Jean Rhys and Charlotte BronteThe use of symbolism in the presentation of characters
by Jenia Geraghty
I began to see and acknowledge the hand of God in my doom. I began to experience remorse, repentance; the wish for reconcilement to my Maker
I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all
Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys composed their novels in different centuries and came from very different backgrounds. However despite these disparities the use of symbolism in their narratives can be compared. Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is a creative response to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, a nineteenth century classic, which has always been one of English Literature's greatest and most popular love stories.
Jane Eyre is a story of true love that encounters many obstacles and problems, but surmounts these troubles to fulfil destiny. The main source of trouble is Rochester's insane first wife, Bertha Mason, a lunatic Creole who is locked in the attic of his country house, Thornfield Hall. The problem is eventually solved, tragically, when Bertha escapes and burns Thornfield to the ground, killing herself and seriously maiming Rochester in the process. The social and moral imbalances between Jane and Rochester are then equalled by his punishment for his previous actions, and Jane's rise in status due to an inheritance.
This ending, however, did not satisfy the Dominican-born Jean Rhys. She disagreed with Bronte's presentation of Bertha Mason and set out to write 'a colonial story that is absent from Bronte's text'. Rhys's story tells the story of Bertha, and relates Bertha and Rochester's meeting, and their doomed marriage.
In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys shifts the perspective on Jane Eyre by expressing the viewpoints of the different characters in the source material, so taking a different structural approach to the first-person narrative technique employed by Bronte. She wrote her version as a multiple narrative, giving Bertha a previously-unheard voice. Rochester, even though un-named in Wide Sargasso Sea, takes over the narration in part two, and Grace Poole enlightens us at the opening of part three. Rhys can be seen as repaying Bronte for her failure to give Bertha a voice by not allowing Jane one, even though she does appear in the novel. Antoinette, as Bertha is named in Rhys's novel, declares, 'There is always the other side', and this proves to be the governing theme throughout both novels.
Rochester's prescience is an example of a prominent theme in Jane Eyre, in which premonition and the supernatural appear throughout the story. Both Jane and Edward believe in the signs they read in eyes, in nature and in dreams. Jane's own surname, 'Eyre', comes from the name of a historic house in which a madwoman lived, but Bronte also intended it to mean being a free spirit. Jane indeed has a frightening experience and actually sees herself as a spirit in the Red Room mirror at Gateshead, where she subsequently has a fit.
Jane encounters the legend of Gytrash in her fit, 'A great black dog behind him', a tale about a spirit that appears in the shape of either a horse, dog or mule that haunted solitary ways and followed isolated travellers. Jane describes Rochester's dog as Gytrash before she knows to whom he belongs, suggesting that she had a premonition from the vision she saw in her fit that this encounter was to spark off the most incredible aspect of her life.
Jane's dreams form a firm base for the prediction of what is to happen in her life. The symbolism of her dreams forecast her future. When she dreams of a garden that is 'Eden-like' and laden with 'Honey-dew' Rochester proposes to her. That night, however, the old horse chestnut tree is struck by lightning and splits in half, foretelling the difficulties that lie ahead for the couple.
The theme of dreams and foresight is also used by Jean Rhys:
Antoinette's dreams appear to be just as significant as Jane's, and Rhys no doubt found inspiration for developing Antoinette's character through the idea of Jane's dreams and premonitions.
In Bronte's time writers would often employ the technique of 'word-painting' at pivotal moments in the text and use landscape imagery to integrate plot, character and theme. In the scene where Jane describes herself as 'tossed on a buoyant but unquiet sea', for example, Bronte warns the reader that Jane's romantic interlude is not an entirely positive turn of events. The emphasis on 'unquiet sea' informs the reader that Jane may well be in danger. This technique adds to the gothic element of the story, and heightens our response to the characters' perceptions of their predicaments.
Similarly, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester and Antoinette's marriage can be seen as being doomed from the start due to the landscape that they pass through on their journey to the honeymoon house. They stop in a village named 'Massacre' where it is raining and rather grey, and Rochester takes an instant dislike to the place because of the name and the inhabitants, both of which he describes as 'sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps'; words which appear to convey his whole attitude to all those who surround him. Later Rochester describes the night the couple spent in Massacre, emphasising that he lay awake all night listening to cocks crowing; a symbol of deception. In the Bible Jesus says to Judas, 'before the cock crows, you shall deny me thrice', and this line, interestingly, appears in the novel further on when Rochester confronts Antoinette about her history.
Just as the name Jane Eyre can be seen to reflect Jane's character, the title of Rhys's novel can be seen to reflect the development of its plot. The Sargasso Sea, ('Sargasso' being the weed that gives that part of the North Atlantic its name), is almost still but at its centre has a mass of swirling currents, an image suggestive of Antoinette's character, and of the turmoil of her imprisonment and the method of her escape.
There is a limit to the extent to which we can see Wide Sargasso Sea as an interpretation of Jane Eyre, and we must remember that in some respects Rhys's novel takes pains to distance itself from Jane Eyre. The distinction is seen particularly in the inclusion of post-colonial theory in Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette is aware from a young age of the element of imprisonment that hangs over the West Indies;
The dead flowers represent the institution of slavery, while the fresh living smell represents what has come and will come in a post-emancipation society. In 'Women and Change in the Caribbean', Momsen wrote that when slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, 'Women were taught that marriage was both prestigious and morally superior'. She also points out that accepting and following the lifestyles of the whites facilitated social mobility, and when Rhys's protagonist Antoinette marries she is seen as forsaking the customs and values of the Negroes.
Antoinette, as a French Creole, has both black and white blood in her, which causes her much confusion;
She is aware of her family's history and that she has a black and a white side to her. Her actions and thoughts appear to indicate that she is trying to form her identity in a time of change, turbulence and conflict.
The theme of black and white also links to the colour imagery presented by both writers, not only in the context of skin colour, but also in terms the colours that surround them in their environments. Antoinette's one time friend Tia, calls Antoinette a 'White Nigger' meaning that the emancipation has left the white slave owners in the same position as the blacks. Neither has power or money and both are resented by the new white people moving into the Caribbean. The 'white nigger' is neither a white person nor a black person, but is regarded as inferior to the Negroes.
A range of imagery in the form of colours is associated with the development of the intrigue behind Antoinette's madness, and Jane's love for Rochester. Rochester describes Bertha as having 'red balls' for eyes and a 'mask' instead of a face. This use of figurative language makes Bertha appear a grotesque monster, while in contrast Jane is likened to 'an eager little bird'.
We can also compare the difference between how the symbolism of fire distinguishes the representations of Jane and Antoinette's characters. Rochester describes the West Indies as 'Fiery' and we see his dislike of this unfamiliar environment grow to overpowering proportions, until he decides to shoot himself. He is prevented by 'a fresh wind from Europe', which entices him home. This scene echoes Jane Eyre, where Jane hears Rochester's voice calling her back to Thornfield. Rochester undoubtedly associates Jamaica with evil and so Bertha's fiery, manic disposition fits in with his view of the Caribbean. England is seen as 'pure', Jane is described as having 'clear eyes' a 'face', this healthy description informing us of her mental health. Rochester wants a true English Rose 'this is what I wished to have' (laying a hand on Jane's shoulder). Bertha's fiery, hateful and wild nature is the opposite of Jane's prim and typically English reserve. The passionate nature at the heart of the novel is epitomised in Jane's metaphor for her love for Rochester, 'Fiery iron grasped my vitals'. Jane's fire is in her love whereas Antoinette's fire is one of pain and fear. Fire also links Jane to Bertha, both in passion and in the actual setting of fire, most notably the fire that kills Bertha but symbolises rebirth in the character of Rochester.
In Wide Sargasso Sea fiery emotions surround the character of Antoinette and her progression into her 'zombie-like' state. The 'zombie' theme sums up Rhys's main point about insanity and spiritual death that she introduces in the form of the Caribbean magic, Obeah. Rochester discovers this black magic and is even accused by Antoinette of performing it on her; 'You are trying to make me into someone else, that's Obeah too'. It is Rochester's calling her 'Bertha' after he discovers her history, and that her mother's name was close to her own, that sparks this outburst by Antoinette.
The fuel keeping Antoinette alive before she suffers her final death is hate, 'before I die I will show you how much I hate you'. This hate stems from the way she was presented in Jane Eyre, and Grace Poole informs us, 'I don't turn my back on her when her eyes have that look'. Ultimately, Antoinette's only possible solution, because of her zombie-like state, is to follow her dead spirit into death, 'now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do'.
The death of Antoinette/Bertha heralds the end of Rhys's story, but is the turning point for Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre. From the destruction of Thornfield and Rochester's disfigurement through his selfless actions in rescuing others from the fire, he is able to redeem himself and find contentment. After he has suffered and felt pain, mentally and physically, and lost his arrogance and pride, he finally realises his true self:
With Rochester's rebirth Jane's quest for love is finally over, as she finally has her equal.
Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman, a novel of personal development, loosely based on Bronte's own experiences, and drawing upon her extensive knowledge of folklore, her vivid imagination and her influences, including the Romantics (Rochester has been described as a 'Byronic hero') and Shakespeare. The novel is a masterpiece that arose from Bronte's intention to create a love story interwoven with her own experiences, even though her own life did not have such a fairy-tale-like ending.
Wide Sargasso Sea derives from Jane Eyre, and the relationship between the two has provoked much critical discussion about the two authors' intentions. The novels must be read together in order to fully appreciate how they complement each other, and how each is also a novel in its own right, with distinct characters and plot.
But, as I hope to have shown in this essay, one feature the novels have in common is that both authors make use of the literary device of symbolism in their writing. In both novels our appreciation of the characters and themes is enriched by the symbolism inherent in such narrative elements as dreams, visions, landscapes, characters' names, place names, colours, fire, and even the titles.
Momsen, Janet. ed. Women and Change in the Caribbean. Kingston: Ian Randle; Bloomington: Indiana University Press; London: J. Currey, 1993.
© Jenia Geraghty, May 2002