Wide Sargasso Sea, Essay Example
It is difficult to imagine a more daring ambition in literature than to create a prequel to a classic. Readers and critics are likely to view any such effort as arrogant because there is the implication that the new work relies on the classic to give stature to itself. This is apart from the work as “taking over” characters and realities very well-known and respected. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, Jean Rhys manages to actually add to the power of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This is mainly due to the novel’s center as based on the Bronte character in the background of Eyre: Rochester’s wife, the insane woman locked away in the attic. Rhys does bring Rochester into her story, but she does not change Bronte’s creation of him; instead, she only provides background on his mysterious past. Also, Rhys gives great dimension to Eyre, and through two efforts: exposing the colonialism of the era as a powerfully hostile force, and creating as much fullness of character for Rochester’s first wife as Bronte does for Jane Eyre herself. The impact of these effects may also be seen through how Rhys employs one device: fire. This is used on multiple occasions, and in each the symbolism of the motif adds dimension and meaning to Rhys’s explorations of colonialism, the narrative, the relationships, and Antoinette Cosway herself. As the following explores, fire is a powerful and consistent metaphor in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea,emphasizing the conflicts between characters, the nature of colonialism as a destructive force, and the truest nature of Antoinette Cosway herself.
While there are minimal references to fire early in the novel, the burning of the family home is of the utmost importance. The reader understands Antoinette’s circumstances prior to Annette’s marriage to Mason, as it is also and powerfully made clear that this change in the family fortunes has not improved the way the natives view the family. There is an impending sense of danger as Antoinette returns to the new home, and as her mother and Mason increasingly argue. Annette has the awareness of actual danger, which Mason dismisses as superstition or unjustified fear. The reader, however, ties the realities together, as Antoinette’s experience of the hatred of the natives is now emphasized through Annette’s own foreboding. It is a scene of immense tension, and it literally explodes through the fury of the bay people taking their revenge on the Cosways for their presumptions. At first Antoinette is unable to know what is actually occurring, but this ends quickly: “But now I saw tall flames shooting up to the sky, for the bamboos had caught” (Rhys 41). The villagers are clutching flaming sticks, and the fire makes a daytime of the evening. The consequences are extreme; Pierre dies and Antoinette suffers from a fever for months. Then, and crucially, the existence at Coulibri is ended, just as the burning brings Annette to a deeper level of mental illness.
Fire is symbolic on multiple levels here, as it also foreshadows Antoinette’s end and the destruction of Thornfield; in both cases, a home that is painful to her must burn. This aside, however, the fire of Coulibri marks a moment of revolution in the Jamaican town, and one reinforcing the most insidious effects of colonialism. Annette and her children have long been despised as the “remains” of the white aristocracy; they are living – and presumed arrogant – relics of a system of enslavement and, as Antoinette herself perceives, were less hated when they were poor. The advent of Mason and the restoration of Coulibri are then unacceptable to the natives. It is a glaring return of foreign and white supremacy, and it must be destroyed. Then, and importantly, the natives exacting this vengeance on the family internalize the subjugation they have long suffered under. They voice their rage as the house burns, and in a specific way:
“Somebody yelled, ‘But look the black Englishman! Look the white niggers!’, and then they were all yelling. ‘Look the white niggers!’” (42). The meaning is clear and hateful; Mason is the “black Englishman” who has elevated the “white niggers,” and the contempt is such that only fire can deal with its objects. A long history of colonial oppression is exploding in flames, a new oppressor is driven out, and the insults are based on the insults the natives have traditionally heard directed at themselves. Mason’s own unwillingness to accept the reality of the danger and the hatred also reinforces the blindness of the foreigner assuming a position of authority where he does not belong.
The burning of the estate has another meaning, equally important, and also reflecting the failure of colonialism to respect native culture and feeling. Annette tries to enter the burning house to retrieve, not her jewels, but Coco, the parrot. Mason is infuriated by this and holds her back, and the bird burns: “He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him…he was all on fire” (43). The Englishman, the foreigner, cannot begin to comprehend such an ambition, but it is fully reflective of the lives of the women he now believes he controls. Annette values only the bird, which reinforces her ties to the culture she has always known, and its death is likely a factor in her increasing mental illness. This is not to lessen the impact of her son’s death or the schism between Mason and herself; rather, the burning of Coco symbolizes her loss of her connection to the world she has always been a part of. Antoinette cries at the bird’s death as well, overhearing that it is very bad luck to kill a parrot. As the house and the bird burn, then, worlds are burning and Antoinette, who has suffered as a child here, feels a profound loss: “Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses” (44-45). It is important that the loss she identifies belongs mainly to the garden, emphasizing the relationship between the native and the natural environment. When all of this is considered, then, it becomes evident that fire, as set by the bay people to destroy the estate, is far more than even an act of mob rage. It is a fire representing the “long-burning” anger of a people under colonial control, as it also destroys the vital connections between Annette and Antoinette to the landscape that has always been a part of them.
Fire plays a more subtle role in the entire second section, in which Rochester narrates his experiences with Antoinette. There are repeated references to burning candles and their significance lies in the trajectory of the events as recalled by him. If Rochester’s narrative does not begin joyfully, given his ultimate experience with his wife, the account nonetheless traces an important history in which the reality of Antoinette’s life is made known to him, and in the worst possible way. Initially taken by her beauty and overcome by desire, Rochester’s mistrust of Christophine leads to his noting bizarre behaviors in his bride. Mystery is increasing as the couple spends more time together, and Rochester then receives the letter informing him of his wife’s troubled past, and warning him of the trap he has fallen into through Richard Mason’s manipulation. What is crucial here are his conversations with Antoinette herself, who is remarkably honest. Tortured by her fears and mistrusting of Rochester’s love as enduring, she nonetheless recounts all she has lived. She spares no detail, no matter how painful or disturbing to her husband: “‘Pierre died,’ she went on as if she had not heard me, ‘and my mother hated Mr Mason’” (133). This in turn leads to the most important use of fire with the candles. After her story, Antoinette goes about lighting the room: “She had lit all the candles and the room was full of shadows” (136). This is flame being used to “cast a spell,” and it works very powerfully on Rochester: “The light changed her. I had never seen her look so gay or so beautiful” (136). The effect achieved by Rhys here is then striking and necessary in understanding Antoinette. Having revealed her deepest fears to her husband, she is able to reclaim herself as a Jamaican girl; the lighting of the candles, throwing shadows on the walls and transforming her again into a beauty, is like the voodoo attributed to Christophine. It is Antoinette’s means of returning to what she understands, just as it is important that she offers this self to her husband.
Following her story, in fact, the lighting of the candles may be interpreted as a kind of celebration. Since their marriage, she has been haunted by her past and how she can possibly give herself fully to the Englishman. The reader has the sense that a part of Antoinette’s fear is the repeating of history; her mother married an Englishman and disaster followed. Moreover, the damage was largely due to the man’s failure to appreciate the woman for who she was, and it is inevitable that this would haunt Antoinette under the circumstances. She has, however, done what her mother failed to do. She has revealed her truth to her husband, and she lights the candles to mark the dramatic turning point in their relationship. If the candles are a relatively minor use of flame, they nonetheless have great meaning relative to the scene and the context. In these small flames, Antoinette is once again a girl connected to the spiritual world of Jamaica, as she also presents herself in their light as herself to her husband. Rochester’s increasing dread of this woman, however, then underscores the fundamental difference between the couple, and consequently of the cultures. She presents mystery as truth because it is the truth she knows, but he can only perceive danger and further mystery. He knows only betrayal from her, and even Christophine’s pleas mean nothing to him: “’Wait, and perhaps you can love her again. A little, like she say” (156). In the small candle flames, then, it is seen that there is no coming together for Rochester and Antoinette, as they also foreshadow what fire will mean to him later.
Certainly, fire takes on enormous meaning as Antoinette resumes the story in her own words. From the beginning of the third section of the novel, fire becomes something of a character in the narrative. The cell in which she is locked is damp and cold, and Grace Poole makes up the fire. Antoinette is transfixed by it: “In the end flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them” (179). There is here the sense that, as with the candles, this is a primal part of her being and a thing she can understand. The meaning of this is reinforced by the strangeness of England itself as often felt by her; it is described as virtually unreal, a distant and cold land of cold men, only heard about in stories. With a fire burning in her room, however, Antoinette can once again gain a sense of herself.
Then, when Grace engages her in a dialogue as to the stabbing of Richard, Antoinette is strong enough to be defiant. She does recall the incident but she has other concerns. Her rage was partially prompted by the alien way in which Mason viewed her, and this brings her mind to another “fiery” symbol: her red dress. She demands that Grace tell her where it is, as she believes having worn it would have made her identity known to Mason. Grace directs her to the wardrobe press and the effect on Antoinette is powerful: “As soon as I turned the key I saw it hanging, the colour of fire and sunset” (185). The color of fire is alive to her, so the dress represents her true being. There is also a reinforcement of this visceral connection in her mind, and one suggesting the ultimate action she believes she must take: “I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire” (186). Essentially, the dress is the fire, so Antoinette is the fire. Moreover, the motif has dual meaning; the fire is her true nature as warm and alive, but it is also the destructive force she has known in her past, and which must live again soon. She takes in the dress lying on the floor and understands this need: “It was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do” (187). The stage is then set for the culmination, and one which will burn as powerfully as that which destroyed her life as a girl.
Candles in her hand, Antoinette then begins the dream sequence that is not entirely a dream. There is a woman who haunts this house as a ghost, and she is intent on finding her, just as she is disturbed by the presence of Jane Eyre, whom she does not know. Surrounded by whispers, her mind slips and reality is displaced. She makes her way downstairs to the drawing room but the scene changes; Antoinette is now in Aunt Cora’s house. Confused and frightened, she turns to see the ghost, who is herself in a mirror, and with wild, streaming hair. The destruction is now triggered: “I dropped the candle I was carrying and it caught the end of a tablecloth and I saw flames shoot up” (189). Antoinette is aware of Christophine and other shades of her life from the past, but the burning is also felt by her. She can hear the “man” calling her, using the name he has given her, but she flies to the battlements and, dreaming, becomes one with the fire itself: “Then I turned round and saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it” (189). She wakes up screaming in her bed but, when Grace dozes, takes the key and a candle, now ready to do in life what she has lived in her dreams. This last candle flickers: “But I shielded it with my hand and it burned up again to light me along the dark passage” (190). Thornfield burns as everything she has dreamed becomes the reality.
The final section of Wide Sargasso Sea is brief, but it “burns” from start to finish. Alternately coherent and mad, Antoinette focuses on red, as her dress reflects the literal fire in her room and in her dreams. This is a fire that powerfully calls to her, and the contrast with the actual setting is strong. To begin with, there is the blatant symbolism of the clash of cultures and environments, which goes to the wrong of colonialism. Antoinette’s Jamaica, the hostility known there notwithstanding, is warm, colorful, and alive; this world of England, across the “wide sea,” is dismal, gray, and cold as experienced by her. She then turns to fire and red as desperately needed reminders of her being and the self she values, destroyed by Rochester’s removal of her from her world. Then, the fire also represents the inescapable madness overtaking Antoinette. Fire is destructive and uncontrollable unless checked, and this echoes how her mind is beyond saving. Her own mother’s insanity similarly was wild, and the fire in her hands and set by her exists to define the same loss of reason overtaking Antoinette.
Fire here also symbolizes Antoinette’s desperation as a woman, and not necessarily a madwoman. A facet of the novel often neglected is that she is wounded by Rochester’s rejection to the extent that, potentially, this triggers her insanity. It must be remembered that their initial relationship was intensely passionate and physical, as both were equally caught up in the “fiery” attraction and mutual desire. She finally reveals to him everything she knows and understands about herself, but he is dismissive; he can see only a trap and impending madness. With the awareness that this “man” now keeps her in this strange place then must be some lingering sense of the betrayal of love. He was in effect all she had to hold onto, and the sanity of her story to him implies that, with his understanding, she might have escaped her mother’s fate. Denied this – and aware as well of the young woman in the house, Jane – only fire may express how desperate is Antoinette’s emotional state.
Lastly, there is the inescapable element of the fire as reflecting the trauma of her past and empowering Antoinette as nothing else can. She knows that fire creates great change so there is an aspect of destiny here; as fire consumed one world through the hatred of others, she herself can set the same force in motion and bring change, even if the consequences cannot be known. In a sense, this is the only weapon Antoinette has, and fate has equipped her with the knowledge of it. In burning down Thornfield, she is bringing her life “full circle.” She is as well introducing those in this new and cold world to an ultimate reality she herself as lived, so fire is an expression of both power and destiny.
When Wide Sargasso Sea is discussed, there is usually an emphasis on how the novel addresses colonialism, and this is certainly valid. More importantly, however, Jean Rhys’s novel accomplishes a task difficult at best; it actually adds dimension to a literary classic, and primarily through the expanding of the mysterious character never explored by Bronte, the mad Bertha. In bringing the woman to her Jamaican girlhood, Rhys is enabled to employ a specific motif to underscore the major developments of the story. The intensity and warmth of the place, so removed from the nature of the England across the “wide sea,” is both within Antoinette Cosway and represented through how fire is used in the novel. The burning of the Jamaican estate has multiple meanings, and perhaps the most strong is the reflection of the hateful legacies of colonialism. This also emphasizes Antoinette’s character, however, just as the minor flames of candles in Rochester’s account reinforce the same mystery and force. Finally, the ultimate burning of Thornfield, as both dream and reality, acts symbolically to express Antoinette’s obsession with returning to her true nature, her desperation, and the destiny aspect of this as a destruction she has known in her past. Ultimately, fire is a powerful and repeated metaphor in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, as it emphasizes the conflicts between the characters, the nature of colonialism as destructive, and the truest nature of Antoinette Cosway herself.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1992. Print.
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