1. Describe life at Coulibri before the fire.
Coulibri is depicted as having a faded grandeur, and of being a reminder of the wealth accumulated during the time of slavery. When the novel begins, Antoinette looks back to her childhood to the time of her mother being a widow and before she marries Mr Mason. The estate is overgrown and is being left to rot. Since the Emancipation Act, we are told, there are barely any workers to maintain the estate and at this point nature is taking back the cultivated land. The elitist Eden that was created for wealthy white people is no longer the selective paradise it used to be.
Once Antoinette’s mother re-marries, the house is patched up and given a semblance of order, but the fire destroys it ultimately. As a symbol of the ruinous past, Coulibri is condemned to die and the fire is a token of revenge for the history of slavery.
2. Consider the significance of naming in this novel.
With regard to the act of naming, perhaps one of the most significant features is Rochester’s choice to re-name Antoinette and call her Bertha, despite her dislike of him doing this. By doing this, he demonstrates his control over her, as though he is a latter day Adam naming the world around him. The act of re-naming also represents his distaste for her past in that she was named after her mother.
The novelist’s revenge for Rochester’s treatment of Antoinette comes when he is given no name throughout the narrative. He is known to the readers as Rochester, because this is after all a prequel to Jane Eyre. By contrasting this novel with Jane Eyre, and by empowering Antoinette here, he is depicted in as fully callous and weak, and by not naming him he is reduced to a symbolic level of anonymity.
The history of naming and how it is entwined with power is also made evident in the allusions to slavery and parentage. Daniel Cosway, for instance, insists that his father was the slave-owner Cosway and continues to use this surname to highlight this connection.
3. Examine the structure of the novel and the shift in narrators.
This work is predominantly narrated by Antoinette. Rochester is the second main narrator, and a small section is narrated by Grace Poole at the beginning of Part Three.
Antoinette dominates this narration and so is given a voice that she never had in Jane Eyre. By speaking in the first person, the readers are given a glimpse of how this later ‘madwoman in the attic’ came to be as she was when depicted by Charlotte Brontë. Her fractured sense of self becomes magnified as she is isolated and overlooked by others who have claimed to care for her. Her first-person reveals the changes she undergoes until finally in Part Three the readers are made privy to how dislocated she has become since leaving the convent, marrying Rochester and ending up imprisoned in Thornfield. We are left in no doubt that in this account of her situation it is nurture and culture, rather than nature, that has left Antoinette in a state of unreality.
By giving Rochester and Grace Poole first-person voices, Antoinette’s plight is made all the more poignant. Rochester’s lack of emotional warmth come to the fore, when he explains for example how he learned as a young child to hide his emotions. Grace’s position is also made evident in the voice she is given, as she explains her role as a paid up, non-gossiping jailer.
4. Analyze the depiction of women and madness.
Mother and daughter are both given the tag of being insane, and the implication is made that this is an unavoidable illness that runs through the family genes. Counter to this belief, the narrative reiterates again and again how the environment, of isolation and ill treatment, contribute to the diminished mental health of both women. Madness is treated with care as patriarchy and racism combine to thwart Antoinette, rather than the illness she is labelled with.
The label of madness becomes a way of containing these women. Antoinette and her mother are regarded as sexual, and overly sexual for being sexual in this period. By tagging them as insane, over-emotional and irrational, they are reduced to a form that literally disempowers them.
5. Discuss the relationship between this work and Jane Eyre.
As a prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea draws on the later famous events when Antoinette (as Bertha) is imprisoned at Thornfield. Wide Sargasso Sea imagines the younger Rochester in a more critical light than a failed Byronic hero and instead is given a more convincing depiction as a weak man swayed by his family, greed and racist thinking.
Jane’s attraction to him is made all the more improbable in this work, but his control remains understandable as the marriage laws of the time in England mean that he has power over Antoinette as a father would have over a child. Rhys draws on the source of the novel and amplifies aspects of him and the biased legal system to demonstrate how a man of his class and race could exploit a woman in Antoinette’s position so readily.