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Wide Sargasso Sea | Context

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Jane Eyre

One inspiration for Wide Sargasso Sea was Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in which the character Bertha Mason appeared. Brontë's Bertha is a mad, unspeaking Creole who is locked in the attic. She is described as an alcoholic and adulterer with movements compared to an animal's.

In Jane Eyre Bertha's husband, Rochester, is portrayed as a victim. He is poor and, as the second son of his family, he does not stand to inherit anything. Rochester goes to Jamaica, where he is manipulated by his and Bertha's family into marrying Bertha for her wealth. In an example of situational irony, when Rochester returns to England, his father and older brother die, leaving him the entire inheritance and negating the need for his marriage. Meanwhile he is forced to deal with his wife's increasingly violent and sexualized insanity.

While Wide Sargasso Sea preserves much of the backstory and even the details of Jane Eyre, there are some changes, the biggest of which is in sympathies. Wide Sargasso Sea humanizes Antoinette (Rhys's name for Bertha) and brings her to the forefront as a sympathetic character. Although ultimately Antoinette does go insane, she is pushed to this mental break by Rochester, who is portrayed as the antagonist: his treatment of Antoinette, his lust for power, and his excessive desire for money drive the action of the story. However, even in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester has suffered because of his background; he claims he is unloved and that his brother is favored. Rochester believes everyone knew about Antoinette's problems and simply did not tell him; everyone, he feels, should therefore pity him and look on him with empathy.

Even though Jane Eyre provides a rich context for the novel, Wide Sargasso Sea stands as a classic in its own right, developing characters and themes in ways that stand independently from Brontë's novel.

Jamaica

Jamaica has a long history of racial conflict whose lasting effects are woven into the social fiber of Rhys's novel. When Christopher Columbus explored the Caribbean island of Jamaica in 1494, it was inhabited by Arawak Indians, also called Tainos. Columbus claimed the island for Spain, and in 1509 Spanish colonists began occupying the land. The majority of the Arawaks were enslaved by the Spanish, and most died from overwork and diseases introduced by the colonizers.

In 1655 the British captured Jamaica and rid the island of its Spanish inhabitants, who freed their slaves before fleeing to Cuba. These freed slaves and their descendants were called the Maroons. Jamaica was formally ceded to the British in 1670 and became a colony in the British Empire. Sugar became a major crop for the British settlers, who used enslaved Africans to work on their plantations.

Jamaica had a thriving slave market, and the number of both slaves and European immigrants in Jamaica grew during the second half of the 17th century. The slaves rebelled frequently, and many escaped to join the Maroons. Major revolts occurred in 1760 and 1831. The clash of such events created a social environment in which many inhabitants were torn between the different cultures. The novel's character of Antoinette is an example of such a person who must balance how culture impacts identity.

The British Parliament outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and gave slaves their freedom in all its colonies, including Jamaica, by 1838. The small landowners were affected financially by the emancipation of the slaves. The British tried to assist these landowners and gave them some minor compensation, and Jamaica became a Crown colony in 1866. In 1872 the seat of the British government moved from Spanish Town to Kingston, by then a thriving center of trade.

Creoles

The term Creole has different meanings. It was first used to distinguish descendants of British and European settlers who, like Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea, were born in the Caribbean. Creole comes from a Portuguese word, crioulo, meaning a slave born in the master's household. Over time Creole came to refer to Caribbeans of mixed blood. Jamaican Creole is the name for the language that developed as enslaved Africans in Jamaica interacted with their English and European slaveholders.

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