Narration and structure

The three parts of Wide Sargasso Sea have different narrators.

Part one: Antoinette as narrator

BerthaIn Charlotte Brontë's novel Bertha Mason does not tell her own story. It is told for her by Jane Eyre, the narrator who provides her version of the ‘madwoman's' story from the information she is given by others and her observations at Thornfield Hall. Jean Rhys, in giving ‘Bertha' her own voice, effects a major change, away from the dominance of Brontë's novel. Through Antoinette's first person narration readers can be brought closer to this character, to share her thoughts and emotions and to take the journey from Jamaica to imprisonment in Rochester's house alongside her. Antoinette is allowed to voice her own experience and so to restore the balance.

Within this first person narration there are particular features:

Change through time - from child to adolescent

In part one of Wide Sargasso Sea Antoinette remembers her childhood and adolescence up to the moment when her marriage to Rochester is arranged by Mr Mason. The first person narration is manipulated to show Antoinette growing up and developing in understanding.

Investigating Antoinette as narrator

  • Re-read the opening section of part one
    • What clues are given that this is a child's perspective on the action?
    • What other information beyond a child's understanding is given?
      • How is this done?

Although the language is quite simple, the people, situations and events are presented without explanation. This is a way of showing gaps in a child's understanding. However, the missing information can be inferred through:

  • Fragments of dialogue and gossip overheard and repeated by Antoinette
  • Answers to the child's questions.

An unreliable narrator?

First person narration makes readers feel very close to the storyteller because we can share their inner thoughts and feelings, as well as follow what they say and do. One of the effects of this kind of narration is to make us less critical of the narrator, to be blind to their faults.

Jean Rhys makes use of narrative irony in Antoinette's narrative. For example, as her tale develops, she mentions her cousin Sandi occasionally. Both Amélie and Daniel Cosway later hint at a sexual relationship between Antoinette and Sandi. At this stage readers may discount this, since both have vested interests of their own in discrediting Antoinette. However, it is not until part three that, in a fragment of dialogue, Antoinette discloses that she and Sandi met frequently and were in love. Readers are left confused and with a sense that Rochester's suspicions had a foundation after all.

Evidently, Antoinette's story is as full of gaps, silences and secrets as others on these islands. There are gaps in what she knows and understands but, importantly, there are gaps in what she chooses to disclose.

Stream of consciousness

Jean Rhys uses this technique to represent the mingling of a child's perceptions with an older narrator's memories. In part one, section 7 for example, Antoinette remembers feeling a very ominous atmosphere at Coulibri and goes into her brother's room. As she watches him asleep, she muses on Mr Mason's plans to cure the little boy. We see her thoughts move from Pierre's current happiness asleep, to thoughts of the future, to his need to sleep, then the sound of the creaking bamboos. The pace of the storytelling slows at this point and so provides a strong dramatic contrast to the violent events to come.

Part two: Rochester as narrator

Jean Rhys also gives Rochester his own voice, another significant departure from Jane Eyre. This means that:

  • Different points of view on his experiences and relationships will be offered to readers, instead of the stable consistency possible through a single narrative voice
  • By constructing Rochester through his own first person narration, Jean Rhys ensures that readers feel closer to his experience and have more understanding.

Investigating Rochester as narrator

  • Imagine how it would be if the action of Wide Sargasso Sea were to be told solely from the point of view of Antoinette
    • Make some notes on how your understanding of the action might be affected.

Rochester and the blanks in his mind

Throughout his stay in the Caribbean, Rochester is subject to a succession of dislocating experiences:

  • New cultural experiences
  • Intense sensual effects of the tropical natural world
  • Awakened sexual passion
  • Musings on the past
  • Memory and his relationship with his family. 

Jean Rhys employs a range of narrative devices for representing these confused and ambivalent responses to the world and people around him.

Rhys is able to manipulate Rochester's first person narration to reveal his precarious sense of his own identity. He refers to himself as playing a role, a perfect ‘performance' of normality, a role hiding a more confused and fractured self. This split within Rochester is represented through various formal devices.

Variations in the tone and language

There are occasions where Rochester's voice varies in tone and language depending on whether he is projecting an external, socially acceptable version of himself or whether he is revealing a hidden, more uncertain version of himself.

For example, in part two when Rochester is riding up to Granbois, he composes a letter in his head. In the letter (which he may never send), he makes his resentments against his family plain. Yet, later in the same section, as he sits in his dressing-room alone he re-reads a letter he seems to have actually written and composes a postscript. If you compare the language of the two letters:

  • The first is more fragmented, the sentences shorter, the tone aggrieved
  • In the written version the sentences are ordered more conventionally, the tone is neutral and the information at variance with Rochester's sense of cultural displacement
  • He concludes this section with an admission that the effect of the place and people leaves gaps in his memory that he cannot account for.

Response to information

Rhys presents a contrast between Rochester's rational approach to experience and his more intuitive, emotional and subjective response, which he tries to suppress.

For example, Rochester's experience of the landscape around Granbois is marked on the one hand by rational investigation through walking or reading and on the other by musing or reverie induced by the mingled effects of climate, landscape and his feelings:

  • Lost in the forest, he is afraid among the ‘antagonistic' trees and begins to believe in the spirit world of the Caribbean
  • On his return to the house, he restores his sense of cultural equilibrium by reading about zombies in a travel book.

Splits between what Rochester says and what he thinks

Rochester's narrative is marked by fragmentation and the use of stream of consciousness to represent the effects of emotional and cultural dislocation.

Investigating Rochester's presentation

  • Re-read Rochester's confrontation with Christophine (part two, section 16)
    • Consider the differences between the dialogue (in ordinary type) and the sentences in italics
      • How would you describe Rochester's voice when he speaks directly to Christophine?
      • What about his thoughts? Are these narrated in a different tone?
      • What do you make of the voices in italics?
    • What is the effect of the odd intrusion of Antoinette's child-like plea to Christophine that her nurse should help her?

Stream of consciousness

Rochester's emotional and cultural confusions reach their climax in the last two sections of part two. This is the point in the novel at which Jean Rhys makes the most extensive use of stream of consciousness techniques.

Investigating Rochester's stream of consciousness

  • Re-read part two, sections 18 and 19 making notes on:
    • The way the writing mimics a continuous flow of thoughts, feelings and memories
    • The fragmentations in the writing - the incomplete sentences, the variety of different tones and voices
  • Think about why Jean Rhys chose to conclude Rochester's narrative like this
    • What does the method of narration suggest about his state of mind?
  • How far has Rochester managed to resolve the conflicts in his mind between:
    • Love and hatred
    • Attraction and fear
    • Submission and dominance?


The purpose of this use of a range of narrative devices is to show Rochester's interior life. Jean Rhys is particularly concerned to reveal the pressures on him as an English man in a position of dominance in this new environment. These pressures, as she shows, damage him and prevent a full response to his experience.

Part three: Grace Poole as narrator

Part three opens with a short section in italics told by a new narrator, Grace Poole. Readers unfamiliar with Jane Eyre may not immediately recognise her as Bertha Mason's guardian / jailer.

The section is short but worth some study. It is not exactly a first person narration but avoids any sense of an overseeing third person narrator by consisting of direct speech from Grace and then an account of her thoughts.

Investigating Grace Poole as narrator

  • Why do you think Jean Rhys inserted this narrative?
    • Why not go straight on to Antoinette's narrative?
  • The section begins in speech marks indicating that Grace is talking to someone else:
    • Who is it?
    • What do we learn from what Grace is saying?
    • Who else do we hear in her account?
      • What do we find out about their perspective on events?
  • In the final paragraph of this italicised section, Grace recounts her own thoughts:
    • What does she say about Antoinette?
    • What does she say about the rest of the women at Thornfield Hall?
    • How does this connect to wider themes in the novel relating to gender and the condition of women?

Part three: Antoinette's second narrative

After Grace's narrative the type reverts from italic to roman and we hear another voice, Antoinette's. By this stage in the action she has become the mad wife in the attic at Thornfield Hall, the sinister presence that hangs over Jane Eyre. Her first person narration in this section employs stream of consciousness techniques to represent, via an interior monologue, the flow of perceptions, thoughts and memories in her head at this time.

Investigating Antoinette's second narrative

  • Has ‘stream of consciousness' been employed to represent Antoinette as mad?
    • Would you say this was a rational account?
  • Make some notes on ways in which Antoinette's sense of time and place has been dislocated
    • How do these dislocations give information about:
      • Her past life after the end of part one?
      • The events at Thornfield Hall while she has been imprisoned there?
  • Images are important in Antoinette's interior monologue
    • Make a list of the ones that seem to be most significant
    • Select one or two and think about their purpose in this narration:
      • Do they tell us something about her state of mind?
      • Do they connect to key themes in the text?

Other voices in Wide Sargasso Sea

In overcoming the limitations of first person narration, Jean Rhys makes use of a range of other techniques for allowing other characters to give their point of view on the action of the novel, its central relationship and the wider cultural context. In looking at these in turn, the questions to ask are:

  • How do we hear their voice?
  • What is the effect of hearing their point of view?


Antoinette's mother is not given her own first person narration. Readers have to construct her character and experience from:

  • Antoinette's memories of her mother
  • Annette's speech in dialogue reported by Antoinette
  • Gossip and the comments of servants or other members of the family reported by Antoinette
  • Information given to Rochester by Daniel Cosway and Christophine.

Consequently, the picture we have of Annette is a fragmentary one and drawn from contradictory sources. There are also gaps in her story - Antoinette does not describe her mother's decline until forced to explain her family history to Rochester in part two.

Aunt Cora and Mr Mason

As with Annette, the narration reveals their part in the action through:

  • Antoinette's memories
  • Their speech in dialogue with others
  • Gossip and comments from other characters.

These different sources may well provide conflicting points of view.

The white community

As a child in Part one, Antoinette's speech often slips into recounting local white gossip about her family. This method of narration ensures that the voice remains Antoinette's but also reveals the values and attitudes of the white community to which she belongs. As readers, we are able to measure the extent to which she and her family are different from this community and also ways in which they continue to share their values and attitudes.

The history of this community is also narrated or told through the place names, language and songs recorded by Antoinette. The sections The context of Wide Sargasso Sea and Wide Sargasso Sea synopses give historical information on the events and personalities recorded in these place names and songs.


Christophine's character is constructed from a range of different narrative elements:

  • Antoinette's first person narration. Her importance as an influence is demonstrated by the amount of attention she is given in Antoinette's memories. For example, her appearance, manner and personality are carefully described by the child, Antoinette, early in Part one (as elsewhere).
  • Gossip and fragments of dialogue retold by Antoinette reveal the attitudes of other people. The significance of these attitudes must be inferred by the reader. We have to work out why, for example, the girls of the bayside are afraid of Christophine
  • Christophine's own speech is recorded in Antoinette's narrative so that we catch the intonations of her language, her use of songs and stories and infer her personality as well as her distinctive culture
  • Rochester's point of view develops through his narration in Part two. He sees her initially as a servant at Granbois but she becomes implicated in the web of suspicions spun by Daniel Cosway's letter and is finally subjected to Rochester's implacable hostility once he suspects her of using obeah practices on him. Part two is narrated  mainly by Rochester but Jean Rhys gives Christophine her own voice by inserting sections of dialogue. In these sections Christophine confronts Rochester in a very dramatic way
  • The letter to Rochester from Mr Frazer, the local magistrate presents another perspective on Christophine. This is the official opinion on her held by the judicial element within the white community.

Daniel Cosway

Daniel Cosway is represented within Rochester's first person narration by two devices:

  • Letters: Cosway sends two letters to Rochester which present his perspective on Antoinette's family background (and which fuel Rochester's suspicions about insanity and racial purity). These letters present versions of Cosway's own voice in terms of their tone, style of speech and address to Rochester, as well as their content. Readers must then put these letters into the wider context of other points of view on Antoinette, her family and Christophine
  • Dialogue: Cosway's speech is reported by Rochester. Cosway can command different styles of speech. He begins in a highly rhetorical way, heavily laced with biblical resonances. He modulates into a more natural style of speech later in their conversation. We need to bear in mind, however, that this dialogue is presented by Rochester and therefore is coloured by his perspective.

Black servants and the wider black community

The voices of black servants are heard mainly through reported speech and dialogue in Antoinette's narration. Their personality and the distinctive culture of their particular island background is revealed in their styles of speech. Geoffrey and Myrah, for example, use biblical phrases, a marker for their particular religious affiliations. Descriptions of external appearance come mainly from Rochester. He is the stranger, whereas Antoinette knows these people so well that she does not need to describe them.

The wider black community is notably silent in this novel. Although their history and culture are inscribed in place names, songs and patois, we actually hear their voices very little. The reason for this is that neither of the two main narrators interact very much with this group, so they cannot report their voices. Notice, for example, the silence around Rochester at Granbois. He is aware of the bustling kitchen occupants once he suspects money is going to them from Antoinette. But he does not hear their voices and so cannot know their culture. The riot at Coulibri is one of the few times in which the voices of the black community are heard.

Investigating the voices of the black community

  • Read the section in which rioters burn Coulibri (part one, section 8)
    • Make notes on the voices we hear and what they say
      • What do the black people say?
    • How does this exercise on the ‘multivocal' aspects of the novel reveal important themes about:
      • Black people
      • The silencing of their community
      • Their rebellion?
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