Narrative Ways of Worldmaking in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea"

Term Paper, 2018

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Narrative Ways of Worldmaking: A Selection

3. The Worlds of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
3.1. Selection of Characters
3.1.1. Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway
3.1.2. Brontë's Rochester and Rhys's Edward
3.2. Perspectivization: “There is always the other side, always” (Rhys 81)
3.3. Semantization of Space

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The Victorian heroine is dressed in white as she makes her way to the church: Jane Eyre is about to marry Mr. Rochester. The day that is supposed to be the happiest of her life soon turns into a nightmare, when a voice says: “I declare the existence of an impediment” (Brontë 333). Said “impediment” is Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad wife, whom he has hidden from the world. Her existence is unknown for more than half of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847, and when she is introduced, she is mainly presented as the obstacle to the happiness of Jane and Rochester1. Feeling that Bertha is treated badly as a character, Jean Rhys created a novel in which she transforms the fictional world of Jane Eyre into one that centers around Bertha whom she names Antoinette2 Cosway: Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966.

Since the fictional worlds of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are connected, a comparison of their worldmaking is especially intriguing. Questions this paper seeks to examine include the way in which the choice of characters shapes both worlds, the impact of the selection of a specific perspective, and the extent to which the narrative space within a particular world supports the content.

In order to discuss these questions, the following chapter shall first introduce a selection of narrative ways of worldmaking to provide a theoretical basis for the analysis that follows. After said chapter, the first worldmaking process which will be examined is the selection of characters. This section will focus on the choice of protagonists as well as the depiction of Rochester/Edward. Only after the characters have been discussed can the narrative perspective be examined, since these two topics are closely interrelated. The semantization of space, which is the last topic of this paper, is, to a certain extent, also connected to the choice of characters and perspective, because it can be a highly subjective matter. Once all three of these worldmaking processes have been discussed, the conclusion will sum up the findings.

2. Narrative Ways of Worldmaking: A Selection

Coined by Nelson Goodman, the term 'ways of worldmaking' refers to processes through which different worlds are created. First introduced in his book Ways of Worldmaking (1978), the techniques he describes do not focus on narrative in particular (Ansgar Nünning, “Making Events”, 191). Nonetheless, they can function as narrative ways of worldmaking, which becomes evident in this chapter that looks at some of Goodman's findings and additions.

The fact that “the making [of a world] is remaking” (Goodman 6) is of particular significance for the analysis of the selected literary works, because Wide Sargasso Sea presents a drastically reshaped version of the world of Jane Eyre. Goodman calls this way of worldmaking 'deformation'. Next to a change in characters, this also involves a modification of “existing elements in such a way as to give them a new meaning” (Vera Nünning 219). Another way of worldmaking is 'weighting': One fictional world may place a high level of emphasis on something that is only a marginal aspect in another (Goodman 10). 'Ordering', which also involves weighting, is another technique described by Goodman. Narrative order is achieved through “the establishment of basic units” (V. Nünning 221), such as a set of characters, narrative frames, events and spaces. The manner in which these basic units are combined is essential to the way any narrative is perceived and understood.

A worldmaking process not mentioned by Goodman is perspectivization. It does, however, play a key role in understanding a narrative world, because “events and characters in fiction are always presented from a particular perspective” (V. Nünning 235). One and the same world may be judged quite differently depending on whether it is viewed from the periphery or from its center. The chosen point of view also influences how the events of a story are interpreted, since “different meanings can be assigned to the 'same event' by different observers” (A. Nünning, “Making Events”, 202). This means that a change in perspective can change the meaning of an event or an entire narrative. As any other literary form or narrative technique (A. Nünning, Metzler, 684), perspective thus has semantic value.

The 'semantization of literary forms', which refers to the fact that narrative form carries and creates meaning that influences the content (A. Nünning, Metzler, 684/685), is also relevant for the discussion of narrative space. Different spaces may be associated with various meanings, but a single space can also have several connotations, which is why the concept of space is dynamic instead of static (Hallet and Neumann 21). Such meaning can for example be constituted through characters and their movements (Hallet and Neumann 20). The semantization of one and the same house, for instance, differs drastically depending on whether a character can leave and enter the space at any time or whether the character is forced to stay inside, which is the fate of Brontë's Bertha and Rhys's Antoinette at Thornfield.

This chapter has provided a selection of relevant ways of worldmaking and has applied them to narrative worldmaking in particular. The following chapters will show that these methods influence the worlds depicted in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.

3. The Worlds of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

The fictional worlds of Brontë's and Rhys's narratives overlap in certain aspects due to the fact that Wide Sargasso Sea expands Brontë's world and focuses on Jane Eyre 's marginalized character Bertha Mason. This “minor-character elaboration” (Rosen 170) thus features some of Jane Eyre 's “basic units” (V. Nünning 221), such as characters, events and places. However, Rhys's novel moves Brontë's Bertha from the margins to the center of its fictional world. Whereas Jane is the narrator-protagonist of Brontë's world, Rhys assigns the role of narrator to both Antoinette and Edward. Differences between the worlds are also caused by the inclusion of Bertha's past. Since this elaboration involves a variety of new characters and places, the world of Jane Eyre is “extend[ed] [...] chronologically [and] spatially” (Rosen 170), as well as in terms of perspective. In order to discuss how both literary works construct their respective worlds, the selection of characters, the choice of perspective and the importance of space will be analyzed in the following subchapters.

3.1. Selection of Characters

Two narrative worlds focusing on different protagonists must necessarily include different characters who interact with them, since the two of them live separate lives. Growing up on different continents, the characters involved in the lives of Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway differ for the most part. Exceptions are the figures of Rochester/Edward, Grace Poole and the two women themselves, who play a role in both fictional worlds. Due to a lack of space, the following subchapters will mainly focus on Jane, Antoinette and Rochester/Edward, while other characters have to be left out or can only be mentioned in passing.

3.1.1. Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway

Choosing the protagonist of a particular narrative world is a matter of weighting and greatly influences the way in which said world is shaped. If the choice of protagonist changes, the emphasis of the world changes, and with it, certain characters, events and places are substituted by others. For this reason, Jane and Antoinette/Bertha shall be introduced briefly in their role as either protagonist or minor character in both narrative worlds.

The ordering of Jane's and Antoinette's experiences is mostly chronological. The beginning of each narrative consists of the childhood of the respective protagonist. As such, their childhood experiences can be interpreted “as the 'root' of what happen[s] later” (V. Nünning 221). Jane is an orphan who grows up at Gateshead Hall, England, in the household of her aunt Mrs. Reed. From childhood onwards, Jane is described as poor (e.g. Brontë 187) as well as “small and plain” (294). Instead of love, she experiences verbal and physical abuse early on, especially at the hands of her cousin John Reed (12-14). She is very witty and “a picture of passion” (14), but at Lowood School, with the help of her teacher Miss Temple and her friend Helen, she also develops “a strong sense of self-control” (Jain 121). Additionally, she acquires a very strict moral code which determines the course of her narrative. After she learns of the existence of Rochester's wife Bertha, she could still become his mistress, but she decides to run away despite her love for him. Nonetheless, Jane Eyre ends with a happy marriage for its protagonist - at the cost of Bertha's tragic ending.

Bertha seems more like a narrative device than an actual character. She is the obstacle to Jane's happiness and adds suspense to the story. Bertha does not speak; she is mad, mute and feared by her husband (Melikoglu 157). In the end, her “death is necessary for the progression of the novel” (Mishou 268), as she finally makes way for the marriage Jane desires. While Bertha is placed at the margins, Jane's fate is at the focus of this world.

Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, places Bertha with the name Antoinette in the center of its narrative world and moves Jane to the periphery. Through this drastic change, Rhys “turns upside down the values, patriarchal and colonialist, upon which the plot and characters of Brontë's novel depend” (Emery 168). Antoinette is not an orphan, but she experiences nothing but rejection from her mother Annette (Adjarian 203). She also has an ambiguous relationship with her step-father whom her mother marries a couple of years after Antoinette's biological father dies. Antoinette is a white Creole, the daughter of “a slaveholder” (Ciolkowski 342) and lives in Jamaica after the Emancipation Act of 1833 (Melikoglu 132). She thus neither belongs to the white nor to the black community and is hated by those around her much like Jane is. Jane is disliked by her relatives; Antoinette is rejected by her mother and despised by many emancipated black slaves, who eventually burn down her home (Rhys 19ff). Her sense of self is hence unstable (Adjarian 203). She is passionate like Jane (e.g. Rhys 61), but she does not develop the same self-control. Instead, she is encouraged to form naïve opinions about love and happiness by the nuns at the convent she attends. Since Antoinette is beautiful and the heiress of a small fortune, she, opposed to Jane, allows herself to dream of a happy ending. Unfortunately, her marriage with Edward proves to be her doom and her story ends with the fire at Thornfield resulting in her death.

At Thornfield, the world of Wide Sargasso Sea includes a single glimpse of Jane, when Antoinette leaves her prison unnoticed: “I saw a girl [...]. She wore a white dress and she was humming to herself.” (Rhys 117) It is telling that this scene is followed by a conversation about “the ghost” (118) of the house: In Jane Eyre, Bertha's existence haunts Thornfield, but in Wide Sargasso Sea, it is Jane who makes a ghost-like appearance. Antoinette's fate is at the focus of this world: It is her “lonely youth and spurned love” (Brody 217), and not Jane's, which are central to Wide Sargasso Sea. As a deformation of Jane Eyre, Rhys's novel thus gives “a new meaning” (V. Nünning 219) to Jane and Bertha by reversing Brontë's way of ordering and weighting them.

3.1.2. Brontë's Rochester and Rhys's Edward

As the husband of first Antoinette/Bertha and then Jane, Rochester/Edward plays a significant role in the world of both narratives, but there are discrepancies in the portrayal of his personality. There is also a difference in age: If Brontë's Rochester is thirty-five (Brontë 134), Rhys's Edward must be twenty, for he marries Antoinette/Bertha fifteen years before he intends to marry Jane (335).

Jane Eyre 's Rochester is the master of Thornfield Hall and introduced as the Byronic hero3 “with stern features and a heavy brow” (134). He certainly has his faults: He is moody (151), forgets civilities (152) and, most importantly, attempts to marry Jane even though he is already married to Bertha (333ff). His shortcomings are many; yet “he has some redeeming qualities” (Jain 118), among which are his “masterful warm[th] and understanding” (Jain 118), his ability of showing remorse (Brontë 344), and, of course, his ardent love for Jane. He plays a major role in Jane's development, because he rekindles her passionate side which she has learned to hide at Lowood. This can for example be seen in her often frank and witty remarks that slip of “her sharp tongue” (Melikoglu 156) as well as in the awakening of strong feelings connected to love and sexuality previously unknown to her (e.g. Brontë 204). Rochester's role in Jane Eyre, then, is that of Jane's soulmate and her chance for bliss, but since he is a married man, it is also that of the immoral tempter proposing bigamy (Jain 118). After Jane flees the temptation and Bertha dies, Rochester, in the end, provides her with happiness in marriage.


1 Brontë's Edward Rochester will be called 'Rochester' while Rhys's Edward Rochester will be referred to as 'Edward' in order to be able to differentiate clearly between the versions of both authors.

2 The name 'Bertha' will be used when referring to the minor character Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, while the protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea will be called 'Antoinette'.

3 The character of the Byronic hero goes back to the works of Lord Byron, but also appears in Victorian novels. He is a kind of anti-hero and can be described as suffering, brooding and cynical (Thorslev 144/145).

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Narrative Ways of Worldmaking in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea"
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
MA Hauptseminar: Cultural Ways of Worldmaking
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Worldmaking, Nelson Goodman, Vera Nünning, Ansgar Nünning, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Jane Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha Mason, Antoinette Cosway
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2018, Narrative Ways of Worldmaking in Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" and Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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