The girl who will become the madwoman is named Antoinette Cosway. Born and raised on a plantation in Jamaica, Antoinette loses her father at an early age. He drinks himself to death, leaving his fragile wife Annette (Antoinette’s) mother, alone on the crumbling plantation with a few servants, Antoinette herself, and Pierre, Antoinette’s younger brother, who is physically and perhaps mentally challenged, unable to walk unassisted and still sleeping in a baby’s crib as a young boy (18-20).
The first part of the novel is narrated by Antoinette herself, and the reader soon realizes that all is not well in the girl’s world. Antoinette’s mother largely ignores her, lavishing all her love on Pierre (20). The ex-slaves who still live on the estate hate Antoinette because she is white and the other white girls in the area dislike her because she is white Creole, born on the island, of a lower social caste than a white girl born in England (23, 28).
The only person who seems to care at all about Antoinette is Christophine, the house servant who was “given” to Antoinette’s mother as a wedding gift (21). Christophine is a dignified and strong individual and a practitioner of obeah, the voodoo religion brought from Martinique, where both Annette and Christophine are from originally (30-31). Her practice of obeah sets Christophine apart, much as the fact that she is from Martinique and not from Jamaica does as well. Like Antoinette, Christophine doesn’t fit in anywhere easily.
Five years after the death of Mr. Cosway, Antoinette’s mother finally remarries. Mr. Mason, Antoinette’s new stepfather, is a prosperous planter, but he doesn’t understand the resentment of the freed blacks who are still poor and hungry. The fact that he has estates and wealth only makes them angrier, and unlike the years when they were content to let Annette and her children live poor and hungry on the plantation, the arrival of a rich white “master” stirs up all the old hatreds. Annette tries to warn Mr. Mason of this, but he doesn’t believe her (32-33). Eventually, however, Annette is proved right, and this is where the story becomes tragic.
One night, the ex-slaves move on the house in a mob. A first, Mr. Mason believes they’re drunk and will soon disperse, but the old hatreds are too strong (38). They fire the house while most of the family cowers in the drawing room (39). Annette goes to Pierre’s room and finds it filled with smoke; the black nursemaid who was supposed to watch the boy is gone (39-40). Members of the mob climb on the roof and set more fires, and the family must flee (40-41). Annette, already half-wild over the fact that Pierre has choked in the smoke-filled room and is dying, fights to retrieve her parrot, Coco. But it’s too late. As Antoinette watches in horror, Coco, his wings previously clipped by Mr. Mason, plummets on fire to his death from the top of the house (43), foreshadowing “Bertha Rochester’s” eventual death at the house in England (Bronte).
In the end, the family escapes, but the house, the only home Antoinette has ever known, burns to the ground. Pierre dies soon after from the effects of the fire (46), and when Antoinette wakes up in her aunt Cora’s home six weeks later, Annette has lost her grip on sanity, driven insane by the death of her boy (47-48). Mr. Mason has abandoned the family as well (55), and Cora makes the decision to enroll Antoinette in a convent school, where some of the other students make fun of her because of her “mad” mother (49-50). Once again, Antoinette is alone and abandoned, offered no choice in where she goes or how she lives. She has no choice but to try to pick up the pieces and live as comfortably as she can in the convent school.
Eventually, of course, control of Antoinette’s life is once again taken away from her when her stepbrother, Richard Mason, arranges her marriage with an English acquaintance of his, a young man who badly needs money. Even though slavery has ended in the islands for blacks, for 30,000 pounds, Antoinette is sold like a slave to a man who knows nothing about her and has no affection for her, a man who will become the tormented “hero” of Jane Eyre.
Antoinette’s husband hates the Tropics, and he soon decides their marriage was a mistake, especially when he learns about the “family history” of madness, as it is presented to him. Again, she is given no choice, no control in her life. When her husband decides that it is time for him and his “insane” wife to leave the islands which are all she’s ever known, he books passage on a ship and takes them to England. Once “home,” he locks his wife in a garret room with little furniture and few comforts, consigning her to the “care” of a drunken chambermaid named Grace Poole. Alone, cold, and without even a mirror so she can see her own reflection and “feel” the reality of her existence, Antoinette slowly loses all hold on reality. In the end, just as she does in Jane Eyre, she escapes from her gaoler, who is drunk and sleeping, and finds a candle, setting the house alight just as the ex-slaves had burned her home in Jamaica. At the very end of the book, Antoinette/Bertha is free—free to throw herself from the roof, imagining that one of her little playmates is challenging her to dive into a pool of cool water. Rhys’ book ends before Antoinette/Bertha takes that plunge; in Jane Eyre, the reader is told that Bertha dies while Rochester valiantly tries to save her (Bronte). The husband in Rhys’ book never even makes the attempt.
In both stories, a woman is driven to madness. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea, the reader is at least allowed to see why and how the madness begins, and Antoinette is a much more sympathetic character, because we see her as a young girl longing for love and happiness, not just as an insane woman locked in an attic room.
Bronte, Charlotte (2009). Jane Eyre. Boston, Wilder Publications.
Rhys, Jean (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. New York, WW Norton & Company.