Life for women in the nineteenth century was a trial at best. For the white woman settled in the Caribbean life was fraught with confusion, frustration, and malaise. Surrounded by beauty, the woman who was born on the Caribbean plantation, perhaps of ‘questionable’ race, was fraught with a nightmarish mix of brilliant beauty and hellish disarray. In Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, the heroine, Antoinette says, “…I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (Rhys 61). This Creole female child would grow up with a befuddlement of religion, of place, and of self. Like so many women before her, and from no fault of her own, Antoinette would ultimately go ‘mad’ at the hands of a patriarchal society. This essay proposes to look at the ‘strikes’ Antoinette had against her when she married the English aristocrat, Rochester.
First, we must look at Antoinette’s mother Annette. The white women of the Caribbean plantations had more to contend with than just the patriarchal society. The very nature of the isolation on one of the islands bred madness. Antoinette’s mother is literally lost in this new environment. “My mother walked over to the window. ‘Marooned,’ said her straight narrow back, her carefully coiled hair. ‘Marooned.’” (Rhys 15). The use of the word ‘marooned’ has several connotations. Annette uses the word to mean she and her children have been left alone on the island with no help in sight. In the Caribbean, however, the word ‘maroon’ means an escaped black slave, literally a man who has ‘gone to the wild’. Rhys’ choice of the word is perfect in this setting, for Annette and her children are rapidly ‘going to the wild’.
Complicating Annette’s depression is the birth of a son who is mentally ill and an invalid. It does not take long for Annette to go mad. Increasingly, as her mother descends into ‘madness’, the child Antoinette is left to her own devices and the devices of the servant woman who is more or less raising her.
Furthering the descent into madness for Annette and her daughter, Antoinette, is the perpetual fear that they have come to live in. They are surrounded by people, white and black, who hate them. The blacks despise them for obvious reasons, the whites despise them because of Annette’s ‘questionable race’. “This young Mrs Cosway is worthless and spoilt, she can’t lift a hand for herself and soon the madness that is in her, and in all these white Creoles, come out” (Rhys 57). The black population hated the mixed race as much, if not more, than the so-called ‘white race’. “…in all these white Creoles…” shows the contempt of the servant for the wealthy pampered woman trying to pass herself off as white.
In addition to fear, Antoinette experiences a sense of displacement. Annette, the mother attempts to hold onto the traditional white values for the child but the child is being bombarded with the Creole life surrounding her. She is infused daily with conflicting messages. She attends mass with her mother and then watches the rites of the vodou that the blacks practice. She is told fairy tales by her mother and horror stories of obeah women by her maid. She is taught the tenets of racial purity, even though she is herself of mixed race. Essentially, she is taught from an early age to abhor the very thing that she is. “She is not béké …, but she is béké, and not like us either” (Rhys 92). Poor Antoinette never had a chance.
After Emancipation of the slaves, the plantations began to collapse. The carefully constructed world of the béké came crashing down, oftentimes literally. The slave revolts on some islands resulted in burned plantations, rape of the white women, and murder of all béké’s. Those who survived the melee ran for their lives or stayed on and tried to build a life that in some little way at least resembled the one they were accustomed to. Antoinette says, “Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell.” (Rhys 11). This a powerful metaphor for the state of the béké and for the women trying to understand what has happened. “Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (Rhys 14), says one of the former slaves. In Rhys’ novel, the béké plantation owner kills himself, leaving his wife and children alone, isolated from society, with no one but the servants.
Another strike against Antoinette was her friendliness with the black servants. Her new husband, Rochester was not enamoured with any of the servants, saying of Christophine, “her language is horrible” (Rhys 50) and “she looks so lazy” (Rhys 51). “…the white community thought that culture was an attribute enjoyed only by the white minority group, and that social intercourse between whites and coloured was not possible (Johnson 119). Was it that he thought a man in his position would not think of befriending the help, especially not the coloured help, and his wife should not do so either? Or was he simply projecting his anger at being forced to marry this Jamaican woman on the servants? (Ironically, in Jane Eyre, Rochester marries his governess, the ‘help’.)
To compound matters further, Antoinette is saddled with a man who is full of anger and even hate. Rochester has been ordered by his father to marry Antoinette and this becomes yet another strike against poor Antoinette. For example, Rochester cannot handle the abundance on the island. “Everything is too much…Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near” (Rhys 41). His new wife also irritates him. “…the woman is a stranger. Her pleading expression annoys me” (Rhys 41). While enamored by the magical and beautiful qualities in his wife and his surroundings, Rochester cannot surmount the hatred he feels at being forced into a marriage and a position that he did not want. “I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know” (Rhys 103).
In retaliation, Rochester shuns Antoinette, he turns his back on her. He is captivated by her, almost in love with her, but now he cuts her off and then wonders why she acts so strangely. Antoinette says to him, “’Then why do you never come near me?’ …Why do you think I can bear it…” (Rhys 76). How is she to bear it? Once again, Antoinette is being persecuted for who she is.
Rochester pushes her further towards madness when he begins calling her by another name. “Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too” (Rhys 88). Antoinette has been raised in Jamaica, she knows the vodou religion, she knows that changing a persons name is one of the steps taken when changing someone into a zombie. In her depressed state of confusion and isolation, Antoinette reverts to her childhood nightmares and superstitions.
Rochester, of course, does not realize the immensity of his actions, nor would he care if he did. Antoinette is being transformed by Rochester – in his mind she is as mad as her mother and he changes her name in order to identify her as a different person than the one he was almost in love with. Christophine, Antoinette’s servant woman, says to Rochester, “It is in your mind to pretend she is mad. I know it. The doctors say what you tell them to say” (Rhys 96). And this is so, Rochester’s wife will go mad because he himself sees her as mad. He does not let her go, however.
Rochester’s ego has been dealt a terrific blow. The aristocratic white man, be he from the southern plantations, the Caribbean elite, or the English countryside had an image to maintain if they wished to remain in a position of power. As such their relations with the fairer sex were determined by how successful they were at controlling the women in their lives. For the southerners in America and the planters in the Caribbean it was essential to place white women in a special status from the black women. “…these relations made it necessary for white males to suppress and dominate white women, limit their sexual freedom,” (Johnson 7).
Therefore, the white mans wife was viewed by him as a means of preserving his social status within the patriarchy. To be saddled with a wife who is mad, no matter that he himself contributed to her state of madness, was by far one of the worst fates a man could endure. Still, as Rochester points out, “She’s mad but mine, mine” (Rhys 99). The rules of the patriarchy ensure that Rochester can mete out upon his mad wife whatever fate he deems fitting.
Rochester is terribly angry at his father and Antoinette’s brother for duping him into marrying this woman but he takes out his anger on Antoinette. His hatred has reached a boiling place. “I hated the place…I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I wold never know...Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it” (Rhys 103). He drags Antoinette literally kicking and screaming to England and locks her in an attic.
All of these factors - Antoinette’s lack of a nurturing mother, the pervading fear that surrounded the béké’s lives, her feelings of alienation and displacement, the collapse of the plantation and slavery system, and finally marrying a man who can not hope to understand her or the culture in which she was raised – contribute to her descent into madness. But Antoinette is really never mad – it is not until her husband locks in her in the attic that Antoinette truly becomes the madwoman in the attic.
Johnson, Howard and Karl Watson, ed. The White Minority in the Caribbean Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998
Horowitz, Michael. Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean. New York: The Natural History Press, 1971
Rhys, Anne. Wide Sargasso Sea
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2004, 2006