Questioning stereotypes

In getting an overview of the treatment of gender in Wide Sargasso Sea, two approaches are helpful:

  1. To consider the opposition Man / Woman in terms of gender stereotypes and hierarchies. Antoinette and Rochester can be seen as stereotypically gendered.
    • Antoinette represents a stereotypical nineteenth century femininity; passive subordinate, emotional, irrational
    • Rochester represents aspects of nineteenth century masculinity; active, dominant, rational.
  2. To think about ways in which Wide Sargasso Sea asks us to question those stereotypes and hierarchies.


Antoinette conforms to gender stereotypes in some ways. Yet in others she challenges them.


Conditioning, especially in childhood, reinforces expectations of the role and behaviour of women. Antoinette's culture as a nineteenth century white Creole requires her to conform to certain feminine stereotypes:

  • The value of beauty and sexual attractiveness is reinforced for Antoinette. These qualities in her mother Annette rescue them from poverty
  • The importance of appearance in constructing a woman's identity. This idea connects the novel's use of clothes, mirrors and the picture of the Miller's Daughter, an image of an idealised English woman
  • Appropriate behaviour for a young woman of her class is taught at the convent school. It is not intellectual, but focused on accomplishments, passivity and obedience to Catholic teaching of a relaxed kind
  • As a woman of the white planter class, Antoinette does not work. Even in poverty she is waited on by others
  • The climate and the culture reinforce ease, pleasure and sensuality for women of her class and culture. This is in contrast to English reserve and repression.

Therefore, Antoinette's identity is shaped by what her culture considers appropriate for a woman.


However, Antoinette also challenges these norms:

  • Passivity is reversed at Granbois where Antoinette becomes the leader, showing Rochester the estate. She will, finally, develop a capacity for anger and aggression that leads her to burn down Thornfield Hall
  • Her beauty and sexuality are presented as shaped by the Caribbean rather than her Catholic schooling. They are not English and will be turned against her by Rochester. Her passionate nature is signified in her choice of red as a ‘signature' in her embroidery and her red frock
  • Her infidelity defies the Christian model of chastity. There are intimations that Antoinette has had a relationship with Sandi that continued after her marriage
  • Her appearance is not just about conforming to an idealised model of beauty. It has further significance as a mask to hide feelings, a form of self protection and as a way of becoming someone else and ‘no longer herself'
  • The novel shows the value of the irrational, the supernatural, the sensual
  • Antoinette's cultural identity is ambivalent. Gender difference is inflected by racial tensions. Her upbringing in a racially divided culture is complicated by a childhood in which black people are substitutes for her mother and father. Even her background as a white Creole means that she is a West Indian and not English.

Other female roles in the novel

The novel contains a number of other female characters who have roles which support and question gender stereotypes.

Investigating other female roles in the novel

  • List the other female characters and make some brief notes on their role in the novel
    • Would you say these characters support or question gender stereotypes?
    • How do they relate to Antoinette in this?


Rochester also conforms to some masculine stereotypes but as the novel develops, these are increasingly challenged by his experience in the Caribbean.


On the surface, Rochester displays a stereotypical dominance as a nineteenth century colonialist Englishman:

  • His expectations of women of his class are based on nineteenth century English values of sexual reticence and respectability, of an emotional rather than an intellectual grasp of experience
  • When Antoinette fails to reach these standards in his eyes, he starts to see her beauty as being deceitful and as non-English, alien and Other
  • He uses his dominance to injure and imprison her. He not only renames her but calls her his marionette, his puppet as well as his mad girl. Defining her as mad also puts her in his power.


Below the surface, however, Rochester is a mass of contradictions. An important aspect of the novel is to show him as a complex personality and one as damaged by his upbringing as Antoinette is by hers:

  • He is a victim of the English law of inheritance which gives the estate to the elder son. As a younger son he has to find a source of income for himself
  • His letters and interior musings reveal a man insecure within his own family relationships
  • His economic dominance in his marriage rests on insecure foundations, since the money came from Antoinette's family
  • The Caribbean environment, his response to place and people, releases emotions and responses, in sexuality, sensual pleasure and gentleness repressed by his upbringing
  • However, he fears this release and projects his anxieties onto Antoinette.
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