Time and narrative

There are different ways of approaching time in Wide Sargasso Sea and these can be related to the wider thematic concerns of the novel.

Time in which the novel is set

Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the years immediately after the 1833 Slave sketchEmancipation Act which freed the slaves. This can be worked out by counting back Antoinette's childhood from the only date in the novel, 1839. Antoinette works this date onto her embroidery just after she goes to the Mount Calvary Convent school. It is odd, therefore, that the communities in the novel are so silent or evasive on the topic of slavery when it was central to the recent past. As Antoinette explained to Rochester, those days were later rarely spoken of. This is part of a pattern of silences and secrets pervading the novel as a whole.

Time in the development of the narrative

In Part one, Antoinette, like Jane Eyre, is telling the story of her own growth and development. There are detailed narrations of particular scenes and conversations –  for example, the episode of Tia's trickery over the dress and the fire at Coulibri. These are given specific treatment because they are so important in shaping Antoinette's perceptions and identity through her youth and marriage.

Sometimes the narrative will move quickly through longer periods of time such as Antoinette's stay at the convent school. She is a child when she enters the school and over 17 and marriageable by the end of part one. The convent is a refuge; its value is that its routines are kindly, stable and pleasant. Antoinette is protected, troubling experiences are fewer and the narration, therefore, need not linger once the atmosphere of these years has been established.

On the other hand, the narration may move swiftly over experiences which the character either cannot or does not wish to remember. Antoinette's voyage to England from the Caribbean, for example, is recalled only in fragments.

Disrupted chronology

Gaps and dislocations in time

The asterisks placed in the centre of the blank space between sections of the novel often indicate gaps or shifts in time. These are a means of organising the text and developing the narrative through time, an alternative to conventional chapters. However, Wide Sargasso Sea does not move smoothly forward in time; the chronology is disrupted, there are gaps or flashbacks.

Investigating dislocations in time

  • Look at the opening sections 1 and 2 of part two. Rochester narrates his arrival on the island where he will spend his honeymoon
    • What about section 3 after the first asterix?
      • Where does this fit chronologically?
      • Why do you think that Jean Rhys chose to disrupt the narration in this way?
      • What might it say about Rochester's state of mind?

Antoinette's narratives

These offer further examples of a disrupted chronology. Some incidents are narrated long after they happened. For example: 

  • Antoinette narrates a visit to her mother in Part one. This comes after Antoinette's illness but before she goes to the convent school. It is clear to the reader, if not to Antoinette herself, that her mother is mentally ill and being looked after away from the family
  • It is only much later in Part two that Antoinette describes a second visit to her mother in which she saw her abused by her guardians. This is an experience that Antoinette has suppressed, in line with a general ‘forgetting' about Annette's ‘madness' and other family secrets. 

Again, this is part of a pattern of secrets and obscured histories in the novel in general.

Investigating Antoinette's delayed disclosure

  • Can you think of any other incidents / relationships that Antoinette discloses a long time after they happened?
    • Why does she do this?

Time of narration

An additional puzzle in the novel is the time at which Antoinette is narrating her story:

  • Part one must be told by an older Antoinette. Although the narration stays close to a child's perceptions, there are occasional asides which indicate she is remembering her past life. For example, it is important to her to capture the memory of the hot convent classroom before it is lost. This is expressed with an urgency that indicates her memory is fading
  • Her narration in part two, section 11 is also told from memory as her final recall of the colours of Christophine's world make clear. There is also a puzzling reference to selling one of the rings given to her by Aunt Cora. The inference seems to be that these sections are narrated from some point after leaving Granbois and her final incarceration in Thornfield Hall
  • In Part three, as Antoinette's grasp on reality seems to slacken, her sense of chronological order also becomes more confused. Incidents are related out of order, such as the journey to England, the episode in which Antoinette acquires a knife, the conversation with Sandi.

In this way, Jean Rhys is able to represent a mind under stress and a state of mind in which subjective experience has become more important than rationality and outer reality.

Signifying the future

Wide Sargasso Sea is full of premonitions of its end: 

  • The connection to Jane Eyre, in itself, suggests Antoinette's fate as the mad wife in the attic
  • Characters have dreams or experiences which foretell the end of the novel. Antoinette's dream sequences form a narrative that shows what will happen to her. In part two, section 16, Rochester has sex with Amélie and afterwards sees the distressed Antoinette with red eyes and disordered hair, swearing at him. The depiction foretells not only how Antoinette will be in part three, but also employs the same vocabulary as Rochester uses to describe his wife in Jane Eyre
  • After his argument with Christophine, Rochester draws a house with a stick woman alone in one of the rooms. His diagram is a plan for a return to England and a fate for his wife. These are ideas that he has not yet been able to express to himself
  • Recurrent images and symbols are also used to suggest the ending. The colour red and references to fire and light pervade the first two parts of the novel. These provide indications of the setting and actions in Part three as well as Antoinette's state of mind. The argument between Rochester and Christophine concludes with a form of curse centred on Rochester's eyes. Again, this foretells the plot of Jane Eyre: Rochester will be blinded in the fire that kills Bertha.
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.