Literature Study GuidesWide Sargasso SeaPart 1 The Burning Of Coulibri Summary

Wide Sargasso Sea | Study Guide

Jean Rhys

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Wide Sargasso Sea | Part 1 (The Burning of Coulibri) | Summary

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Wide Sargasso Sea has three parts. This study guide breaks parts 1 and 2 into smaller sections for the purpose of summary and analysis.

Summary

As Wide Sargasso Sea opens, Antoinette, the protagonist and narrator, explains why her mother (Annette) and the family are not accepted by their community in Jamaica. Annette is young, pretty, and from the French colony of Martinique, while Jamaica is an English colony. In addition Annette is a Creole, which leaves her on the outside of both races. Antoinette's father has been dead a few years, and the estate where the family lives, Coulibri, has fallen into disrepair due to the family's financial struggles since his death.

The slaves have recently been freed, and there is resentment toward their former masters, the white people. Antoinette's family used to have slaves, and they currently have a few black servants. Like the other slaveholders, the Cosway family were promised compensation for releasing their slaves, but they have not received any.

Annette's mother goes horseback riding every day, but her horse gets poisoned, which leaves her feeling stranded. Later she convinces a doctor from Spanish Town to come to their estate and check on Pierre, her son, who is unable to walk or talk properly. The doctor delivers bad news and never returns. This turn of events impacts Annette greatly; her grief causes her to grow thin and silent, and she eventually becomes housebound. When Antoinette reaches out to her, she does not respond and even pushes her away. Antoinette is lonely and spends time in the garden, which is overgrown and in need of care. She also spends time in the kitchen with Christophine, a servant who is from Martinique like Annette.

Like Annette, Christophine was not accepted by others in Jamaica. Over the years Antoinette has become fond of Christophine, who sings to her and provides company. Annette says the family would not have survived without Christophine, who stays with the family out of loyalty. She believes the other servants stay out of a need for money. Antoinette worries Christophine will leave the household.

One day a black girl sees Antoinette and insults her, "Go away white cockroach, go away, go away." Christophine finds Antoinette and the next day provides a playmate for her, Tia; the two become friends, but only briefly: one day Tia sees that Antoinette has some money. They make a bet, and Tia takes Antoinette's money, and the girls insult each other. Tia leaves while wearing Antoinette's dress, leaving her to wear Tia's old one. When Antoinette arrives home, she finds there are visitors. Her dress, that of a poor black girl, embarrasses both her and her mother.

That night Annette does not talk to Antoinette, who becomes convinced that her mother is angry with her. Later Antoinette has a dream about being chased in the forest. She believes life is about to change. Her mother starts leaving the house again (she uses the neighbor's horse), has new dresses made, and attends social functions. Antoinette goes off on her own and enjoys the solitude.

Soon Annette marries Mr. Mason. At the wedding the guests gossip about Annette and her former husband and wonder why Mr. Mason would marry her. Antoinette overhears them. While the couple honeymoon in Trinidad, Antoinette and Pierre stay with their Aunt Cora in Spanish Town. While the family is away, Mr. Mason is having repairs done on Coulibri. New servants come in as well, and they talk about Christophine's obeah practices, which causes Antoinette to be fearful.

A year after they are married, Annette wants to leave Coulibri because she believes the people hate them. She and Mr. Mason argue about it regularly. Antoinette agrees and thinks things are worse because now they have money. Mr. Mason does not see things in the same way and laughs at Annette's concerns. Later Aunt Cora warns Mr. Mason about how he talks in front of the servants.

One night Antoinette is awoken by her mother and told to come downstairs. When she arrives, the family is all there (except Pierre), as well as Christophine and the servants. There is a protest going on outside, and the protesters are throwing rocks at the house. Annette debates whether to get Pierre, whom she left with Myra, a servant. Mannie, another servant, notices the protestors have set fire to the house. Meanwhile Myra joins the protestors and leaves Pierre. Annette dashes to Pierre's room. She returns with Pierre, whose crib has been burned, and he appears lifeless. Despite her burned hair and hands, Annette is livid and screams at Mr. Mason for his trust in the black people.

The family leaves with the house in flames. Mr. Mason is forced to drag Annette away from the home; she has been trying to save her parrot, Coco. Once outside, the mob screams at them. Two of the servants bring the horses around but the family cannot get to them. After Mr. Mason prays, the crowd stops yelling: they are focused on Coco, who has fallen to death due to clipped wings. The people see this as bad luck. Mannie brings the carriag,e and the family enters. One of the protestors verbally assaults the family, but Aunt Cora's firm speech stops him. As Antoinette takes a look at the house, she sees Tia and runs to her, seeing her as all that is left of her old life. Tia throws a rock at Annette that hits her in the face and draws blood.

Analysis

From the first lines of the book, Rhys establishes Antoinette and her family as outsiders. Both Annette and Christophine are from Martinique, a French, not an English, colony. Annette's Creole ancestry makes her an outsider to all races. Both the white people (who closed ranks, leaving the Cosways on the outside of the circle) and the black people (who refer to the family as white cockroaches) view Antoinette's family as other. Coulibri thus becomes an island by itself within the Islands of the West Indies. The status of being on the outside is compounded for Antoinette, since her mother favors her sickly brother over her, for whom her mother shows little affection. Antoinette is essentially left to fend for herself with occasional periods of closeness to her Aunt Cora and Christophine, the family servant.

When Antoinette does find friendship in Tia, it is with a black girl whose family is also not from Jamaica. However, as soon as Tia realizes Antoinette has money (while the family is poor, they have more than Tia), their friendship dissolves. Her deception of Antoinette, which includes stealing her dress and money, shows Tia is unable and perhaps unwilling to truly reciprocate Antoinette's friendship. Despite her youth, she recognizes the differences between herself and Antoinette, and like the adults around her she spurns the Cosways.

Antoinette recognizes the cruelty Tia displays toward her and decides it is better to be on her own. However, when trouble erupts at Coulibri, Antoinette turns to Tia and wants to be like her. It is only when blood is running down her face that Antoinette realizes that Tia has thrown a stone at her. Antoinette requires violence to learn the lesson that she personally, and not just her family, is in exile. For this reason, while she finds the Caribbean landscape beautiful, she often feels bewildered and overwhelmed by it.

It seems the only person who does not understand and appreciate this tension is Mr. Mason. The Englishman came to the West Indies to increase his fortune, and it appears he has been successful on this front. However, he does not recognize the socio-economic issues driving the mood of the people. Though he is warned by Annette and Aunt Cora, Mr. Mason insists the ex-slaves are "too damn lazy to be dangerous." While he capitalizes from the downfall of the previous slave owners, he believes himself impervious to a similar fate. Annette's fierce anger at him, leading her to attempted murder, is almost understandable. His inaction causes the death of her son and a grief so intense it causes her madness. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will see some of the events of that novel prefigured here.

A number of times in this section, Antoinette is victimized or insulted. Before her mother's wedding, people were degrading Annette and wondering why Mr. Mason would marry her. Tia and others say cruel things to Antoinette, who all the while does practically nothing to defend herself: although she seems to realize she is being insulted, she also seems to realize it is useless to fight back. At the end of this section, Coco the parrot is burned and falls to his death. Because Coco's wings have been clipped, he is unable to fly away and protect himself; instead he must rely on others. In many ways Antoinette is like Coco. She is young, beautiful, and white, all of which should be assets to her, but her wings have been clipped in the sense that she is unable to protect herself and has no one to look out for her. Her father is dead and her mother is preoccupied with her own grief. Her later behavior, or lack of it, should be judged with this beginning in mind.

Multiple images of death are presented in the first pages of the book. Mr. Luttrell, Annette's neighbor and only friend, kills his dog before killing himself. He does so out of desperation since his fortune, like the Cosways', has been lost as a result of the liberation of the slaves and the never-ending wait for the promised compensation from the English. Annette's horse has been poisoned, and flies buzz around it, picking it as they wish. This death ultimately leads to an empty house next door and more isolation for Annette and her family. The smell of dead flowers even pervades their neglected garden, which Antoinette compares to the Garden of Eden: "large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible."

There are parts of Coulibri Antoinette has yet to discover and doing so brings her joy. The biblical story says Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, after being convinced to do so by the snake, despite being commanded by God not to. She then has Adam do the same. Because Adam and Eve defy God's command, they are deemed unworthy of paradise and are exiled from the Garden of Eden; they will now need to work the land to support themselves. Like Eve Antoinette discovers a snake on one of her nature walks. The snake—along with the neglected, wild gardens at the Coulibri estate—adds a sense of danger. The scene foreshadows both the family's exile from Coulibri and Antoinette's more intimate knowledge of evil.

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