Wide Sargasso Sea | Study Guide

Jean Rhys

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Wide Sargasso Sea | Symbols



Antoinette lives a secluded life. The seclusion is brought on by others and by herself. Because she is viewed as an outsider, Antoinette is unable to make friends. The one friend she does have, Tia, ultimately turns her back on Antoinette and treats her poorly. This treatment leads Antoinette to grow to appreciate nature more than people.

Antoinette walks alone in the gardens at Coulibri. This time and these walks give Antoinette peace and comfort. They are a barrier to the outside world that has treated Antoinette so harshly for seemingly no reason. She can be happy in the garden and relaxed. In addition the gardens are so beautiful, and Antoinette believes they are even more beautiful than the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve, the inhabitants of the original Garden of Eden, are thrown out after they eat from the tree of knowledge. This knowledge causes them to lose their innocence. When Antoinette and her family are forced to leave Coulibri, they enter a harsh world. The innocence Antoinette felt is rudely ended as she comes to recognize the full extent of anger and frustration that exists in the former slaves.


Fire shapes Antoinette's life, and she is fascinated with it for its beauty and its power. She first encounters it at Coulibri when the former slaves protest and burn down her ancestral home. Readers of Jane Eyre will recognize in this scene a violent parallel to the one Mrs. Fairfax recounts to Jane after Bertha Mason's death and Rochester's maiming. The fact that it happens at the beginning of the novel increases the sympathy and suspense surrounding Antoinette.

After she marries Rochester, the fire of the candles in their honeymoon retreat draws the moths and beetles. During a romantic dinner Antoinette and Rochester are enjoying, the bugs fly into the fire and die. Rochester is distressed by so much death and tries to sweep them up, but Antoinette accepts it as part of life. In this scene she shows she has learned the lesson of the Garden of Eden—death and evil are part of this world, but they need not be feared if one can face them with a partner. Rochester does not share her hopefulness.

Likewise the moths and beetles cannot control their urges. They are so attracted to the fire that they go to it despite the ending they will meet. The fire satisfies them despite its destructive capabilities. Over time this passion and capacity for destruction will consume both Rochester and Antoinette—him, figuratively; her, literally.


As opposed to the garden of the West Indies, a place of life and death, growth and decay, sustenance and beauty, the forest is a dangerous and evil place. The forest features prominently in Jane Eyre, and both Antoinette and Rochester have negative experiences there, lending it a more British flavor than a Caribbean one. In the forest, superstitions (primarily of death and danger) abound. People can easily become lost or confused and separated from the ones they love.

When she is frightened, Antoinette has many dreams in which she walks in a forest. The fear often comes from pending change, which she fears because she has generally led an unpleasant life and been mistreated. In these dreams, Antoinette is with the devil or someone who hates her, and she is scared. She is walking in an unfamiliar place and is lost. The trees in these forests are unfamiliar. Antoinette, who feels a great appreciation for nature and feels more comfortable with it than people, is not familiar with these trees. This unfamiliarity adds to her fear and is more troubling because something she once loved now haunts her.

Antoinette's dreams symbolize confusion, fear, and unfamiliarity. They also serve as a foreshadowing. She will ultimately be taken by someone who hates her (Rochester) to an unfamiliar place (England). Her descriptions at the end of the novel of an England that is not England are reminiscent of these earlier dreams.

Rochester, awake, chooses to walk alone in a forest in an excursion similar to Antoinette's. He grows concerned when he gets lost in the forest. He is alone, save for what he believes to be a zombie who does not talk to him. And he passes an abandoned house. Unlike Antoinette Rochester retains control in his forest "dream." He will control the zombie Antoinette, the Antoinette he calls Bertha, the woman who has lost all passion for life, and he will use her to keep him safe in the forest.

Questions for Symbols

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