Character, structure and theme in Wide Sargasso Sea

Contrasts and oppositions in the characters of Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea is structured around a pattern of contrasts and oppositions:

  • Man / woman
  • Black / white
  • Rich / poor
  • Coloniser / colonised
  • England / Caribbean.

This is discussed in more detail in Structure of Wide Sargasso Sea.

Characters in the novel can also be fitted into this overall pattern and related to the novel's themes:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Identity

Jean Rhys ensures that these oppositions are not simplistic by making some of them into mirror opposites, in which similarity co-exists with difference.

Annette / Christophine

These two women can be seen as contrasted mother figures in relation to Antoinette.

  • Annette, lonely, fearful and reduced to poverty, is a distant and distracted figure
  • Christophine is closer, more nurturing.

But these oppositions are complicated by race:

  • Christophine is black and Antoinette, despite her love for her, also inherits a family history of white dominance and exploitation
  • Christophine protects Antoinette at Coulibri, but she also practices obeah and the child is afraid of this.

Annette and Christophine also provide Antoinette with contrasted role models in terms of their behaviour and values as women:

  • Annette relies on her sexual power to regain economic security
  • Christophine, despite her relative poverty, is free and independent, although her power as a practitioner of obeah also exposes her to danger from the authorities.

Antoinette / Tia

Rhys uses this contrast of characters to examine racial oppositions. However, she avoids simplistic relationships:

  • Although Antoinette's family is reduced to poverty, this is shown as relative when compared to Tia's
  • White dominance is undercut by Tia's cleverness
  • Their exchange of dresses signals a persistent theme in the novel, the confusions and tensions around Antoinette's cultural identity.

Aunt Cora / Mr Mason

As representatives of the white planter class, these two characters display some similarities, but they contrast in their relative histories:

  • Aunt Cora, like Annette, comes from a family with a long history in the Caribbean over several generations. Mason is a recent incomer
  • Through long association she understands more about the black community than Mason, who is ignorant
  • Their differences are shown most sharply in their responses to the riot at Coulibri
  • The weakness of the old planter community in the face of economic and cultural change is shown in the decline of Aunt Cora and her failure to protect Antoinette from Mason and Rochester.

Rochester / Sandi

Antoinette's suitors form another contrasted pair, although one has his own substantial narrative and the other remains a shadowy figure whose relationship to Antoinette is never fully disclosed. Racial tensions as well as differences in the emotional bond between Antoinette and these two men are examined through this particular opposition.

Rochester / Daniel Cosway

Oppositions between these two characters are very apparent.

  • Rochester is securely identified within the dominant white, English, colonial class
  • Cosway is of mixed race and, as his letters show, exists uneasily and bitterly between the black and white communities.

Yet these two demonstrate surprising similarities:

  • Both have a bad relationship with their father
  • Both resort to dishonourable ways of raising money
  • Cosway's gossip fuels Rochester's racial prejudices but also forces to the surface latent insecurities concerning his own identity.

Like Antoinette and Tia they are, in several ways, mirror opposites.

Antoinette and Rochester

As the most strongly contrasted pair of characters in the novel, their relationship acts as a focus for the story's key themes.


Antoinette and Rochester represent one of the most basic of oppositions, man versus woman. A conventional set of oppositions around gender could look something like this:

Man / Woman

Dominance / Submission

Power / Powerlessness

Active / Passive

Strength / Beauty

Rational / Intuitive


Investigating the gender contrast

  • Make two columns, one for Antoinette and one for Rochester
    • In each column list their character traits as you understand them
      • How far do they show this conventional split into masculine vs feminine?
      • Are there ways in which the novel asks us to question these boundaries?


Race and colonialism

Gender is always affected by cultural and historical circumstances and this is also made evident in Jean Rhys' representation of these two characters. She shows how gendered oppositions are complicated by issues around cultural and racial difference in nineteenth century Caribbean society.

  • Antoinette - In part one Jean Rhys shows Antoinette growing up and becoming socialised into her role as a nineteenth century woman living in a patriarchal social system.


Investigating Antoinette

  • Make a list of the people around Antoinette as she grows up
    • Alongside each name make some notes on how that person or group might offer Antoinette a role model or a set of values about how to behave as a woman in this culture
      • Can you detect any contradictions in these models and values?


  • Rochester - In part two Rochester appears as a representative of the most dominant group, a white male from the English colonial class. However, as his narrative develops readers become aware that there are oppositions / tensions within his own character.

    As an English gentleman of the appropriate class, he has expectations that he will occupy a superior and powerful position. The white community in the novel grants him that position by virtue of his class. However, his economic power comes only from his marriage to Antoinette, an heiress, and not from his own endeavours. He is full of suspicions that his family think of him as inferior and that they have got rid of him by arranging this marriage in the Caribbean.

    Rochester uses Englishness as a reference point and judges the Caribbean and its people unfavourably against it. As he becomes estranged from Antoinette, it is the non-English aspects of her appearance, behaviour and values that he objects to. However, under the influence of the place and people, he comes under the spell of the islands, his English reserve is breached and he is able to give expression to repressed thoughts and feelings. Far from being a place that he can exploit, the Caribbean provides a powerful challenge to his English identity.

    Masculine rationality is also broken down by his experience. His relationship with Antoinette is initially rather cold and reserved but as she liberates his repressed sexuality his desire becomes uncontrolled and ultimately violent. His experience in the landscape moves from observations of crop plants and a tourist's interest in history, towards paranoia, a sense of profound menace and the supernatural. In the final sections of part two he seems to cross the boundary from sanity to madness.
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