Wide Sargasso Sea Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: The 1830’s

Locale: Jamaica, Dominica, and England

Characters DiscussedAntoinette Cosway

Antoinette Wide Sargasso SeaCosway, later Bertha Mason Rochester, whose story constitutes a revisionist treatment of events culminating in her transformation into the famed madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Antoinette, the protagonist and narrator of approximately one-half of the story, reflects on her youth and the loneliness and isolation that she experienced as a white Creole child in the predominantly black West Indies. Having outlived most of her family, she halfheartedly submits to a marriage with the British Mr. Rochester that has been arranged by her stepbrother. In reality, this union is a business deal whereby Antoinette’s inheritance is consigned to Rochester in return for his accepting responsibility for her. This latter point proves important as whispers and insinuations spread about Antoinette, her beautiful mother, and her younger brother, individuals thought to have “slept too long in the moonlight,” who exhibit the madness supposedly present in all white Creoles. Antoinette’s naïveté about life outside the West Indies contrasts sharply with Rochester’s comparative worldliness. Her query to her soon-to-be husband reveals her troubled vulnerability–she speaks not of love or even romance but of rest: “Can you give me peace?” This attitude exposes a young woman who has deferred to the decisions of the men in her life–her father, stepbrother, and husband–while depending on old and subservient women for what little emotional support and nurturance she has received. She becomes a woman who cannot act and who is increasingly defined by men, as symbolized by Rochester’s arbitrarily changing her name from Antoinette to Bertha. When her husband rejects her because of his growing preoccupation with her possible madness, Antoinette, denying her own resources, consults the black arts for a spell to bring love to their marriage. When this desperate attempt fails, she becomes blank, a shell destined for the profound madness chronicled in Jane Eyre.

Mr. Rochester

Mr. Rochester, a young British gentleman, the second son of a proper English family who is forced by the law of primogeniture to secure his own fortune. His narration of the second half of the story recounts his arranged marriage to a beautiful but mysterious West Indian girl who brings to the union the fortune he seeks. Despite certain odd circumstances surrounding their marriage, only after receiving a revealing letter from a black man who claims to be a relative of his bride does Rochester realize why this marriage was so eagerly sought by her stepbrother. He also realizes that everyone but him is aware of the potential for madness that exists in his new wife’s family. Sensing that he has been the victim of a duplicitous plot, Rochester expresses hatred for the deceptive beauty of the islands, a quality that he has come to associate with Antoinette as well. Seeking only his own sanity, he returns to England with Antoinette and conceals her with a nurse in the attic of his family home. Also on his return to England, he learns that both his father and his brother have died, thus ironically providing him with the fortune that he already has secured at great cost to himself and at even greater cost to Antoinette.

Annette Cosway Mason

Annette Cosway Mason, Antoinette’s mother, who was widowed at an early age. After her first husband’s death, the family was very poor and lonely for five years. Determined to provide for her children and herself, Annette marries Mr. Mason and is happy for a time, but after the natives destroy her home and kill her son, Annette turns against Mason and tries to kill him. He places her in a separate house with servants as attendants. There her daughter witnesses the effects of madness. Vivid impressions burn indelibly into Antoinette’s mind.

Christophine Dubois

Christophine Dubois, a native of Martinique given to Annette as a wedding present by her first husband. Christophine becomes Antoinette’s nurse and is the only person who consistently supports the lonely young woman. A colorful person given to expressing bromides of conventional wisdom, Christophine receives the news of the terms of Antoinette’s marriage with the pronouncement, “All women . . . nothing but fools.” A practitioner of voodoo, she refuses to use her black arts on Rochester until Antoinette has told him herself about her family secrets. In the end, Christophine’s wisdom is not strong enough to save Antoinette.

Mr. Mason

Mr. Mason, Annette’s second husband and Antoinette’s stepfather. After Annette’s demise, Mason attempts to care for Antoinette.

Pierre

Pierre, the younger brother of Antoinette, who is afflicted with the family curse of madness. Their mother dotes on him much more than on Antoinette. Pierre is killed when natives set fire to the Mason home.

Aunt Cora

Aunt Cora, a relative of the Cosways who tries to protect Antoinette’s rights and fortune after learning of Richard’s arranged marriage for Antoinette.

Richard Mason

Richard Mason, Antoinette’s stepbrother, who negotiates the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester.

Daniel Cosway

Daniel Cosway, a black man who claims to be a relative of Antoinette. He writes a letter to Rochester telling him about the taint of madness that follows Antoinette’s family.

Sandi Cosway

Sandi Cosway, Daniel’s half brother and a relative of Antoinette. Implications persist that Sandi and Antoinette are involved romantically.

Grace Poole

Grace Poole,

Mrs. Eff

Mrs. Eff, and

Leah

Leah, servants in the house in England in which Rochester confines Antoinette.

BibliographyAnderson, Sherwood. “The Book of the Grotesque.” In Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. This first chapter gives a thorough explanation of “grotesqueness,” the inability to communicate with others. The rejection that results further strengthens the barriers against communication. Anderson’s explanation facilitates an understanding of the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea.Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1991. These seven hundred pages give a thorough discussion of Rhys’s early life, her schooling, her clash of cultural backgrounds, her chorus line experience, her self-inflicted isolation, and her relationships. Angier connects Rhys’s life with those of the characters in her books.Hite, Molly. The Other Side of the Story: Structures and Strategies of Contemporary Feminist Narrative. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989. Hite maintains Rhys’s assertion that the advancement of some groups of women necessitates the deprivation of other women.Howells, Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Howells calls Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys’s “most rebellious text.” In discussing Rhys’s revolt against, yet ambivalence toward, Brontë’s Victorian novel, Howells contends Rhys’s novel is not easily classified.Hulbert, Ann. “Jean Rhys: Life and Work.” The New Republic 206 (February 17, 1992): 38-41. This lengthy article reviews the biography of the same name by Carole Angier. Much information is given about Rhys’s life and about the characters in her novels. Rhys claims, “I have only ever written about myself.”James, Louis. Jean Rhys. New York: Longman, 1978. A well-detailed account of Rhys’s great-grandfather provides insight to Rhys’s “fidelity to experience.”Nasta, Susheila, ed. Black Women’s Writing from Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. London: Women’s Press, 1991. One chapter in this anthology explores the “devastating results when the mother-bond is denied” and another establishes Rhys as the literary foremother of following generations of Caribbean women writers.Rhys, Jean. After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. New York: Harper & Row, 1931. This second novel by Rhys is the story of Julia, who marries in order to escape Britain and to go to the Continent. After the collapse of her marriage, Julia goes from man to man and takes up drinking. Julia tries to grasp the essence of herself but finds her hands empty. Other novels by Rhys include Quartet (1928), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939).Thurman, Judith. “The Mistress and the Mask: Jean Rhys’s Fiction.” Ms. 4, no. 7 (January, 1976): 50-53. Analyzes Rhys’s depiction of women as underdogs.Wolfe, Peter. Jean Rhys. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Approaches Wide Sargasso Sea both autobiographically and historically, examining the artistry of Rhys’s content and form.
Categories: Characters