Wide Sargasso Sea – The Dark Continent of Jean Rhys

March 21, 2009

What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, 64

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel of many dimensions. The fluent, poetic and dream-like style and language and the imagery and symbolism in the novel emphasise the victimisation and the emotional tumult of the protagonist.  Here are some of my reflections on the novel, relying on the most acknowledged feminist literary theories. If you would like to read the complete essay, please leave me a message and I’ll contact you.

Jean Rhys, born to a Welsh father and a white Creole mother, spent her childhood in the Caribbean islands and later moved to England. Her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which she wrote in 1966, is the story of the madwoman in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason – or rather the story of Antoinette Cosway, the young Creole heiress from Jamaica, before she became Bertha Mason. Rhys was haunted by the character of the madwoman in Brontë’s novel, and so she decided to write her life (Wyndham 3-6). The novel has undeniable links with colonial context, since the protagonist is discarded by both the black Caribbean as well as the white English societies and thus forced to see herself as ‘the other’ in terms of race. However, Antoinette is a character ‘othered’ also in terms of her gender, and thus she is doubly marginalized. Wide Sargasso Sea can be seen as a strongly feminist text, for Jean Rhys tries to justify Antoinette’s behaviour and discover why she became the appalling, beastly madwoman she appears to be in Jane Eyre. Rhys tells the story of Antoinette – or Bertha – from a woman’s point of view, defending her against the prejudices of the male-centered world, where a woman who does not live according to the standards set for her is deemed mad.

In the spirit of the French feminists, Hélène Cixous in particular, Rhys’s language seems to derive from the unconscious, emotional and subjective – in Julia Kristeva’s terms, the ‘semiotic’ – feminine experience of the writer, and therefore it can be seen as an example of écriture feminine. However, in light of the Anglo-American feminist theory, represented by such critics as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, it can be argued that Rhys also converts the traditional stereotypes of women by making the reader sympathise with the emotional and sexual madwoman. In this manner, Rhys – like many feminist writers – break the female stereotypes by seemingly submitting to them but simultaneously converting them.

The novel is filled with dreams and metaphors, with haunting and inexplicable images. Considering the prophetic dreams and the intuitions of the protagonist, as well as the allusions to voodoo magic and spirituality, it is evident that the novel goes far beyond the surface of reality. The unconscious is very clearly present in the novel, for Antoinette’s intuition and the strong feeling of destiny, of the inevitability of life, seem to control her. The marriage of Antoinette and Mr Rochester is doomed from the beginning, even though neither of them can consciously admit it. In the terms of the French feminist Julia Kristeva, the ‘semiotic’ aspect – the anarchic, the irrational, the unconscious stream of language that derives from the female body – controls the novel, letting the female unconscious run free (Selden 142). Even the part of the story that is told through Rochester’s eyes cannot sustain its rationality, but the mystical ‘semiotic’ stream eventually takes over, making the novel a strong example of écriture feminine.

Hélène Cixous emphasises that by this act of creating their own transcendent and poetic language that derives from the unconscious and irrational rather than from the formal and rational conscious that controls men’s writing, women will break away from the patriarchal tradition. The poetic language of Wide Sargasso Sea indeed reflects the emotions of the protagonist, and the sexuality – even the violent side of it – depicted in the novel was very daring and groundbreaking for a woman writer in the 1960s. Furthermore, Rhys presents the idea of a woman as an imprisoned victim oppressed by the standards and ideals prevailing in the patriarchal, phallogocentric society dominated by the male form of logos, language (Selden 139). Cixous writes in her essay “Utopias” that ‘woman must write woman’ (Cixous 247), encounter and embrace her gender and sexuality without being afraid or ashamed of it. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette tries to repress her feelings and gives in to the silence. After a futile attempt to explain her past, she says to her husband: ‘I wish to stay here in the dark… where I belong’ (Rhys 105). Antoinette does not dare to leave the ‘Dark Continent’, using Cixous’s term, by which she can only mean the female sexuality and the feminine side that has been repressed. Cixous states that the continent is ‘still unexplored only because we’ve been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable’ (255).

Cixous says of the silenced women: ‘Muffled throughout their history, they have lived in dreams, in bodies (though muted), in silences, in aphonic revolts’ (Cixous 256). Wide Sargasso Sea is filled with dreams, silence and shadows and emotional, colourful language that bursts through the rational male voice. Antoinette begins her story with the voice of a shy young girl, frightened of the world and frightened of rejection, and her voice is then replaced and repressed by Rochester’s voice. He tells the middle part of the story from the male point of view, but his voice is shaken and towards the end it becomes more and more like Antoinette’s, unreal and confused, poetic and dreamlike. At certain points Antoinette’s voice bursts through and disrupts Rochester’s narration. He loses control of his narration, and Antoinette’s thoughts and words invade his mind and his speech (Mezei 10). In the very end, Antoinette – now turned into Bertha – regains her voice, though she has lost everything else – happiness, home and sanity.

Furthermore, Cixous sees femininity as something close to nature; écriture féminine is to her ‘a lively combination of flying colors, leaves, and rivers plunging into the sea we feed’ (Cixous 260). Wide Sargasso Sea certainly offers plenty of nature imagery, all of which is associated with Antoinette; she feels at home among the colourful nature of the island. She says:

The sky was dark blue through the dark green mango leaves, and I thought, ‘This is my place and this is where I belong and this is where I wish to stay’. (Rhys 82)

Rochester, on the other hand, feels threatened by the untamed and colourful nature of the island. He says: ‘I had reached the forest and you cannot mistake the forest. It is hostile’ (Rhys 78), and he feels ‘lost and afraid among these enemy trees’ (Rhys 79). At several points he makes known his unease and the feeling that he does not belong there, among the forests and rivers and purple skies, but among the people in the ‘rational’ cities of England. To him the island seems like a dream, mysterious and secretive. Antoinette is a part of nature, which seems to corroborate Cixous’s theory of the woman as ‘the Dark Continent’ – dark and unexplored and thus threatening – and of the feminine consciousness as in touch and as one with nature. Even the name of the novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, alludes to the ever-changing, deep and secretive part of nature – the sea that separates Antoinette’s home island and England. Cixous writes: ‘we are ourselves sea, sand, coral, seaweed, beaches, tides, swimmers, children, waves… More or less wavily sea, earth, sky’ (Cixous 260), and Antoinette indeed seems to be the sea – never belonging anywhere, but floating in between. When they come to England, she believes that they got lost at sea and arrived somewhere else. She says: ‘When I woke it was a different sea. Colder’ (144). She has left behind her beautiful home island as well as the Sargasso Sea, with its purple or green sunsets, and she feels lost.

The line between dream and reality is a thin one in this novel. Antoinette does not believe that anything but the beauty of the island is real: ‘How can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?’ (Rhys 58). To her, England seems like a dream: ‘Yes a big city must be like a dream’ (Rhys 58), and when she is finally taken there, it still seems unreal: ‘It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard’ (Rhys 144). Also Rochester, to whom the beauty and mystery of the island of Jamaica seemed untrue, is mesmerised by the nature: ‘Only the magic and the dream are true – all the rest’s a lie’ (Rhys 133). Rochester comes to his senses – the hate clears his head and leaves him ‘sane’ (Rhys 136) – but he still acknowledges that Antoinette is a part of the island, and that is why he fears and hates her: ‘she belonged to the magic and the loveliness’ (Rhys 136). Dreams are the place where Antoinette lives. Women and nature are both connected to the mystery of life – ‘the secret’ that both frightens and intrigues men, like Rochester, who thinks: ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing’ (Rhys 64).

Sexuality plays an important role in the novel, as in all of Rhys’s work. Her writing represents the period in feminism when ‘a new type of frankness about sexuality’ begins to show in women’s literature (Selden 136). The gynocritic Elaine Showalter states that in Victorian times, ‘[s]exual appetite was considered one of the chief symptoms of moral insanity in women’, and therefore she concludes that Bertha Mason was seen as suffering from ‘moral madness’ (Olaussen 60). This was mostly due to men’s desire to control and repress women’s sexuality. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester is clearly afraid of Antoinette’s sexuality, and her beauty both attracts and repels him, because it is not the kind of beauty he is used to. In the beginning, when they are riding together, he says: ‘Looking up smiling, she might have been any pretty English girl’ (Rhys 50). This obviously pleases him, because he would prefer a ‘normal’ girl, feminine in a conservative way. When Antoinette becomes mad and Rochester sees her for the first time, he ‘was too shocked to speak. He hair hung uncombed and dull into her eyes which were inflamed and staring, her face was very flushed and looked swollen’ (Rhys 114). Antoinette has become the opposite of the pretty and normal English girl she could have been.

Cixous claims that men need to be afraid of women because it arouses them, and therefore they associate ‘death and the feminine sex’ as ‘two unpresentable things’ (Cixous 255). Indeed, Rochester needs to hate Antoinette to gain his own sanity. It could be argued that men need to associate women with death in order to control them – they need to ‘kill’ them emotionally to suppress them, and that is what Rochester does to Antoinette:

‘Die then! Die!’ I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards. (Rhys 68)

As the French feminists, Rhys resists the phallocentric ideal of female sexuality (Selden 139) by describing Antoinette’s sexuality in a shockingly direct and, at times, brutal manner. Angier points out Rhys’s idea about men and love: ‘men rob love with sex’ (Angier 543). For men, sex equals love, and when Antoinette offers herself to Rochester, he can only respond with sexual desire, which turns into hate. And for that reason, emotionally he is ‘a Stone’. Antoinette is more passionate in every way, until Rochester kills her emotionally and she becomes, as in voodoo or obeah, a living dead.

Gilbert and Gubar perceive both stereotypes, the angel and the monster, as negative, distorted images that should be killed. Whereas Cixous sees the Medusa-like, strong and feminine character as nothing to be feared, Gilbert and Gubar see the ‘monster in the house’ – or in the attic – as a horrid creature ‘whose Medusa-face also kills female creativity’ (Gilbert and Gubar 17). Cixous, on the other hand, states that ‘[y]ou only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing’ (Cixous 255). In light of Cixous’s theory, one could argue that Antoinette’s madness is a rebellion against the patriarchal repression and the male form of writing – and, before her suicide, she destroys the prison that has held her captive by burning down the house; an old, dignified English mansion representing the patriarchal tradition. In light of Gilbert’s and Gubar’s theory, on the other hand, the transformation can be seen as negative, as a sign of men’s victory over women rather than as a sign of female liberation.

As opposed to Cixous’s theory, where the female body is the instrument for language and life, it could be argued that in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s struggle happens on the inside, and her body is only a shell, a disguise. Gilbert’s and Gubar’s theory seems to abide here: the face of a victim is only a mask. A woman can surrender her body to the man, and Antoinette can be seen as a captive of her body. Antoinette becomes a marionette, without a will of her own. Christophine says to Rochester:

‘She tell me in the middle of all this you start calling her names. Marionette. Some word so.’

“Yes, I remember, I did.’

(Marionette, Antoinette, Marionetta, Antoinetta) (Rhys 121)

Rochester renames her – he controls her body now, but not her spirit. Antoinette is only a puppet, a doll: ‘The doll had a doll’s voice, a breathless but curiously indifferent voice’ (Rhys 135). This indicates also that men reduce women to objects in order to control them, but inside the doll, underneath the disguise, there is still the woman who would rather give up her body than her spirit. Indeed, Rhys subverts the female roles by turning the ‘monster’ – the ‘madwoman’ – into a sympathetic character. Though Antoinette seems to perceive her fate as inevitable, gives in and dies emotionally, she never becomes Bertha – at least not the perfect ‘angel’ that Rochester wants her to be. She says: ‘Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name’ (Rhys 115). Renaming her is one way in which Rochester exerts his masculine power over his wife, but Antoinette only seems to submit to it. Her struggle is on the inside, and instead of becoming ‘the pretty English girl’ Rochester wishes her to be, she becomes someone else entirely – someone much like her mother was, the madwoman who is not simply a victim but not really a monster either. Sexual and emotional oppression seem to be the key ideas in the novel, for Antoinette lets herself be victimised by the enemy, the man she was tricked into marrying. In the end, however, after Rochester has drained her of all emotion, she manages to break free from the suffering by making her last act of self-determination. With this last step, Rhys turns her ‘madwoman’ into a symbol of female liberation.

Sources

Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. London: André Deutsch Ltd, 1990. 525-567.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1996.

Cixous, Hélène. “Utopias”. In The New French Feminisms: An Anthology. Ed. by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. New York: Schocken Books, 1981. 245-264.

Gilbert, Sandra and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Mezei, Kathy. ‘And it Kept its Secret’: Narration, Memory and Madness in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. In Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXVIII, No.4, Summer, 1987. 195-209. Literature Resource Center. <http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/&gt;

Olaussen, Maria. Three Types of Feminist Criticism and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Åbo: The Institute of Women’s Studies at Åbo Akademi University, 1992.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1966.

Selden, Raman and Widdowson, Peter and Brooker, Peter. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall, 1997. 121-149.

Wyndham, Francis. “Introduction” to A Norton Critical Edition to the Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. by Judith L. Raiskin. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999.


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21 Responses to “Wide Sargasso Sea – The Dark Continent of Jean Rhys”

  1. Andi Frankenburger said

    Hi-

    I’m very much interested in reading the complete text of this essay. Please let me know where I can find it.

  2. haye said

    Hello! I was doing research on Wide Sargasso Sea and found your essay. It was remarkably helpful, thank you!

    Cheers,
    haye 🙂

  3. kj said

    i am studying this novel in school for literature and found what you’ve written incredibly insightful and helpful. thank you.

  4. kj said

    hi

    i would love to read the complete essay and was wondering if you could please send it to me? thank you so much.

  5. Marja-Liisa said

    Hi all,

    thanks a lot for your comments! And very sorry, I haven’t been checking my blog because I have been abroad this autumn…. if you send me a request to my email at marjalh@yahoo.com, I will try to send you the complete essay ASAP.

    All the best, and Happy New Year!

  6. Memoona Sqlain said

    hi,

    ur essay is quite good as it critically engages with the different feminist perspectives. I would like to read the complete essay.

  7. swiss said

    I found you essay very useful
    Would it be possible if you could send me the complete essay please?
    Thankyou so much

  8. zj said

    Hi,

    I would love to read the complete essay. would you please send me a copy of it?

    Thank you very much.

  9. E said

    Hello there, while doing more research about WSS for my lit paper tmrw, i came across your site and your essay is really insightful. Is it alright for you to send me your full essay? <: Thank you!

  10. David Fowler said

    I found this paper really healpful.Could you send me the complete essay please

  11. Rondha Lam-Singh said

    Hi, I’m doing a paper for Literary Theory… would appreciate if you could email me the full essay. There are some interesting nuances that you have posited that I would like to explore more.

  12. Marja-Liisa said

    Hi, thank you again for the comments and emails! I’m sorry I haven’t been using my yahoo email so often, but please let me know if I still haven’t sent the essay to some of you!!!

  13. okpe christiantus o. said

    I find ur writeup very useful for my thesis in A.B.U.,Nigeria. Please dear,could you be kind enough as to send across, via my E-mail, the complete Essay as well as other critical materials on Caribbean Literature? Thanks as I await your positive response.

  14. Marja-Liisa said

    Thank you once again for the wonderful comments and your interest! I have attached the full essay in PDF form in the “Essays and articles” section of this blog, for all those interested. I still welcome feedback and questions!

    All the best, Marja-Liisa

  15. Sarah said

    Hi there! I commented previously, regarding you sending me your essay 🙂 i’m E above! Anyhow, is it alright if you sent me your essay? I’m having my A lvl literature paper tmrw haha it would help alot in my revision! If possible, do email to sarah_lee90@hotmail.sg 🙂 Thank you!

  16. Marja-Liisa said

    Hi! Sorry that I didn’t send it to you, I have tried to do so to everyone who asked! But now the whole essay is available here on the site, on my Essays and Articles page — just click on the first link and you will get a PDF of the full essay 🙂 Let me know if you have questions!

    Best regards, Marja-Liisa

  17. chelle31089 said

    Hi I am a student and I am in my final stretch for my senior seminar. My topic is comparing and contrasting magic in literature and one of the books that I chose is Wide Sargasso Sea. I would love to have the complete version of the essay that is, if there is. I would be greatly obliged.

    • Marja-Liisa said

      Hi! Yes, the whole essay is now available in the Essays and Articles section on this blog – just click on the essay title and you’ll get a PDF version of it. Let me know if there are any problems! Your topic sounds interesting, I’m afraid I haven’t looked at magic aspect so much, but good luck with that! 🙂

      Marja-Liisa

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