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.
Otherness and Alienation ThemeTracker
Otherness and Alienation Quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.
The Lord make no distinction between black and white. Black and white the same for Him.
Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.
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.
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.
Mr. Mason did not approve of Aunt Cora, an ex-slave-owner who had escaped misery, a flier in the face of Providence.
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.’
We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.
This a very wild place — not civilized. Why you come here?
If she were taller, one of these strapping women dressed up to the nines, I might be afraid of her.
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.
But they are white, I am coloured. They are rich, I am poor.
Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.
These people are very vulnerable. How old was I when I learned to hide how I felt? A very small boy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What am I doing in this place and who am I?