Gender Theory’s Prevalence in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys weaves the tale of a severely-oppressed woman and her trials through life. Several critics have argued for post-enlightenment, post-colonialism, and identity-based themes in Wide Sargasso Sea, claiming these shape the novel and present ideas otherwise dismissed. While the intention of these critics is to broaden readers’ perspectives on the book, one idea is lacking in expansion: gender schema theory – which serves as the key premise for the story. Rhys dominates the novel with gender schema theoretical themes, utilizing Rochester and Antoinette as representatives for their respective sex’s ideals. This critical analysis will expand on the gender schema theoretical concept by presenting complementary ideas – that is, Rochester and Antoinette’s inability to abandon their early-developed gender ideals, the duo’s opposition of said ideals and the resulting predicaments, and each of their attempts to modify each other out of subconscious fear of what they will be reduced to without the other.
Over the decades, critics have hyper-analyzed events in Antoinette’s life and the relationship between her and Rochester. Jennifer Gilchrist, throughout her critical analysis, identifies and elaborates on several subtleties of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, clarifying the novel for her quasi-gender theory/post-Enlightenment perspective. She points out that, despite abolition having risen into effect, slavery was still rather prevalent, but in an unofficial and understated manner — that is, female to male subjugation. Gilchrist further asserts that the minor language gap most readers likely faced (Jamaican patois versus the standard English dialect) was intentional by Rhys, and was employed to place indistinct feelings in the reader (such as a sensation of disconnect from Antoinette) — as well as deliberate miscommunications — that enhanced the story. Finally, Gilchrist transcribes that Wide Sargasso Sea may be read as anti-Bildungsroman, and that Antoinette did not ultimately perceive her identity through the pre-established literal (lineage, etc.) or inner (beliefs and values) methodologies — rather, she experienced several vexatious situations throughout her life that eventually allowed her to ‘find’ herself. These topics, both independently and cooperatively, build Gilchrist’s analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea and supplement Rhys’s original text with further insight.
Throughout Alexandra Neel’s critical essay, she argues that Rhys’s ideologies, writing mechanisms, and plot developments in Wide Sargasso Sea are all indicative of Antoinette’s “emptied-out personhood”, or seeming loss of identity. Neel initially contends that, in Rhys’s novel, Antoinette’s identity loss was partially due to the legal decisions of the era, specifically those regarding emancipation and the ending of slavery within the region. She proceeds to suggest that the Creole women and former slaves are socially — and civilly — deceased, also contributing to Antoinette’s dilemma of selfhood (as her and her mother are Creole). Neel additionally establishes that Rhys shifted the time frame of the novel with the intention of incorporating apprenticeship and, needless to say, personhood into the story. Neel vindicates these literary concepts by referencing legal/historical documents and authorities, as well as providing an in-depth analysis of portions of the novel, which ultimately support her primary argument.
Robert Kendrik opines across his critical analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea that Jean Rhys utilized Edward Rochester, Antoinette’s husband, to illustrate the patriarchal limits of the era. He states that Rochester becomes “violently defensive” as he is submerged in a reality that does not harbor the same boundaries and definitions of masculinity and patriarchal dominance as he is used to. Kendrik proceeds to argue that, while Rochester has married Antoinette with the intention of gaining power, dominance, and an acceptable position (for a male) in English society, he finds his ideals of these things are threatened by said marriage (as well as by the Caribbean and its ideologies). Moreover, Kendrik asserts that Rochester possesses two doubles within the novel, Daniel Cosway and Sandi, and that these doubles further enunciate Rochester’s masculinity complex in a de-emphasized manner. Kendrik corroborates his reasonings by citing text from Wide Sargasso Sea, other authors that maintain similar beliefs, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
Nese Senel proposes various concepts throughout his critical analysis of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, all of which support his predominant argument of post-colonialism and its allowance for a broader understanding of the novel. Senel commences his analysis by contending that the primary intention of Wide Sargasso Sea is to present an identity for the formerly-repressed Creole peoples, which can be discerned from this post-colonialist perspective. He proceeds to suggest that Antoinette’s insanity is provoked by the triple oppression she undergoes from the patriarchy, white English society and freshly emancipated slaves, and Rochester — all of which were probable for a Creole woman to endure in the West Indies, and especially during the era ensuing colonialism. Senel finalizes his essay by claiming that Rhys, in her storytelling of Antoinette and Rochester, audaciously downgraded the indigenous residents of the region (depicting them as untrustworthy, criminalistic, and abusive) in order to enhance the plot. Senel frequently quotes the text and references Rhys’s literary methodologies to provide substantiation for his reasoning, as well as his fundamental point.
Wide Sargasso Sea is an exploration of gender schema theory, with Antoinette and Rochester each depicting this cognitive theory for their individual sexes.
The plot develops from Antoinette and Rochester’s inability and unwillingness to abandon their early-developed ideals of gender. For instance, Christophine criticizes Rochester for prioritizing money over his wife, saying, “Everybody know that you marry her for her money and you take it all…[Antoinette] don’t care for money—it’s nothing for her…You make love to her till she drunk with it” (92 Rhys). This is a prime example of differing ideals. Rochester, a dominant English male, has learned to value money and power, while Antoinette, a Caribbean woman, cherishes relationships and/or the idea of ‘love’, as suggested by the use of the term “drunk”, which implies an addiction or dependence.
In the beginning of Part II, Rochester’s tendency to compare the Caribbean landscapes to that of England’s is paired with a similar tendency to compare Antoinette to an English girl, as suggested when she offers him mountain water from a leaf, “Looking up smiling, she might have been any pretty English girl and to please her I drank” (42 Rhys). Having grown and established his ideals in England, Rochester mistakenly attempts to apply these ideals to a woman of an entirely different culture. This scene marks the beginning of Rochester’s comparison between Antoinette and what he believes a woman should be, eventually leading to his discontented state and attempts to enforce subjugation.
Antoinette, raised in an environment that promotes ease, relaxation and eroticism, has learned to revere the idea of love, portrayed when she desperately goes to Christophine for help with Rochester and says, “‘That is what I wish and that is why I came here. You can make people love…’” (Rhys 67). Additionally, her unsafe and ever-traumatic childhood may have contributed to her desire for safety — particularly, safety provided by a lover. This is specifically mentioned in Part II: “‘You are safe,’ I’d say. She’d liked that — to be told ‘you are safe’” (55 Rhys). So, while Antoinette seeks genuine love and safety, Rochester maintains his English standards for the Caribbean and Antoinette, repeatedly setting himself up for disappointment.
Although at the surface the difficulties between Antoinette and Rochester appear to be power, culture, and perhaps bigotry-based, the real issue lies in their opposition of ideologies. The characters, in fact, do not realize it themselves, and so these problems are never resolved.
Most of the initial opposition between Antoinette and Rochester is understated. At first glance it may appear trivial, but instances of opposition gradually increase in frequency and in strength. For example, one of the first conflicts (although subtle) was when Antoinette showed Rochester to their bedroom at Granbois: “I crowned myself with one of the [frangipani] wreaths and made a face in the glass. ‘I hardly think it suits my handsome face, do you?’…I took the wreath off. It fell on the floor and as I went towards the window I stepped on it” (43 Rhys). Although there is no verbal disagreement here, Rochester’s apparent intolerance toward Caribbean cultures, even with something as simple as a wreath of frangipani, represents a clash of ideals. Despite this, Antoinette makes no indication that this instance bothers her, if she even notices.
Another instance of conflict was when the duo lightly argued over whose environment was less believable and more like a dream: “‘Well,’ I answered annoyed, ‘that is precisely how your beautiful land seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.’ ‘But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?’ ‘And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?’ ‘More easily,’ she said, ‘…Yes a big city must be like a dream.’ ‘No, this is unreal and like a dream,’ I thought” (Rhys 48). While these two argue over whose homeland is less believable, it is clear to the reader that it is all relative. Rochester and Antoinette do not realize that their home being vastly different from the other’s results in differing opinions, especially concerning such matters.
A major occurrence of opposition is Rochester’s attempt to change (and emotionally damage) Antoinette by forcing an English name upon her. This is evident in Part II, when Antoinette finally questions Rochester about the name, “‘Don’t laugh like that, Bertha.’ ‘My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?’ ‘Because it is a name I am particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha’” (Rhys 81). Whether or not Rochester is feigning innocence, Antoinette is evidently unhappy with her unrequested English name, and neither appear aware of the other’s motives or cause for distress.
The characters each also go to extremes to modify the other (Antoinette resorts to obeah so Rochester will love her, and Rochester brings Antoinette to England against her will) out of subconscious fear (as opposed to the apparent frustration) of what they will be reduced to without the other.
Near the end of Part II, Rochester (and perhaps the reader) realizes that Antoinette, who seems so hopelessly dependent on him throughout the novel, did not love him specifically — but rather, just someone. She loved the idea of having someone there. In this realization scene, Rochester comes to this conclusion by battling his inner voice: “‘She love you so much, so much. She thirsty for you…’ Sneer to the last, Devil. Do you think that I don’t know? She thirsts for anyone — not for me…” (99 Rhys). It is easy to conclude that Antoinette merely yearns for the safety that Rochester provides, perhaps for fear that she will wither without such reassurance.
In an effort to alter Rochester and bring him closer to her ideal of a strong, supportive and caring Caribbean man, Antoinette recourses to obeah to force Rochester into loving her, as portrayed in this scene: “‘If the man don’t love you, I can’t make him love you.’ ‘Yes you can, I know you can. That is what I wish and that is why I came here. You can make people love or hate. Or…or die’” (67 Rhys.) Antoinette may fear she is losing Rochester, and attempts to yank him back through unconventional means.
Rochester’s motives are similar to Antoinette’s. He wishes to force her to conform to what he believes a woman — or rather, an English woman — should be. Besides him changing Antoinette’s name to Bertha, a traditional English name, Rochester also forcefully moves Antoinette to England. Near the end of Part II, Rochester thinks, “She said she loves this place. This is the last she’ll see of it. I’ll watch for one tear, one human tear” (99 Rhys). In addition to wishing to cause Antoinette pain, Rochester relocates the two of them to his homeland, England, so that he can re-establish dominance over her.
Ultimately, Rhys’s gender theory-focused writing mechanisms and plotlines allow the reader to comprehend gender schema theory in a broader and more applicable sense. She utilizes Rochester and Antoinette in her novel to portray how this theory applies in a quasi-relatable personalized scenario, albeit in a different era, so that readers can understand the effects and developments that a clash of these ideals can impose on one’s life. The prevalence of this theory within the text may also suggest a cause for social difficulties of the world – specifically sexism, which is also a noteworthy theme in the story. While all literary critics (including myself) can do is make educated guesses at Rhys’s true meaning or intentions of her novel, it is quite possible that Wide Sargasso Sea is intended to open the eyes of the readers – providing the realization that gender schema theory has a larger basis in society than appears at first glance.
Gilchrist, Jennifer. “Women, Slavery, and the Problem of Freedom in Wide Sargasso Sea.” Twentieth Century Literature, 58.3, 2012: 462+. Academic Onefile. Web. 31 Oct. 2017.
Kendrik, Robert. “Edward Rochester and the Margins of Masculinity in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 30, no. 3, 1994, p. 235+. Academic OneFile. Accessed 17 Nov. 2017.
Neel, Alexandra. “‘Qui Est La?”’: Negative Personhood in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, 50.2, June 2017: 171+. Academic Onefile. Web. 2 Nov. 2017.
Rhys, Jean, Judith L. Raiskin, and Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Senel, Nese. “A Postcolonial Reading of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.” Journal of Language and Literature Education, no. 11, 2014, p. 38+. Academic Onefile. 9 Nov.2017.
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