Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonial story taking place in Jamaica after the emancipation of slaves. This text centers around Antionette, a white woman, who is the kin of former slave owners. She has a deep history to the island and, despite her abuse from angry former slaves, she feels a connection with the land. Rochester, a wealthy Englishman comes to Jamaica to prove his worth to his family after being cut out of the family fortune. Rochester marries Antionette for the monetary gain and subsequently has his life changed forever. Wide Sargasso Sea take an ecofeminist model to show Rochester’s decent into a new land and attempt to uphold colonial notions of masculinity leads to his fall towards insecurity and violence
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antionette and her geographical location are entangled, creating a landscape that is feminine in nature and setting it in opposition to Rochester. Elements of ecofeminism can be pulled from this connection. Ecofeminism is a movement that combines ecological and feminist concerns and frames them as products of the patriarchy. Wide Sargasso Sea looks at postcolonial Jamaica. We see the land reinventing itself; white slave owners are no longer the ones in power, but the ones scrutinized. Because of this, Antoinette is both at home in and alienated from her homeland. Even so she has a respect for the environment.
Colonized lands are often seen as exotic, pristine, and virgin. Europeans see them as places of profit and take them for their own economic gain. Thus, a cycle of toxic masculinity is revealed where wealthy white men come into a foreign land and take what will benefit them. This same energy is seen in Rochester’s taking of Antionette as his wife. In a way, he colonized her for the benefit to his status much like his ancestors colonized Jamaica and forever changed the landscape.
Antionette displays a more timid, feminine approach to the wild. She does not view it as something that can be exploited for personal gain, but as a living entity that has right to life and space. This can be seen in the interactions she has with the family’s garden. One plant in garden “was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root’ – which infect the air with their ‘very sweet and strong’ scent, is a place she avoids: ‘I never went near it,’ she admits” (Rhys 17). Antionette refuses to penetrate the natural world, she respects it as a living entity and sees its purity as something that should be maintained. This sets her in opposition to European, colonial attitudes that nature is a virgin scape and must be entered and exploited for personal gain.Jessica Gildersleeve wrote an article exploring the topography in Jean Rhys works. She notes that Antionette’s actions are “a restraint from invasion or mutual infection” (Gildersleeve 36). Antionette gives the plant space so she does not harm it through crowding or disease. She gives it space so it can exist free of human corruption. This showcases a stark contrast in the masculine and feminine notions of the environment. While men are conquerors, they take both the land and the women for their own use, women see the land as a living entity, sympathize with it, and give it the space it needs to exist.
The geography in Wide Sargasso Sea is given feminine characteristics by the colonizing, male perspective. Jamaica turns into a femme fatale for Rochester, leading him to him mental downfall during his time spent there. The landscape is portrayed as an attractive seductress that lures Rochester into making the decision to marry Antionette. The land is described as having “an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness” (Rhys 79). Like a seductress the land sucks him in. Soon the topography and Antionette become entangled in his mind. As Gildersleeve puts it “both come to be seen as exotic and dangerous, but also capable of undermining his corporeal control and his superiority” (Gildersleeve 36). Thus, it is revealed how the feminine wilds of nature in Wide Sargasso Sea begin nudging Rochester to the anger and madness he displays later in the text as a result of his insecurity.
Rochester was forced to relocate to Jamacia after his father’s inheritance was given entirely to his older brother. Rochester had a duty to fulfill as a white man at this time, he needed money to ensure his position in the aristocracy and not be labeled as a failure by those who knew of his past. Once in Jamacia, Rochester found himself seduced by the beautiful landscape and the woman who resided there. Soon he realized he had become entrapped, snared in a marriage to a woman he did not want and surrounded by a land he was not comfortable in.
In his journey to Jamaica, Rochester was attempting to reestablish himself after his fortune. In doing so he would prove to his family he was a capable man. He became an embodiment of a colonial country, going to a foreign land for personal gain. He hopes to reinvent himself in the eyes of his family by going to Jamaica and coming back with a creole heiress for his wife. However, the beautiful land soon betrayed him, and he found that the competence he had at navigating life in England did not help him in this new land. He is initially struck by the beauty of his wife and the surroundings, spending much of his time at the baths. He claims that Jamacia has a “dreamlike” presence about it. But this is revealed a postcolonial bias when Antionette says that to her England sounds dreamlike (Rhys 73).Rochester only thinks Jamacia to be fantastical because he is unfamiliar with, the dreamlike quality is a false manifestation arising from his naivety about the problems that are faced by Jamaicans. Soon, Rochester starts to see below the beautiful exterior. Antionette’s story with the rats marks a turning point in the narrative for Rochester, Jamaica has a seedy underbelly and is not the mythical place it first appears.
After Rochester learns about the “madness” that runs in Antionette’s family, the veil of perfection is completely lifted. Rochester feels as though he was set up by his family to marry an insane woman. His discomfort with the region begins to grow. “I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know … Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness” (Rhys 156) . Rochester resents his wife and the land that she came from. He was seduced by the beauty, but now feels betrayed and trapped. He feels his patriarchal power slipping away. Rochester lashes out, trying to overpower the land that was supposed to submit to his will. Because Rochester is “deemed a powerful Western man, he had to keep his emotions in check and not reveal them to the public gaze” (Jamal 114).Men in a Patriarchal society are meant to be strong, therefore Rochester must appear confident and in control in every circumstance. This pressure, and subsequent failure, to adhere to the expectation of his family and the patriarchy led him to a sort of madness that characterizes patriarchal insecurity.
Rochester changes his wife’s name to an English one, calling her “Bertha”. A fight ensues when he says, “Don’t laugh like that, Bertha.’ ‘My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?’ ‘Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha.’ (Rhys 122).The name is a way for Rochester to feel more connected to his English roots. The name Antionette pins her to her homeland, however, the name Bertha serves to pry her always from Jamaica and allow for Rochester to take her back to England. When Rochester feels all his control slipping away, he brings Antionette back to England with him. Even though he feels not love for her, he wishes to control her, make her his madwoman. Rochester is unable to cope with his feelings of insecurity and is therefore ready to take drastic action to get his confidence back. He begins to get violent urges. He claims he “could have strangled him with pleasure” when he sees Baptiste crying (Rhys 154). This once again shows the colonial male agenda in action. Rochester wants Antionette for his own selfish needs, he does not care for her at all but wants to control her for his own sake.
Wide Sargasso Sea uses an ecofeminist approach to showcase the interconnectedness between the tropics and notions of femineity. This was used to show how a dominant male figure in a patriarchal society can lose control when the find themselves in a foreign and uncomfortable situation. Their need for stability and control becomes their downfall as they try to maintain the idealized male image. Under this pressure, we see Rochester take on a kind of ‘male madness’ or patriarchal insecurity not often portrayed in texts. From here we see Rochester’s downfall and his subsequent violent attitudes, his abuse of his wife and her removal from Jamaica forever. This narrative serves to highlight the dangers of toxic masculinity. Men need to be able to showcase their feels. Upholding the colonial, dominant, ultra-masculine ideal is not healthy. Once Rochester found himself outside of his comfort zone, his sanity slipped. The patriarchy is damaging to men as well as women. If all genders were treated equally, there would not be need for masculine overcompensation or violence against women. The world would be more at peace.
Gildersleeve, Jessica. “Jean Rhys’s Tropographies: Unmappable Identity and the Tropical Landscape in Wide Sargasso Sea and Selected Short Fiction.” Griffith University, 2011.
Jamal, Inna Malissa bte Che. “A Study of Displacement in Jean Rhys’ Novel Wide Sargasso Sea.” Advances in Language and Literary Studies, vol 5, no 5, October 2014, pp 111-118. http://dx.doi.org/10.7575/aiac.alls.v.5n.5p.111. Accessed 26 April 2021.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 2000.