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Gender Roles in “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys


Jean Rhys’ novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, places importance on colonialism coupled with its effects on the social dynamics in society, hence enabling the reader understand the social environment around the Caribbean during the period before the enactment of the Emancipation Act of 1833. This paper presents some of the impacts of colonialism and civilisation on the novel’s society and specifically regarding its impact on gender roles in society. The paper also provides evidence from the text and other articles that explain ways in which colonialism and subsequent civilisation of the society regulate women, how the author describes and regulates the concept of masculinity in her book, and why such control on gender is significant for the story.

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Colonialism and civilisation: regulation of women

In Jean Rhys’ book, colonialism and civilisation play a significant role in altering the social dynamics in society. The book is set in the Caribbean during the colonial period, specifically at the beginning of the emancipation period that would put an end to slavery. Colonialism mainly weakens the role of women in society by portraying them as inferior to men. Men objectify women and use them as property rather than equal partners in relationships. Unfortunately, as Drake (195) notes, women accept the role and actualise it. However, with the looming emancipation, as a sign of civilisation, some changes in the social set up are evident, though not significant in impact.

One of the ways in which colonisation alters the social dynamics is through the introduction of a foreign culture. For instance, Annette, Antoinette’s mother, gets ill treatment from white Jamaican women simply for being a foreigner and her beauty. In the book, Annette represents the introduction of something new to society and people’s reaction to it. Ignorance creates a scenario where the Creole women ostracise her instead of getting to know and understand her. She brings out the concept of resistance to change (Rhys 36).

Secondly, colonialism changes the social dynamic in the book is through the introduction of Christianity. In the book, the convent school represents Christianity and provides a glimpse of the teachings it introduces to the society in contrast to the Caribbean form of religion. In Christianity, the society specifically designs convents for young women with the aim of providing knowledge of the religion in addition to formal education. At the school, Mother St. Justine teaches the girls about female saints. She also teaches them proper etiquette, cleanliness, and what society expects of them as proper Christian women (Rhys 46). Submission is one of the most common teachings in Christianity in relation to interactions between men and women. Women learn to submit to and respect their husbands as well as other male members of society, which is evident in the entire book. Antoinette, the main character in the book, is mainly submissive to her husband, even though he lacks affection for her, and this aspect brings out the perception of weakness in women in the book.

Racism is another aspect of society that colonisation seems to enhance mainly because foreigners occupy leadership or dominant positions in the society while the locals serve them. Most servants in the story are local men and women including Amelie, Mannie, and Mailotte. In the story, characters that possess wealth such as Richard Manson, Alexander Cosway, and Mr. Luttrell come from England.

Male dominance also stands out as a major issue affecting the roles of women in society. In the book, women form part of a man’s property and thus men can sell or buy them at will. For instance, Antoinette’s marriage arrangement is more of a business transaction than a relationship. Richard Manson gives thirty thousand Euros and Antoinette’s inheritance to an Englishman he barely knows in exchange for his marriage to her (Rhys 38). The arrangement takes place without Antoinette’s involvement in the negotiation or her consent on the matter. Christophine, Annette’s servant, forms another example of how women in the society comprise part of a man’s property. Christophine is Alexander Cosway’s wedding gift to Annette and serves Annette until her master’s death after the fire at the Coulibri house. In another instance, Rochester offers Amelie money after sleeping with her, which is a clear indication of the objectification of women in society (Rhys 154).

On the other hand, the emancipation, which forms part of the civilisation process in the book, indicates the presence of some changes regarding how women view themselves. For instance, unlike Annette, Aunt Cora chooses not to remarry after the death of her husband, which presents her with wealth. She even attempts to secure Antoinette’s monetary freedom by giving her some valuables before she dies. Although the impact of the gesture does not carry through in the story, the gesture is indicative of changes occurring in society. Additionally, when Amelie, a servant, slaps Antoinette back for slapping her and calls her a ‘white cockroach’, it shows her resolve to free herself from servitude and subsequent victimisation (Rhys 152). Although the intention behind the act is malicious, the outcome speaks volumes. Antoinette’s husband shows affection for Amelie after the act and even sleeps with her, which is more than he ever does for his wife. This gesture is indicative of the respect that Amelie obtains for standing up for herself. She also refuses to accept his money and indicates her desire for a bigger price, hence her resolve to leave Massacre for Rio.

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Element of masculinity

Mona Fayad, in her article Unquiet Ghosts: the Struggle for Representation, provides an analysis pointing out the element of masculinity in the Jean Rhys novel and explains how the author uses the same to develop the story. She explains that even though the author of the article is female, she enhances the role of male characters by making them appear superior and making female characters appear weak and thus inferior to their male counterparts (Fayad 439). However, the author revises and regulates the level of masculinity of her characters throughout the story by presenting certain elements of weakness and vulnerability.

One of the elements that depict masculinity in the story is the characteristic of men in the story to own most of the wealth in the community. Alexander Cosway, Mr. Mason, Rochester, and Mr. Richard Cosway all own substantial property in the initial stages of the story. Aunt Cora’s wealth comes due to her husband’s death while the author describes Nelson’s Rest, the estate next to the Cosway house, as Mr. Luttrell’s house, even though his widow lives in it and she is thus the current owner. It is also important to note that men in society treat women as property as part of their show of masculinity. For instance, Alexander Cosway gives Christophine to Annette as a wedding gift.

Men also largely dictate the roles that women play in society. For instance, Rochester assigns Leah to take care of Antoinette in England. She works as a cook in his house in England, and she is one of the three cooks aware of the existence of “the mad woman” in the attic of the house. In another example, Mr. Manson, Annette’s husband, leaves his wife with a black couple during her unstable phase. In effect, he makes his wife susceptible to humiliation and maltreatment by the couple.

In her article, Mona Fayad suggests that the author portrays weakness in women in her story and enhances masculinity for the male characters through the incorporation of insanity as part of Antoinette’s story. She describes the story as a, “…tale of a schizophrenic… whose search for identity leads to madness…a story of a woman too weak to resist the onslaught of a strong male…and whose response is escape through madness” (Fayad 440). In the initial scenes, Antoinette seems comfortable with her life and the environment in Granbois, mentioning her love for the ferns, the insects, and other creatures living in the same environment (Rhys 20). She however expresses her discomfort with the environment in the period of marriage with Rochester. In addition, Antoinette narrates how her marriage and her husband’s lack of concern and affection for her welfare unsettle her inherent mental instability (Rhys 78). Arguably, Antoinette chooses insanity as an escape instead of facing her problems head on as a strong woman would do. In addition to insanity, the author mentions the choice of Antoinette’s mother to give her brother the rights to her inheritance. With regard to the issue, Fayad states that, “From the beginning, the self is represented as objectified by society” (Fayad 437), in reference to Antoinette using the phrase “they” instead of “I” in her narration of events. Mona mentions that Antoinette narrates her story with consideration of societal views instead of her own.

The author regulates the level of masculinity for the male characters by introducing aspects of weakness and vulnerability in the story. Rhys includes a scene in the story where Rochester gets a fever at Massacre, which makes him weak and vulnerable. In order not to make him seem too weak, she mentions his resolve to stand in the rain instead of taking refuge at Caroline’s house even in his period of sickness (Rhys 40). Rochester also expresses his loss of control over his environment due to racial segregation, disease, and alienation by the local community, stating that he feels “…uneasy as if someone was watching him” (Rhys 50), thus indicating some level of paranoia. Rhys finds it important to mention that Rochester’s family in England leaves him penniless after giving all the inheritance to his brother. Lastly, Rochester’s gullibility in believing Daniel Cosway’s story regarding Sandi and Antoinette’s possible sexual encounter during their childhood years back presents another form of weakness, especially because Rochester does not take any initiative to investigate the accusations concerning his wife. Rhys also includes bastard boys in the story, as Antoinette’s half brothers. The fact that they are male provides masculinity while society’s view of them limits such masculinity.

Control of genders

The control of genders in the narrative is a crucial part of Rhys’ novel. It ensures that Rhys’ account of events and the period during which the events took place match. According to Sandra Drake’s article, the novel is set during the colonial era just before the enactment of the Emancipation Act, which means that tension and racial segregation were at an all time high (Drake 198). It also means there were elements of English culture in British colonies, part of which include social dynamics regarding roles that men and women in the British society played (Drake 202). Inclusion of such elements makes the story credible and allows readers to relate to the events in the book. Fayad (438) emphasizes this point by stating, “In a history of patriarchy, the well-being of a man depends on the reduction of a woman to a ghost”, which in this case is Antoinette. In response to the question on why a writer dedicated to portraying a female point of view chose to write more than half the novel from the male perspective, it is noteworthy that Rhys’ control of genders enables the author to tell a story that gives it distinction from other similar stories such as Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte wrote her story from the female perspective.


Colonialism and civilisation play a significant role in the development of the Jean Rhys’ story. Apart from enabling readers to relate to the events in the story, the concepts of colonialism and civilisation affect the gender roles or the people in society as the author suggests. This element creates a form of uniqueness to Rhys’ story and separates it from stories such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

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Works Cited

Drake, Sandra. “Race and Caribbean culture as thematics of liberation in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea: Backgrounds, Criticism. Ed. Judith Raiskin. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.193-206. Print.

Fayad, Mona. “Unquiet Ghosts: The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 34.3 (1988): 437-52. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea, New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Print.

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