"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys as a postcolonial response to "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

14 Pages, Grade: 2,00


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Jean Rhys’s attitude towards the representation of West Indian in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre
“There is always the other side, always.”

3. Edward Rochester- the unnamed English husband

4. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s interpretation of Wide Sargasso Sea.

5. Summary

6. Literature:
Primary literature:
Secondary literature:

1. Introduction

Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the best-known literary postcolonial replies to the writing of Charlotte Bronte and a brilliant deconstruction of what is known as the author’s “worlding” in Jane Eyre .[1] The novel written by Jean Rhys tells the story of Jane Eyre’s protagonist, Edward Rochester. The plot takes place in West Indies where Rochester met his first wife, Bertha Antoinette Mason. Wide Sargasso Sea influences the common reading and understanding of the matrix novel, as it rewrites crucial parts of Jane Eyre .

The heroine in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea , Antoinette Cosway, is created out of demonic and bestialic Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre. Rhys's great achievement in her re-writing of the Bronte’s text is her creation of a double to the madwoman from Jane Eyre . The heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, the beautiful Antoinette Cosway, heiress of the post-emancipation fortune is created out of the demonc and bestialic Bertha Mason. The author transforms the first Mrs Rochester into an individual figure whose madness is caused by imperialistic and patriarchal oppression.[2] The vision of Bertha/Antoinette as an insane offspring from a family plagued by madness is no longer plausible to the reader.[3] In this essay I would like to focus the factors which led to the madness of the protagonist.

Although Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre seem to be enemies and contradictory characters in the Victorian novel, many critics find several similarities between the two heroines, their life and finally between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea . Seeing Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway as sisters and doubles is very popular with some critics who dealt with the works of Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys. Nevertheless, I would like to focus in this essay on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s criticism on viewing and interpreting the two heroines. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” values also Jean Rhys for telling the story of Bertha Mason through the Creole perspective, but she criticises the author for marginalising the native inhabitants of West Indies.[4]

2. Jean Rhys’s attitude towards the representation of West Indian in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre

Jean Rhys, who spent her childhood in the West Indies, read Jane Eyre as a teeneager and regreted the fact that she could not contribute to the story of Bertha Mason. The first Mrs Rochester, who is presented in Jane Eyre as a creature between a human and an animal, represents threat for the heroine and her marital happiness with Rochester. In the letter to Selma Van Diaz, Rhys expresses her attitude towards the character of Bertha Mason and is in opposition to her representation in Jane Eyre :

“The Creole in Charlotte Bronte’s novel is a lay figure-repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive which does. She’s necessary to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls, laughs horribly, attacks all and sundry- off stage. For me (and for you I hope) she should be right on stage. She must be at least plausible with a past, the reason why Mr Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, even the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad (…)”[5]

In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys confronts the possibility of another side to Jane Eyre . The character “of the mad Creole” is given voice, dignity, identity and right to tell the reader “her side of the story.” The protagonist knows that the fate of her mother and the tragic history of her whole family can be misjudged and misunderstood by others. That is why the heroine assures her husband:

“There is always the other side, always.”[6]

This statement can be quoted as the motto of the novel and a as a message coming form the author, who based the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea on her own childhood experiences in Dominica:

“Of course Charlotte Bronte makes her own world, of course she convinces you, and that makes the poor Creole lunatic all the more dreadful. I remember being quite shocked, and when I re-read it rather annoyed. “That’s only one side — the English side” sort of thing.”[7]

The author was convinced that Charlotte Bronte misinterpreted West Indies and that the Victorian writer was even prejudiced against West Indian:

“The mad first wife in Jane Eyre has always interested me. I was convinced Charlotte Bronte must have had something against the West Indies and I was angry about it. Otherwise why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature?”[8]

Negative prejudicies against people from West Indies has also Bronte’s heroine. The fact that Jane Eyre is prejudiced against West Indian proves the way she deals with Rochester’s version of his wife’s past. The protagonist discovers at the wedding alter that her beloved man has already a wife, who he imprisones in his attic. The fact that Jane Eyre leaves his story about Bertha Mason and her madness unexamined can be put in relation with the stereotype of degeneracy and madness in the colonized territories. This kind of stereotypical thinking about West Indies was common in the 19th century in England.[9]

1. Growing up between two cultures.

The white Creole daughter of a former slave trader, Antoinette, struggles through her life for her happiness, love and acceptation. The black community does not accept her because she is white. For her Creole background, she does not fit in to the world of her English husband, Rochester:

“In the figure of Antoinette, whom in Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester violently renames Bertha, Rhys suggests that so intimate a thing as personal and human identity might be determined by the politics of imperialism. Antoinette, as a white Creole child growing up at the time of emancipation in Jamaica, is caught between the English imperialist and the black native.”[10]


[1] Spivak, S. 270

[2] Spivak, In: http://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/knarf/Articles/spivak.html

[3] Thieme, S. 77

[4] Spivak, In: http://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/knarf/Articles/spivak.html

[5] Rhys (Letters, 156-157) In: Gregg, S. 82

[6] “Wide Sargasso Sea”, S. 68

[7] “Wide Sargasso Sea”, S. 111

[8] Rhys, “Fated”, S. 5, In: Thieme, S. 77

[9] Gregg, S. 84

[10] Spivak, In: http://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/knarf/Articles/spivak.html

Excerpt out of 14 pages


"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys as a postcolonial response to "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte
University of Koblenz-Landau  (Anglistik)
Colonial and Postcolonial Literatures
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ISBN (Book)
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wide, sargasso, jean, rhys, jane, eyre, charlotte, bronte
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Malgorzata Swietlik (Author), 2008, "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys as a postcolonial response to "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/170690


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