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Antoinette’s character comes from Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre. Bronte’s madwoman, “Bertha”, is given a life history, beginning as a young lonely girl in Jamaica, and ending as the wild lunatic in the attic. Antoinette is sensitive and sensuous. The vivid descriptions of nature in Part One reflect her life and her character. She feels the exotic beauty and comfort of the natural world. She identifies so closely with the sights and sounds of her environment that when Rochester takes her away she comes undone. When Rochester stamps on the frangipani wreath and again when he crushes an orchid we see Antoinette’s spirit being crushed.
As a child she is alone. She is an outcast in her family and in society, a “white cockroach”. She neither seeks nor finds happiness. At best, she takes refuge as in the convent. Instinctively, she tries to get out of her arranged marriage, sensing trouble. When she relaxes at Granbois, and feels that she can love Rochester, she fears that the happiness she has found with him will be taken away. When Antoinette’s past and her family history turn Rochester against her, she is once again without a comfortable place for herself. She goes to Christophine for help, but obeah magic does not work well on whites and we watch Antoinette disintegrate into “Bertha”. Finally, regaining her spirit, Antoinette has a moment of defiant triumph as she acts out her fiery dream.
Though he narrates the longest part of the novel, Rhys denies this character a name. Having read Jane Eyre, we know his name based on his Bronte counterpart, Rochester, but in Rhys’ novel he has no identity outside of his relationship with Antoinette. He becomes Antoinette’s husband and both the narrator and the orchestrator of her psychological undoing. As much as Antoinette takes comfort in the tropical landscape, her husband experiences unease. He finds the colors and fragrances overwhelming. He sees the West Indian landscape as hostile, as his English ideas of civilization and reason are undermined. Likewise, he views Antoinette’s offer of love as excessive, “too much”. His rejection of the sensuous landscape parallels his rejection of Antoinette.
He renames her “Bertha” in effort to distance her from her exotic side and bring her over to her English side, putting further pressure on her already confused cultural identity. When he sleeps with a servant, Amelie, a behavior accepted by colonials generations before him, and then is held responsible for those actions by Christophine, he exerts his final authority and privilege rejecting his Creole wife and all West Indian customs. He reclaims his own identity, erasing Antoinette’s, and moves back to England.
Unlike the sympathy evoking character of Jane Eyre, a man rejected by his father in favor of a brother, the Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea is selfish, cold and manipulative. Rhys created him as the anonymous man who fragments Antoinette into the raving madwoman, “Bertha”.
As the only semblance of a caregiver in Antoinette’s life, Christophine grooms Antoinette into the black culture and an appreciation of nature. She is black, but being from Martinique, she is different from the Jamaicans. Her words carry both magic (obeah) and authority. Unlike the other servants, she remains loyal to Antoinette and her mother when the Cosway family is no longer wealthy. At the beginning of the novel Christophine explains why Antoinette is an outcast in society. Christophine is an outcast herself, but commands respect because of her independent nature and knowledge of obeah.
She is at odds with Antoinette’s husband from the start because she senses that he is dangerous and she challenges his white male authority. As Antoinette’s advisor and confidante she urges Antoinette to leave her husband and become independent like her. In the final dialog with Antoinette’s husband, Rhys uses Christophine as Antoinette’s advocate and spokeswoman. Christophine reveals the man’s true, selfish nature and outlines the events that led up to Antoinette’s unstable condition.