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In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys explored the origins of Bertha Antoinetta Rochester, the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Reimagined by Rhys as Antoinette Cosway Mason, Sargasso Sea documents Antoinette’s troubled adolescence and her eventual descent into apparent insanity. Rhys’ choice to investigate the life of a character who was already doomed to a tragic end focuses the informed reader on the development of Antoinette’s madness, and a potential explanation for her inevitable fate. In this essay, I will investigate one key aspect of Antoinette’s fragile state, the complex ethnic identity she forms during her adolescence, particularly in regards to her childhood friendship with Tia, and how that confused identity relates to her tragic end. A victim of many circumstances beyond her control, Antoinette’s identification with both Black and White culture fractures her sense of self, alienates her from both, and is an important factor to how she is degraded by her husband. Between the upheaval of post-emancipation Jamaica and her own ever-changing social position, Antoinette finds herself, “caught between two cultures… but never able to identify fully with either.” (Kadhim 2011) This incomplete sense of self is incompatible with the world she lived in, and, in combination with her inability to control her own destiny, it informs her disastrous marriage and the eventual abuse and imprisonment she suffers from her husband, leading to madness, and her tragic fate.
[Author’s Note - I don’t want the above to read as if Antoinette is in any way responsible for Rochester being Abusive, only that he is more able to do so because of the way he perceives her as, “other,” and that she is less than worthy. Advice on whether/how I should reword this more precisely would be greatly appreciated.]
In Jane Eyre, Bertha’s mere existence confounds the title character, who believed Rochester, her wealthy, handsome and noble employer, to be unmarried and a most eligible bachelor. Upon her realization of the truth, Jane is presented with Bertha, the ghastly, vampiric and savage woman whom Rochester has unceremoniously locked away in his attic. (Brontë 1847) In Jane Eyre, there is no uncertainty as to the totality of Bertha’s madness, but there is also scant explanation of how she came to become so. Bertha’s madness is said to be little more than a hereditary trait, misrepresented to Rochester until after he had already married her, with no apparent responsibility for her present condition resting on his shoulders. (Brontë 1847) In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys presents Antoinette as a far more complex character, whose end is no different that of Brontë’s Antoinetta, but with a far more subtle understanding of what it was that truly drove her into madness. It is this host of factors constructed that shape Antoinette and eventually tear her apart. None of these are more important than her unstable identity, which Rhys shows to be central to...

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