Reader, he drove me mad.
Truth can lie between two different realities.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s plans to marry Jane are frustrated by the revelation that the long-suffering man is already married and in fact, his mad wife is locked in the attic. But what is her story? And if she is ‘mad’, how did she get that way?
The wife is Antoinette Bertha Mason Rochester, nee Cosway; she prefers Antoinette. Rhys is masterful showing the descent of Antionette’s life and mind as well as the gradual rise of Rochester’s contempt and control of her. The evolution of Antoinette’s voice from clarity to ‘madness’ is exquisite and sad.
Like Rhys herself, Antoinette is of Creole descent. We meet her growing up in Dominica with her widowed mother and disabled brother. From the beginning, Antoinette is unsure of who she is. As white Creoles, they are rejected by both the English and the Blacks, who call them “white cockroaches.” As women, they lack status or agency. After the Emancipation Act frees the slaves, Antoinette’s slaveholding family, once wealthy, becomes destitute.
Antoinette’s mother pursues the only option she believes is open to her, and marries a rich white carpetbagger, Mr. Mason. Mason decides to replace the family’s remaining servants with Eastern coolie workers. The staff overhears, however, and they set fire to the home, Coulibri, resulting in the death of Antoinette’s brother and leading to her mother’s emotional devastation.
Mr. Mason abandons his mad wife to abusive caretakers and sends Antoinette to convent school. It is his responsibility to identify a husband for her, howe
ver, and he does. It’s an unnamed English gentleman, though readers of Jane Eyre will recognize him as Mr. Rochester.
As a second son, Rochester needs the money bequeathed to Antoinette by her stepfather. They wed, and at first the match seems successful. Rochester breaks down Antoinette’s reserve through affection and physical passion. Antoinette responds, opening herself to experience a happiness her childhood had trained her to never expect.
Yet Rochester has a nagging distrust of his exotic Creole wife, and antipathy for Dominica.
Geography becomes a proxy for the perceptions and misperceptions of the spouses. Neither view the home of the other as “real.” Antoinette sees England as cold and dark; in her eyes Dominica is lush, beautiful and fragrant. Rochester views the technicolor Dominica as ominous and threatening, as if he were about to be devoured by a giant Venus flytrap.
And then there is the Sargasso Sea, a dead-calm oceanic mire that Dominica borders upon. For Antoinette, it’s a metaphor for her deepest fears. For Rochester, it is a physical barrier between himself and his beloved England.
Rochester receives a letter received from a man who may or may not be Antoinette’s brother by her father and one of his slaves. The letter warns Rochester he was tricked into marrying a degenerate girl with a family history of madness. These allegations prey on Rochester’s insecurities and cause him to abruptly reject Antoinette. Her fragile sense of identity shaken and desperate to win back her husband’s affection, Antoinette resorts to means which unintentionally goad Rochester into acting on his worst impulses. The rift between them devolves into a chasm leading to her own undoing.
Rochester drags his broken wife to cold and dark England, where he confines her to the attic, under the care of servants paid for their discretion.
The Wide Sargasso Sea is a stunning work of understanding and empathy for all characters in this book – and the next.