Part one, section 1

Wide Sargasso Sea pages 5 - 6: The advent of trouble … The brevity of mortal life

Synopsis of part one, section 1

Sugar estateAntoinette, her disabled little brother Pierre and her young widowed mother live on their dilapidated sugar estate, Coulibri in Jamaica, at some time in the 1830s. Their estate, like those of the other white estate owners (or planters), is suffering economically. The sugar trade has declined after the Emancipation Act of 1833 when slaves were given their freedom. The family faces isolation, poverty, gossip from their white planter neighbours, as well as hostility and mockery from their former black slaves and servants. Antoinette discovers that the family's horse has been killed by poisoning.

Commentary on part one, section 1

  • When Antoinette refers to being in a different rank, she expresses her family's sense of difference from the other planters and from richer white incomers now that they are poor.
  • Christophine is speaking in English Creole (See: Social / political context > Creole identity and language) when she talk of Antoinette's mother being as pretty as prettiness itself.
  • Both Jamaica and Martinique are islands in the Caribbean. In 1839 Martinique was French and Jamaica was British.
  • Spanish Town was the capital of Jamaica until 1872, when Kingston became the capital. The town was also a major slave market from the seventeenth century. Originally, Jamaica was a Spanish colony. Spain claimed the island in 1509 after Christopher Columbus landed there in 1494. It became a British colony in 1670/1 when the Spanish formally ceded it to Britain after an invasion in 1655.
  • Coulibri Estate was an estate known to Jean Rhys but actually on the island of Dominica, not Jamaica. The name Coulibri comes from a Carib word meaning ‘Humming Bird'.
  • The Emancipation Act was passed by the British government in 1833 giving slaves their freedom, although slaves did not have full freedom until 1838 (See: Social / political context > Slavery, slave resistance and the anti-slavery movement)Fanny Nelson
  • Nelson was a naval hero of the British wars against Napoleon and the French. His wife was a West Indian heiress. The name Nelson's Rest also records the threat of invasion by the French in the early nineteenth century.
  • The frangipani tree is a tropical shrub or small tree with red flowers that smell especially sweet at night.
  • To be marooned means to put ashore on a desolate island or to be really isolated. In Jamaica, however, it has another meaning, as a term for a fugitive slave. ‘Maroons' were runaway slaves and their descendants who fled into the mountains and formed small communities. They put up stiff resistance to colonists.
  • In referring to the devil, Godfrey quotes from the Bible, from John 12:31. Godfrey, like the other servants at Coulibri, is a Protestant. This separates him from Annette and Christophine who, as people from Martinique, are Catholics.

Investigating part one, section 1

  • The first line of the novel refers to trouble.
    • What kinds of trouble are suggested in this opening section?
  • Consider how the references to place names and people begin to sketch in the history of the island.
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