Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea Part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The novel opens with Antoinette’s narration, looking back at her childhood in 1830’s post-Emancipation Jamaica. Antoinette and her family are isolated, socially and geographically. Antoinette explains that their exclusion from white society is a result of disapproval by “the Jamaican ladies” of her mother Annette’s youth, physical beauty, and origins from Martinique. When Antoinette asks her mother why they have so few visitors to Coulibri, their estate, her mother tells her that it is because of the poor condition of the road leading from the nearest town, and that “road repairing was now a thing of the past.” Antoinette laments the loss of her father, of regular visitors, of feeling safe in her home, as all things that now belong to the past.
The complexity of Caribbean racial dynamics is introduced. Antoinette does not explain that Annette’s Martinique background divides her from white society because Martinique is a French colony. This makes Annette Creole, while the Jamaican ladies that Antoinette mentions are of English descent. Instead, Antoinette addresses the reader as if we are insiders who would understand these distinctions naturally. This mode of address is a central feature of her narration, and it means that many key truths are implied rather than stated directly. Here we are similarly left to deduce that her father is dead, and that the deteriorating roads are a consequence of a diminished workforce in the wake of Emancipation.
Themes
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Antoinette overhears her mother one day speaking to Mr. Luttrell, a white neighbor and Annette’s only friend. He laments the delayed arrival of the financial compensation that white former slaveowners such as himself were promised as part of the Emancipation Act of 1833. Not long after, Mr. Luttrell, “tired of waiting,” commits suicide. His property is left abandoned, pronounced unlucky by local whites and considered by the black population to be haunted. Annette is left completely friendless after Mr. Luttrell’s death, and the Cosway’s are now the only white people in the immediate area. Now when Annette travels around the area she is alone, and the family’s black neighbors often gather to jeer at Annette as she rides by, particularly at the increasing shabbiness of her appearance.
Mr. Luttrell’s discontent and suicide are the first things that Antoinette explicitly associates with the Emancipation Act, setting the tone for her troubled understanding of freedom. The parallel superstitions of the white and black populations regarding Mr. Luttrell’s abandoned estate indicate the close, if fraught, relationship between these two cultural groups. The tension between Antoinette’s family and the nearby population of former slaves is introduced, as well as the family’s relatively recent poverty. Annette in particular is increasingly vulnerable, having now lost the protection and support of both her husband and the only other white man she trusted.
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One day, Antoinette finds her mother’s horse dead underneath a tree, and tells no one, because she believes if she doesn’t speak of it, it might turn out not to have happened. When the horse is discovered later by their servant and former slave, Godfrey, it is clear that it has been poisoned by their black neighbors. While Godfrey maintains a kind of detached moral stance, (“The Lord make no distinction between black and white”), Annette angrily holds him responsible and places him on the side of their hostile neighbors, saying, “The old hypocrite...He knew what they were going to do.” Without the horse to travel, Annette pronounces the family “marooned.”
Godfrey’s reaction to the killing of the horse introduces the difficult position of the black servants who’ve chosen to remain in the employ of former masters in the novel. Rather than declare his loyalties one way or the other, Godfrey attempts to remain neutral. Annette’s desperation increases after this crime, as her means of independent mobility is taken form her with the loss of the horse. Antoinette’s belief that she might be able to make something not true by not speaking of it is also introduced. The complicated connection between words and truth plays a major role in the novel.
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A doctor comes to pay a visit to Antoinette’s younger brother, Pierre, who is disabled. Antoinette is never told what the doctor says during this visit-- she knows only that afterward her mother descends into a depression, and refuses to leave the house. Annette instructs Antoinette repeatedly to leave her alone, and begins to talk to herself, which frightens Antoinette. When Annette does stand outside of the house , to look at the sea, she is gawked at by passersby. Antoinette describes how the gardens at Coulibri during this time are allowed to grow beautiful and wild from neglect, without anyone to work on them now that slavery has ended. She remarks on the smell of dead flowers mixed in with the fragrance of living ones.
Annette’s helpless retreat into herself foreshadows her later descent into madness, and marks a shift in her relationship with Antoinette. Antoinette is perplexed by the alienation she feels from her mother, and lacks even the means to understand its cause, because she is kept in the dark about the truth of Pierre’s condition. The garden and the natural world are introduced as a refuge for Antoinette as well as a symbol for the tension between order and freedom that pervades the novel. The garden, like Antoinette, is being left in neglect by its caretakers. While it is free to grow beautiful and wild, it is also permeated with decay.
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To avoid her mother, Antoinette begins to spend most of her time with her nurse Christophine. Christophine is also from Martinique, and therefore just as isolated in the black community as Annette and Antoinette are among white society. Antoinette describes her distinctly Martinique songs and attire. She also observes that the girl servants who help Christophine with the washing are afraid of her, and that it is this fear that keeps them working for her. She doesn’t pay them, and they even bring her presents of fruit and vegetables.
Christophine is introduced as a foil, or contrast, to Annette. Though they are similar in some respects, particularly their Martiniquais heritage, Christophine is strong and able (and black) where Annette is weak and changeable (and white). Christophine nurtures Antoinette and keeps her company when Annette shuts her out, and while Annette’s relationships with her servants are often fraught, as we saw with Godfrey, the girls who work for Christophine fear and revere her. Christophine’s mysterious power over others is referenced here, but not yet explained.
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When Antoinette asks her mother about Christophine, it is clear that she is the only servant that Annette still trusts. Annette believes all the others have stayed at Coulibri only “because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat,” and angrily denounces them. Antoinette offers to fan her mother in the heat after this angry outburst, but Annette again shuts her out and tells her to leave. Antoinette reflects on times when she was allowed to remain close to her mother almost constantly, and remembers in particular a feeling of safety and comfort while watching her mother comb her hair.
Annette’s distrust of her servants is reiterated and emphasized—she can’t understand why they would choose to keep working at Coulibri after being set free, unless their goal was to take advantage of her. Christophine’s powerful status in the house is further emphasized as the sole servant who remains in Annette’s good graces. The rift between Annette and Antoinette grows, and hair is introduced as a symbol of female security and comfort.
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One day, Antoinette is followed down the road by a little black girl singing, "White cockroach, go away, go away. Nobody want you." Antoinette hides in the garden, where Christophine finds her many hours later, lying on the ground covered in moss.
Antoinette feels the sting of racial hatred personally for the first time, and seeks refuge in the garden, her place of freedom and escape. The term "white cockroach" implies the way that the native blacks who were enslaved and now freed see the whites as an infestation, something that doesn't belong.
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The next day, Christophine introduces Antoinette to Tia, the daughter of Christophine’s only friend, another non-Jamaican black woman. Tia and Antoinette become good friends for a time, until one day they get into an argument over a bet. Christophine has given Antoinette some pennies as spending money, and Tia bets Antoinette three pennies that she cannot do a somersault under water. Antoinette ups the ante to all of the pennies, and when she does the somersault there is a dispute over its adequacy. Tia takes the money, and Antoinette calls her a “cheating nigger.” Tia replies by mocking Antoinette’s poverty, saying “old time white people nothing but white nigger now.” When Antoinette looks away, Tia leaves with her money as well as her clothes, forcing Antoinette to walk home in Tia’s dirty dress.
Tia and Antoinette briefly provide a model for cooperation between their respective cultural groups. However, when money is brought into the equation, the girls quickly fall out. This childish bet and disagreement reflects the socio-economic disparity between whites and blacks that is at the center of racial tension in the area, and drives the growing discontent among the black neighbors surrounding Coulibri. The girls, in their argument, even repeat language and opinions clearly drawn from adults in their respective communities. The fact that Tia steals Antoinette’s dress as well as her money highlights the symbolic significance of appearance and attire with respect to female power and security in the novel.
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When Antoinette arrives home, her mother has visitors, relatives of Mr. Luttrell who have come to claim his estate. These visitors laugh at Antoinette’s dirty clothes, causing her to run away and Annette and Christophine to argue about the state of Antoinette’s wardrobe. Annette insists that Antoinette must have another dress for Christophine to put her in, and Christophine tells her angrily that she does not, that it is shameful and caused by neglect, “She run wild, she grow up worthless. And nobody care.” Christophine dresses Antoinette in an old dress that is too small for her, while bitterly criticizing the new Luttrell relatives for their treatment of Antoinette and their attitude of ownership in the area. She tells Antoinette that though there is no more slavery, the new white people in power still have the law on their side and are worse than the old.
Antoinette’s disheveled appearance mortifies Annette because it highlights the family’s poverty and exclusion from the ranks of polite society, to which the Luttrell’s belong. The symbolic significance of clothing expands further into an argument between Annette and Christophine about the poor nature of Annette’s parenting as indicated by Antoinette’s inadequate wardrobe. As Christophine dresses Antoinette in a dress that is too small for her, a further humiliation, it is clear that the Luttrell’s reaction to Antoinette’s attire sparks an even larger topic of discontent—Christophine sees in their disdain the very nature of the new white power in Jamaica.
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The rest of the night, Annette does not look at or speak to Antoinette, and Antoinette is sure that her mother is ashamed of her. Antoinette has a nightmare that night, that she is walking through a strange forest with someone who hates her, out of sight. She screams and wakes up, to find her mother there. Annette chastises her for waking up her brother, Pierre. Antoinette goes back to sleep watching the light in Pierre’s window. The next day, Annette has “yards of muslin” and ribbon purchased to make new dresses for herself and Antoinette. Antoinette suspects that her mother has sold the remainder of her jewelry to make these purchases. Her mother also begins to spend whole days at parties given by the new Luttrell’s, and Antoinette responds by roaming the Coulibri estate, seeking solace in nature, which she proclaims, even when being bitten by ants or cut by sharp grasses, to be “Better, better than people.”
The incident with the Luttrell’s pushes Annette and Antoinette even further apart. It also moves Annette to seek security and belonging through the only method available to her—courtship and marriage. She takes action, in the form of ordering new dresses to be made, to make herself and Antoinette appear to be a part of the society to which she aspires to belong, though she does so as a last resort, selling off her jewels, which must be close to her last source of money. Meanwhile, in her alienation from her mother, Antoinette again finds refuge and order in nature, and sees nature as being better—less cruel—than people. In this part of the novel Antoinette's nightmare is introduced, and associated with newcomers and courting.
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Annette remarries, to Mr. Mason, an Englishman. Antoinette, serving as a bridesmaid, regards the English guests at the wedding with hatred, because she remembers overhearing many of them gossiping about her and her family while visiting Coulibri: they gossiped about Mr. Mason’s predatory financial motivations for being in Jamaica, about Antoinette’s father, Old Cosway, whom they called an alcoholic and philanderer with many illegitimate children, and claim also that Annette “encouraged” him. They also gossip about Christophine and her practice of obeah. After the wedding, Antoinette and her brother are sent to stay with their Aunt Cora, a wealthy widow, while Coulibri is renovated and restored with Mr. Mason’s money.
Annette attains the security and inclusion that she sought through marriage. Information that Antoinette has not shared in her narration enters the novel through gossip and hearsay. It is unclear whether Antoinette does not know the truth about her father before now, or whether she leaves it out of her narration for the same reason that she doesn’t speak of the poisoned horse to her mother, in hopes that not speaking of it might erase its truth. The idea is introduced that Christophine’s power in the community might come from obeah, a voodoo-like folk magic. Antoinette mentions obeah in her narration without explaining its significance. Again, she is addressing the reader as an insider, assuming the reader has enough contextual knowledge to just understand (though of course the reader doesn't, creating a bit of a sense of being lost and alienation in the reader that mirrors Antoinette's own alienation from the white and black societies around her).
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When the family returns to Coulibri, Antoinette finds that much more than its appearance has changed. The new black servants brought by Mr. Mason gossip about Christophine and obeah, instilling a new fear of Christophine in Antoinette. Antoinette says that though no one has ever spoken to her directly about obeah, she knows what she would find if she looked around in Christophine’s things. One day, she sees or imagines seeing “a dead man’s dried hand” and a bleeding chicken in Christophine’s room.
Antoinette returns to her home to find it a completely alienating environment. This change is emphasized by her new fear of Christophine, whom she has grown up trusting and being nurtured by. Her fear is based on overheard gossip, however, and she struggles to determine what is true. It is unclear to both Antoinette and the reader whether the evidence of obeah that she sees in Christophine’s room is real or imagined.
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Annette is also affected by the new gossip, particularly the constant and increasingly hateful commentary among the surrounding community of ex-slaves about the new wealth brought to Coulibri by Mr. Mason. A year into their marriage, Annette feels so threatened by their black neighbors that she tries to convince Mr. Mason to move the family away from Coulibri, but he laughs off the idea, saying that the ex-slaves are too lazy to be dangerous. Annette cautions him, saying that he misunderstands and underestimates black people, that they are “more alive” than he is, and accuses him of failing to recognize their capacity for both good and bad. Mr. Mason agrees that he does not understand, but does not agree to leave Coulibri, though Annette continues to insist that they must.
The disenfranchised black population is growing increasingly embittered at the new show of opulent wealth at Coulibri now that Mr. Mason has renovated it. Annette, who has lived among these people for many years, knows that the family is in danger, but Mr. Mason ignores her appeals. It is clear that he, an Englishman, lacks the cultural fluency to understand the black people of Jamaica or even take them seriously. He also doesn't take his wife—or, maybe more broadly, the opinions of women—seriously. And Annette, though desperate to leave Coulibri, must acquiesce to her husband’s wishes. She has no power to refuse or sway him.
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One evening, on their way back to Coulibri estate from an outing, the family notices that the huts of their black neighbors are abandoned. Mr. Mason thinks they must be at a dance or a wedding, but Antoinette and the rest of the family are uneasy, saying that there are never weddings in the community, and that they would be able to hear drums if there was a dance. This sparks another argument about leaving Coulibri. At dinner, Mr. Mason speaks of importing workers from the East Indies, and is warned by Aunt Cora not to speak about this in front of the black employees whom he’d be replacing. Mr. Mason again expresses his belief that black people are too childlike to be a real threat.
Mr. Mason continues to display his ignorance and his unwillingness to understand the black people who live and work among them, as well as his disregard for the wishes and fears of his wife and sister-in-law. Meanwhile Antoinette, Annette, and Aunt Cora can easily read the signs of danger, recognizing the abandoned huts as an indicator of some unusual activity in the village, and Mr. Mason’s insulting and prejudiced remarks as potentially quite damaging to their safety.
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On her way to bed, Antoinette goes into Pierre’s room to say goodnight, and finds him already asleep. As she watches him sleep, she thinks to herself that Mr. Mason has promised to bring Pierre to England to be cured, and wonders what that might mean. She concludes that it would mean making Pierre “exactly like other people,” and questions whether this would be a good thing. She leaves his room and goes to sleep in a state of unease, sure she has heard whispering among the bamboo outside Pierre’s window.
Antoinette’s suspicion that the true nature of Pierre’s possible cure would mean merely making him “exactly like other people” amounts to a questioning of whether the rewards of belonging in a community are worth the cost, harkening back to her claim that anything the natural world has to offer, even pain and sickness, is “Better, better than people.” The whispering outside Pierre's window raises the suspicion of the angry black neighbors gathering secretly outside the house—though it's unclear if she really hears these whispers or they are just manifestations of her nervousness.
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Antoinette is awoken in the middle of the night by her mother, who tells her to dress quickly and come downstairs. Antoinette is struck by the disheveled state of her mother’s hair. When she gets downstairs, Antoinette sees that all of the adults are up, and many of the servants are missing. There is an angry mob outside. Mr. Mason attempts to address the mob, still not believing that they are there to hurt the family, and is greeted with rocks thrown at him. Annette worries about whether to wake the still sleeping Pierre. Even as Mr. Mason tries to insist to the family, yet again, that the crowd is harmless, the servant Mannie notices smoke coming from under Antoinette’s bedroom door-- the mob has set fire to the house.
The previously hinted at discontent in the black community comes to a head, and the depth of Mr. Mason’s capacity for denial is revealed, as he maintains his insistence that the family is not in danger even in the face of a violent mob. It is clear that many, but not all, of the servants have left the house to join the crowd, a further illustration of the split loyalties among black servants remaining in white employ post Emancipation.
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As Aunt Cora embraces Antoinette and tells her not to worry, that she is “quite safe,’’ Annette rushes to Pierre’s bedroom to save him, carries him out in her arms. He is badly burned, and she herself is singed. The servant who was supposed to be caring for Pierre had left the house to join the mob. As Aunt Cora tears her own petticoat into strips to bandage Pierre, Annette alternates between whispering in shock and screaming angrily at Mr. Mason for not taking her warnings seriously. The loyal remaining servants, under Aunt Cora’s instruction, help the family out of the house and toward their carriage.
As Mr. Mason proves paralyzed and ineffectual in this crisis, the women of the family take action. Aunt Cora comforts Antoinette and takes charge of the family’s escape, while Annette risks her own safety to save Pierre. When it is clear that Pierre is badly injured, Annette’s rage at Mr. Mason’s failure to protect the family overtakes her ability to act rationally.
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As a hysterical Annette is being lead to the carriage, she struggles ferociously to get back into the house to retrieve her parrot, Coco. The mob laughs and hurls insults at the family, becoming more and more worked up. Antoinette notices that many of the people in the mob are carrying weapons. The crowd suddenly goes quiet as Coco the parrot emerges from an upper window of the house, screeching, his wings on fire. Antoinette begins to cry, remembering that it is considered very bad luck to kill a parrot or even to watch a parrot die. The members of the mob seem to remember this as well, for they begin to flee. As the family and Christophine reach their carriage, a man in the crowd confronts them, but Aunt Cora threatens him calmly with hellfire and eternal damnation, and he falls back.
Amid the confusion of the family’s attempt to escape the violence brought onto them as a result of racial and economic disparity, the image of Coco the parrot dying in flames briefly unites the two sides of the conflict. Both whites and blacks recognize the dying parrot as a bad omen. Aunt Cora’s cool-headed navigation of their escape and encounter with one particularly angry man from the crowd illustrates her role as one of the few strong and independent women in Antoinette's life.
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Antoinette turns before entering the carriage and sees women in the crowd who are crying, insisting they only came to see what had happened. As she watches the house and the gardens burn, Antoinette mourns the loss of the beautiful trees and flowers. She sees her former friend Tia in the crowd, and runs to her because she sees Tia, in that moment, as the only remaining token of the life she had known. Antoinette think that if she can stay with Tia she will not have to leave her home, that they will be able to go back to the time that they played together as equals. Before she reaches Tia, though, Tia throws a jagged rock at her, hitting Antoinette in the head. The two look at each other and both weep as Antoinette bleeds, and Antoinette sees herself in Tia, “Like in a looking-glass.”
The lines of the conflict are blurred as chaos reaches a fever pitch. Black women from the village are in the crowd weeping for Antoinette’s family, denying their own involvement in the attack. After Antoinette watches the destruction of the garden, her one place of freedom and refuge, she throws herself desperately into a brief fantasy of harmony and safety when she runs toward Tia, seeing a kindred soul in Tia despite their earlier disagreement. Lines are quickly redrawn, however—and the violent reality of the situation made clear to Antoinette—when Tia hits her with a rock. The final image of the scene, with Antoinette seeing a weeping Tia as a mirror image is profound: a mirror image is both the same and opposite, both familiar and completely inaccessible.
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Antoinette wakes up with Aunt Cora by her bedside, at Aunt Cora’s home in Spanish Town. The first thing she notices is that her hair has been cut off, and she asks Aunt Cora about it. She learns that she has been very ill for six weeks, which is why her hair had to be cut. Aunt Cora also tells her that Pierre is dead, and that her mother is in the country, recovering. Antoinette remembers hearing, during her fevers, her mother raving with grief and alternately echoing the parrot Coco’s signature phrase, “Qui est la?” and screaming accusations and threats at Mr. Mason.
Antoinette’s next moment of consciousness is marked by confusion. Despite Aunt Cora’s nurturing presence, Antoinette feels displaced and disoriented without her mother and her brother. The loss of the family home has coincided with the destruction of her family, and her disconnection from herself. Her disconnect with her identity is symbolized by the loss of her hair, and echoed by her recollection of the parrot’s question, “Qui est la?” or “Who is there?”
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Antoinette does not mention her awareness of the truth to Aunt Cora, who promises her that she is safe and sings to her to try to get her to go to sleep. Antoinette interrupts her and asks her to sing a song entitled, “Before I was set free.” Antoinette only remembers one lyric before falling asleep, “The sorrow that my heart feels for.”
Again, Antoinette elects not to speak of troubling truths to those around her. The song that she requests that Aunt Cora sing to her, or at least the specific excerpts of the song that Antoinette remembers, suggests a complicated and troubled attitude toward freedom.
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One day, Antoinette is taken to visit her mother at the house where Annette is recuperating. Antoinette insists that Christophine go with her, and no one else. When they arrive, Antoinette runs as fast as she can from the carriage to the house in her excitement to see her mother. At first, Antoinette does not recognize her mother, and only sees that there is a black man, a black woman, and a white woman in the room. She cannot see her mother’s face, but soon recognizes her by her damaged hair. They embrace, and Antoinette struggles to express to her mother that, though Pierre is dead, she is here for her. In response, Annette flings Antoinette away from her and loudly refuses her. Christophine takes Antoinette back to her aunt’s house, and they do not speak of what happened.
Annette has been driven mad by grief. But Antoinette relays the events of her visit to her mother without emotional commentary or analysis—as readers we are left to conclude the fact of her mother’s madness by the presence of the two caretakers and Annette’s treatment of Antoinette. The silence between Christophine and Antoinette on the ride home is a further indication of the trauma of the event, as Antoinette is rejected by her mother. She has no family any longer.
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After a time of living and getting well at Aunt Cora’s house, Antoinette is sent to the local convent school. On the way to school on her first day, she is bullied by two children, one black and one mixed race. The girl mocks her, saying, “Look the crazy girl, you crazy like your mother,” and goes on to harass her by saying that her mother had tried to kill Mr. Mason, had tried to kill Antoinette as well, and that they both have eyes “like zombie.” The boy threatens repeatedly that he will, some day soon, catch her alone, implying physical violence. They begin to push her around, but when a boy named Sandi comes over to them, the bullies run away. Sandi is a relation of Antoinette’s through one of her father’s affairs, ands he refers to him as her cousin. He promises to make sure the other children don’t bother her again.
In a move that is by now typical of Antoinette’s narration, clearly stated information about emotionally difficult events enter the novel through the talk of strangers. Annette’s madness, and her acts of violence against her family, are now subjects of gossip in the town. The dynamics of belonging and otherness in this scene are shifting and complex. Children who are black and of mixed race menace Antoinette, but are close enough to her socially to know details of gossip about her family. Sandi, on the other hand, is technically a member of Antoinette’s family, though he also belongs to the black community. It would seem that both cruelty and mercy here transcend racial boundaries.
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Antoinette is crying and dirty when she arrives at the convent. The nuns clean her up and offer her milk to sooth her, but she chokes on it. When one of the nuns tells Antoinette to look at her, that Antoinette will not be afraid of her, she takes in the nun’s clean and pleasant appearance and begins to calm down. The nun tells her that she will not have to walk to school alone anymore, and then introduces her to Louise de Plana, a fellow student. Louise connects with Antoinette by joking with her about the nuns, and as they walk through the convent Antoinette is comforted by Louise’s beauty as well as by the trees and flowers in the convent’s gardens.
Antoinette is comforted by order and beauty upon arriving in the alien environment of the convent—she calms down when she observes the pleasant look of the nun, and the beauty of Louise de Plana. She also welcomes the presence of the convent’s well-kept gardens, a much more orderly version of the gardens in which she has grown up seeking solace. The nun, as well as fellow students like Louise de Plana, represent a new kind of woman in Antoinette’s life: calm, unmarried, and in control.
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At the convent, in a hot and sticky classroom, Antoinette and her classmates practice needlework while listening to the nuns read from a book about the lives of the saints. Antoinette notices that all of the saints they hear about are beautiful and wealthy, “loved by rich and handsome young men.” When it is claimed during one of these lessons that a rose belonging to one of these saints has never died, and still exists, Antoinette privately questions this, thinking, “Oh but where? Where?”
The point that Antoinette takes away from her lessons is that the major feature of saints is their wealth, beauty, and handsome suitors. Antoinette seems to have a hard time taking the nuns’ teachings at face value, as she questions the existence of a supposedly eternally preserved rose formerly belonging to a saint.
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The nuns place high emphasis on appearance, as well as chastity and deportment. Though there are no mirrors at the convent, Antoinette once sees a young nun admiring her own appearance, in a cask of water. Louise de Plana and her sisters are repeatedly held up by the nuns as examples of impeccable manners, hygiene, and beauty. Antoinette greatly admires them and envies one of the sisters’ hair, asks her how to style hers to look the same. Antoinette admires Louise in particular. When listening to the nuns read about the saints and their European origins, Antoinette constructs an image in her mind of France that is “a lady with black hair wearing a white dress,” and says that this is because Louise, who was born in France, has black curly hair, and her mother, who is also of French descent, liked to wear white dresses.
Though the nuns are celibate, it is clear that they are training their students to be good wives in polite society. The premium placed on appearance and manners even affects some of the nuns themselves. Antoinette becomes caught up in these values as well, fixating on the de Planas as models of ideal femininity. She idolizes Louise and comes to associate her closely with her own mother.
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Antoinette prays for her mother as if she is dead, though she is still living, and says to herself that she must forget her. The rest of Antoinette’s family drifts from her-- Christophine goes away to live with her son, and Mr. Mason visits only rarely. Eventually, Aunt Cora travels back to England for her health, and Antoinette moves into the convent full-time.
The nuns and fellow students gradually replace Antoinette’s family as the closest and most nurturing people in her life. Her education at the convent school connects the narrative of Wide Sargasso Sea even further to Jane Eyre, in which the orphan Jane is educated at a boarding school, and goes on to teach and find companionship at a school run by a clergyman.
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Antoinette thinks of the convent as a refuge, finding its structure and routine comforting. She learns and recites her prayers by rote, but wonders about the low premium placed on happiness in their teachings-- “But what about happiness, I thought at first, is there no happiness? Oh happiness of course, happiness, well.” Antoinette marvels at the clear-cut contrasts in convent life, between light and dark, Heaven and Hell. She learns from one of the nuns that a feature of Heaven is that all its inhabitants are transcendently beautiful, and prays to be dead so that she might experience this Heaven. She then remembers that this, like so many other thoughts, is considered a mortal sin, and gradually stops praying. This makes her feel happier and more free, but less safe.
Though comfortable at the convent, Antoinette struggles to really connect with and believe in the doctrine of the church. Eventually, the contradictions she finds within Catholic teachings lead her to abandon prayer altogether. This brings Antoinette again to the compromise that seems at the center of the notion of freedom in the novel—one can be happy and free or safe, but not both.
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After living in the convent for eighteen months, Antoinette is paid a visit by Mr. Mason. He brings her a dress, and tells her that he is taking her to live with him and Aunt Cora, who has returned from England. Antoinette greets this information with dismay. He asks her if she has learned to dance, and she replies that she has not. Mr. Mason tells her that he has invited friends from England to come and stay with them, that one in particular is coming to see her. Antoinette immediately feels a suffocating sensation at her stepfather’s mention of a suitor, but refuses to mention it because, she feels, again, that if she doesn’t speak of it might not be true. She notes that the nuns and the other girls know why she is leaving, and she resents their cheerfulness, envies them for their continued safety at the convent.
Mr. Mason’s news means that Antoinette’s time of safety and inclusion in convent life is coming to a close, and she has no choice in the matter. Her feeling of suffocation and dismay is augmented by the mention of a suitor—the prospect of marriage is thereby linked to a loss of freedom, to suffocation. This sensation is so distressing to Antoinette that she cannot even speak of it, again half-hoping that her refusal to verbalize it might erase it from reality.
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The night before she is to leave the convent for good, Antoinette has her nightmare for a second time, now relayed in much more detail. In it, she is being lead through a forest of unfamiliar trees wearing a beautiful white dress. She does not know the man leading her, but she sees that he hates her and begins to cry. Nevertheless, she makes no effort to save herself, and in fact knows that if anyone were to try to save her, she would refuse. The stranger leads her up a flight of steps and the dream ends. Antoinette wakes and shares her dream with Sister Marie Augustine, telling her that she has dreamt she was in Hell. The nun tells her to forget the dream, because it is evil, and gives her chocolate to drink.
Antoinette’s recurring nightmare foreshadows many of the details of her marriage to her future husband, who will eventually hate her, bring her to an unfamiliar place, and imprison her in his attic. In both the dream and real life, barring her final suicide, Antoinette makes no effort to escape. And when she shares the dream, she is told by those who are preparing her for life as a wife that it is the dream that is evil, rather than the suffocating truths of marriage which she senses in the dream.
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The chocolate reminds Antoinette of drinking chocolate after her mother’s funeral, which had taken place more than a year before. This is Antoinette’s first mention of her mother’s death. She thinks about the fact that no one told her how her mother died, and she never asked. She remembers that she tried to pray at the funeral, but the words gave her no solace. She does not share any of this with Sister Marie Augustine, but merely asks her tearfully why terrible things happen in the world. The nun tells her sadly not to concern herself with such a question, because “We do not know why the devil must have his little day. Not yet,” and puts her back to bed to wait for her stepfather’s arrival.
Antoinette’s unwillingness to allow her mother’s death into the narrative until a full year after it has happened is a testament to the trauma of the event. The funeral is characterized by Antoinette’s feeling of disconnection from the proceedings, from the truth and circumstances of her mother’s death, and from the solace promised to her by prayer. The ultimate failure of religion (and by extension the failure of inclusion in a religious group) to provide order and answers is expressed with finality in Sister Marie Augustine’s sad and inadequate answer to Antoinette’s question.
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