Narrative genres in Wide Sargasso Sea - realism and Gothic


A realist novel is one which gives the impression of recording an actual way of life – a  ‘window on the world'. It does this through:

  • A believable story
  • Plausible settings
  • Characters resembling people in real life.

Jane Eyre is one of the most famous realist novels of the nineteenth century. Brontë's nineteenth century version of realism involved:

  • A belief that although characters were complex they were unified, with a solid, stable identity
  • Assuming that outward appearance gave insight into the inner personality. People could be known by what they looked like
  • A sense of moral stability - characters could be evaluated and judged with confidence.

In ‘writing back' against Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys also made use of these elements. But her novel uses realism in a way influenced by European Modernism. Jean Rhys, like other early twentieth century writers in this movement, believed that:

  • Character and identity were more elusive and fragmented
  • People often feel that they are made up of contradictions, in feelings, opinions and behaviour
  • That the unconscious affects behaviour and attitudes in ways that cannot be fully understood or expressed
  • That a novel could be more ‘realistic' by finding ways to represent elusive, contradictory and fragmented inner thoughts and feelings
  • That such novels could be less judgemental and more compassionate.


Jane Eyre mixes realism with Gothic conventions and supernatural elements. The word Gothic was originally applied to stories which dealt with wild passions and supernatural terrors. Later it also included stories which concentrated on strange or claustrophobic psychological states.

Wide Sargasso Sea also makes use of Gothic conventions: the action includes omens or premonitions, dreams, incarceration and poisonous potions, for example. However, Jean Rhys also develops the genre to give it a Caribbean dimension: 

  • The wild landscapes of the European Gothic tradition (mountains, ruins, castles) are replaced by a tropical forest represented in terms of intense heat and colour, mysterious roads and the ruins of slavery
  • The atmosphere contains specific racial tensions and Caribbean beliefs about obeah and spirits
  • The Gothic tradition made use of dreams as a way of accessing the inner life of characters. In Wide Sargasso Sea landscapes, action and characters are often presented in a dreamlike and hallucinatory way. But they are presented in this way because we see them though the eyes of Antoinette and Rochester. Both characters see the world distorted by their troubled states of mind.

Investigating Rhys' use of Gothic elements

  • What are the Gothic elements in the representation of landscape in the novel?
  • Make notes on the way in which the landscape is described early in part two.
    • How do these descriptions reflect Rochester's state of mind at the beginning of his stay at Granbois?
  • Compare this with the description of landscape in the final sections of Part two.
    • Upon which features of the landscape and natural world does Rochester focus?
    • How do these represent his state of mind as he prepares to leave Granbois?


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