Antoinette’s sense of not belonging, of being in exile in her home, is a significant thematic concern. She is referred to as a ‘white cockroach’, a ‘white nigger’ and her racial identity is of a significant concern for Rochester as he attempts to fix her identity and give her the status of an outcast. Christophine, Aunt Cora and to some extent her step-father Mr Mason attempt to give her ballast, but racism, slavery and taxonomy all conspire against her. She has no place and as a married woman she is also seen to have no legal rights without a safeguard against her wealth. She becomes finally the non-person that Rochester comes to see her as.
History and the past
History is seen to cloud the present as the history of slavery colors the perceptions of those related to slaves and slave owners. Antoinette’s sense of a divided self is also expressed in this configuration as it is reputed that she has at least one half sibling whose mother was a slave.
Her mother’s past also infringes on her present as her mother’s madness is often cited against as though she can be judged for the mental state of her mother. Rhys describes the conditions surrounding her mother’s breakdown and it is made transparent to the readers that this is tied to events rather than her biology. In this interpretation, history has shaped the mother and daughter by the way they are understood by others. Both are diminished by the patriarchal society they are also beneficiaries of.
Madness is thought to run in families, according to the critics of Antoinette. However, this novel is careful to put across how Antoinette is unhinged by cruelty and external conditions rather than genetics. As a child, she is depicted as isolated and overlooked and also treated with cruelty. She is often told how she has no place. When married, Rochester continues the work of undermining her to the point where he changes her name (to Bertha) even against her wishes. Her madness, then, is portrayed as connected to her negative treatment in a patriarchal and racist society and this comes to a head in her imprisonment at Thornfield.
The history of slavery and ongoing racism are unbroken narrative threads in this work. Racism underpins slavery, and the wealth of the Cosway family, and allows for the inhuman treatment that Antoinette undergoes when married to Rochester. His concern for her is seen to be often inspired by a racist ideology that sanctions his cruelty towards her. What he perceives as irrational, over-emotional and overtly sexual in her, are emphatically connected by him to what he sees as her mixed race background. Through his criticisms and distaste for her, it is possible to see his expression of racist stereotyping.