Alice Nazareth-Alienation and Madness

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea displays the complexity of human emotions and psyche while dealing with issues like racial and gender discrimination.

It is crucially important to explore the contexts of Rhys’s work, especially her placement of the role of writing in her life and of race, class, nationality, gender and religion. (Elaine Savory 1998: p.1)

Her complex life and upbringing is reflected in all her works, but most notably in Wide Sargasso Sea. The black servants, who were believed to have raised Rhys, introduced her to the language of the Caribbean people and their customs and beliefs.

Because of its hybridity, its medley of cultural references and moods, the extreme passions and fears it unfolds, Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s most problematic novel, revealing the author’s own psychological complexity and the inner conflict that tore her mind apart and that is variously reflected in all her heroines. With them, Jean Rhys shared the Caribbean origins and the difficult integration into British society that resulted in a mental split that she in writing, her characters in living, will try to resolve. (Panizza 2009: p.1)

There have been debates suggesting that Wide Sargasso Sea was a retelling of Jane Eyre based on the parallels between the lives of the two protagonists. But there have also been a few who acknowledge the piece as a masterwork and not merely as a retelling because the narrative is an expression of the writer’s experience. It can, however, be established that there exists an inter textuality between the narratives of Rhys and Bronte. V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is also said to have influenced Rhys, as said by Earl McKenzie (2009: p.56),

While V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas is the story of a man who succeeds in making the West Indies his home, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea… is an account of a woman who is unable to do so.

Despite the various perspectives from which the narrative has been analyzed, the text deals with the psychological effects of segregation, which affects both male and female, as well as colored and white characters, as described by Sandra Drake (1999: p.194) the whole narrative is “a brilliant psychological portrayal”. Rhys’s three part avant garde narrative perspective takes for granted the complex nature of the human psyche and its inability in establishing a centre amidst the emotional and psychological troubles it goes through. Rhys suggests this is her title “Wide Sargasso Sea”.

Like the Sargasso Sea, a mass of seaweed surrounded by swirling currents in the Atlantic Ocean, the novel’s troubled heroine is suspended between England and the West Indies and belongs fully to neither. McKenzie (p. 1)

Rhys uses the complex nature of human mind in regard to race, gender, segregation etc as a foreground in her novel, all the while attempting to locate the ‘centre’ of the psyche of her protagonist. Interestingly, locating the centre is a predominating theme in Caribbean works that examines issues like slavery, segregation, exploration etc.

The explorer’s narrative, always pointing from the center to the islands located at the margins of the seas, is a narrative produced by the center, for the center, and of the center. (Harry Garuba, 2001: p. 61).

Rhys attempts to achieve this, to find the centre of gravity of her life experiences. However, for her characters, things fall apart and the centre is shattered. The whole narrative is the psychologically traumatic effect of segregation and alienation, as said by Howells in Kamila Vrankova (2007: p. 123-124)

Accordingly, Jean Rhys’s story of alienation is centred on two crucial metaphors: the sea and the island. The sea as an image of separation and an increasing distance suggests the split in both space and time: the conflict between different civilisations, between the past and the present… as well as between the inner world of the individual and the surrounding reality….”

It is interesting to note how insanity, at various levels, is prominent in the protagonist’s family, beginning with her father, Alexander Cosway, who is said to have drunk himself to death; then to her mother, Annette; also, her brother, Pierre, and finally Antoinette herself.

Alice Nazareth- The Experience of Womanhood in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

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.