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"
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:
II.) Rochester's withholding of intimacy & affection from Antoinette:
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:
II.) Rochester's affair with Amélie:
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.
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.
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.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1966.