Wide Sargasso Sea

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Otherness and Alienation Theme Icon
Slavery and Freedom Theme Icon
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Wide Sargasso Sea is a revisionist novel, written to complicate and push up against the accepted truth of Antoinette or “Bertha” Cosway’s character as it is put forth in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the archetypal “madwoman in the attic.” The novel questions the very nature of truth in its premise, form, and content.

Within the novel, truth is shown to be slippery at best, difficult if not impossible to recognize and trust. Every story has at least two competing versions. The narration itself is unstable, switching between the perspectives of Antoinette and Rochester, often giving the reader contradictory perspectives and opinions on the same characters and events. Daniel Cosway, in his letters to Rochester, provides a troubling version of the history of the Cosway-Mason family, at odds with Antoinette’s narration, thereby injecting a third competing narrative. Cosway’s version highlights Alexander Mason’s depravity, and casts Annette, Antoinette, and Christophine as self-serving liars.

Many of the characters’ identities are forged in gossip and hearsay. Christophine, in particular, is a character with multiple backstories. When Rochester writes to Mr. Fraser inquiring about her, there are shown to be conflicting accounts of her whereabouts (“my wife insists that she had gone back to Martinique... I happen to know that she has not returned to Martinique”) and even her name (“the woman in question was called Josephine or Christophine Dubois.”) When Rochester decides to turn her in, he highlights the indeterminacy of her identity in the novel, “So much for you, Josephine or Christophine. So much for you, Pheena.” Even Antoinette is not entirely sure of Christophine’s abilities, and can only speculate at the scope of her obeah prowess. Rochester’s interactions with Antoinette are also riddled with confusion about the truth. He tells her, “So much of what you tell me is strange, different from what I was led to expect,” and in his narration remembers, “She was unsure of fact—any facts.”

Even the senses are not to be trusted. Vision plays tricks on people, and hallucinations abound. As a child, Antoinette cannot be sure whether she sees or imagines seeing feathers and chicken’s blood, remnants of obeah rituals, in Christophine’s room. While at Granbois, Rochester becomes lost in the woods and stumbles upon a paved road, where he frightens a child walking by. Later, he is assured that there was never a road there. Of Granbois and the mysterious instability of the senses that he experienced there, Rochester remembers, “it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing—I want what it hides.”

Denial or madness are shown to be the two alternatives for dealing with the crushing and confounding nature of truth in the novel. Either a character can “turn her face to the wall,” and deny the complexity and tragedy before them, as Christophine accuses Aunt Cora of doing, or go mad with grief, as Annette and Antoinette both do. Rochester ultimately takes the path of denial by imprisoning Antoinette, shutting her away forever rather than reconciling the truth of her nature and their marriage with what he’d expected, or been led to believe. Even Christophine finally retreats into denial, or refusal, when Rochester and Antoinette leave for England. Rochester offers, “You can write to her,” to which Christophine replies, “Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know,” and walks away without saying goodbye.

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Truth ThemeTracker

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

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

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.


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No one had ever spoken to me about obeah— but I knew what I would find if I dared to look.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Christophine is one of the most interesting characters in the novel, and one who is respected, feared, and alienated by both black and white people. Christophine is rumored to use a powerful form of voodoo magic called obeah; while Antoinette doesn't describe what, exactly, obeah is, we're left to assume that it's a powerful and frightening kind of ritual. In this scene, Antoinette learns a little more about obeah: she wonders what she'd find if she were to look through Christophine's things, and imagines that she'd find magical objects for casting spells.

The scene is a good example of how the line between truth and reality is often blurred in the novel. Antoinette assumes that she "knows" what she would find if she looked through Christophine's things, but she also admits that she knows almost nothing about obeah itself. As in other parts of the novel, Antoinette will confuse dreams or imagination with reality, and is haunted by this blurring of just what is "truth."

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.

‘Such terrible things happen. Why? Why?’
‘You must not concern yourself with that mystery. We do not know why the devil must have his little day. Not yet.’

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker), Sister Marie Augustine (speaker)
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

After the fire that destroys her family's home, Antoinette is sent to a convent school, where a nun named sister Marie Augustine takes care of her until her stepfather returns to get her. In the convent, Antoinette thinks about the horrible things that have happened to her in the last few years: she's lost her only friend, her mother has gone mad and died, and her home is in ruins. Antoinette asks the Sister for some explanation of why horrible things have happened to her, but the Sister can't answer such questions. She advises Antoinette to stop thinking about the past and questioning God's will.

The passage is important because it shows how powerless people come to make peace with their own pain and suffering. Antoinette is still young and optimistic enough to think that it's possible to better her situation--but the Sister assures her that all her attempts will be in vain.

Part 2 Quotes

As for my confused impressions they will never be written. There are blanks in my mind that cannot be filled up.

Related Characters: The Husband (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Husband flashes back to discuss how he and Antoinette came to be married. He acknowledges that there are some "holes" in his story, which he's unable to remember totally.

By establishing that his narration isn't perfect, the Husband raises the possibility that his account of the facts isn't particularly reliable at all--once again adding to the effect of questionable truth and reality within the novel. In a more profound sense, though, the Husband's statements suggests the gaps in his soul, too--he's a flawed, exceptionally weak person, who marries Antoinette because he thinks doing so will make him "a man." The Husband marries because he wants to be stronger, than blames Antoinette when he remains exactly the same.

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.

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.

It doesn’t matter what I believe or you believe, because we can do nothing about it.

Related Characters: Antoinette Cosway (speaker)
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Antoinette and the Husband are having dinner. Antoinette thinks that she'll never be able to make her Husband love her--she'll always be trapped in a lonely, unhappy marriage. Her despair is palpable in this scene: the Husband, immediately after noticing that Amelie and Antoinette look similar, asks Antoinette if she believes in God. Antoinette's response is incredibly fatalistic--surrounded by reminders that her Husband is unfaithful to her, she expresses her supreme indifference to life.

Antoinette's claim that she can do nothing about God's existence or nonexistence reflects her own powerlessness in her life. But it's important to remember that Antoinette's situation reflects her own refusal to run away from her Husband, as Christophine suggested. Her prison is at least partly her own doing.

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.