- Books, Literature, and Writing»
A New Perspective of Madness in Jean Rhys’s "Wide Sargasso Sea"
In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway Mason Rochester embodies madness and all the tropes associated with madness. Misconceptions and ignorance lead Rochester, her suitor and husband, and natives of Coulibri and Massacre to label Antoinette as mad. Authors of historical and psychological texts on madness agree that there is no singular meaning or definition for madness. Historically, for Augustans, the mad were men, and the most common depiction of madness was Cauis Gabriel Ciber’s statues of “Melancholy Madness” and “Raving Madness,” which were eventually hidden from public view except by special request (Showalter 8; 10). But the connection between women and madness, as explored by Dinah Manisty and others, stems from the definition of hysteria “which derives from the Greek word for womb […] and refers to psychological disorders deemed peculiar to women” (Tyson 84). Lois Tyson states: “Traditional gender roles cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (83), which explains the shift from mad men to mad women. Marta Caminero-Santiago suggests that madness gives the “illusion of power” (125). Scholars like Elaine Showalter and Bertha-critics, “those for whom she symbolizes sexual desire and those for whom she symbolizes female anger” (Lerner 286), dismiss how women use their madness to their advantage. I will argue that Antoinette uses her madness to gain agency as a means to subvert patriarchal hegemony. Antoinette strategically incorporates the historic manifestations of madness to access power typically reserved for men.
Wide Sargasso Sea
Ecriture feminine and Subversion
Antoinette gains power by writing her own story. Tyson discusses how the mother-daughter connection leads to Hélène Cixous’ idea of écriture féminine (92). Rhys/Antoinette utilize écriture féminine to unfold a story born from a distant mother-daughter relationship. Placing a “madwoman in a central narrating role” (Manisty 155), Rhys shows the madwoman is not marginalized but a part of society. Hélène Cixous argues that by females “writing themselves into history, [they] have often produced startling and dissonant accounts of themselves” (Gunner 136). The version of womanhood women provide debases stereotypical beliefs. And, the lack of writings from the viewpoint of the other shows “how difficult it is for women even to attempt the pen” (Gilbert and Gubar 609). Antoinette not only uses the pen but also masters the pen. Toril Moi states, “The monster woman is the woman […] who has a story to tell” (qtd. in Manisty 153). Antoinette dictates her story from beginning to end. Therefore she is free to show her version of “femaleness” (Manisty 153). Rochester’s narrative is subject to Antoinette’s (Lerner 151). Throughout part two of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s dialogue enhances Rochester’s narrative.
Antoinette’s writing voice subverts the belief that women are dependent on men. As stated by Hélène Cixous, madness “works to dismantle structures” (qtd. in Caminero-Santiago 125). Antoinette does not need a man to tell her story despite the fact that “female experience is shaped by male expectations and structures and virtually unrecorded by women themselves” (Hirsch 201). Even though Antoinette dies, she does not become the victim of her story being told by the living (Caminero-Santiago 131). Rochester has the middle, not necessarily a central, narrative because he lacks knowledge and language to explain what happens. Antoinette’s voice provides the scaffolding for Rochester’s depiction of events. The placement of Rochester’s encounter is an “attempt [to maintain] a rigid order” over everything (Abel 173). Rochester’s failure to maintain order is evident in his “backwards trajectory [of] his narrative” (Lerner 146). When Rochester writes, he cannot finish what he begins, and the narration must be written when the event happens (Mellown 471). After having sex with Antoinette, Rochester does not “remember that day clearly” (Rhys 139). He can only write parts of what he intends to and what he begins to write is out of order. However, Antoinette can write a linear narrative even in her state of madness. Lee Erwin suggests Antoinette’s narrative needs Rochester’s narrative in order to be realized, but Rochester’s narrative is an unrealized dream (155). Without Antoinette, the story cannot exist. Antoinette’s story and death show how her dream of autonomy comes to fruition because she dares to be mad enough to make it come true.
Antoinette undermines the belief that a man will always save the day. Tyson notes how feminist scholars criticize the patriarchal construction of marriage (87). Antoinette chooses to get used to a lonely life unlike her mother who “still planned and hoped” for another husband as a means of acceptance (Rhys 18). When a suitor presents himself, Antoinette protests marriage to a stranger, even if the marriage will quiet rumors about her madness. Rochester represents the foreign Prince Charming that will save the distraught Cinderella, rather the mad Antoinette. Rochester’s wooing comes in the form of a deal: “I’ll trust you if you’ll trust me. Is that a bargain?” (Rhys 79). Rochester demeans Antoinette by believing she will fall for a stereotypical truce. In addition, Rochester hinges a ceremony of love on a superficial pact. When Antoinette says, “I do not wish to marry you” (Rhys 91), she makes it clear she does not desire the restrictions that come with matrimony. More specifically, Antoinette does not want Rochester. Antoinette’s madness allows her to discard “the submissive role patriarchy has reserved for her” qtd. in Manisty 153-4). If Rochester cannot promise peace and happiness, then Antoinette wants nothing to do with him. Antoinette speaks her mind and rejects coyness for blunt truth. Antoinette’s decision to marry Rochester is her choice.
Varied Sources of Power
Antoinette’s choice to be different gives her power. Chesler claims madness symbolizes “either the acting out of the devalued female roles or the total or partial rejection of one’s sex-role stereotype” (qtd. in Manisty 153). Since Antoinette sees her mother as devalued, she chooses not to follow the same path. Antoinette lets Rochester know she will not blindly choose marriage because it is offered to her. Like Electra, Antoinette symbolizes “any woman who wants to escape her condition (Lerner 138). According to Hirsch, “Because of the ways boys and girls relate to and differentiate from their mothers, they grow up to play different roles in the relationships of submission and domination, and object and subject” (207). If submission and melancholy madness did not work for Annette, Antoinette will be assertive and rely on raving madness. But Laing and Esterson realize daughters are valued when they are “passive and obedient, […] not assert themselves, and […] rely on others’ authority” (Abel 169). In Rochester’s opinion, Antoinette is being disrespectful and disobedient when she chooses not to tell him why she laughs (Rhys 91). Antoinette will not let anyone destroy the bit of happiness she still possesses. As long as she can keep Rochester guessing how she can be mad and sane at the same time, she will maintain power over him.
Antoinette maintains power by creating two personas. As Lillian Feder points out, “The term madness is currently used to describe a wide variety of contradictory attitude[s]” (xi). Much like madness, there is no singular definition for Antoinette. Živković suggests that a [double] assumes power in its inability to be labeled (122). Despite the Caribbean community’s attempt to mark Antoinette as a madwoman like her mother, Antoinette is a different version of mad. Horner and Zlosnik claim: “Madness is […] also a metaphor for what cannot be contained within culture” (qtd. in Manisty 163). Natives of the Caribbean contained Annette’s madness whereas no one can control Antoinette’s. Antoinette seems to conform to but also “subvert […] patriarchal literary standards” (Manisty 154). Rochester claims, “If [Antoinette] [is] a child she [is] not a stupid child but an obstinate one […] Her mind [is] already made up” (Rhys 94). Antoinette is not indecisive. Antoinette creates a second persona as a means to keep society from anticipating her next action. As Rochester attempts to belittle Antoinette to a child’s status, he actually compliments her. Rochester cannot believe Antoinette is the “Pale silent creature [he] married” (Rhys 88). Antoinette proves that what one sees is not what one gets.
Part of Antoinette’s power lies in the ability to see beyond the given. Antoinette seems out of place and strange because she is ahead of her time. Antoinette states, “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 102). She asks the universal question of what does it mean to be human. Antoinette takes the question she ponders one more step and asks what does it mean to be female. Rochester believes Antoinette seems “undecided[ness] […] about facts—any fact” (Rhys 87). Like the Hegelian dialectic, Antoinette knows there is truth somewhere in the facts provided. Antoinette is the “lunatic who always knows the time. But never does” (Rhys 165). Grace Poole tells Antoinette she has no idea how long she has been in England, but Antoinette says, “ ‘On the contrary […] only I know how long I have been here. Time has no meaning” (Rhys 184-5). Antoinette understand that what matters in life is what can be remember, something tangible. The ambiguity shrouding Antoinette is nothing more than a manifestation of a society unable to understand the other.
Madness undoes the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house.” Chesler believes madness is a cry for attention (19). Antoinette refuses to be ignored, especially by her husband. Rochester cannot believe that his wife “shout[s] obscenities” at him and calls the episode a “nightmare moment” (Rhys 149). Since Rochester does not pick up on Antoinette’s body language, she resorts to madness to have a say. According to Showalter, since women often face confined roles, madness really signifies depression (3). Being locked in a room restricts Antoinette from any creative outlet. Antoinette reveals her rage when she almost stabs her only visitor to her room (183). Antoinette’s madness gives her the ability to speak out “against the rigidities of patriarchal tradition which hinders women’s creativity and self-expression” (Manisty 154). By accessing a knife during her only outing in England, Antoinette takes the phallus and turns it on the owner. Antoinette literally sticks it to the man. Antoinette refuses to be a trophy wife that sits idle.
Be Seen and Not Heard
Antoinette gives herself a voice through silence. For Manisty, silence “become[s] empowered through the act of narration” (164). By not speaking or engaging in dialogue, Antoinette gains power in an otherwise powerless situation. Mr. Mason tells Rochester: “‘She won’t marry you.’ […] ‘She won’t give a reason. I’ve been arguing with the little fool for an hour’” (Rhys 78). Antoinette is no fool. She understands the agency silence provides. Antoinette maintains power in the situation by not answering Rochester ultimatum, “only nodd[ing]” (79). Antoinette does not feel she needs to give anyone answers: “No one would tell [Rochester] the truth. […] certainly not the girl [he] had married” (Rhys 104). Antoinette intentionally withholds information from Rochester. Antoinette’s refusal of knowledge leads Rochester to rely on faulty sources (95-99). Even if Antoinette gives Antoinette the information he seeks, he would not listen. Rochester “remember[s] [Antoinette’s] effort to escape” marriage (Rhys 90). But like any situation dealing with Antoinette, Rochester incorrectly recreates the scene. Rochester may hear what Antoinette says but does fully comprehend what she means. Therefore, Antoinette’s actions are what get noticed. Antoinette’s silent power becomes evident when compared to Grace Poole. Grace cannot talk for fear of losing her job: Antoinette has no such fear (Rhys 177). In conversation with Leah, there are hints “[Grace] and others too are locked up” even though they are not mad (Lerner 154). Grace and the servants depend on Rochester’s money, which is truly Antoinette’s money given by Mr. Mason. Antoinette feels no obligation to Rochester and therefore does not have to appease him by speaking. Instead, not behaving as expected, Antoinette maintains the upper hand. According to Feder, insanity is the result of a breakdown of social and personal inhibitions (98). Antoinette is not afraid to show or express how she feels. She tells Christophine she “will be quiet” and “will not cry” if Christophine gives her what she wants (113). Usually people cry and speak out in order to get what they desire. Antoinette decides to tell Rochester that Christophine, a source of contention, told her to leave him (Rhys 135). She is bold. Rochester says, “to my astonishment she stopped crying,” even though he continues to say harsh words to provoke emotions he anticipates (Rhys 147; 154). Rochester’s confusion stems from his inability to understand Antoinette’s complexities: “She’ll moan and cry and give herself as no sane woman would—or could. […] then lie so still, still as this cloudy day” (Rhys 165). Again, Antoinette’s silence on command eludes Rochester. By keeping Rochester unsure of her actions, Antoinette controls Rochester.
In England, Antoinette’s mission is to be heard in order to rejuvenate her power. Porter addresses how mad people were restrained by “not just irons and manacles but fabric cuffs and straitjackets too” (114). England is Antoinette’s straitjacket. The room Antoinette resides in is the irons, cuffs, and manacles. Antoinette actually notices her wrists are “red and swollen” (Rhys 181). Porter adds that surveillance (much like the idea of a panopticon) replaces restrictive devices. Grace Poole serves as Antoinette’s overseer. According to Manisty, “prisoners simply move from one prison to another” (165). Antoinette goes from a country that imprisons her to a country to be imprisoned. In Antoinette’s native land, she extracts power from her roots. Rochester hates Massacre because he believes Massacre “is [his] enemy and on [her] side” (Rhys 129). England simply becomes Antoinette’s death as the room lacks sunshine and exposure to the world. Rochester insists that Antoinette be forgotten by locking her away. In Antoinette’s room she sees only one window that is so high she cannot see out of it (Rhys 179). Rochester’s solution to Antoinette’s madness, is alien, “useless and meaningless” (Manisty 162) because Antoinette does not believe in England. Locking her away in a perceived non-existent country is pointless. Antoinette becomes heard by everyone in the house when she sets fire to it (Rhys 190). When Mr. Mason “clip[s] [Coco’s] wings he [grows] very bad tempered” (Rhys 41). England is Rochester’s way to clip Antoinette’s wings, and she becomes aggressive. Antoinette’s destructive behavior is a lasting way to make sure Rochester, the servants and nearby residents of England know she exists.
Wide Sargasso Sea Movie Version
The Importance of Names
Antoinette’s persistence to be called by her name makes Rochester understand the power of a name. Because names connect to a person’s identity, Rochester tries to change Antoinette by changing her name. Rochester thinks he can turn Antoinette into the ideal English woman (Abel 172; Rhys 147). Rochester does not understand that Antoinette is not her mother and should not be “confused with anyone else” (Mellown 472). Antoinette yells at Rochester to not call her Bertha and quickly dismisses the subject by saying she does not care what she is called (Rhys 135). Antoinette’s attempt at reverse psychology does not deceive Rochester. Rochester knows that a name is an important means of control. Antoinette wants respect on her land on her terms and Rochester will keep refusing for as long as he can. Antoinette ultimately wins the power struggle because she realizes that a name can change someone as much as the country they inhabit (Rhys 111). While Antoinette’s name, and variation of her name, is continually mentioned, Rochester remains practically nameless throughout the novel (Lerner 147). In the Caribbean Rochester’s name becomes “sir” and even in England Rochester is only addressed as master, no last name or first name attached. Before leaving the Caribbean, Rochester actually thinks about other people’s names on the island and if they have a name her never knows about (Rhys 172). “Names matter” (Rhys 180), Antoinette reflects, because history and personality are associated with a name. By Rochester remaining relatively nameless, he becomes less powerful. The focus is taken away from the colonizer and given to the other.
Antoinette forces people to see her as mad. Abel incorporates ideas from R. D. Laing and applies them to Rhys’ works: “Denied […] basic security, a child may create a persona that conforms to parental desires and protects the ‘real’ self from attacks on its identity” (Abel 158). Antoinette constructs a self that conforms to her mother’s wishes. In studies conducted by Laing and Esterson, most parents approved of their daughters “when [they were] complaint” (Abel 168). The parents “equated […] health with passivity and viewed signs of independence as illness” (168). Abel believes Antoinette’s madness is “overdetermined” to show her relationships with Rochester is “part of an archetypal confrontation” (172). The disadvantage for those trying to subdue Antoinette is that she becomes silent and therefore threatening (Lerner 141). Massacre is not only wild but also “menacing” just like Antoinette (Rhys 69). She chooses not to be the woman of “exemplary correctness” (Erwin 146). Christophine believes Antoinette’s madness stems from people telling her she is mad and treating her like she is mad (Rhys 157). Antoinette shows she gets more attention by forcing society to see what she has become.
Sex and Power
To exhort power over Rochester, Antoinette uses her sexuality. Porter claims that there is a long history of sexual control over minorities through clitoridectomy or other forms of genital mutilation (7). Showalter adds to Porter’s statement by saying one way to control women is through controlling their bodies (75). Antoinette turns to Christophine’s knowledge of obeah to subdue Rochester. The concoction is like a date rape drug. As Porter notes, authors’ (of works dealing with their time in asylums) cries of protest claim they were never crazy or “became mad only through the barbaric treatment meted out to them” (167). Rochester does not treat Antoinette like his wife. Instead, he finds ways to punish her for being different, like withholding sex. Christophine realizes Rochester intends to make Antoinette obsessed with sex so she cannot function without it (Rhys 153). His plan backfires and instead he becomes infatuated: “She left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost” (Rhys 172). Antoinette reflects Dionysian madness, because Dionysus represents the “ecstatic release of the instincts in primordial ritual” (Feder 206). There is the drinking of blood as a means of sacrifice. Antoinette mocks male hegemony with “tricks of [her] own” (Manisty 161). Since Rochester likes it rough Antoinette releases her “Dionysial” frenzy (Feder 279; Rhys 151). Antoinette has the power of female deities like Medusa, Circe, and Delilah to “seduce and to steal male generative energy” (Gilbert and Gubar 608). Rochester is literally sucked dry by Antoinette. Antoinette plays Rochester’s game better than he ever could and leaves him paralyzed as a result.
For Antoinette, there is power in pleasure. Sex allows Antoinette to revel in her madness. Manisty suggests that narration enables women to “resist male authority and delay time and death by provoking desire with narrative pleasure” (166). Rochester lures Antoinette with the prospect of sex. However, Antoinette learns that if Rochester will not have sex with her, Sandi or another male will (Rhys 125-6; 165). Antoinette knows if she has sex with Rochester one more time then she can “make him love” her (Rhys 113). The power Rochester thinks he has over Antoinette no longer exists. On another level, “The subsequent return of Antoinette’s” narrative undermines the agency Rochester believes he has (Lerner 153). Instead, Antoinette can both “tempt and torment Rochester” with her “tropical sensuality” (Lerner 279). The simple sight of Antoinette’s dress makes Rochester “breathless and savage with desire. When [he] was exhausted [he] turned away from her” (Rhys 93). Rochester believes he has control over the situation because he is not obligated to give Antoinette any more attention. But Rochester shows hesitation in Antoinette’s beauty: “she is beautiful. And yet …” (Rhys 70). He knows a power lies behind her visage. Elizabeth Abel labels Antoinette, and all of Rhys’ female heroines, as schizophrenic due to her “obsessive thought and behavior coupled with the inability to take real initiative” (156). However, Antoinette actively seeks and promotes means to exhort her nymphomania. Again subverting the idea of the “angel in the house,” Antoinette does not use sex for reproductive purposes but for pleasure.
Fate and Power
Antoinette understands that death gains recognition and power. Pierre, her younger brother, has their mother’s constant attention. When the family separates, Annette takes Pierre with her and leaves Antoinette with Aunt Cora (Rhys 34). In death, Pierre gains even more consideration. Annette mourns her son’s death for an extended period and completely closes herself off to Antoinette: “‘But I am here, I am here,’ I said, and she said, ‘No no no [sic]’ very loudly and flung me from her. I fell against the partition and hurt myself” (Rhys 48). Antoinette is called trouble, but at least she is recognized through negative attention. Death will force Rochester to recognize Antoinette. Rochester watches Antoinette “die many times. In [his] way, not in hers” (Rhys 92). For Rochester, there is ownership in death. But Antoinette holds the cards because she has the power and makes the choice to “kill” herself. Therefore, Antoinette first mentally kills herself and then physically kills herself. For Antoinette, there is always talk of death, because in death she “can do as [she] like[s]” (Rhys 92). Madness gives Antoinette extraordinary insight (Feder 281). For example, Antoinette explains to Rochester, “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about” (Rhys 128). Antoinette’s “active choice of death over the prolonged decline of madness and imprisonment” (Abel 174) gives her ultimate power. Despite all of Rochester’s assumed authority, he does not have the ability to make such a choice. He avoids the problem if his first plan does not work (Rhys 154). Rochester’s final resort is if he cannot have all of Antoinette no one will (Rhys 165-6). His solution fails as he becomes mad himself (Rhys 166; 168). Unlike Antoinette, Rochester lacks the strength and audacity to end his madness by suicide.
By taking control over people’s destinies, Antoinette shows ultimate power. Caminero-Santiago references Gilbert and Gubar and Barbara Rigney who believe “madness is but a stage in the evolution of a conscious, truly sane person (123). By killing herself and others in England, Antoinette goes from being insubordinate to omnipotent. Chesler believes, “Madness is shut away from sight, shamed, brutalized, denied and feared” (26). Annette’s two children are described as “an idiot kept out of sight and mind and the girl going the same way” (Rhys 29). People fear what they do not understand. Mr. Mason tells Antoinette she “can’t be hidden away all [her] life” (Rhys 58). Antoinette sees no reason why she cannot be hidden away if she chooses to be. Antoinette’s actions are a subversion of this idea. Rochester makes sure the estate in England is away from people, there is a separate place for Antoinette, and the servants do not talk about his wife (Rhys 162). Although Rochester locks Antoinette away, her time on her own in England shows she forces people to recognize her (Rhys 184). Like Fu’ād’s female heroine Fātịmah who turns to a crowd after jumping out a window and says, “Who knows? The mad might be saner and more compassionate” (Manisty 164), Antoinette rationalizes her death. If Antoinette explained her actions, she would say, “I want to be human and I don’t want to kill you. But I am very tired and a little confused” (qtd. in Feder preface). Although William Böse says the above quote, it pertains to Antoinette. When Tia cheats Antoinette out of money, she tells Tia, “‘Keep them then, you cheating nigger’ […] for [she] was tired” (Rhys 24). Antoinette has the ability to understand life and realizes Pierre died before the fire but was “too tired to speak” (Rhys 46). Antoinette learns from Sister Marie Augustine that “thoughts are not sins, if they are driven away at once” (Rhys 57). Antoinette believes she receives absolution from her worldly sin by killing for the greater good. For Caminero-Santiago, madness shows freedom and revelation (124). Antoinette’s cry for help from Christophine shows the “generative power of the mother” (Lerner 138; 189). Rochester has a distinct disadvantage throughout the novel. Antoinette knows her fate, Rochester does not: Antoinette knows “any act is futile” while Rochester believes “he is a free agent” (Mellown 471). Rochester relies too heavily on his privileges as a white male to justify his reasoning. However, Antoinette’s experience as an other gives her the advantage to see the world as it really is.
Antoinette elevates herself to a martyr by committing suicide. Lundberg and Farnham acknowledge that madness results from women not being satisfied with their imposed domestic roles (Caminero-Santiago 128). As stated by Chesler, women are “forced to choose between reproduction and (hetero) sexual pleasure; reproduction and physical prowess [or]; reproduction and worldly or spiritual power” (21). By committing suicide, Antoinette opts for the third option: worldly or spiritual power. Antoinette’s death by fire mimics the life cycle of the phoenix. Antoinette will reproduce herself and thus womanhood through her own remains. The benefit becomes Antoinette does not pass on her inherited madness. Victorian psychiatrists believed that women were the carriers of madness and were twice as likely to transmit madness as were fathers (Showalter 67). Although Antoinette’s pseudo asexual reproduction opens itself up to passing on madness according to Victorian beliefs, with current understandings of certain mental illnesses Antoinette does away with the environment that causes her madness. Her dream becomes a “prophecy” (Lerner 143). Antoinette threatens Rochester with the prospect that she will prove how much she hates him before she dies (Rhys 147). By not choosing to respond to Rochester when he calls for Bertha, and thus choosing death (189), Antoinette keeps her promise. Rochester is powerless to keep Antoinette from leaping to her death.
She acts as a martyr for those who are a victim of their own success. According to a poem read by Rochester, “all beautiful things [have] sad destinies” (Rhys 86). For Antoinette, her fiery dress that reminds her of her mission is beautiful (Rhys 187). The closure that promotes Antoinette’s madness is sad, but her means of escape, her destiny, is beautiful. The debate over madness being genius is ongoing. Artists with successful careers tend to go insane before they die: Swift, Byron, Poe, George Sands, and so on (Porter 82). In extreme cases, the artists’ meltdown is followed by suicide: Woolf and Plath to name a few (82). Antoinette does not necessarily breakdown but rather reaches an epiphany that leads to her suicide. Florence Nightingale’s fictitious Cassandra and Wollstonecraft’s Maria best relates to Antoinette’s epiphany. Cassandra “realizes that her passion, intellect, and moral energy have been destroyed by the petty obligations, genteel rituals, and religious cant of mindless social code” (Showalter 63). Elaine Showalter references Wollstonecraft’s character Maria (c. 1797), who “has been forced into a madhouse by her abusive husband, who wants control of her fortune and liberty to pursue his sexual adventure” (1). Maria realizes the world is a prison for women and as a result she loses herself. Grace Poole knows a big house away from the world is still a “cruel world to a woman” (Rhys 178). Antionette takes her life and the life of others in a final act of agency. Like the Greek Cassandra and Nightingale’s Cassandra, Antoinette tries to save the women around her from suffering. Antoinette’s success rests on the fact that she refuses to be controlled, manipulated and used to the point that she loses herself.
The symbolic spilling of Antoinette’s blood serves as a means of renewal. Antoinette’s spilt blood is an offering to Dionysus, the mad god. According to Manisty, narratives show “death is also a new beginning and signals a new life to come” (156). In Egyptian female writings, “awakening from [a] dream symbolizes the rupture between the old and new and this rupture is then enacted in reality” (Manisty 158). Antoinette’s final dream is of escape and how to obtain freedom. When she awakes, she states: “I know why I was brought here and what I have to do” (Rhys 190). Antoinette finally has a clear focus in her life. Antoinette becomes “redeemed from madness by a symbolic regenerative power” (Manisty 158). And, “her language reveals a newly integrated sense of purpose and identity” (Abel 174). Rochester sings a song to Antoinette that foreshadows her death: “‘Hail to the queen of the silent night, / Shine bright, shine bright Robin as you die’” (Rhys 83, italics in the original text). By taking her life and the life of others, Antoinette becomes “the queen of the silent night.” Antoinette leads Rochester and the inhabitants of the house to death. Mimicking the death of Coco, the family bird in Coulibri that dies by fire, Antoinette dies in flames. Antoinette’s brightest hour is her escape from the restriction of patriarchal society and taking supreme power over her destiny.
So What Do Women Want?
When Freud asked, “what do women want?” his answer was provided before he even asked the question. Several writers, including Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s tale from The Canterbury Tales, realize that women want not just power but sovereign power. Power for women means being equal and not being ignored. Society is ashamed of the mad, and therefore try to ignore them whenever possible: for example, Ciber’s statues hidden behind a curtain, Bertha locked in the attic, Gilman’s protagonist from the Yellow Wallpaper shut in an attic room, the prophetess Cassandra ignored, and Antoinette locked away in a remote room in an unknown country. Despite everything that has happened to Antoinette, she maintains her sanity and finishes her own story. In fact, her thinking and writing is more clear and concise at the end. Only Antoinette can reveal her true intentions and she makes sure she keeps it that way.
Abel, Elizabeth. “Women and Schizophrenia: The Fiction of Jean Rhys.” Contemporary
Literature 20.2 (Spring, 1979): 155-177. Jstor. Web. 11 October 2005.
Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. “The Madwoman Can’t Speak: Postwar, Feminist Criticism, and
Welty’s ‘June Recital.’” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 15.1 (Spring, 1996): 123-146. Print.
Chesler, Phyllis. Women and Madness. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1972.
Erwin, Lee. “‘Like in a Looking-Glass’: History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea.” NOVEL:
A Forum on Fiction 22.2 (Winter 1989): 143-158. Jstor. Web. 24 September 2005.
Feder, Lillian. Madness in Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980. Print.
Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An
Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. 1st ed. Oxford: Blackwell Pub. Inc., 1998. Print.
Gunner, Liz. “Mothers, Daughters and Madness in Works by Four Women Writers: Bessie
Head, Jean Rhys, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Ama Ata Aidoo.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 14 (1994): 136-151. Jstor. Web. 11 October 2005.
Hirsch, Marianne. “Mother and Daughters.” Signs 7.1 (Autumn, 1981): 200-222. Jstor. Web.
11 October 2005.
Lerner, Laurence. “Bertha and the Critics.” Nineteenth Century Literature. 44.3 (Dec. 1989):
273-300. Jstor. Web. 11 October 2005.
Manisty, Dinah. “Madness as a Textual Strategy in the Narratives of Three Egyptian Women
Writers.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 14 (1994): 152-174. Jstor. Web. 11 October 2005.
Porter, Roy. Madness: A Brief History. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002. Print.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1966. Print.
Showalter. Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830-1980. New
York: Pantheon Books, 1985. Print.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. New York: Garland Publishing,
Inc., 1999. Print.
Živković, Milica. “The Double as the “Unseen” of Culture: Toward a Definition of
Doppelganger.” Facta Universitas: Linguistics and Literature 2.7 (2000): 121-128. Jstor. Web. 11 October 2005.
About the Author
Stephanie Bradberry is first and foremost an educator and life-long learner. Her present work is as an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. She spent over a decade as a professor of English, Literature, Business and Education and high school English teacher. She is the founder and owner of Naturally Fit & Well, LLC and former owner of Crosby Educational Consulting, LLC. Stephanie loves being a freelance writer and editor on the side.