Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Interrogative Family Dynamics: A Juxtaposition of “Jane Eyre” and “Wide Sargasso Sea”

Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” (1847) is one of the most influential Gothic novels in the Victorian era. Framed as Jane’s autobiography, the story vividly depicts her dramatic life. While confronting various types of adversities, she always seeks for independence, freedom, and love for Mr. Rochester, whom she eventually marries. And this accomplished work has made Bronte a distinguishable writer. In 1966, Jean Rhys reacted to Bronte, publishing her best-selling “Wide Sargasso Sea,” in which characters from “Jane Eyre” are projected from a different perspective. Rhys spotlights Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s first wife from Jamaica, known as a madwoman in the attic. Rhys names her Antoinette Cosway and creates a story of her upbringing, interwoven with the Caribbean culture, which the author’s native land, Dominica, belongs to.

Both Jane and Antoinette are born to a tragic family. Jane, whose parents die from the typhus disease when she is young, is adopted by Mr. Reed, her mother’s brother. He promises to treat her as his real child, but after he dies, Mrs. Reed treats Jane very badly, thus breaking the promise. Antoinette, born in Jamaica, struggles with poverty and discrimination. She lives with her mother, brother, and a servant in a secluded place. Because her mother is a white native of Martinique, the local people —both black and white— discriminate against and torture her family. Her brother Pierre is killed by a fire at the Coulibri house, which places a dark shadow over Antoinette’s life. Jane and Antoinette have many traits in common. Comparing the family relationships of the two main characters, we can find several similarities as well as differences, which connect to the authors’ purposes and historical backgrounds of the period, and cast essential questions to readers.

One of the similarities between Jane and Antoinette is found in their parents. Both women are born to unequally married parents. Jane’s mother, Jane Reed, is a daughter of the wealthy Reed family, yet she falls in love with a poor clergyman. Not surprisingly, the Reeds do not allow her to marry a man of a different social class. Jane learns from a nursery’s conversation that her “grandfather Reed was so irritated at her disobedience, he cut her off without a shilling.” (Bronte 31) Jane’s parents live in poverty as a result.

In “Wide Sargasso Sea” Antoinette’s mother, Annette, is a foreigner from Martinique and first marries a debased ex-slave owner, Alexander Cosway. After he dies, she marries a colonizer and rich widower, Mr. Mason. The new spouse is fascinated by Annette’s beauty; she is well known as “a pretty woman” and an accomplished “dancer.” But people believe that this unbalanced marriage will not last long, saying “he will regret it”, “why should he marry a widow without a penny to her name and Coulibri a wreck of a place?” they add. (Rhys 26) Even though their skin color is the same, their background is completely different.

Both parental marriages include a split: the class split of Jane’s case and the cultural split of Antoinette’s folks. This difference highlights the difference in the authors’ main concerns. While Bronte questions the established social classes in England, Rhys focuses on consequences of colonization in the Caribbean islands.

Another similarity between Jane and Antoinette is their isolation from others. In Gateshead, Jane has a severe time being tortured by Mrs. Reed and her son, John Reed. They are the masters of the house, so no one can rebel and help ease Jane’s suffering. When she is ten, she is confined in the red room by Mrs. Reed as a punishment for arguing with John, which reminds her of hopelessness and greatly traumatizes her. Later Jane befriends several peers —including Helen Burns— in her adolescence, but emptiness and loneliness always follow her. After knowing that Mr. Rochester has already been married, she determines, “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” (Bronte 365)

Antoinette is also isolated from society. The house her family lives is located far from the town, and they are discriminated against by the local people; they see Antoinette as a “white nigger.” In addition, Antoinette’s stepfather, Mr. Mason, soon abandons the family. Such mental isolation never changes through entire her life. After she gets married to Mr. Rochester, who regards her as a “madwoman”, she is imprisoned in the attic at Thornfield, England until she lights a fire to set herself free.

Editor Stevie Davies notes that the immured woman is the key in Bronte’s literature. “Eliza the anchorite; Bertha the prisoner; Jane in the red-room all reprise this theme of the silenced woman,” he maintains. The mind of Bronte herself is in a “narrow cell; / Dark - imageless - a living tomb,” as she expresses in her poem “Frances.” (Bronte 572)

Thirdly, both Jane and Antoinette follow the path of their deceased mothers. Jane believes in her love as her mother does. Mr. Rochester is in the higher class and much older than Jane, but she never cares, in spite of the advice by Mrs. Fairfax: “Equality of position and fortune is often advisable in such cases” and “Gentlemen in his station are not accustomed to marry their governesses.” (Bronte 305-306) Antoinette, as well, marries a colonizer whose greatest interest is making money, just as when her mother had married Mr. Mason. And like her mother, she is seen as an insane woman. Jane and Antoinette both marry Mr. Rochester; however, the consequences are totally opposite. Jane and Mr. Rochester love each other, while he never loves Antoinette. Jane’s marriage is long-lasting, and eventually, the couple has a child as a result of their true love. Antoinette, in turn, tries to kill Mr. Rochester as her mother had attempted to kill Mr. Mason. She finally puts an end to her married life by killing herself.

Despite those resemblances, the family relationships surrounding the protagonists end very differently. In “Jane Eyre,” all the issues with Jane’s family settle down. Mrs. Reed and John Reed, who have harshly tormented Jane in their Gateshead house, die miserably as if the deaths are a punishment of Heaven. As for John Reed’s sisters, Eliza and Georgiana, they get mentally exhausted and come to reconcile themselves to Jane in some degree in Chapter 21, but Jane is determined to put a break with them, saying “You are not without sense, cousin Eliza; but what you have, I suppose, in another year will be walled up alive in a French convent. However, it is not my business, and so it suits you - I don’t much care.” (Bronte 279) [No mention of the sisters is seen after Chapter 22.] Jane’s uncle John Eyre remains a benevolent character throughout the story. Even though he passes away before seeing Jane in person, he had a will that included her, and Jane inherits a surprising amount of property from him. Although there still remain hardships, Jane’s family relationship is finally relieved.

In Antoinette’s life in “Wide Sargasso Sea,” on the other hand, we cannot see any resolution. Mr. Mason and his brother, Richard Mason, still keep a distance with her. Although Richard visits England to see her, he is not able to save her from madness and confinement in the attic.

Why is there such a huge gulf between two characters? We can view this as the discrepancy between the Victorians and the Moderns. The two authors have different intentions. Bronte in the Victorians mainly concerned with the social classes in England and asks readers to question the roles of women. Bronte creates Jane as a character who encourages female readers to pursue their freedom and independence. For such a character, family problems are obstacles to overcome; perhaps indicating that Establishment should be broken down. Rhys, in contrast, questions readers in a more obscure manner. By depicting the ruthless reality in Jamaica in the post-colonial era and the eerie, hopeless path of Antoinette’s life, not only does Rhys suggest reasoning to Antoinette’s madness, but she also tries to make readers reexamine colonialism at that time.

In “The Norton Anthology of World Literature,” the author introduces a notion that modernism was “interrogative,” stating “it inquires how we know what we know, rather than merely rejecting previous models of thought.” He adds, “much of what we think we know reflects the questions we ask and the methods we use to obtain answers.” (Puchner 1621) Witnessing World War I and consequent global turmoil, people knew “something was wrong.” And “the survivors resolved to reexamine the bases of certainty, the structures of knowledge, the systems of belief, and the repositories of authority in a society that had allowed such a war to occur.” (Puchner 1622) This is the key concept in the Moderns and engages with orientalism, or cultural imperialism, the process by which “the Orient” was constructed as an “exotic other” by the West. Rhys suggests that “something was wrong” in the environment surrounding Antoinette. But who is wrong? Unlike “Jane Eyre,” where characters have discernible good or bad human qualities —say, malicious Mrs. Reed and angelic Helen Burns, the answer is not simple. Many characters are not only victimizers but also victims. And this complexity itself is also one of the characteristics of the Moderns.

In general, novel writers tend to create a protagonist in a distressing family relationship so that they can craft antagonists and a less boring story. “Jane Eyre” and “Wide Sargasso Sea” are instances of such literature technique; however, their intentions and conclusions differ significantly. This discretion stems from the difference in each novel’s audience and purpose. Bronte challenges the establishment to shift the roles of women in the 19th century, whereas Rhys deepens the same story with the Caribbean perspective, trying to refute Orientalism. Nonetheless, both authors are the same in that they ask their readers very essential questions via the complex family relationships they have created.

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. “Jane Eyre.” Ed. Stevie Davies. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Rhys, Jean. “Wide Sargasso Sea.” New York: W. W. Norton &, Independent since 1923, 2016. Print.

Puchner, Martin. "The Norton Anthology of World Literature." New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

No comments:

Post a Comment