The Experience of Womanhood in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Sherry Lewkowicz '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Wide Sargasso Sea was Jean Rhys's effort to rewrite, or more accurately, to elaborate on and complicate, the history presented by Charlotte Brontë's classic novel, Jane Eyre. The eponymous protagonist of Jane Eyre develops into a fiercely independent, self-assured, moral, and passionate young woman. The protagonist of Rhys's text is the character who Jane will know later only as Rochester's lunatic wife who is locked in the attic. Rhys explores this character who Brontë herself acknowledged was left somewhat unexplained (Thorpe 175). This exploration takes the form of a three part narrative, the middle part being in the first person voice of Rochester (although he is never named), the other two being the voice of Antoinette (who will later become the madwoman Bertha of Jane Eyre). This narrative structure skews ideals of imperialism (and therefore patriarchy) by challenging concepts of narrative authority, particularly of a white male authority, as Rochester is inserted in between Antoinette's two accounts. Antoinette, much like Jane, grows up in a world with little love to offer her. Both women are cared for as children by inattentive and dysfunctional relatives, both lose their first friend, and both have a profoundly isolated and lonely childhood. However, while Jane is able to define herself by rejecting the labels others place on her and form a very sturdy and distinguished identity, Antoinette is baffled by having a body, a life, a spirit. She is ignored by almost all but Josephine and has little interaction with others, which arrests the development of her sense of identity. Schapiro notes that Wide Sargasso Sea "explores a psychological condition of profound isolation and self-division . . . the condition is bound up with another of the novel's characteristically modernist themes: the conviction that betrayal is built into the fabric of life" (84).

Wide Sargasso Sea purposefully problematizes its conceptions of gender. "All women characters in Rhys's fictions are mercilessly exposed to the financial and gendered constraints of an imperial world" (Humm 187). This imperial world is created and controlled by white men. While Jane too is excluded, the result for Antoinette is the development of a forced dependency on the very world that excludes her. She represents a particularly modernist perspective on the suffering of woman: the abstract sense of nothingness Antoinette experiences is so much worse than the concrete and real suffering Jane endures and can therefore deal with and even battle. For Antoinette, even happiness is not real and elicits fear (Rhys 55). The differences between the portrayal of each of these two women's lives significantly changes the way we as readers understand how each novel conceives of womanhood and its associations.

In her essay "Boundaries and Betrayal in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea," Barbara Ann Schapiro presents an analysis of literature which considers the psychological motives and possible diagnoses of characters, as she explains, "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). In Wide Sargasso Sea, the answer to this question is inherently feminist in that the "cultural context" is one where a dominant group (white men) oppresses other groups (women, former slaves, servants, etc.) and to be female means to negotiate the suffering caused by this domination. Antoinette's mother negotiates this suffering poorly, or rather, not at all, and Antoinette's unresolved relationship with her rejecting mother exposes her early on engenders a deep sense of instability and mistrust. As Teresa O'Connor notes, "maternal indifference and failure coincided with the failure of colonialism in developing a clearly defined and centered people . . . the mother country too failed to give sustenance and definition to its child colonies" (qtd. in Schapiro 85).

Both novels are feminist works, though each approaches feminist issues quite differently. Whereas Jane has concrete beliefs in what women deserve, as well as obtainable goals for how she imagines her place in society as a woman; Antoinette does not even know where to begin to desire change or to assert herself. In her novel Rhys considers the possibility that perhaps, the gulf between men and women (and this extends to any power binary, such as former master/former slave) cannot be breached. Perhaps the differences are so great, or more importantly, so established and internalized that Antoinette cannot ever have the sense of security, happiness, and pride that Jane finds by the end of Jane Eyre. Rhys's novel reflects the changing status of woman in the twentieth century as it was written post-colonization and post two world wars. The characteristically modern anxieties present in Wide Sargasso Sea results in a female protagonist who, although existing in roughly the same time period as Jane and experiencing much of the same challenges, represents a much more modern conception of a woman. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea can each be seen as feminist texts when considering their social and historical context, but Wide Sargasso Sea presents a more post-modern form of feminism which takes into account the complexity of male-female interaction to find that efforts to transcend deep-set gender norms are nearly hopeless.

One approach to understanding the differences in how Jane and Antoinette deal with being a woman is by looking at their religious beliefs and spirituality. As a child, Jane expresses her doubt and uncertainty in the existence and power of God. She questions her unwaveringly faithful friend Helen, "Where is God? What is God?" (84). Worried about where Helen will go after death and if Jane too will go there, she asks herself, "Where is that region? Does it exist?" (84). But as Jane matures and becomes an adult, her faith solidifies and she comes to have a clear belief in God. When Jane is distressed by the decision of whether to stay in England or accompany St. John as a missionary in India, she entreats Heaven for guidance, "I sincerely, deeply, fervently longed to do what was right; and only that. 'Show me, show me the path!'" (422). Jane's devotion is unwavering, she repeatedly draws on her faith in God for strength. Her spirituality is very personal and romantic, as opposed to the Evangelical devotion of Brocklehurst or St. John. Jane believes more in finding herself than in serving others or God, as St. John so fervently believes. She thinks, "If I join St. John , I abandon half myself: if I go to India, I go to premature death . . . By straining to satisfy St. John till my sinews ache, I shall satisfy him--to the finest central point and farthest outward circle of his expectations. If I make it absolutely: I will throw all on the altar -- heart, vitals, the entire victim" (Brontë 407). The last line of Jane Eyre is "Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!" (456). Brontë inserts elements of spirituality in the final dramatic scene when Jane reunites with Rochester. Rochester tells Jane that "�when you rose upon me so unexpectedly last night, I had difficulty in believing you any other than a mere voice and vision, something that would melt to silence and annihilation, as the midnight whisper and mountain echo had melted before. Now, I thank God! I know it to be otherwise. Yes, I thank God!'" (451). Brontë goes on to describe Rochester as he prays:

He put me off his knee, rose, and reverently lifting his hat from his brow, and bending his sightless eyes to the earth, he stood in mute devotion. Only the last words of the worship were audible.

"I thank my Maker, that, in the midst of judgment, he has remembered mercy. I humbly entreat my Redeemer to give me strength to lead henceforth a purer life than I have done hitherto!"

Then he stretched his hand out to be led. [451]

And Jane is there to lead him. "Jane's soft ministry" will guide Rochester back to health and happiness (449). As a woman, Jane finds comfort in religion and belief.

One of Rhys's first mentions of Antoinette's spirituality refers to Annette's funeral. Like Jane, Antoinette has difficulty finding comfort in religion when confronted with the death of someone close to her. Antoinette recalls, "Christophine cried bitterly but I could not. I prayed, but the words fell to the ground meaning nothing." (36). Antoinette is unable to feel the loss of her mother because she has always been mourning this loss. When Rochester asks why she lied and said her mother died when she was a child, Antoinette replies, "it is true. She did die when I was a child. There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about." Unlike Jane, Antoinette carries the distance from and distrust of a higher being she feels for the rest of her life. The death that "people know about" is the significant death for Antoinette, not the physical death in which Christianity believes the soul goes to God. For Antoinette, whether she believes in God or not is simply irrelevant, no amount of faith will change the actual circumstances of her existence.

"You are always calling on God," she said. "Do you believe in God?"

"Of course, of course I believe in the power and wisdom of my creator."

She raised her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth turned down in a questioning mocking way.

. . . "And you," I said. "Do you believe in God?"

"It doesn't matter," she answered calmly, "what I believe or you believe, because we can do nothing about it, we are like these." She flicked a dead moth off the table.'" [Rhys 76-77]

They are as helpless as moths, Antoinette sees no distinctions between humans and insects. Antoinette sees both herself and her husband as marionettes without control over their lives. For Antoinette, the world is godless, the only magic is that of Christophine's, which completely backfires, could be said to be key factor that leads to Antoinette's tragic ending. Mr. Mason believes in God, like Rochester, while Coulibri burns he "stop[s] swearing and began to pray in a loud pious voice . . . 'May Almighty God defend us'" (25). Observing the horrific scene of the house burning, the people laughing and cheering it on, and Mr. Mason praying, Antoinette remarks sardonically that God, "who is indeed mysterious, who had made no sign when they burned Pierre as he slept -- not a clash of thunder, not a flash of lightening -- mysterious God heard Mr. Mason at once and answered him. The yells stopped" (25). Mr. Mason as a man can call on God and even gets a response, all this is completely "mysterious" to Antoinette, who does not see any logic in the situation, God did not seem to notice Pierre's death, but now he silences everyone to watch her mother's parrot fall burning to his death. God is not a source of comfort, but rather just one more being not to be trusted. Later, Antoinette corrects Rochesters thoughts about Dominica and God:

"I feel very much a stranger here," I said. "I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side."

"You are quite mistaken," she said. "It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out, long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often." [78]

Antoinette is confused by Rochester's calling on God as much as she is completely confused by his sudden rejection of her. Religion, like love, is unfamiliar and beyond her comprehension.

Jane and Antoinette are both distressed by the issues posed by being a woman in a male-dominated society, but they each deal with these dilemmas in a unique way. Jane has a very romantic and Victorian approach, whereas Antoinette has a distinctly modernist approach. Jane battles a daunting but distinguishable foe. She is headstrong and stubborn, refusing to be mistreated, whether it be by Aunt Reed, Brocklehurst, or Rochester. She manages the socially ambiguous position of governess with dignity and practicality. Jane Eyre takes a special interest in the lives of women and the internal psyche of one particular, bright woman. The novel upholds a belief that women can achieve their goals. Jane gets what she wants: she marries Rochester, she finds (as well as creates) a family, she becomes socially respectable and even gains financial independence. Rochester loves Jane as a wife and respects her for her intelligence and talents. Jane also has no trouble at all in describing how she feels women are restricted, she says:

"Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrowed-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making pudding and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex." [Brontë 112-13]

Jane is direct and clear and even addresses her readers. Such bold, impassioned and direct words would never pass Antoinette's lips. The oppression Antoinette suffer under is so much more obscure and underground that what Jane deals with that, not only would it be near impossible for Antoinette to articulate it, she has trouble even recognizing it. Antoinette has no clue what would make her happy because she has so little sense of identity.

Wide Sargasso Sea maintains a steady absence of faith in woman's ability to transcend the oppression of her gender. Rhys's novel depicts the near impossibility of "success" for a woman in a patriarchal world. This is a strikingly different kind of feminism. Whereas Jane has developed many resources and defenses she can rely on to get her through her tribulations, Antoinette is virtually defenseless. She rarely protects herself, like when she visits her mother (who she knows is undependable and unloving) and goes to her mother with love, only to be rejected yet again. She has a similar episode with Rochester. Fully aware that he does not, she asks him if he loves her and invites the misery his answer of, "No, I do not" brings (89).

Deanna Madden speaks of Antoinette's dream (the second one like it, in which Antoinette is chased in a forest by heavy footsteps and feels unable to scream or save herself) as a product of her sense of helplessness and "powerlessness as a young woman in a patriarchal society" (165). The feminine clothing she wears in the dream is representative of an ideal femininity, the white dress is symbolic of virginity and also of her mother. The tree that "jerks" violently is phallic. The dream also "reveals Antoinette's fears of what marriage will be: she will be entrapped, violated, despoiled, and exploited like a colonized possession" (165). In her dream and in real life Antoinette is fearful of men and sexuality, with good reason.

Another major difference in how Brontë and Rhys deal with women's issues is their treatment of sex. Brontë ignores the issue of sex as much as possible, although Jane's sense of restraint is tangible. Antoinette is not fearful of sex and has already experimented with Daniel before her marriage. Yet Antoinette cannot distinguish between intense pleasure and intense pain, for her an orgasm is like dying:

"Say die and I will die. You don't believe me? then try, try, say die and watch me die.'

"Die then! Die!" I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers . . . Very soon she was as eager for what's called loving as I was -- more lost and drowned afterwards."

Sex is Antoinette and Rochester's only form of communication and they are communicating only their lust and desire for each other, not love. Sadly, Antoinette hopes their desire for each other, which is so powerful, will develop over time into love. But Rochester is not interested in loving Antoinette. From a feminist viewpoint, it is easy to see Rochester as simply cold and cruel, but he too is sorry that there is a lack of genuine communication in their relationship. As Schapiro says "Both characters are furious at being unrealized by the other" (99). Rochester is unable to love what he sees as an object, a possession. He is also unwilling to make the effort to get to know Antoinette, to understand her, to love her. He begins to call her "Bertha", signaling the beginning of his separating himself from her (ironically he tells Antoinette he likes to call her Bertha because it is a name dear to him). As readers we are immediately made nervous by this new name, not only do we sense Rochester's impending erasure of Antoinette, but we associate the name Bertha with the madwoman he will lock up in the attic of Thornfield Hall.

Rochester is disturbed and intimidated by the sexuality of Dominica's landscape, it seems too free, too lush, descriptions of garden. Although Antoinette recognizes that "it had gone wild," nature is a safe haven for her, that is, until Rochester destroys this sense of security also. She tells him, "I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it." (88). Maggie Humm views the garden as an image of "the pre-Oedipal world of mothers and infants" (189). Nature is a sort of utopia which Antoinette created for herself in the absence of an attentive mother, she describes the safety she finds in the garden at Coulibri:

When I was safely home I sat close to the old wall at the end of the garden. It was covered with green moss soft as velvet and I never wanted to move again. Everything would be worse if I moved. [13]

Nature is also a haven from people, who Antoinette has deep mistrust of. She prefers the predictable and physical threats of nature to the unpredictable and emotional threats people pose:

I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think "It's better than people." Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin -- once I saw a snake. All better than people.

Better. Better, better than people.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I was somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. [16]

The garden offers ultimate escape, return to the womb, its evils are not evils. For Rochester, the landscape has "too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills to near" (41). Nature overwhelms him. Longs for the orderly landscape of his homeland with its simple and clear designations of authority. Master/servant, Man/woman, Rich/poor. All these binaries are skewed in Dominica, it has all gone awry. Rochester tries to deny Antoinette's sexuality by limiting her access to his speech and therefore to any understanding of the symbolic (Humm 192). "Antoinette is so closely identified with her tropical islands that they seem to be extension of each other. The landscape becomes engendered through this close identification, and Antoinette becomes a manifestation of place" (Madden 166).

Jane is invested with much more power and control than Antoinette. She gets revenge on her Aunt Reed, and redemption. In Antoinette's world, there is no revenge, no redemption. There are second chances but people fail them; Antoinette resorts to using Christophine's love potion after trying to make Rochester understand through words, but it only makes him ill and more alienated from Antoinette. Antoinette does have the power of sight, Rochester notes her eyes:

She wore a tricorne hat which became her. At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting. She never blinks at all it seems to me. Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either. [39]

Antoinette sees too much, her eyes are too big for Rochester, he is threatened by her knowledge, he says "you don't know the world" but yet she knows so much more than him because she has experienced so much sadness and pain, he is dismissive of her pain, uses sex to ignore her suffering (53):

"I am not used to happiness," she said. "It makes me afraid."

"Never be afraid. Or if you are tell no one." [55]

Rochester says of Antoinette, "she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did." (55). Rochester cannot communicate his true feelings, he cannot be honest like Antoinette. Yet he feels that he is the one that has been deceived and lied to (about Antoinette's bad blood). He cannot even answer her question if he is happy in Dominica, and dodges the question with the reply of, "Who wouldn't be?" (53). Rochester ponders at one point "How old was I when I learned to hide what I felt? A very small boy" (61). When Antoinette describes her similar induction into secrecy and repression, Rochester responds "you have never learned to hide it" (79). For once, he is right.

Set in roughly the same time (the events of Rhys's novel take place some thirty years later than those in Jane Eyre), but the spirit of modern feminism is infused into the older feminism of Jane Eyre. Whereas in Jane's world, women are literally restricted from participating in society as men do, in Antoinette's world this repression has gone underground. It is ideology and norms about femininity which are oppressive, and therefore so much more difficult for Antoinette to rise against or even to confront. Rhys's work expresses the challenge of dealing with this new, and perhaps more dangerous, repression, signaled in Wide Sargasso Sea by new uses of style, voice, and narrative structure. As Schapiro states, "in its reworking of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Rhys's novel makes the shift in literary sensibility from the nineteenth to the twentieth century particularly discernible . . . the collapse of rational order, of stable and conventional structures on all levels, distinguishes Rhys's vision and places it squarely within the modernist tradition" (Schapiro 84). Rhys's very modern portrayal of the woman's experience in patriarchy is "one of both forced dependency and exclusion. Thus for a girl, betrayal is indeed interwoven with dependency, troubling a girl's relational history from infancy through adulthood, and affecting her relationship with her own infant should she herself become a mother" (Schapiro 85). Sadly, we never discover what kind of mother Antoinette would become. She is so restricted (emotionally and later physically) by Rochester and by the confines of her identity, which developed in an environment painfully lacking in love or security, that she desires only to leap to her death.

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Signet Classic, Penguin Books USA Inc. New York: 1982.

Humm, Maggie. "Third World Feminisms: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea." Practicing Feminist Criticism: an introduction. Great Britain: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Madden, Diana. "Wild Child, Tropical Flower, Mad Wife: Female Identity in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea." International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity. Ed. Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Rhys, Jean. A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

Schapiro, Barbara Ann. "Boundaries and Betrayal in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea." Literature and the Relational Self. Ed. Jeffrey Berman. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Thorpe, Michael. "'The Other Side': Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre." A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.

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Last modified 21 May 2004