An analysis of the protagonists' mad behaviour in Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea" in Hegelian Terms

Antoinette and Rochester's way down into madness

Term Paper, 2017

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Hegel’s Theory of Madness

3. Characters in Wide Sargasso Sea
3.1 The Creole Woman Antoinette Cosway
3.2 The patriarchal Mr Rochester

4. Journeys into madness
4.1 Antoinette’s way down into madness
4.2 Mr Rochester’s development in the novel

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“ ‘Fearful and ghastly to me […]! It was a discoloured face – it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!’ ” (Brontë 250). The description of Antoinette Coswayin Jane Eyre is indeed very frightening. However, the way in which Jane Eyre describes her and the fact that Antoinette’s story is only told by Rochester, gives rise to doubts about the truth within the reader. Thus, Jean Rhys wrote her counterpart Wide Sargasso Sea to Brontë’s Jane Eyre in order to reveal the story about Bertha Mason and Antoinette Cosway respectively. On the one hand, Jean Rhys’ aim is to display the consequence of colonisation considering the locals, as some of them might have been frightened of those people coming from England. On the other hand, one of her main goal is the portrayal of Antoinette’s reasons of becoming mad and, in particular, the depiction of Rochester’s second face. In Jane Eyre, Rochester is partly depicted as a friendly and considerate person, but, nevertheless, Rhys does not feel sympathy with him. Instead, she wants to show that Antoinette’s madness is not fully congenital, countering Rochester’s statement that “she [comes] of a mad family” (Brontë 257). To the contrary, Rochester himself in a way also becomes mad wherefore he bears some of the blame on Antoinette becoming mad as well.

Readers might be able to explain ‘madness’ very easily, but it gives rise to doubts about the exact definition of madness, considering the possibility that there exist different ways of becoming mad. In fact, madness plays an important role in Wide Sargasso Sea.Therefore, this term paper has the goal of giving a good and detailed depiction of the different ways of madness as both, Antoinette and Rochester, become mad – though extremely different. Hegel’s theory of madness will be taken into account in order to portray the protagonist’s individual journey into madness and the differences in their self-development. As this psychoanalytical theory represents a good insight in a human being’s mind and its constituents, it appears to be an adequate theory for a detailed analysis of Antoinette and Rochester’s mental illness. After having explained Hegel’s theory of madness, there will be an overview about the occurrences in Antoinette and Rochester’s lives that are significant for their self-development, i.e. their way down into madness. It is relevant to display those happenings since the number of painful experiences both have to endure is enormous and crucial for becoming mad. The last chapter will be the analysis of their individual madness in terms of Hegel. As a consequence, it can be depicted not only how they influenced each other but also howother characters in the novel influenced them. Moreover, the analysis may show how extremely different they try to cope with their painful experiences.

To conclude, at the end of this paper, readers will have alternative views on both, Antoinette and Rochester. Whether one isin favour of Rochester or Antoinette, will then be one’s personal choice.

2. Hegel’s Theory of Madness

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel gave relevant lectures between 1816 and 1830 at several universities on the issue of madness. Therefore, he belongs to the greatest philosophers that took up the challenge of explaining why people become mad, though the notes he has taken by himself on this themewere contained in no more than two pages in Encyclopædia of the Philosophical Sciences (cf. Berthold-Bond, Theory of Madness 1). Nevertheless, making use of the notes taken by Hegel’s students during his lectures, Daniel Berthold-Bond was able to arrange a book that contains the Hegelian theory of madness (ibid. 2).

The relevance of the ability to understand Hegel’s theory of madness lays in the presupposition that every human being has a fully developed healthy consciousness (cf. Berthold-Bond, “Madness and the Unconscious” 196). Thus, Hegel assumes a healthy consciousness, whose basic goal is “to achieve reconciliation and unity between the inner and outer worlds, subject and object, self and other […]” (ibid. 196-7). The desire of living in unity is, in fact, a never-ending process as the human being is confronted frequently with disruptions within it. Here, every human being’s task is to cope with these difficulties so that every pair mentioned before is in complete harmony. In order to manage it, people tend to sink backinto the period of infancy, in which the infant was not yet able to distinguish between inner and outer world and thus, was in complete harmony with itself (ibid. 197). By doing it, people are able to confront themselves again with the difficulties brought by the outer world, as a full return to this state is not able within a healthy consciousness. As a result, people have achieved unity between themselves and the outer world,at least until the next disruption appears.For further elaboration of the self-development, Hegel introduces in his theory the concept of desire. In this concept, he distinguishes between the terms desire and second face of desire that emphasize exactly on those processes that human beings have to undergo in order to achieve their goal of unity in their individual life. Thus, desire displays self-consciousness, meaning the inner impulse of developing oneself, going beyond one’s limits, broadening one’s mind, and in particular, being able to cope with painful experiences by constant regeneration of desire (cf. Berthold-Bond, Theory of Madness 73). As a consequence, desire can be understood as human being’s instinct and wish to live and being successful in their lives. On the other hand, Hegel introduces the second face of desire, building the counterpart to desire. The second face of desire portrays the force within the mind that “is retrogressive and nostalgic, calling spirit away from the strife of evolution back to a past which it yearns for as a scene of peace and repose” (ibid. 73). Hence, the second face of desire wishes to sink back into the period of infancy, where disruptions and painful experiences caused by the outer world cannot be found. In Hegelian terms, this period of infancy is called the life of feeling, where “the soul […] does not distinguish between inner and outer at all […]” (ibid. 26). Thus, human beings are caught in a never-ending process of desiring to recover the pre-conscious state and tempted to turn backwards into it. In this very fact lays the paradox within Hegel’s concept of desire as people are in constant struggle to not sink completely back into the life of feeling and thus, constant happiness cannot be achieved. Yet, the people’s duty is hard working on the achievement of unity (cf. Berthold-Bond, “Madness and the Unconscious” 198).

The basic structure of a developed human being’s mind and, in particular, the natural urge of withdrawal into the life of feeling, displays the fine line of achieving a fully developed and healthy consciousness or becoming mad (ibid.). Hence, by the time human beings have completely turned backwards into the life of feeling, i.e. reality is totally displaced, the disease of madness can be diagnosed. People are not able to distinguish anymore between inner and outer world, so that they create a reality within themselves (cf. Berthold-Bond, Theory of Madness 26).As Daniel Berthold-Bond comments, that means that [r]eality […] becomes a projected image of the “earthly elements” or passions and drives of the soul, “a shadow cast by the mind’s own light – a show or illusion which the mind imposes as a barrier” (PM § 386) between itself and the external world from which it has withdrawn in an attempt to escape some experience of pain and alienation. (ibid.)

Thus, in the Hegelian theory, madness is set in the life of feeling, containing primitive instincts, body and nature, where the connection between the mind and outer world is detached and hence, the mind becomes self-sufficient (cf. Magee 122). In Hegelian’s view, being mad can paradoxically be interpreted as an attempt of healing oneself as those sick persons are not able to cope with alienation and experiences of pain – the wounds of spirit – with the help of shortly withdraw into the life of feeling and without losing the connection to reality. Therefore, those human beings unconsciously searchfor an alternative and found their rescue in total regression into the life of feeling (cf. Berthold-Bond, “Madness and the Unconscious” 196).

Considering the assumption that madness requires a previously, fully developed and healthy consciousness, it results in the assumption that a mad human being possesses a double center of reality, in other words a double personality (cf. Berthold-Bond, Theory of Madness 34). On the one hand, every mad self maintains a connection to the real world – though a very slightly one – and therefore, has the ability to refer to that rational consciousness. On the other hand, there is the natural mind of the life of feeling, that causes the self’s displacement and the complete isolation from the consciousness. Thus, the mad person is driven by two personalities struggling against each other, though the unconsciousness plays the dominant part in this combat. As Berthold-Bond argues, “[m]adness is thus a sort of tortured dialogue between the dream-life of the unconscious and the echo of the rational self” (ibid.35).

The issue of dreams plays an important role in the theory of Hegel as they are seen as concepts that project the deepest internal wishes and drives and thus, symbolizes the unconscious (cf. Berthold-Bond, “Madness and the Unconscious” 202). Dislocation and distorted thoughts and meanings can be recognized and analysed in every dream of human beings. Sleeping is, therefore, to be seen as a withdrawal into the life of feeling where unconscious drives are portrayed (cf. Berthold-Bond, Theory of Madness 27). By the help of dreams, people are able to escape daily alienation and painful experiences and, thus, are capable to cope with them and to bring those in unity with reality. Taking the illness of madness into account, this means that mad human beings are imprisoned in this state of sleeping but while awake. The inner wishes and drives are transferred into reality. Thus, outer and inner world cannot be distinguished anymore (cf. Berthold-Bond, “Madness and the Unconscious” 202).The point is that rationality is replaced by a more primitive and archaic discourse, exactly that of the life of feeling. Previous experiences – whether painful or not – usually form the basis for one’s self-development. Healthy human beings are able to reflect those feelings and can connect it to reality. In contrast to those people, mad persons are not able to cope with alienation and turn back in a pre-historical state. Hence, the connection to reality and social contact to others cannot be built.

To conclude, madness can be seen as a response to experiences of isolation and alienation. Mad human beings attempt nostalgically to return to the pre-historical state of nature, that maintains deepest wishes and instincts. By reaching this period, they might also achieve self-unity, as the self is not experiencing itself in connection to the outer world and thus, do not have to suffer from painful experiences caused by history. Although they might obtain happiness, they cannot be considered as healthy human beings with a full developed and sane consciousness.

3. Characters in Wide Sargasso Sea

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the counterpart to Wide Sargasso Sea. Here, Antoinette is depicted as a crucial person, who had become mad and over all a monster. After reading Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys felt the urge to unfold the story as she felt that some parts were missing so that post-colonial characters were set in the wrong light (cf. Rhys vii). Therefore, she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea and corrected the story in order to give adequate reasons for Antoinette becoming mad and to justify that Mr Rochester was not as innocent as he is portrayed in Jane Eyre. Therefore,the following will give an outline about the relevant factors for becoming mad in Antoinette and Rochester’s lives.

3.1 The Creole Woman Antoinette Cosway

Antoinette Cosway is one of the protagonists in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel starts with a description of Antoinette’s experiences in childhood. Already in the very few sentences at the beginning of the novel, Antoinette and her family’s status in society is illustrated as she says that “[t]hey say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks” (Rhys 3). Antoinette is a Creole woman, meaning that she is a white girl growing up in Jamaica, one of Britain’s colonies. Living in a country where most of the population is black, her fate is determined already at the beginning. Antoinette states her difficulties to find her place in society and her belonging as she is caught between two different cultures (cf. Ciolkowski 341). This difficulty is underlined by the fact that the plot takes place after the Emancipation Act in 1833, where slaves were freed and were no longer obliged to serve some higher stated white families (cf. O’Connor 146). In addition, Antoinette’s mother Annette expands the degree of the family’s marginalization due to her being a Martinique woman and therefore, being not accepted by both, the black community and the British Jamaicans (ibid. 171). Some day, Antoinette is even insulted being a “white cockroach” (Rhys 7). Hence, Antoinette grows up in complete isolation, having big difficulties in defining her own personality and belonging.

Antoinette suffers not only from exclusion from society, but also from rejection by her mother. Antoinette has lost her father and thus, her mother is alone caring for both, Antoinette and her little brother Pierre. Though Antoinette tries to calm her mother while she is sitting on the balcony, “[…] she pushed [her] away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that [Antoinette] was useless to her” (Rhys 5). This, in fact, underlines her mother’s rejection. Later on, Antoinette is really frightened after having had a nightmare, but instead of being soothed by her mother, Antoinette is accused of having woken up her brother Pierre, underlining her mother’s preference of Pierre (cf. Rhys 10).Antoinette’s description of her mother’s behaviour displaysher suffering of being a single mother and being excluded by society. Nevertheless, “[her] mother still plan[s] and hope[s] […]” (Rhys 3) and marries, therefore, Mr Mason, a wealthy English man, who is supposed to bring happiness into the family but achieves exactly the opposite. Instead of acquiring satisfaction, he raises even more the hate among the black community with the consequence of burning down Coulibri Estate, the place where the family was living. The destruction of the house comes along with the mental death of her mother and consequently, Antoinette’s total loss of maternal love and affection (cf. O’Connor 172). Antoinette is aware of it by saying, “[t]his did not seem strange to me for she was part of Coulibri, and if Coulibri had been destroyed and gone out of my life, it seemed natural that she should go too” (Rhys 84-85). Teresa F. O’Connor interprets Antoinette’s painful experiences with her mother, as foreshadowing Antoinette’s future life (cf. 172).

Experiencing rejection from her mother, Antoinette searches for replacement by other females.Her first attempt to get love and to feel a kind of belonging is depicted in her relationship with the black girl Tia, a servant living on the estate. Antoinette adopts some cultural behaviours of the black community as a way to get in contact with the society and to receive the love, she desires so much. Therefore, she spends a lot of time with Tia, eating the same food with the fingers and enjoying the landscape (cf. Nunez-Harrel288; cf. Rhys 7-8). Even though the reader might believe in the truth of Tia and Antoinette’s friendship, the picture of Antoinette having found someone, who can replace the rejection of her mother, is soon destroyed. As Veronica Marie Gregg argues, “the writing of a “real” friendship between the two girls would have dependent on erasure of history” (96). The characteristic of Antoinette being white and that of Tia being black is the cause that their friendship cannot work – at least at that time. The difference between the two girls is first shown when Tia challenges Antoinette to “turn a somersault under water” (Rhys 8), since Tia does not believe in her ability to do it. After having won the challenge, as Antoinette is, in fact, not able to do the somersault, Tia not only takes the bet, but also Antoinette’s dress and leaves her own for change (cf. Rhys 9). In this scene, Tia portrays the stereotypes for blacks, which Gregg introduces in her work. Eating with the fingers, sleeping directly after eating and being able to do the somersault shows how animal like, strong and lazy Tia is (cf. Gregg 88). After this occurrence, Tia and Antoinette do not spend time with each other any longer. Their next meeting symbolizes the climax and the real end of their friendship. The black community puts fire on Coulibri Estate and Antoinette and her family are forced to leave their property behind in order to save their lives (cf. Rhys 19-23). When Antoinette flees from the fire and faces Tia, it first creates a feeling of security, since for Antoinette Tia has been one of her attachment figures. Though Tia has betrayed her already once, Antoinette says, […] I saw Tia and her mother and ran to her, for she was all that was left of my life as it had been. We had eaten the same food, slept side by side, bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her. Not to leave Coulibri. Not to go. Not.(Rhys 23)

However, Tia throws a stone towards Antoinette and wounds her on the forehead (cf. Rhys 23). Ultimately, Antoinette has not just experienced rejection by her mother but also by Tia.

Later, Antoinette meets Rochester. After having married, both travel to a small estate called Massacre for their honeymoon. It has belonged to Annette, Antoinette’s mother. First, Antoinette seems to be happy of having found a respected man, who is willing to live with her. Innocently, she perceives his husband as a godlike person, who is better than everyone else and even on a higher position than herself (cf. O’Connor 188). Thus, she does everything possible in order to satisfy him.Convinced that Rochester will, like her, fall in love with the beauty of the island, she presents it very euphorically and contentedly (cf. Rhys 40). Early in her childhood, Antoinette was enthusiastic with the great nature of Jamaica. She used to compare Coulibri Estate with the Garden of Eden in order to underscore the complete magnificence of nature (cf. Rhys 4). Thus, her basic aim is to persuade his husband from this splendour. But in spite of this, she again fears rejection and alienation due to her past. Her doubts are illustrated in the conversation between Rochester and Antoinette, in which she utters her fears (cf. Rhys 45). However, only little words are needed to convince Antoinette to be safe by his side, as Rochester says, “‘I’ll trust you if you’ll trust me. Is that a bargain?’” (Rhys 46). Despite his use of business-like language and Antoinette’s unawareness of this, Rochester soon will prove his bad intention of having married her. He receives a letter from a supposed family member of Antoinette and is told of her madness (cf. Rhys 57-60). This finally increases his hate against Antoinette and the island and soon, he starts to question Antoinette’s health. Instead of following Christophine’s advice of leaving him, Antoinette uses a magical liquid in order to win his love back, but achieves thereby the exact opposite(cf. Rhys 87)The result is that Rochester offends her feelings by betraying her with Amélie.One could perceive her behaviour as one of that person without self-esteem, who tries obsessively everything to impress its master (cf. O’Connor 189). Therefore, this can be interpreted as the ultimate doom of the marriage (cf. McWatt 16).In the following, he calls his wife no longer Antoinette, but Bertha in order to split the connection to her mother Annette (cf. Rhys 87, 89). It is not the issue that he uses the name Bertha, for it is not proven or even clarified in the novel whether Mr Rochester has any connection to it, but rather the very fact that Antoinette is redefined through an arbitrary chosen name. This split of identity stays symbolically for Antoinette’s surrender. Moreover, by betraying her with one of a member of her culture and into the bargain that Amélie is black, Rochester has not only destroyed Antoinette personally but also her beloved island. She loses her last hope of getting recognition and love. Rochester destructs her apparently only reference point – her island and thus, also destroys “her sense of hope, of belonging, of ownership, autonomy, and ultimately her own sense of personal power” (O’Connor 154). After having been witness of Rochester’s betrayal, she says to him, ‘[…] Do you know what you’ve done to me? It’s not the girl, not the girl. But I loved this place and you have made it into a place I hate. I used to think that if everything else went out of my life I would still have this, and now you have spoilt it. […] I hate it now like I hate you and before I die I will show you how much I hate you.’ (Rhys 95)

Antoinette begins to turn her hate against Rochester into a more powerful hate against the island and hence, against herself (cf. O’Connor 154). This is the very point where Antoinette has totally lost her hope of becoming a respected woman and leading a happy life. She becomes mad and is captured by Rochester and taken to England, where she is imprisoned in the attic of Thornfield Hall. At the climax of her madness, she burns down Rochester’s home and dies in the flames (cf. Rhys 122 – 123).

Since childhood and throughout Antoinette’s marriage with Rochester in Jamaica, Christophine plays a significant role in Antoinette’s life. Christophine was given to Antoinette as a present of Antoinette’s father’s wedding (cf. Rhys 6). Though Christophine is much blacker than the other servants on Coulibri Estate, Antoinette respects her very much and portrays her as a person of trust. By means of the contact with Christophine, Antoinette increases her knowledge about the Martinique culture, as Christophine is a Martinique girl like her mother (cf. Rhys 5). Thus, Christophine symbolizes in a way Antoinette’s strong connection with the island. When her mother marries Mr Mason, Jamaica is threatened by a person from the, for Antoinette unknown, country England. Here,Christophine portrays security, safety and home for Antoinette and expands in this way by that their immense bond (cf. Jaising 820). Due to Antoinette’s marriage to an English man, the black community targets her even more than in her childhood. Expanding more and more her irritation about her belonging and identity, “it is Christophine that [Antoinette] turns for stability” (ibid. 820). In Wide Sargasso Sea, Christophine is a symbol for rationality. She is by no means naive for she does only believe in the existence of something that she has witnessed by herself (cf. Jaising 821, Rhys 69). In fact, Christophine and Antoinette’s relationship should actually remind the reader of a relationship between white and black but instead, Christophine functions rather as Antoinette’s mother, giving her advice and helping her to endure every occurrence. As Jaising states, “Christophine functions as a stabilizing counterforce to Antoinette’s identity crisis and as reinforcement in the latter’s struggle against Rochester” (821). Nevertheless, Christophine is not able to prevent Antoinette’s confinement at Thornfield Hall and her ultimate downfall into madness.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


An analysis of the protagonists' mad behaviour in Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea" in Hegelian Terms
Antoinette and Rochester's way down into madness
University of Bonn  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Keltologie)
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Postcolonialism, Madness, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jane Eyre, Desire, Second Face of Desire, Retrogression, Psychoanalysis
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Janine Evangelista (Author), 2017, An analysis of the protagonists' mad behaviour in Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea" in Hegelian Terms, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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