Sexual expectations: men vs. women
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.