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Wide Sargasso Sea: Examining Antoinette's Fragmented Identity

There is no looking glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself (Rhys,1996)

The disintegration of the British Empire represented a pivotal historical turning point, not only for the United Kingdom but also for the global geopolitical situation. In the aftermath of the Empire's collapse and the dissolution of its colonies, an overwhelming urge arose for the newly independent nations to self-determine their own identities. This demand manifested in the political and geographic domains as well as in literature and the arts. Many authors finally felt empowered to share their stories, providing an alternative narrative that broke free from the Eurocentric perspective propagated by the West for centuries. This marked the emergence of what is known as Postcolonial literature. Among the numerous writers who contributed to the creation of postcolonial literature, Jane Rhys deserves an honourable mention. Her experience as a woman and as a Creole writer is extremely important, as she doubly embodies the concept of "The Other." Although the author can boast numerous publications to her name, in this circumstance, the focus will be placed on her most well-known and acclaimed piece, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

The novel provides an alternative perspective to Charlotte Brontë's famous novel Jane Eyre (1847).

"Jane Eyre," written by Charlotte Brontë, follows the life of an orphaned girl who endures a harsh childhood with her abusive aunt and at a strict charity school. As an adult, Jane works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with the mysterious master, Edward Rochester. Their relationship is hindered when Jane realises Rochester is already married to Bertha Mason, a woman with mental illness who is hidden in the attic of the manor. Devastated, Jane leaves Thornfield but later returns to find the castle destroyed by a fire set by Bertha, who perishes in the blaze. Rochester, now blind and injured, reunites with Jane, and they marry, finding happiness together.

Reading Wide Sargasso Sea, this unique rendition of the Victorian novel forces the reader to reevaluate all his prior assumptions and evaluations about Bertha, the first wife of Mr Rochester, who is presented here under the name of Antoinette. Focusing on the backstory of Bertha Mason, whose original name is Antoinette Cosway, Wide Sargasso Sea explores the woman's troubled childhood marked by racial tension and family instability. She marries an Englishman, implied to be Edward Rochester, who renames her Bertha. Their relationship deteriorates as Rochester becomes increasingly controlling and distrustful, influenced by rumours of madness in her family. Isolated and emotionally tormented, Antoinette's mental health unravels. The story culminates in Rochester taking her to England, where she is imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield Hall, leading into the events of "Jane Eyre. The rewriting of the canon is not a Rhys-specific strategy, but rather a common phenomenon in post-colonial literature. According to Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, this procedure enables the rewriting of texts that are regarded as classics of the Western tradition, by deconstructing the previously established hierarchy while disproving the original, sometimes erroneous, assumptions that led to the creation of these realities. Through this rewriting, Jean Rhys places new attention and introspection on the character of Antoinette/Bertha, undermining the original conception of the character given to us while reading Brontë.

Figure 1: Wide Sargasso Sea paperback book cover, W. W. Norton & Company.

The following article will endeavour to examine in detail Antoinette's identity, which is immediately perceived as extremely complicated and fragmented. The paper will firstly attempt to comprehend the different factors that led Antoinette to have such a crumbling and fragmented perception of her identity, up to finally documenting if the woman eventually manages to regain possession of herself at the end of the novel.

The sections of the article will be organised as follows: the first part of the article will concentrate on analysing the historical, geographical, and social context by highlighting the close connection that exists between the phenomenon of colonisation and the creation of identity and the self, thereby demonstrating the initial cause of the instability of Antoinette's identity. The second part will focus on another cause of instability, which is the mother-daughter relationship in Antoinette's childhood. The emphasis will then shift to Edward Rochester and Antoinette's marriage to him, along with all the effects of this relationship on the main character's psyche and ego. The author's style and literary devices will then be discussed to highlight how they best represent the fragmentation this paper is referring to. Eventually, the final part will present the conclusions and considerations drawn from this analysis to respond to the issue that was previously addressed.

Figure 2: Noon, 1940, Albert Huie.

Historical and Socio-cultural Background

To be able to thoroughly investigate such a complex subject, a first attempt to define the concept of identity should be made. The task at hand is by no means simple; countless definitions on the matter are offered by an equal number of researchers, and the existence of various schools of thought regarding the topic complicates the quest even more. Erik Erikson, considered one of the greatest experts on the subject, defines identity as the perception of oneself as an individual and as a human operating in society (Hoare,2002). Ang, on the other hand, drawing inspiration from her experience as an immigrant, considers identity as a construct deriving from various factors such as the surrounding environment, the education received, social class and so on, also underlining the fact that identity remains something very personal, however, also subject to changes during life (Ang, 2001). The process of personal development cannot be separated from socioeconomic factors like one's upbringing and environment.

In this particular case more than in others, it seems crucial to note once again how the concept of identity and the perception that each person has of themselves are significantly influenced by the environment in which they live.

When examined in a colonial or postcolonial framework, this process—which is already incredibly complex—becomes even more challenging and obscure to fully comprehend. Antoinette Cosway was born and brought up in this environment specifically.

The story takes place in Jamaica in the early 1830s, not long after slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. However, the country's colonial history begins much earlier, as the island is one of the first territories to be colonised by Europeans. The English rule began in 1655, and the country was considered a treasure where the growth of sugar cane and trade could be profitable for the White Europeans. In Jamaica as well as in other British colonies, a social system based on the exploitation of slaves, who were brutally subjugated, was established (Lemonius, 2017). While the African inhabitants who lived on the island were exploited as slaves, Jamaica's white residents rose to the top of the social ladder and occupied dominant positions. As owners of huge plantations, Europeans become wealthier and wealthier while abusing the labour of black men and women, further enlarging the already existing gap between the two populations. The bureaucratic and legal treatment varied dramatically depending on the race of the individual. White Europeans could rely on the protection of the state and be entitled to trials, whereas the Black population had no protection at all (Wilson, 2011).

Figure 3: Bridge, over the White River, James Hakewill.

The presence of numerous mixed-race children and descendants of foreigners increased the number of Europeans in the country complicating even more the social situation of the country. (Wilson, 2011). Antoinette Cosway is a girl of mixed race who was born and raised in Jamaica with Martinican ancestry on her mother's side and an English father. She is regarded as a white Creole and comes from a slave-owning family with a plantation. The Cosway family's position, which may have originally been considered wealthy, was catapulted following the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 when the plantation was abandoned and only those too desperate to leave remained in the family's service. It is the mother herself who reveals this truth to her daughter after the girl's question about their servants: “‘They stayed’ she said angrily ‘because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat'”(Rhys, 1996).

As mentioned above, the story takes place shortly after the abolition of slavery was enacted in 1833, meaning Antoinette's childhood falls within a particularly turbulent historical period, especially for former slave owners. The emancipation of black people from their masters caused the attitude of complete obedience they had been forced to bear to be swiftly replaced by fierce rage, aggression, and thirst for justice (Hickling, 1994). Antoinette personally witnesses this violence, and her family is profoundly affected by the freeing of the slaves:

“They hated us. They called us white cockroaches. Let sleeping dogs lie. One day a little girl followed my singing, ‘Go away white cockroach, go away, go away’. I walked fast, but she walked faster. ‘White cockroach, go away go away. Nobody want you’”(Rhys, 1996)

Figure 4: Harbour Street, Kingston, James Hakewill.

The prior division, which the whites fervently desired, now impacts them with all of its repercussions. The Black population accentuate the disparities between the two communities by emphasising their disgust and hatred towards the former ruling elite. When Antoinette seems to seek refuge from the loneliness that reigns supreme at her home in Tia, a black girl, the interaction between the two girls concisely explains the real condition of the whites on the island: 

“That’s not what she hear, she said. She hear all we poor like beggar … Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn't look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people but white nigger now, and black nigger better that white nigger” (Rhys, 1996)

This conversation, which seems to be quite confusing, reveals the reality that surrounds Antoinette. Tia’s words “Real white people” highlight a new issue. Antoinette and her family are not considered white, they belong to the Creole minority who are equally denigrated by both whites and blacks. The girl's attitude towards these communities is confused and contradictory as well, as Antoinette frantically tries to find a role model to look up to or identify with, her efforts however, seem to be in vain (Cappello, 2009). As a Creole she feels divided between cultures, she represents “The Other” for both populations. Further in the narrative, Antoinette reveals to her husband: “I often wonder who am I and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”(Rhys, 1996)

After her mother’s marriage to Mr. Mason, whom she once referred to as "white pappy"(Rhys, 1996), she feels even more strongly about not belonging to the white community. The girl also reports: “We ate English food now, beef and mutton, pies and puddings. I was glad to be like an English girl, but I missed the taste of Christophine’s cooking”(Rhys, 1996). She could certainly outwardly pass for white and English but that conflicts with what she feels internally, she could be like an English girl, but not a real English girl.

Figure 5: Reconnecting With Your Inner Child, Diana Aziz.

Not recognising herself in her mother's heritage, Antoinette searches for herself among the people of the black community. Furthermore, trying to identify with the black community is probably related to the figure of Cristophine as well, a black maid who takes care of the family and who in particular Antoinette perceives as the closest mother figure to whom to refer: “So, I spent most of my time in the kitchen … when evening came she sang to me if she was in the mood” (Rhys, 1996). There is also a further attempt to identify with the black community, the night of the attack at Coulibri: “I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass” (Rhys, 1996). Tia in some way reflects Antoinette as a mirror would, however, once again assimilation or sense of belonging does not steam.

Throughout the story, the protagonist's perception of herself is confused, disjointed, and continuously shifting. One could wonder why doesn't Antoinette accept or identify with her Creole identity and background. It is crucial to keep in mind how the Creoles were perceived by other populations, which caused them to suppress or hide their ethnicity whenever possible. Moreover, the only connection Antoinette has with her ethnicity is represented by her mother who, as it will be seen later, does not act according to her parental role.

The Severed Mother-Daughter Connection

The disorientation from which Antoinette suffers is not only attributable to the precarious geo-political condition in which she lives but is possibly also imputable to the family context to which she belongs. Haydon suggests that building one's identity is facilitated by engaging in personal discovery, making deliberate decisions and commitments, encouraging autonomy, and upholding a healthy relationship with one's family (Haydon, 2010). 

For the little girl Antoinette, all of this is lacking; instead, she must deal with a family that is hardly present in her childhood. Even the relationships between the few people she is surrounded by are beyond the girl's comprehension: “These were all the people in my life - my mother and Pierre, Cristophine, Godfrey, and Sass who had left us” (Rhys, 1996). Her household is mainly composed of servants who still serve the family, though primarily out of self-interest, and a completely absent mother and brother, just as the figure of the father is also utterly absent. Although the mother, Annette, for her part raises a wall between her and her daughter, the girl naively tries to establish a relationship with the woman. Nonetheless, each attempt ends in an abrupt closure on the parent's part: “She wanted to sit with Pierre or walk where she pleased without being pestered, she wanted peace and quiet. I was old enough to look after myself. ‘Oh, let me alone’, she would say” (Rhys, 1996). The normal process of identification that a child develops throughout his or her first years of life is prevented by the omission of a connection between mother and daughter. The absence of a father figure makes Antoinette practically an orphan depriving her of a family identity to which she can refer and within which she may recognise herself. These unfortunate circumstances only worsen the girl’s condition.

Figure 6: Mother and Child, Gustave Léonard de Jonghe.

Antoinette experiences what Julia Kristeva terms "abjection":

When that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that it is none other than abject. The abjection of self would be the culminating form of that experience of the subject to which it is revealed that all its objects are based merely on the inaugural loss that laid the foundations of its own being (Kristeva, 2010)

Because of her cultural ambiguity and mixed origin, Antoinette represents a borderline figure. This provokes feelings of abjection in others, as well as in herself. Antoinette experiences rejection, isolation, and marginalisation as she lives outside of white colonial society's established paradigms. The bond between daughter and mother that was previously described, as well as the latter's disinterest in and rejection of her, increases Antoinette's feelings of abandonment, strengthening the girl's distress. It is significant and even more incisive that it is the parent who rejects the child, reversing what should instead be his natural role.

Figure 7: "All the Days of Love and Courage", Bowler, 1969.

However, Annette's treatment of her daughter is not based solely on innate cruelty, but rather on events that have shaped her life. The decline of her family's social position and fortune has a significant impact on Annette. She is forced to deal with challenges caused by the emancipation of slaves: “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning” (Rhys, 1996). The pressure provoked by the deterioration of the family condition pushes Annette to choose to put her own survival and well-being ahead, neglecting the relationship with her daughter. Furthermore, both she and Antoinette are the result of a colonial society. Annette’s detachment is the result of both her background and her misfortunes. Her perception of the world is shaped by these events, which also have an impact on her capacity to develop emotive connections, especially with her daughter. Her distance can be interpreted as a form of self-preservation, an attempt to protect herself. On the matter, Fayad states: “But the denial of self-reflection for the young adolescents indicates subsuming everything for a higher 'good', the sacrificing of the self rather than the developing of it. We are back to the angel of the house once again: self-denying, living for others with no regard for herself” (Fayad, 1988).

Annette is a corrupt role model, she has not achieved a balance in her life, and the image she projects in Antoinette's existence is distorted and intermittent. Yet Antoinette is powerless against her mother's unstable behaviour and paranoia: “I'd put my hands over my ears, her screams were so loud and terrible” (Rhys, 1996). The woman's descent into madness appears to be the only reflection of her that Antoinette sees, and it nearly seems to allude to a sad premonition of the same fate that awaits Antoinette herself, suggesting the idea of a generational trauma that crosses generations through blood: “Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother. Your aunt frightened to have you in the house. She send you for the nuns to lock up” (Rhys, 1996). Several times throughout the story, different characters—including in this instance, one of the girls she encounters at the convent—repeat the same depressing prediction, alluding to the seed of madness that everyone who comes into contact with her seems to perceive. What transpires is the allusion to madness as the only real form of identification possible for Antoinette with the figure of her mother.

Figure 8: “Young woman, rise.” George Varian (1902).

What's in a name?

Edward Rochester throughout the narration, plays a crucial role in contributing to erase the already precarious sense of self of the protagonist. He is portrayed as an entirely different character from Jane Eyre's romantic and enigmatic hero the reader is accustomed to. In Jane Rhys’s novel, the man is an unscrupulous profiteer who personally arranges the marriage for exclusively financial motives and is no longer the mysterious hero tricked into an unhappy marriage. On the other side, Antoinette, who initially refuses the union, ultimately falls completely in love with Edward and develops an obsession towards him when the man rejects her.

Although Antoinette initially fascinates the man, he soon starts to fear her and feels even disgusted by her because of her origins. She may have black ancestors in her genetic heritage, and Edward finds the entire idea extremely upsetting. During his stay in Jamaica, he becomes increasingly restless due to the surrounding environment that he perceives as unwelcoming and unfamiliar. What to most people might appear to be a tropical paradise, to Edward turns into a hostile environment that he cannot comprehend: “That is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream" (Rhys, 1996), his misperception of the island stems from the fact that it appears to defy the norms that he, as a European and an Englishman, is accustomed to.

It is a place that he fails to internalise and understand, and Antoinette is part of this place and represents a constant reminder of the surrounding environment and its population:

“I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, 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. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness” (Rhys, 1996)
Figure 9: "I set it on the table", Mary V. Wheelhouse.

Rochester feels alienated from the place and does not attempt to familiarize with it. On the contrary, he resists it. Both Antoinette and Jamaica are a mystery to him; they are strangers about whom he knows nothing and, more importantly, from whom he has no desire to learn anything. The English gentleman immediately regrets his marriage and is plagued by his obsession with Antoinette's racial purity (Cappello,2009). He is annoyed by the woman, by the customs of the island and by his wife's relationship with Cristophine: “he resents their hugging and kissing, which he rightly suspects are Antoinette's way of circumventing his proprietorship in order to ally herself with the only black woman” (Kamel, 1995). The only way Edward must restore his order is to take control. When his patience is no longer under control, he begins to distance himself more and more from his wife who instead strongly desires contact with him, and arbitrarily he changes her name. This is the first violence that man inflicts on Antoinette, who, from now on, he calls Bertha. He strips her of her name and tries to erase any residue Antoinette may have of her identity. The woman, on the other hand, is rejected for the second time in her life, similar to how she was rejected by her mother during her youth. “‘My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?’ … ‘I think of you as Bertha’” (Rhys,1996); by renaming his wife, Edward irreversibly alters the woman's already fragile sense of self. Deciding to rename her and mould her according to his tastes and desires, he owns her completely and turns the woman into a puppet in his hands:

“Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name.”(Rhys, 1996) 

Antoinette is deprived of everything: her identity, her country, and her money. The final pretext Edward needs to execute his plan is the letter he later receives from Daniel Cosway, in which the assumption that Antoinette might have black ancestors is confirmed. In the course of the narration, the man convinces himself of Antoinette's madness and several times defines her as mad: “My lunatic. My mad girl” (Rhys, 1994). Declaring Antoinette insane and contaminated and confining her to the attic is a strategic and extremely useful solution for Rochester, who can remedy what he considers the mistake of marrying her, continuing to live his life and strengthening even further a Eurocentric and male-dominated narrative. When Antoinette transforms into Bertha, she loses her voice permanently: “Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking-glass” (Rhys, 1996). Edward can finally start the process of domesticating the woman, which almost makes her resemble a wild animal needing to be tamed.

Figure 10: "I Think I Am Ready Now", William Merritt Chase.


The instability and fragmentation of Antoinette's identity seem to be further underlined by the author's stylistic choices. The novel is divided into three parts in which the narrators are alternated. The first section is told in the first person by Antoinette and describes her upbringing in Coulibri, her dissatisfaction with being a member of the Creole community, and the political instability that Jamaica was experiencing. It is narrated in the past tense and, together with the third part, is probably written by Antoinette when she is already in England. Instead, the second section is narrated from Edward's perspective as he critically assesses the nature of his marriage and the events that are associated with that period of their lives. The focus eventually, shifts again to Antoinette who resumes the narration. The change of narrator helps the reader to see both sides of the coin, understanding how extremely subjective and fickle reality is depending on the point of view from which it is narrated. It serves as an example of a moral lesson that encourages the audience to consider all possible interpretations of the events rather than accepting one blindly. This is one of the key concepts behind the book, which provides a different account of history that can present the perspective of individuals who are typically marginalised and neglected.

The woman seems to fluctuate between the pages from one emotional state to another until going insane. Madness emerges in the novel through the contents narrated by the author and also through the stylistic choices that she decides to adopt. A constant and characterising element of the entire narration is the presence of dreams. The use of dreams as a metaphor for the text's depiction of madness begins in the first part and progresses throughout the novel, becoming more dramatic and enigmatic as it nears its conclusion.

“The choice of a narrative technique mimetic of a meandering mind and following the logic of free association or ’dream truth’ was meant to fit Rhys’s primary concern – to give not only a voice, but also a shape, to madness” (Rovera).
Figure 11: Illustration from East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon, PJ Lynch.

Additionally, from a Freudian perspective, the dream represents what the individual fears or wants but suppresses throughout the day. Antoinette's dreams are certainly not the only time when she is herself, but they do represent moments where she is able to explore her innermost thoughts and feelings. When she is not asleep, she is haunted by the need to conform and act according to what is required of her, making her incapable of expressing her anxieties and fears. However, in her dreams, she is free and manages to give voice to her worst nightmares. Madness becomes the protagonist of the last part of the novel where it is possible to witness the complete collapse of Antoinette, now Bertha. Another stylistic element the author heavily employs is symbolism as a literary device. Images such as mirrors, reflections and clothes in specific colours such as red and white, are recurrent in the narration and serve as symbolic “bridges passage” connecting one section of the book with another. It sometimes feels difficult to distinguish between Antoinette's dreams and reality since the language is so vivid and imaginative, giving the reader the impression of being continuously immersed in the realm of her imagination. While the first section appears to have some narrative consistency and coherence, in the last section one of the impressions that transpires is of witnessing a real monologue of the woman, almost a sort of stream of consciousness which is at times difficult to follow. 


What emerges at the end of the brief analysis conducted so far, is the figure of a completely eclipsed woman. The final part of the book is narrated by Antoinette when she is already in England and confined to the attic. The confusion is increasingly evident in the woman who has now lost all notion of space and time and seems to be completely engulfed in madness which comes intermittently alternating with brief moments of lucidity “’ When we went to England,’ I said, ‘You fool,’ she said, ‘this is England.’ ‘I don’t believe it.’ I said” (Rhys, 1996). The lack of coherence and the difficulty in relating to the present time and the place, are references that allude to Antoinette's total loss of herself.

The presence of Rochester, who calls her name, causes the past and present to fuse, making it difficult for her to connect with her current location. Dream and reality then eventually mix when the woman awakens and starts wandering through the ghostly house, right before emulating the same epilogue announced in the dream, interweaving this narrative with the events that subsequently occur in Jane Eyre. Following this examination, an inevitable question surfaces: Does Antoinette succeed in regaining control of her identity through her final and extreme act?

The analysis conducted and the reading of both works in which Antoinette / Bertha figures lead us to believe that unfortunately, the woman fails in her attempt at self-determination through her self-immolation. Although Bertha's suicide can be interpreted as a liberating act, it does not restore Antoinette's name, identity, or childhood, and it does not fill the emptiness she feels inside.

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