Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

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Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

Main Characters in Wide Sargasso Sea

Antoinette Bertha Cosway Mason (Rochester) – The narrator for much of the novel. Antoinette is Creole, meaning European but born in the colonies. She loves her homeland, but is also afraid of it. Her ancestors were plantation owners, but since emancipation she is very poor and called a “white nigger” by many of the local blacks. After her home is burned down and her brother killed, her mother goes mad and she spends the rest of her childhood in a convent. She inherits much of her mother’s emotional fragility. She marries an Englishman, who decides she is a lunatic and takes her back to Britain and locks her in an attic, where she eventually burns down the house.

Christophine – Antoinette’s da, an old servant of Coulibri who remains loyal to Antoinette and follows her wherever she goes. Christophine is wanted around Jamaica for her practice of Obeah (Voudou), however, she is wise and respected among both blacks and whites. She offers her love potion for her husband, and, when the girl overhears her husband having sex with Amelie, gives her sleeping potions that make her sick.

Pierre – Antoinette’s “cretin” brother, born with some sort of mental and/or physical birth defect. He dies when Coulibri is burned, and his death deeply affects his mother.

Annette Cosway – Antoinette and Pierre’s mother, a socialite from Martinique. She marries Alexander, a drunkard, an then Mr. Mason, a rich man. She is always disaffected and seems on the verge of insanity, but after the fire, she descends completely into madness and tries to kill her husband. She rejects her daughter and is left to two “coloured” wardens who repeatedly rape her, and she eventually dies.

Alexander Cosway – Annette’s first husband and Antoinette’s father. A drunkard with many bastard children.

Aunt Cora – Annette’s sister and Antoinette’s aunt. Aunt Cora takes care of Antoinette after her mother goes insane.

Sandi – Antoinette’s cousin, with who it is implied she has sexual relations

Mr Mason – Annette’s second husband. He sends Antoinette to live in a convent school, and then has her married off to an Englishman

Richard Mason – Mr. Mason’s son, and Antoinette’s half brother. In Jane Eyre, he shows up at Mr. Rochester and Jane’s wedding to announce that Antoinette Bertha does indeed exist and therefore Mr. Rochester cannot marry.

Tia – Antoinette’s childhood playmate who calls her a “white nigger” and throws a rock at her head when Coulibri is burned

Godfrey – one of the servants at Coulibri

Luttrell – The Cowsways neighbors at Coulibri. Mr. Luttrell is Annette’s only friend until he swims out to sea.

Antoinette’s Unnamed English Husband (Mr. Rochester) – based off of Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester, though never explicitly named. He comes to the Carribbean to marry into wealth, and Mr. Mason pays him a large sum to wed Antoinette, which he does immediately and almost without having spoken to her. He feels lust but not love for her, decides she is insane, and takes her back to England where he locks her in an attic.

Amelie – a servant at Granbois who frequently laughs at the newlywed couple and tells the Englishman husband she is sorry for him. She calls Antoinette a “white cockroach,” and when Antoinette slaps her, Amelie slaps right back. The English husband sleeps with Amelie within hearing of his wife knowingly, and offers her money, which she refuses. Amelie then leaves for Massacre.

Hilda – a shy girl who works at Granbois and constantly giggles at the newlyweds, which irks them

Baptiste – the overseer of Granbois, who wields authority their and seeks out the English husband when he gets lost by the Voudou shack.

Jo-Jo – Christophine’s son

Daniel Cosway – Supposedly Alexander Cosway’s bastard child by a black woman. He threatens to blackmail the English husband into paying him off to remain silent about Antoinette’s past.

Grace Poole – Antoinette Bertha’s caretaker at the English husband’s manor in Britain.

Plot Summary of Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

Part One

(Narrated by Antoinette) A young Antoinette Cosway lives on an ex-plantation with her mother, sickly brother Pierre, and a few servants/ex-slaves, including her "da" Chrstophine. Her mother remarries the wealthy Mr. Mason, but tensions rise between the whites and the blacks during the 1830s and 1840s due to the Emancipation Act and subsequent attempts by white landowners to keep a tight grip on their free labor. Local blacks burn down Coulibri (the Cosway/Masons home), Pierre dies in the fire, and Anette goes mad. Antoinette is sent off to convent boarding school.

Part Two

(Narrated by Antoinette's husband, except for one scene) Antoinette has been recently married, and the newlyweds go to Granbois, where they are briefly nervous but lustful and happy, before David starts sending letters telling the English husband about Antoinette's sordid past. He recoils from her and begins calling her by her middle name: Bertha. Bertha seeks out an Obeah love potion from Christophine, who provides it. The husband merely feels poisoned, however, and instead sleeps with Amelie. Bertha overhears this and runs to Christophine, who drugs her with sleep potion but eventually brings her back to Granbois at her request. The husband sends Christophine away, declares Bertha a lunatic, and brings them both back to England.

Part Three

Bertha is locked in the attack of her husband's English manor and attended by Grace. She sneaks out at night and roams the house. On evening, she burns it down, and jumps out the window to her death.

Plot Summary of Jane Eyre

Jane is an orphan, and is sent to boarding school, where she excels. She becomes a teacher, then leaves and becomes a governess at Thornfield. She falls in love with the guardian of the child she tutors, Mr. Rochester. He loves her in return, and after attempting to make her jealous, proposes. On their wedding day, however, Richard Mason shows up and announces Mr. Rochester is already married to a lunatic (Bertha). This apparently explains the ghostly presence Jane has noticed. Jane runs away and goes to live with her cousin St. John, who eventually proposes to her and asks her to be a missionary with him. Jane refuses, and goes back to Thornfield to find Mr. Rochester. In the meantime, Bertha has burned the manor down and killed herself. The fire maimed and blinded Mr. Rochester, but Jane finds him and they marry.

The Great Connection

Rhys's Antoinette becomes Bronte's Bertha. The Wide Sargasso Sea is a Prequel to Jane Eyre.

The Authors and Their Heroines

portrait of Charlotte Brontë
a signed photograph of Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys

Rhys was born in 1890 in Rosseau, Dominica to a Creole mother and a Welsh doctor. She was a Creole (in the sense meaning of European descent but born in the islands) living in a predominantly black community, much like Antoinette. She went to boarding school in England at age 17. Rhys had a nursemaid, Meta, who is arguably similar to Christophine. Rhys returned to Dominica after the riots of 1844 (following Emancipation) to see her old home burned to the ground, much as Antoinette's is. [1]

Charlotte Brontë

Brontë was born in 1816 in Yorkshire, England. Her mother died when she was only five years old. Brontë and her sisters were sent to Clergy Daughter, a boarding school with dire conditions. She left to teach her sisters at home, but soon departed to become a teacher at Roe Head, the inspiration for Jane's Lowood. Brontë later became a teacher at Roe Head, where she was miserable, and switched to being a governess three years later, positions also occupied by her protagonist. The Rev. A. B. Nicholls proposed marriage to Brontë in 1852, but she refused, but she gave in two years later. That year, while pregnant, she caught pneumonia and died.[2]


Changes Rhys Made to the Jane Eyre Story

A Shift in Time

Jane Eyre takes place between 1798 and 1808 and is narrated between 1818 and 1889. Wide Sargasso Sea changes the time period to coincide with the British Emancipation Act of 1833, which freed slaves in the Caribbean. Under the following “apprenticeship system,” former slave-owners were supposed to be compensated for lost slaves, but generally were not. The now ‘free’ blacks were not compensated, nominally or otherwise. This change allows for more social and political commentary on events in Jamaica and Dominica, and also explains the Cosways abject poverty. It also allowed for her to include her personal experience of having witnessed the burned houses after the riots.

Family and Naming

In ‘’Jane Eyre,’’ Mr. Mason and Richard Mason are Bertha’s father and brother, as opposed to stepfather and stepbrother. In choosing to remove them from her blood, Rhys makes Antoinette more of an orphan, and thus, both more sympathetic and more like Jane. The orphaning further emphasizes Antoinette’s failure to belong anywhere – she is neither black nor white enough, rich nor native enough. She has no mother or father, and no motherland or fatherland [3]Jane, too, struggles to find where she belongs in a society that rejects her. Bertha’s name in ‘’Jane Eyre’’ is in fact “Antoinetta Bertha,” a more English version of Antoinette’s. In making her more French and connecting her to her mother, Rhys continues to make Antoinette a worldly, sympathetic character, and one who, as opposed to Jane, has some connection with her mother [4]

Antoinette's husband also remains unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, although it is presumed to be Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre. However, Rhys names Bertha, Mr. Mason, Richard Mason, and Grace - why not name Mr. Rochester as well? Rhody suggests is is because he is anonymous, lost, and in land that it is struggling to find its identity or "paternity." [5]

Making Bertha Sympathetic

Bronte herself wrote that she felt she hadn't fully realized Bertha's humanity, and had instead used her as a means for an end [6]. Rhys explores the other side of Bertha Mason, nee Antoinette Cosway. Instead of making her a total lunatic, she shows the chain of events that lead to her being driven mad, including those events caused by Rochester himself. Genetics, love, loss, violence, magic, and poison are also implicated. The reader is led to ask, instead, how Bertha could possibly have stayed sane.

Symbolism

Fire

In Jane Eyre, Jane is often compared to fire. She is described as "a ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring" (ch. 4)[7]. Antoinette is fascinated by fire, and the moths which is draws. Rochester (in Wide Sargasso Sea), too, loves both the candles Antoinette is constantly setting out and the enormous fireflies of the Caribbean. His infatuation (however brief) with these two fiery women is no surprise, then. The most obvious instances of fire occur when Coulibri is burned and Anette drops into insanity, and Bertha reverses the process, burning Thornfield to end her own insanity by ending her life.

Eden/Garden

Wide Sargasso Sea starts in the edenic paradise of Coulibri - it is lush, beautiful, and lovely. It is not innocent, however, and has become dilapidated through lack of care and the evils of sloth and slavery. Antoinette even descrbies a "snaky-looking" vine - a clear allusion to the serpent in Eden (Rhys 19[8]). Jane, too, has a garden which she describes as "Eden-like," and it is here that Mr. Rochester proposes to her. The storm that night, however, and the splitting of the chestnut tree, or perhaps the proposal itself, disturbs the peace of the garden and causes it to lose its innocence. The future course of the couple does not run smooth.

"Glittering"

The book Antoinette's English husband has been reading, The Glittering Coronet of Isles, appears to be a history of the Caribbean islands. It explains Obeah to him, thus englightening him to the 'black magic' that poisons him and eventually contributes to Antoinette's descent into madness. In Jane Eyre, there is much mention of glitter, particularly after Mr. Rochester has gone blind from the fire. He asks Jane, "Have you a glittering ornament round your neck?" (Jane Eyre ch. 38). This is the first hint that his sight is returning. Thus, glittering both foreshadows love's downfall and redemption.

Dolls

In both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester's love interests are referred to as dolls. In Jane Eyre, Jane says that she "never can bear being dressed like a doll by Mr. Rochester" when he attempts to buy her a new wardrobe and, in so doing, rejects the thought that she is anything less than a person and any less a person than Rochester is. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the unnamed husband says, in reference to Antoinette, that "the doll had a doll's voice." At this point, the husband has sent Christophine away after she has administered the "medicine" to Antoinette, so Antoinette is almost literally a doll. He is able to move her where he likes and put her in the attic like an old toy that is no longer of value. The two women being referred to as dolls shows the low and almost proprietary status that women had in society.

Cross-Over Moments

  • Christophine tells Antoinette, "Your face like dead woman and your eyes red like soucriant" (WSS 70. Soucriants were a Voudou legend of female spirits which looked human but sucked blood. VS Jane describes Bertha as a "German spectre - the Vampyre" (JE Ch. 25)
  • The husband describes a poisoned Antoinette as "this red-eyed wild-haired stranger who was my wife shouting obscenities at me" (WSS 79). VS Jane describes Bertha as "It was a discoloured face--it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflammation of the lineaments" (JE ch. 25).
  • The English husband (foreshadows?): I said loudly and wildly, "And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place" (WSS 96). VS In Jane Eyre, he is blinded by the fire.
  • "'Infamous daughter of an infamous mother,' he said to me [Antoinette] (110). VS Rochester describes Bertha as "the true daughter of an infamous mother" (ch 27).

Movie Trailers

Jane Eyre

Wide Sargasso Sea

Other Media

A Man Speaking Patois


References

  1. Page, Eimer. "Jean Rhys Biography." The Imperial Archive Project. the Queen's University of Belfast, 1997. Web. 28 Mar 2011. <http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofEnglish/imperial/carib/rhysbio.htm>.
  2. Margaret Lane (1953) The Brontë Story: a reconsideration of Mrs. Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë.
  3. From Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993) 300-25.
  4. From Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993) 300-25.
  5. From Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993) 300-25.
  6. From ARIEL,A Review of International English Literature, 8:3 (July 1977). Copyright 1977 The Board of Governors and The University of Calgary.
  7. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Margaret Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
  8. Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
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