Somparison 'Jane Eyre' And 'Wide Sargasso Sea'

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Rose Camel in her critical essay ‘Before I was set free. The Creole wife in Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea’ states that ‘Mr Rochester’s lunatic wife continues to haunt readers of Charlotte of Brontë’s and Jean Rhys autobiographical masterpieces.’

In Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, Bronte explores Jane and Bertha Mason’s and Antoinette in Jean Rhys ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ as the women suffer from physical and psychological confinement, and deal with oppression and male dominance. The theme of confinement is shown throughout both novels this means that the characters in the novels experience being restricted by societal expectations both novels express the tensions that are released due to a patriarchal society. Societal expectations confine the females in novels and the voice that Bronte and Rhys give their female characters reveals this. ‘Jane Eyre’ is set in Victorian England whereas, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is set in Jamaica the different settings impact that female characters differently however, the females undergo the wider patriarchy regardless of where they are. Jane and Antoinette’s relationships with men present that male domination that cause them to be confined physically and psychologically. Jane’s interactions with St. John, Rochester, Brocklehurst and John Reed serve to remind her of the restrictions imposed on her due to her gender throughout the novel. As well as, Antoinette in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ with Mr Mason, Daniel and Rochester.


‘Enemies of Freedom in Jane Eyre’, John Hagans essay argues that ‘Jane Eyre is a novel of liberation.’ And described as ‘a series of quests by Jane for “freedom” and her final attainment of that goal’. However the opposite can be argued, suggesting that the story revolves around the idea of female confinement rather than freedom. Hagan argues that Jane is in fact eventually free after she becomes Rochester’s equal partner through their marriage. She can be seen to be free from societal structure and is also now financially stable-having inherited money- thus, can enter into a marriage as a self-dependent woman. As Jane Eyre was set in 1847, it was common for women to conform to a patriarchal society whereas, it is refreshing to see Jane who has freed herself from emotional burden from her family and financial burden through her inheritance according to Hagan’s ideology of freedom. Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights and women at this time faced a patriarchal society. However, the opposite is argued because Jane gains her freedom from her male relative thus, she was only able to get her freedom from her confinement through her inheritance given to her by a male. However, this does not suggest that the readers will no longer sympathise with Jane as they are aware of her journey in which she suffers immensely but does discredit her freedom instead. In ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ there is an idea of cultural otherness and its relationship to confinement becomes key when it is Rochester’s narrative voice in part two of the book. In part one of the book its narrative voice is Antoinette and her otherness is given a voice which allows her to be free for some time until Rochester’s narrative voice takes over and silences her. He begins to tell Antoinette’s story making it difficult for readers to connect with her as they no longer know her thoughts and feelings. He renames her as Bertha when she says ‘Not Bertha tonight,’ he responds ‘Of course, on this of all nights, you must be Bertha.’ He refuses to call her Antoinette and his narrative could suggest that Rochester will permanently take away Antoinette’s voice and continue to confine her forever. In both of the novels the authors present female confinement through the narrative voice either to free or confine the female characters. Whilst in ‘Jane Eyre’, Jane sustains her own first person narrative throughout her story, Antoinette in is not lucky enough to be given the same privilege. Antoinette, is confined through her situation since she cannot have her own voice to tell her story to the readers, Rochester tells her story. As a result, readers are more likely to sympathise with Jane rather than Antoinette who is unable to directly reach the audience. Ideas of patriarchy and imperialism begin to show through Antoinette’s narrative, and the change to Rochester’s perspective. The ‘other’ then becomes silenced and put into a voiceless state. Whilst in Jane Eyre, patriarchal confinement seems to come and go in the text through the characterization of the male characters and the development of the plot, in Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea it happens through the build-up of the narrative voice. Narration works to keep Antoinette in her confined space of ‘otherness’ in the later part of the story, as her freedom to tell her own story has been taken away. Critic Earl Ingersoll claims: ‘Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”, is Rhys’s representation of female oppression under patriarchy- what Bronte might also have wanted to do, but patriarchy would not allow her to as it was unspeakable’. This can be seen to be true since Bronte was aware of her social environment that she was writing in and who her readers would be. Thus, Bronte chooses to keep Jane within boundaries of the time yet allows there to be some controversy. Unlike Rhys, who uses ideas of confinement to create a social message and uses a feminist stance, more obviously when she gives a woman who is not seen as equal racially or through her gender a voice of her own. Both women are left in the novel giving into confinement in some way. It is because they both never truly belong anywhere that they end the novel they are in a metaphorical imprisonment. Ideas relating to confinement and belonging become linked in the novel, showing that if a character does not belong in society, they are also confined by its same values.


In both of the novels Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea confinement displays itself in many ways in the novel. From imperialistic confinement of the exotic ‘other’ in the case of Bertha, to the patriarchal confinement of Jane under ideas of masculine authority and their social class. Both women are continually oppressed and confined to fluctuating amounts: for Bertha, this becomes a physical confinement to the attic, whilst for Jane it is more psychological. Ideas relating to confinement links with Bronte and Rhys’s exploration of how the female can be confined within her role as ‘the woman’. Imperialism – policies which allowed the government to attempt to extend their power through methods of control – works to confine Bertha in her fixed role as the Oriental ‘Other’ in relation to her identification to the West, and later leads to her imprisonment in the attic. Patriarchy works in similar ways, confining Jane at many points in the novel as a woman who is inferior to men. Check for tense and add context

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Even though both novels address gothic ideas of prisons and confinement it is a lot more psychological than the authors before them. The confinement in the novels can be seen to be romanticised prisons like Thornfield, but are much more intense because the acts of confinement are imposed on the characters by outside forces, affecting how they create a place for themselves in society. Furthermore, the restrictions Bertha/Antoinette and Jane go through, could suggest the confinement felt by Bronte herself. Bronte wrote ‘Jane Eyre’ under a male pseudonym since she was writing in a society shaped by males, so she was unable to release her work as a woman. Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, comes the prequel story of ‘the mad woman in the attic’ Bertha Mason. We are first introduced to Bertha in Bronte’s novel as this dehumanised character, ‘whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal.’ Her confinement has driven her mad, and sinisterly, reduced her to this ‘beast’ which Jane refers to as ‘it’. The use of the word ‘it’ dehumanises Bertha and makes the reader view her as monstrous hence, making it harder for readers to sympathise for her. Bertha has lost all sense of her own identity, and her animalistic appearance and behaviour illustrates this. Bertha shows what dangerous levels of confinement can do to your mental health, with her imprisonment being much more severe and drastic than Jane’s throughout the novel. Jane’s first encounter with physical confinement comes in the form of ‘the red room’, something which Gilbert and Gubar describe as a ‘patriarchal death chamber’. The confinement to the red room serves to remind Jane of her social inferiority to the residents of Gateshead, she is no match for the socially superior John Reed, and her imprisonment in the red room is representative of this. She describes the room as ‘a square chamber’ with ‘curtains of deep red damask, [and] red carpet’. Just as she yearns to escape the red room, she also wants to escape the tyranny and oppression which suffocates her at Gateshead. She is confined by her social position, she has no family and is left as a social abnormality. This is made all the more apparent by John Reed; ‘you have no business to take our books’ John Reed tells her. ‘You are a dependent mamma says; you have no money, your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not live here with gentleman’s children like us’. This reinforces, Jane is completely excluded from the family circle, instead occupying a liminal space and having no real sense of who she is. Her confinement serves as a reminder to young Jane that she is simply a ‘social reject’, patriarchy renders her a prisoner of her aunt and sets the tone for what is to come for Jane as her story develops.

Although with Jane we see some hope for freedom, with Bertha there is no escape from confinement until her death. However, Rhys’s narrative gives a voice to the oppressed character by creating the history of Bertha and how she came to be ‘the mad woman in the attic’. Bertha’s physical imprisonment to the attic is the most noticeable point of confinement in both Bronte and Rhys’s novels. The confinement to the attic shows how powerful ideas of patriarchy, imperialism and colonisation can be. They affect Bertha’s physical, psychological, and social freedom. Rhys creates an interesting doubling effect in her exploration of this final confinement scene, giving the narrative voice back to ‘the other’. Bertha takes over the narrative and the reader is given a chance to look at the grief she faces as she becomes Rochester’s prisoner. Bertha describes her room as a prison with its ‘high walls’ and ‘it’s one window high up’, where she is ‘kept locked’. Her first person narrative ties together ideas of confinement and its effect on the character’s psychology. Bertha’s claims: ‘I don’t know what I am like now’, her confinement becomes so much, she starts to lose herself. She becomes a victim of both male power and imperialism. The problem with Bertha’s character is her inability to define herself and her place in society, Rochester takes advantage of this fact and confines her to the label of ‘the mad woman in the attic’. Confinement becomes a key indicator of oppression in both texts. Both Jane and Antoinette are fighting confinement in order to create an independent state for themselves, in a society which has no place for them. Jane’s attempts to escape patriarchal confinement are much more successful than Antoinette’s, this is because Jane is able to use her common sense to survive. However, with Jane, the controversy lies in whether we chose to accept her “happy-ending”, since her freedom comes from her inheritance given to her by a man. This disregards, the point that Jane is truly free since she technically gets her freedom from a man.

Male dominance

In Jane Eyre, during Jane’s time at Gateshead she faced John Reed’s tyrannical behaviour, which is only the beginning of her confinement. In the novel, she constantly deals with being mistreated and thus, confined. This is shown to the readers through the submissive roles she is placed in. Jane is constantly oppressed by the people around her, adding to her social confinement. Even when she is placed within the red room she contemplates ‘Why was I always suffering? Always browbeaten, always accused, forever condemned?’. The use of ‘browbeaten’, ‘accused’ and ‘condemned’ make the female readers feel sympathetic towards Jane as she suffers from physical confinement. Modern day readers would feel angry towards society and in comparison, to today feel sympathy towards Janes situation. These questions also permeate the entire narrative, and Jane even attempts to answer her own question when she ‘instigated some strange expedient to achieve escape from insupportable oppression’. However, Jane cannot escape oppression or her oppressors, as it confines her wherever she goes, all she can do is try to change it by moving to different places. Whether this is Thornfield, Lowood, or Gateshead, Jane is always suffocated by the society surrounding her. In the great houses confinement becomes most prevailing for Jane and Bertha here and they cannot escape this oppressive state. They both become allegories of patriarchy as neither of them have any freedom. However, Jane is finally ‘free’. After escaping from Ferndean. Only after this to we see some happy emotions of Jane when she finds happiness in the ‘fields that ever-bordered wilderness of heath’, seeing it as a ‘pure and sweet source of pleasure, finding a charm both potent and permanent’. At this point the readers are able to see that Jane is slowly able to disassociate herself from confinement and patriarchy and Bronte is also able to liberate Jane. Although, this freedom is only short lived as Jane rejects her freedom and returns to Sir Rochester and is back into an oppressive state she was in before. It could be argued, that Jane as a woman who has faced patriarchy her entire life does not know anything more thus, will always be restricted and never able to accept any true freedom. She is aware, similarly to Bronte, that she will remain in a patriarchal society Even whilst she is at Ferndean, Rochester never leaves her thoughts. ‘I still again and again met Mr. Rochester, always at some exciting crisis; and then the sense of being in his arms, hearing his voice, meeting his eye, touching his hand and cheek, loving him, being loved by him – the hope of passing a lifetime with him.’ Throughout her time at Ferndean she is always thinking about Rochester, but this could possibly be a wider metaphor of how she is not just haunted by his thoughts but also his patriarchy.

Much of Antoinette’s confinement in Wide Sargasso Sea happens because she is viewed as a cultural ‘other’, this most significantly portrayed in relation to ideas of colonisation and imperialism. Even though, she is of white heritage Antoinette is viewed more as the exotic one in the novel than anything else. Especially when Mr. Rochester is brought into the narrative. He sees her ‘long, sad, alien eyes’ as something all too unfamiliar, ‘Creole of English descent she may be, but she is not English or European either’. For Rochester, everything about Antoinette is unknown to him, from her physical features being perceived as ‘alien’ and exotic, to her unfamiliar traditions. To the people of Jamaica, Antoinette and her family ‘were not in their ranks’, she gives an example of the Jamaican ladies who ‘had never approved of her mother’, or her. But when Rochester comes into the story, he also separates Antoinette from being anything that is typically ‘white’. In this Antoinette is ‘the Other’ to both the East and the West. This state of representing ‘otherness’ adds to her confinement, as she is put into a world which has no place for her but she is also stereotyped as a particular kind of person. The term Orientalism can be used to understand the way in which Antoinette is viewed from Rochester’s western perspective, and how ideas of confinement become reflected on her character, contributing to her lack of belonging and, even perhaps, her later psychological insanity. Rochester maintains a white imperialistic stance similarly, to how Western imperialism confined the East to their power, Rochester is endorsing the same force of power over his Creole wife. The confinement Antoinette feels in her lifetime, her marriage, and later in the attic, resembles the struggles of confinement faced by Eastern civilisation at the hands of the West during this era.

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