The Main Character in “Wide Sargasso Sea”

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In Rhys’ novel, the portrayal of Rochester as a character without compassion, wielding economic and legal power, is questioned. Instead, he is depicted as a proud and bigoted younger brother who has been forced into a loveless marriage by his own family’s betrayal. This alternative perspective on Rochester’s marriage allows Antoinette Cosway to express her own feelings and opinions and address the unexplored issues from “Jane Eyre.” By doing so, Rhys sets out to liberate the hidden aspects and present an alternative viewpoint that sheds light on Bertha’s circumstances. Interestingly, Rhys doesn’t give Rochester a name, denying him an identity just as he denies Antoinette.

The text highlights how Rhys’ novel distances the reader from the protagonist and Rhys’ own perspective. It emphasizes the need for readers to form their own opinions and evaluate the protagonist’s actions to determine if he is vindictive or victimized. Unlike a linear autobiographical narrative, the novel favors a trisect form, with Antoinette assigned Parts One and Three and Rochester dominating Part Two. This fragmented narrative style juxtaposes conflicting opinions and presents an overall portrayal of Rochester’s marriage. By doing so, Rhys challenges the narrow perspectives found in “Jane Eyre” and cultivates readers’ understanding of cultural differences, ultimately causing them to empathize with both characters.

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By interrupting Antoinette’s narrative, the true nature of their relationship becomes apparent. Antoinette is portrayed as innocent and naive, while Rochester is portrayed as calculated and educated, speaking with a tone of superiority as he remarks that one of the women is darker-skinned than others. However, we must take into account his social status and how his marriage and new environment have affected his mental state. The portrayal of Rochester leaves us uncertain, making it difficult to form a concrete opinion of him.

The text does not dictate a sympathetic or unsympathetic view. Rhys guides us throughout the novel, showing both the arrogant and proud side of Rochester and also his vulnerability, which we can sympathize with. It is up to us to form our own opinion of the character, disregarding their own narrative as it may be unreliable. Additionally, we must make inferences from the text.

Rochester’s state of powerlessness and inability to understand his father’s plan make him appear as a victim. Erika Pugh suggests that Rochester lacked comprehension regarding the arrangements made for him. Being the younger son, he had limited options: either enter the clergy or marry into wealth for his survival. Rochester recognizes this and accepts that he must conform to societal expectations.

Despite knowing his place and carrying on without causing disruption, Rochester can be seen as a victim according to Jayachandran, who describes him as a ‘worthless son to his father’. Due to societal norms, Rochester has been rejected and compelled to embrace a new way of life. Consequently, he had no alternative but to comply and commit himself, as he is now bound by marriage ‘for better or for worse’.

Initially, he displays skepticism and uncertainty, but presently he is obliged to fulfill his promises to Antoinette and uphold his self-respect. These doubts do not emit joy, and it is intriguing that he keeps them concealed. Consequently, we can infer that he feels unhappy and isolated, discontented with those in his vicinity. These emotions fluctuate clandestinely as he endeavors to persuade himself that there is a possibility of finding happiness.

The term ‘stealthily’ conveys a sense of deceitfulness and unwelcome emotions. We can empathize with the speaker and comprehend some of their negative feelings and resentment as they communicate all that they have consented to. Before getting married, they spent a month on the island, during which they suffered from a three-week-long fever. Once the reader discovers that the speaker has been forced into this marriage, our instinct to condemn them diminishes and we start to feel sympathy towards them.

The suppressed letter to his father provides an explanation of part of the tragedy in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as it suggests that Rochester’s soul has been sold. This Faustian connection expresses his frustration and implies that he is destined for doom if he remains in Jamaica. It appears that Rochester is not only influenced by his father and social norms, but also by Daniel Cosway. I agree with Silvia Howard’s assertion that he is “susceptible to the influence of others, especially of Daniel Cosway.” The reader’s suspicion towards Daniel is triggered when Antoinette describes him as a “bad man,” leading to doubts about the validity of what Daniel says according to Rochester’s conviction.

Despite the challenging circumstances, he still tries to engage with some individuals. He smiles at the young boy and approaches the porters to have a conversation. His intention is to establish rapport with them; however, the young boy bursts into tears and the porters caution him about the uncivilized nature of the area. Once again, we feel empathy for him as he seems incapable of pleasing anyone and remains oblivious to what lies ahead, even when warned by the locals. He frequently compliments Antoinette, provides her comfort, or endeavors to establish a connection with her.

According to him, she is incredibly attractive and her hat suits her perfectly. He raises a toast to their joy in their new home and relationship. He notices a sense of isolation in her eyes and her withdrawn demeanor, so he embraces her and comforts her like one would with a child, singing to her. In this moment, we witness a deep connection resembling that of a mother and child, with him assuming the role of her protector – a compassionate individual who sets aside his own emotions to provide solace and reassurance.

The language used here is very straightforward and uncomplicated, much like the actions and connections that are made. Rochester’s character is a product of Victorian society and adheres to societal norms, fulfilling the role he is expected to play. However, when he is in Jamaica, he loses control and his English reservations and assumptions of authority are challenged. He cautions Antoinette that she will get wet, but she ignores him and runs to see her friend. Rochester realizes that he must now obey her and put on his coat. On the island, women have more power than they do in England, and he struggles with this because of Antoinette’s strong connection to the island.

This demonstrates her sense of authority as she is comfortable in this environment. He is plagued by suspicion and disturbed from sleep by the noise of crows, which symbolize betrayal. He cannot find a sense of security and observes that imperialist influence and established practices are deteriorating. The things he previously believed in and relied on have lost their power and security, to the point where he is now even afraid of trees, which he perceives as his ‘enemy’ that poses a threat to him.

Despite the sound of the crow and other signs from nature, it seems that everything is against him and he cannot find solace. Rochester tries to protect Antoinette’s financial future by intending to give her Granbois, even though Christophine criticizes his greed and ignorance. He acknowledges his faults and agrees with Christophine’s criticisms, simply stating “it was like this.” According to critic Thomas Staley, Rochester and Antoinette become harmful to each other due to their fundamental differences.

Antoinette questions if England resembles a dream, while Rochester argues that Jamaica is the one that appears “unreal and dream-like”. Jayachandran suggests that Antoinette is deemed “too exotic” for Rochester and the “emotionlessly rational English society”.

At this time, people were not aware of other cultures and societies and were not connected through technology or influenced by westernization through migration. They had little or no common ground and represented two completely different social backgrounds that could never be merged.

The use of pathetic fallacy, such as the wind and rain and the portrayal of “sad leaning coconut palms,” evokes a sense of sadness in the reader. This justifies Rochester’s attitude and emotions, as the surroundings themselves are depressing. However, he does show hope by mentioning that he will make an effort after the long journey and looks forward to a pleasant honeymoon.

It can be argued that Rochester’s cruelty is a response to his insecurities. Cosway exploits this weakness and reminds him that he is unaware of Antoinette’s past and background, emphasizing the vast difference between Jamaica and England. By doing so, Cosway plants doubt in Rochester’s mind and questions the foundations on which he has built his new life.

His distrust in his wife engenders animosity towards her, as well as disdain for her cherished surroundings and his formerly beloved interests such as poetry, now “detested music”. Although certain actions or intentions can be understood, he occasionally displays evident cruelty towards Antoinette. This is evident when he not only engages in sexual relations with a young servant, but also desires for Antoinette to overhear it while she lies in the adjacent room, devoid of any “remorse”. Moreover, he frequently exhibits unkindness and racism towards those in Antoinette’s vicinity.

He criticizes Amelie and speaks rudely about Caro, referring to Amelie as a ‘little half caste servant’ and describing Caro as a ‘gaudy, old creature’. Similar to Antoinette later on, he is unsettled by their appearance and country. While Rochester acknowledges that Amelie is a ‘lovely creature’, he also views her as ‘sly, spiteful and malignant’.

Rochester’s characterization of Amelie and Caro as creatures diminishes their worth to that of animals and demonstrates his authority over them. His overwhelmingly negative perspective implies arrogance and selfishness. Rochester subjects Antoinette to his scrutiny, observing that her hat suits her while also finding fault with her oversized and unsettling eyes. This reveals his personal insecurities and highlights a lack of emotional connection with Antoinette.

Despite the already perceived reaction from him, she speaks hesitantly, anticipating his refusal of shelter, as it is ‘easy to do’. His stubbornness is apparent, as well as his unwillingness to make an effort to satisfy his new wife. One of the cruelest and inexplicable actions he takes is altering Antoinette’s name to Bertha, an English name. When compared to Antoinette, the explosive ‘b’ sound makes the name sound harsh and unattractive.

The individual employs this as a psychological tactic against her. The intention is to deprive her of her humanity, detach oneself from her, and disconnect from any emotions associated with her, whether positive or negative. As a result, he now perceives her as an inanimate object. This is an endeavor to erase her individuality and compel her to conform to the predefined notions of a white English woman, both culturally and personally, that he has imposed upon her. The authority he exerts over her stems from his position as a patriarchal figure in Victorian society.

Michel Foucault characterizes him as the ‘ultimate Victorian male; domineering, egotistic’, and I agree with this assessment. The intensity of his longing for Antoinette eventually startles Rochester, causing his passion to become hazardous and menacing. In his thoughts, ‘desire, hatred, life and death’ intertwine and ‘come very close in darkness’. Consequently, Rhys succeeds in associating him with the same deranged fervor and violence that he later attributes to Bertha. It is also plausible that the upheaval of relocating to Jamaica may have abnormally affected Rochester, which could be perceived as insanity.

The protagonist describes the landscape as overpowering, attributing it to a fever caused by the country’s intense heat. He acknowledges that everything feels too overwhelming, signaling his struggle to handle the challenges of his marriage and relocation amidst the drastic differences in lifestyle and surroundings. The way Rochester speaks, loudly and wildly, bears similarities to Bronte’s depiction of the madwoman in the attic.

Rochester’s mental state is not as it is perceived. After being poisoned, he confesses his hatred for Antoinette. While his intense emotions may justify this feeling, his act of adultery cannot be excused. He exploits Amelie, a young and easily influenced individual who he sees as inferior, using his power to manipulate her.

He displays no remorse and is unconcerned about Antoinette’s reactions or feelings. Rochester is not only arrogant, but also ignorant of local custom, tradition, and culture. He sees Christophine as untidy because her dress trails behind her, not realizing that this is a sign of respect. He even steps on the wreath given to him, which is meant as a sign of respect and friendship. Despite frequently criticizing Rochester, Christophine acknowledges his positive qualities, leading us to believe in them.

Christophine, a dependable character, is praised and her words carry weight due to the abhorrence she must overcome to speak such things. People like Christophine bravely confront Rochester and challenge his entitlement in regards to his gender situation, which differs from the privileges he enjoys in Britain. According to Jane Miller, his oppression of Antoinette is an attempt to secure his position and role in their marriage. Miller argues that he renders Antoinette “vulnerable and weakened” as the “immigrant and foreigner” in adopting this stance.

The title of the novel emphasizes the dangerous confusions that will be encountered throughout the story. Situated between Europe and the West Indies, the Sargasso Sea serves as an appropriate setting for the clash between Jamaican culture and Rochester’s Victorian upbringing in Britain. This body of water, associated with legends and superstitions of shipwrecks and peril, casts a tragic shadow over the narrative from its onset. It becomes apparent that Rochester has undergone a significant transformation during his time in the West Indies when Mrs Fairfax observes that he was once “gentle, generous, brave,” but is now unrecognizable.

Rochester, like many others in the Victorian era, is compelled to conceal all emotions due to societal expectations. He refers to this behavior as something he learned during childhood, implying that it has become ingrained in him. Without questioning the implications, he adheres to this principle, which underscores the absence of any vulnerability within the patriarchal social system. Rhys’s portrayal of Rochester is intentionally ambiguous, leaving it to the audience to decide whether to sympathize with or condemn him.

Thomas Staley convincingly argues that Rochester has been victimized rather than malicious. The nature versus nurture debate makes it difficult to determine the cause of Antoinette’s condition, and Rochester’s cruelty can be seen as a reaction to his own situation and being thrust into a foreign existence by his family for financial gain. While Rhys dissociates her own views from the narration, the novel was originally written to challenge male patriarchy. However, she does not condemn Rochester, instead providing a balanced perspective by presenting both sides.

The author aims to present a different perspective on both Antoinette and Rochester, highlighting the gender issue and its consequences. They emphasize that Rhys, who grew up as a white Creole, has firsthand experience of the tension between the recently freed slaves and their former owners. Antoinette becomes entangled in this unrest, and it is her knowledge and experiences that give credibility to her plight. The text also suggests that the resentment on the islands creates an atmosphere of tension and danger that unnerves Rochester and elicits sympathy from the reader.

Contemporary readers may struggle to condemn Rochester as harshly as we now live in a more egalitarian society. However, when the novel was written in 1966, the Women’s Liberation Movement was active, and women were speaking out against male oppression and inequality. At that time, feminists would have welcomed the novel for addressing the very issues they were fighting for. Furthermore, the novel would have been valued for its portrayal of how women differed across societies. In Britain, women felt repressed, whereas in Jamaica they exhibited a free-spiritedness, particularly after the emancipation of slaves.

Rochester is disoriented and uncomfortable in Jamaica due to the lack of women’s liberation and power, both socially and spiritually. His Victorian middle-class background further complicates his struggle to adapt to Jamaican society, where the social conventions he is accustomed to do not exist. Taking Antoinette back to England, Rochester tries to assert control and shield her from his own madness. It is crucial to view Rochester as a victim of his father’s actions, specifically being rejected as the younger son.

J. Harding states that an individual is subject to certain circumstances that are imposed upon them and drive them towards a foreign land and social structure. This situation ultimately turns out to be detrimental to the individual’s well-being.

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The Main Character in “Wide Sargasso Sea”. (2017, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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