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Study Guide: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jane Rhys - Free BookNotes

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Note: The text is not divided into traditional chapters, but into three Parts. The first and second Parts are divided into Sections by filigree between the paragraphs.



Antoinette’s story tells how and why she had come to feel alienated and insecure at her home, Coulibri Estate after her father’s death. She did not identify with the white people in Jamaica who were mostly British colonials, not natives of the islands. The Jamaicans did not accept her family either, her mother being “far too young, they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl.” And without her father, Antoinette and her mother had no financial security and few if any friends.

The Emancipation Act had left them, like other former slave owners, waiting for compensation from England that would never come. A friend and neighbor, Mr. Luttrell, in a similar financial situation, grew tired of waiting. He shot his dog and swam out to sea, never to be seen again. This left Annette, Antoinette’s mother, completely friendless.

Still Annette would ride around the property on her horse every day. She seemed not to care that the blacks were jeering at her. They could tell by her clothing that she no longer had money. Then Antoinette found her mother’s horse dead, poisoned. Annette’s only pastime was gone. She was “marooned.”

Annette had a doctor from Spanish Town come to visit Antoinette’s handicapped brother, Pierre. The diagnosis is not described, but after the doctor left, Annette became suddenly withdrawn, never leaving the house at all. She became cold and frightening to Antoinette. She spent her time walking the glacis (covered terrace) where she was subject to the ridicule of passers by.

Antoinette then spent her time with the servant Christophine. Christophine was a wedding gift from Antoinette’s father, Alexander Cosway, to Annette. She, like Annette, was from Martinique. The other blacks were afraid of Christophine because she practiced obeah, West Indian voodoo. She “had her own very good reasons” for staying on at Coulibri, according to Annette.

One day, a black child chased and taunted Antoinette, calling her “white cockroach”. When Antoinette got home, she took refuge in the soft moss of the overgrown garden. Christophine found her there, and the next day arranged for a young Martinique girl, Tia, to visit. Tia and Antoinette became friends and would spend entire days together at the bathing pool. Antoinette’s mother never asked where she had been. The young girls’ friendship was broken, however, when Tia cheated on a bet and stole three pennies that Antoinette had gotten from Christophine. Tia, having heard what other people had said, mocked Antoinette saying that real white people had gold and that Antoinette was a “white nigger” now. Tia took Antoinette’s dress forcing Antoinette to return home in Tia’s dirty dress.

At home, Antoinette found wealthy strangers visiting. Her mother was angry that Antoinette was wearing Tia’s dress. She told Christophine to burn it and find Antoinette another. Christophine knew that there were no other nice dresses and found only an old muslin one. The strangers were Luttrells from England. Christophine called them “trouble”. Antoinette felt ashamed and went to bed. She dreamt of going through a forest, with heavy footsteps following her. She knew that her life would be changing.

Soon there were yards of pink muslin and new dresses for Antoinette and Annette. Annette got a horse from the Luttrells and was always gone, socializing. Antoinette began to isolate herself, scorning people.

At her mother’s wedding, Antoinette was a bridesmaid. She heard what people said about Annette marrying Mr. Mason. They said that Mr. Mason had come to the West Indies for financial gain and that he would regret the marriage. They joked and gossiped about Christophine.

While her mother honeymooned, Antoinette stayed with her Aunt Cora. When she returned to Coulibri, it had been renovated. There were new servants who also gossiped about Christophine and obeah. Antoinette was afraid because of what she heard, but being that Christophine was the only one remotely nurturing, she chose to bury her fears.

Annette wanted to leave Coulibri. She told Mr. Mason that the blacks hated her, worse now that she had money again. Mr. Mason laughed and said, “They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous.” Antoinette wished she could tell him that the English do not understand the blacks at all.

One night Antoinette heard noises in the bamboo and waited, frightened in her bedroom for Christophine to come. When Christophine did not come, Antoinette wished to be “still babyish” and have the stick that she used to sleep with, believing she could fight off evil with it.

Suddenly Annette woke the household hurriedly and gathered everyone in the drawing room because a group of angry blacks and servants had gathered outside. Mr. Mason was still denying any danger when the back of the house was set on fire. Annette ran to save Pierre. When she emerged, both she and Pierre were burned.

Antoinette, Aunt Cora, and Christophine, carrying Pierre, escaped the burning house while Mr. Mason tried to restrain Annette from running back into the house to save her parrot, Coco. The crowd closed in and then all fell silent. Coco was on fire and attempting to fly down from the glacis. Mr. Mason had clipped his wings however and the bird plunged to a screeching, flaming death. There was a bad superstition about parrots dying. This made some of the mob cease their taunting and withdraw.

One man with a machete would not let the family leave, fearing that the police would side with the “white niggers”. Aunt Cora threatened him with curses and he backed away. Mr. Mason tried to load everyone into the carriage, but Annette screamed when he touched her and she began to cry. Coulibri was burning and there would be nothing left. Antoinette tried to run to Tia and Tia’s mother, thinking she could stay and be like them. Tia threw a rock that hit Antoinette in the head. The girls stared at each other “like in a looking-glass”, blood on Antoinette’s face, tears on Tia’s.


In Part One we can see that the ruin of Coulibri Estate parallels the ruin of the people who prospered in the slave based economy. This part of the novel is narrated by Antoinette and consists of piecemeal memories of her childhood. Her recounting brings forth strong feelings of isolation. She, her mother Annette, and the servant Christophine, the main characters of this section, are all outsiders. There is tension between both races and classes. Mr. Luttrell’s suicide points out the intensity of these feelings.

Tia’s betrayal underscores the role money plays in these strained relationships. Tia has traded her own island values for those of a degraded capitalism. In contrast, Antoinette’s superstitions and acceptance of Christophine’s ideas show that she has assimilated the black West Indian culture. Wearing Tia’s dress symbolizes the decline of the Cosways and causes both Annette and Antoinette to feel shame. Without money, Antoinette and her mother are not accepted by native black or wealthy white society. Antoinette and Tia have become each other’s reflection, an image that is shattered when Tia hits Antoinette with the rock as Antoinette reluctantly leaves Coulibri to join with the white people.

Antoinette fears the new English colonials who are coming to the islands to profit from the former slave owners’ demise. The heavy footsteps in her dream represent her paranoia of being followed and watched by those who look down upon her. The dream forebodes that the changes that were coming would be nightmarish.

Rhys uses the mechanism of overhearing to inform the reader how others see the Cosways. The remarks that Tia makes at the bathing pool mimic the condescension that Tia has overheard. The comments Antoinette overhears at the wedding add credibility to Antoinette’s feelings of alienation and insecurity. They also set a tone of ignorance around the Englishmen who like Mr. Mason, jokingly misjudge how much control the blacks have. It is this ignorance that allows the disaster at Coulibri to occur.

Finally, the falling and burning of Coco symbolizes the lives of the Cosway women. Englishmen have clipped their “wings” and bound them for destruction. In terms of Jane Eyre, Coco’s fate foreshadows Antoinette’s (Bertha’s) flaming plunge from Rochester’s house in England.

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