2018 Brennan Prize Winning Essay

Breaking the Binary of Madness in Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

In Charlotte Bronte's classic novel ]ane Eyre, the character Bertha and the accompanying terror of the stereotypical "madwoman in the attic" has fascinated many a generation. So, too, does it hold power over literary critics: Bronte's portrayal of the "lunatic" Bertha Mason has been analyzed from myriad perspectives, from the political to the feminist to the psychiatric to the antipsychiatric. However, as Lennard J. Davis has highlighted, all of these perspectives, though valid, fall short in that they tend to "metaphorize" disability, particularly mental disability (Donaldson et al. x). Furthermore, romanticizing mental illness, especially as understood as madness, as some sort of feminist or colonialist rebellion, as put by Elizabeth J. Donaldson, actually "indirectly diminishes the lived experience of many people disabled by mental illness" (15).

 

While madness-as-rebellion may have been one of the intentions of Bronte when writing Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys when writing her spinoff novel Wide Sargasso Sea, both texts should be analyzed from the perspective of mental illness itself as the disability it is, and not from the stereotype of insanity, which promotes a superficial binary between "insane" and "sane." By presenting Antoinette from a more complex perspective than Bronte's "madwoman in the attic" and by allowing the reader into the inner workings of her deteriorating mind, Rhys works to humanize not only Bertha as a character but also to humanize those with mental illness as a whole. By doing so, Rhys accounts for where Bronte's single-sided and crude characterization falls short. Furthermore, through her use of multiple points of view and "third spaces" (to use Kelly Baker Joseph's term) - ambiguities in race, national identity, and, most notably, sanity - Rhys works to dismantle the idea of madness and normalcy as a binary, despite her own characters attempting to describe it as such. Thus, Rhys necessitates Antoinette to be seen as the multifaceted, troubled character she is.

 

While Bronte's understanding of psychology should certainly not be condemned from a modernist perspective, neither should her dehumanizing depiction of Bertha be excused. The character's one-sided and "animalistic" portrayal is deliberate: it serves the purpose of eliciting sympathy from the reader for the logistically impossible relationship between Jane and Rochester, preventing any sympathy from being saved for the poor woman herself. Furthermore, Bertha is only used to advance dualist means, serving as a thematic contrast and mirror to Jane as her "opposite, her image horribly distorted in a warped mirror" (Donaldson et. al 3) and what Jane could become if she gives into her passions fully. The reader is moreover relieved when Bertha, seen as the "monster" and the "maniac" (to use Bronte's own terms), falls to her death from the roof of Thornfield Hall. In fact, Bronte herself admitted, "'It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation [as Bertha's], and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant"' (qtd. in Thorpe 175). While degradation such as this certainly drives Jane Eyre forward, it is questionable whether this is fair to the character herself and to the realm of mental disabilities overall. One reading Jane Eyre today will certainly find Bronte's depiction of Bertha to be "dated ...marred by stereotyping and crude imaginings" (Thorpe 174), especially when one considers that Bertha never is given the opportunity to speak for herself.

 

Such was the motivation of Rhys. She approached the project which would ultimately become Wide Sargasso Sea as a deliberate attempt to humanize the Creole character seen simply as a unidimensional impediment in Jane Eyre, stating in letters "She seemed such a poor ghost, I thought I'd like to write her life" (qtd. in Thorpe 173). Though Rhys was not herself an adamant activist for those with mental illness, at least from today's perspective, she was undoubtedly influenced by the changing cultural thinking about psychiatry and mental illness in the 1960s. Donaldson, noting how Rhys departs significantly from ]ane Eyre's portrayal of madness, points out, "By stressing the causal factors that contribute to Antoinette's emotional state, Rhys also makes it easier for readers to understand and to identify with the originally enigmatic and inarticulate character" (12). Furthermore, it is important to note how Rhys emphasizes the confluence of factors which lead to Antoinette's mental decline: questionable genetic factors, a difficult, lonely childhood, a dangerous abolitionist social climate, and her husband's psychological manipulation and betrayal. By doing so, she has bypassed Bronte's simplistic and prejudicial portrayal of its causes as being simply due to genetic factors and her "fiery West-Indian" (Bronte 397) upbringing, as critics such as Thorpe have noted.

 

Rhys toys at length with the idea of multiplicity, a key factor which leads to the unique richness of Wide Sargasso Sea, especially in contrast to Jane Eyre's unidimensional nature. In Bronte's work, Jane is the sole narrator; thus, there is Jane, and there is the Other. Whether this "Other" be Rochester or Bertha or any character in the novel, the work is highly dualist. By contrast, Rhys' novel shows, as Joseph points out, an incredible ambiguity and complexity of perspective through  two first-person  narrators, Antoinette and Rochester, and through extended discourse with a third, Christophine. The voice of Grace Poole, too, is heard briefly, providing another perspective on the difficult place of women even in England. Thus, through multiple perspectives, Rhys is able to show the accompanying ambiguity and complexity of the life of a white Creole woman, torn between cultures and between races, trying to identify with one or the other yet being rejected by both. Antoinette, and the other white Creoles, are called "white cockroaches" by the black population in the Caribbean and "white niggers" by the white population in England (Rhys 60); Antoinette is spurned by both her black Caribbean peers (most notably Tia) and her English husband.

 

As Rhys dismantles the clear distinction between black and white, between English and native, so too does she blur the assumed divide between sanity and insanity. She has created a variety of "third spaces" in which these ambiguities can exist. By doing so, she is able to portray mental illness as it is realistically experienced: neither "sane" nor "insane," "mad" nor "normal," but a spectrum of lucidity and instability which precludes the accurate use of binary terms such as these. Though other critics have spoken of these "third spaces," it is necessary to note how even characters within the novel refuse to admit they exist, especially when it comes to the question of sanity. Furthermore, the character that does admit to some indescribable in-between - the headstrong and powerful Christophine - is seen as a source of sagacity. Her point of view, then, should be given more weight than that of those who believe only the binary.

 

Though different instances can be identified during which cracks develop in the glass of Antoinette's fragile mental state, it is impossible to say that she ever becomes completely and utterly "insane." Through the progression of the novel, we witness the decline of Antoinette's mental faculties. In a  poor attempt to assign  labels, she  progresses, in Part One, from the lonely child misunderstood by those around her; in Part Two, to the tentative bride, to the confused  lover, to the  jealous, chaotic "red-eyed  wild-haired stranger", to Rochester's blank, shattered "Marionette"; until finally we reach the "madwoman in the attic" of Part Three. Here, Rhys allows us inside Antoinette's mind at its most broken. Interestingly, she seems perfectly lucid  until  she  admits  she  cannot remember attacking her brother just hours before. She asks, "What am I doing in this place and who am I?" (107) and admits to hearing voices; she is disoriented in time and place, disclosing that time has no meaning to her and  refusing to  believe she  is in England. Yet, her communication of these judgments is coherent and  reasoned, though  perhaps  more jilted than we have seen when her voice was heard in the past.

 

Thus, one who reads  parts of this section  without the context of what came before or after may simply see Antoinette as someone operating within a new and unfamiliar context, someone cut off from the outside world (which she is); they may be confused by certain elements, and  may glean  the sense that something is not quite  right; despite this, it is impossible to read  the  Antoinette  of Part Three as the "raving lunatic" with whom readers of Jane Eyre are accustomed. However, given the third-person descriptions of her character we are given in Jane Eyre - "What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it groveled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal" (Bronte 293) - it is easy to see how someone only privy to her external appearance, someone unwilling to look deeper, would assign the label of "madness." We, as the informed reader, know this is not quite true. We know that while she is certainly not in control of all her mental faculties, she is still the person whom we have witnessed grow up and endure the cruelties of Rochester; she is not altogether there, but not altogether gone. She is within the "third space" that is undefinable by those around her yet certainly exists. In this third space, as Josephs states, the "improbable  monster" of Bertha "can become Antoinette, still troubled, vulnerable, and mentally suspect but not as easily dismissed as insane and unreliable" (85).

 

Therefore, those around Antoinette - Daniel Cosway, the unnamed public at large, Rochester in particular - who do attempt to describe her as mad,  who do attempt to dismiss her, seem the unreliable ones themselves. Christophine, on the other hand, is not so quick to label. Drawing from the experience of Antoinette's mother and applying her  words to Antoinette, she says, "They drive her to it...They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad ...ln the end - mad I don't know - she give up, she care for nothing" (Rhys 94). Christophine, when contrasted to the other two voices, Rochester and Antoinette, each having significant emotional biases, is the voice of reason in the novel, described even by Rochester as having a "judge's voice" (92). Furthermore, in Part One she is described at length in contrast to other members of the public: "Her songs were not like Jamaican songs, and she was not like other women" (12). Her mother, too, notes the power Christophine holds in their lives: "'Christophine stayed with me because she wanted to stay...l dare say we would have died if she'd turned against us" (12). Thus, Christophine's inability to fully describe the final mental state of Antoinette's mother - and, by extension, Antoinette herself - displays how attempting to operate within a system that transcends the use of binary language ultimately is unsuccessful.

 

If we give weight to Christophine's comparison, then by examining the decline of Antoinette's mother we can better understand that of Antoinette. In examining Part One, we can see her turning point was due to intense sorrow over her son Pierre's death; she leaves Antoinette and is shut away. Antoinette describes the outside world's influence on her mother in Part Three: "They told me I made her worse. People talked about her, they would not leave her alone" (80). This seems entirely externally-imposed, as Christophine notes. However, when Antoinette encounters her mother for the last time, her mother has been hearing voices and rejects her daughter completely. This last part is evidently the result of neurodegeneration - the external world having severely influenced her internal one. Elizabeth Abel diagnoses Antoinette and her mother as having "ambulatory schizophrenia," as each is "necessarily split between the image thrust on her and her own knowledge of herself' (Abel 172).

 

Yet, while Antoinette's decline mirrors that of her mother's, it is certainly not identical, thus creating additional complexity. Both clearly are in pain, another factor which prevents the reader from concluding they are blindly insane. Both have felt culturally and emotionally isolated throughout their lives, yet Antoinette more so; she comments to Rochester, "She was so lonely that she grew away from other people...it happened to me too but it was easier for me because I hardly remembered anything else. For her it was strange and frightening" (78). Thus, from a young age, she has been emotionally distant from herself and others, though she has tried time and again to connect; heartbreakingly, she speaks of snakes and ants as "all better than people" (16). She feels her brief isolation as a child in the convent was comforting, commenting that the "convent was my refuge" (33). This rejection by her mother and society yet her yearning to be accepted has trapped her within another painful "third space" which prevent her from fitting in completely. As Abel points out, "By creating a context that validates Antoinette's response to experience, Rhys forces us to question our own logical categories" (173).

 

Antoinette explains to Rochester elsewhere, "So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all" (61). Although Antoinette tries to make her husband  understand  her past life and her present state of being, he refuses to sympathize. Thus, out of all the characters who do describe Antoinette as mad, Rochester is undoubtedly the greatest perpetrator. Though Antoinette, according to Josephs, "was fragile before marriage,  her  narrative  offers the  possibility that it is her husband's inability and cruel refusal to understand  her Caribbeanness that pushes her 'over the edge' of Thornfield Hall" (72). Rochester himself states, "I did not love her ...I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think  or feel as I did" (Rhys 55). Forced into a marriage of misunderstanding and disjointedness, instead of trying to sympathize with his wife, Rochester consistently isolates her in his mind as "a stranger" who is not and can never be like him. It is not only the culture shock of the Caribbean which throws him off guard, but also that Antoinette's accompanying anxiety over her "cultural inbetweenity" (again, to use Josephs' term) is unfathomable to him, the Englishman, who has never had to deal with such a problem. "The only way that someone with such stability could understand her inability, and refusal, to choose sides," postulates Josephs, "would be to see her as 'a bit mad"' (80).

 

Rochester's deliberate misunderstanding of Antoinette's mental state is not only an accidental result of cultural misinterpretation but also an excuse for him to treat her, his unwanted wife, without the humanity she deserves. When he receives the letter from Daniel Cosway which breaks the news of "madness" in Antoinette's family history, he muses, "I felt no surprise. It was as if I'd expected it, been waiting for it" (Rhys 59). He has been looking for a way out of his marriage, an excuse for why he can blame his circumstances and avoid trying to love his wife, and he has found it. He is thus able to justify treating her as less than human. Considering his wife mad is an easy excuse for refraining from putting in the effort to break down the boundaries between them and is a defense for his own discomfort.

 

Furthermore, as Rochester is so insecure himself in both  his own financial  position in his family and in the unfamiliar landscape of the Caribbean, projecting the worries of his own sanity onto his wife enables him to, in his mind, maintain his own. This projection can be seen most significantly in the last few pages of Part Two, in which Antoinette's mind and will  have been shattered. He describes  her "blank lovely eyes," her  "doll's voice, a breathless but curiously indifferent voice" as having "no warmth, no sweetness" (102). Likewise, he says of himself, "All the mad conflicting emotions had gone and left me wearied and empty. Sane" (103). Though he seems to view an absence of "mad conflicting emotions" as a prerequisite for his own sanity, he hypocritically calls a similar absence in his wife "mad." Again, Rochester operates consistently within the binary of sane versus insane: as there is some disconnect between him and his wife, one of them must be sane and the other mad; as he is clearly the cultural superior (everything in the Caribbean is "sly, spiteful, malignant," the natives speak "the debased French patois" and even Christophine seems "insignificant" to him at first glance), she is the one who is mad. Even Christophine, whom he does not understand, yet who is clearly trustworthy and mentally stable, is not exempt; in order to avoid considering what she says as revision to his view of Antoinette's sanity and his own actions, he comments, "She's as mad as the other" (97).

 

So, when he discovers her family history of mental instability, he begins to call his wife Bertha, the name of her late "mad" mother. When Antoinette questions his use of the name, he replies, "'It is a name I'm particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha"' (81). While he attempts to play this off as an affectionate pet name, his words ring darkly true: he is fond of the name and thinks of her in its terms because it allows him to treat her as the insane, animalistic, subhuman "creature" whom he needs her to be in order to justify his own lack of tender emotion. By treating her in this way, he breaks the very foundations of her already shaky self-conception; she has been looking to belong and to fit an identity, and Rochester has erased any old identity and imposed on her a new one, one which serves his purposes and undoes any concept of personhood: "My lunatic...My mad girl" (99).

 

lf we delve into the text of Jane Eyre, we can see that Rhys has not unjustifiably characterized Rochester. As D. Christopher Gabbard states, "Situating the novel historically helps one to understand why Rochester's attitudes about mental disability and caregiving may not be shared or endorsed by the novel's author" (101). In the 1840s, the time during which Jane Eyre is set, it was no longer common to isolate loved ones who displayed signs of mental instability, and the prevalence of attempting to seek treatment was growing. Doing such as he did - isolating his wife in an attic, not grooming her, and providing her with only the.most meager of caregiving - only served to heighten her mental instability and display his own inhumanity towards her. Gabbard points out:

 

When Rochester explains to Jane the sordid history of his connection with the Masons, he delivers a string of demeaning epithets that exaggerate his difference from that family...being "mad," "lunatic," "a complete dumb idiot," "feeble,"..."violent and unreasonable," "absurd, contradictory"...Confining Bertha  in the  upper reaches of his own English manor house, Rochester allows himself the illusion of the self­ enclosed world of the subject, nursing his narcissistic wounds through guilt, shame, and the pleasures of confession" (138-39).

 

Even Jane reprimands Rochester for this, and recognizes the unfairness of his conception of Bertha, saying he is "inexorable for that unfortunate lady" and saying that "it is cruel" to speak "of her with hate - with vindictive antipathy" (Bronte 301). Furthermore, when Rochester asks not long after, "If you were mad, do you think I should hate you?" she replies, critically, "I do indeed, sir" (301). Rochester's portrayal in Wide Sargasso Sea is thus justified as one who is not only the most adamant promoter of the sane/insane binary, but also particularly unsympathetic towards those whom he feels are "insane."

 

Rhys' work is a complex one, made ever more convoluted through her insistence on multiplicity - of point of view, of race, of cultural and personal identity, of mental state - and thus shows by contrast what Bronte's novel lacks. By drawing from Jane Eyre and giving a voice to the misrepresented "madwoman in the attic," Rhys brings to light unsettling realities of humankind and its harmful tendency toward ill-fitting labels. She has created a world that transcends the use of existing binary language, doing justice to the realm of mental illness through its more spectral portrayal. Finally, by expanding upon Rochester's selfish motivations and Christophine's selfless perception, Rhys has shown that it is only by digging beneath the surface that one can finally reach the truth.

 

 

Works Cited:

 

Abel, Elizabeth. "Women and Schizophrenia: The Fiction of Jean Rhys." Contemporary Literature, vol. 20, no. 2, 1979, pp. 155-177.JSTOR {]STOR}, doi:10.2307/1207964.

 

Bronte, Charlotte.Jane Eyre. Oxford World's Classics, 2008.

 

Donaldson, Elizabeth J., et al. The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.

 

Josephs, Kelly Baker. Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature. University of Virginia Press, 2013.

 

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton Critical Editions, 1999.

 

Thorpe, Michael. "The Other Side: Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre." Wide Sargasso Sea: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Judith L. Raiskin, 1999, pp. 173-181.