Wide Sargasso Sea

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Otherness and Alienation Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Wide Sargasso Sea, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Otherness and Alienation Theme Icon

The problem of otherness in the world of Wide Sargasso Sea is all-pervading and labyrinthine. The racial hierarchy in 1830’s Jamaica is shown to be complex and strained, with tension between whites born in England, creoles or people of European descent born in the Caribbean, black ex-slaves, and people of mixed race. The resentment between these groups leads to hatred and violence. Antoinette Cosway and her family are repeatedly referred to as “white cockroaches” by members of the black population, and are eventually driven from their home by a mob of discontented former slaves. These dynamics are further complicated by the fact that inclusion and exclusion in the novel are based not solely on race, but also on geographical origin, appearance, wealth and status, and fluency in shared cultural symbols and values.

As such, the major characters in Wide Sargasso Sea are primarily defined by their separateness from any cultural group. The novel opens with Antoinette explaining, “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.” Antoinette and her family, though white, do not belong to the dominant class of white Jamaicans, for many reasons including local disapproval of her mother Annette Cosway’s behavior, appearance, and French origins, as well as the family’s poverty after the death of Alexander Cosway, Antoinette’s father. Christophine, Antoinette’s black nurse, suffers a similar type of exclusion. A native of Martinique, she is set apart from the other black people of the region. As Antoinette describes, “Her songs were not like Jamaican songs, and she was not like the other women.” The novel makes repeated reference to Christophine’s headdress and clothing, which she styles “Martinique fashion,” despite having lived and worked in Jamaica for many years. When Rochester arrives in Jamaica to wed Antoinette, he is repeatedly disoriented and paralyzed by his failure to understand Caribbean culture and custom.

It is alienation that leads the characters of the novel to the destructive acts at its center. Annette, driven by her family’s exclusion from white society, is driven to seek remarriage to the wealthy Mr. Mason, a union that ultimately brings about the tragic loss of her son, her home, and her sanity. The mob at Coulibri, angry at the disenfranchisement and exclusion that the Mason’s opulent house symbolizes, is driven to commit the violence and arson that destroys Annette and Antoinette’s family. Later in the novel, Daniel Cosway, the mixed-race, illegitimate child of Alexander Cosway, is obsessed with avenging his marginalized existence. His exclusion from the Cosway family leads him to write a series of letters to Rochester maligning Antoinette and her family. These letters disturb Rochester, and form the catalyst for his ultimate distrust and distaste for Antoinette.

The consequences of alienation become both increasingly isolating as well as increasingly dire as the novel progresses. The tensions at the start of the novel are between groups, “us” vs. “them.” Race and class difference leads an entire mob to burn down the house at Coulibri, and the family escapes damaged but together. Over the course of the novel, however, the family is drawn apart, and by the end, Antoinette is alienated even from herself. Rochester denies her even her own identity by repeatedly calling her “Bertha,” and in her madness and captivity she speaks of “the ghost of a woman they say haunts this place,” unaware that she is referring to herself.

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Otherness and Alienation Quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea

Below you will find the important quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea related to the theme of Otherness and Alienation.
Part 1 Quotes

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel begins, Antoinette lays out the complex social and racial dynamics in her Jamaican home. Following the emancipation of all slaves in Jamaica, the white population of the island "closes ranks," excluding their former slaves (who are black). And yet the dynamic in Jamaica is far more complicated than "black versus white." The Jamaican elite also look down on Antoinette's family because they're of French descent, whereas the majority of Jamaican elites are English. There's more than one way to be an outsider in this novel, and the passage establishes such a point right away. While she's certainly better off than the former slaves in her country, Antoinette and her family are still alienated by the other whites around them.


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The Lord make no distinction between black and white. Black and white the same for Him.

Related Characters: Godfrey (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the family servant, Godfrey, discovers the family's prized horse dead underneath a tree. Godfrey is sure that the horse has been murdered by an angry black mob, furious with Antoinette's family for representing the "old order" that accepted slavery in Jamaica. And yet Godfrey continues to serve Antoinette's family. As such, he takes a curiously detached point of view, claiming that God makes no distinction between different races.

Godfrey is in a difficult position: he's not at home with Antoinette's family, because of his race and low-class status, but he's certainly not one of the mob, since he continues to work for Antoinette. He's "neither here nor there"--an outsider everywhere he goes. In the absence of a real community, Godfrey turns to religion, believing that ultimately, all divisions are meaningless.

Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.

Related Characters: Tia (speaker), Antoinette Cosway
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Antoinette quarrels with her former friend, Tia. Tia is a black woman, and she's keenly aware of the shifting racial politics in Jamaica at the time. Tia bets Antoinette that she can do a somersault--she does so, and Antoinette is reluctant to pay her bet, disputing the validity of the somersault instead. Tia mocks Antoinette, suggesting that Antoinette, in spite of her white pedigree, doesn't have any real power in Jamaica anymore--ever since the Emancipation Act, white families have lost some of their power, and many are newly poor and alienated. Tia, who's been poor and socially persecuted for years now, is more used to surviving under such circumstances--thus, she's "better than" Antoinette, who's not only new to her powerlessness and relative poverty, but also is part of a group that supported or condoned slavery. This past makes Jamaican whites more morally bankrupt, in Tia's eyes, than any black person.

And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ands or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin— once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Natural Landscape: Gardens, Jungle, Trees
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

As Antoinette grows up, she becomes more and more isolated from other people, even her own family members. The racial and political tensions in Jamaica are so distressing to her that she prefers spending time with herself; or rather, time with the natural world.

Although Rhys suggests here that Antoinette has a strong connection to the natural landscape (particularly that of Jamaica), it's also clear that the relationship between Antoinette and nature is far from idyllic. Antoinette only focuses on the negative aspects of nature here--sharp grass, biting ants--and only prefers such a world because it's better than the world of race and civilization.

I was bridesmaid when my mother married Mr. Mason in Spanish Town...their eyes slid away from my hating face. I had heard what all these smooth smiling people said about her when she was not listening and they did not guess I was.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), Annette , Mr. Mason
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Antoinette watches with horror as her mother remarries (Antoinette's own father has died, leaving the family deep in debt). Anette's new husband is an Englishman named Mr. Mason. Though Anette herself is of French extraction, she seems to be giving in to the social pressure to "become English." Moreover, Antoinette is disgusted by the people she sees at her mother's wedding: she knows very well that most of the English guests there secretly despise Anette for being French and remarrying a Englishman to repair her decaying household. The scene is an important part of Antoinette's coming-of-age, since it shows her becoming even more disillusioned with the artificial ceremonies of life in white Jamaica: to be a part of society is to lie and be hypocritical, and Antoinette can't stand it.

Mr. Mason did not approve of Aunt Cora, an ex-slave-owner who had escaped misery, a flier in the face of Providence.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), Mr. Mason , Aunt Cora
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Antoinette is sent to live with her Aunt Cora, who used to be a prominent slave-owner before the Emancipation Act. Now, Cora has somehow managed to escaped punishment from Jamaica: she gets by despite having lost her entire labor force (unlike Antoinette's own family, which is immediately devastated by the Act). Cora's philosophy of life is at odds with that of Mr. Mason, Anette's new, mysterious husband. It's tempting to think of Mr. Mason as the "good" character here, by virtue of the fact that he rejects slavery (or at least rejects Cora the unpunished slaveowner). And yet, as we'll come to see, the truth is more complicated: Mr. Mason is hardly a progressive figure, and actually regards black people as sub-human.

You have lived alone far too long, Annette. You imagine enmity which doesn’t exist. Always one extreme or the other. Didn’t you fly at me like a little wild cat when I said nigger. Not nigger, nor even negro. Black people I must say... they’re too damn lazy to be dangerous, I know that.’
‘They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.’

Related Characters: Annette (speaker), Mr. Mason (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mr. Mason and his wife, Anette, have an argument. Anette is worried that their black neighbors have become so angry with her family (and Mr. Mason's new, ostentatious show of wealth) that they'll attack the house. Mr. Mason dismisses Annette's worries as "hysterical," and suggests that the black neighbors are too foolish and lazy to plan anything so daring.

The passage is important because there's no real hero or villain in it. Annette's comments about her black neighbors suggests that she sees them as very "alive" but also dangerous and antagonistic. Mr. Mason, by contrast, is incredibly condescending toward black people, insulting them with slurs and dismissing them as childish. Annette is smarter about the ways of the world--she knows that her black neighbors are smart and powerful enough to destroy her--but she continues to regard them as monsters, not people. Annette does, however, show some sympathy for the plight of former slaves in Jamaica--as a longtime resident of the island, she knows about their suffering in ways that Mr. Mason cannot understand.

We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), Tia
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Antoinette has lost her home: an angry mob has burned it to the ground. Antoinette staggers away from the wreckage, hoping for some connection to her old, peaceful life. She stumbles upon Tia, who's standing with a group of sympathetic-looking black women. But instead of showing any compassion for her old friend, Tia throws a rock at Antoinette. Antoinette is shocked by Tia's actions--indeed, both of them begin to cry.

The passage shows the basic division between Antoinette and the rest of society, and the division within Antoinette. Antoinette is trapped in the middle: she's made to be representative of the white elite in Jamaica (the reason that Tia throws a rock at her), and yet she's also an outsider among such an elite group--as a "creole" and a woman, she has no real power. She's the victim of other larger social forces over which she has little to no control. Rhys captures the paradoxes of Antoinette's existence when she describes Antoinette looking into Tia's face and seeing "a looking-glass." Antoinette and Tia are similar enough to be friends, bot also total opposites. They have a peculiar relationship: they see a lot of themselves in each other, and yet know that they'll always be different.

Part 2 Quotes

This a very wild place — not civilized. Why you come here?

Related Characters: The Young Bull (speaker), The Husband
Related Symbols: The Natural Landscape: Gardens, Jungle, Trees
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narration has shifted to the point of view of a new character, Antoinette's husband. Antoinette and her new husband have traveled to a town called Massacre. During their time in the town, a porter named the Young Bull asks the Husband, seemingly a rich, sophisticated man, why he's brought his wife to an uncivilized area.

The word "civilized" carries with it many connotations. As the passage suggests, civilization is a kind of shorthand for whiteness and wealth: the Young Bull's definition of "civilized" is, of course, biased by a colonial history of language in favor of white, English-speaking people like the Husband. The Young Bull is hoping to raise himself up socially by being especially submissive to the Husband and showing his disdain for his fellow workers.

If she were taller, one of these strapping women dressed up to the nines, I might be afraid of her.

Related Characters: The Husband (speaker), Antoinette Cosway
Related Symbols: Clothing and Hair
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Husband discussed Christophine, the black nurse who knows the art of obeah. The Husband finds Christophine a little intimidating, but also chooses to try and deny her power based on her clothing. The Husband seems to conflate Christophine's appearance with her humanity: he'd change his opinion of her if she changed her clothing (or, more to the point, her race and class).

The passage also shows that Christophine has power that goes beyond her race or sex. The Husband seems perfectly comfortable around the other characters in the novel, regardless of their race or gender. And yet there's something about Christophine--perhaps because of her confidence and her association with magic--that intimidates him.

I take up my pen after long thought and meditation but in the end the truth is better than a lie...you have been shamefully deceived by the Mason family...That girl she look you straight in the eye and talk sweet talk and it’s lies she tell you. Lies.

Related Characters: Daniel Cosway (speaker), Antoinette Cosway, The Husband
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Husband receives a mysterious letter from Daniel Cosway, one of the illegitimate children of "Old Cosway," Antoinette's father. Daniel claims that the Husband has been deceived in marrying Antoinette: she is not, in fact, a virtuous young woman, but rather the product of an evil family with madness in their blood. Daniel will go on to explain that Antoinette's family was hated in Jamaica for trafficking in slaves, and that Old Cosway had sex with many of his slaves. Furthermore, Daniel claims that there's a history of insanity in the Cosway family.

Notice that Daniel never actually levels any criticisms at Antoinette as an individual, and yet because of her genetic relationship to Old Cosway, Daniel is saying she's somehow "guilty" of her family's evils.

But they are white, I am coloured. They are rich, I am poor.

Related Characters: Daniel Cosway (speaker), Antoinette Cosway, Annette , Old Cosway
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Daniel Cosway's reasons for writing the letter to the Husband are clear enough: he's justly upset about being mistreated by Old Cosway and all of society for so long (because he's alienated even from the Cosway family itself because of his mixed race), and having no other avenue that would allow him to get justice, he writes the Husband a letter just to "getting even."

Daniel's complaints about the Cosway family may be well-founded, but Daniel is also clearly an unreliable source, biased by his bitterness and anger. He seems to think of the Husband as a tolerant, understanding man--hence, his decision to write to him and reveal the "truth." As we know by now, the Husband is hardly tolerant to black people at all--on the contrary, he's constantly dismissing them or misunderstanding them.

Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.

Related Characters: Christophine (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Antoinette realizes that her nurse, Christophine, is about to leave her home altogether. Christophine explains that she and the Husband don't get along, so it'll be easier if she just leaves permanently. Antoinette is heartbroken, since Christophine--while not exactly her friend--is one of the last links between Antoinette's current life and her past. Without Christophine, Antoinette will be cut loose in a frightening new world.

Christophine's parting words to Antoinette show that she's survived because she's tough and confident in herself--necessities in a world that's already so hard for women. Christophine could be considered a model for how to survive in an unjust world: she has a confidence and strength that most other characters lack, but with this comes a callousness (she turns her back on Antoinette, after all). The fact that Christophine uses magic might also be a signal to us that she's a true anomaly in the world of the novel: a woman who's completely free (for now).

These people are very vulnerable. How old was I when I learned to hide how I felt? A very small boy.

Related Characters: The Husband (speaker)
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Husband wonders to himself why the Jamaican people are so open with their feelings. He dismisses any such openness as an abnormality, and a sign of immaturity and foolishness. The Husband contrasts the Jamaicans' openness with his own English-style nurturing, where he learned to be polite and adept at hiding his true feelings.

First, the Husband is wrong to assume that only civilized people are good at hiding their emotions: the English culture of the "stiff upper lip" (i.e., never giving away one's inner feelings) is world-famous, and yet it hardly proves that English people are the best. (In fact, it arguably leads to all kinds of neuroses and an unhealthy society altogether.) Second, the Husband's claims of having total control over his feelings is ironic, since by now it's clear for all to see that he's had an affair with his maid: he hasn't done a good job of hiding his true feelings at all.

All women, all colours, nothing but fools. Three children I have. One living in this world, each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God. I keep my money. I don’t give it to no worthless man.

Related Characters: Christophine (speaker)
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Antoinette gets some tough advice from Christophine: leave the Husband altogether. Antoinette refuses to do so: she'd be too embarrassed, society would reject her, and she has no money anymore. Christophine is disgusted with Antoinette's weakness, and she accuses her, along with all women, of being weak.

The passage is important because it gives us some more information about Christophine, and reminds us that while she's a woman, she's not like any other woman in the novel. Christophine insists that all woman do what she's done: remain financially independent. Notice that Christophine hasn't turned her back on love or sex: she has children, but she refuses to marry a man. There are obvious limitations to Christophine's way of life (she never feels a sense of security from having a permanent companion, for example), and yet she's impressive in finding a way to survive on her own.

Justice. I’ve heard the word. It’s a cold word. I tried it out...I wrote it down. i wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me. There is no justice...My mother whom you all talk about, what justice did she have? My mother sitting in the rocking-chair speaking about dead horses and dead grooms and a black devil kissing her sad mouth.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), Annette
Page Number: 146-147
Explanation and Analysis:

Antoinette's marriage to the Husband has deteriorated to the point where she refuses to listen to him at all: she's well-aware of his adultery, and doesn't want to listen to his hypocrisies any longer. Here, Antoinette accuses her husband of having sex with his black servants--essentially the same actions for which he criticized the white slaveowners previously. When the Husband claims that the slaveowners' actions were worse than his own, due to issues of justice, Antoinette laughs, claiming that justice is an empty word.

Antoinette's claims about justice reflect her fatalistic view of life, as well as her despairing acceptance of her marriage (and of her mother's tragic fate). Antoinette knows that no amount of socially-approved justice could remedy the pains of her own life--her pains are far subtler and more psychological than any system of justice could "solve." Moreover, notice that Antoinette begins to identify herself with her dead mother: she's now of an age where she can see that she's turning out just like her mother, married to a corrupt adulterer, being coerced into kissing (as Annette was by her abusive caretaker) with her "sad mouth."

I was tired of these people. I disliked their laughter and their tears, their flattery and envy, conceit and deceit. And I hated the place. I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and loveliness.

Related Characters: The Husband (speaker), Antoinette Cosway
Related Symbols: The Natural Landscape: Gardens, Jungle, Trees
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the second Part of the book, the Husband has essentially separated with his wife, Antoinette. Moreover, the Husband has become deeply disillusioned with Jamaica and Antoinette both. He notes that he despises the Jamaican people, dislikes their language and culture and customs, and even hates the beauty of the Jamaican landscape and sky. This hatred, it's suggested, comes not from any kind of reasonable aversion but rather from pure bitterness: the Husband hates what he can't have, what remains "magic and lovely" and unreachable to him.

As the novel comes to a close, the Husband makes Antoinette a "representative" of Jamaica itself. Antoinette, the Husband has recognized before, is a good woman--and yet the Husband, because of his own weakness and coldness, struggles to appreciate such beauty--just as he struggles to embrace the beauty of Jamaica itself. Ultimately, then, it's because of the Husband's own weakness and inability to appreciate beauty that the marriage breaks apart. Although he pretends to be a just, progressive liberal, he ends up seeming like a shallow fool who doesn't know how good he had it until it's too late.

Part 3 Quotes

The rumours I’ve heard very far from the truth. But I don’t contradict, I know better than to say a word. After all the house is big and safe, a shelter from the world outside which, say what you like, can be a black and cruel world to a woman. Maybe that’s why I stayed on...Yes, maybe that’s why we all stay Mrs Eff and Leah and me. All of us except that girl who lives in her own darkness. I’ll say one thing for her, she hasn’t lost her spirit. She’s still fierce. I don’t turn my back on her when her eyes have that look. I know it.

Related Characters: Grace Poole (speaker), Antoinette Cosway, Mrs. Eff , Leah
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the third part of the book, we're introduced to Grace Poole, who takes care of "Bertha" (i.e., Antoinette) in England. (By now the novel is more closely following the storyline of Jane Eyre.) Grace has heard plenty of rumors about how the Husband came to meet Antoinette. Grace knows more about the truth than her peers, since she's been working for the Husband for longer, but she also isn't sure of anything, and doesn't dare gossip about what she knows: if she's found out, she could be fired and sent far away.

In a way, Grace and Antoinette aren't so different: they're both frightened women who are imprisoned in a particular place. Grace knows that she has nowhere else to go; if she were fired she'd end up back in the "black and cruel world." By the same token, Antoinette was trapped in a horrifying marriage to the Husband, knowing that she could never escape him. With the notable exception of Christophine, women in the novel are often the prisoners of their husbands or employers.

What am I doing in this place and who am I?

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker)
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to a close, Antoinette has lost everything: her home, her family, her money, her freedom, and--perhaps most tragically--her name. Without an identity of any kind, Antoinette is truly her husband's prisoner, forced to spend her time in the attic of his large manor house. Antoinette can barely remember why she was moved to England--it's as if being stripped of her identity has literally deprived of her of the past; i.e., deprived her of memory. While Antoinette is a relatively minor character in Jane Eyre (Bertha), she's the protagonist of Rhys's novel, a move that shows how 19th-century literature marginalized women, treating them either as angels or demons, never doing justice to them as complex human beings. Rhys has tried to remedy the gender problems of Jane Eyre by showing Antoinette as a full-fledged, complex protagonist.