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Joseph's essay

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On Page 6 of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette remembers "Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible - the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell".

Comment on the way in which descriptions of landscape and environment in the novel mark stages in the spiritual and psychological journey of the heroine.


Wide Sargasso Sea, as its title indicates, encompasses a broad range of preoccupations relating to post-colonial society and its mores, race, madness, the relationships of family and the effect of these on women, using a historical and intertextual revelation of the first wife of Mr. Rochester from the novel Jane Eyre. These themes are introduced into the text, without detracting from the sense of narrative, through the use of the landscape and environment to mirror the spiritual and psychological journey of Antoinette. In this tale of mirrors and multiplicity, of family history repeating, and of multiple narrators, landscape and environment also play their part in the mirror-effect, ghosting the story of Antoinette's lonely and isolated childhood, purgatory-like teenage years, marriage and return to Coulibri, culminating in her madness, and the complete circle back to isolation (this time through madness) in Rochester's attic.

"I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think 'It's better than people'. . . . All better than people. . . . Better, better than people" (p.12). Antoinette's childhood is marked by isolation, particularly after cultural strains disintegrate her bond with the black girl, Tia. She is isolated from society and from her own mother, who is wrapped in grief and self-absorption. Hence, Antoinette retreats into the landscape of her mother's large estate, Coulibri, the "large and beautiful garden" which is overgrown (p. 6). This depiction of Coulibri seems to reflect Antoinette's own mess of thoughts and her mother's secretiveness and sullenness. All is in disarray in the Estate; all is worn out. Antoinette's family has become poor and has a lowly status in society as Creoles, "white niggers". Antoinette's own desire to fit into her society, to be like Tia, is hopeless and so she disappears into Coulibri, "(w)atching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing", thus escaping herself, her damned Creole body and life. Upon the marriage of Antoinette's mother, Coulibri is given a renovation, and Antoinette finds it cleaner, "tidy" (p. 14), and different, not in the way it looks, but in the way it feels. This, too, is how she feels about her own standing. She knows things have changed - Coulibri Estate is again brimming with servants and life - but it is not a change Antoinette particularly likes. She dislikes the rifts growing in her society which set her and her mother up as enemies to both black people and, in a more subtle way, to the "pure whites" like Mr. Mason who cannot grasp their circumstances.

This new tension-filled prosperity of Coulibiri is soon remedied when the black people of the area burn Coulibri as a sign of their hatred for the Creoles, who are seen as part of the earlier colonial oppression where slavery of the black peoples was practised. Antoinette feels betrayed, wanting as she did to assimilate. The burning of Coulibri is the very literal representation of this rift between the Creoles and the black people of Jamaica. Antoinette says she knew she "would never see Coulibri again" (p. 34). And she doesn't. Not in the form it once was. The loss of Coulibri and the subsequent shift of environment for Antoinette and her family takes a little of their souls with it.

Life in the educational cloister of the Mount Calvary Convent in Spanish Town reflects the stalemate Antoinette experiences spiritually and psychologically. The neat but empty gardens, "paved path(s)", "sometimes a bright bush or flower" (p. 29) is a world away from the exotic tangle of Coulibri. The convent becomes a "refuge, a place of sunshine and death" (p. 31) where Antoinette tries to forget everything, but cannot shake the memory of her mad mother and the way she was betrayed by society and her own family.

She returns to a rejuvenated Coulibri upon her marriage, but the place seems to Rochester to be shrouded in secrecy, the landscape ambiguous, and the unspoken dominant. No one, Antoinette included, will deliberate on the village name "Massacre" near Coulibri and the landscape of the island seems "quite unreal and like a dream" (p. 49). There is something about Coulibri that disturbs Rochester, "Everything (is) too much", "wild and menacing" colours and shapes and landscapes (p. 42). Antoinette, too, is a mystery and, although she tries to hold this in, her story slowly unravels as Rochester discovers the secrets of Coulibri - its strange, secret paths and mysterious history. In this way he discovers that much of Coulibri is hostile, just like Antoinette, who, caught in two minds about her marriage and direction in life, is often suddenly volatile. At one point, Antoinette describes some of the trees in the garden as "lost" and draws a parallel with her own life of loneliness. The sense of loneliness Coulibri exudes scares Rochester, while it is still beautiful to him. There are haunting reflections of Antoinette in this image.

Like a mirroring of Antoinette's madness, Coulibri becomes subject to Rochester's vision of a place ravaged by hurricanes. His thoughts of Coulibri are exactly equivalent to what happens to Antoinette, much of which occurs through his own doing. She too strikes an image of the royal palms he imagines: "Stripped of branches. . . (but) still . . . stand(ing) defiant". She has been battered into submission by his mind games, just as Coulibri stands stripped but defiant in the face of the hurricane months.

Psychologically battered, spiritually desolate, Antoinette is taken to England. The images are bleak: dampness, cold, olive green waters, narrow rooms and blank countryside. When Antoinette sees, her remaining spirit distorts the bleak English environment into the fiery memories of her homeland. Soon she succumbs to this image, drawing her further into madness and the death that is entailed in Jane Eyre.

Antoinette has a close affinity with her environment. She loves most the sensuous beauty of Coulibri. This is ruined for her by Rochester, who makes it just another place in her psyche holding images of betrayal and loss. In this way, she is mirroring her mother's fractured story: she also came to ruin in Coulibri - the place she nevertheless loved - partly by the ignorance of her husband. Coulibri becomes to Antoinette a paradox, at once enticing, a representation of her happiness in childhood, but at the same time provoking the memory of all that has gone awry in her life: the antagonism of the black people; the madness of her mother; the loss of her own happiness through Rochester's misdeeds; and, eventually, the loss of her sanity. As Angela Smith points out in her introduction to the book, Antoinette's tragic story is a doubling of her mother's. With history repeating itself, she is doomed to be driven mad "by the tensions between (Rochester's) assumptions about her and demands on her, and her precarious sense of where she belongs" in her environment.

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