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.”
Women and Power ThemeTracker
Women and Power Quotes in Wide Sargasso Sea
If she were taller, one of these strapping women dressed up to the nines, I might be afraid of her.
Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.
But I cannot go. He is my husband after all.
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.
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.