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Wide Sargasso Sea | Themes

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Women and Power

From the outset Rhys makes it clear Annette is struggling. With the loss of her husband and the ending of slavery, she is in a grave financial position. When her horse is killed and a doctor declares Pierre untreatable, Annette falls into a state of despair. She feels trapped and powerless. This feeling is enhanced by the fact that she had come to Jamaica from Martinique in order to marry her husband. Annette is therefore left alone with two children.

It is only through her marriage to Mr. Mason that her hope is restored, and then only momentarily. Annette is anxious to go to England and meet with doctors in the hope of helping Pierre. She begs Mr. Mason to leave Coulibri, but he refuses. This becomes the source of many arguments between the couple. Ultimately Annette has no choice but to stay with Mr. Mason and do as he wishes. Without him she and her children would find themselves in the same state of despair they were in before Annette married Mr. Mason. The relationship prefigures what will happen with her daughter.

The cycle of dependence upon a man's financial support repeats itself with Antoinette. While Antoinette is a wealthy woman due to her inheritance, Richard Mason turns over her fortune to Rochester, with no strings attached. Rochester can do whatever he feels is best with Antoinette's money without any input from her. Richard Mason's decision to do so was a controversial one: both Aunt Cora and Christophine beg him not to do so. They are unsuccessful, however, and Antoinette is essentially given to Rochester to do with as he pleases.

When issues in the marriage occur, Christophine encourages Antoinette to leave Rochester, but Antoinette refuses, noting that she has no money and cannot go anywhere. She is trapped and must stay with Rochester; she has no skills with which to earn money and has always depended on others to take care of her.

Unlike Annette and Antoinette, Christophine is independent. Despite her status as an ex-slave, she has managed to earn money, which gives her independence. When she becomes unhappy in Granbois, she simply leaves and goes to her own house. She reveals she has three children with three different men, whom she did not marry, saying "I keep my money. I don't give it to no worthless man."

In the novel marriage serves to handcuff women and leave them powerless, and it works as a symbol of the relationship between European powers and the colonies they established in the West Indies.

Alienation and Identity

The first words of the text, "They say when trouble comes close ranks ... But we were not in their ranks," reflect Antoinette's feeling of being an outsider. The outsider status is predicated on a number of issues, including the problem of place. Annette, Antoinette's mother, is a Creole from Martinique and speaks French. The white people in Jamaica never accept her because of her outsider status as a francophone. She is also much younger than her husband and extremely attractive, which makes the women uncomfortable. The black people do not accept Annette and her family because they were slaveholders.

The feeling of being an outsider is compounded for Antoinette, because she is an outsider in her own home. Her mother is so concerned about her sickly son that she hardly spends any time with and or shows any concern for Antoinette. It is difficult to even find a playmate for Antoinette. When Christophine finds her one in Tia, the friendship does not last because of the differences in the girls' race and social position.

The only place Antoinette ever seems to fit in is the convent school. She does as the nuns say, whether she believes or not. But even there Antoinette does not make any deep connections. In fact the only connections Antoinette makes throughout the text are with Aunt Cora and Christophine. Her differences leave Antoinette feeling like an outsider and ultimately scared. She does not seem to belong anywhere.

Slavery and Entrapment

The story opens during a tumultuous time in Jamaica's history. The slaves had recently been emancipated and gained their freedom. While happy to have their freedom, they were still in a precarious position. The slaves had little opportunity and many continued in similar to positions they had been while in slavery. Slaveholders, like the Cosway family, also suffered when the slaves were released because there was no one to work the land, which is clear in Coulibri's overgrown condition.

The British, who declared the slaves free, promised compensation to both the slaves and the slaveholders. The compensation was slow in coming or did not come at all (causing people like Mr. Luttrell such desperation he chose suicide), while the economic pressures and challenges continued to mount: it was slaves frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity who set fire to the house at Coulibri.

The former slaves who continue to serve as servants are in an awkward position. Myra, who served the Cosways, abandons her post when a protest erupts and joins the protestors. Amélie has no respect for her employers and insults them. Her only goal is to go to Rio and meet a rich man. While the slaves have broken out of their shackles, they continue to strive for freedom and protest their treatment and situation.

Other characters in the novel end up being enslaved symbolically: Annette, Antoinette, Grace, and even Rochester. Both Annette and her daughter are subject to the legal and financial provisions made for them by their husbands. They lack the freedom of movement and decision that would enable them to better their station in life and even to protect themselves in the case of danger. For Annette this results in the loss of her son and her descent into madness. For Antoinette the result is similar but harsher. She has no son to lose, and her insanity rips her from the only home she has ever known and thrusts her into a nightmarish netherworld.

Grace's symbolic slavery is only hinted at and not fully developed, but Rochester's slavery is as angry and violent as the freed slaves who burn Coulibri. He is first shamed and impoverished by his father and brother, who force him to find a wife outside his social position to free himself from debt, essentially selling himself. Then he tries to free himself by ripping off what he perceives as the shackles of Antoinette's love and the burden of her family history, only to find himself entrapped in a violence of his own creation.

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