Madness in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea


Ever since Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea has been published for the first time in 1966, it had instantly gained fame as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Victorian novel Jane Eyre – a classical work of British literature. This does not represent much of a surprise. Given the fact that in her novel, Rhys explores the theme of existential alienation from an essentially post-colonial and feminist perspective and also the fact that the sixties of the 20th century are being strongly associated with the rise of culturally relativist sentiment in Western countries, the success of Wide Sargasso Sea has been dialectically predetermined. Nevertheless, the high literary value of Rhys’s novel and the fact that it explores themes that, at the time of novel’s publishing used to be considered ‘fashionable’, cannot alone explain Rhys masterpiece’s popularity with the readers. There was something else about Wide Sargasso Sea, which had made motifs, contained in it, to correlate with potential readers’ unconscious anxieties as to what should account for the proper methodological framework for assessing the qualitative subtleties of one’s descent into madness.

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The close reading of Rhys’s novel points out the probable explanation as to the earlier mentioned discrepancy – in Wide Sargasso Sea, the author had succeeded in exposing the themes of madness, imperialism, orientalism, and gender relations as being integrally interwoven with each other. In its turn, this resulted in endowing readers with an understanding of the fact that, for anyone to be able to properly assess the actual essence of one’s mental inadequacy, such inadequacy cannot possibly be thought of as a ‘thing in itself’, because it has been brought about by a variety of environmental, biological and psychological factors, affecting the concerned individual, throughout his or her life. In her article, Abel (1979) states: “Rhys’s heroine (Antoinette) experience the world as a hostile environment and lead lives of isolation, detached from family and friends, unable to establish real contact with others” (157).

Nevertheless, the fact that throughout her life, the novel’s main character Antoinette had dealt with different kinds of institutionalized oppressiveness, cannot possibly provide a complete explanation to the qualitative essence of her anxieties the subtleties of Antoinette’s biological makeup (white Creole) had also played part in defining her existential mode. As Spivak (1985) had put it: “Antoinette, as a white Creole child growing up at the time of emancipation in Jamaica, is caught between the English imperialist and the black native” (250). Thus, it is namely by analyzing the environmental aspects of Antoinette’s upbringing, about what she thought represented her racial/cultural identity, and also by assessing the implications of her marriage to Rochester, that we will be able to gain an insight into the workings of heroine’s psyche. In its turn, this will enable us to assess the true significance of a madness theme in Wide Sargasso Sea. In our paper, we will aim to substantiate the soundness of an earlier articulated thesis at length.

Analytical part

Even the reading of Rhys novel’s few initial chapters points out to the fact that, while living at Coulibri Estate, Annette and her daughter Antoinette never ceased experiencing a strange sensation of alienation from their servants, who often took pleasure in eyeballing the two in rather an ominous manner: “She (Annette) still rode about every morning not caring that the black people stood about in groups to jeer at her, especially after her riding clothes grew shabby” (18). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to refer to blacks’ animosity towards Annette and Antoinette as simply the consequence of a mother and daughter having formerly belonged to a slave-owning household.

On the contrary – the context of Rhys’s novel implies that the actual reason why black servants at Coulibri Estate did not seem to like Annette and Antoinette very much is that they sensed that both females’ whiteness has been tainted, even though that on the outside, they appeared perfectly white. The validity of this suggestion can be well illustrated in scenes where Tia and Amelie accuse Antoinette of being a ‘white cockroach’ – thus, implying the superficialness of Antoinette’s whiteness. As it was rightly noted by Mardorossian (1999): “Tia and later Amelie contest and dismiss any commonality (between them and Antoinette) by resorting to stereotypes such as ‘white nigger’ and ‘white cockroach’” (1084). Thus, while staying at Coulibri Estate, both Annette and Antoinette were learning to perceive their own identity as something rather dualistically defined. This is exactly the reason why, throughout a novel, Antoinette exhibits diametrically different attitudes towards people of color.

On one hand, she often used to think of them as faceless and violently minded brutes: “There must have been many of the bay people but I recognized no one. They all looked the same, it was the same face repeated over and over, eyes gleaming, mouth half-open to shout” (42), but on the other, she could not help experiencing deep and personal affiliation with these people, which is being revealed in the scene where Antoinette talks of her father’s whiteness with contempt: “I thought that I would never like him (father) very much… ‘Goodnight white pappy’ I said one evening and he was not vexed, he laughed” (34). In other words, there are good reasons to believe that, during her stay at Coulibri Estate, there were some objective preconditions for Antoinette to become affected by the mild form of a split-personality disorder. As Rochester described her: “Long, sad, dark, alien eyes.

Creole of pure English descent she maybe, but they are not English or European either” (56). The question is whether this can be solely attributed to the legacy of British imperialism in the West Indies. After all, it is a well-known fact that on a subconscious level, both: blacks and whites do not especially like those whom they perceive as ‘mongrels’ – the ‘legacy of imperialism’ has little to do with it, but rather the fact that ‘full-blooded’ individuals intuitively feel a certain danger, emanated by people that are being affected by racial mixing. It is was not simply by an accident that, unlike blacks, mulattoes and mestizos are being usually referred to in the classical works of English literature (such as The Lost World by Conan Doyle, for example) as shrewd and conniving individuals, capable of stabbing their ‘friends’ in the back, while hugging them. Thus, it appears that the actual roots of Antoinette’s madness are best discussed through the lenses of genetics, rather than through the lenses of sociology alone – even if Antoinette lived in England or Africa, her ‘creoles’ would still be affecting her perception of the world and her place in it.

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Nevertheless, there would still be good chances for Antoinette to grow up into a normal woman, if it was not up to the deep psychological trauma she had sustained when Coulibri Estate was set on fire by the raging mod of ex-slaves. Apart from the fact that, during the fire, Antoinette had lost her brother Pierre, she had also confirmed its lessened humanity in her own eyes by the time she ran towards Tia, only be hit by the sharp-edged rock in return: “As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and I will be like her… When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it” (46). In its turn, this explains why, after having escaped Coulibri Estate, Antoinette had spent six weeks struggling with fever – apparently, the effect of the fire onto the heroine’s mental state contributed rather substantially towards extending the time of her illness. Thus, it would be quite safe to assume that by the time Antoinette had met Rochester, she was already mentally unstable.

And, to make things worse, Antoinette also became hyper-sensitive and utterly illogical in how she addressed life’s challenges and responded to Rochester’s rational way of thinking. There is a memorable passage in the novel when Rochester expresses its contempt with the fact that Antoinette was incapable of providing him with comprehensible answers to his even most basic questions: “Antoinette was undecided, uncertain about facts – any fact. When I asked her if the snakes we sometimes saw were poisonous, she said, ‘Not those. The fer de lance of course, but there are none here,’ and added, ‘but how can they be sure? Do you think they know?” (88)., as time went by, Antoinette’s Creole heritage was affecting the workings of her mind to an ever-increasing extent, extrapolated in heroine’s hyper-sexuality: “(Antoinette) thirsts for anyone – not for me… She’ll loosen her black hair, and laugh and coax and flatter – a mad girl. She’ll not care who she’s loving” (165), and also in her increasing preoccupation with what today would be referred to as the ‘exploration of traditional ways’ – hence, Antoinette’s irrational belief in the powers of ‘magic’, embodied by the character of Christophine, who despite Rhys’s conscious intention, is being represented as a spokesperson for intellectual primitiveness: “England’ said Christophine… ‘You think there is such a place?… I know what I see with my eyes and I never see it” (112). Thus, by the time readers are being put through the ‘rising action’ part of the novel, they get to realize a striking dichotomy between Antoinette and Rochester’s mindsets.

Whereas Rochester is being shown as a person endowed with an acute sense of rationale, which allows him to never lose existential orientation in West Indies, Antoinette is being represented as an embodiment of a hypertrophied femininity – very beautiful, yet irrational, moody, and manipulative woman, who thinks that the whole world owes her on the account of her Creole ‘uniqueness’. Therefore, from the very outset of a relationship between Antoinette and Rochester, analytically minded readers grow to perceive this relationship as very challengeable.

On one hand, we have the character of Rochester, who had married Antoinette for money and who sincerely hoped that he would grow to love her in time. On the other, we have Antoinette, who found Rochester very attractive and who also wanted to love him with passion. Nevertheless, given the fact that the psyches of both characters functioned differently, it was only natural for them to experience certain setbacks while pursuing the relationship. What it means is that it is quite inappropriate to place blame for Antoinette’s descent into madness exclusively on Rochester, as many of today’s ‘progressive’ critics do.

For example, in her article Ciolkowski (1997) refers to Rochester’s willingness to instill some reasonableness in his wife as being inheritably evil, simply because Rochester happened to be a white male, who was naturally predisposed towards relying on his sense of rationale while facing life’s challenges: “For Rhys’s text, Roch­ester labors to make English sense out of this colonial confusion. He is de­termined to resolve Antoinette’s ambivalence into the singular tones of English womanhood” (342). The psychological assessment of themes and motifs, contained in the novel, points out to the fact that, unlike what the critics of ‘euro-centrism’ would like us to believe, Rochester’s ‘colonial oppression’ of Antoinette is being of essentially incidental nature, which is why the qualitative essence of a relationship between the two characters, which supposedly propelled Antoinette into madness, is best discussed within the context of what sets off marital quarrels, known to just about any married couple.

In its turn, this explains why in recent years, some truly analytical critics have come to recognize a simple fact that Antoinette’s madness might have indeed been instigated by the specifics of her genetic constitution, rather than by her continuous exposure to ‘colonial oppression’ – given Annette’s fate, such suggestion cannot be possibly rejected as unsubstantiated. In his book, López (2005) states: “It is unclear whether Antoinette has been predisposed to mental disorder because of her mother’s genetic code or whether both women are deranged by their violent experiences with colonial patriarchy” (138). At the same time, it cannot be denied that Rochester did help Antoinette to become deranged beyond the point of recovery by trying to ‘correct’ her, well after he had realized that this could not be done in principle.

Such Rochester’s intention is being revealed in his unwavering willingness to refer to Antoinette as ‘Bertha’, even though Antoinette had expressed her contempt with what he was doing on numerous occasions: “You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name” (147). Therefore, we can agree to a certain extent with suggestions that Rochester’s clearly defined euro-centric perception of surrounding realities had facilitated the process of Antoinette becoming disfranchised, in the psychological sense of this word. This, however, did not come as the result of Rochester acting maliciously, from the outset of his relationship with Antoinette, but rather as the result of his inability to realize a simple fact that euro-centric conventions, in regards to a variety of relationship-related subject matters, did not quite apply in West Indies. In its turn, this also explains the particulars of Rochester’s attitude towards the character of Christhophine, who would often go as far as challenging his self-assumed masculine superiority without any reservations, whatsoever.

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Nowadays, it became a statement of good taste among many critics to talk of Christhophine as one of the positive characters in Wide Sargasso Sea, due to her masculine appearance and due to her ability to adopt an active stance, while confronting Rochester. In the article, from which we have already quoted, Abel states: “In Wide Sargasso Sea the typically weak mother-daughter relationship is mitigated by the positive mother substitute of Christophine, to whom Antoinette turns in her moments of need and who offers Antoinette an image of both nurturance and strength” (176). Yet, if anyone in the novel could be referred to as such that had driven Antoinette to madness, it would be Christhophine, as it was on the account of her ‘magical’ activities that Rochester had grown utterly annoyed with his wife, who he thought was trying to poison him by pouring ‘love potion’ in his drink.

However, there is an even more sinister quality to the character of Christophine – the fact that, throughout the novel’s entirety, she acts as the agent of gender amalgamation. It is important to understand that, for a married couple to enjoy a healthy relationship, husband and wife must be willing to compensate for each other’s lack of masculinity/femininity, which explains the phenomenon of why masculine women prefer marrying feminine men and vice versa. Even when two gays decide to get married, they arrange who of them would be acting as ‘wife’ and who would be acting as ‘husband’.

Although Antoinette used to take an active stance in life (which is being often mistaken as the proof of Antoinette’s masculinity), her perceptional irrationality and her good looks, leave very little doubt that psychologically speaking, she had never ceased being a woman. Given the fact that in Rhys’s novel, Rochester is shown as a typical white male, with an aura of arrogance around him, we can safely assume that it would only be a matter of time before psychological compatibility between him and Antoinette would actualize itself in two characters becoming emotionally attached. After all, as we are well aware from watching James Cameron’s movie Avatar, even though the character of highly spiritual Neytiri initially used to hate the character of Jake Sully with passion, on the account of his euro-centric arrogance, as time went by, she had nevertheless fallen in love with him. The reason for this is simple – ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ attract each other just as negatively and positively polarized magnets do.

Yet, there had to be Christophine, who continuously strived to implant Antoinette with suspicions towards her husband, to make her believe that England does not exist, and to actively challenge the validity of Rochester’s rationale-driven insights onto the qualitative specifics of living in West Indies: “You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is” (557). In other words, Christophine was trying to impose upon Antoinette her vision of what the relationship between man and a woman should be all about, deeply affected by Christophine’s racially predetermined tendency to think of such a relationship as being defined by the low degree of existential differentiation between the representatives of both genders (this explains the high rate of divorce in black families).

Basically, within the semantic context of the novel, Christhophine’s role is being concerned with the promotion of a feminist agenda, which is why we can only agree with Erwin (1989) when he suggests that the inclusion of the character of Christophine in the novel, significantly undermined the soundness of novel’s ideologically charged ideas: “Wide Sargasso Sea may seem an exercise in bad faith, appealing only to any vestige of bourgeois feminism, still able to accept an easy equation between ‘woman’ and ‘nigger’” (143). It was not simply by an accident that in times when Antoinette utilized her sense of rationale while addressing life’s pressures, she used to refer to Christophine as someone full of negative energy. This is exactly the reason why, throughout the novel’s entirety, Christophine’s appearances signify a bad omen. As Mardorossian had put it in the article from which we have already quoted: “Christophine’s prac­tice in Wide Sargasso Sea can hardly be accounted for as a source of fear or awe among the black Creoles … In fact, Christophine’s intimidating influence in Wide Sargasso Sea seems strangely limited to Antoinette and Rochester” (1077). It is needless to mention, of course, that Christophine’s obeah practices did not represent any practical value, but the very fact that she used to endorse Antoinette’s belief in the realness of these practices, had resulted in effectively sealing up the fate of the latter.

Even though Wide Sargasso Sea is essentially a women’s novel, its author had failed at attuning themes and motifs, contained in it, to the mechanics of a female psyche, which can be explained by the fact that, while working on it, Rhys never ceased remaining politically engaged. According to Marx (2005): “Wide Sargasso Sea abandons certain elements of domestic romance, most significantly, the genre’s habit of treating female desire as narrative’s driving force” (163). This is exactly the reason why instead of referring to Antoinette’s descent into madness as her tragedy; Rhys had made a point in trying to expose this descent as having been predetermined by the heroine’s exposure to patriarchal and racial oppression.


Just as we have hypothesized in the Introduction, the theme of madness in Wide Sargasso Sea should not be dealt with from solely a sociological/political perspective. Therefore, even though we do agree with Murdoch’s (2003) suggestion that: “Wide Sargasso Sea is representative of the paradoxes and contradictions that are representative of the patterns of colonial praxis” (257), it is quite impossible to agree with the idea that, to gain a comprehensive clue as to the essence of ideas, presented in Rhys’s novel, one would have to adopt a strongly negative attitude towards the very notion of euro-centrism. After all, if there were no ‘evil’ euro-centrists, there would no literature, as we know it, in the first place. Thus, as we have shown earlier, it makes so much more sense discussing Antoinette’s madness-related anxieties as the result of her biologically defined existential inadequacy, which in its turn, extrapolated itself in the heroine’s tendency to suppress her perceptional femininity. Nevertheless, it would be equally wrong to discuss Antoinette’s tragedy as being quite unrelated to what used to represent the 19th century’s socio-political discourse, in regards to the concept of ‘white man’s burden’.

Such our conclusion substantiates the validity of the paper’s initial thesis as to the fact that that theme of madness in Wide Sargasso Sea should be assessed as something rather three-dimensionally defined. Moreover, it represents a matter of crucial importance for anyone who tries to critically evaluate Rhys’s novel, to understand that this novel is fiction, written by a person closely affiliated with the promotion of the late 20th century’s feminist agenda. This is the reason why in Wide Sargasso Sea, the author strived to represent the notion of feminine strength as being synonymous with the notion of primeval irrationality. According to Armstrong (1982) “In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys seems to abandon the feminine aesthetic deliberately” (145). In its turn, this sets Rhys’s novel apart from classical works of 19th century’s feminist fiction, associated with the names of Kate Chopin and Henrik Ibsen, which promote the idea that the reason why women are being equal to men is that they are being just as capable of relying on their sense of rationale while going through life. While aiming to advocate the cause of women’s liberation, in her novel Rhys simultaneously strived to endorse the concept of ‘celebration of diversity’ – hence, ‘post-colonial’ spirit, emanated by the novel. Unfortunately, this spirit undermines the novel’s conceptual premise, regarding the presupposed equality of genders.

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This, however, does not lessen the literary value of Wide Sargasso Sea because themes and motifs explored in the novel appear perfectly plausible. Just as how in the previously mentioned article, Abel had put it: “Rhys is a novelist, not a psychologist, and we cannot expect prescriptions about mental well-being. Nevertheless, her work suggests some pervasive attitudes about the inner conflicts of women” (175). We could not agree more – despite the apparent dubiousness of the novel’s ideological sounding, in Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys did succeed in providing readers with a better awareness of what accounted for many Creole women’s lots in West Indies during the 19th century. This is exactly the reason why even today, Rhys’s novel remains quite popular with the readers.

Works Cited:

Abel, Elizabeth “Women and Schizophrenia: The Fiction of Jean Rhys”. Contemporary Literature 20.2 (1979): 155-177.

Armstrong, Nancy “The Rise of Feminine Authority in the Novel”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 15.2 (1982): 127-145.

Erwin, Lee “Like in a Looking-Glass”: History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea”. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 22.2 (1989): 143-158.

Lopez, Alfred. Postcolonial Whiteness: A Critical Reader On Race and Empire. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.

Mardorossian, Carine “Shutting up the Subaltern: Silences, Stereotypes, and Double-Entendre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea“. Callaloo 22.4 (1999): 1071-1090.

Marx, John. The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Murdoch, Adlai “Rhys’s Pieces: Unhomeliness as Arbiter of Caribbean Creolization”. Callaloo 26.1 (2003): 252-272.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. New York: Norton, 1982.

Spivak, Gayatri “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism”. Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243-261.

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