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The Main Character in “Wide Sargasso Sea”

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    Is he really a character that ‘wields’ ‘economic and legal power, uninformed by compassion’ or is he ‘not portrayed as an evil tyrant but as a proud and bigoted younger brother betrayed by his family into a loveless marriage’?Rhys’ novel presents the opportunity for an alternative account of Rochester’s marriage to be presented. Rhys gives Antoinette Cosway the chance to present her feelings and views and confronts the unexplored issues from ‘Jane Eyre’ liberating all that is contained, to give an alternative view and make the reasoning behind Bertha evident. In not naming Rochester Rhys refuses him an identity as he later refuses Antoinette.

    It distances him from the reader and from Rhys’ own opinion forcing us to form our own and weigh up his actions to see whether he is vindictive or victimised.The novel neglects the linear autobiographical narrative, preferring the trisect form where parts one and three are attributed to Antoinette and part two is Rochester’s which dominates the novel. The disjointed narrative juxtaposes the conflicting opinions to create an overall impression of Rochester’s marriage. These allows Rhys to open out the narrow views of events in ‘Jane Eyre’ and gives the reader an awareness of cultural differences and have sympathy for both characters.

    By interrupting Antoinette narrative the full effect of their relationship is starkly evident. We see Antoinette as simple and childlike and Rochester as deliberate, educated with an imperial and proud tone as he comments that one of the women is ‘blacker than most’. However he should not be ascertained in this light without consideration to his social position and the effects the marriage and his new surroundings and customs have on his psyche.The presentation of Rochester is ambiguous and therefore we are unable to form a clear and definite opinion of him.

    Neither a sympathetic or unsympathetic view is dictated to us. Rhys guides us through the novel and allows us to see the arrogant and proud side of Rochester as well as his vulnerability, which we may sympathise with. We must form our own opinion of the character, disregarding some of the things they say, as a person telling their own story can be considered unreliable. We must also infer some things from the text.

    Rochester could be distinguished as a victim due to his powerlessness and lack of comprehension about his fathers plan. It is possible, here to agree with Erika Pugh, who suggests that Rochester had a ‘lack of understanding’ about the arrangements made on his behalf. As the younger son he only had two paths open to him; join the clergy or marry into money in order to survive. He realises this and acknowledges that he ‘must play the part he was expected to play’.

    He knows his place and carries on as to not cause any disruption. It is possible to see Rochester as a victim as suggested by Jayachandran, who says that he is a ‘worthless son to his father’. He has been shunned and forced into a new way of life, which was commonplace. Rochester had no choice but to acquiesce and commit as now he is married ‘for better of for worse’.

    At the very beginning we see that he has his doubts and hesitations but now he no chose but to honour the vows that he has made Antoinette and protect his pride. These doubts don’t exude happiness and it interesting that he keeps these doubts to himself. From this we can deduce that he is unhappy and lonely, uncomfortable with those around him. These feelings come in waves moving ‘stealthily forwards and backwards’ as he tries to convince himself that there is potential to be happy.

    The word ‘stealthily’ makes the feeling sound sly and unwelcome.We sympathise with him and understand some of his ill feeling and bitterness as he informs us of al that he has agreed to. He was on the island one month prior to marrying, during which he was ill with fever for three weeks. When the reader realises he has been sold into this marriage we can no longer vilify him as we would expect to and sympathy is extended towards him.

    The suppressed letter to his father forms the ‘correct’ explanation of part of the tragedy in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as ‘he has sold Rochester’s soul’. The Faustian link vents his frustration and suggests that he is in some way doomed if he stays in Jamaica.It seems that Rochester is not only influenced by his father and social protocol but by Daniel Cosway and I agree with Silvia Howard that he is ‘susceptible to the influence of others, especially of Daniel Cosway’. The readers suspicion about Daniel are aroused when Antoinette tells Rochester is a ‘bad man’ and this causes the reader to question the conviction that Rochester puts in what Daniel says.

    Even in this situation, he does make an effort with some of the people as he smiles to the young boy and goes to ‘talk to the porters’. He is trying to get along with them yet the young boy cries and the porters warn him of the ‘wild place’ that is not civilized. We sympathise with him again here as he can apparently do nothing right and he has no idea of what is in store for him, when even the natives warn him away.He often praises Antoinette, comforts her or attempts to make a connection.

    He says that she is very ‘beautiful’ and that her hat ‘becomes her’. He toasts to their happiness in their new home and relationship. He sees loneliness in her eyes and how withdrawn she is so he puts his arm around her, ‘rocked her like a child and sang to her’. Her we see a basic connection like that between mother and child and he is seen as her protector, an understanding man who puts his own feelings aside to comfort and reassure her.

    The language her is very simple and direct much like action and the connection that they make.Rochester’s character is a creation of Victorian society who abides by convention and performs the role he is expected to play but in Jamaica he is no longer in control and his English reservations and assumptions of control and dominance are under threat. He warns Antoinette that she’ll ‘get soaked’ but she takes no notice and runs to see her friend and he finds that he must now obey her and put his coat on. On the island women have more power than in England and he finds this difficult to cope with because of her strong affinity with the island.

    This shows that she has an element of authority because the environment is familiar to her.He is filled with mistrust and disturbed from his rest by the sound of crows, which is a sign of betrayal. Feelings of security elude him and he notes the erosion of imperialist influence and codes of practice are eaten away. Everything that h puts stock and belief in is changed and holds no power or security so that now he is now even afraid of trees which, are his ‘enemy’ and ‘menace’ him.

    With this and the sound of the crow it seems that even nature is turning against him and that he can’t find solace anywhere’.Rochester also makes an effort to safeguard Antoinette’s financial future and intends to give her Granbois even though Christophine criticises his love for money and the fact that he is oblivious to everything else. He recognises his faults and realises the truth of Christophine’s criticisms and simply says that ‘it was like this’.The critic Thomas Staley argues that because Rochester and Antoinette are so widely divergent they become harmful to one another because of their basic difference.

    The worlds that they represent are mutually exclusive. Antoinette asks if England is like a dream. Rochester insists that it is Jamaica that is ‘unreal and like a dream’. Jayachandran offers the view that Antoinette is ‘too exotic’ for Rochester and the ‘frigidly sane English society’.

    I believe that these are both true and at this time people were not cognizant to other cultures and societies and weren’t joint through technology or westernised through migration so had little or no common ground and represented two totally different social backgrounds which could never be amalgamated.The use of pathetic fallacy of the wind and rain and the ‘sad leaning coconut palms’ makes the reader feel that Rochester’s attitude and feelings are justified because the surroundings are depressing but he does give us hope that he will make e and effort after the interminable journey and looks forward to a ‘sweet honeymoon’.It could be argued that his cruelty is a reaction to his insecurities and Cosway who manipulates this weakness and reminds him that he is oblivious to Antoinette’s past and background and that Jamaica is very different to England. He sows the seeds of doubt ion Rochester and shakes the foundations on which he has based his new life on.

    His fear that his wife has lied to him leads him to hate her and the place that she loves and the things he used to love like poetry and he now ‘hates the music he once loved’.Although some actions or motives can be explained he does sometimes exhibit marked cruelty towards Antoinette. This is seen when he not only has intercourse with the young servant but also wants Antoinette to hear it as she lays in the next room and has not ‘one moment of remorse’. He is often unkind and racist to the people around Antoinette.

    He makes derogatory remarks about Amelie and is rude about Caro. He calls Amelie a ‘little half caste servant’ and then he describes Caro as a ‘gaudy, old creature’. He is disconcerted by the appearance and country, as Antoinette is later. Rochester is full of contradictions about Amelie who although is a ‘lovely creature’ she is ‘sly, spiteful and malignant’.

    By calling Amelie and Caro creatures he reduces them to the level of an animal and he imposes power over them. Rochester has an extremely negative attitude, which encourages us to think that he is arrogant and selfish.He watches Antoinette ‘critically’ and notes that her hat ‘becomes her’ yet her ‘eyes are too large’ and ‘disconcerting’. Here he reveals his insecurities and tells us that he feels no connection with Antoinette.

    Yet she seems to have gauged his reaction already as she ‘speaks hesitantly as if expecting him to refuse shelter, which he does, as it is ‘easy to do’. Not only do we see him as stubborn but also as someone who isn’t prepared to make an effort to please his new wife.One of his cruellest and unexplainable actions is changing Antoinette’s name to Bertha, an English name. The explosive ‘b’ sound makes the name sound hard and ugly when compared to Antoinette.

    He uses this as a psychological tool against her. He is trying to dehumanise her and distance himself from her and his feelings from her, whether good or bad and now sees her ‘like a doll’. Here he attempts to strip her of her identity and make her submit to the ‘cultural and personal associations’ of a white English woman that he has constructed for her. The control he exercise’ over her derives from his power as a patriarchal Victorian.

    Michel Foucault describes him as the ‘ultimate Victorian male; domineering, egotistic’, which I believe, here is true.The force of his desire for Antoinette later shocks Rochester and his passion takes a dangerous and threatening turn as ‘desire, hatred, life and death’ run through his mind and ‘come very close in darkness’. Rhys therefore manages to implicate in the same mad passion and violence that he later attributes to Bertha.It is also possible that the disruption of moving to Jamaica had an effect on Rochester, which could be seen as madness.

    He makes comments about the landscape and overwhelming effect that it has on him but puts it down to a fever brought on by the heat of the country. He remarks ‘everything is too much’. This tells the reader that he is trying to cope and deal with the stresses of the marriage and move but the differences in lifestyle and landscape are overwhelming. A comparison to Bronte’s madwoman in the attic can be seen in the description of Rochester speaking ‘loudly and wildly’.

    This shows Rochester’s mental state is not all it’s thought to be.After Rochester has been poisoned he admits that he hates Antoinette. Although he may be justified by this intense feeling his adulteress act cannot be. He takes advantage of Amelie who is very young and impressionable as well as someone he sees as beneath him and over whom he can wield power.

    He later shows no remorse and ‘neither was he anxious’ of Antoinette’s reactions or feelings.Rochester is not only arrogant but in parts, also ignorant of local custom, traditionand culture as he regards Christophine as slovenly as her dress drags behind her, which is actually a sign of respect. He also stands on the wreath, which he is given, as a sign of respect and friendship.Although Christophine often criticises Rochester she does note his good points, which we are likely to believe.

    Christophine is a reliable character and we realise that the praise she gives him has real value or weight because of the abhorrence she has to overcome to say such things.People like Christophine are not afraid to speak up against Rochester and making him feel insecure about his gender situation, which doesn’t entitle him to the same things as it does in Britain. Jane Miller argues that Rochester’s oppression of Antoinette is order to make him feel secure about his position and role in his marriage. She also says that he makes Antoinette ‘vulnerable and weakened’ because he as the ‘immigrant and foreigner’ has adopted that position.

    The title futher highlights the dangerous confusions to be faced in the course of the novel. The Sargasso Sea lies between Europe and the West Indies; suitably situated between the Jamaican culture, which clashes with Rochester’s Victorian upbringing in Britain. The sea is a bay of water, which is associated with myth and superstition of shipwrecks and danger; this overshadows the novel with a sense of tragedy from the beginning. We see that Rochester has changed and Mrs Fairfax notes that he was ‘gentle, generous, brave’ but that his stay in the West Indies has ‘changed him out all knowledge’.

    Rochester is also a victim of the Victorian principle and demand that you must hide all emotion. He expresses this as ‘way he’d learnt’ as a child. He has simply learnt this with out questioning the consequences and therefore shows there can’t be any weakness found within the patriarchal social system.Rhys, through her ambiguous presentation of Rochester forces us to form our own opinion as either a man to sympathise with or condemn.

    It is convincingly argued; especially by Thomas Staley that Rochester has been victimised rather than spiteful. We can’t really conclude whether Antoinette’s condition is due to nature rather than nurture and that Rochester’s cruelty is reaction to his situation and being catapulted into a strange new existence by his own family for money.Although Rhys has distanced herself and her own views from the narration, when it was written, it was a challenge to male patriarchy. However she never condemns Rochester she simply exposes both sides to give a balanced view.

    She was interested to show him and Antoinette in a different light and raise awareness of the gender issue and it’s implications.Rhys grew up as a white Creole and had experience of this time and the tension that existed between the recently emancipated salves and their past owners, something which Antoinette is caught in. It is her experience and knowledge, which lends weight to Antoinette’s cause as we realise the truth in it and the reality and hardship due to the resentment on the Islands. It is this feeling of tension and menace that puts Rochester on the edge and makes him uncomfortable and makes us more sympathetic towards him.

    Contemporary readers will find it hard to be so condemnatory of Rochester as our position has changed and we are far more equal but at the time in which the novel was written, 1966, the Women’s liberation Movement was very active as women spoke out about male repression and inequality. At the time the novel would have been graciously received by feminists as it highlighted the issues that they were campaigning for.It would also be appreciated to show the difference of women in different societies. In Britain they felt repressed, yet in Jamaica they are shown to have a freedom of spirit, especially since the freeing of the slaves.

    It is this that makes Rochester so confused and awkward as women in Britain aren’t as liberated or powerful, socially or spiritually.Rochester’s struggle to survive in Jamaica is made especially difficult because of his middle class Victorian background and the fact that what he recognises as social convention are non-existent here. He attempts to take control and protect Antoinette from his own madness as he takes her back from England. Rochester’s character should be seen as a victim of the actions of his father, (after being ‘rejected for being the younger son’ as A.

    J. Harding says) and to the consequences of which are forced upon him and propel him into an unknown country and social system, which makes him harmful to himself.

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