Effect of Patriarchy and Colonialism in Wide Sargasso Sea


This paper focuses on the main character of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway and how Patriarchy and Colonialism affect her psychological health. Madness is one of the central themes in Wide Sargasso Sea, and I have analyzed how her mental health deteriorates because of different factors. Under the topic of Patriarchy I have analyzed how Rochester oppresses Antoinette which leads to her repressing her self-esteem and losing her confidence in the process. Colonialism is another aspect through which I have explored the descent of Antoinette.


In an interview once Elizabeth Vreeland asked the writer as to why did she write this story to which Jean Rhys replied, “She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life.” (pg.128) Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, taking up the character of Bertha Mason from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and providing it with a background story since Bertha Antoinette Mason was just a “mad woman in the attic” in Jane Eyre. The setting of the novel depicts the Victorian era and the norms of the society which prevailed during that time. Antoinette is of European descent but lives in Jamaica, West Indies. Being a creole proves to be hard for her as she constantly struggles in search of a fixed identity. After the government passes the Emancipation act in 1833 Antoinette’s father dies from all the loss he has to bear and her mother is depressed. Antoinette’s mother concentrates on her son Pierre and neglects Antoinette which leaves her alone most of the time. But after her brother is exposed to the fire he dies. Antoinette’s mother is grief stricken and forgets about her only child left. Antoinette constantly yearns for her mother’s love which she never gets. Her only company is a black woman, Christophine who is their servant. Antoinette’s husband is a nameless English man who I would like to assume as Mr. Rochester since Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre, and how he affects her psychologically is another aspect I will be aiming on to describe her condition.

Contrary to Jane Eyre where Bertha Mason was a voiceless character, in Wide Sargasso Sea she has her own point of view and opinions regarding different things that affected her on psychological level. The novel is written in three parts, first and last are from Antoinette’s point of view and the second part from Mr. Rochester’s. But what does the narrative style suggest about Antoinette’s condition? By dividing the novel in three parts helps us in exploring the mentality of both characters. In the first part Antoinette describes what kind of an unfair and culturally confusing childhood she had. In the second part Mr. Rochester tries to exert his dominance on Antoinette in the form of patriarchy. In the third part Antoinette reestablishes her control over her life even if it is achieved by committing suicide.

Rochester’s behavior towards Antoinette affects her immensely. He constantly refers to her as “mad”. He cannot digest the fact that his wife has so much knowledge about West Indies so he tries to exert his dominance by ignoring her intelligence. Their relation has cultural difference, Rochester being an English man and Antoinette belonging to West Indies. According to Rochester “Bertha Mason is mad; and she comes of a mad family; idiot and maniacs through generations” and “Her mother, the creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard.” These are the views of Rochester about his wife and her cultural identity. From my perspective Antoinette is not mad because of her own doings rather different factors are responsible for her “madness”. Antoinette lives in an environment where no one has a connection with her. For a human being it is imperative to socialize and express their thoughts in order to survive and keep their mind intact. But for the most part Antoinette keeps it all in. Her mother is more concentrated on her brother that she doesn’t even remember she has a daughter which affects Antoinette.

Antoinette goes through lot things in her life, many situations and circumstances which shape her mentality. Antoinette is not what Mr. Rochester insinuates she is rather it is a series of events which lead to her psychological descent whereas Rochester is a mastermind as he makes himself look like a victim, the same we see in the following lines:

“Pity. Is there none for me? Tied to a lunatic for life- a drunken lying lunatic-gone her mother’s way. [Christophine’s voice echoes in his head] ‘She love you so much, so much. She thirsty for you. Love her a little like she say. It’s all that you can love- a little.’ Sneer to the last, Devil. Do you think that I don’t know? She thirsts for anyone- not for me… She’ll loosen her black hair, and laugh and coax and flatter (a mad girl. She’ll not care who she’s loving). She’ll moan and cry and give herself as no sane woman would- or could. Or could. 

These lines suggest how Rochester thinks of himself as a victim and a poor fellow who got tied up with a “lunatic” wife. He pities himself for having wed such a woman who does not meet the standards of his society. According to David Cooper “one does not go mad but is driven mad by others”. On the basis of this statement Antoinette’s situation can be described considering the way Rochester treats her and what role he plays in her getting to that point where she is no longer sane. Rochester while exerting patriarchy destroys Antoinette’s self-confidence which renders her weak and submissive. He does not deem her fit to be a part of English society and represses her in every way possible and whenever he talks about her the word “mad” is there in his sentences. Antoinette’s behavior, according to Rochester, is not appropriate with the English society since she acts nothing like the conventional ladies of the Victorian society because they did not express their opinions or talked back to their husbands nor did they drink but Antoinette has an opinion for everything which threatens Rochester’s superiority and power. Rochester also does not find Antoinette to be loyal just because she is not a typical Victorian woman which shows his insecurity and discomfort for there being a cultural difference he cannot accept her whole heartedly. On the contrary it is Rochester who commits infidelity by sleeping with the servant girl. It is him who decides what is right and what is wrong and how Antoinette will behave. Antoinette not being the typical woman Rochester expects her to be is enough for him to consider her “mad”.

In his book Madness and Civilization, Michael Foucault discusses hysteria which can help us in understanding Rochester’s views about Antoinette being “mad”. In old times Hysteria was thought of as a female disease in which women exhibited certain symptoms of sexual desire, anxiety and delirious behavior. Rochester is surprised when he sees Antoinette rage and these are the reasons why he thinks Antoinette is mad because she is nothing like the other English ladies. Hence Rochester controls her with his patriarchal power and Antoinette loses her mind.

Another factor which I think affects Antoinette’s life is colonialism. The setting of the novel is around the 1830s when the West Indies was still a British colony. Teresa F. O’Connor in her book, Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels discusses the Sargasso Sea as a symbolic reference which represents the difference between the whites and blacks.

In order to understand the effects of colonialism on Antoinette we need to dig deep into the story of Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette’s mother, Annette who belongs to the white descent marries a slave owner in Jamaica. This leads to Antoinette being alone and alienated. She does not fit in nor does she ever feel like she belongs there. The blacks obviously don’t like her considering the fact that she is a white and her father is a slave owner. Her relation with her husband is also strained and she expresses this by explaining the song their servant girl Amélie, sings about Antoinette:

It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all. 

The feeling of alienation never leaves Antoinette; she’s always in a quest for belonging. However her life is a tragedy because when she is young she does not get the love and affection she deserves as a child. The blacks don’t like her they constantly throw insults at her, calling her a “white cockroach” which leaves an impact on her innocent mind.

Another way in which she feels colonized is by her husband, Mr. Rochester who marries her for money but Antoinette is too naïve to understand all this. Rochester plays the role of a colonizer and Antoinette is the one who is colonized just because Rochester is a man he thinks he is superior to Antoinette and has every right to teach her to act according to him. Their relation is that of a master and slave just like the English thought of themselves to be the masters therefore colonizing foreign territories which they had no right to take under their control. The same hierarchal structure exists in our society where a man is always deemed to be better and superior than a woman. A woman is never supposed to be capable enough to make decisions let alone decisions for her own self.

The result of this is that Antoinette becomes a submissive wife while in the starting of her marriage with Rochester she is very active she is nothing like the conventional women of her society but as he keeps colonizing her mind she becomes passive. Antoinette is lively and happy when she describes everything about her home town to Rochester but being a man, he feels threatened by the knowledge and awareness his wife possesses, he is not ready to be put into an inactive role. In his book Jean Rhys: A critical study (1979), Thomas Staley claims that Antoinette is not someone who has survival instincts but I disagree with this as she does try to stand on her beliefs in the beginning. She often argues with Rochester when he tries to change her according to his opinions and rules of his society. She tries to hold onto her values and opinions, doesn’t leave them without a fight. She’s not like other Victorian ladies who were not supposed to question their husbands, when she finds out about Rochester’s infidelity she asks Christophine to help her in order to win her husband back. This shows how much of an active character Antoinette was. Then what is it that turns her into a passive character? It is Rochester whose behavior turns Antoinette into this passive and submissive woman. Rochester makes her feel alienated, rejected and alone which affects Antoinette psychologically. He is harsh towards Antoinette when she wants nothing but love from him. There is someone though who knows the real intentions of Mr. Rochester. The following lines are said by Christophine the only person who seems to understand the situation of Antoinette.

Everybody know that you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up, because you jealous of her. She is better than you, she have better blood in her and she don’t care for money-it’s nothing for her. Oh I see that first time I look at you. You young but already you hard. You fool the girl. You make her think you can’t see the sun for looking at her . . . You make love to her till she drunk with it, no rum could make her drunk like that, till she can’t do without it. It’s she can’t see the sun any more. Only you see. But all you want is to break her up.

Rochester changes the name of Antoinette to Bertha and never calls her by her real name, in the last part of the novel Antoinette thinks about the importance of a name. The name of a person is not just a sound to which they respond no there is an identity associated with a name but Rochester calls Antoinette, Bertha in order to give her an English identity. So in this way he takes a part of her away right from the beginning of their marriage.


Thus I have explored how patriarchy and colonialism are responsible for the decline of Antoinette’s mental health. The patriarchal structure of the society always control her, first her step-father Mr. Mason makes every decision for her then her husband Mr. Rochester. All these men affect her mentally which results in Antoinette losing control of her mind and turning “mad”. Mr. Rochester works as an oppressor and a colonizer who colonizes and destroys Antoinette’s confidence and self-esteem.

I have also tried to explain that Mr. Rochester’s idea of calling Antoinette “mad” emerges from the fact that Antoinette does not shy away from expressing her feelings, opinions or even sexual desires which threatens the authority and patriarchy of Rochester. He turns Antoinette into a passive character that is very vivid and lively in the beginning of their marriage but Rochester colonizes her mind and oppresses her. Antoinette’s death is also a form of her breaking free from the imprisonment that Rochester puts her into. Although the end to Antoinette’s story is tragic but it is relieving in a way that she chooses how to end her own life. She becomes an active character again. This action breaks her free from every bound and imprisonment she has been in and sets herself free. This shows how much of an unconventional character she is in a society which gives no room for a woman to show her views and opinions, a society which allows no woman to be herself and do what she wants to do but Antoinette despite every difficulty in her life always fought for her beliefs and died on her own terms.


  • Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: André Deutsch, 1966.
  • Harrison, Nancy. Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women'. University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization. Oxon: Routledge Classics, 2001.
  • Hofstede, G. (Ed.). (1998). Cross-cultural psychology series, Vol. 3. Masculinity and femininity: The taboo dimension of national cultures. Sage Publications, Inc.
  • Ciolkowski, Laura E. “Navigating the Wide Sargasso Sea: Colonial History, English Fiction, and British Empire.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 43, no. 3, 1997, pp. 339–359. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/441916.
  • Gilchrist, Jennifer. “Women, Slavery, and the Problem of Freedom in Wide Sargasso Sea.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 58, no. 3, 2012, pp. 462–494. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24246943.
  • Cooper, D., 1978. The language of madness. New Haven , London: Yale University Press Print.
  • O’Connor, Teresa F. Jean Rhys: The West Indian Novels. New York: New York UP, 1986
  • Staley, Thomas F. Jean Rhys: A critical study. Austin: U of Texas P, 1979.
16 August 2021
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