Wide Sargasso Sea is an end-of-empire text that charts the downfall of English colonialism in the Caribbean, a process that began with the abolition of slavery. By moving the timeframe of the story to just after the passage of the Emancipation Acts, Rhys emphasizes this aspect of her novella. Much of the descriptive detail in the work serves to underscore this theme; for example, Coulibri Estate has fallen into a state of utter disarray and Antoinette says that she "did not remember the place when it was prosperous." Throughout the work we see the English struggling to maintain their tenuous grasp over the island while simultaneously grappling with the reality that this domain is very different from Europe. Rochester's intense need to control Antoinette represents the British fight to maintain economic and legal control over an area they considered their territory.
Nostalgia for the Past
Related to the theme of British Imperialistic Decline, nostalgia plays an important role in the text from its outset. "My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed - all belonged to the past," Antoinette says wistfully on the very first page, and throughout the story she longs for a return to what she remembers as the innocent and happy days of her girlhood. She remembers Coulibri as having a garden as "large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible," but laments that over time it has "gone wild." Rhys repeatedly represents the past in Biblical terms, as a state of grace from which mankind has fallen. This conception of history, however, is somewhat ironic; the time for which Antoinette yearns so desperately is the same period in which the vast majority of the island's inhabitants were living as slaves.
Alienation of "The Other"
The notion of the minority as "other" is important to post-colonial studies and to our understanding of the tensions at play in Wide Sargasso Sea. Both the black majority and white minority on the island marginalize Antoinette and her Creole family, making them outsiders on two fronts. As a result they live in a state of almost complete social isolation. "Now we are marooned," Antoinette's mother says after the death of her horse prevents her from leaving the grounds of the family's estate. Later she repeats that they are "abandoned, lied about, helpless." Even though she marries to get out of this predicament, Antoinette finds herself in the same position as Rochester's wife.
The subjection of women to male authority is an important theme in both Charlotte Brontë's nineteenth-century novel and Jean Rhys's twentieth-century revision. Like Brontë, Rhys illustrates the painfully limited role of women in Victorian society. Antoinette, for example, is unable to free herself from Rochester's brutality because she has no financial independence; when she married him all of the money in her dowry was given to him without condition or stipulation. Rochester represents the ultimate in patriarchal tyrants, but other male characters in the novella also display deep-seated feelings of misogyny, including Mr. Mason and Daniel. With the possible exception of Christophine, men deprive all of the female characters in the text of their agency, something Rhys clearly finds deplorable.
The Corrupting Power of Money
Money, Rhys suggests, is the medium by which a new and legalized form of slavery has been instituted on the island now that emancipation has been granted by the British government. The incidents in which financial inequality sullies the emotional relationships between characters are innumerable: Tia steals Antoinette's pennies, Rochester marries Antoinette for her dowry and pays Amelie for sleeping with him, Daniel tries to extort money from Rochester in exchange for his silence, and even Antoinette attempts to use her pounds to convince Christophine to perform a black magic ritual. Without exception, the awareness of economic inequality destroys the ties that bind the novella's characters, as those in power lord their wealth over others who are less fortunate.
It is no surprise when Antoinette loses her mind in the last section of the novella. Like Rochester, readers have been expecting it to happen for a long time. Daniel insists that both of Antoinette's parents suffered from mental maladies, and indeed Annette displays her instability over and over in the first part of the text, first as a recluse at Coulibri and later as fiend who tries to kill her husband. Yet Antoinette's mental breakdown is not only the result of her hereditary susceptibility, Rhys suggests. The circumstances of Antoinette's upbringing and marriage - in particular her confinement in the attic in the last section - contribute to her deterioration. Readers should ask themselves at what point Antoinette's conduct truly becomes "madness," as Rhys hints that insanity is at least in part a condition constructed by those in power to subordinate their inferiors. Hence female madness is closely related to patriarchy.
The Illusion of Absolute Truth
Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an alternative version of the events described in Jane Eyre; a revision in which the madwoman in the attic could tell her own side of the story. Toward this end, perhaps the most important theme in Rhys's work is the idea that, as Antoinette says in the text, there are always at least two sides to every story. Critics have often asked whether Rhys's account of British colonialism is more valid than Brontë's and vice versa. Still, even within Rhys's own text there are irreconcilable differences between the different narrators' recollections of the same events. Some scholars tend to privilege Antoinette's account of her life over that offered by Rochester, but while it is tempting to do so it must also be remembered that this is exactly the type of reading that Rhys warns against. In this alternative Caribbean world, she suggests, memory is malleable and imagination is influential; reality, if it exists, is different for each individual. To attempt to discover a definitive interpretation of Wide Sargasso Sea, then, is to make the same mistake as Mr. Rochester, attempting to fix something that by its very nature is variable.
Wide Sargasso Sea Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Wide Sargasso Sea is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
"White cockroach" is a racial slur. Antoinette foolishly slaps Amelie her servant, when Amelie makes what she perceives to be an inappropriate comment. White cockroach is the name given to the Creoles.