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Kiren's essay

Essay topic:

Jane Eyre has often been valued as speaking on behalf of women. To what extent does Wide Sargasso Sea articulate aspects of women's experience that Jane Eyre ignores or suppresses?


Jean Rhys's literary success, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published in 1966, more than a century after Charlotte Bronte's famous novel, Jane Eyre. Set during the same era, both novels articulate differing aspects of women's experience during the 19th century. At the time of its publication in 1847, Jane Eyre created quite a stir among the literary world, as it controversially spoke on behalf of women. Charlotte Bronte's novel primarily explores the emancipation of a virtuous young woman, Jane Eyre, who is "cast in a different mound to the majority". 1 Jane's significant journey toward selfhood fervently challenged the nineteenth-century acceptance of women's subservient position in society. In contrast, Wide Sargsasso Sea starkly reveals the fate of a disillusioned Creole woman who is powerless and unnerved in post-colonial West Indian society. Jean Rhy's novel articulates some aspects of women's experience that Jane Eyre inevitably suppresses. Whilst Jane's nature is portrayed as unrelenting, Antoinette Cosway is exposed as a white Creole madwoman who is vulnerable and dependent. Jane Eyre presents the ideal situation for a woman during the 19th century - a marriage of choice and of eventual harmony and bliss. Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, reveals the darker side of marriage, where the psychological well being of the woman threatens the marriage. Whilst Jane is looked upon as a heroine, Antoinette is viewed as submissive. Compared with Antoinette's detached narrative voice, Jane's narrative is audacious and precise. Both novels deal with an unforgiving patriarchal society, but Jane and Antoinette have diverse responses to their respective societies.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the prequel to Jane Eyre; it is Jean Rhys's salvage of the insane Creole woman - Bertha Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Wide Sargasso Sea is typical of many of Rhys's novels, as her preoccupation with the suffering of dependent women is reinforced. The novel is set during a significant period in Jamaica history - the time following the passing of the Emancipation Act of 1838. This was a period of immense racial tension, and Rhys depicts this tension in the mind of young Antoinette Cosway. Antoinette is disturbed by her racial identity, as she is ridiculed for being a "white cockroach". As a direct result of her Creole background and upbringing, Antoinette grows up as a misplaced individual. She is a woman who is trapped in her homeland and unable to escape her harsh realities: "I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all" 2. She is often weary of men and she seems to suffer from a kind of sporadic amnesia. 3 Unlike the stable Victorian society of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea portrays the racial inequalities apparent in many societies.

Antoinette is victimized by society, especially men. Unlike Jane, she is defenceless against an unforgiving era, where the notion of childlike woman and paternal men 4 is strongly apparent. Contrary to Jane, Antoinette lacks ambition and direction. She constantly seems to be meaninglessly floating around in a daze, ceaselessly dreaming and contemplating the state of her troubled mind. Jane is successful; she fights against all odds, despite growing up as an orphan, and she makes something of her existence. She becomes a governess and in the end marries a successful man who deeply loves her. Although her husband, Rochester, is superior to her by virtue of class, wealth and status, their relationship is nevertheless carried out on a somewhat equal level. However, Antoinette's fate is bleak, as her desire to withdraw into her own world transforms her into one of society's misfits. Antoinette's tormented childhood causes her eventual insanity, and the ultimate destruction of her marriage. She is an example of a woman who lacked love as a child and therefore grew up lost, like a zombie. Antoinette is constantly afraid, and as a result, she shuts herself off from the world, lapsing into perpetual darkness. Antoinette is "not used to happiness . . it makes (her) afraid" (p. 57).

Rochester is the dominant masculine subject in both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette and Rochester's loveless wedlock is representative of many marriages during the mid 19th century. Rochester's motives seem suspiciously mercenary, as his marriage to Antoinette (a prosperous Creole heiress) inevitably makes him incredibly rich according to customary English law. Christophine realizes Rochester's underlying ambitions: "Everyone knows that you marry her for her money and you take it all" (p. 98). Their wedding, as described in Rochester's narrative during Part Two, seems superficial: as Rochester remembers, "It meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry" (p. 46). Rochester vividly remembers the touch of his bride's hand: "cold as ice in the hot sun" (p. 47). Although Antoinette is "afraid of what may happen" (p. 48), she nevertheless marries him, as the necessity of securing a husband overwhelms her. On the other hand, the autonomous Jane is able to reject a prospective husband, St. John, by audaciously telling him, "I scorn your idea of love" (p. 408). Jane is able to marry for love, not out of necessity. Antoinette's thoughts on marriage represent the norm for many women living in 19th century society. Unlike Jane's experiences in Jane Eyre, the security of marriage together with a masculine figure was the ultimate gain in a woman's life during that patriarchal era.

Antoinette's physical looks are reminiscent of her submission to life. Even Rochester notices her "long, sad, dark alien eyes" (p. 40) and the "sad droop of her lips" (p. 88). At one end of the scale we have Antoinette who is natural and primitive, and on the other end we have Rochester - civilized, lucid and proper. This vast difference in character affects their relationship as Rochester fails to understand Antoinette's surroundings and lifestyle. In Wide Sargasso Sea, the women are seemingly conscious of their appearances. Antoinette seems to have an obsession with the looking-glass, whether it is at the convent or in the attic of Thornfield Hall. Antoinette associates her mother with femininity: she was after all "pretty like pretty self" (p. 5). Even Christophine seems conscious of beauty as she tells the young Antoinette about her wound, "It won't spoil you on your wedding day" (p. 25). This implies the underlying importance of the beauty of the women in the novel, which is also evident in Rochester's many descriptions of Antoinette. However, this contrasts with Jane's belief that the beauty of a woman carries little significance in her ability to succeed in life.

Wide Sargasso Sea vividly portrays a dismal part of women's experience; that is, the absence of motherly affection. Although Jane also lacks the warm touch of a motherly figure, it is Antoinette who is unable to sufficiently cope with this loss. At the core of Antoinette's psychological dilemmas is her mother's rejection of her. Antoinette basically leads a solitary life, as her disturbed mother drifts further away from her grasp. Antoinette views her mother as a zombie, for "her soul is wandering, for it has left her body" (p, 32). Antoinette's inablility to relate to her mother is one dimension of women's experience that Jane Eyre supresses.

It can be said that Jane Eyre is a romance, representing an ideal situation for a Victorian woman during the 19th century. However, Wide Sargasso Sea is contradictory to this ideal, and it therefore could be viewed as an anti-romance, representing a situation that is dreaded by most women. Wide Sargasso Sea is a representation of the consequence of insanity, and how it can ultimately destroy a woman's life. Antoinette believes that she has "slept too long in the moonlight" (p. 51), and it is this belief that eventually destroys her livelihood and her relationship with her husband. Antoinette is a woman who "lives in her own darkness" and thus she is lonely and vulnerable. Her predicament is contrary to Jane's blissful existence. Wide Sargasso Sea articulates many bleak aspects of women's experience that Jane Eyre ultimately ignores.

End notes

  1. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Everyman Paperbacks, 1998), p. 131.
  2. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (England: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 64.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates, "Romance and Anti-Romance: From Bronte's Jane Eyre to Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea", Virginia Quarterly Review, 41 (1985).
  4. Erika Smilowitz, "Childlike Women and Paternal Men: Colonization in Jean Rys's Fiction", Ariel, 17, No. 4 (1986).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and work. London: Andre Deutsch, 1990.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Everyman Paperbacks, 1998.

Geason, Susan, ed. Regarding Jane Eyre. Milsons Point, N.S.W.: Vintage Books, 1997

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. England: Penguin Books, 1997.

Kendrick, Robert. "Edward Rochester and the Margins of Masculinity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea". Papers on Language and Literature, 30, No. 3 (1994).

Oates, Joyce Carol. "Romance and Anti-romance: From Bronte's Jane Eyre to Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea". Virginia Quarterly Review, 41 (1985).

Olaussen, Maria. "Jean Rhys's Construction of Blackness as Escape from White Femininity in Wide Sargasso Sea". Ariel, 24, No. 2 (1993).

Smilowitz, Erika. "Childlike Women and Paternal Men: Colonization in Jean Rhys's Fiction". Ariel, 17, No. 4 (1986).

Tiffin, Helen. "The Creole Skeleton in the English Closet". Hecate, 2 (1979).

Wyndham, F. and D. Melly, eds. Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-1966. England: Penguin Books, 1984.

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