Coco and Antoinette: A Parallel

It is clear to me that Wide Sargasso Sea was written by Jean Rhys to make a clear statement about the unfair representation of the Caribbean and its peoples in Jane Eyre. This statement is decidedly anti imperialism and highlights the subtly racial stereotyping found in Jane Eyre. This is evident in the way she highlights the social struggles left over from competing British and French colonization and slave emancipations, and in the way Antoinette’s descent into madness and ultimate death is hastened by her removal from her home and intentional isolation from society by her husband. Antoinette’s death is sad but easily predictable by the trail of breadcrumbs Rhys leaves throughout the text to foreshadow it. We are a story about Coco’s change after Mason’s arrival, namely that, “After Mr Mason clipped his wings he grew very bad tempered, and though he would sit quietly on my mother’s shoulder, he darted at everyone who came near her and pecked their feet” (25). It is important to note that Coco’s wings were clipped by her mother’s husband and that Rhys notes it is bad luck to see a parrot die. This serves as forshadowing for Antoinettes fiery suicide at the end of the novel. Like Coco with his clipped wings pecking at feet, Antoinette’s loss of freedom as she is locked away in the third-storey room only further enraged her, pushing her to act out in violence “…once to secrete a knife with which she stabbed her brother, and twice to possess herself of the key to her cell, and issue therefrom in the night-time” (129). These violent outbursts do not gain her the freedom she seeks and continue to escalate to the point of Antoinette lighting her prison on fire and throwing herself from the roof. We are given an image of Antoinette straddling the roof “waving her arms, above the battlements, and shouting… She was a big woman, and had long black hair: I could see it streaming against the flames as she stood… she yelled, and gave a spring, and the next minute she layed smashed on the pavement” (131). This scene brought to mind her mother’s beloved pet parrot Coco’s final swan song off the deck of her family home in Dominica where Antoinette tells us, “I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire… I heard someone say something about bad luck and remembered that it was very unlucky to kill a parrot, or even to see a parrot die” (25). Like Coco, Antoinette had he wings clipped by her husband, who’s racist tendencies colored him against her from the start and led to him locking her away from the world in his home. Anointte seeking death over spending another second imprisoned by the white man she was convinced to marry strengthens Rhy’s stand against imperialism. It makes a statement that, like Antoinette, the Creoles would rather see death then be forced under the thumb of the white men that enslaved them.

Rochester: Real or Fake?

Rochester: Real or Fake?

After finishing both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, I have decided that I like the latter more than the former. I feel like some will judge me as an English major that prefers Rhys to Bronte but I do. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea is mentally and emotionally all over the place. At the close of section 2, he is thinking to himself and decides, “I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”  Rochester is preparing to leave the island with his mad bride and to think back on this journey that led him to this is fascinating. Rochester in Jane Eyre is calm, assertive, and self-assured, but Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea is paranoid, insecure, and irrational. A complete stranger claiming to be his wife’s illegitimate brother send him a letter telling him she is mad. Rochester believes him. He has felt so insecure and on the outside of some conspiratorially secret since he arrived that when this man offers him an answer he jumps at the chance to believe it. Rochester has felt like an outsider since he married his wife and he doesn’t know why his marriage isn’t what he wants it to be, so he decides to believe a stranger who claims his wife is crazy. “How can one discover the truth, I thought, and that thought led me nowhere. No one would tell me the truth. Not my father nor Richard Mason, certainly not the girl I had married. I stood still, so sure I was being watched that I looked over my shoulder. Nothing but the trees and the green light under the trees.” This quotation further illustrates Rochester’s paranoia and his belief that everyone is hiding some truth from him. Which Rochester is his true self. Is Rochester truly the put together gentleman as he appears in Jane Eyre or is he simply better at disguising his deep-seeded insecurities and paranoia that are so apparent in Wide Sargasso Sea? This would help readers to understand his actions in Jane Eyre towards his ‘wife’ Bertha. Thinking that it is ok to lock her up and pretend she doesn’t exist. Perhaps he is really trying to lock up his past when he was paranoid, insecure, and naïve towards his life.

 

Flipping “The Other” in Wide Sargasso Sea

Parts 1 and 2 of Wide Sargasso Sea are spent in the Caribbean Islands, primarily Jamaica and later Trinidad. From here we sit and view the englishmen and women of Bronte’s novel as Rhys does. Only in the final part of the book do we visit Rhys’s England. By this point we find ourselves attached to the Caribbean as Rhys and Antionette are, leaving us longing to return to the lush and wild lands across the sea.
We are introduced to Jamaica through the eyes of a very young, very lonely Antionette. Her family and community at large seem to range from ignoring her to openly despising her, following her home whilst throwing jeering names and punishing her with rocks and isolation. We are not openly explained as to why, beyond her mistake of being born to the ‘wrong’ crowd, as it were. So, alone and lonely, she turned to the wilderness for comfort, seemingly her only comfort. Still, the place was not entirely kind to her. Shortly after losing her only companion, Tia, over a disagreement and a stolen dress, she goes deep into the forest. There she encounters the dangerous parts of nature — snakes, poisonous ants, even the very grass itself seems to reach out and cut at her. Her only response? “It’s better than people”(Part 1, page 16). From this rather ugly introduction we grow to love the natural world as she does, understanding it as being more alive than some of the human characters. There is also the community of Jamaica and it’s relationship to the environment. Despite being a ‘civilized’ society, the people of the Caribbean retain a deep spiritual root to the natural spirits, best seen here in the reaction to the death of the parrot that belonged to Antoinette’s mother. The parrot burns to death in a fire meant to kill Antoinette and her family, which was lit by the collective township. The township closes in on them with great voracity until they all witness the parrot try to escape and fall into the flames. After this rather brutal death scene, the violence of the townsmen seem to dissipate. They are overcome with the spiritual significance of this act of violence and we the audience feel the heaviness. We understand their suffering, mainly Antoinette’s, not as onlookers but as one of the community.
After this deep and introspective dive into caribbean culture, part two comes as a jarring shift in perspective. We shift from Antionette to ‘the man’ who we can assume to be Rochester from Bronte’s novel. Here he is a younger man, the second son of well to do englishman. He marries (now adult) Antionette and the two go off together to Trinidad for their honeymoon. From there on we truck along as he grumbles and grouses about both the tiniest and largest of details. This is especially true for his wife, whom he admits “[he] did not love. [he] was thirsty for her, but that is not love. [He] felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to [him], a stranger who did not think or feel as [he] did” (Part 2, page 55). The ironic part is that now he is the outsider in a land that does not understand him. Often we see him physically overwhelmed by the physical surroundings, calling the water itself “‘extreme green”(Part 2, page 41), referring to the entire area as having “an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness”(Part 2, Page 53). As he admires and desires Antoinette, so does he view her lands with the same possessive eye. Yet we can not go with him on this, because we know Antoinette. We know her better than we know  this man whom we are expected to follow. We relate when she makes references to her life that he does not care to understand. He is now the “other”, from a far away land that we know little about save from characters’ stories. This other, however, is one to be feared — they are the conquerors in this scenario, and we the subjugated, fetishized natives. We know Antoinette’s fate from the beginning, her sad beginnings only making her inevitable captivity even harder to bear. We carry it with us as the reader throughout the story until it reaches it’s tragic conclusion. This is not the tale of a people fending off a mysterious threat, this is a tragedy about the fate of those who do not belong. By placing us alongside Antoinette, we see the horror of subjugation and we feel the helplessness that define’s her life. Antoinette and her people become people, which may sound like a small thing but is most certainly not. Rhys forces us to re-humanize those whom we would rather leave as beasts.

Two [Stories] Diverge…

Wide Sargasso Sea answers, and yet continues to raise, many questions concerning the case of Antoinette Mason, as it offers a very dissimilar account of Rochester’s marriage to Bertha from the narrative he paints for Jane in Jane Eyre. Though Rochester himself recounts both versions of the history of his courtship and marriage to Bertha, his accounts contradict each other at many points.To begin, in Jane Eyre, Rochester tells Jane that he was originally ignorant of the money that would be gained through this marriage: “My father said nothing about money, but he told me Miss Mason was the boast of Spanish town for her beauty” (Bronte 395). However, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester’s mental rough draft letter to his father implies that the money had been discussed between them prior to the courtship and marriage, for Rochester imagines informing him “the thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition” (Rhys 41).

Next, the details concerning the courtship itself also contrast. When telling Jane of the event, Rochester implies the period was brimming with festivities and parties and that “all men in her circle seemed to admire her and envy me” (Bronte 395). In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester informs the reader that he “was married a month after [he] arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time [he] was in bed with fever” (Rhys 39). Neither does Rochester mention any social gatherings or any contenders for Antoinette’s affection. Likewise, Antoinette’s account of her society, at least the society knew before attending the convent, was very scarce. The peers she did speak of, whether black or creoles like herself (such as the red-haired boy who pestered her on the walk to the convent) treated her with more indignation and disgust than adoration.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester describes himself as having been originally “dazzled” by Antoinette, and he confesses that he thought he loved her. He implies this period of infatuation endured throughout their honeymoon, the end of which Rochester marks as the moment he “learned [his] mistake” (Bronte 395). The first few pages of Part II in Wide Sargasso Sea submit an altogether divergent illustration of Rochester. He presents himself as one who already seems disinterested in his wife and whom has already given up on the marriage. As they arrive to their final honeymoon destination, he describes himself “watch[ing] her critically”, rather than gazing after her in admiration (Rhys 39). He notes that her “pleading expressions annoy [him]” and, upon entering Granbois— their honeymoon home— immediately identifies the writing desk as a potential place of refuge (Rhys 41). Refuge from what? His new wife? More concerning, however, is his comment concerning his wife’s bedroom. Rochester expresses feeling unsafe, and surveys the room “suspiciously” before comforting himself by the notion that ‘the door into her room could be bolted, a stout wooden bar pushed across the other” (Rhys 44). This surprising comment, as well the myriad of contradictions between his two tales, imply that Rochester knew more about Antoinette Bertha Mason as he entered the marriage than disclosed to Jane.