mansion in Jane Eyre.

It is quite interesting how these events are treated in the novel because Antoinette is relatively ignorant of her family history. Thus, she presents them as monumentally unfair. However, from a historical standpoint, the former slaves’ anger is arguably completely justified. Throughout the novel Antoinette is completely unaware of why things, particularly bad things, are happening to her. In many ways, she is a victim to the patriarchal and racial systems that determined her place in society and these effects drove her to insanity—this is typical of “madwomen in the attic.” Antoinette’s step brother viewed her as property and her husband viewed her the same way, only marrying her for her wealth. She was tossed around from house to house while being given absolutely no information, or choice, in the matter.

“They are both fighting each other for control of the other…”

However, it is incorrect to posit that Antoinette is only a victim, which seems to be the point of her character. Every character in the novel is morally gray, both harming other characters and being harmed themselves. After her relationship with Mr. Rochester sours, Bertha turns to her nurse, Christophine, for obeah magic so that she can rekindle their relationship. The novel insinuates that Antoinette sexually assaults him and he wakes up feeling violated. Later, Mr. Rochester sleeps with one of the maids within earshot of Antoinette in an effort to reclaim his freedom. They are both fighting each other for control of the other, both trying to remove the others’ sense of self. The actions that Mr. Rochester and Antoinette take towards each other are equal parts insidious and understandable.

Mr. Rochester arrived in Jamaica and was immediately lied to about Antoinette and her family so that she could marry him, and upon learning these lies, he felt betrayed and coerced. At one point in the novel, Mr. Rochester also begins calling Antoinette, “Bertha,” primarily as a means of control and separating her from her true identity as well as separate his mental image of her from the person who lied to him. This action is dehumanizing and, as Antoinette mentions, “names are important,” so changing one has a much broader impact.

“She cannot bring herself to see the truth: that they lost their way en route and, perhaps, never truly arrived.”

The prose in Wide Sargasso Sea is both beautiful and haunting, just like the novel as a whole. When Antoinette is narrating, her stream-of-consciousness style meanders through her various traumas. It mimics the landscape and her surreal relationship with it. Rochester’s prose begins as very proper English, but the more time he spends in Jamaica, the more his narrations resemble his wife’s and the more fantastical he becomes. Both of these characters feel as though they are in a dream world when they are in each other’s homes. When Antoinette is in England, she refuses to even acknowledge that they are in England because it defies her worldview so drastically. She cannot bring herself to see the truth: that they lost their way en route and, perhaps, never truly arrived.

Though the premise of this novel is fan fiction, the end result is a stand-alone work. The reader walks away confused, unsure if the characters are likable, or even telling the truth. Both Mr. Rochester and Antoinette’s actions are justified in some sense, but also hurt each other very deeply. Each character in the novel functions this way, leaving the reader wondering who is in fact reliable and trustworthy.

Ultimately, Wide Sargasso Sea provides a beautiful and terrifying picture of the effects of isolation. Mr. Rochester is a stranger in Jamaica, and Antionette is a white creole girl on an island surrounded by her former slaves. They are both out of place, but do not have a true place either, which drives them to hurt each other in insurmountable ways to escape from their drowning feelings of solitude. Overall, it was a wonderful read and adds rich new texture to Jane Eyre.

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