Extract 10 : the end of Antoinette- Bertha.
In this novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys is giving a voice to the character of Bertha Mason, the mad woman in the attic of the novel ‘Jane Eyre’, written by Charlotte Brontë (in 1847). As Jean Rhys was a West-Indian, like Bertha Mason, she felt the need to ‘write back’ and add her West Indian viewpoint in order to do that character justice. So, here, Bertha Mason becomes Antoinette and the narrator of both parts 1 and 3.
Wide Sargasso Sea deals with Antoinette Cosway, a white girl who grew up in the Caribbean, had a disastrous arranged marriage with an unnamed English man (Rochester) and went mad, imprisoned in a English country house.
This extract belongs to the very short part 3 of the book, in which Antoinette is eventually identified with Bertha in Jane Eyre, after the failure of her marriage in Jamaica. So, both stories overlap at the point of the novel.
I) Now she’s in England, Antoinette has changed a lot :
a) Old tendencies have become permanent : paranoia
She is suspicious of everybody : She hates Grace Pool, the servant who watches over her in the attic. She thinks she hid her red dress. She believes they have changed and replaced the dress.
She thinks she is followed : page 121, line 25 / page 116, line 29
b) Now troubles :
She experiences losses of memory and loses track of time.
Her mind is a blank. She didn’t remember what she did to Mason, nor who he was.
She knows the house but doesn’t remember when she was the first time. As for her, time has no meaning.
c) A shattered self :
She has lost her identity.
Her name is denied her, she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She can’t recognize her image in the mirror. She has slowly become Rochester's creation, renamed "Bertha Mason" and transformed into a madwoman
à She has become mad, even Richard Mason doesn’t recognize her. Richard's non- recognition of Antoinette recalls Antoinette's own non-recognition of her mother when she visited her mother at the house of the caretakers. Richard's look of horror confirms that Antoinette has followed in her mother's footsteps
Yet, we notice she has some flash of lucidity : she remembers the letter she has send to Richard, She remembers wearing the red dress the last time she saw her cousin, Sandi. Antoinette's attachment to her red dress is particularly poignant. She clings to the dress as a reminder of her past, believing she can smell the Caribbean landscape in its folds. It is by touching and staring at the dress that she loses herself in to her sensory, organic world of memories.
II) She has reached a tragical dimension :
She experiences delusions and fails to acknowledge reality. Her dreams overlap reality.
a) Places :
She refuses to acknowledge she is in England.
As for her, the house is a background : page 116, line 33
b) the premonitory dream :
That night, Antoinette dreams for the third time that she steals the keys from Grace, unlocks the door, and errs through Thornfield , carrying candles. Accidentally, she puts the drapes on fire. Soon, in the dream, there is a wall of flames behind her. Moving away from the flames and the sounds of yelling, Antoinette goes back upstairs and out to the battlements, where she watches the red sky and sees fragments of her life pass before her. As Antoinette is about to jump, she wakes, screaming, from her dream. Feeling that she must enact the dream, she steals Grace's keys and heads down the passage with a candle in her hand.
The way she recounts her own death is truly eerie. Nevertheless, we never see her death described explicitely.
Above all, Antoinette herself ends on an optimistic note: the death is an escape. She wants to go back to the place she belong with the persons she has loved, Christophine, Tia and Sandy. Rhys grants her protagonist a final moment of triumph. Antoinette appears active and defiant, about to enact her dream. She is finally allowed to speak, and Rochester must listen: the fire is her voice of rage.