Lewkowicz, Sherry. “The Experience of Womanhood in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea“. English 156. Brown University. Victorian Web. 2004
In this article, Sherry Lewkowicz tries to draw a parallel between eponymous protagonist of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. As pointed out in Michael Thorpe’s The Other Side (page 175), Bronte herself has acknowledged that the character of the lunatic Mrs. Rochester was left unexplained (apart from the rather subjective explanations of Mr. Rochester). Lewkowicz identifies that the three part narrative challenges the concepts of narrative authority particularly that of a white man, with Mr. Rochester’s narrative inserted between two of that of Antoinette. She also compares the two female protagonists, who, despite having almost similar backgrounds, turned into very different individuals. Antoinette represents a modern perspective on the suffering of women. In a way, the absolute sense of nothingness is much worse than the concrete hardships Jane has had to suffer. This in turn makes Antoinette wary of happiness and frightened of its life span. The portrayal of the two women affects the way in which the reader understands both novels.
Lewkowicz refers to the essay “Boundaries and Betrayal in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea” by Barbara A Schapiro. She explains how the novels can be looked at from the aspect of feminism and also psychoanalysis. “. . . the pertinent issue in psychoanalytic literary criticism . . . is a question of how the suffering shapes the text and relates to the cultural context” (Schapiro 86). The cultural context here, where one dominant group (the white males) oppresses other groups (women, slaves etc), thus can be viewed from a feministic angle.
Another way to understand the two protagonists is to understand their understanding of spirituality. We see Jane’s spiritual inclination in her conversations with Helen, St. John, and Rochester in the concluding chapters of the novel. Antoinette, on the other hand, finds God mysterious and another being that cannot be trusted. For her, religion and love are concepts that are beyond her comprehension.
Despite the fact that both women are distressed by the treatment of women in their society, both have reacted in different ways to it. Jane, being the stronger character, refuses to let anyone ill treat her and she speaks in defense of women when she describes how they feel restricted (Bronte 112-113). Antoinette, on the other hand, is more passive and has trouble recognizing the obscure oppression she suffers. She has little sense of identity.
Another difference in the portrayal of the two characters is the way they deal with sex. Although Jane’s sense of restraint is tangible, Antoinette has already experienced sex with Daniel before her marriage. Sex becomes the only form of communication between Rochester and Antoinette. Although they lust each other, they do not feel love, which angers them both.
Jane gets what she wants; revenge on Aunt Reed, a family with Rochester and redemption. But Antoinette is stripped of all redemption. She is only given second chances, which people fail at. She tries to make her own happy ending by using the love potion given by Christophine, but it only makes Rochester sick. We never get to know what kind of a mother she could have been; her life ended in flames, just like the burning parrot that flies to its death at Coulibri.