Modernism, dreams and the supernatural

The significance of dreams

Jean Rhys, like other twentieth century writers, made use of the ideas of Sigmund Freud concerning dreams as expressions of psychological states. She uses dreams as:

  • Means for exploring the inner lives of Rochester and Antoinette
  • Devices for articulating things that the characters cannot consciously know or express, even to themselves
  • A way of taking readers below the surface of apparent realism in the novel
  • As means for representing secret or hidden aspects of Caribbean culture
  • As presentiments for what is to come.

Antoinette's dreams

Antoinette has three dreams which form a sequence:

  • The first at Coulibri (Part one, section 3)
  • The second in the Mount Calvary convent (Part one, section 12)
  • The third at Thornfield Hall (Part three, section 7). 

As critics have noted, each is triggered by an event or situation that brings her closer to the final act of burning down Rochester's house.


Investigating Antoinette's dreams

  • Look back at each dream and make notes on:
    • What triggers it?
    • What happens in each?
    • Do they show similarities, continuities?
    • Do they constitute a story when taken in sequence?
    • How do they relate to Antoinette's developing state of mind?
    • In what ways might they prefigure the end?


Rochester's dreams

Rochester's experience in the forest around Granbois in Part two has dream-like qualities. It also shows strange parallels with Antoinette's experience in Part one, after her dream as she walks in the forest around Coulibri.

If we compare the two we see that:

  • Stream of consciousness is used to narrate Antoinette's experience of alienation and loss of identity, of being ‘no longer herself'
  • Rochester's account appears more rationally narrated, although he is preoccupied with suspicions about his family
  • The forest has an effect on him and he lapses into a dream like state under an orange tree. When he comes back to himself, he sees a little girl who runs from him in terror. She thinks he is a ghost, a zombie
  • In a sense he too is ‘not himself'. The use of a dream-like state and intimations of the supernatural convey to readers the depth of his alienation, loneliness and culture shock.


Wide Sargasso Sea follows Jane Eyre in making references to ghosts at certain points in the action. Sometimes Rhys deliberately re-uses supernatural incidents from the earlier novel. For example, in Part three, as Antoinette wanders in Thornfield Hall while Grace Poole is asleep, she is seen as a ghost by others. She is enacting Bertha's sinister presence in Bronte's story.

However, Antoinette has more independence in Rhys' story. In her dream she feels that the ghost of Thornfield Hall is following her, then she sees the woman with flowing hair. She says that the image was framed in gilt yet somehow familiar. This may be a picture, perhaps the one painted by Jane that she showed to Rochester. Or, if the frame is a mirror, Antoinette encounters her own image and perhaps recognises herself.


Jean Rhys also makes use of a Caribbean figure, the zombie. This is a particular kind of ghost made by obeah practitioners when they steal the soul or spirit of a victim. (There is more information on this in the section Religious / philosophical context > Religion > Zombies.) This figure operates in the novel in different ways.

Zombiism resulting from loneliness, alienation and insecure personal identity

Annette, Antoinette's mother, experiences a spiritual death, which her daughter calls a ‘real' death, as well as an actual physical death. This is the result of her unhappiness at:

  • The death of Pierre
  • The tensions of living in a place of racial conflict
  • Her abuse at the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for her.

Zombiism caused by Rochester's brutal treatment of Antoinette

When Rochester renames his wife Bertha, he breaks her connection with her mother, Annette. Antoinette accuses him of using obeah since that renaming takes away her spirit, her identity. He turns her into a person who is metaphorically ‘dead' and has no freedom, but is instead both psychologically and economically enslaved to him.

Zombiism resulting from Rochester's psychological trauma

During his walk in the forest around Granbois, Rochester is mistaken for a ghost, a zombie. The incident suggests that, in resisting and repressing so much that the Caribbean has brought alive in him (sensual response, sexuality), he too has suffered a kind of death.

Zombiism caused by the conflict between Antoinette and Rochester

Just as Antoinette accuses her husband of using obeah to dominate her, so she asks Christophine for a love potion to manipulate him. According to the critic Judie Newman, the rituals intimated in the text (the white powder, the poisoned drink) are obeah practices for turning a victim into a zombie, a person lacking independence or memory. Newman sees Rhys' use of the zombie as a way of showing shifts between victim and aggressor in the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester.

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