Madness leaks out of 19th century literature and most abundantly in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea in the exploration Bertha. Madness with the idea of animality, and in terms of its description and behavior will be interpreted as it applies to Bertha Mason. As a support of this madness, the dissection of the social views of Bertha, or Antoinette and Rochester will also be presented. There will be a juxtaposition of Victorian culture versus the Caribbean. In order to fully support the concept of social class and its effect on the characters a look at Bertha’s background and her heritage of being half black and half white will also be an important aspect of this essay.
In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys presents the reader with the character Antoinette, or as this paper will refer to her, Bertha Mason. Rhys’ novel examines such issues as color conscious, and segregation within the black community. The novel is a portrait of Bertha Mason, and her hegira from her home in the Caribbean to England with her husband Rochester. She is a half black, half white woman who wishes that she was either, rich, beautiful, intelligent, lighter skinned or a man; anything else besides who she was, and anyone else other than a person with a background full of discrimination and a family history of insanity through neglect. It is with this idea of belonging to neither class but having a husband who seems to have a problem with lower social classes especially the black class which drives Bertha to her end state of described insanity.
In Rhys’ novel the subject of color complexity is ingrained in Bertha from both her grandmother and mother and reiterated through various persons in the novel such as her husband Rochester. With these sentiments of not being able to belong and having nothing to alter her situation, Bertha becomes distinctly isolated from her surrounding environment which fuels her feeling of neglect from her family and especially her husband. There is witnessed a certain detachment within the main character: This detachment is best exemplified in Bertha’s further passiveness with her husband. She deals with him categorically, listing him as rich, but failing she feels in his duty as a husband to her, especially when he has an affair. Not only is Bertha apathetic but prejudiced with anyone who does not match up to her preferences.
Bertha’s sentiment toward servants. Although at times Bertha is sympathetic towards the servants but when she has been married for over a year, and Rochester employs new servants Bertha worries about their voodoo practices. Since Bertha is Creole, and her heritage has brought her up with a specific belief system, she feels her fears about the servants are justified while Rochester reassures her by stating that the blacks are too lazy to try and do anything to harm them. In this contrasting belief about the servants there is a definite theme development in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. The theme which is revealed to the reader is that Rochester harbors a distinct racism, which may in fact overrule his love for Bertha in their relationship because of her heritage. Although the two are married in an arranged marriage there are many differences which are relevant to their relationship as well as their character development.
Racism in the novel is strictly placed on African Americans, not on whites. Bertha was out to impress and embody everything she believed would make her feel either more white or more like a white person. It was this sentiment, this denial of the self which ultimately leads to Bertha’s insanity, although at the close of the novel it is Bertha’s jump which ultimately frees her such pre-conceptions made about her by both her husband’s bigotry and society’s rueful judgement. Although a lot can be said about gender issues in the book but the keystone subject is color conscious. By striving to retard her heritage in order to better cope with the situations arising with her husband, especially when they move to England, Bertha, is hoping to find many things: love, a home, acceptance, confidence, and especially happiness. It is happiness which becomes a pivotal element in Bertha’s character. If any part of her life isn’t up to par with her idea of any of these things, then she blames it on her heritage, or finds an extreme difference between her and her husband because of her cultural background, just as she states that her husband is not worried about the servants only because he is not Creole. In a way, Bertha is also creating many of the differences separating herself and Rochester. Although many of these difference, and most important of them is their concepts for servants, divide them, they are also the divided by their preconceptions of each other through their society. She is not entirely wrong in her conjecture of other’s treatment towards her being of a different heritage.
However much Rochester held racist thoughts about the blacks, about them being lazy, he does trust them to an extent and believes they would never harm him. It is this trust which ultimately injures Bertha’s son Pierre. When the servants revolt and Rochester opens the door to the glacis he is meet with his ignorance for everything that Bertha feared has come true. Bertha then rushes to her son’s room where her trusted servant Myra has joined the maddening crowd outside and who have started to burn down the house. It seems that although Rochester is biased against the blacks, calling them lazy, Bertha is the one who believes in the malicious nature, and whose belief in their hatred of her and her position in society have spurned them to this present situation.
In this riot scene Rhys reveals many strongly held positions of the characters. Rochester is the character who holds prejudices against the blacks of the West Indies. Not only does Rochester hold these biased beliefs but he also has a strong misconception of the Creoles. The servants in the Caribbean are the ones who hold the power, while Rochester is used to the owner of the land and houses to hold power, as is true for his native England, his misconstrued beliefs lead him to endanger his family. Rochester believes that since he is white and from England no harm may come to him by the backwards, voodoo practicing servants. The issue of control becomes an underlying theme behind the prejudices of Wide Sargasso Sea.
Since control becomes a central part of the novel, the effect of control and the lack or holding of it for each character needs to be examined. It is Rochester’s character who develops an over-concentration with the concept of control. Rochester cannot fathom how Bertha can feel that she has no control over her servants, the people whose job it is to answer her desires and needs. Although part of this is a culture divide it is also a gender divide. While Rochester is empowered with giving orders, as is portrayed later on in Rhys’ work when the couple return to Rochester’s estate, there is no denying that Bertha is subject to Rochester’s poor interpretations of her actions, feelings, and culture. Bertha feels threatened by her servants, even though she is ‘supposed’ to be lord over them. One climactic moment of this reversal of character for Bertha however occurs when she meets Jane, which will be discussed later in the essay.
In order to justify herself, her move to England and to increase her happiness, Bertha places her self worth on whether or not Rochester loves her. In the parts of the novel when she and Rochester are together, Bertha speaks about joy more frequently. Her attraction to him however is based primarily on his skin color and social position. Rochester’s attraction to her is based primarily on avarice and greed, not love but economic convenience. The cycle of Bertha’s wanting acceptance from Rochester fuels her descent into madness, and damages her emotionally and physically. Rochester seems to sweetly chastise her about her belief structure, which only instigates her isolation. The differing beliefs towards the servants, and toward issues of power are a symbol of their failed compromise in love, and their self-destruction of each other.
At Thornfield, these issues of control form into issues of identity for both Rochester and Bertha. Their identity seems to rest upon their control over themselves. Since Bertha is Jane’s daughter (metaphorically as presented by Bronte and Rhys), it would make her (Bertha) a double nonentity. Bertha is the offspring of an orphan (someone with no ties and someone feeling the absence of a family) and a madwoman. Bertha is kept locked away in that room, locked inside of Jane and physically locked away in the attic at Thornfield. At Gateshead, Lowood, and Thornfield Jane struggles with her rebellion, hunger, and rage while still trying to find her identity. Each of these devices is thought unfeminine and beastly, and perceived as having a lack of control over oneself which also branches into not having control over one’s surroundings as was demonstrated by Bertha and Rochester back at Coulibri, so to appease the class hierarchy in society Jane must not admit that these feelings even exist. Bertha, on the other hand, embraces these characteristics, and finally is exhibiting a type of control at least over her identity. While Jane struggles with the burdens of being upright, Bertha revels in her twisted feminine pulchritude version of madness. It seems that once Bertha embraces this madness, she finally has control over herself, but in the end she still fails to have control over her surroundings as Rochester still does not love her, and her servants may fear her, but they do not obey her.
Bertha’s madness takes the form of nonverbal communication, which again shows a lack of control over her surroundings. She does not speak but makes guttural noises and cackles. Since Bertha refuses to speak, it can be assumed that she is using her silence as a form of protest and resistance. Bertha’s reason for protest for example, is that Rochester stole her away from her family, and then imprisoned her in Thornfield. The term madness is an open category used by physicians in Victorian times as an all-encompassing term for a feminine malady. Madness then is a term imposed upon women who do not adhere to or conform to the role of 19th century female.
Through the hegira of the novel it was a curious observation to see Bertha’s character remain constant, monotonous: From Coulibri, to England. This calls to question whether or not it should be said that Bertha is failing in trying to find a home. This factored in with love, happiness, and confidence are the cul-de-sac she suffers in each place. With the close of the novel, Bertha’s change is cataclysmic and expecting for her mother’s predisposing madness is unexpected, but completely in accord with her lack of control, and her culture and feeling of isolation.
Since Rochester has physically locked Bertha away, Jane realizes that he would never accept her true personality, or her hint of madness as it has so been termed. Bertha’s death is a questionable suicide. It may be viewed as an action for liberations not only for Bertha but for Jane. It may also be viewed as Bertha’s final act against the oppressive hand of Rochester. In either case, it is clear that Bertha’s jump is ambiguous and not, as other critiques may see, an act or altruism for the sake of Jane.
In order to better understand class struggle and identity through culture a closer look at Bertha is needed. Bertha is born in the red-room, and in a sense, never leaves it until the final plunge on the rocks which ends her physical appearance in the novel. When the reader is first introduced into the red-room, Jane describes it as “This room was chill, because it seldom had a fire” (Bronte 21), so after Bertha’s birth, the room embodies a feminine mystique, a sense of womanhood as it were, which symbolizes Jane’s fury about the surroundings she is incapable of changing. Bertha, as has been established, as Jane’s doppleganger is in a sense the “looking glass” (21) of Jane; suffice it to say that while Jane keeps a calm head Bertha is a pyromaniac. In the red-room the reader gets the first glimpse of Bertha, “…the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face and arms specking the gloom, and glittering eyes…” (21). This scene signifies the breaking off of Jane’s wild side. The side which society cannot control. The description Jane gives of the ‘looking glass’ figure will parallel other descriptions of Bertha later in the novel; such as the torn veil scene where Jane sees Bertha through the oblong dark glass. This is a sort of Alice Through the Looking Glass transcendence; where everything about Jane is distorted in reference to Bertha through the looking glass of the Victorian Era.
The red-room signifies Jane’s womb, and it will be about eight years later when Jane comes in contact with it again. Bertha then becomes doubly trapped, one for Jane’s womb (red-room) and then by Rochester at Thornfield. Since Jane is an orphan and Bertha is Jane’s phantom image, this type of relationship would put Bertha in a situation where she develops a double stigma. Not only is she orphaned by her orphaned mother, but she is emotionally abandoned by her husband. This double non-entity status marks the nascent Bertha’s protest. Bertha cannot expect to be understood by the surrounding dyads so she forms a protest by using nonverbal communication: “…nineteenth century hysteric was in fact enacting a protest against the traditional female role…” (Caminero-Santangelo 3). This establishment for Bertha allows her to still be in the mind of Rochester, maybe not as a person, but as a threat to his plans of marrying Jane.
The communication Bertha uses consists mainly of grunting, using guttural noises and laughing. The events instigated by Bertha at Thornfield take place during a full moon. In this case, her laughing is associated with lunacy. However, Bertha’s laughter may also be construed as a form of anger or protest. It was more common for a Victorian woman to swoon, faint, or cry rather than to laugh. With laughing Bertha seems to be saying that since no one wants to deal with her, she will at least make sure that people can hear her.
Bertha’s madness has now become a form of resistance. Since society will have nothing to do with her, she will embrace the pariah status she has acquired. Similarly, Jane has had to do this. Jane has always been cast out of social functions (at Gateshead especially), she is ever kept from a warm fire, a kind home, for even at Lowood she was too small to sit by the fire which was being blocked by the robust bodies of Bertha look-a-likes. Since society has a low tolerance for Jane’s outspokenness, most of how Jane would like to act is pawned off on her orphaned alter-ego, Bertha. Bertha’s actions mirror Jane’s desires. So it may be designed that Bertha is still working inside the ‘looking glass’, inside the red-room and more especially inside of Jane. Jane is bound to the laws of etiquette and so is not allowed to act how she feels. She depends on Bertha’s hysterics to let her true feelings be known. Nevertheless, it is disturbingly clear from recurrent images in the novel that Bertha not only acts for Jane, she also acts like Jane. The imprisoned Bertha, running “backwards and forwards” on all fours in the attic, for instance, recalls not only Jane the governess, whose only relief from mental pain was to pace “backwards and forwards” in the third story, but also that “bad animal” who was ten-ear-old Jane, imprisoned in the red-room, howling and mad. Bertha’s “goblin appearance” – “half dream, half reality, “ says Rochester- recalls the lover’s epithets for Jane: “malicious elf, “ ”sprite,” “changeling,” as well as his playful accusation that she had magically downed his horse at their first meeting” (Gilbert, Gubar 361). Rochester’s recollection may very well be that of his and Bertha’s, for especially in marriage Bertha has proven to have “downed his horse” as it were. It is accurately depicted that Jane and Bertha share similar actions, mannerisms, feelings, and decisions. More importantly they share a bond of societal bastardization, which brings about Ussher’s view of feminism and hysterics, “Recent feminist work on hysteria, observing that strong and outspoken women were the ones diagnosed and treated within this oppressive regime lends support to the case that diagnosis and treatment were used as methods of social control and that symptoms were in reality an form of protest” (Ussher 76).
The novel’s themes rely upon the setting of Jamaica and then the novel’s second narration by Rochester in England. The comparison of the two settings aid in the reader’s understanding of the class struggle of both characters. Whites who are born in England share a higher place in society than whites who are Creoles (Creole is a descendent of Europeans who began to inhabit the West Indies one or two generations back). The servants who play in important part in the development of Rochester and Bertha’s relationship share an equal importance in the novel as their identities as ex-slaves fuel the division of class in the novel.
It is this integration of many cultures which fuels the bad blood between the characters and often times results in the misunderstanding between Bertha and Rochester. In fact, it is only Antoinette (Bertha) and her mother who do not present racist views in the novel. There is a certain respect Bertha has for her servants, hence her trust in them to watch her son (although this trust may also be a type of fear of the servants). This aids in Bertha’s confusion of the servant’s role when she moves to England with Rochester. In this move it is paramount to understand that Bertha’s background, and interaction with servants was very different in the West Indies than in England. The control she cannot seem to must in her home reveals itself to her in England, and although her character goes mad by society’s standards, she final enacts control of her own identity and actions by finally burning down Rochester’s house, and her relationship with him, and making a free will choice of her own by jumping off the roof.