Essay on Fire´s Symbolism in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Essay on Fire´s Symbolism in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre depicts the passionate love Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester have for each other, and as Bertha Mason stands in the way of the happiness of Brontë's heroine, the reader sees Mason as little more than a villainous demon and a raving lunatic. Jean Rhys' serves as Mason's defendant, as the author's 1966 novella Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, seeks to explore and explain Bertha's (or Antoinette Cosway's) descent into madness. Rhys rejects the notion that Antoinette has been born into a family of lunatics and is therefore destined to become one herself. Instead, Rhys suggests that the Cosways are sane people thrown into madness as a result of oppression. Parallels are drawn between Jane and Antoinette in an attempt to win the latter the reader's sympathy and understanding. Just as they did in Jane Eyre, readers of Wide Sargasso Sea bear witness to a young woman's struggle to escape and overcome her repressive surroundings. Brontë makes heavy use of the motif of fire in her novel and Rhys does the same in Wide Sargasso Sea. In Rhys' novella, fire represents defiance in the face of oppression and the destructive nature of this resistance.


For the rioters, Coco the parrot, and Antoinette, fire offers an instrument of escape from and rebellion against the oppressive actions of their respective captors. Wide Sargasso Sea takes place shortly after the emancipation of Jamaican slaves. Annette's husbands, first Alexander Cosway and then Mr. Mason, have both profited immorally off of the exploitation of black Jamaicans. Unsurprisingly, the former slaves feel great hatred towards the Cosways--- hatred that boils over when the ex-slaves set fire to Annette's house (35). The significance of th...


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... and an indication of Antoinette's fate. The most destructive fire in Wide Sargasso Sea comes at the end of the novella, when Antoinette burns Thornfield Hall down to the ground. While this action serves as an escape and an act of defiance, it is also destructive, as Bertha takes her own life in the process of taking power from her husband: "Then I turned around and saw the sky. It was red and all my life was in it... I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames" (170). Antoinette's ultimate act of rebellion will, of course, lead to her ultimate destruction--- the life that she sees in the burning sky will be extinguished when she comes crashing to the ground. Rhys' use of fire in moments that show or foreshadow physical and emotional devastation reflects the role of fire as a symbol of destruction in Wide Sargasso Sea.





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