Race and colonialism

Racial difference in Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre is built on a set of assumptions about racial difference centred on the construction of the Caribbean as ‘Other' to English culture. The novel shows attitudes developed through Britain's long political and economic dominance over other parts of the world. It exploited these ‘others' but justified this by projecting onto them a range of negative associations. In so doing, the strange and alien could be controlled, reduced in power and dominated. Bertha in Brontë's novel can be seen as representing this distorted view of the Caribbean. This issue is discussed further in Contemporary critical assessments > Post-colonial approaches.

Wide Sargasso Sea constructs the ‘other side'; it gives back a voice, identity and culture to the silenced and dehumanised Bertha Mason. The novel also constructs a much more varied and less stereotyped Caribbean world. Jean Rhys shows the complex racial groupings, black, white, ‘coloured', as well as the way in which the specific colonial history of individual islands produced a very rich mixture of cultures.

Antoinette, race and identity

Antoinette's childhood shows her positioned between the white and black communities. She has affinities with certain black characters such as Tia and Christophine, but cannot fully identify with them. She is white, brought up with a set of values based on superiority and dominance.

The result is marginalisation from both communities as a white cockroach and a fractured sense of personal identity. Early in the novel, Antoinette says she wanted to be something or someone other than herself, often wondering who she really was and where she belonged.

One element in Antoinette's split identity is the myth of England imposed on her by her white Creole culture, which looked to England as the metropolitan centre. Antoinette has an inaccurate vision of what England is like.


Investigating Antoinette's sense of race and identity

  • Where in Wide Sargasso Sea does Antoinette express ideas about England?
    • How does she feel about England as a child?
    • Locate her comments about England in her narrative in Part two
      • How has her vision of England changed?
  • How does her vision compare with Christophine's?


Antoinette and the Caribbean

In wishing to be like Tia and Christophine, Antoinette expresses a Caribbean aspect of her self. But that too is problematic.


Investigating the Caribbean aspect of Antoinette

  • Look at part one, section 8, the episode of the fire at Coulibri
    • Why does Antoinette run to Tia?
    • Why does Tia throw the stone?
    • What is the significance of the image of the looking glass?


Antoinette is a product of her white planter culture:

  • In wishing to be like Tia, Antoinette has to repress another side of herself. She is the daughter of a slave owner after all. One of the reasons for the pervasive sense of secrets, things hidden, things not spoken about, is that the white Creole community will not face up to their recent participation in slavery
  • Antoinette demonstrates their prejudices. She names only her black servants, the other blacks all look alike to her
  • Her attitude to Daniel Cosway is also a prejudiced one, as the language of his description in her narrative in Part one shows clearly.

Antoinette, women and slavery

One aspect of Wide Sargasso Sea that has attracted critical attention is the connection Jean Rhys makes between slavery and the oppression of white Creole women at this time. For more on this, please see the section Religious / philosophical context > Women and Power.

The relationship between Antoinette and Rochester can also be seen as representing the relationship between coloniser and colonised, as well as the complex intersections of race with gender and identity:

  • Antoinette is economically enslaved in that, on her marriage, all her fortune becomes Rochester's to do with as he wishes. The novel sets up a careful parallel between Antoinette's condition in this respect and Christophine's relative poverty but financial independence
  • Antoinette is also sexually and emotionally enslaved by the passion she feels for Rochester. Again, Christophine underlines this in her advice to leave Rochester, which Antoinette feels unable to take.

The novel also sets up a parallel between Antoinette and the black servant Amélie:

  • The similarity of name in terms of initial letter and French origins connects the two to Annette
  • Rochester betrays Antoinette's love and trust by having sex with Amélie
  • He also shows his own ability to behave in a way characteristic of white planter men who routinely used their female black slaves in this way

However, Amélie is no victim. She plans to use the money Rochester gives her to go to Rio. 

Through these parallels and contrasts, Jean Rhys shows us that Antoinette lacks the strength of Amélie and Christophine. Unlike them, her culture has not equipped her for survival. Antoinette maintains the racial prejudices against black and mixed race people that are characteristic of her class and culture. Her description of the young Daniel Cosway in part one, for example, employs a very unpleasant and prejudiced vocabulary


Investigating women and slavery

  • Some critics have objected to this analogy between the condition of white women and colonised black slaves.
    • What do you think?
      • Is Antoinette a slave?
      • Do you think it trivialises black experience to make this connection?
  • To develop your thinking on this issue, you could write some notes on the following questions:
    • In what sense does Antoinette ‘assert her colonial identity and release' when she goes along the corridor to burn down Thornfield Hall right at the end of the novel?
    • Compare the burning of Coulibri with Antoinette's intention to burn down Thornfield Hall
      • In what sense do these episodes ‘enact a rebellion of the oppressed'?


Rochester, race and identity

In Jane Eyre England's relationship with the colonies is represented in conventional nineteenth century terms as one of a moral and religious mission to ‘improve' their subject cultures. This sense of mission masked, of course, economic exploitation.

In her Rochester character, Jean Rhys maintains the role of colonial exploiter who has assumptions of moral righteousness. Rochester's English upbringing provides him with a set of moral standards against which he measures the Caribbean unfavourably. Jean Rhys exposes the hypocrisy of this position in various ways: 

  • Rochester behaves like a slave owner in his sexual relationship with Amélie
  • Although the place and people have a profound effect on him, by liberating repressed aspects of his personality, fear of this alien ‘Other' and its power makes him draw back and retreat into the safety of his English identity
  • He tries to make Antoinette more English and less Caribbean (the change of name is a key sign of this process). When this fails, he stigmatises her as a representative of a degenerate culture.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.