Compare the presentation of Bertha and Antoinette in 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wide Sargasso Sea.'

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Kate Reynolds

Compare the presentation of Bertha and Antoinette in ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea.’

Rhys’ character Antoinette derives from Charlotte Bronte’s powerful depiction in ‘Jane Eyre’ of Bertha, a Creole woman who is wildly insane. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ Jean Rhys creates a history for Antoinette, developing reasons for the madness of the character presented in ‘Jane Eyre.’ The reader can go back to ‘Jane Eyre’ and sympathise with the mental and emotional decline of Bertha’s character through Rhys’ counter presentation of Bronte’s one dimensional monster. Rhys explained in an interview why she felt the need to rewrite ‘Jane Eyre’: ‘I was convinced that Charlotte Bronte must have something against the West Indies and I was angry about it.’ Rhys wrote ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ in 1966, more than a century after Bronte’s book. By the twentieth century issues of prejudice and equal rights were being widely explored within education and the media. Rhys, a Creole herself, felt the need to ‘vindicate the mad woman in the novel’ and re-present her race. However Bronte’s character Bertha was principally intended as an obstacle for the love story and to add a mysterious element to the plot, which aimed to intrigue the reader. It is unlikely Bronte intended to offend or make an attack on West Indian women.  This essay will explore the presentation of Bertha as a wild animal and Antoinette as a loving human. It will provide reasons for these portrayals and analyse the effects they have on the reader and book as a whole.

Bertha’s first appearance in ‘Jane Eyre’ comes as she is tearing the veil of Jane’s wedding dress. Something of her existence is known to the reader prior to this, and she is already linked with dark and nightmarish happenings, a link confirmed here: ‘I saw the reflection of the visage turned in the mirror…a discoloured face…red eyes…it reminded me of…the vampire.’ (Chapter 25) Although Jane does not yet know it is Bertha she is describing, she along with the reader is becoming aware of another person living at Thornfield. This unexplained character is given no voice and is  presented as unstable and petrifying: ‘This was a demonic laugh-low, suppressed and deep…’ (Chapter 15) These adjectives (‘demonic’, ‘discoloured’ and ‘red’) help create a monstrous image of what is revealed to be Bertha. It becomes clear who Bertha is after Mr Mason prevents Rochester’s marriage to Jane when he reveals that Rochester is already in wedlock. Jane’s detailed description of her introduction to Bertha enhances the negative images already created through the mysterious happenings at Thornfield. She is presented as ‘…a clothed hyena…’ with ‘…shaggy locks…’ (Chapter 26) The bestial metaphor renders Bertha as sub- human and reinforces the wild and fearful persona the reader has already glimpsed. Jane provides an acute description of Bertha’s actions: ‘It grovelled…it snatched and growled…’ The lack of human pronouns and animalistic verbs presents another horrific image.

In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ Rhys gives the demonic lunatic a voice and a past in which the reader learns how Bertha ended up in the state she is continually portrayed as being in in ‘Jane Eyre.’ Antoinette relays her life experiences in first person. This technique shows she is human with emotions, countering her one dimensional animal like persona in ‘Jane Eyre’. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ shows Antoinette throughout her life as a passionate and emotional individual that the reader can sympathise with: ‘I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.’ The rhetorical questions used by Rhys emphasize the uncertainty and unhappiness Antoinette, as a white person in the West Indies, experiences throughout her childhood. Her actions and thoughts appear to indicate that she is trying to form her identity in a time of change, turbulence and conflict. Antoinette grew up during the emancipation of the slaves.  Her friend Tia brands her as a ‘white nigger’ and Antoinette also experiences horrific racial abuse from the community she lives in: ‘White cockroach, go away, go away…no-body want you.’ (Part One) The repetition and metaphor used are harsh and taunting. The racism and bigotry Antoinette experiences develop a strong empathy towards her from the reader. Rhys depicts Antoinette as brave and strong as she copes with the rejection from her mother as well as community:‘…she pushed me away…calmly and coldly, without a word, as if she has decided once and for all that I was useless to her.’ (Part One) The alliteration and adverbs (‘calmly and coldly’) capture the cruelty of Antoinette’s mother’s actions. The reader is able to see Antoinette as a whole character in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as Rhys explores Antoinette’s emotions and experiences. This differs from ‘Jane Eyre’s’ depiction of Bertha, who is not a developed character.

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The concept of Bertha as an obstacle to Rochester and Jane’s love is displayed through Rochester’s narrative to Jane, where he attempts to tell the story of his wife. Bertha is presented as a manipulative, cunning and witch-like figure. She is portrayed as the villain to Jane and Rochester is the victim of her deceptive nature. ‘I was dazzled, stimulated; my senses excited…she allured me…’ (Chapter 27) The use of these adjectives and the verb ‘allured’ creates a powerful image of Bertha enchanting Rochester and enticing him in to the marriage. Rochester claims he was ‘ignorant, raw and inexperienced’ ...

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