Wide Sargasso Sea

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

Freedom in the novel is double-edged and troubled. Its ideal is presented in stark contrast, again and again, to its reality. At the start of the novel, we see that the Emancipation Act of 1833 leaves discontent and violence in its wake. Mr. Luttrell, a white former slaveowner and neighbor to the Cosways, commits suicide after Emancipation, unable to adjust to the new social and economic landscape. At Coulibri, the local population of black former slaves is deeply angry. As Antoinette remembers at the start of the novel, “They hated us.” Even the children threaten and enact violence on white people. A girl follows a young Antoinette singing, “White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you.” Antoinette’s one-time friend Tia, a black girl, ends up hitting Antoinette in the head with a rock as the mob burns her family’s house down.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, freedom can mean abandonment or isolation, the fear of which leads many to enter complacently and sometimes even willingly into their own imprisonment. We see this with various black servants who elect or wish to stay on with their former slave masters, including, notably, one young boy who cries “loud heartbreaking sobs” because Rochester refuses to bring him to England to continue in his service. Of this boy, Antoinette tells Rochester, “He doesn’t want any money. Just to be with you.” This holds true for relationships as well. After Annette’s marriage to Alexander Cosway, which was characterized by repeated infidelities, ends in his death, she becomes preoccupied with her isolation, referring to her new status as being “marooned,” and enters into another marriage, to Mr. Mason, with restrictive and then disastrous results. When Antoinette’s marriage to Rochester first begins to deteriorate, she imagines leaving him, and is urged by Christophine to “pack up and go,” but does not. This decision leads to her literal imprisonment by Rochester.

Even if it is violent and ultimately tragic, freedom is shown to be inevitable, the necessary path to redemption in the novel on both a societal and personal level. Oppression and imprisonment are unsustainable. Antoinette ends the novel and her life by setting fire to the house in which she is imprisoned by Rochester. Her narration ends with a sense of purpose and self-knowledge that she lacked in the rest of the novel. In reference to her own emancipating destruction, she says, “Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do.” This fire connects her to the angry mob that, in an act of protest against their own oppression, sets fire to her family’s house early on in the novel. Both seek freedom in the flames.

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Slavery and Freedom ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Slavery and Freedom appears in each section of Wide Sargasso Sea. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Slavery and Freedom Quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea

Below you will find the important quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea related to the theme of Slavery and Freedom.
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.

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.

Part 2 Quotes

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.

But I cannot go. He is my husband after all.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), The Husband
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Antoinette talks with Christophine about her unhappy marriage to the Husband. Antoinette knows that her husband has had an affair with at least one other woman; she also senses that her husband doesn't really love her at all. Christophine earnestly suggests that Antoinette leave the Husband, but Antoinette refuses--there's no way she can leave, since she's dependent on the Husband in every way. (He controls her money, where she travels, etc.)

The passage reminds us that at the time, husbands had the power of life and death over their wives--they could control their money, have them declared insane, etc. Antoinette's helplessness reminds us how incredible Christophine's achievement is: she's somehow made a life for herself without becoming dependent on anyone, male or female.

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."

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.