Wide Sargasso Sea was written as a metatextual reference to Jane Eyre, through the perspective of Antoinette Cosway, before her psychological dissent within the attic in Jane Eyre. Initially upon reading Wide Sargasso Sea, not being versed in Jane Eyre, it was taken as a tale of imperialism, and the struggle of wealth and class despite the ending of slavery. These struggles still exist, however in different context. If you examine the work through a feminist lense, you see that the same principles for colonialism and imperialism remain the same, there are powers of which aim to oppress and take ownership of property, and women are no different, and fall under that very category. Within Wide Sargasso Sea, feminism is the very undertone, and if you examine it this way it allows readers to understand the role of the patriarchy within sex and marriage, the opression of self, and colonialism.
Initially, it is important to recognize that the two socially accepted ways for a woman to attain security in this world are marriage and entering the convent. The Conway women take the marriage route; and it is ultimately unsuccessful each time. When reflecting on her mother’s relationship, Antoinette seems destined to follow a similar path of unhappiness and insanity. This shows how women were unable to escape their prescribed destinies, no matter how hard they fought. In both time periods, women’s independence was taken away, and they were stuck in a generational dependency on men through no fault of their own (Hendry) Examining the time period at which the text is set, there are different rules, values, and expectations that women are meant to uphold. If a woman was unmarried by the ripe age of twenty eight, they were often labeled as old maids, and exiled within society, as everyone knew that a woman’s job was to bear children, and maintain things within the home; and to men they were property. Marriage was the Conway womens ticket into acceptance, after a livelihood of being looked down upon from those around them. Once Antoinette becomes married Edward thirsts for Antoinette, but soon the roles are reversed as he starts to suppress her identity which will be explored later, and sex itself becomes a way of control for Edward to achieve domination over her. He cannot access her culture and country, but he can become sexually superior by using Antoinette’s desire and later completely rejecting it. (Pollanen 13) With marriage being such a binding factor within the culture, men understand the power it ultimately brings, Edwards is taking the dominance and oppression to a further level. In the novel the relationship between men and women is constantly seen as problematic and unfair, especially as in regards to the women’s forced dependency on men.
Moreover, there is a symbolic connection when Antoinette is stuck in the attic. “He renames his wife ‘Bertha’ thus domesticating her in terms of class as well as sex and race, and confines her to an attic, the othered space against which his english house can define iself” (Mardorossian 81) His marital status in which fixates control over Antoinette isn’t enough, he must literally confine her. Edward starts calling Antoinette by another name, Bertha, to deny her true identity and past. When she is in the attic she begins to spiral into insanity; Antoinette does not have a looking-glass, and no longer knows what she looks like. She feels that this means everything has been taken from her as she has lost her sense of identity. Ultimately, this dependency she has for men, derivative from her mothers relationships, has become the reason for her downfall. She is unable to be independent due to the nature of society within this time, and her dependency on men has resulted in chaos each and every time. A fairytale idea or understanding of how things should be drive her to find love and find haven within men, because women are unable to be powerful or content on their own.
Subsequently, the use of colonialism within the novel aligns perfectly with misogynist ideals of the men of the town. Wide Sargasso Sea brings out the oppression and domination of a colonial and patriarchal society under which Antoinette lived; In the tradition of colonial texts, the white man functions as the conqueror and observer who also speaks for and represents the colonized land and its women, for they have no voice of their own under the colonizer’s dominance. In addition to giving a voice to the ‘other woman’ through Antoinette, Wide Sargasso Sea also shows the reverse side of the white man’s role; Edward often feels lost, observed and hated in Jamaica, at the same time as he is unconcerned to what is happening around him.(Pollanen 13) He understands he does not have a connection to the “brightly colored, very strange” country which, just like Antoinette, “never had anything to do with me at all” (45). Colonialism and Imperialism is a huge theme among this work of literature, however it can be perceived as metaphorical and highlight the control men seek over everything around them, they must exert control and dominance. Everything is theirs for the taking. Both non-Europeans and women were viewed as being either passive, childlike and needing leadership or as sexually aberrant, emotional, wild and outside society (159). when analyzing Antoinette’s position in Wide Sargasso Sea; she is constantly perceived, especially by Edward, in these two traditional ways. She is either childlike, needing Edward to love and guide her. This further proves the ideal that mean of this era felt superior, and even Antoinette began to believe it. She was stripped of her independence, and came to depend on men.
Finally, being able to read through the text with a fresh eye and understanding of the misogyny that Jean Rhys tried to correct allows us to examine the way these women acted due to their limited opportunity due to their gender. Within Wide Sargasso Sea, feminism is the very undertone, and if you examine it this way it allows readers to understand the role of the patriarchy within sex and marriage, the opression of self, and colonialism. Ultimately, this modification of a powerful work of literature, reading it in modern times gives hope for the feminist movement due to powerful authors that push the envelope. During the days of colonialism, men sought everything around them as property. Slavery and marriage were no different, men believed God placed everything on this Earth at their advantage.