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Selden states that, Rhys presents the idea of a woman as an imprisoned victim oppressed by the standards and ideals prevailing in the patriarchal, phallogecentric society dominated by the male form of logos, language (selden139).
Rhys female protagonist is the victim of domination and humiliation due to the system of patriarchal and colonial oppression which is prevalent in England and Jamaica. In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys reveals patriarchal power as dominating and unhealthy. These patriarchal power structures are present in economic, legal, family and educational systems in Rhys's novel. This patriarchal power affects the lives of all the characters in Rhys's novel because they all belong to a patriarchal society.
This is the story of Antoinette's Cosway who is isolated by her Victorian husband who locked her up and drives her mad. She is left alone by her husband in the patriarchal society and become helpless and trapped like a ship struck in Sargasso Sea by the British. Through her portrayal of female characters in her novel, Rhys exposes how women are legally and financially dependent on men around them. When we consider the situation of Antoinette's mother, Annette, who is economically dependent upon men, we can at once notice that in patriarchal society economic inequality exist. When Annette's first husband died, she thinks that her second marriage is the chance for her to escape from her life at Coulibri where she is rejected by blacks because of her Creole heritage and may be able to retrieve status among her peers.
Maria olaussen states that, Annette signifies the gender ideology in the patriarchal economic system, since she need to be provided for by men. She uses her beauty as her only means to compete with other women in search for English protection and economic support (Olausen103). When Wide Sargasso Sea was written it was that time when marriage was considered as a mean to get economic support.
Antoinette is not able to free herself from Rochester's brutality and cruelty because she has no financial independence. All of the money was given to her husband, Mr. Rochester when she married him. In Victorian times, there was a law that women could not held property in their names, even if they inherited that property from their parents. It was still in the custody of their husbands.
Patriarchal law prohibits women from inheriting money if there is a son in the family, the inheritance runs in the male line. Mr. Mason's son, Richard Mason, represents patriarchal law, since, he after his father's death, become the lawful provider and protector of Antoinette. He makes her decisions and arranges her marriage to Mr. Rochester, without consent (olaussen108-9).
The feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote in 1972 about patriarchal education systems in Vindications of the Rights of women, questioned why only men were prepared for professions and not women. She believed that, this was the reason for women's needs for marriage; they had to marry in order to be economically supported (wollstonecraft150).
But Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea denies Wollstonecraft theories in one aspect, that marriage with Antoinette is necessary for Mr. Rochester because he will not inherit from his father as he is the youngest son in the family. By marrying Antoinette, he saves her wealth and in this way she becomes completely economically dependent upon Mr. Rochester. In the patriarchal family structures of Victorian era, father has authority over his wife and his children. Women and children are legally and economically dependent upon their fathers or husbands. Mr. Rochester uses his patriarchal power to drive Antoinette crazy. She is dependent upon him because of the patriarchal power structures in society (both legally and economically) and therefore, it is not possible for her to leave Mr. Rochester.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, marriage increases the wealth of men by allowing them power to possess their wives inheritance. If we critically examine the condition of Annette and Antoinette womanhood is similar to a kind of child like dependence on the nearest men. In fact, it is the dependence that contributes to the tragic end of both Annette and Antoinette. Both women marry white English men in the hopes of assuaging their fears as vulnerable outsiders, but both men betray and abandon them.
As Teresa O'Connor puts it, the level of betrayal ranges from the cultural and historical implicit in the relationship between blacks and whites to the familical and filial levels.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, it appears that the one quality of Antoinette that best express her through out the novel is her dependency in others. From her friendship with Tia, to her marriage with Rochester, Antoinette is just in search for happiness. After the burning down of her house by the slaves in part one, Antoinette has no one in her life, and she is all alone. Her brother Perrie dies and her mother gets mad, therefore, she marries Rochester because she wants to feel safe again. She needs someone to protect her from the ill-treatment that her mother experiences through out her life as a single woman. You are safe, I'd say. She'd like that-to be told you are safe. Or I'd touch her gently and touch her tears (pg.78). These lines from Mr. Rochester shows that Antoinette wants to be feel safe and secure.
Since Rhys is a West-Indian, she wants to reveal a truth about the limit of literary standards that supposes a shared white heritage in its audience. She draws an unflattering picture of patriarchal society in the characterization of Mr. Mason. When Annette describes the troubles of her sister's married life to and specially describes her husband's oppressive and dominating behavior to Mr. Mason, his answer to Annette was, that's her story. I don't believe it. He successfully and unsympathetically silences the Creole women's voice. Rhys wanted to give voice to this silent woman and raise this silent women voice in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
In patriarchal society the man is the superior and educated being. Mr. Rochester gets irritated by Antoinette when he tries to teach her about England and she denies the beauty of industrialized England in comparison with West Indies.
Is it true, she said, that England is like a dream? Well, I answered annoyed, that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.
But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal? And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal? More easily, she said, much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream (pg67)
Mr. Rochester feels embarrassment in accepting his wife's superior knowledge about the West Indies, as he is completely a Victorian, patriarchal Englishman. Antoinette tries to teach about the nature and life of West Indies because he is a new comer in her island. But Mr. Rochester is that kind of a person who believes that to be taught by a woman is a sign of weakness and inferiority. He belongs to that category of men who wants to maintain their superiority over women. This is the reason that Mr. Rochester opposes his wife's concepts about England and West Indies. The patriarchal educational system of the 18th century was criticized by Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote that men preserved women's innocence by keeping them ignorant (131).
If she was a child she was not a stupid child but an obstinate one. She often questioned me about England and listened attentively to my answers, but I was certain that nothing I said made much difference. Her mind was already made up. Some romantic novel, a star remark never forgotten, a sketch, a picture, a song, a waltz, some note of music, and her ideas were fixed. About England and about Europe. I could not change them and probably nothing would. Reality might discontent her, bewilder her, hurt her, but it would not be reality. It would be only a mistake, a misfortune, a wrong path taken, her fixed ideas would never change.
Nothing that I told her influenced her at all (pg78).
This statement shows that Antoinette's resistance in his attempt to educate her annoys him. He feels that he can not influence her thoughts and ideas. Thus, he is scared to accept his lack of knowledge because it would lead to his loss of control over her.
Teresa F. O' Connor explains that Mr. Rochester, who comes from the male-identified England, is protected by Antoinette when he lives in her female identified West Indies. I agree with Teresa F. O' Connor that their roles are reversed and that Mr. Rochester is afraid of finding himself in a female role in a female world (148-49).
Personal tragedies which are founded in patriarchal societies are expressed through dramatization, imagery and characterization right from the opening pages. All the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea are imprisoned in patriarchal social structure and it lead to their tragic end. In suggesting, the common working of fascism, racism and bourgeois patriarchy, the persecutory power of the modern religion of intolerance (carr12). Rhys echoes Virginia Woolf, who argued in Three Guineas that, patriarchy, racism, pomposity, militarism, economic exploitation, autocracy and fascism are all part of the same process (carr51).
Rhys reveals the hidden working of patriarchy by explaining how both Antoinette and Rochester are trapped and conditioned by the dominant patriarchal law. The marriage of Antoinette and Rochester is set in the patriarchal world. If we read Wide Sargasso Sea on deeper level we can see that Rochester's marriage to Antoinette is parallel to a business contract. His statement that, I will trust you if you trust me? Would appear to demonstrate that he does not want to give the unconditional security and love which she desires. However, by uttering the line, is it a bargain? It gives us a clue that what are the real motives of Rochester for marrying Antoinette. Everyone knows that Bargain is an economic term and it does not exist in the marriage of two people. But this marriage is like a bargain for Rochester, because he is able to gain wealth which he desired for and Antoinette is able to feel safe after all the sufferings which she faces in part one of the Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys portrays Rochester as a person who implies the patriarchal set of laws (sexism, colonialism, the English law and the law which the patriarchal society imposes and which creates sanity and insanity) that trapped Antoinette Cosway.
Both the female characters Annette and Antoinette are sexually exploited in this patriarchal world. Men in the patriarchal society can be seen as tyrants having every right to deprive women from their innocence. They demoralized women's sexuality and innocence in the same way as falcon hunts its prey. As Rhys writes, the men did as they liked. The women-never. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys illustrates that men consider women as a pieces of sexual pleasure. They take women for granted and consider them as a life less creature, not having feelings and emotions like a doll. The most important episode in the novel is the scene of Antoinette's mother with the black man. It also contains the motifs of race and sex which are central in the novel. As Antoinette says in the text remembering the helplessness and pain of her mother,
I remember the dress she was wearing-an evening dress cut very low, and she was barefooted. There was a fat black man with a glass of rum in his hand. He said drink it and you will forget. She drank it without stopping. I saw his mouth fasten on hers and she went all soft and limp in his arms and he laughed.
This incident happened when Annette was under the take care of black couple. After the burning down of her house and death of her son Perrie she starts exhibiting the signs of emotionally unbalanced woman. Therefore, Mr. Mason assigned black couple to take care of her. This scene depicts the subjugation of women by male authority in a patriarchal world. This scene has also its roots grounded in racial conflicts. The mother's dreadful condition is clearly the result of revenge on the owners of Coulibri by the black slaves. After the emancipation act black slaves wants to take revenge on their ex-slaves owners because of the brutal treatment which they receive from the hands of white people.
In Victorian society, men treat women cruelly. They think women are only there for them to provide sexual pleasures. Antoinette and Rochester's marriage can be seen in this perspective. Mr. Rochester only appreciates Antoinette for her external beauty. I wonder why I never realized how beautiful she was. This statement shows that Mr. Rochester is only sexually attracted towards his wife. He has only a sexual lust for her and this yearn does not show a true feeling of love for her. Even Mr. Rochester confesses this kind of feeling for her wife. He states, I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did (pg78).
According to Howells, Rochester belongs to that patriarchal world where women are luxury items to be bought, enjoyed and discarded.
Through out the novel, Mr. Rochester is consistently shown as being hostile, cruel and unloving towards her wife. Christophine tells Antoinette, that he is hard as a board. He belongs to that patriarchal world where men substitutes love with sex and domination. He wants to break Antoinette up like an aggressive warrior. As Christophine keeps repeating to him, all you want is to break her up (126).
In all of Rhys's works sexuality is the most important theme. It was mostly due to the idea that men dominate women in all aspects. They want control and repress women's sexually. And Rochester here is not only shown as a patriarchal husband but he is also shown as a Victorian who believes that women sexuality should be repressed. Here Rhys illustrates that men want to link women with death, just for the reason to control and suppress them. They kill women to repress them and here Rochester does the same thing to Antoinette. Die then! Die! I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candle light. In the long afternoons, when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company (Rhys pg.77).
Angier indicate Rhys's idea about men and love, men rob love with sex (Angier543).
In the Victorian patriarchal society, men think about sex equivalent to love. They believed that feeling of love and sex is alike. Therefore, when Antoinette offers herself to love her, Rochester replies her only with sexual desires because has no feeling of love for her. He is cold in his feelings of love for Antoinette and therefore, he is emotionally a stone. This shows Mr. Rochester's patriarchal and unloving attitude towards her which kills Antoinette emotionally and she transforms into a Zombie, a living dead, in Voodoo or Obeah.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Mr. Rochester has been shown as the ultimate in patriarchal tyranny, but other male characters in this novel also exhibit deep-rooted feelings of misogyny, including Mr. Mason and Daniel. Rhys undoubtedly laments these men who deprived all of the female characters in this novel from their agency. Conventional aspects are traditionally associated with women, such as having propensity to mental illness, or being illogical, frivolous, depended, decorative, subordinate, scheming, manipulative, weak, jealous, gossiping, vulnerable and deceitful. Marriage of Antoinette and Rochester is marked with suspicion, betrayal and misunderstanding right from the beginning of their marriage.
When Mr. Rochester receives the letter from Antoinette's half brother, Daniel Cosway, in which Daniel has written about Antoinette's mad mother and her drunkard father, he is not surprised. And when he came to know about Antoinette's love affair with her cousin Sandy, he became more aggressive and cruel towards her. The feeling of jealousy takes control of him. Thus the issue of trust is play out between Rochester and Antoinette's relationship.
Although Mr. Rochester is only concerned with material success as Christophine says to Rochester, Everybody know that you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up, because you jealous of her (pg125). This statement reveals the fact that Rochester married Antoinette only for her money and does not love her. But still he wants to possess her in order to show his patriarchal power over her. He believes that she belongs to him and is therefore not allowed to leave him and love someone else. I tell you she loves no one, anyone. I could not touch her. Expecting as the hurricane will touch that tree-and break it. You say I did? No. that was loves fierce play. Now I'll do it. She' ill not laugh in the sun again. She'll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking glass. So pleased, so satisfied. Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she'll have no lover, for I don't want her and she'll see no other (Rhys 136).
Though, Mr. Rochester feel hatred towards Antoinette, he still feels that she belongs to him. He does not want Antoinette to lead an independent life, because it would result in loosing his patriarchal power and dominance over his wife. Therefore, he refuses to let her leave him. Despite the fact that Mr. Rochester married Antoinette only for her money, he still feels that he is attracted towards her wife's exotic beauty and the beauty of her island. He does not want to fall for their charms and magnificence and thus he denies the attraction he feels towards the island and his wife.
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rains. I hated the sunsets of whatever color, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it (Rhys).
This quotation describes Mr. Rochester as a colonizer. As an Englishman, he wants to colonize both his wife and her island. His strict Victorian breeding and patriarchal values makes him obsessed with control and dominance. He does not want to fall love with her wife and her island, even though he is attracted towards them, because of the fact that he wants to maintain his patriarchal power to control and dominate them. Thus, by acting blindly to the attractions he feels towards his wife and her island, he condemns Antoinette and her world and in this way he tries to protect himself.
All the sufferings and miseries which Antoinette suffers through out her life are due to the fact that in Victorian patriarchal society women were considered to be the source to bring sexual pleasures to their husbands. Men treat women in the same manner as somebody treat the servant or an animal. Women in Victorian societies are thought to be weak, helpless creatures that are unable to think for themselves. Men believed that it was the law of bible that males are superior to females, therefore they have a right to treat them as they like.