Women and madness

Suspicious passion

Antoinette is economically powerless and also emotionally vulnerable because 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'.

Female insanity

Wide Sargasso Sea offers an examination and questioning of long established ideas about women and The Woman in Whitemadness. The Victorians believed that women were especially vulnerable to insanity and were much more likely than men to pass it on to their children.

This connection is also a common feature of Victorian fiction and exploited for particular effect in the ‘sensation' novel. Mary Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1859/60), for example, both use the connection between women and insanity as key elements in their complex plots.

Is Antoinette really mad?

Jean Rhys' novel can be located in a tradition of writing (especially by women writers) questioning both this connection and the definition of madness in itself. Readers of the novel need to think carefully about the nature of Antoinette's ‘madness' and ask questions such as:

  1. Is Antoinette's ‘madness' a family trait?
    • How far was her mother ‘mad'? Local gossip said so, as did Daniel Cosway, but he had a grievance against the family. Christophine, who knew her best, was reluctant to use the word in her argument with Rochester
  2. Who labels Antoinette as mad?
    • Clearly, one definition comes from Jane Eyre, where Bertha's situation as a madwoman in an attic is described as animal-like and violent
  3. Is Antoinette's ‘madness' the result of rejection by her mother, family and finally, Rochester?
  4. Is it a result of her fractured sense of identity?
  5. Is ‘madness' in fact just loneliness?
  6. Is it a response to her dispossession from the place she loves?
  7. 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?  
  8. Finally, the novel asks us to consider how far Rochester's behaviour is ‘mad'.


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