Analysing a passage

The question

Discuss the effects of Rhys' writing in the following passage, showing how far her concerns and methods are characteristic of the novel as a whole.

The passage 

Part two, section 2: The steep road … Choosing not to hear mockery (p.42- third of the way down p.43)

The analysis

Before you begin writing you should read the passage at least twice:

  • In the first reading, you should try to gain a sense of what is happening in the passage and recall its context in the novel
  • On the second reading, you should begin to underline or otherwise mark significant words or phrases and begin to jot down some of the headings under which you will organise your answer, always referring back to the question
  • By this time, you are ready to plan your answer
  • You may now wish to read the passage once more to make sure that you have not missed anything important.

Key points

  1. The passage occurs near the beginning of part two and is narrated by Antoinette's new husband. Although he is not named in Rhys' novel, if we know the story of Jane Eyre we recognise him as Rochester. The events and conversations described take place on their honeymoon as they ride up to Granbois, an old sugar estate in the mountains which belonged to Antoinette's family. As Part two develops their relationship will become increasingly difficult.
  2. In the course of the passage, Rochester reflects on his new situation. He is overwhelmed by the tropical landscape, its bright colours, its wildness. He is also troubled by his relationship with Antoinette and by his relationship with his family. He feels that, by her dowry of thirty thousand pounds, Antoinette has ‘bought' him. However, even as a younger son, he now has money of his own. Antoinette points out the natural world around him and for a time they seem to be closer. However, they also reveal a deep rift between them when the subject of England is raised and this will be significant as the narrative develops. The passage is therefore full of intimations of problems to come.
  3. This is a first person narration so everything conveyed in this passage is from Rochester's point of view. His perspective on the people, landscape and events is coloured by his English background and upbringing as well as by the shock of abrupt exposure to an unfamiliar new culture and natural world. Information on the other characters in the passage is revealed through their reported speech and through their actions as described by Rochester. This method of narration therefore limits the reader's access to the actions and thoughts of the other characters.
  4. Stream of consciousness is also used within this passage. As Rochester rides after Antoinette he feels tired and overwhelmed. His thoughts become fragmented, moving by associations from the landscape, to Antoinette, then to his family as lines from a letter come into his head. In this way some deep personal anxieties are revealed.
  5. The passage contains contrasts and oppositions that are characteristic of the novel as a whole. The Caribbean landscape around Granbois has red earth but when Rochester says that England has red earth too, Antoinette dismisses his comment. Their responses here reveal their deeply opposed attitudes to the Caribbean and to England. The passage also shows a racial opposition between Antoinette and Rochester as whites and their black servants. The whites ride up to Granbois and take their time. The black people walk but they also go more quickly.
  6. Gender is also a relevant issue. Antoinette is on her home ground, so she is able to take a dominant role in showing her new husband her world. This reverses the stereotypical relationship between men and women in this culture. However, it is a temporary state of affairs because, under pressure from his suspicions and anxieties, Rochester will soon reassert his authority and dominance.
  7. Rochester's marriage is connected to money in the passage. This develops an important theme in the novel: Antoinette's complete economic dependence on her husband to the extent that she is, in a sense, a slave. In this way the novel connects its two key themes; patriarchal dominance of women and the exploitation of black people in Caribbean history. However, the passage also shows Rochester as a victim of English laws relating to inheritance; as a younger son he must find a source of income because he will not inherit any of the family property.
  8. Place is important in the passage. It reveals the different responses of Antoinette and Rochester to the landscape and, by extension, to the Caribbean itself. Rochester drinks the spring water and feels the pull of this place and its beauty. Elsewhere in the passage however, his response to the natural world is more troubled and reveals his state of mind as being confused and contradictory. For example, he feels that the birdsong is a lonesome sound, which tells the reader more about him than it does about the bird.
  9. The word red occurs in this passage in a realistic way, as describing the earth around Granbois. However, there is a symbolic element here because, as elsewhere in the novel, red signifies the Caribbean and conveys its characteristics of warmth, colour, vitality and danger.
  10. The language of the passage demonstrates the economy of Jean Rhys' style. The sentences are often short, sometimes just a phrase. The description is concrete and focused on sensory impressions: colour, heat or cold, taste. When Rochester lapses into musing, there is ellipsis (shown by the three dots), indicating a break in his thoughts. This device is frequently used in Wide Sargasso Sea to indicate fragmented thoughts or a gap in the narrative.
  11. Although the passage is narrated by Rochester, Antoinette's reported speech is worth attention because it shows her confidence. She uses imperatives, telling her husband to put on his coat or to taste mountain water, but this dominant style of speech is not characteristic of her in the rest of the novel. Actually, Antoinette and Rochester say very little to each other; most of the passage is concerned with Rochester's interior thoughts.

Comments on the analysis

  1. This paragraph places the passage in its context in the novel. It gives an idea of the situation at the beginning of Part two as Rochester describes his arrival at the place where he and Antoinette will spend their honeymoon.
  2. By focusing on Rochester's thoughts, this paragraph shows his confused state of mind and the hints in the passage about potential problems in his relationship with Antoinette.
  3. The method of narration is an important aspect of the form of Wide Sargasso Sea. In commenting on the use of first person narration, this paragraph shows how this choice of point of view has strengths and limitations. On the one hand, it allows access to Rochester's interior feelings and motivations. On the other hand, it limits access to the other characters and events which are seen only from his point of view.
  4. This paragraph explains how a particular narrative technique – stream of consciousness – works to represent Rochester's deepest interior feelings.
  5. Contrasts and oppositions are fundamental to the way in which Wide Sargasso Sea is structured and to the way in which thematic concerns are handled. This paragraph indicates oppositions within the interlinked themes of place and race.
  6. Gender is also an important thematic concern in the novel. This paragraph shows how the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester has unconventional elements at the start of their marriage.
  7. This paragraph in the analysis examines the way in which the passage connects two important themes; patriarchy and slavery.
  8. Once again, this paragraph relates to the novel's thematic concerns and also shows how the landscape is used to reveal aspects of character.
  9. This comment on the symbolic use of red shows how this apparently realistic detail is, in fact, part of a pattern of images developed throughout the novel.
  10. Finally, there is a comment on the language of the passage and the way in which it is used to construct Rochester's response to the landscape, to indicate his state of mind and to show contrasts between the two characters.
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