Madness in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

“I felt no surprise. It was as if I’d expected it, been waiting for it.” – Who said this and why? Why is it an important quote?

Explore: Madness linked with images of heat, fire, and female sexuality.Madness is Antoinette’s inheritance: her father was mad, according to his illegitimate son Daniel as was her mother, Annette.

Antoinette’s upbringing and environment exacerbate her inherited condition, she feels rejected and displaced, with no one to love her. She becomes paranoid and solitary, prone to vivid dreams and violent significant that women like Antoinette and her mother are the most susceptible to madness pushed as they are into childlike servitude and feminine docility.  Their madness consigns them to live invisible, shameful lives. The predominance of insanity in the novel forces us to question whose recollections are trustworthy.

Antoinette is powerless and also emotionally vulnerable she loves Rochester and feels sexual passion for him. Yet, despite being equally drawn to her, Rochester fears this depth of emotion and the ensuing lack of control.

Rochester is subject to a conflict between his own sexual desire on the one hand and ideologies of race and gender on the other:

Like other white colonists, he makes racist associations between Caribbean culture and sexual excess. Thus when he wants to hurt Antoinette, he justifies it by criticising her natural, unconstrained sexuality as being foreign, frightening and probably rooted in a black ancestry also, as an Englishman of this period, he has grown up with the notion that ‘respectable’ women should not feel or display sexual passion. This, too, gives him an excuse to punish her. It is also a powerful component in the way he defines her as ‘mad’. “Pity. Is there none for me?”

Make Notes:

1.Is Antoinette’s ‘madness’ the result of rejection by her mother, family and finally, Rochester?

2.Is it a result of her fractured sense of identity?

3.Is ‘madness’ in fact just loneliness?

4.Is it a response to her dispossession from the place she loves?

5.Rochester calls Antoinette his ‘mad girl’ but his motives also require examination

Is it a way of dealing with and dismissing a sexual passion and a culture that he is frightened of?

Does he label her as ‘mad’ because she has deviated from the role he expects of a wife?

because there are aspects of her personality that he cannot control?

  1. Find some quotations on the theme of madness in the novella and try to explore what they could suggest about characterisation and contextual influences.
  2. In your opinion what do you think contributes to Antoinette’s ‘madness’
  3. Is it the arrival of Rochester or was it inevitable from the start?

Essay question set‘Antoinette’s insanity is far more complex than that of the stereotyped lunatic’.

In light of this statement, consider Rhys’s portrayal of madness in the novel’


  • Establish the main arguments here e.g. Rhys challenges the representation of Bertha in JE by giving her a voice to express a different version of her narrative – consider intertextuality
  • Patriarchy? Attitudes towards madness? Perceptions of Creoles?

Remember that you need to link points to narrative methods/context/possible interpretations. Choose the best examples/incidents you can find, based on our discussion in class, to support your points!


  • could consider her background/portrayal of her childhood
  • doubling with her mother
  • presentation of her sexuality?
  • descent into madness following Rochester’s coldness/infidelity
  • experience at Thornfield


  • could consider representation of his unreliable narration/stream of consciousness
  • attitude towards her sexuality?
  • responses to her increasingly volatile behaviour?
  • desire to control her – e.g. drawing of Thornfield; reference to doctors to diagnose her; taking her to England; p111 perception of self as sane


Save a really good point for here e.g. women are perceived as mad when they attempt to exert control and independence? Female madness is a product of their experience of patriarchy


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