Table of Contents
II. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre
III. Antoinette and Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea
1. Cultural Differences
a) Rochester’s Perception of the West Indian Landscape
b) Race Relations
2. The Families’s Intervention
3. Communication Problems
4. Antoinette’s Prior Experience with English Gentlemen
5. The Road Towards Madness
IV. The Significance of Wide Sargasso Sea
VI. Works Cited
Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a character without a history or personality. She is depicted as a mere beast, bent on destroying her husband. The reader knows -and dreads- her from both Jane’s and Rochester’s perspective. Rochester claims that Bertha’s lunacy was the sole trigger for the disaster that followed, but the narration reveals hints that suggest other factors may have contributed to the destruction of their marriage.
Jean Rhys proposed a past for Bertha and her husband. Wide Sargasso Sea creates a life for Bertha, on the background of which her madness is neither surprising nor inevitable. The story emphasises the incompatibility of Rochester and his wife as well as both partner’s unwillingness and inability to make the relationship a success. Several factors add to their personal differences and problems of communication with each other: the landscape and climate of the West Indies that Rochester finds hard to bear, their differing attitudes towards the island’s black population, their families’s arrangement of the marriage against their will, Daniel Cosway’s poisonous letters and Antoinette’s previous experiences with English gentlemen.
It becomes apparent in the second and third part of Rhys’s novel, that both partners soon feel nothing but hatred for each other. Even though they are only partly responsible for one another’s misery, they have set their minds on destroying the person whom they think has brought nothing but unhappiness into their lives. Antoinette, a sensitive and emotionally unstable woman with a family history of mental illness, breaks under Rochester’s cruelty and lapses into insanity. Whereas there is no doubt that she becomes mad at the end of Rhys’s novel, the reason for this is not her evil nature but a destructive relationship along with her transportation away from everything she ever knew into the cold of England.
Wide Sargasso Sea is more than a prequel to a famous Victorian novel. It speaks out not only for Bertha but for all the other West Indian women who found themselves in similar situations.
II. Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre
In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Bertha Mason is presented solely through the eyes of Jane and Rochester. She has no voice of her own, and her appearances in the novel are limited to a few pages. She is almost as hidden in the text as she is hidden in the Thornfield attic. Except for the scene following Rochester’s and Jane’s spoiled marriage, which took place early in the morning, Bertha enters the story only in the darkness of the night: her attempt to burn Rochester in his bed takes place at night, as does her ripping of Jane’s veil and her setting fire on Thornfield and the ensuing suicide.
When Jane is confronted with her for the first time she only hears a “demoniac laugh – low, suppressed and deep” and some gurgling and moaning (164). Even before readers learn the truth about the lunatic in the attic, Brontë prepares them for a dangerous and savage-like creature. Bertha resembles a wild animal more than a human being. When Jane looks after Mason and nurses his wounds, she hears “a snarling and snatching sound, almost like a dog quarrelling” (231) coming from what she supposes to be Grace Pool’s attic chamber. Alone with the wounded stranger, she listens for more noises from the “wild beast or the fiend” (233) but perceives no more.
Jane first lays eyes on Bertha when the madwoman tears her veil the night before the scheduled wedding. From her description of Bertha’s appearance to Rochester, one might readily assume that it wasn’t a woman she has seen but a demon or, as Jane says, one of “the foul German spectre – a vampyre” (312). The “lurid” creature that tries on Jane’s veil and looks at her image in the mirror has a purple face, blood shot eyes, dark, swollen lips, and a furrowed brow (312). The only possible reactions to this presentation of the madwoman are terror and fear. Bertha evokes fascination in the reader and raises expectations of more dreadful acts, but she doesn’t induce compassion.
The final and most distressing portrayal of Bertha is saved for the last scene in which she appears. In addition to her frightening laughs, the eerie appearance and cunning behavior in Jane’s bedroom, Bertha reveals a violent and uncontrollable nature. After the interrupted wedding of Jane and Rochester, the latter invites the small wedding party to look at his legitimate wife, thus trying to justify his actions. By using the neuter personal pronoun “it” when referring to Bertha, Brontë depersonalizes her completely in this passage and decides for the reader “what it was, whether beast or human being” [... that] grovelled, seemingly on all fours” (322). The image of a beast is elaborated further: “the clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind feet”. Jumping to her feet and grappling Rochester’s throat Bertha proves to be the exact nightmare her husband makes her out to be.
Two more passages in Jane Eyre deal more extensively with Bertha: Rochester’s account of his time in Jamaica and his first marriage, and the inn’s host’s report of the burning of Thornfield. Up to this point in the novel, the reader has seen Bertha only through Jane’s eyes; for the first time now, Rochester portrays her and their “infernal union” (337). His father and older brother urged him to marry the rich Creole heiress, concealing from him the circumstances that her mother and younger brother were troubled by mental illness. Before the wedding he never met her alone, and had no opportunity to develop a relationship with her. However, the word of her accomplishments, good looks, and particularly her wealth, recommended her. According to Rochester, they were married before he knew where he was, but her true nature quickly revealed itself. Not only was the couple unable to pass a harmonious evening together, Bertha’s “unchaste” behavior worsened daily. Her violent outbreaks of temper, her cursing of him, her “most gross, impure, depraved” nature (339) disgusted him and drove him into desperation. In a passage especially interesting to the ensuing comparison with Rhys’s interpretation of this marriage, Rochester outlines his antipathy towards his wife’s home country. The “sulphur steams” (340) in the air prevent him from getting much needed fresh air, mosquitoes plague him, the noise of the sea waves reminds him of earthquakes. He reacts with physical sickness to the situation and even wishes to commit suicide. However, a “fresh wind from Europe” breezes though the window, a “sweet wind from Europe” (emphases mine) that encourages him to leave the West Indies and return to England. His wife, the filthy burden, the maniac, the monster, as he calls her, was brought to Europe with him and locked in her “goblin’s cell” (341f). There is no explanation of the possible reasons for the young woman’s rapid deterioration and Jane doesn’t ask for one. As Thorpe points out, Rochester makes Bertha out to have been “both congenitally insane and yet depraved before that madness showed itself – a shaky diagnosis but convenient” (Thorpe 1977).
Rochester’s disgust for Bertha is enormous. There is not the faintest hint at a former attraction to her, except perhaps of a physical nature, and his description of this woman is fully compatible with Jane’s impression. The emphasis on his dislike of Jamaica and his disappointment about his own family’s deception may indicate that it was not Bertha alone who caused his depression and anger. He obviously missed his home country and former life, regardless of the much hated wife. The West Indian climate oppressed him. Moreover, implicit in Bertha’s brother’s continuous affection and care for her is the indication that she was once a very endearing person. Rochester’s explanations to Jane are also affected by the present situation. In the midst of his embarrassment about the ruined wedding, he is eager to give Jane the worst possible description of his wife. He seeks to justify his actions and assure Jane that living with the creature in the attic was equal only to life in hell. Rhys has used the subtle elements in Brontë’s narration that speak in Bertha’s favor to form a much more complete story of Rochester’s first marriage and its development. In her version, all aspects of his account are elaborated and the focus shifted from Bertha’s madness to problems external of their marriage but strongly influencing it.
When Jane returns to reunite with Rochester, the inn’s host tells her how Thornfield was burnt and that Bertha, despite Rochester’s intervention, threw herself from the roof of the house. His statements are consistent with what the reader already knows about Bertha. She once again tried to set the house on fire, succeeded this time, and in an irrational act that is to be expected from the likes of a lunatic, jumps to her death with a yell (472). Bertha’s character doesn’t develop in the course of the novel. She is a dangerous madwoman at best, a wild beast at worst. However, her character is crucial in the advancement of the plot. For the function she takes on in the novel, a more balanced depiction of her is unnecessary. Bertha is the mysterious gothic element in the story. She saves the plot from being just another love story by adding a dark side to the narrative and the character of Rochester. Her threatening presence adds suspense. She is the major obstacle in Jane’s and Rochester’s relationship; had she not been there to prevent the first wedding attempt, they may not have had the opportunity to develop enough –apart from one another- to become a truly well matched couple. The flatness of her character paired with her significance in this important contribution to Victorian literature invites speculation about what her history may be like and what sort of person she was before madness confined her to the attic. Jean Rhys took up the challenge to create her a past and in doing so affords critics another avenue to interpret Jane Eyre.
III. Antoinette and Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys reinterpretation of Rochester’s and Bertha’s relationship is not at all times compatible with Brontë’s Jane Eyre. As soon as her narration adds depth to Bertha’s personality and transforms her into a human being with a background and feelings, the beast in the attic is no longer a tenable concept. Therefore, Wide Sargasso Sea achieves more than a mere filling in the blank of Bertha’s history. It makes a reader who is familiar with both novels, challenge Rochester’s personality, and inevitably Jane’s judgement as his admirer. Rhys novel is not so much a prequel to Jane Eyre, as an alternative version of the story. It focuses on the profound differences between Rochester and his wife, who has lived a life so alien to his that communication between the two proves almost impossible. It questions whether Bertha (in this novel Antoinette) carries indeed the sole responsibility for Rochester’s unhappiness. Wide Sargasso Sea suggests that he himself and various external influences contributed to the disastrous ending of their marriage which would eventually drive Bertha into madness.
1. Cultural Differences
The title of Jean Rhys’s last novel is a powerful metaphor for the main problem its protagonists face. An oval shaped area of the North Atlantic, the Sargasso Sea lies between the Azores and the West Indies, “dividing and uniting Europe and the Caribbean” (Sternlicht, 104). Wide Sargasso Sea clearly focuses on the dividing qualities of the waters and the disparity of its opposite shores. The manifold differences become more and more apparent in the run of Rochester’s and Antoinette’s relationship.
Rochester is an aristocrat from a wealthy family with all the pretensions of rank. Antoinette on the other hand has experienced a childhood in poverty and a mostly hostile environment. Her home estate slowly decayed as her mother sold her jewellery to afford clothes. Their different upbringings alone may have accounted for great difficulties in their communication with and understanding of each other. In addition, Antoinette and Rochester are at home in two very different places. The Caribbean Islands and England are culturally and socially worlds apart, not only because one is the colonizing nation and the other the colony. When Rochester travels to Jamaica to meet the woman his family had already courted for him, he is not prepared for the mystery of the unfamiliar place, much less for the Creole woman he is to marry.
 Until otherwise noted all page numbers refer to: Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York et al.: Simon & Schuster, 1847.