Places: Wide Sargasso Sea

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: Late 1830’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*England

*England. Wide Sargasso SeaAlthough only the brief third section of the novel actually takes place in England, the country’s influence reverberates throughout. All the people in power are English: Antoinette’s father, stepfather, stepbrother, and husband; Aunt Cora’s husband; the island police; and the people in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Antoinette admires an English girl in a painting called “The Miller’s Daughter” but identifies with Tia, an African American girl. Antoinette cannot believe that England is real, just as Christophine does not believe its reality because she has not seen it. Christophine prophetically calls it a “cold thief place.” Even when Antoinette is taken to England, it seems real to her only once, when she is allowed to visit the countryside and see its grass, water, and trees. Otherwise she compares the house in which she is imprisoned to “cardboard” and thinks that she and her husband became lost on their way from the West Indies. For Antoinette, England is a cold place, and she is left longing for the passion and beauty of the West Indies.

*West Indies

*West Indies. Island chain separating the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean from the Atlantic Ocean, colonized by European powers. Antoinette blames her lack of identity on having grown up there. Her husband mistrusts his bride because of her foreign ways and blames the islands for tricking him into a loveless marriage. In contrast to England, the West Indies are warm and seductive, with the power to make people behave irrationally. Antoinette’s final desperate act is an attempt to return home.

*Jamaica

*Jamaica. Island in the West Indies taken from the Spanish by the British, who made fortunes using slaves to raise sugarcane. Since emancipation in 1834, many freed slaves have grown to hate their impoverished former masters. Antoinette’s deceased father is a decadent, rich Englishman, her mother a beautiful young Creole from Martinique. After her father’s death and emancipation, the former slaves poison Antoinette’s mother’s horse, call the women “white cockroaches,” and burn their home. The English people in Jamaica scorn and gossip about the family.

Colibri

Colibri. Jamaican estate where Antoinette spends her childhood. Like its row of royal palms which have been either cut down or have fallen, Antoinette is proud but lost. The warm, wrought iron handrail in front of Colibri comforts her, but the orchids in the overgrown garden seem like snakes and octopi. Despite the comforts of the isolating sea and mountains which surround Colibri, the stones which cannot be stolen or burned, and a big stick, her widowed mother’s focus on her sickly younger brother makes Antoinette feel unloved. The beauty and returning wealth of the place frighten the wild girl and help bring about Colibri’s destruction, just as Antoinette’s beauty and inheritance destroy her.

*Spanish Town

*Spanish Town. Town near Kingston where Antoinette lives with Aunt Cora after Colibri burns. The convent there, especially its cool stones and shadows, provides Antoinette some safety and security, though the threatening half-caste children and English people who gossip about her mother’s insanity grieve Antoinette. In Spanish Town, Antoinette’s mother marries Mr. Mason, just as Antoinette marries the groom arranged for her by Mr. Mason’s son. Unlike her mother, who dances gaily at her wedding to a wealthy man, Antoinette does not want to marry the strange, young Englishman who Aunt Cora and Christophine believe is only after her inheritance.

*Martinique

*Martinique (mahr-teen-EEK). French-ruled Windward Island near Antoinette’s honeymoon island. A former slave of Antoinette’s mother, Christophine is a strong woman feared by the indigenous population, of which she is a member, and is rumored to practice a form of magic called obeah. When Antoinette’s marriage erodes, the servant offers to take her to Martinique. The English husband refuses out of fear that there she may find someone else and be happy. Martinique is an island of mystery, sexuality, and tolerance, a place the English despise and fear as they do both Christophine and Antoinette’s mother.

Granbois

Granbois (grahn-BWAH). Shabby white summer home inherited from Antoinette’s mother, located on an unnamed Windward Island near Martinique, probably based on the island of Dominica, where Jean Rhys was raised. Granbois is the setting of Antoinette’s disastrous honeymoon; she loves the place until her husband’s betrayal makes her hate it. The bathing pool where she throws rocks at a crab is a happy place, contrasted to the pool at Colibri, where Tia mocks her and steals her clothes. In Granbois Antoinette shows some self-confidence, feels almost at home and safe except at night, when she dwells on insanity and death and compares herself to the moths that fly too close to the candle’s flame and are burned to death. Antoinette’s husband is attracted to the beauty of Granbois yet feels that the place and its surroundings have a personal grudge against him. In contrast, the more realistic Antoinette asserts that Granbois is impartial and indifferent. He finds its colors too bright, its jungle hostile and threatening, and the perfume of its night-blooming flowers too sweet. He wants to conquer its wildness and penetrate the secret of its beauty but fails to do so, just as he fails with Antoinette. Instead, out of revenge, he decides to destroy her psychologically. Though he softens as they leave Granbois and pities the little white house struggling against the “black snake-like forest,” he asserts that the dark forest always triumphs, just as he has triumphed over Antoinette. Not only have his greed, intolerance, and lack of love destroyed Antoinette, but also they have damaged him.

*Sargasso Sea

*Sargasso Sea. Region of the North Atlantic between the Caribbean Sea and the Azores islands in whose comparatively warm and calm waters large amounts of seaweed float. Although mentioned only in the title, the Sargasso Sea symbolizes Antoinette’s rootlessness and her husband’s feelings of being smothered and trapped by her.

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.
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