Mirrors and Madness in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
Poscolonial narratives and rewritings attempt to deal with minority responses by recovering their untold stories as a result of European colonization (Reavis). This literature addresses the problems and consequences of the decolonization of a country and individual responses to issues of imperialism and racialism. Jean Rhys takes on the task of giving a voice to historically silenced characters in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a precursor story to Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s mad and seemingly bestial wife Bertha Mason, whose given name is revealed to be Antoinette Cosway. Throughout the novel Rhys employs various symbols to convey the concept of “the other” along with themes of social and cultural identity, entrapment, and ecocriticism to reflect the psyches and experiences of the characters. Rhys uses the concept of mirrors in particular throughout Wide Sargasso Sea to symbolize Antoinette’s double identity, madness, and ultimately deteriorated selfhood under a system of patriarchal oppression.
Mirrors initially play a large part in Antoinette’s chaotic childhood to convey her double identity and fluidity between social groups. In a pivotal scene when the Jamaican natives siege Antoinette’s home at Coulibri Estate, Antoinette uses her passive and poetic rhetoric to describe an otherwise disastrous situation. When she and her family finally get out of their burning home, Antoinette alludes to mirrors as she runs toward her childhood friend Tia: “When I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand but I did not see her throw it. I did not feel it either, only something wet, running down my face. I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass” (Rhys 45). This scene, fraught with intensity and emotion, serves as an interesting juxtaposition of two different female experiences. Antoinette, a white Creole girl living in Spanish Town, Jamaica in the midst of post slavery illegalization, often refers to herself as a “white cockroach.” Throughout her narrative, she fails to belong to any one social group, as she cannot relate to the black residents of Spanish Town but is also too “exotic” to fit into any component of English culture. Tia serves as her double in a significant way, and as a reflection of Antoinette, she acts out the anger and grief Antoinette ultimately seeks to express but from the other side of the mirror of racial separation. Tia is an image of an identity Antoinette longs to be her own: a black woman with a sense of belonging, not a white Creole woman strung in between any true community. The concept of the looking glass and Tia as a double seems to iterate what Antoinette knows, that she will never find the sense of belonging or identity that she wants for herself.
As Antoinette’s madness develops, mirrors reflect her alienation from any sense of identity. Part Three of the novel is a frightening culmination of Antoinette’s psychosis through seclusion that poses the question of whether her madness is intrinsic or just a consequence of her poisonous treatment and history. Annette, Antoinette’s mother, despite her short appearance in the novel, had a habit of constantly looking for her own reflection in the mirror. Antoinette adopts this part of her mother, perhaps indicating their shared need to be seen in a world that neither invites nor accepts them. When Rochester puts Antoinette in the attic, he further amplifies her madness by making her isolated and disconnected. In rhetoric constantly jumping between the past and present, she describes her mirrorless prison when she says, “There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us – hard, cold and misted over with my break” (Rhys 182). Even when Antoinette had access to a mirror, her sense of isolation and alienation from her image demonstrates her general lack of selfhood. As a child, Antoinette tries to kiss her image in the mirror as if to unite the two halves of her cultural identity but is met by the cold glass. By calling her the wrong name and not giving her a mirror, Rochester seeks to erase her most fundamental sense of existence. However, by the time she lives in the Thornfield attic, her madness has become her identity more than anything else. The lack of mirrors and Antoinette’s lifelong desire to close the gap between two cultural identities serve to personify her madness in this passage and accounts for her inability to fully grasp reality.
Finally, mirrors serve as a means to reflect Antoinette’s deteriorated, colonized self as a result of patriarchal oppression. Her identity has experienced an irreversible split, which is evident in Part Three when she escapes from the attic and woefully explores Thornfield. She describes her encounter with a mirror in a dream-like trance: “I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her – the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her. I dropped the candle I was carrying and it caught the end of the tablecloth and I saw flames shoot up. As I ran or perhaps floated or flew I called help me Christophine help me and looking behind me I saw that I had been helped” (Rhys 188-189). Rhys illustrates how Antoinette’s identity is so diminished through her oppression and entrapment that when she looks in the mirror in this pivotal and traumatically poetic scene she does not quite recognize her reflection. The use of the mirror itself, an impenetrable wall of separation, represents patriarchal judgment, and Antoinette believes she has seen a ghost-like woman with streaming hair, but she is a stranger to herself and does not recognize her identity as Bertha Mason (Sarvan). Her selfhood has undergone an irreversible split in which she will not recover from. In the same way that Tia was previously her mirror image and “dark double,” Antoinette seeks to destroy Bertha, her other self, and Thornfield, a manifestation of her patriarchal imprisonment.
Rhys uses mirrors throughout Wide Sargasso Sea to embody Antoinette’s double identity, mental break, and deteriorated identity under systematic patriarchal imprisonment. In a conversation with Rochester in Part Two, Antoinette pleads with her husband to listen to her story and consider her side when she says, “There is always the other side, always” (Rhys). In the same way that the mirror acts as third space for Antoinette’s mental deterioration, Wide Sargasso Sea is a third space that allows for the enunciation of the other in which Rhys locates the racial and feminist struggle of Antoinette (Reavis). Apparent through the mirror and an intimate look into Antoinette’s mind, Rhys entraps the reader and creates compassion for a woman whose helplessness through patriarchal oppression is often remarkably familiar.
Reavis, Serena. “”Myself Yet Not Quite Myself”: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and a Third Space of Enunciation.” 2005. University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Document. 4 May 2016.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982. Print. Sarvan, Charles.
“Flight, Entrapment, and Madness in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” International Fiction Review January 1999: 58-65. Journal Article.
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