Wide Sargasso Sea

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Women and Power Theme Analysis

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.
Women and Power Theme Icon

The female characters in Wide Sargasso Sea must confront societal forces that prevent them from acting for and sustaining themselves, regardless of race or class. The two socially accepted ways for a woman to attain security in this world are marriage and entering the convent. Marriage ends disastrously in most cases, especially for the Cosway women. Husbands have affairs, die, ignore their wives’ wishes with tragic results, imprison them, take their money, drive them to madness. In Annette Cosway’s case, her marriages destroy not only her life, but also her children’s lives. Her first husband, Antoinette’s father, carries on multiple affairs publicly, one of which yields a child, Daniel Cosway, who eventually has a hand in destroying Antoinette’s happiness. When Alexander Cosway dies, he leaves the family destitute. Annette’s second husband, Mr. Mason, ignores her pleas to move the family away from Coulibri, leaving them vulnerable to the attack that destroys their home, kills her son Pierre, and precipitates Annette’s decline into madness. For Antoinette’s part, it is clear that her marriage is for the financial benefit of Rochester, who sleeps with their servant Amelie within earshot of Antoinette while still on their honeymoon, and eventually imprisons Antoinette in the attic of his home in England. It is claimed in a letter from Daniel Cosway to Rochester that madness runs in the Cosway family, but for both Annette and Antoinette, their descent into madness is a direct result of the grief and desperation brought to them by their husbands. The nuns at the convent school, though seeming to be outside of this system, spend their lives training their female students to be respectable wives of wealthy men.

The female characters who embody strength and agency are those who elect to remain outside of these structures. The most notable example is Christophine, a powerful and respected figure in her community. Other servants fear her, largely because of her expertise in obeah, a Caribbean folk magic, and Antoinette depends on her. Christophine tries to counsel Antoinette to protect herself and her fortune by telling her that “Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world,” and, “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.” There is also Aunt Cora, a widow who does not remarry. She is a relatively stable force in Antoinette’s life, able to control her own health and movements, able to provide for Antoinette’s childhood. She promises safety for the young Antoinette and follows through on it. Amelie, though a minor character, is also pivotal in demonstrating that power comes to women only outside of traditional marriage. She manipulates sex to exercise control over her employers, Antoinette and Rochester. After sleeping with Rochester, she receives money from him, and speaks of her plans to move to Rio to continue this tactic: “She wanted to go to Rio. There were rich men in Rio.”

Female independence is shown to be temporary, though. Women who do assert themselves outside of or in direct defiance of the system of marriage are ultimately thwarted by men in some significant way. It eventually comes out that Christophine is wanted by Jamaican law enforcement for her practice of obeah, and Rochester plans to turn her in. Even Aunt Cora is ignored when she attempts to persuade Richard Mason to secure Antoinette’s inheritance, and she despairs to Antoinette, “The Lord has forsaken us.”

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea related to the theme of Women and Power.
Part 2 Quotes

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.


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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).

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.

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."

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.