Oppositions and contrasts

Throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys employs a series of oppositions and contrasts in her imagery. These can be arranged into clusters of opposites, for example:

  • Heat & fire / cold
  • Light / dark
  • White / black
  • Bright / grey
  • Caribbean / England

In this way, the images and symbols work with the structure of the novel to further its themes and ideas. Patterns of oppositions and contrasts recur throughout the text.

Fire and light in Jane Eyre

Fire placeImages of fire and light pervade Jane Eyre and are often set against contrasting images of coldness. Fire and light can be positive, suggesting physical and emotional warmth and security. The novel also makes use of traditional associations between fire and sexual passion.

However, fire can also suggest physical danger and violence. The associations between fire and danger are all, at bottom, connected in some way to Bertha. Fire images are also used to represent the natural world of the Caribbean which, in Bronte's novel is defined as a version of hell. These issues are discussed further in Texts in detail >  Jane Eyre .

Jean Rhys took these images and reworked them in her own novel. The danger of fire is central to the scenes in which a house is burnt, the fire at Coulibri, which prefigures the burning of Thornfield Hall. Fire and light, however, are also used to redefine Antoinette and her culture.

Investigating fire and light in Wide Sargasso Sea

  • Make a list of as many references to fire and light in Wide Sargasso Sea as you can remember
    • Consider the ways these are used to:
      • Represent aspects of Antoinette's experience
      • Represent the Caribbean
    • Are they used to represent Antoinette and her Caribbean context in a positive or a negative way?
      • Can they be ambiguous on this point?


Throughout her writings, Jean Rhys made considerable use of the associations of particular colours. In Wide Sargasso Sea, colour is used to denote:

  • Racial difference. This is not merely the obvious opposition black / white but also to signal gradations of mixed race, and Antoinette's fear of - and prejudice against - the albino Daniel Cosway.
  • Differences between England and the Caribbean. England is constructed through a cold, grey, dull palette, while the Caribbean is associated with bright strong colours. Again, this goes beyond a straightforward recording of the differences in the natural world of these two areas and extends into emotional and cultural contrasts:
    • Bright colours denote strength of feeling and cultural vitality
    • Cold ones convey reserve, hostility and hypocrisy.


Woman in red dressThe most noticeable colour in Wide Sargasso Sea is red. In Jane Eyre, it is used to carry the hellish, violent references required for Brontë's representation of the Caribbean and Bertha Mason.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, in contrast, red is:

  • The signature colour of Caribbean culture standing for vibrancy, life and passion. Its associations with danger are not forgotten but used to make a political point. It is the colour of rebellion
  • Operating alongside references to fire, light and candles to call up associations with weapons of destruction but also warmth and welcome
  • Used for its traditional associations with sexual passion and love which are developed in images around Antoinette and Rochester.

Investigating the use of red in Wide Sargasso Sea

  • Find as many references to red as you can
    • Think about their connections to the themes of the novel
  • What is the significance of Antoinette's red dress?
  • Re-read the final two paragraphs of the novel
    • How do the images of fire, light and colour create a sense of Antoinette's experience?
    • How do they relate to the way these images were used in earlier sections of the novel?


Mirror, photo by Cgs, available through Creative CommonsJean Rhys makes use of a long established convention in associating mirrors with identity, especially in relation to women. Antoinette's sense of herself is frequently represented in the novel through references to mirrors (looking glasses):

  • Some references reinforce aspects of her femininity and links with her mother for whom appearance and beauty were also crucially important. For example, Rochester notices the looking glass in the bedroom at Granbois, a feminine space. For more on the gendered spaces of the novel, see the section Structure of Wide Sargasso Sea > Space, place and landscape
  • Other uses of mirror imagery develop the theme of identity in a more ambiguous way:
    • It is used in the episode of the burning of Coulibri to refer to Antoinette's affinity with the black girl, Tia.
    • In Part three the dreaming Antoinette sees an image that may be a picture but may also be a mirror. Either way, her response is a degree of recognition and there is a sense that her ambiguous identity is confirmed at this moment. She is ready to carry out the burning of Rochester's house.
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