Jean Rhys’ novel, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is a story that has many themes but tragedy seems to be consistent throughout the novel. The story is centered on a character named Antoinette around whom a lot of tragedy seems to exist.
The author creates a main character, Antoinette who is a child at the beginning if the story. Her family has owned slaves in the past. Her father has died in mysterious circumstances with rumors that he drunk himself to death. Her younger brother is very ill and eventually dies. She is eventually married off and after a series of other unfortunate events, she eventually goes mad. Jean Rhys creates a series of events that depict tragedy surrounding the life of Antoinette.
The tragedy in the story takes different forms. Death is the most common cause of tragedy in the novel. Other tragedies exist in the form of neglect, alienation, impact of slavery, and insanity. These are briefly described below.
Tragedy in the form of death is quite common in the novel. Two major deaths are talked about; Mr. Cosway’s and that of his son Pierre.
The first death is discussed at the very beginning of the novel as a means of giving readers background information on the whereabouts of Antoinette’s father. The author tells of Antoinette’s father’s death as a speculation. Antoinette’s father is said to have drunk himself to death. It is quite obvious that doubt surrounds the cause of his death. His name was Mr. Cosway. Essentially, Mr. Cosway had been a white slave owner and was financially well off as a result.
However, after the emancipation of slaves in 1833, he had to free them. He then begun drinking excessively and died from it. The manner in which the author depicts this death leaves the reader believing there may have been more to the death of Mr. Cosway than the casual ‘drunk himself to death.’ From the novel, we see that Mr. Cosway’s death is a tragedy to his family since they had to make a living in his absence—especially after he had put the family finances in ruins. Moreover, many families seemed to have been dealing with the death of their men since it is reported that a good number of former white slave owners killed themselves after they were forced to free the slaves. The other death is that of Pierre who died as a young boy.
Pierre has mostly been a background character in this story but his role sheds some light on key parts of the themes. To begin with, Pierre is depicted as being generally ill as a child after his father’s death. He therefore spends most of his childhood as a miserable invalid. After his mother gets remarried, former slave stage a demonstration outside Pierre’s parents’ house and set it ablaze in the process. Pierre is in the house at the moment and gets hurt in the fire. Unfortunately, the effects of the fire on his body, accompanied by the already existing illness, prove too much for his weak body. He eventually succumbs to all this and dies soon after the fire. Losing his life this is very tragic–especially based on the fact that the fire had nothing to do with him directly.
It is also tragic for Antoinette and her mother who have lost a sibling and child respectively. Antoinette’s mother is soon mad and under constant care and, as a result, Antoinette is left on her own once again; a dead father, an insane mother, and a dead brother.
Neglect and Alienation
Neglect can be a form of tragedy depending on the disposition of the person who faces the neglect. In the early chapters of the novel, the author tells the readers about the neglect that Antoinette’s family faces after the end of the slave trade. Antoinette is still a young girl, when the slave trade ends. The end of the slave trade and the wide range of emotions that came along with it are eminently felt in the home. It seems that the slave trade has not made Antoinette’s family very popular in the society.
Also, her mother does not seem to blend well with the rest of the elites. As a result, the family is quite alienated from the society in which they live. The have no close friends and the author depicts the servants as not caring much about what happens to the family.
This is probably a carry-over of emotions from the slave trade era. From the book, It is seems like a widespread belief that Antoinette’s family deserve what they are getting in terms of Mr. Cosway’s death and Pierre’s illness.
This neglect of the family, by society, is the environment in which Antoinette grows up. This environment proves tragic when it shapes her into the troubled person she eventually turned out to be. The other form of neglect clearly depicted in this novel is that which Antoinette and her brother Pierre face from their mother. After the death of their father, it is only natural for the children to expect parental love and attention from the remaining parent. Unfortunately for this pair, they do not find this in their mother.
She seems to have other priorities for reasons known to her. When Antoinette is still a young girl, she spends most of her days in isolation. She has a friend, Tia, who is a daughter of a servant.
Unfortunately, this companionship does not last as Tia ceases to be Antoinette’s friend for no apparent reason. Even though Annette spends most of her time at home, she seems to focus on other petty things and pays no attention to her children. To make matters worse, when Mr. Cosway dies, Annette, Antoinette’s mother is still a young and beautiful woman. Shortly after, she decides to get remarried and her attention to her children, which was barely there, diminishes even further. This situation is tragic for the children because they grow up in isolation. This does not provide an environment that nurtures them into healthy adults. It is no wonder that Pierre eventually dies and Antoinette has so much insecurity that she goes mad even after moving into her new home.
This madness is probably as a result of accumulated mental problems from her upbringing.
Impact of Slavery
Slavery has been a subject that has drawn many emotions from the time it begun centuries ago to date as people still deal with consequences of slavery. Jean Rhys sets this novel in Jamaica at a time when slavery has just been brought to an end. Slave trade has been declared illegal and the slaves have been freed. Unfortunately, ending slave trade was not going to magically end the emotions that came with it and the societies involved had to deal with the consequences. One example is that of the friendship between Antoinette and Tia, one of the servants’ children.
Tia seemed to have been Antoinette’s only companion as a child. Unfortunately, Tia was the child of a freed slave while Antoinette was the child of a former slave owner. Antoinette does not seem to know why Tia stopped being her friend. It is, however, very likely that Tia had been influenced by her parents to stop associating with Antoinette because she was a child of former slave owners.
Naturally, young children would not put much consideration into such politics and would be friends regardless of such backgrounds. Without interference from their parents, Tia and Antoinette would probably have remained friends. Slavery however had introduced bitterness into the slaves as parents and the effect was trickling down to the children. Later, the author depicts Tia as getting violent towards Antoinette during a demonstration by freed slaves.
When she feels that she is in danger, during the demonstration, she runs towards Tia and her mother. But instead of helping, Tia throws an object which hits Antoinette’s head and she starts bleeding profusely and ends up ill for over six weeks. Clearly, such behavior is not natural to children without adult influence. This was tragic for Antoinette who would have appreciated Tia’s help as a companion at a time when her family was falling apart. The major impact of slavery, and from which most others stem, is bitterness.
Slaves were mistreated in the peak of the slave trade and it is only natural that they would feel bitter towards anyone who is directly or indirectly associated with the trade. After the emancipation, many slaves still felt the need to avenge the life they had been forced to live. They felt dehumanized and any opportunity to cause suffering to the former slave owners was obviously welcome. In the novel, this opportunity presents itself when Antoinette’s step father rebuilds the estate and the former slaves come to demonstrate at the house. They burn down the house regardless of the fact there was a sick child in it. Also, the actual slave owner had already passed on but his family had to pay for the consequences of the trade he carried out when he was alive. The children and their mother may have had nothing to do with the slave trade but bitterness in the former slaves stops them from reasoning and they set the family ablaze.
This is tragic because, as a result of the fire, Annette goes insane, Pierre dies and Antoinette is injured and eventually left on her own.
So in a nutshell, tragedy seems to surround the main characters of this novel. They seem unable to evade it with things like death, neglect, alienation and insanity seemingly pursuing them from all angles. It thus suffices to say that Jean Rhys does a commendable job at depicting tragedy as a theme in this novel.