Patriarchal Oppression and Cultural Discrimination in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

“Share our similarities, celebrate our differences” (Morgan Scott Peck) These quotations, which were uttered in the 20th century, have in common that to be different is regarded not only as tolerable but also as something that should be pursued.

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Also, they reflect the process of increasing tolerance towards females and foreigners, which in many countries has taken place during the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, with the result that, today, these two groups are widely, although by far not entirely, regarded as equal. However, only two centuries ago, people who were different or ‘other’ were considered subordinate or even frightening, and in the 19th century, this was true for both females and people from the orient or colonized people (Barry 134, 193).

In Jane Eyre (JE), published in 1847, and in Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS), the prequel or paraquel of JE that was written about one hundred years later and published in 1966, the two female protagonists, Jane, a female orphan, and Antoinette, a female Creole, struggle against displacement and patriarchal oppression and, in Antoinette’s case, also against imperialistic domination. In JE, the reader learns that Jane can handle this pressure whereas Antoinette/Bertha1 has been driven insane.

However, reading WSS makes us realize that not only Antoinette but also Jane may at some point be endangered to fall into madness because of her situation. However, due to sheer luck, a timely warning of what marriage to Rochester as his subordinate could mean and some unconscious help by Bertha, Jane is eventually able to marry the man she loves as his social equal and without losing her independence.

In this paper, I will therefore argue that, although Antoinette is in many aspects in a similar situation as Jane and to some extent even similar in her behavior, she does not have the chance to escape her social fate because, unlike Jane, she also has to face cultural discrimination and does not receive a warning before marrying Rochester.

“Antoinette” will be used when talking about the heroine of WSS and “Bertha” when talking about Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre.

To begin with, Antoinette and Jane are quite similar in many senses and according to literary theorists such as Baer, Jean Rhys might have consciously constructed these parallels in order to prevent people from falling “into the comfortable trap of seeing Jane as the spunky survivor and Bertha as the congenitally crazy obstacle to the romance” (133).

By doing so, Rhys may have wanted to make people realize that Antoinette’s madness was not so abnormal but that it actually could have been Jane’s fate as well. Moreover, she also forces us to consider what factors might have contributed to the downfall of Antoinette and the survival of Jane (ibid.).

However, before further elaborating about Antoinette’s descent into madness, I would like to demonstrate in what way exactly the two protagonists resemble each other. First, their life and their journey appear to be quite similar. For example, Jane starts with referring to the cold and chilly weather, which makes a walk impossible, whereas Antoinette mentions quite early at the beginning an unrepaired road that made travelling from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate, the place where she lives as a child, very difficult.

Both of these obstacles to taking journeys represent the constant obstacles that the two heroines have to overcome during the paths of their lives (Baer 134). At Gateshead, Jane has to endure all the injustices directed at her by her cousin John Reed and her aunt Mrs. Reed. At Lowood, she has to cope with her hypocritical master Mr. Bocklehurst, who deprives the pupils of food and clothes but takes school money to live a luxurious life himself.

At Thornfield, she has to overcome her desire to marry Mr. Rochester in order to maintain her self-respect, reputation and independence. Finally, at the Moor House, she has to decline St. John’s offer to marry him and go to India as a missionary with him because this would mean to sacrifice love forever.

Thus, according to Baer’s essay, Jane has to resist four temptations, namely “that of victimization and hysteria at Gateshead; next, that of self-hatred and self-immolation at Lowood; third, that of romantic love and surrender at Thornfield; and finally, that of passive suicide at Marsh End” (146) before she can finally be happy at Ferndean.

Antoinette, as well, goes through five stages in her life, namely “Coulibri, Mt. Calvary, Granbois, and unnamed house in Jamaica, and finally Thornfield” (Baer 135). Like Jane, she has to endure oppression and unkind behavior in the first stage, visits a convent in the second stage and lives together with Rochester in the third stage.

However, I would argue that whereas Jane was able to resist temptations, Antoinette was not. Of course, she made some attempts to do so, such as when she tried to leave Rochester before the wedding. However, she was not able to get through with it but let Rochester persuade her into staying with him. Nevertheless, the parallels in Jane’s and Antoinette’s lives are striking due to the fact that both did not only marry the same person in their young adulthood but also went through similar stages while growing up.

Furthermore, both women have to cope with patriarchal oppression very early in their lives, since whereas Jane’s cousin John is the favorite child in the family, so is Antoinette’s brother Pierre (Baer 135). The girls, on the other hand, do not receive affection from the female head in the family because Mrs. Reed resents Jane and the fact that she has to take care of her and Annette is too absorbed with her handicapped son to also give Antoinette some of her attention.

For example, when Antoinette affectionately tries to smooth the frown on her mother’s face, Annette pushes her away, “not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word, as if she had decided once and for all that [Antoinette] was useless to her. She wanted to sit with Pierre or walk where she pleased without being pestered” (WSS 5, my emphasis), Moreover, after Pierre died, Antoinette goes to her mother, kisses her and tells her that she is still here but her mother flings Antoinette from her and replies “’No’, quietly. Then ‘No no no’ very loudly. […].

‘Why you bring the child to make trouble, trouble, trouble? Trouble enough with that’” (WSS 30, my emphasis). This implies that whereas Pierre was her preferred child, Antoinette was only a nuisance to her.

Moreover, both Antoinette and Jane are again confronted with patriarchal oppression when they meet Rochester. According to Baer, Rochester “tries to ‘own’ Jane after their engagement by coy comments and elaborate gifts” (140), which we can see in the passage, “It is your time now, little, tyrant, but it will be mine presently; and when once I have fairly seized you, to have and to hold, I’ll just – figuratively speaking – attach you to a chain like this” (JE 312, my emphasis), which is spoken by Rochester.

Another example is, “[…] I persuaded him to make an exchange in favour of a sober black satin and pearl-gray silk. ‘It might pass for the present,’ he said; ‘but he would yet see me glittering like a parterre’” (JE 309), which is spoken by Jane.

These sentences demonstrate that Rochester wants Jane to become his possession that he can dress and ornament as he wishes, just as she were his accessory. Furthermore, the potential threat that Jane might lose her individuality and become Rochester’s object when she marries him is reflected by him calling her “thing” (JE 302).

Finally, when Jane finds out that Rochester already has a wife, he urges her to stay with him nonetheless, although this would make her his mistress and totally dependent on him. However, it is here that Jane realizes that, in order to protect herself, she needs to leave him and return only once she can call herself Rochester’s equal.