Dreams are prevalent in both Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, and in Jean Rhys’s 1966 postcolonial re-writing of it, Wide Sargasso Sea. In both works, dreams provide glimpses of the repressed or unexpressed emotions of characters. In both novels they also foreshadow events for the benefit of the characters and the reader. Dreams in Wide Sargasso Sea also often contain parallel imagery to dreams of Jane Eyre. The novels, though, have different attitudes towards the distinction between dreams and reality. In Jane Eyre, dreams can drive or reflect waking life, but the two entities remain largely distinct. In Wide Sargasso Sea, dreams leak into the waking world of the narrators, thus giving the novel a dreamlike tone. While dreams in Jane Eyre are tidy and contained, the dreams of Wide Sargasso Sea are jumbled and swamplike.In Jean Rhys’s postcolonial re-writing of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, dreams serve many of the same functions that they serve in the original. The dreams of protagonist Antoinette are often clairvoyant like Jane’s. Both characters also reveal interior selves when dreaming; Jane’s dreams reflect a part of her consciousness that she represses and Antoinette’s dreams reflect a part of her consciousness that she has trouble expressing. Indeed, the functional components of Antoinette’s dreams often parallel those of Jane’s dreams. Jean Rhys was clearly as aware of the various uses of dreams as Charlotte Brontë.
Over the course of the novel, Antoinette has a series of three dreams which she describes as different manifestations of the same dream. These parallel the three dreams Jane Eyre has as she grows increasingly anxious over her marriage. Like Jane’s dreams, they give much insight to Antoinette’s maturing character and provide important foresight into future events in her life.
Antoinette’s first dream takes place in her childhood, the night after her playmate Tia cheats her out of three pennies, steals her dress, and dismisses Antoinette as a “white nigger”.
I dreamed that I was walking in the forest. Not alone. Someone who hated me was with me, out of sight. I could hear heavy footsteps coming closer and though I struggled and screamed, I could not move. I woke crying.
This dream reflects young Antoinette’s undeveloped sense of self-awareness. Its use of past tense suggests that Antoinette is distanced from her dream consciousness. The vagueness of the threat in her dream suggests she does not understand her fears, and reflects her bewilderment and fear at Tia’s rejection of her.
The dream roughly parallels Jane Eyre’s first dream of Rochester. Antoinette’s dream is a sort of inverse of Jane Eyre’s. Jane’s nightmares are based on the receding figure of Rochester, and the inability to reach him. Antoinette’s are based on a malevolent figure approaching her.
As Jane’s dream recurs, so do Antoinette’s. Antoinette has her “bad dream” for the second time at age seventeen, after her stepfather visits her at her serene convent school and tells her he is arranging for suitors to visit her.
Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. “Here?” He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. “Not here, not yet,” he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, “It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.” I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. “Here, in here,” a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.
Comparing the second dream with the first reveals much about Antoinette’s psychological development. Unlike the first dream, the second occurs in present tense, suggesting that Antoinette has grown closer to her dream consciousness. The plot and context of the second dream have grown more clearer, suggesting greater intelligence and perception. Wheras in the first, Antoinette is merely “walking in the forest,” with “someone who hated me” in the second dream, she walking through the forests around Coulibri in the company of a “man” who is “black with hatred.” The second dream also suggests Antoinette’s budding adolescent sexuality. Antoinette’s attempt to keep her white dress unsoiled, suggests her concern with maintaining sexual purity.
The second dream also foreshadowing much of the troubles Antoinette will face after meeting Rochester. The pure dress represents a wedding dress, and the hateful man represents Rochester. Her reluctance to join the man symbolizes her reluctance to join Rochester in matrimony. Antoinette’s fatalistic resignation to follow the man in the dream, “I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen,” foreshadows how she “masochistically and insistently lays herself on [the] sexual altar]” of marrying Rochester (O’Connor 186). In her dream, the man orders Antoinette “Here, Here,” and she compiles. Later in the narrative, Rochester sexually subjugates Antoinette, noting, “I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers”
“We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden,” corresponds to Antoinette’s future relocation to England. The “different trees” are English trees Antoinette has never encountered in the Caribbean. The stone wall is the same wall at Thornfield that Jane Eyre imagines falling from in her second dream of Rochester. The “enclosed garden” and the ascent up the steps prefigure Antoinette’s imprisonment in Rochester’s attic.
Despite their similarities in form and function, Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea differ in their attitude towards the dichotomy of dreaming and waking. While Jane Eyre maintains distinctions between dreams and reality, dreams blend seamlessly with reality in Wide Sargasso Sea. As a result, the conscious world of Jane Eyre is dualistic, but that of Wide Sargasso Sea is a single jumbled swamp of dreams and waking.
Like Jane, Antoinette is a frequent dreamer. But while Jane’s Victorian upbringing encourages her to minimize her daydreams and isolate her night dreams, Antoinette’s neglected upbringing in the unstable, disorderly post-emancipation Caribbean results in her experiencing waking life as a sort of dream.
Dreams are not just the province of Antoinette’s sleep. Her entire life is emotional rather than logical, surreal rather than realistic, imagistic rather than expository. As Angier writes, “The whole of her life is like a dream, and in particular like her dream” . Observe the dreamlike and detached way Antoinette recalls sewing at the Convent School:
My needle is sticky, and creaks as it goes in and out of the canvas. “My needle is swearing,” I whisper to Louise, who sits next to me. We are cross-stitching silk roses on a pale background. We can colour the roses as we choose and mine are green, blue and purple.
Much of the novel is written in a dreamlike style. Rochester tells Antoinette that Granbois seems “quite unreal and like a dream,” and after he spends some time in the Caribbean, even the parts he narrate take on a dreamlike quality. In the dead of night after receiving a letter from Daniel Cosway that warns of Antoinette’s madness, Rochester goes for a walk in the forest. His description of walking is fluid and primitive and reminiscent of Antoinette’s forest dreams. “I began to walk very quickly, then stopped because the light was different. A green light. I had reached the forest and you cannot mistake the forest. It is hostile. The path was overgrown but it was possible to follow it”.
By the time she has the third installment of her dream, Antoinette has transformed into Bertha Mason, a delusional woman whose only moments of clarity are inspired by flashes of rage. Locked in an attic of Thornfield, Antoinette has lost the ability to distinguish between memory and dream, and thus she removes all barriers between waking and sleeping in Wide Sargasso Sea.
The third dream comes the night after Grace Poole tells Antoinette that she has attacked Richard Mason. Before falling asleep, Antoinette observes her fiery red dress lying on the floor and ponders what she should learn from it, “It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember it quite soon now” (187). This contextualizes her subsequent dream as the revelation of a quest; her dream will tell her what she must do.
In the first part of her dream, she takes the keys from a sleeping Grace Poole, lets herself out of the attic, and floats through the house. As in her first dream, she senses that “someone” is following her (187). When she passes a lamp in the hall, Antoinette remarks “I remember that when I came,” thus shifting from her dream to an episodic memory (187). “There was a door to the right,” it is not clear whether she is narrating from the dream or the memory (187). This passage thus reveals Antoinette’s confusion between dream and memory.
Later in the dream, Antoinette shifts her descriptions between Thornfield and Coulibri without transition, “Suddenly I was in Aunt Cora’s room” (188). In describing first a view from a window at Coulibri and then a set of candles at Thornfield, Antoinette again shifts from memory to dream without distinguishing the two. “I saw the sunlight coming through the window, the tree outside and the shadows of the leaves on the floor, but I saw the wax candles too and I hated them” (188). Again, the narrative maintains no distinction between the states of consciousness.
Antoinette next sets fire to a set of curtains and then a tablecloth in her dream. When she calls to Christophine for help, she believes Christophine answers her call by providing a protective wall of flame. She runs up to the battlements of Thornfield, and gazing in the flames, flashes back through the images of her life.
I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora’s patchwork, all colours, I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver, and the soft green velvet of the moss on the garden wall. I saw my doll’s house and the books and the picture of the Miller’s Daughter. I heard the parrot call as he did when he saw a stranger, Qui est la? Qui est la? and the man who hated me was calling too, Bertha! Bertha! The wind caught my hair and it streamed out like wings. It might bear me up, I thought, if I jumped to those hard stones. But when I looked over the edge I saw the pool at Coulibri. Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated, she laughed. I heard her say, You frightened? And I heard the man’s voice, Bertha! Bertha! All this I saw and heard in a fraction of a second. And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought Why did I scream? I called “Tia!” and jumped and woke.
Antoinette also exposes several of her interior emotions in this final section. First, she evokes nostalgia. Gazing over the ramparts at Thornfield, she sees the pool at Coulibri. The images of the “the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine” and her doll’s house hearken back to her relatively innocent and safe childhood.
Antoinette’s anguish at the corruption of her identity is also present in the final scene of her dream. The image of Coco the parrot jumping from a burning Coulibri parallels that of Antoinette jumping from a burning Thornfield. It suggests that Antoinette feels anguish at Rochester for subjugating her as her stepfather, another Englishman, subjugated Coco by clipping his wings. Antoinette’s inability to recognize her voice as the source of the scream also reflect her loss of identity. Her perception of Rochester’s calls to “Bertha,” an identity he imposed upon Antoinette, suggest Rochester’s role in this loss. While the doll’s house is an image of Antoinette’s childhood, it also suggests another identity Rochester creates for her; that of Marionetta, a doll he can play with.
This violent dream is literalized not in Wide Sargasso Sea, but in Jane Eyre, when Bertha Mason burns Thornfield to the ground and jumps to her death. Antoinette thus remains innocent in Jean Rhys’s novel. While she gets her violent revenge in Jane Eyre, she only dreams of it in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Jane Eyre makes use of dreams as foreshadowing and windows to consciousness. In rewriting Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys preserves these functions, and goes even further by making the whole text of Wide Sargasso Sea a kind of dream. In Jane Eyre, the distinction of dreaming and waking is as strong as Jane’s disposition; in Wide Sargasso Sea it is as feeble as Antoinette’s.