Narrative Voice in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea
In a first-person narrative reflecting on the past, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jean Rhys’ expansion thereof, Wide Sargasso Sea, the presentation of the memories which constitute the story immensely affects the thematic impact of the work by reflecting the narrator’s feelings about their experiences. In the aforementioned novels, both narrators’ memories are colored by their own impressions of particular times in their lives; thus, the tone that each speaker uses reflects their circumstances at the time, and their respective fates as a whole. Specifically, it reflects Jane’s eventual happiness with Rochester, Antoinette’s perpetual isolation, and Rochester’s entrapment in his marriage.
Both novels begin when the narrator is a child trapped in an unaccepting, isolating environment. As children, they both naturally have an imperfect grasp on their surroundings. Both accounts give a somewhat disjointed, distorted narrative, which the reader understands is not entirely trustworthy; however, it is important to distinguish that Antoinette’s narration is far more so than Jane’s. Her narrative skips suddenly from one event to another, and from specific instances to generalizations of her life and descriptions of the scenery whenever it is relevant. As she ages into adolescence, this effect becomes less severe, but it remains still. Conversely, Jane’s presentation of events is more organized, and flows between events without much obtrusive interruption in the atmosphere.
This disparity reflects both Antoinette’s less “civilized” upbringing in the Caribbean and her foreboding fate of a descent into madness like her predecessors. As Rhys makes her protagonist’s roots evident, she shows how Antoinette’s exposure to a nature-surrounded upbringing by former slaves gives her a more natural, disjointed sense of time than the rigid, linear sort which those like Rochester and Jane learn in England. Thus, Antoinette’s sense of time seems disorderly in the eyes of a modern Western reader. Combined with the knowledge later revealed regarding the Cosway family history and possible prior knowledge of her fate from Jane Eyre, this cements the reader’s sense that Antoinette is fated for madness. In contrast, Jane’s narration is more organized and linear, reflecting, in addition to her strict and well-educated upbringing, the fact that she never strays too far from stability; even Lowood, where she is isolated and miserable, eventually proves to be a place where she can prosper as a student and as a teacher. Fittingly, Jane does finally find happiness with Mr. Rochester. Rochester’s narration in Wide Sargasso Sea, too, is more linear than that of his first wife; his narration flows between events with less breaking in the narrative — naturally, seeing as he is the most educated narrator of all these three.
The language which the respective narrators use sets a tone immediately in each distinct section of their life. In Jane Eyre, these treatments emphasize the effect each experience has on Jane. For example, she arrives at her cousins’ home in a blizzard, trudging through deep snow, and remains snowed in for some time. This circumstance creates the perception that she is trapped there. Notably, the novel begins rather somberly, reflecting Jane’s mistreatment and isolation in Gateshead and at Lowood Institute. After Jane matures and is able to leave these oppressive institutions to become a governess, however, the change of pace stimulates her yearn for adventure and she is able to experience more things in a more vibrant light. In contrast, in Wide Sargasso Sea, this same effect establishes a consistent overtone of isolation for both Antoinette, on account of her family history, and for Rochester, on account of his foreign origin. In the first section of Antoinette’s narration, a sense of being lost is tangible; in the third, where she is locked up in Rochester’s attic, the prevailing feeling is one of helplessness and hopelessness. When Rochester narrates, he automatically sets an impression of uncertainty about the nature of his marriage and his new surroundings. His view of his life is overwhelmingly pessimistic and defeated; after all, his account begins with the phrase “so it was all over,” (59), automatically emphasizing an ending and creating a pessimistic tone. Although Rochester presents this ending as something which may have happened “for better or for worse,” he soon makes it evident to the reader that his move and his marriage bring him misery.
The narrators’ selective memories also have a hand in affecting the tone. Jane notably tends to remark on the weather before recounting a major event, particularly an unfortunate one. The weather conditions she mentions also reflect her general feeling about an era; while recounting her stay at the oppressive Lowood Institute, she often remarks the cold and unpleasant weather, but she consistently notes excellent weather while with Rochester at the festive, open Thornfield Hall, especially when their relationship is on an upturn. She even talks about “twilight and snowflakes” (113) when she is unable to see Rochester, indicating that, after their meeting, his presence is integral to her happiness. Selective memories such as these affect the general atmosphere of a scene and therefore express to the reader Jane’s overall emotional state. Rochester, too, uses this technique to set a tone in his own account; at the beginning of his narrative, the first time we see him and Antoinette together from his perspective, he remarks “sad leaning cocoanut [sic] palms,” a “shingly beach,” and an uneven collection of huts in a village macabrely called “Massacre.” In opening his section of the narrative with these details, he establishes a sad, dull tone which reflects his feelings about the island and about his marriage. Later, he mentions the fast-dying pale flowers outside his window (79) before he states his first major criticisms of his bride; she is inconsistent — i.e. showing the earliest signs of her insanity — and has unwelcome unfeminine traits. Antoinette’s narration is also marked by selective omission, although it is never quite clear whether she does this out of a desire to hide her past or out of a simple inability to remember her past coherently. Regardless, her failure to mention details such as her family’s history of mental illness and her former relationship with her cousin Sandi make it evident that she is not a reliable or wholly truthful narrator.
The choices Rhys makes regarding narrative voice serve to establish an overarching feeling of unhappiness for her two protagonists, in creating tone which conveys isolation and restraint. In contrast, the tone Charlotte Brontë sets through Jane Eyre’s narration stays emotionally vibrant, even as her life strays far from perfection. Together, these narrative voices emphasize the eventual destiny in these novels; Antoinette dies in isolation, while Rochester, after his dull marriage to her, finds mutual love and happiness with Jane.
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In a first-person narrative reflecting on the past, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jean Rhys’ expansion thereof, Wide Sargasso Sea, the presentation of the memories which constitute the story […]