Wide Sargasso Sea and the blossoming of hate

Zoe Ripple '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

This is Part V of the author's "The Endings of Victorian and Modern Works: Domesticity Preserved, the Family Resurrected, Domesticity Destroyed, the Family Denigrated."

The endings of Waterland and Wide Sargasso Sea, are not as optimistic and romantic as their Victorian forbearers. Whereas in the Victorian novels love is realized and families and homes are built, the modern texts focus on the destruction of these entities. The domestic is destructive, and is destroyed. Over the course of Wide Sargasso Sea's ending, Antoinette and Rochester's relationship and sanity slowly unravels, and they suffer as a couple and as individuals. While on a micro level the book details the way a marriage and two human beings come apart, it is also a postcolonial novel condemning the colonization of places like the Caribbean or Africa: Antoinette's angst seems to reflect that of her home as a colonized nation, Rochester's coldness and infidelity a symbol of England's cruelty in its colonies. The final pages of the novel press on with a sense of despair, detailing the destruction of a couple's home and focusing on each character's conceptions and experiences of hatred and sadness.

Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette's identity remains in flux. The question of her identity also addresses questions inherent in any discussion of colonization: for example, how the colonizer (her husband) confuses and destroys the identities of the colonized (Antoinette/Bertha), and how empire dislocates and depersonalizes both place and people. Unlike in the Victorian novels where domesticity (or its promise) and spouses come to be a comfort and source of joy, Antoinette's husband is the source of her pain rather than a source of comfort: the domestic sphere comes to destroy her rather than enrich her. While her husband calls her Bertha, she calls herself Antoinette: in one passage, she says to Rochester "Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name" (Rhys, 147). Whereas Jane and Pip, even Estella, come to affect positive changes within themselves and to better understand who they are, Antoinette is not afforded this luxury. In two passages, Antoinette is so removed from herself that she is unable to recognize her face: "There is no looking glass here and I don't know what I am like now . . . What am I doing in this place and who am I?" (180). Knowing not her place in the world, nor who she is, she asks desperate questions with no answer. As the novel concludes, Antoinette acknowledges that "Sometimes I looked to the right or to the left but I never looked behind me for I did not want to see that ghost of a woman who they say haunts this place" (187). She is the ghost that haunts, and is paradoxically afraid of and unable to recognize herself. Rather then having a clear sense of identity or purpose, as Jane has as she evolves into caretaker, wife and mother, Antoinette is demonized by her inability to create a sense of self.

One of the most simple and profound aspects of Antoinette and Rochester's marriage is that it is a loveless one. Unlike Pip and Estella or Jane and Rochester, who are able to create histories together and who love each other profoundly, there is no tenderness between Antoinette and Rochester. More than once, Rochester thinks to himself that he simply does not "want" (165) his wife, which he confirms by sleeping with another woman, an act he deliberately wants his wife to hear so as to hurt and alienate her. By the end of the novel, there is "no warmth, no sweetness" (171) left in either of them. In one particularly poignant passage, Antoinette emerges from her room looking and acting like the ruined woman she is: "her hair uncombed and dull . . . her eyes . . . inflamed and staring . . . her face . . . flushed and looked swollen," she is drunk and looking for more liqiour to soothe her. The couple's interaction is alive with hate: while Rochester grows angrier with every word, Antoinette smashes "another bottle against the wall and stood with the broken glass in her hand and murder in her eyes" (148). "Don't you love me at all?" she asks Rochester. "No, I do not," he replies (148). Inflamed like her eyes, Antoinette attacks her husband with her teeth: domestic violence, rather than domestic bliss, reigns. Cursing each other and unable to bear each other, Rochester considers her only a "red-eyed wild-haired stranger" (149), a mad woman who he can no longer bear. Their marriage completely undone, Rochester thinks to himself he is "tied to a lunatic for life -- a drunken, lying lunatic" (164), which contrasts sharply with the domestic bliss (or its promise) in the Victorian novels. Their marriage and their home come apart with ease as the foundation of their relationship comes to be built on solid hate.

The word and the expression of "hate" between Antoinette and Rochester come to define the end of Wide Sargasso Sea, standing in contrast to the love and light-filled endings of the Victorian texts. Hate comes to essentialize the end of the novel, which is consumed by people consumed with hatred: " . . . I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you" (147) Antoinette says to Rochester. At the very end of the novel, she calls her husband not by his name, but rather knows him as "the man who hated me" (189). Rochester is also consumed with hate: "You hate me and I hate you. We'll see who hates best. But first, But first, I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you'll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing. I did it too, I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out. And with the hate her beauty. She was only a ghost. A ghost in the grey daylight. Nothing left but hopelessness" (170) thinks Antoinette's husband as he reflects on his mad eyed wife. The home, their lives, are destroyed. This stilting language that marks his last section of Wide Sargasso Sea contributes to the sense of tragedy that marks the end of the novel, for its fractured nature marks Rochester's emotionally and spiritually splintered mind: "Words rush through my head (deeds too) . . . Pity like a naked new born babe striding in the blast . . . I hate poets now and poetry. As I hate the music which I loved once" (164). He goes on, "I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever color, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. And had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before we found it" (172). Rather than the sense of fulfillment that marks the end of the Victorian texts, which comes largely from love and the home (or the promise of marriage and a home), Wide Sargasso Sea is marked by the characters' desperation and emptiness. This creshendoing condemnation and expression of pure hatred ends with an ominous sense of "Nothing . . . " a single, powerful word that will reappear Waterland, which professes an equally dark view of human kind, and of life itself.

On the very last pages of the novel, Antoinette becomes resolute and determined in a way that she has not been for the course of the novel: although her determination will lead to tragedy, it also leads to her liberation. In order to "free" Antoinette, Rhys resurrects the famous fire from Jane Eyre, which stands as Antoinette's final act and statement in the book. Walking "as though I were flying," as if free for the first time, Antoinette goes "further than [she] ever had before into the depths of the house" (187) and sets fire to the curtains and eventually, the house entire. She becomes more adventurous, more daring as the novel concludes: it is clearly a moment of liberation for this woman who has been so confined and unloved that she goes mad. The fire is perhaps one of the only things in the novel that is "lovely" to her. As she destroys the home that has destroyed her, Antoinette feels she knows "why I was brought here and what I have to do" (190). Rather than being a wife that builds a home as Jane does, Antoinette literally destroys her home: although destructive, her fire comes to be as important, as liberating and defining for Antoinette as being a nurse and a wife is to Jane, perhaps as illuminating as it is for Pip to hold Estella's hand for the first time as they begin a life together. The destruction of the domestic world that has ruined her allows Antoinette understand herself and her purpose with new clarity.

The Endings of Victorian and Modern Works

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Last modified 20 May 2004