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Significant Themes

Gender and Sexual Relations

Sexual expectations: men vs. women

Double standard:

While Rochester is allowed to express sexual desire (both with his wife and other women), he seems critical of Antoinette for acting in a similar. For instance, he is very upset upon learning that his wife has had intimate relations with another man, her cousin Sandi, prior to their marriage – even though the full extent of their relations is never revealed, and only heard secondhand from Antoinette’s supposed half-brother Daniel. When Daniel tells him, Rochester becomes visibly upset, ultimately leaving the house. Rochester’s reaction seems to suggest that Antoinette’s alleged relationship with Sandi ruins his view of her as solely his “property,” tainting his perception of her imagined and expected purity. His sexual past, however, seems to have no effect on their relationship, indicating Rochester’s unfair double standard of female sexual desire vs. male.

Female sexual desire seen as "madness"

She thirsts for anyone – not for me... She'll loosen her black hair, and laugh and coax and flatter (a mad girl. She'll not care who she's loving). She'll moan and cry and give herself as no sane woman would - or could. Or could. (Rochester, 165)

As evidenced by the above quote, Rochester seems to perceive Antoinette’s desire for him as a sign of her supposed “madness.” In this quote, Antoinette’s madness and sexuality seem inextricably linked – she must be mad, as evidenced by her seemingly wild sexual desire. As a result of her madness, Rochester seems to believe, she has no standard of chastity: “She’ll not care who she’s loving.” Furthermore, Rochester seems to present Antoinette as a sort of seductress, one who uses her ability to “coax and flatter” to seduce men. In presenting Antoinette as sexually deviant or promiscuous, Rochester seems to attempt to alleviate himself of responsibility for the disintegration of their intimacy and marriage.

Sexual coercion & control as a reason for madness

While Rochester seems to view Antoinette’s sexuality as evidence of her madness, Rhys seems to argue that sexual coercion and control of the novel’s female characters drives them, involuntarily, to it. This idea manifests itself in multiple ways throughout the novel:

I.) Rape of Annette, Antoinette's mother:
After the Cosway’s estate is burned down and Antoinette’s younger brother Pierre dies, Annette is taken away after allegedly trying to kill her husband, Mr. Mason. Mason leaves Annette with a man and woman, both black, whom he has hired to take care of her and rarely returns to check on her well-being. While Annette is there, she is sexually assaulted by the man who takes care of her. At least one of these instances is witnessed by Antoinette, coming to visit her mother. She tells Rochester, recalling the incident: “I saw the man lift her up out of the chair and kiss her. I saw his mouth fasten on hers and she went all soft and limp in his arms and he laughed” (134).
Antoinette’s recollection of the incident makes it clear the interaction was not consensual, that her mother had been coerced into physical contact with the man. This is emphasized by the description of her body going “limp,” an indication that she has not only lost physical control, but mental and emotional control as well. Though these instances of sexual coercion, it seems, Annette has been worn-down, losing her will to fight back.

II.) Rochester's withholding of intimacy & affection from Antoinette:
At the beginning of her marriage to Rochester, Antoinette seems to feel genuinely in love with him. Though she still justifiably has her hesitations regarding trust and intimacy with other people, Antoinette finds a sense of hope in her relationship with Rochester that she hasn’t felt before. “Why did you make me want to live?” she asks him, indicating that Rochester has, at least in some way, restored her faith in humanity. However, as their relationship progresses, Rochester becomes more and more concerned with Antoinette’s past, convinced it has dire implications for their future. As his concerns consume him, he distances himself even further from Antoinette, refusing to sleep with her or show affection in any other way. Rochester’s refusal to love her drives Antoinette to desperate measures, such as drinking to cope with the pain and obeah in an attempt to regain his affections.

Intimacy as an expression of power

The use of intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy, as an expression of social and economic power plays a significant role in the character of Rochester.

I.) Rochester’s control over Antoinette:
As mentioned previously in this section, Rochester’s withholding of intimacy from Antoinette leaves her emotionally and physically isolated, driving her into a type of “madness.” This, when combined with the fact that Rochester has full control over Antoinette’s money and resources, affirms Rochester’s higher position in the social hierarchy, insuring his dominance over Antoinette.

II.) Rochester's affair with Amélie:
Rochester’s affair with Amélie seems to occur only as an expression of Rochester’s power. In addition to wanting to hurt his wife, Rochester likely harbors a desire to feel dominate over Amélie, a servant who has openly mocked him. He is able to achieve this by having sex with her. The incident, as far as he tells it, only occurs one and, especially afterwards, seems particularly transaction-like. After having sex with Amélie, he gives her a gift, almost as if it is payment. He seems to express surprise at her reaction to it, noting, “She took it with no thanks and no expression on her face” (140). It seems as though Rochester believes he must justify his relations with her through some sort of compensation. And, given her lower status as a servant, he is taken aback by her lack of gratitude, as if he seems to think she should be thankful that he, in his higher position, has taken an interest in her.

Madness/Insanity

Significant evidence may exist that shows every character in Wide Sargasso Sea to be insane. However, it is typically women (Antoinette and her mother) who are most victimized and labeled as such. Both of these women are clearly not perfect models of content, tempered women, but the passion that replaces these qualities is seen as abnormal and evil: therefore, insane. Plus, pressures of men and their perceptions and expectations only lead the women further down the road of madness. If men are the domineering species of the novel, and women their subordinates, it is important to note that “madness” and “insanity” are the labels of the party in power. Men create and apply the term “Mad Woman”. The circumstances of the novel’s ending illustrate how madness is applied and labeled rather unfairly. Insanity is a veritable mental condition; but even as Antoinette says, there are always at least two sides to a story which is why this purportedly “insane” woman's testimony both begins and ends the novel.

Hatred

When faced with differences, and incapable of understanding them, hatred seems to be the common disposition most turned to. Rochester finds it in him time and time again to make note of his hatred for Antoinette. “As I watched, hating, her face grew smooth and very young again, she even seemed to smile” (125). Despite calling her body “beautiful” and “sweet” in that same paragraph, Rochester detests this woman.Hatred has been a part of Antoinette’s life dating all the way back to childhood. She is young and innocent and not able to comprehend the contentions between the black people and the white people. Her childhood “friend” Tia throws a stone at Antoinette injuring her rather considerably. The society in which they live has driven the two to such a drastic occurrence. That they are young makes the situation all the more tragic. “I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass” (41). In this moment, Antoinette and Tia experience a sort of double recognition. Their blood and tears – products of hatred – are inextricably linked.

Safety

There is a general aura of mystery and foreboding in the novel, disaster seems imminent. Antoinette, even from childhood, is preoccupied with being safe and secure. At the convent, she realizes her safety and questions if the nuns know what danger is. "They are safe. How can they know what it can be like on the outside?" Her fear of danger is warranted considering her tribulations. Her troubled childhood, it could be said, makes her grow up fast. She sees, from a young age, the terribleness of hatred and betrayal and from there on is worried about being protected from it.

Bibliography

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966.