By Allyson Vaughan
“Have all beautiful things sad destinies?” says the young man who many readers would better know as Mr. Rochester, the older, crass Byronic hero of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The young man here proves that destinies are sometimes of man’s making in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. But this isn’t about Rochester. A pre-history of the life of “Bertha” Antoinette Mason, Rhys’s novel provides the story of the madwoman in the attic before she’d ever be branded by madness and circumstance. It provides the voice, however brief it is until Rochester monopolizes the narrative, not given to readers in Bronte’s work. Disappointingly, his voice takes over, beginning the silence of Antoinette’s voice. But in some ways, this makes her voice and her fate all that much clearer.
Antoinette is as forced into their marriage as Rochester, and though their initial union is filled with distance and uncertainty; the two manage to bridge some gaps for a short time. So much so that Antoinette, who has lived her life an outcast in the world of Jamaica as a white creole, never accepted by the whites or blacks, gives herself to her fate. She is abused, taunted, and mistaken for who she is because of the madness her mother falls into after the community sets fire to their home, subsequently killing her brother Pierre. There was no choice in her union with Rochester; her stepfather Mr. Mason designed that, as many men would come to decide her fate. Antoinette’s character is fierce and wild and alone. She has no friends, fewer people to trust. And so when she and Edward Fairfax Rochester (Yeah, I used his full name. He did something wrong), are able to find some connection—that of flesh and lust for one another—she gives him all of her, unable to distinguish after years of solitude, how much to save of herself. Antoinette reveals her devotion and the lengths she has given over to herself:
“Why did you make me want to live? Why did you do that to me?’
‘Because I wished it. Isn’t that enough?’
‘Yes, it is enough. But if one day you didn’t wish it. What should I do then? Suppose you took this happiness away when I wasn’t looking …’
‘And lose my own? Who’d be so foolish?’
‘I am not used to happiness,’ she said. ‘It makes me afraid.’
‘Never be afraid. Or if you are tell no one.’
‘I understand. But trying does not help me.’
She did not answer that, then one night whispered, ‘If I could die. Now, when I am happy. Would you do that? You wouldn’t have to kill me. Say die and I will die. You don’t believe me? Then try, try, say die and watch me die.”
But even her death, in Rochester’s eyes, would not be hers. He says, “I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers,” And reader, why is it in his way that she must die over and over again? Rochester’s flaws are numerous. Let’s not count the ways. He revokes his affections the moment he discovers her past, blaming her for her mother’s mental illness. But one of them, in both Rhys and Bronte’s work, is his inability to realize that while he was forced at a young age to marry a woman he did not love, a woman many knew would be prone to mental illness, his actions were never right. Society designed their roles, but they both design their reactions. In many ways, Rochester and Antoinette are victims of society, and the cultural ignorance propagated by it. The Wide Sargasso Sea in the title is the space between their respective cultures. If the two were to line up what was similar about them (orphans, cast off by their families, the loneliness and beauty in both) they might’ve been able to bridge that sea. But society’s conditioning gives Rochester the justification he needs to call his actions reasonable, citing his logical Englishness. So perhaps all beautiful things do have sad destinies, but only because the world does not look at anything beyond their beauty. Leaving a desolated, deep space where humanity sinks further down, drowning in its solitary room.
And sometimes beautiful, sad destinies come in the form of plain, sad histories. In this case, that sad history is the “plain, poor, obscure, and little” entity that is Jane Eyre. Let’s be clear in that very little of what Rochester does in either book is right. Even Jane can see that he’s a bit of an idiot, a redeemable idiot (her idiot), but an idiot all the same. Locking women in attics, gaining affection by calling her a witch and shining his eyes on Blanche-Look-How-Nice-My-Hair-Is-Ingram. And then all of a sudden, Jane is like, “Bye, now” and he’s all, “it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.” And I’m over here like, “Pump the breaks, sweet cakes.” But Jane is no fool either. Except Rochester’s actions make her feel one when she discovers he’s been hiding Antoinette in the attic on their wedding day. (Sorry, forgot to mention I’m already married. We cool?)
So she does what Antoinette could not. She leaves him. But not before Rochester pulls his crap. “I have little left in myself — I must have you. The world may laugh — may call me absurd, selfish — but it does not signify. My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.” Cute, Rochester, but sorry physical threats aren’t what Miss. I-Am-No-Bird-And-No-Net-Ensnares-Me-Now-Get-Off-My-Skirt-Eyre is about. She even calls him out, when he says, “It is not because she is mad I hate her. If you were mad, do you think I should hate you,” and Jane responds, “I do indeed, Sir,” Yeah, she’s not buying your English Logic. But Jane Eyre’s sad history should leave her willing to find happiness where she can get it? No. Jane and Antoinette both have similar tales of woe. Abandoned, cast off, mistreated, and often forgotten. But the space inside them, the space that is ultimately filled by insanity in Antoinette, is filled with a powerful will in Jane. But what made their fates, when both their paths crossed Rochester’s, so different?
Ultimately, their circumstance, culture, and character. Antoinette has the same passion, same will, that Jane does. But her position as a “white cockroach” as she is called, not being so dissimilar to the orphaned “liar” Jane is branded as a child, is a consequence of the landscape Sargasso is set in. While Jane is cast off to school, a brutal place, it gives her the opportunity to grow and learn and keep strong faith in herself. She hardens and finds herself a position as a governess. She possesses agency, while Antoinette is stripped of hers. Granted, Antoinette contemplates leaving Rochester, but doesn’t because she wants nothing more than to be accepted and loved, perhaps not really by him, but he is all she has to choose from. Jane loves him, and he loves her, and still she chooses to leave because she has the means to. Her character is revolutionary, even now, as a woman who despite her desires walks towards what is right.
But no one here is totally wrong either. It is possible to condemn Rochester, lock away “Bertha” as he re-names her, and applaud Jane. But Rochester, mistaken ridden as he is, is still a person. Even if he lacks the presence of mind to recognize that in Antoinette, Jane still sees the goodness in him. How? Because there is an unmistakable goodness in Jane. It does not make her a fool; if anything her good heart works as a mirror on those she shines it on, showing Rochester what he could be. Naïve in her ways, perhaps, but Bronte’s novel is an English novel, and themes of redemption shape Jane’s character as much as themes of culture shaped Antoinette’s. Rochester can be redeemed because Jane finds it in her to believe he can. The reader can forgive him because she does. In union together, both novels shape Rochester’s character to be both better and worse. His actions become more deplorable, but he does pay with his eye-sight though he’d always been blind. And his redemption does more for Jane’s happiness than his own. He’ll always be burdened with guilt. And Antoinette, in Bronte’s novel, meets her end and finds what peace could be left to her in death. Rhys’s novel enriches the reading of Jane Eyre, not just because it gives a voice to the madwoman in the attic, but because it fully rounds out the sad histories that color all their destinies.