The Postcolonial Rewriting of Colonial Stories: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

Bachelor Thesis, 2010
36 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Rewriting Colonial Stories
1.1 The Need to Rewrite Jane's Story
1.2 Intertextuality in the Novels

2. The Construction of Otherness
2.1 The Dichotomy Between Europe and Its Others
2.2 Knowledge is Power

3. Other Modes of 'In-Betweenness'
3.1 Marginality and Madness
3.2 Translation
3.3 The Fear of “Going Native”

4. Beyond Rewriting
4.1 Local Knowledge
4.2 Limits of Speaking


Declaration of Authorship

Primary Literature
Secondary Literature


Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre was first published in 1847 in London, at a time when British Colonialism was growing increasingly important for both the provision of cheap labour and new markets abroad. The resulting wealth was crucial for Britain's economic rise and rendered possible the Industrial Revolution as well as an increased amount of political and military power over large parts of the world. Many critics have investigated Jane Eyre in feminist or marxist terms, the former because of Jane's astonishing female individuality for the time, and the latter because of the social mobility shown in the novel (Loomba 2005: 74). But since Charlotte Brontë lived during a time when the British Empire was at its peak, her writing was certainly influenced by a colonial belief system which is also present throughout Jane Eyre.

When the young orphan Jane is to leave her rich aunt Mrs Reed who has rejected her ever since she reluctantly took care of her, she has to choose between entering a boarding school and going to relatives that are not as affluent. Jane decides to go to Lowood School because “[she] was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste” (Brontë 1994: 27). As Loomba puts it, caste was known in England through colonial narratives from India and was often thought of in connection with the British system of class (2005: 107). Jane's choice of potential hardship at a boarding school over being attached to poor but possibly caring people is thus a decision against “a movement down the class ladder [which] is understood as a transgression of caste, a virtual crossing of racial divides” (ibid: 107).

Being governess in the house of her future husband Edward Rochester, the eighteenyear-old Jane has some eerie encounters with a ghost-like figure that later turns out to be Rochester's first wife who was born in the Caribbean. She is depicted in the usual way non-Europeans were seen in the 19th century by most Europeans. Her whole being is described by Rochester in stereotypical terms of the “common, low [and] narrow” set of mind of non-white women (Brontë 1994: 303).

Later on in life, Jane comes across the clergyman St. John Rivers, who turns out to be her cousin, and who asks her to marry him in order to go to India as missionaries and to fulfil “the most glorious [task] man can adopt or God assign” (ibid: 400). Jane's inheritance that finally gives her the chance to be reunited with Rochester comes from her uncle who worked as a merchant in Madeira. As Wolfgang Müller emphasises, she does not question how her uncle gained 20,000 pounds, but yet it “gives […] a glimpse of the world-wide activities of British imperialism” (2007: 67).

The reason Jane left Rochester and Thornfield in the first place, although she was about to marry her master, was the disclosure of his first marriage to the supposedly mad Jamaican woman Bertha Antoinetta Mason whom he took with him to England where he placed her in a third-storey room in the house and left her in the care of Grace Poole.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys picks up on that notion of the silenced mad woman locked in the attic of an old English manor. Although written in 1966, the novel is widely acknowledged as Jane Eyre's prequel and puts more emphasis on Antoinette's (as named by Rhys) life before she became the wife of a man who is never actually named but is usually identified as Edward Rochester and will be referred to as such in the course of this work. Since the plot of Wide Sargasso Sea starts in Jamaica a few years after the Emancipation Act of 1833, it is historically set in approximately the same time frame as Brontë's text but provides the reader with a much more conscious depiction of colonialist practices and thought.

Antoinette narrates part one of the novel as an I-narrator and gives the reader an idea of what is was like to be a white Creole, i.e. being of European origin but born in the colonies, in this case in Jamaica. The theme of race has been an important factor in the Caribbean since the early nineteenth century, because the biggest part of the population consisted of imported slaves from different regions of Africa. Jean Rhys was in a similar position as Antoinette since she was also of European origin and native of a small island in the West Indies, Dominica. Issues of race are thus openly addressed in the novel, as can be seen when other children call Antoinette “white nigger” (Rhys 2001: 8) and consequently reject her because she belongs neither to the white English minority nor to the black Jamaican majority of people.

Part two is mostly narrated by Rochester, again in the form of I-narration, and deals with his relationship with Antoinette whom he marries only for her dowry as he is the second son with no financial privileges. Gradually, as he becomes more and more aware of the fact that he does not want to live with Antoinette, he is persuaded by different members of the village community where they are spending their honeymoon that his wife is insane. She is then basically driven into madness by the people and circumstances surrounding her and Rochester decides to take her back to England and to hide her in the attic of his inherited house, hoping that one day she will be eventually forgotten.

Part three is principally narrated by Antoinette (now renamed Bertha Mason by Rochester) and deals with her being in a place that cannot possibly be the England she used to dream about. She is of the opinion that Rochester and herself “lost [their] way to England”, an idea which disturbs her even more (Rhys 2001: 117). As in the Caribbean, she is stuck between two states of being: neither really alive nor dead, but rather waiting for her dream of burning down Thornfield Hall to end and for it to possibly become reality.

The purpose of this thesis is to examine in which aspects Wide Sargasso Sea can be declared a rewriting of Jane Eyre and what features and characteristics allow the former to stand on its own as a novel. A selection of postcolonial theories will provide the theoretical framework in order to substantiate the propositions that are made.

First of all, the use of rewriting colonial texts such as Jane Eyre from a postcolonial perspective will be explained and the intertextual relationship between the characters of Jane, Bertha and Antoinette will be shown. The second part of this work deals with the concept of Otherness based on a binary division between European and non-European cultures and peoples. The resulting racial stereotyping which is represented in both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea will be discussed, as well as the way in which the connection between knowledge and power intensifies the perception of Otherness. The third part of this work will concentrate on other modes of a sense of not-belonging, such as the marginal position Jane and Antoinette hold in the respective society and the latter's 'madness' that turns her into Bertha. In contrast to Brontë's novel, Wide Sargasso Sea portrays Rochester as an overstrained young man who feels trapped in an unwanted marriage in the Caribbean from where he would like to escape. With the help of the concept of translation in a postcolonial sense and the so-called fear of going native it will be explained how he tries to deal with being in an inferior position which approximates him to Bertha's character. Finally, the border of rewriting will be crossed and it will be shown how Christophine's local knowledge constitutes the main difference between the novels and accounts for the singularity of Wide Sargasso Sea. In addition, the question of whether a native's voice like Christophine's can be expressed by an author like Rhys will be examined.

1. Rewriting Colonial Stories

1.1 The Need to Rewrite Jane's Story

Being referred to as an important example for postcolonial literature (Müller 2007: 63), Rhys's novel gives the woman who is marginalised and silenced in Jane Eyre a chance to speak. Because of its wide-ranging field of subjects, postcolonialism cannot be defined by a finite number of hard-and-fast facts, but rather it can be described as a collection of theories that critically question the widespread views of those from the western world on all the others (Young 2003: 4). Its different theories and practices reach from literary, cultural and historical studies to economical and political studies, but they all are concerned with the knowledge that comes from formerly colonised people. Postcolonial literature is essentially eager to “investigate the means by which Europe imposed and maintained its codes in its colonial domination of so much of the rest of the world” (Ashcroft et al. 2003: 221). Furthermore, it seeks to construct a counterbalance to colonialist literature and is thus occupied with “the rereading and the rewriting of the European historical and fictional record” (ibid: 221).

Therefore, in order to develop a greater awareness of colonialist practices in the colonies and the mostly European-centred views on colonised peoples, it is useful to reread texts dealing, either explicitly or implicitly, with practices and outcomes of colonialism from a postcolonial perspective. The rewritings of those texts influenced by or dealing with colonialism are generally occupied with critically responding to matters such as the historical representation of once colonised lands that seems to have originated in the arrival of the colonisers, the induced stereotypes of non-Europeans or the often misrepresented beliefs and cultural traditions in the colonies. In the majority of cases, colonialist domination included a representation of the respective European cultures as superior in contrast to native cultures which were regarded as inferior.

Literature served as an important conveyor of this standpoint. It enforced the opinion that other cultures (here, the Caribbean), always had to be inferior, were not worth mentioning in texts (here, in English literature) and were consequently denied an existence. As David Dabydeen points out in A Handbook for Teaching Caribbean Literature: “We never saw ourselves in a book, so we didn't exist in a kind of way in our culture and environment, our climate, the plants around us did not seem real, did not seem to be of any importance - we overlooked them entirely. The real world was what was in books” (1991: 78).

The rewriting of a canonical English text like Jane Eyre also serves as a means to establish a counter discourse of marginalised figures like that of the Caribbean woman and seeks to add a new confidence to people living in the Caribbean that was itself oppressed during colonialist times. Jean Rhys was perhaps particularly interested in rewriting Brontë's novel because, as she mentioned in one of her letters, she thought for a long time that “[Bertha] seemed such a poor ghost” and consequently she wanted to “write her life” which finally took her about a decade (qtd. in Savory 2001: 178). In a letter from 1958, Jean Rhys explains her intentions in more detail:

The Creole in Charlotte Brontë'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 […] she must 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, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire [...] (Raiskin 1999: 136-37)

Rhys's wish to write Bertha's story perhaps also originated in the author's own childhood and youth in the Caribbean, where she lived until she was 17, before she moved to England. That is presumably why she is able to describe the Caribbean landscape, colours and smells so strikingly vividly and also why she can give account of obeah, a kind of dark magic or voodoo which “existed, and still does, in Haiti, South America and of course in Africa - under different names” (ibid: 139) and knows about the rumours of Creole girls who were married to English men and would then, “once in England be Address Unknown” from which Antoinette's character is derived (Raiskin 1999: 143). It is usually said that Rhys's novels seem very autobiographical and certain parallels between her and Wide Sargasso Sea's heroine Antoinette are often drawn. However, linking her life with that of her fictional characters is not the priority of this work and will therefore not be enlarged upon.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak points out that “Bertha Mason is a figure produced by the axiomatics of imperialism” (1985: 247) and that Brontë's representation of her blurs the threshold between animal and human being, e.g. when she writes about the “snarling, snatching sound, almost like a dog quarrelling” (1994: 208) that Jane hears in a nearby room when she is ordered to stay with the injured Richard Mason, Bertha's stepbrother whom she wounded with a knife. Spivak argues that Rhys's rewriting of that scene “keeps Bertha's humanity, indeed her sanity as critique of imperialism, intact” (1985: 249) with Grace Poole trying to remind Antoinette of the incident: “'I didn't hear all he said except 'I cannot interfere legally between yourself and your husband'. It was when he said 'legally' that you flew at him [...]'” (Rhys 2001: 119). It is obvious that it is not Antoinette's “innate bestiality” (Spivak 1985: 250) but her comprehensible anger with Richard when he refuses to help her, that leads to the incident and explains one reason for her seemingly mad behaviour.

1.2 Intertextuality in the Novels

Feminist critics such as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that Brontë created Bertha as Jane's wild and angry alter ego that she had to overcome in order to achieve “wholeness within herself” (2000: 362). In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress”, they point out that both women in Brontë's novel share many characteristics, but that Bertha acts much more rigorously and irrationally than Jane.

During her first time at Thornfield, Jane often dreams of leading a more active and diversified life than the one of a governess in a rather rural area of North England. When she wishes to meet other people and to be somewhere else, perhaps in a big city, she gets excited and then her “sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards” (Brontë 1994: 111). This scene very much resembles what Jane perceives of Bertha on the wedding day: “a figure ran backwards and forwards” but, underlining the mentally disturbed and beast-like aspect, “it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours” (ibid: 291). Jane also often hears Grace Poole's laugh (which is actually Bertha's) and her muttering (ibid: 111). Gilbert and Gubar suggest that, in connection to Jane's frantic pacing and her dissatisfaction with her current situation, these “[e]ccentric murmurs [...] uncannily echo the murmurs of Jane's imagination, and a low, slow ha! ha! Ha! [...] forms a bitter refrain to the tale Jane's imagination creates” (2000: 349). Thus, the mansion's attic is not only the place where the 'madwoman' lives, but since Bertha's furious behaviour seems to have a mirroring effect on Jane, it is also the place where she is confronted by her own passion, eagerness and agitation and where her “own rationality [...] and her irrationaity [...] intersect” (ibid: 348).

Bertha can thus be seen as Jane's “truest and darkest double” (ibid: 359) because the 'madwoman' executes, what Jane wants to, but is not able to do, because she probably fears that if she did act according to her rebellious thoughts she might be estranged from Rochester, the people at Thornfield and society as such. If Jane feels odd about the “strange, wraith-like” wedding dress (Brontë 1994: 273), it is Bertha who comes to her room at night, takes the veil and “rent[s] it in two parts” (ibid: 281). If Jane seems at least partly to regret that “[t]here was no putting off [...] the bridal day” (ibid: 273), due to the disclosure of Rochester's marriage to Bertha, the wedding does not take place. If Jane wants to be more equal in stature to her future husband in order to be able to assert her opinions regarding the marriage, again it is Bertha who is “in stature almost equalling” (ibid: 291) Rochester and hence able to fight him, at least physically.

The parallels drawn show that Bertha serves for Jane as an example of what can become of a woman who puts her secret fantasies into action, and the destiny of Rochester's first wife teaches her how not to act if she does not want to live with the consequences like Bertha. (Gilbert, Gubar 2000: 361).

Wide Sargasso Sea is not only described by many literary critics as a rewriting in direct reference to Jane Eyre, but by Jean Rhys herself who pointed out in a letter in 1958: “It might be possible to unhitch the whole thing from Charlotte Brontë's novel, but I don't want to do that. It is that particular mad Creole I want to write about, not any of the other mad Creoles.


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The Postcolonial Rewriting of Colonial Stories: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Anglistik)
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Literature, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Charlotte Bronte, Jean Rhys, Postcolonialism, Rewriting, Colonialism
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B.A. Christina Münzner (Author), 2010, The Postcolonial Rewriting of Colonial Stories: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 3/14/2013

    remarkable work

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