Wide Sargasso Sea | Study Guide

Jean Rhys

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Wide Sargasso Sea | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


What does Antoinette's dream in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea foreshadow?

In Antoinette's dream in Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri), she is walking in a forest with someone who hates her, but the person is out of sight. She tries to get away and even screams, but she cannot move. At this point in her life, Antoinette has already made several enemies. Tia hates her because she is of a different race and with a different socioeconomic background than hers. Her mother is at best indifferent to her, which to a child is the same as hatred, particularly when the neglect leads to endangerment. And Antoinette feels the rising anger of the townspeople against the family, anger that she and her mother both are helpless to control. The dream foreshadows Antoinette's eventual confinement in an attic, when no matter what she does—try to reason with Richard Mason, steal the key from Grace Poole—she is unable to leave. At the end of the novel, she is in a house with a husband who hates her but whom she cannot see. Except for one visit from Richard Mason, Antoinette is left alone with Grace Poole. She feels lonely, misunderstood, and confused; like in her original dream, she screams in her sleep but is helpless.

Why is Antoinette so determined to be away from people in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

While Annette is revived in Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri), seemingly younger than ever, and the house is sad without her presence, Antoinette has little activity. She is content to wander the grounds of Coulibri on her own, repeating to herself the phrase, "Better than people." At this point in her life, Antoinette has known little affection or love. Her mother, who is now literally absent, has been absent emotionally for some time. There is no mention of contact between Antoinette and Pierre. Her father is dead. The only person who shows any affection toward Antoinette is Christophine. Otherwise, Antoinette's interactions with people have been hurtful. Her only friend, Tia, let her down. Understandably Antoinette is more content on her own where no one will harm her. This foreshadows her ending, when she is left on her own. However, by then she wants to be free.

What impact do rumors and gossip have on Antoinette in Parts 1 and 2 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

Especially in Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri), the novel includes a number of scenes of people gossiping and badmouthing Antoinette and her family. When Mr. Mason and Annette marry, it seems they are the only people that are happy. The guests whisper terrible things about Annette and her past, which Antoinette hears. Later in Part 2 (The Letter), Daniel Cosway's gossip and badmouthing cause Rochester to decide he was right all along to suspect he was duped into marrying Antoinette. For Antoinette, who is fragile and lacks a support system, the gossip at her mother's wedding is particularly hurtful. Throughout the text she is convinced that people, especially the servants, are talking about her. When Christophine suggests Antoinette leave Rochester, she declines for a number of reasons but primarily because of her concern about what others will say. Instead of inuring her to others' reproach, the rumors and gossip are painful and add to Antoinette's instability.

In Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea, how is Mr. Mason's dislike of Aunt Cora an example of superiority, and what is the effect of this attitude?

In Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri), Mr. Mason does not like Aunt Cora because she is an "ex-slave-owner who had escaped misery." The English, including Mr. Mason (and Rochester), believe those who had slaves deserved to be punished. Mr. Mason fails to recognize the level of animosity between the former slaves and their slave-owners. He thinks being English and wealthy allows him to understand the situation and be protected from it. When Annette insists the people there hate her and she wants to leave the area, Mr. Mason views it as nonsense. Mr. Mason defends the black people and is not worried about them because he believes "They're too damn lazy to be dangerous." His naïveté and misreading of the situation cause his family to suffer tragically.

In what ways is it appropriate that Coulibri is destroyed by fire in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

Readers of Jane Eyre will undoubtedly know that Bertha Mason set several fires in Rochester's home, eventually destroying the home, killing herself, and maiming him. So it comes as no surprise that violent fire forms a significant part of her early life. Rhys, however, establishes the novel's setting and themes by changing the arsonist's intentions. In Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri) the fire is set by former slaves who are enraged at the continued presence of their owners, outsiders who are still using the island's resources to make themselves wealthy while treating the island people as second-class citizens. The fire is thus an act of both rebellion and liberation, forcing the reader to reevaluate the reasons Antoinette may have had for setting her own fire.

How is Antoinette affected by Tia's assault with the rock in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

As the family is escaping the burning Coulibri home in Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri), Antoinette sees Tia and runs toward her former friend as a way of holding on to her former life. She sees Tia as a young girl with a close bond to Christophine, similar to herself. However, Tia's response is to throw the rock at Antoinette and draw blood. This literal smack in the face shocks Antoinette into the reality of the situation. To this point, although Antoinette has felt the animus of the local people toward her family and even some cruelty from Tia herself, she has not thought of herself as different from the islanders or an object of their hatred. The violent act sends her into a state of shock that takes her weeks to recover from, and it puts her into an isolation that is both physical and emotional. She is left alone with her Aunt Cora, far away from her childhood home and without her mother.

Why do Pierre's injuries and ultimate death by fire effectively end the relationship between Mr. Mason and Annette in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

It is clear in Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri) that caring for Pierre has always been a priority for Annette. When the doctor from Spanish Town says he cannot help Pierre, Annette is crushed. Her heartbreak leads to her paying even less attention to Antoinette and even more to Pierre; for example, when Antoinette screams upon awakening from her bad dream, Annette is concerned only that Pierre might wake up and not about what upset Antoinette. Marrying Mr. Mason provides another hope for Annette, who believes her new husband will take the family to England where Pierre can see English doctors, who she believes may be able to help her son; indeed Mr. Mason seems to have made a promise to that effect. When Annette senses trouble, she begs Mr. Mason to take his new family away before the former slaves do any violence. His refusal to do so leads to the death of Pierre, Annette's beloved child. She blames Mr. Mason—and also herself for having left Pierre in Myra's custody.

In Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea, what situational irony exists in Aunt Cora's remark, "It won't spoil you on your wedding day"?

Aunt Cora's comment in Part 1 (Antoinette's Schooling) refers to the blow to the face and head Antoinette suffered during the fire. Cora is grateful her face has not been scarred and that she will still make a beautiful bride. Aunt Cora is technically correct. In fact Rochester comments on Antoinette's beauty on many occasions. However, the fire impacts the rest of Antoinette's life, including her wedding day. The death of Pierre, her mother's insanity, and Tia's assault with the rock are shocks and wounds from which Antoinette never recovers. The mental and emotional impact of the tragic fire and its aftermath are too much for Antoinette to bear, and she is spoiled in many ways.

Why does Antoinette struggle in her adjustment to the convent school in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

Antoinette has seen her mother fall apart and reject her; then she briefly bonded with Aunt Cora, who provided her some comfort after the tragedy. Being sent to the convent school in Part 1 (Antoinette's Schooling) makes Antoinette feel like she is again being abandoned. She is still a child and in need of love, affection, and attention. Her journey to the convent school is made more traumatic when she is taunted and nearly physically assaulted on her first day there. Lacking love and support, Antoinette is extremely vulnerable. The convent school does not offer the warmth Antoinette desperately needs.

How does Antoinette's longing for happiness impact her in the convent school in Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea?

While in the convent school in Part 1 (Antoinette's Schooling), Antoinette dutifully offers up the prayers about "sufferings," but she wonders why the nuns do not pray for happiness. She says of happiness, "There must be. Oh happiness of course, happiness, well. But I soon forgot about happiness." Antoinette grows content while in the convent school. She is secure, part of a group, and treated decently—and free of sufferings. This is in some sense the pinnacle of Antoinette's life. She learns safety is paramount and to be happy means to be secure, within a refuge. While she is married, Antoinette offers a toast to happiness, and she is indeed happy with Rochester for a little while, though he never feels the same. The happiness Antoinette feels with Rochester is a fraud. While she is in the convent, the feelings and contentment are real. For Antoinette the best she ever has in life is to be free of suffering.

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