Authors have been called social observers for their keen ability to see injustice and translate them into stories that make readers stop and ask questions. Their stories have a way of punching through our mental walls and help us see things afresh. Some authors have been able to uncover health issues that are a result of social conditions often ahead of research. Jean Rhys 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea is one. Her story relates a current leading topic for research in preventing chronic mental and physical health outcomes by looking at traumatic experiences during childhood.
Rhys offers a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre and finally gives Antoinette (Bertha) Mason Rochester her voice her story. In Bronte’s novel, Antoinette was described as Rochester’s first wife who was insane and kept locked in the attic. We learn from the story that Antoinette is a white Creole woman living in British-owned Jamaica after the emancipation of slaves. It is through Rhys’ narrative Antoinette shares her experiences during childhood and the first years of marriage to Rochester. Rhys identifies the consequences of childhood trauma, racism and gender oppression on Antoinette’s mental health and that ultimately leads to her suicide.
Thirty years after Rhys’ novel, American researchers began documenting the outcome of repeated traumatic events during childhood. Neurobiologists took the research a step farther showing how trauma changes the neuropath ways developing brain (i.e., birth -25 years of age). Untreated, the trauma increases a person’s risk for depression, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide (Felitti, 5). In Antoinette’s case, she describes the dysfunction of her childhood household. Her mother was raising her brother and her alone following the death of their father to alcoholism (Rhys, 473). The cumulated stress of managing a plantation without any skills, having a lack of money, and having a son with Cretinism (i.e., congenital hyperthyroidism) her mother “grew thin and silent, and refused to leave the house” (466) and begins to “talk to herself” (467). When Antoinette tries to approach her mother, she is pushed away coldly and told to leave her alone (467, 485). Her mother remarries and the step-father brings stability into the home until it is burnt by a mob. Her brother dies as a result of the fire and her mother develops a severe psychosis (480). Her step-father sends Antoinette to live at a convent. Antoinette describes how she copes with being neglected: spending time in the kitchen, eating alone and being alone in the woods (471, 477). She also relates that she didn’t feel safe as a child and had nightmares (478, 488, 493). It is clear that Antoinette herself is beginning to some mental reaction responding to this trauma and dysfunction by disassociating.
It is important to understand how Antoinette racism impacted her life on Jamaica. Both she and her mother were considered white Creole and a minority community living on the island. She is born into a family that owned slaves and now despised by the emancipated black Jamaicans. At the same time, the arriving English to the island considered white Creoles as not European born. Antoinette is repeatedly called “white cockroach” (469) by the blacks and “white niggers” (470) by the English. She and her mother had supportive place in society. Antoinette’s first violent experience of racism occurred when her mother’s horse was poisoned by “black people” (465). She befriends Tia, a black girl and they play together. However, Tia steals her money and dress (470). It is Tia who throws a rock at her from the black mob who burned down their house (483). Rochester her husband, describes Antoinette as “beautiful, but” and that she has “long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but not English” (496). Antoinette continues to experience acts of racism after marrying him. After being called a “white cockroach” by a black paid servant, Antoinette secludes herself and stating “I wonder who I am and where my country is and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (519). Rochester responds that she is over-reacting. Antoinette reaction is to disconnect from what is happening around her by falling back on childhood coping mechanisms.
Within less than two pages, Rochester already describes his wife as “not English or European either” (496) and before reaching their honeymoon cabin readers realize he was paid 30,000 pounds to marry her (498). However, Rochester admits he doesn’t love her, but he loves her money and property that she came with. His behavior isn’t uncommon for a man of his day. Under English rule at the time, a man assumed all money and property and rights of his wife. He begins to oppress Antoinette further by withholding sex and calling her another name, Bertha (523). Rochester believes the stories of her half black brother and refuses to listen to Antoinette’s version of the story about her mother and brother. Antoinette finally realizes Rochester doesn’t love her and wants only her money; she is stuck because of the law. In England, Rochester sedates her and locks her up after she asked someone to help her leave him on their voyage (568). Believing her brother’s story, he labels and treats her as insane. Antoinette describes looking into the mirror and watching Antoinette “drift out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking glass” in her locked room (568). She explains how she is able to cope by dissociating from reality. She tries to save herself by setting fire to the house and committing suicide done in a fashion that reenacted the fire was set to her childhood home.
Wide Sargasso Sea is able to describe what it was like for woman living as a postcolonial white Creole minority living under strict gender rule. What makes the book remarkable is Rhys’ observations of how this can affect one’s mental health. Many of her descriptions of how Antoinette and her mother react and coped with trauma had not been studied in the field of psychology. In the 1960’s mental illness, child abuse and neglect and domestic violence were taboo and uncomfortable topics in both the home and in the medical community. Still, Rhys chose to give us an alternative view to why Bronte’s Bertha ended up in the attic room and ultimately committed suicide by showing us the cumulative effects of trauma. Her work was one of many authors who helped the public question treatment of those with mental illness.
Bicknell-Hentges, L, and Lynch, J.J. “Everything Counselors and Supervisors Need to Know About Treating Trauma.” American Counseling Association Annual Conference and Exposition. Charlotte, 19 March, 2009. Presentation. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
Felitti, Vincent J. “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experience to Adult Health: Turning gold into lead.” Z psychsom Med Psychother. 2002. 359-369. Print.
Mardorossian, Carine M. “Shutting Up the Subaltern: Silence, Stereotypes, and Double – Entendre in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Callaloo. 1999. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
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