A feminist reading of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.

“Feminist novels reject or subvert the idea of a happy romantic ending for the heroine and her lover”.  Discuss this statement in relation to any two of the set texts, exploring alternative resolutions.

 The idea of the happy romantic ending is rejected within Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). Each novel approaches this feminist issue in differing ways; Rhys  reflects the changing status of woman and portrays Antoinette’s struggle for identity within herself and within the confines of a patriarchal society, leaving her constrained and ultimately jumping to her death. Bronte, on the other hand portrays Jane as rising above societal challenges with autonomy, primarily due to her sense of faith and spirituality. This essay will look at how the protagonists, Antoinette and Jane experience life through their interactions with the world and how this contributes to the very different outcomes, both of which subvert the happy ending ideal. The primary texts as well as contemporary feminist essays will support the discussion.

Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea experiences a childhood like Jane of isolation and segregation from those around her. A strong element of competition and little value for money is visible from early on in the novel when Tia, a friend of Antoinette’s challenges her to a somersault under water, “Then she bet me three of the pennies that I couldn’t turn a somersault under water ‘like you say you can’.”(Rhys, 9).  When Antoinette doesn’t achieve the task and comes up choking  “Tia laughed and told me that it certainly look like I drown dead that time. Then she picked up the money.” (Rhys, 9). As we see here, from the beginning of the novel the reader is introduced to the insecurity Antoinette feels both in herself and within life.  Antoinette’s isolation, rejection from others and a disregard for the value of money lays the foundation for her character to unfold; she shrugs her shoulders to Tia and says “I can get more if I want to.”(Rhys, 9).  Antoinette’s sensitivity to others and an anger which she does not know how to manage are arguably aspects learnt from her childhood that reflect her subsequent relationship and use of her body with the Rochester character (never named) later on in her life. Antoinette’s relationship with her mother who is unavailable and emotionally distant create a profound sense of sadness within the little girl which in turn lead to the patterns of abandonment and vague , indirect and  ambiguous communication  Antoinette has with her husband : “’I am not used to happiness, ‘ she said. ‘It makes me afraid.’”(Rhys, 71).  Antoinette’s dreamlike speak signifies her lost character and fragmented life. She keeps information from her husband which creates suspicion and incites anger in him, he questions her:

‘Is your mother alive?’

‘No, she is dead, she died.’

‘When?’

‘Not long ago.’

‘Then why did you tell me that she died when you were a child?’

‘Because they told me to say so and because it is true. She did die when I was a child. There are only two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.’ (Rhys, 104).

The ambiguous nature of Antoinette’s speech indicates that she is unsure of truth, or perhaps more accurately, untrusting of it. The space or differentiation between reality and memory is hazy and a co dependant (unhealthy) sense of keeping everyone happy creates great confusion for herself and within the relationship.  By portraying the insecure and needy side of female nature within relationships Rhys provides ground for the reader to feel both emphatic and angered by her perceived inability to be direct and to the point. The dance that incurs between Antoinette and the Rochester character becomes laced with desires, lust, alcohol and suspicion (“For a moment she looked very much like Amelie.  Perhaps they are related, I thought.” Rhys, 104). These darker elements of human nature and a use age of her body for manipulation do nothing but create the ground for a destructive relationship, disconnected from self, God and others. Antoinette’s plea for guidance from Christophine who advises her to leave is met with a lack of courage along with some sense of security in the institution of marriage mixed with an obligation of duty, “But I cannot go. He is my husband after all.”(Rhys, 88).  More of a willingness for trickery is evident, which arises in the form of a drug to initiate lust. Antoinette’s dishonesty is telling of her character and of the relationship that unfolds. Her dishonesty is mirrored by the Rochester character, who also keeps quiet and isolated, away from answering direct questions from his wife. He ponders at one point “How old was I when I learnt to hide what I felt?  A very small boy.” (Ibid ). The Rochester character also mirrors his wife’s  sense of duty and obligation; when Christophine suggests  him to leave Antoinette with her  his anger, resentments and suspicion of her (reflecting the racist and colonial Victorian views of the time) prevent him from doing so and so he returns to England with Antoinette.  The suspicions and feelings of rising resentment on both sides of the relationship are inherent in the demise of both Antoinette and the happy ending to the novel which could quite easily have played the typical romantic tale in paradise.  On their return to England, Antoinette is kept in a room with Grace Poole and after the third recurring dream she jumps to her death, locked in her mind, the past and fantasy.

In sharp contrast to this, Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre portrays Jane as clear, concise and direct. Although she has had a childhood not dissimilar to Antoinette’s she rises above life’s challenges and conducts herself with autonomy and self –assuredness. She even directly addresses the reader when deeply impassioned, “Reader! – I forgave him at the moment, and on the spot. There was such deep remorse in his eye, such true pity in his tone, such manly energy in his manner ;”( Bronte, 298). Such bold speech would never cross Antoinette’s lips and reflects the characters journeys.  Even when Jane is in distress and doubts her path, the marriage proposal and request to travel to India from John Rivers,  she calls upon Heaven for guidance “Shew me, shew me the path!” (Bronte, 419). Jane’s trust and faith is significant to her progression through life and is reflected in her courage to follow inner guidance when against all the odds. Antoinette, in contrast is suspicious of the spiritual path and lacks any connection with God, which is shown as inhibiting her path in contrast to Jane. These two feminist novels reject the traditional happy ending and, through doing so show the reader that life is not a fairy tale. The concept that life will bring desires of love, career and family (and are ultimately what life is about) does indeed occur for Jane and a primary reason for this is portrayed in the use of her own agency,  not from a  lack of hard work.  Jane’s connection with God, not of the religious but of her being centred and connected  is referred to continually throughout the novel and is reflected by Rochester at the end ; “He put me off his knee, rose, and reverently lifting his hat from his brow, and bending his sightless eyes to the earth, he stood in mute devotion. “ (Bronte, 448.) Jane and Mr. Rochester’s mirroring faith portrays a higher love, one of mystical attributes as when Jane intuitively hears him calling to her.

The exploration of sex is a clear contrast in the two texts, whilst Jane is both chaste and reserved in her sexual body; Antoinette uses her body for means of control.  It is argued that Rhys has more scope to explore sexuality “… as it was written post colonization.” (Lewkowicz, 1) and of a more liberal era.  An orgasm to her is like death and Rhys portrays this in her dramatic speech “Say die and I will die. You don’t believe me? Then try, try, say die and watch me die.”(Rhys, 72). Antoinette is shown as doing anything to make her husband love her and she does this through her body, drugs and alcohol. A sense of pity comes over the reader whereas for Jane we feel admiration, virginal until marriage and accepting of his shady past.

The ending of the novels entwine with each other, one ending in death and the other in marriage. One dies to free the other. Antoinette commits suicide, arguably a means of escape and final grasp for her own agency and autonomy and in that way, a resolution of sorts. Jane consents to marry Mr. Rochester only when Bertha has died,  portrayed as constrained by convention in the face of love. Traditional ideas of the white wedding were rejected to by Jane in the first marriage attempt, dishonest and depicted as an enactment of roles. As Jane accepted truth in Mr. Rochester’s intentions and she took on the role of wife, giving up work and adopting the role of his carer:  love and truth are seen to conquer.  Jane’s struggle for autonomy and her rising above societal constraints and rejecting them at the same time provide fertile ground for any feminist reader to question ideologies of marriage, love and lust, Bronte’s novel is exceptional.

Both texts represent the deep-set gender norms and how the struggle for identity affects relationships. In this way the feminist approach subverts and questions the ideals of marriage, love, career and family. The women’s relationships with their lovers, one an interdependent relationship based on respect and understanding and the other portrayed as entrapment of the sexes shows the fragility of life and also the resilience of women. In the ways that have been discussed, both novels portray a rejection to the traditional romantic ending and challenge the fantastical notions of love, thus the resolutions are extremes of the human conditioning, death and marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Oxford. University Press, 2008. Print.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea.  Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Lewkowicz, Sherry. “The Experience of Womanhood in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.” The Victorian Web. 2004. Jan 5th 2012. Web.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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