Context in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – AO3

You will need to do some additional research and then write a paragraph on each of the contextual factors; explaining in your own words, how and why they are relevant to the story. Add your paragraphs to the blog. 

  • Slavery and emancipation
  • Colonial influence/ownership
  • Status of women in England and Caribbean cultures
  • Wealth/social class and English inheritance laws
  • The supernatural (Obeah)
  • Attitudes towards race and colonialism – at the time and now.



22 thoughts on “Context in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – AO3

  1. Slavery and emancipation
    Slavery and emancipation play a large part in setting the scene in the novel. Antoinette is a Creole woman who is a decedent of slave owners. Due to the novel being set during the time of the emancipation act tension causes a divide between the communities leading Antoinette’s isolation. Although the emancipation act freed the slave’s compensation had yet to be granted to the islands black community which bred hostilities and resentment between servants and their white employers. As a result of the lack of promised compensation for former slave owners Antoinette’s family is dependent on the slaves who chose to stay, e.g. Christophine. Antoinette’s mother even states ‘I dare say we would have died if she turned against us’. This shows how the roles have reversed as a result of the emancipation act. Also, the family become isolated due to the divide and lose their only friend Mr Luttrel who kills himself due to not receiving and compensation and both their estates are bought out by the richer English people (e.g. Mr Mason)

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  2. The novel is set in the New World Caribbean, in the early 1800s; a setting of racial division founded on slavery and emancipation. As a young girl Antoinette recognises that, although she is not black, she also does not belong with the white people as she is Creole; beginning the novel with the phrase: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks”. Jean Rhys’ use of the pronoun ‘we’ juxtaposed with the collective noun ‘white people’ is indicative of the separation and lack of belonging Annette feels. The word ‘ranks’ has military connotations, presenting a sentiment of war and conflict between the differing racial identities within the setting. In 1833 the Emancipation Act was passed in England, abolishing slavery and promising compensation to the slave owners, which never reached them. While waiting for this compensation Mr Luttrell, Annette’s only friend, kills himself, leaving Antoinette and her mother alone in Coulibri with the resentful and violent former slaves.

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  3. The emancipation act was legislated in 1833, with its sole purpose to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea, ‘Nelsons Rest’ is presented as a pre-colonised town when Rhys uses Mr Luttrell as a symbolic resemblance for the Admiral, Lord Nelson. This is illustrated when Antoinette states, “one calm evening he shot his dog, swam out to sea and was gone for always”. This highlights that by former slaves now being free from oppression from the British empire, it resulted in slave owners now having no means of capital and therefore questions their place on the social hierarchy. On the other hand, this then propels the black community to form subcultures so that further oppression wouldn’t be apparent. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea, these subcultures are seen as a form of escape from isolation as Rhys uses Antoinette as an individual who suffers from fractured identity and not belonging to anyone. Rhys uses the quote, “when trouble comes, close ranks”. Here Rhys creates conflict right at the start of the novella as the use of war imagery, “close ranks” illustrates this and therefore forms a division between the black, and creole cultures.

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  4. Slavery and Emancipation
    The abolishment of slavery started in 1830 and was completely abolished by 1839. Slave owner lost all their money and gained bad reputations among their increasingly black communities. This links back to Wide Sargasso Sea as Antoinette’s family are former slave owners; the community shuns them as a result. The English money were meant to compensate slave owners after the emancipation act however the compensation never comes. This links back to Wide Sargasso Sea as Mr Lutterall killed himself waiting for the compensation, this lead to the isolation of Annette as he was her only friend, and in turn this lead to Antoinette’s isolation.


  5. 1. Slavery and the Emancipation Act

    From the very start of the novel, it is evident that the Emancipation Act leaves discontent and violence; ‘they say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we are not in their ranks’. This highlights that the Cosways had a fragile place in society and were susceptible to the slave’s uproar. However, Mr. Lutrell, former slave owner and Annete’s only friend commits suicide after the Act as he was unable to adapt to the new social and economic changes. Notably, ‘Spanish Town’, being the capital of Jamaica, became a British colony and had one of the world’s major slave markets. Similarly, ‘Nelson’s Rest’ is an ironic place as it was named after British hero Nelson, who opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. Also, most slaves are referred to as being ‘other’.

    2. Colonial Influence/ ownership

    Most slaves are referred to as being ‘other’, for example, Christophine; a black servant who is situated in society is immediately described in relation to the other black women, highlighting that since ‘she was not like the others’, is considered ‘other’. Notably, these colonial powers needed the resources of the Caribbean islands for economic reasons, which can be reinforced through the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester- he only married her for her money. Interestingly, the possessive pronoun ‘my’ is used throughout the novel by Rochester to emphasise his ownership over Antoinette. Notably, since Rochester is a ‘product of his time’ he is accustomed to having the power, therefore, reinforces it by stealing the narrative voice in part two to reinforce his patriarchal power.

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  6. Slavery and Emancipation
    Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, the after effects of the 1833 Emancipation Act form an underlining basis for the themes of decay in the setting (particularly in part one of the novella) and the segregation between the races (former slave owners and former slaves) that leads to Antoinette’s subsequent isolation growing up in the post-slavery Coulibri. An example in the book of the effects of the Emancipation Act is reflected in the suicide of Mr Luttrell at Nelson’s Rest, where the proper noun title of ‘Nelson’s Rest’ in itself echoes the past of colonialism based on the slave trade in the area, and the suicide referring to the lack of compensation money (£20, 000, 000) promised to former slave owners and the subsequent financial ruin of the place. Even Antoinette herself muses how she “did not remember the place when it was prosperous,” however it is this financial ruin that perhaps contributes to the power dynamic shifting between the different races. This is reflected in Tia’s behaviour towards Antoinette as she infers that her lack of money has left her “nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” These tensions foreshadowed in the segregation between the races (with the adjectives of ‘black’ and ‘white’ being used creating a dynamic of ‘otherness’) perhaps pave way to the eventual burning down of the house by the native former slaves of the island as a result of the lack of fortune placing the white former slave owners at the dependency of the former slaves, as Annette comments that “I dare say we would have died if she’d (Christophine) turned against us.” Furthermore, the theme of slavery expands beyond the Emancipation Act as we eventually see Antoinette become entrapped by Rochester, a further reflection of how somebody’s class, gender and social background dictated in that society the amount of control that could be have over another person. This slavery and entrapment of Antoinette is foreshadowed from the start in her counterpart of Coco having his wings clipped by Mr Mason (a symbol of Rochester in both their statuses of the archetypal Victorian male), and it is this clipping of the wings and entrapment that eventually leads to Coco’s downfall as he fails to escape from the burning building (“he made and effort to fly but his clipped wings failed him”) – foreshadowing Antoinette’s own demise as a result of entrapment by Rochester.

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  7. Slavery and Emancipation

    In 1833, the emancipation act was passed, however many slave owners remained bitter about the inevitable loss of their livelihood, so until 1838 when slavery was fully abolished in Jamaica many slaver owners continued their practice for up to 7 years into the 1840s. Although the slaves were legally free, the society remained unchanged and slave owners traded their slave workforce for a permanent plantation labour force. Slavery fully came to an end in Jamaica, with the act passed at a cost of £20,000,000 in compensation for the slave owner’s lost ‘property’. Shown by Mr Luttrel at Nelson’s Rest (another connotation of slavery and ownership) who’s compensation never came. Ex-slaves who worked on the plantations of the wealthy creoles, such as Antoinette’s family, are prevalent in the first part in the novel. Although the slaves were free, they had not received compensation so hostility grew between the black community and their white employers. Wide Sargasso Sea highlights that although emancipation was meant to be positive, it created a divide and sense of otherness between the creole and Jamaican communities.

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  8. Colonial Influence/Ownership
    In the early 16th Century, Britain began the colonisation of the West Indies believing it was necessary to introduce the ‘superior’ British culture and ideals in places they though needed it. The development of agriculture in the Caribbean required a large workforce of manual labourers, which the Europeans found by taking advantage of the slave trade in Africa. The Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves to colonies in the Americas, including the Caribbean and slaves were brought to the Caribbean from the early 16th century until the end of the 19th century.
    The idea of ownership is reflected in WSS:
    • In Rochester’s treatment of Antoinette, taking away her identity and making her his “marionette”, “say die and I’ll die”, “My lunatic, my mad girl”
    • In how both Rochester is ‘offered’ as a husband and Antoinette ‘bought’ as a wife: both entered into the marriage without full consent- slavery to the time/society.

    Colonial influence
    • Rochester represents British ideals/morals in the relationship: feels the need to change Antoinette, root out her Caribbean culture.

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  9. Slavery and Emancipation
    Antoinette Cosway was born in the final years of colonisation, to a welsh father and a white creole mother. As a descendent of slave owners her position on the island was fragile and she was very vulnerable to the angry natives on the island, “They say when trouble comes close ranks…But we were not in their ranks”. In turn this sets up the theme of isolation and abandonment. Once living a prosperous and luxury lifestyle, the passing of the emancipation act meant that her and her family were no longer regarded as superior to the natives. The Emancipation of the British West Indies is the name given to the abolition of slavery in the British colonies of the West Indies. Emancipation of the slaves was proposed as early as 1787, but was not achieved until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (effective 1834). The ex-plantation owners were promised money by the British Government as recompense but it was very slow to arrive or in some cases it never arrived at all leaving financial ruin. This contributed to the decline of Annette and Mr. Luttrel, who was the only friend of the Cosway’s. Mr. Luttrel committed suicide in his wait for his recompense, which foreshadows the isolation of Antoinette. In essence, the slave-owners and their families received karma and they became trapped within society mentally and physically e.g. Antoinette being trapped in the attic at Thornfield.

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  10. Slavery and Emancipation

    The Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833, although former slaves were not officially ‘free’. An apprenticeship scheme came into play where the newly ‘freed’ people were still expected to remain at their plantations and work 10-hours a day. This scheme came to an end in 1838, just before WSS is set. It is relevant to the story as it explains the hostile relations between the former slaves and the white creoles, who until recently had dominated the West Indies. However due to the act, they were left powerless economically and due to now being a minority race, powerless socially. The effects of the Emancipation Act have a huge impact on Antoinette as from a young girl, she is alienated and feels she has no sense of identity, as suggested with opening of the novella, “they say when trouble comes close ranks…but we were not in their ranks”. This sense of foreignness follows Antoinette through her life as she is labelled as a “white cockroach” and when Rochester enters her life, he penalises her for her ‘foreign features’, leaving her isolated from everyone around her purely due to her background in which she has no power to control.

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  11. Slavery and emancipation plays a key part in Wide Sargasso Sea and is seen through Rochester’s denial of Antoinette’s name as it is reminiscent of slavery. Rochester calls Antoinette Bertha as he decides he doesn’t like the name, demonstrating the control and power he has over Antoinette. The Jamaican economy was built upon slavery and sugar plantations. However, the slavery trade was abolished in 1833 which led to the economy declining. This is shown in the novel through Mr Luttrel’s suicide because he had no money. Although slaves had freedom, ultimately the British Empire still had authority as slaves had been under their power for so long. The former slaves still lacked identity even with freedom due to the remaining white supremacy by the British.

    The status of women in England in Caribbean cultures was considerably more suppressive in the 19th century (when the novel was set) than modern day. In England, women weren’t even seen as independent beings until 1839, and couldn’t have a divorce until 1857. Antoinette is suppressed by English law in that Rochester inherits all of her fortune when they marry, rendering her economically powerless. On the other hand, Caribbean women had a more pronounced role in society (hence why Rochester feels so emasculated when he arrives at Granbois) and a strong woman you could find to represent this is Christophine.

    from jasmine and priya

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  12. Slavery and emancipation
    The Caribbean has a common history of slavery, between 1600-1870 4 million slaves were imported to the Caribbean. However, slavery here was different to in other areas, it was the only time in history where there were societies with almost 9 out of 10 in habitants being slaves. The ex-slaves who worked on the sugar plantations of wealthy creoles are a significant part of part one of wide Sargasso Sea. After the emancipation act the black population did not want to work, due to their history of slavery, this left them poor, leaving them resentful towards the creole population, who like Antoinette and her family as well as Mr Lutterell ‘who were still waiting for this compensation the English promised’. After Mr Lutterells’ suicide, it is evident that the creole population in the Caribbean will become isolated due to the hostility from the large over powering black population. It is repeated that Antoinette and her family are ‘marooned’ for this, getting used to the ‘solitary life’. The compensation they were promised that never came left them poor, leading to the marriage of convenience between Mr Mason and Annette, eventually resulting in Antoinette and Rochesters. The theme of slavery is also noticeable in Rochester and Antoinettes relationship. Her love and dependency on her husband is a result of neglection from her mother and her community, leading her to have a childlike dependency on him, representing a figurative slavery. This along with the re naming of Antoinette to bertha (as a slave would be renamed), is made into literal entrapment in Antoinettes ultimate physical captivity.

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  13. The Emancipation Act of 1833 in which the terrible and inefficient system of slavery was propelled to a closure should have produced progress, optimism, and gratefulness on all fronts. To many, however, the end of slavery in the Caribbean was a big disappointment and fabricated a conflicted society. In fact, it was the post emancipation world that exacerbated many of the tragedies in Wide Sargasso Sea, leaving not only Mr Luttrell but also Antoinette and her family ‘marooned’ through their entrenchment in poverty, awaiting the compensation they were promised by the British Government and living in isolation at the hands of the predominantly black population. With the abolition of slavery came the removal of the network of control and order that the society of Coulibri once attained, incentivising the inhabitants to question ‘why should anybody work?’ thus escalating the decline of an industry fuelled by laziness. Rochester’s perception of Antoinette as his property, a commodity whom he obtains full ownership of is reflected by Rhys through the history of Jamaica as an English colony from 1655 and a British colony from 1707-1962. To the modern reader, his views may seem outright racist and chauvinist, emphasising how Antoinette’s eyes proved she was ‘not English or European either’, but in the 19th Century these were widely accepted and promoted outlooks of British individuals who perceived the natives of the colonies as inferior.

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  14. Wide Sargasso Sea- Colonial influence and Ownership
    The colonisation of the West Indies became the central focus for Great Britain as slavery reached its pinnacle of popularity, accumulating economic wealth through the production of sugarcane, utilising the oppression of those who were thought to be ‘inferior’ for intensive labour. The British empire claimed Jamaica as an English colony in 1655 remaining in control until 1962, imposing the Western culture upon the indigenous people. Under the rule of Queen Victoria, the British Empire became for the foremost global power, extending to an estimated third of world dominance. Fuelled by a belief that the British race were significantly superior to the 450 million now subject to their jurisdiction, Jean Rhys is keen to demonstrate this through the characterisation of Rochester. As a product of his time, Rochester is framed to be consumed by the ongoing power struggle emerging within is mind-set, deeply mirroring that of the colonisation of Coulibri, complying with the expectations of the Victorian era. Similarly, to the British suppression of their colonies, Rochester dominates Antoinette’s life as she knows it within her own environment, in order to justify his self-inflicted alienation and refusal to value the traditions of the Caribbean. By silencing Antoinette, much like the harsh slave trade silenced the islands inhabitants, Rochester is able to persecute any security she feels by enforcing ultimate restraint, labelling her as ‘Bertha’ diminishing her creole heritage, fundamentally moulding her to fit patriarchal prospects.

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  15. Status of women in England and Caribbean cultures
    In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys examines this situation in relation to Antoinette, who is not protected by her family. Rochester is well meaning to begin with but he becomes increasingly vindictive and cruel, ensuring that Antoinette is completely in his power. English law did not recognise women as independent entities at all until 1839. Until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce was not available without a special act of Parliament and that was prohibitively expensive for all but the very rich. Rochester is not doing anything against the law in imprisoning his wife, whether she was mad or not. Married women who ran away from the family home could be forcibly returned to it. Antoinette’s money became Rochester’s to do with as he pleased. This was the case for many women until the First Married Women’s Property Act of 1870. In such a patriarchal society, it was the duty of the heiress’s family to ensure that money was settled on her independently by a special legal arrangement. Without that money women, like Antoinette, became economically powerless and their husbands then hold this power and have authority over them physically, similar to Rochester.


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