Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel that explores the origin of Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason. The novel begins with Bertha, (formerly Antionette)’s childhood, and continues to her death in fire. The book shows her relationships with family, servants, and husband, Rochester. The book moves through several distinct settings, including the Coulibri Estate of Antionette’s youth, her home with Mr. Rochester in Jamaica, and finally her room in the attack in England. In Wide Sargasso Sea, nature plays an active role in influencing both Antionette and Mr. Rochester, but positively and negatively. The settings play off of and encourage their anxieties, nostalgia, friendship, as well as imprisonment and lack of freedom.
The Sargasso Sea is located in the Atlantic Ocean, right near the Bermuda Triangle. It is the only sea with no land bordering it, rather it is defined by the ocean’s currents and the natural life that grows there. The Sargasso Sea gets its name from Sargassum, a species of seaweed that grows in abundance only there. The Sargasso Sea is home to species of wildlife that are not found anywhere else on the planet. A 2009 report by the Sargasso Sea Alliance refers to the Sargasso Sea as “The golden floating rainforest of the Atlantic Ocean” (2009), and calls for it to be protected. “The Sargasso Sea’s importance derives from the interdependent mix of its physical structure and properties, its ecosystems, its role in global scale ocean and earth system processes, its socio-economic and cultural values, and its role in global scientific research” (Sargasso Sea Alliance, 2009). The Sargasso Sea is a fantastic location for Antionette Mason. The Sargasso Sea has no land borders, but is confined by invisible wind currents. Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, Antionette feels trapped by invisible boundaries, be they her financial situation, her mother, or Rochester’s abuse. These invisible forces are so strong and so definitive that there is no way to break out. So long as the wind blows, the Sargasso Sea remains.
The beginning of Wide Sargasso Sea follows Antionette’s youth in the West Indies on a former plantation. After the outlaw of slavery, her family becomes very poor and their Estate quickly is too much to handle. The result is a fantastic garden that only causes Antionette to feel more isolated and anxious. “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible — the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell…Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered…It was a bell shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very strong. I never went near it” (17). The garden was beautiful on the outside, but it was a spoiled type of beauty, similar to Antionette’s mother, Annette. Thanks to a series of rapid changes in her life, Annette struggled to take care of herself as well as her Estate. She spent her days by the sea, frowning, leaving Antionette to walk the gardens alone. The garden itself contains life and death, change and stagnation. It’s no wonder Antionette felt simultaneously at peace and deeply comfortable there – she was dealing with those issues herself.
After a brief stay in Spanish Town to allow for renovations at Coulibri, Antionette returns to her old home. She remarks, “Coulibri looked the same when I saw it again, although it was clean and tidy, no grass between the flagstones, no leaks. But it didn’t feel the same” (28). A clean and tidy Coulibri was not the Coulibri of Antionette’s childhood. The cracks and leaks contributed to the sense of home that Antionette felt. Mr. Mason’s attempts to fix Coulibri mirror Mr. Rochester’s attempts to fix Antionette later on. Ultimately, there was no fixing either Coulibri or Antionette, only stripping them of their uniqueness.
Antionette recognizes the connections between her own life and Coulibri. She tells Rochester about her mother’s disappearance, “This did not seem strange to me for she was a part of Coulibri, and if Coulibri had been destroyed and gone out of my life, it seemed natural that she should go too” (120). Coulibri, like her mother, had an influential role on Antionette, and had an end date. The octopus orchids and her mother are all memories that can be examined under the same light – as something that happened to Antionette.
The Coulibri Estate isn’t the only location that happens to Antionette, as she later moves to Granbois with Rochester. The Granbois Estate reflects the stages of their relationship – from content newlyweds to isolated and abused. Upon their arrival to Granbois, Rochester remarks, “We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains, and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. Those hills would close in on you…Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too read, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (63). Rochester observes the aesthetic beauty, but also feels the underlying negativity of his location. The over-abundance overwhelms him, and mirrors their eventual sexual relationship. “Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards” (84). Rochester is drowned both in nature, in the colors of the hills and mountains, and in his personal relationship with Antionette. They ignore the sun and everyone around them because they have each other. Rochester makes Antionette dependent on him before he pushes her aside. Antionette and Rochester are as dependent on the vegetation that surrounds them as they are dependent on each other. There can be no life without sunlight, there can be no life without sex. In the codependency era of their relationship, they replace sunlight with sex, and wind up in a darker place.
This darker place slowly turns into a nightmare for Antionette and Rochester, as the lines between day and night start to blur. “Every day we saw the sun go down…We watched the sky and the distant sea on fire — all colours were in that fire and the huge clouds fringed and shot with flame…I was waiting for the scent of the flowers by the river — they opened when darkness came and it came quickly. Not night or darkness as I knew it but night with blazing stars, an alien moon — night full of strange noises. Still night, not day” (80). Rochester feels lost among the foreign lands, so unlike England. In his home, the world shut down at night. There were no animals or plants blooming, likely no stars under the clouded sky. Rochester was accustomed to certain distinctions between waking and sleeping hours, put in place by British industry, and their absence makes him feel more afraid. As the story progresses, Rochester finds unpleasant routine in the surrounding darkness. “There would be the sky and the mountains, the flowers and the girl and the feeling that all this was a nightmare, the faint consoling hope that I might wake up” (108). He longs to wake from a nightmare that, from the outside, looks like it could be a good time. This contrast is very powerful because it demonstrates Rochester’s priorities. The beauty is the nightmare. The wide open sky and sprawling mountains are Rochester’s prison, but they’re Antionette’s freedom.
Rochester feels more and more trapped, until he eventually moves himself and Antionette to England against her will, and largely without her knowledge. Antionette reflects, “As I walk the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it” (162). There was a storm one night on their trip that completely disoriented Antionette. While she always felt slightly disconnected from her home, she is now entirely alone, without a home. “This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England” (163). Antionette now ventures out of her room only at night, as Rochester primarily walked the grounds in Grabois at night. In Antionette’s youth, England was a place of dreams, but now it is a nightmare.
Rochester puts Antionette in this position out of revenge for her supposed wrongdoings. He designs her new life to be as unfamiliar and dark as possible. Her new room is as different from her island upbringing as possible. “There is one window high up — you cannot see out of it” (161). Windows allow some degree of connection to the natural world without having to go outside. Rochester knows the importance of the natural world to Antionette, and deliberately strips her of that small pleasure. “Then I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard” (162). Cardboard: dull, brown, practical. Nothing could be further from the orchid flowers at Coulibri, or the flaming sunsets in Jamaica. Antionette had little to do with Rochester’s dislike of the West Indies, but Rochester took the power to create the perfect setting for Antionette’s misery. Antionette begs, “Dear Richard please take me away from this place where I am dying because it is so cold and dark” (163), but no one hears. Antionette is left to die in a box, alone.
Government of Bermuda. “The Protection and Management of the Sargasso Sea.” Sargasso Report , Sargasso Sea Alliance , 2009, www.sargassoseacommission.org/storage/documents/Sargasso.Report.9.12.pdf.
Rhys, Jean, and Edwidge Danticat. Wide Sargasso Sea. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Note: It’s been a long semester and, while I’m usually a “finish strong” kinda guy, this time we’re going for “finish.” So two days late and with such deep insights into Rochester’s psyche as “He longs to wake from a nightmare that, from the outside, looks like it could be a good time,” I present, Nature in Wide Sargasso Sea <3