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


The convent and the wider setting in Sargasso

I’ll be setting a setting question on Monday under timed conditions, so, Friday’s lesson was exploring the significance of setting a little more.

Setting is important in literary analysis; The first type of setting is the neutral setting. It is the place where the events of the story occur. The second type of setting is the spiritual setting. This represents the values and morals being taught in the book.

The convent school provides a safe haven for Antoinette for eighteen months. She appreciates its calm order and its environment of alternating spaces of sunlight and cool shade. She learns prayers for the dead and applies them to her mother, although she is not sure of the location of her mother’s soul.

Mr Mason visits her, bringing rather worldly presents of jewellery and clothes that she cannot wear while in the convent. She is seventeen, growing up. Mason begins to hint at arrangements for meeting a potential husband. Antoinette’s response is dismay and a great sense of loss. However, she hides her feelings from Mason, as she has learnt to do in the past.

Unsettled and afraid, Antoinette experiences her dream for the second time. On this occasion she is in a dark wood, wearing a long white dress. A man is with her, his face full of hatred, and she is weeping

Compare this with the first dream in part one:

  • Can you see any significance in the timing of the dreams?
  • How does the second dream differ from the first?
  • How might the second dream be interpreted? (consider AO5 here)

What models and behaviour of femininity are available for Antoinette at the convent?

Find some quotations to support your findings.

I then gave out a list of significant quotations on each of the significant locations in WSS – each of the quotes had an analysis with it so that students can understand what it really means to unpick AO2 and recognise authorial technique.

Monday’s question will be –

‘The setting is to blame for the downfall of Antoinette’ – Consider Rhys presentation of setting in light of this statement.

I want students to think about time and place in their responses – the emancipation act, the conflicted, unsettled background of the narrative, the colonial uncertainty.

Was Antoinette doomed because she was born a creole woman in a particular time and place in history? Is Rochester incidental rather than instrumental in her downfall?

Some unpicked quotations on setting:
‘The road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate… was very bad, and… road repairing was a thing the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed–all belong to the past).’
This isolates the speaker (Antoinette) from the civilisation of Spanish Town • ‘road repairing’ becomes metaphorical for the broken society which they are living in. As a result of the Emancipation, society was thrown into flux with no way to rebuild civilisation, which is now becoming a thing of the past. • The absence of ‘feeling safe’ imbues the location with a threatening tone, implying violence. • With everything ‘belong[ing] to the past’, there is a sense of an evolving, changing society through the depiction of Coulibri.

‘an unlucky place’ • ‘empty’ • ‘shutters banging in the wind’ • ‘haunted’
The name of Mr Luttrell’s house, Nelson’s Rest, becomes emblematic of the British Empire linking it to Lord Nelson (an admiral who fought in wars to secure colonisation). However ‘rest’ becomes symbolic of the denying colonisation. • However, the house becomes imbued with Gothic uncertainty though the addition of superstition as supernatural elements. • This ‘haunt[ing]’ of Luttrell’s house may be in recognition of the mysteries of the island and its violent history which haunts the present. Links to a further Gothic theme of the haunting of the past on the present. • The use of the adjective ‘empty’ may depict the shallow, materialistic nature of colonialism as it falls into decline post- Emancipation.

Rochester- ‘who was massacred here? Slaves?’, Antoinette- ‘Not slaves. Something must have happened along the time ago. Nobody remembers now.’
This creates a sense of a conflict which has lasted so long that sides and events, even deaths, have become blurred due to the sheer scale of the conflict. • Antoinette’s denial of the past creates an uncertainty and a hiding of secrets from the past. This uncertainty of facts and the truth becomes a theme through the novel, creating friction in Rochester and Antoinette’s relationship.

‘But it had gone wild…I don’t remember the place when it was prosperous’
In relation to the Fall from Grace, this juxtaposes the image of the garden as seen previously to be an image of a corrupt and decaying place. • The garden, like Antoinette, is being left in neglect by its caretakers. While it is free to grow beautiful and wild, it is also permeated with decay. • The decadent Creole lifestyle as portrayed in the novel- predicated upon exploitation, wealth, and ease- finds its natural counterpart in the fallen garden.

‘After Mr Mason clipped his wings, he grew very bad tempered.’
The parrot, as an exotic creature, may be emblematic of Antoinette and Annette’s entrapment since Masons (and consequently Rochester’s) arrival. Equally the parrots name, Coco as a commodity exported by slaves, may link to the theme of slavery and therefore entrapment. • The clipping of Masons wings may be symbolic of colonists entrapping the natives, in this case Creoles or females. • The bad tempered nature of the parrot may reflect the social unrest and violent nature of the colonised people. In this case, it may reflect the descending madness of Annette.

‘She was part of Coulibri, and that had gone, so she had gone.’
The house, like the landscape of Grandbois, becomes symbolic of Annette’s mental state. So once it becomes colonised by Mason, Annette’s own mentality begins to fade.
‘tidy, pretty little house.’
Ironically, this is where she becomes trapped and restrained. This may become symbolic of the Western views of civility in comparison to the creoles views.


AO5 -Let’s get critical!

I decided that the best way to tackle AO5 was to use a similar format to the lesson that I did for a HE+ session on critical theory. Students would be given an overview of Marxist theory, Feminist theory, Postcolonial theory and  Psychological – a couple of examples are below – this took at least 2 full lessons to cover as we had a series of questions on WSS to consider through each particular critical lens.

These critics view works through the lens of psychology. They look either at the psychological motivations of the characters or of the authors themselves, although the former is generally considered a more respectable approach.
Freudian Approach A Freudian approach often includes pinpointing the influences of a characters id: The instinctual pleasure seeking part of the mind), superego: the part of the mind that represses the id’s impulses) and the ego: the part of the mind that controls but does not repress the id’s impulses, releasing them in a healthy way).
Freudian critics like to point out the sexual implications of symbols and imagery, since Freud’s believed that all human behaviour is motivated by sexuality. They tend to see
concave images, such as ponds, flowers, cups, and caves as female symbols; whereas objects that are longer than they are wide are usually seen as phallic symbols. Dancing, riding, and flying are associated with sexual pleasure. Water is usually associated with birth, the female principle, the maternal, the womb, and the death wish. Freudian critics occasionally discern the presence of an Oedipus complex (a boy’s unconscious rivalry with his father for the love of his mother) in the male characters of certain works, such as Hamlet. So, with WSS in mind we consider the mirror imagery, the animal imagery, flower imagery and the significance of Antoinette’s dreams.
A feminist critic sees cultural and economic disabilities in a ―patriarchal society that have hindered or prevented women from realizing their creative possibilities and women‘s cultural identification as merely a negative object, or ―Other, to man as the defining and dominating ―Subject. There are several assumptions and concepts held in common by most feminist critics.
1.Our civilization is pervasively patriarchal.
2.The concepts of gender‖ are largely, if not entirely,cultural constructs, effected by the omnipresent patriarchal bias of our civilization.
3.This patriarchal ideology also pervades those writings that have been considered great literature. Such works lack autonomous female role models, are implicitly addressed
to male readers, and leave the alien outsider or else solicit her to identify against herself by assuming male values and ways of perceiving, feeling, and acting.Feminists often argue that male fears are portrayed through female characters. Under this theory you would focus on the relationships between genders by examining the patterns of thought, behaviour, values, enfranchisement, and power in relations between the sexes.
So, with WSS in mind we explored if the female characters met the typical conventions of femininity and more specifically if Christophine and Amelie could be viewed as feminist role models

Christophine and Tia ‘The ‘other’ that Antoinette desires to be’ – Wide Sargasso Sea.

I’m going to begin the lesson with a quick recap from last week – This will be on the board as the students arrive – they will have a couple of minutes and then be ready to respond to questions.

  • Define fatalism?
  • Name the three people who narrate the novel?
  • When was the novel published?
  • Define creole.
  • What three themes are evident in the opening pages?
  • When was the emancipation act?
  • What does the garden represent?

Develop: Christophine – What do we know about her? – Brainstorm. Read the description of her aloud. Discuss how and why she is different to the other black women in the novel.

Christophine is situated as an outsider in society immediately upon her introduction in the novel.

Find some quotations that show this.

Antagonist “This is a free country and I am a free woman”

Christophine asserts herself as an articulate antagonist of patriarchal and imperialist law.” Benita Parry (AO5 and AO3)

Character Development – Pair work to consolidate knowledge.

1. How would you describe the relationship between Christophine and Antoinette? Is there any evidence to suggest that she loves her?

2. How does Rochester view Christophine? How does she make him feel vulnerable? (consider AO3 context here) Find some evidence to support this?

We are then going to move on to Tia and the complexity of that relationship:

We will read the fire description on page 24 and then consider some critical theory (AO5)Lee Erwin – ‘Like in a looking glass’ (1989)

“The ruling desire of Antoinette’s narrative is for a fantasised union with blackness which will enable her to occupy the place of the other”

“the history of slavery that she strives to repress is precisely what Rochester strives to recover”

  • In what ways does Antoinette’s description of Tia throwing the stone match her feelings of internal pain at this time? Why does she leave out a description of the physical pain?
  • Why does Rhys use the phrase ‘like a looking-glass’ to describe Antoinette and Tia looking at one another?
  • What is the significance that Antoinette’s last detail of Coulibri is this confrontation with her former friend?