Two novels, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys have been considered as seminal works in relation to feminism and the development of the female character. While Charlotte Bronte wrote her novel a few centuries before Jean Rhys wrote her novel in the 1980s and the work of Jean Rhys acts as a prequel to Jane Eyre. The paper provides an analysis of the two novels and presents some salient facts related to the character development and the era in which the two authors lived. In this paper, first, an analysis of both the novels is performed and a section that gives a comparison of the two works is provided.
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Analysis of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte who lived in England from 1816 to 1855, set the story in Britain of the 1800s when societal disparities were at their peak, the industrial revolution was at its peak and the deprived lived under distressing conditions. Jane Eyre was an orphan who lived with her aunt, Mrs, Reed, and her cousins. Her immediate kin regarded her more as a burden and made her do all the hard work and she lived in a constant environment of scorn and hatred. After a few years, she went to Lowood School, which was a semi-charitable institution for girls, graduated with honors, and took up a job as a teacher.
After some years she went to Thornwood Manor, owned by Edward Rochester, to care for his ward Adele. Jane loved the place and gradually fell in love with Thornwood who proposed to her. Edward had hidden the fact that he was married and that his wife was a raving lunatic of Jamaican origin and imprisoned in the manor and though Jane heard the madwoman making noises, Rochester exerted his influence to dissuade her. Jane also discovers that she had an uncle who was ready to adopt her but Mrs. Reed revealed this fact as she lay on her deathbed and she had hidden this fact as she disliked Jane.
On the day of the marriage, the lunatic managed to enter Jane’s room and tore up her dress. The marriage was halted by a Lawyer who claimed that Edward was already married. A deeply distressed Jane left the manor and landed in Marsh End, the home of St. John Rivers and his two sisters, Mary and Diana. These people loved and cared for her. John proposed marriage and he anted Jane to go with him to India, but she refused and she had a vision of Rochester calling her. She goes to Thornwood manor to find the place burnt down, the lunatic wife dead and Rochester broken and crippled. She still loves him, marries him, and gives birth to their son (Signet Classics 1982).
Analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Jean Rhys in her widely acclaimed novel, narrates the story of Antoinette or Bertha Mason, a white Creole heiress. Jean has based her character on the lunatic wife of Mr. Edward Rochester, who is one of the central figures in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. The tale relates the story of Antoinette as she grows up in Jamaica after slavery has been abolished in the country. Being of mixed blood, Antoinette belongs neither to the White group nor the blacks and she is in constant search of her identity. The blacks hate her and the white hold her in contempt. She marries an Englishmen who is not named but is implied as being Mr. Rochester from the novel Jane Eyre.
The couple has nothing in common and her husband begins to distrust her, her cultural and ethnic background since she is half Creole, her actions and gives her the name of Bertha. She is torn and mentally anguished with the suffering she undergoes, the alienation from her husband, the manipulation she sustains from her black brother, and her very sanity is in danger. Her husband continues his humiliation and distrust and calls her a madwoman and a lunatic, ultimately driving her insane (Signet Classics 1982).
Comparison of the Two Novels and Their Influence on Other Authors
The two works bring into strong contrast the willpower and psyche of the two women. Jane Eyre is portrayed, as an independent woman who can make her own decisions, is not cowed down by what men in her life want her to do. This can be seen in many instances such as when she leaves Thornwood Manor when she finds that her fiancés is already married and again when she rejects John the pastor who proposes to her. Jane is depicted as a woman who has been struck by misfortune but that she has a fighting spirit and can fight back (Maggie. 1995).
The Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Seas is an emotional cripple who is supplicating people for identity and kinship. The woman is struggling between her dual identity of being a part Creole and part White. She is manipulated and humiliated by the men around her, all of whom want to take advantage of her weakness. She is a mere pawn in the big game, easily manipulated, has all her self-respect taken away from her, and is totally at the mercy of fate. She is an exile within her own family, and regarded as a “white cockroach” by her scornful servants, and despised by her husband. She obviously cannot find peace anywhere and in any kind of setting (Rhys, Jean. 1999).
While Jane did have men who wanted to marry her for her strength of character, Antoinette is despised by her husband and she has no takers. Jane is an orphan who had a very difficult and hard childhood and was made to work as a menial and do all the hard work. While Jane had no one to take care of her during her childhood Antoinette at least did have a stepmother Christophine, who monitors Antoinette’s husband’s attempts to assert dominance. She is forcing the girl to make her own choices and advises her “woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world” (Schapiro, 1994).
In keeping with the concept of modern novels, Jean Rhys has examined the concept of female sexuality rather boldly. Antoinette is not depicted as a virgin but it is mentioned that she has already experimented with sex before marriage and the only thing that she and her husband want from each other is physical sex. The female sexuality is vigorously examined by Ryes without restraint and there are quite a few sentences full of symbolism and Antoinette is unfortunately not able to understand the difference between orgasm and pain she equates an orgasm as if she is dying and she says to her husband on one of the occasions when they have physical contact “Say die and I will die. You don’t believe me? then try, try, say die and watch me die”.
There is a dream sequence in the novel when Antoinette finds herself in a forest filled with trees and she says “the trees that jerks violently is phallic”. Charlotte lived in a different era when female sexuality was not even acknowledged and she shows great restraint in depicting sexuality. There is no mention of any activity between her Fiancée and later John the young pastor. All the men keep away at arm’s length and there is a total absence of physical relations (Thorpe, Michael. 1999).
The student of the paper would like to suggest that the story of Antoinette is of a woman who is imperiled in her own struggles and that she is a loser. Now Antoinette did have an estate, albeit broken down and she did have a household of her own and was financially secure.
She allowed people and men to control her life and sanity when she could have easily fought back. Her husband actually never physically beat her but tortured her mentally, isolated her, and drove her insane and she allowed this to happen even though she could have at least resisted. She had many choices ranging from freedom to enslavement and she chose the latter. The student of this paper would like to argue that Jane Eyre was a winner and though she underwent immense hardships, she resisted being overcome by her troubles and made choices that appealed to her conscience.
The paper has analyzed the works, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and after discussing the plot and story, has made comparisons of the two novels. Though Jean Rhys has based her heroine on the character of the lunatic wife of Thornwood from Charlotte’s novel, there are vast differences in the characters. Antoinette from Rhys novel is shown as a weak woman, a loser who is easily manipulated by the men in her life.
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Jane Eyre on the other hand is shown as a strong woman, who makes her own decisions and has her own say in matters of personal interest. The two characters are the antithesis of their times as Jane is actually a character from Victorian England who is supposed to be weak and easily manipulated but is strong and independent while Antoinette, created in the 21st century is shown as a weak character who would be found in Victorian England.
Signet Classics 1982. Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Signet Classic, Penguin Books USA Inc. New York.
Maggie. 1995. Third World Feminisms: Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Practicing Feminist Criticism: an introduction. Great Britain: Prentice Hall.
Madden, Diana. 1995. Wild Child, Tropical Flower, Mad Wife: Female Identity in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” International Women’s Writing: New Landscapes of Identity. Ed. Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Rhys, Jean. 1999. A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Schapiro, Barbara Ann. 1994. Boundaries and Betrayal in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Literature and the Relational Self. Ed. Jeffrey Berman. New York: New York University Press.
Thorpe, Michael. 1999. The Other Side’: Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.” A Norton Critical Edition: Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Judith L. Raiskin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.