In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette seems to be trapped her own version of the Sargasso Sea, the body of water referenced in the title. The Sargasso Sea is located in the middle region of the Atlantic Ocean and is the only sea in the world that is defined by currents as opposed to land boundaries. The currents in the Sargasso Sea move in a continuous, cyclic pattern. Sargassum, a free-floating seaweed, is found throughout the Sargasso Sea and is the reason for its name. In the novel, Antoinette appears to be trapped in a never-ending cycle, a characteristic of the Sargasso Sea. Like her mother, Antoinette eventually goes insane when she becomes unable to cope with negative obstacles in her life, reliving some of the experiences of her mother’s unfortunate destiny. The abundant sargassum in the Sargasso Sea is also a representation of the racial problems that trap Antoinette. Since Antoinette is a creole, she is not purely English or purely Jamaican, leading her to remain tied to both countries while being stuck between the two because she does not particularly belong to either, like the sea itself. The discrimination she faces in the novel, which is representative of the sargassum in the sea, is what prevents her from identifying with either country. The people of the Caribbean call her a “white cockroach” and the English call her a “white nigger.” The juxtaposition of these two characterizations of Antoinette demonstrate that she is unable to find a place where she fits in since she cannot fully associate with either. Figuratively, the Sargasso Sea is what traps Antoinette in this recurring cycle of insanity and prevents her from experiencing a sense of belonging to either the Caribbean or England, which is why the title is so significant.
Antoinette’s damaging experiences throughout her life are a detriment to her character. As a child, Antoinette recognizes that her mother is a woman who depends on a man’s affection for satisfaction. It was not until Antoinette’s mother remarried that her mother began to emerge from her state of depression and act like herself again. Yet, the burning of their house of Coulibri, the death of her son Pierre, and the leaving of her husband compromised Antoinette’s mother’s sanity. Although Antoinette is cognizant of her the experiences that drove her mom to madness, Antoinette tries to break the cycle and remain composed in the face of difficulty but is met with a similar fate. Like her mother, Antoinette relies on her husband for happiness and yearns for her husband’s affection. Although she continues to try to tell her husband, Rochester, that she was always “happy in the mornings” and that every day was a “fresh day” for her, Rochester still associates Antoinette with her mother and believes that she will ultimately become insane like her (Rhys 118). Rochester’s infidelity and Antoinette’s inability to connect with him physically and emotionally affect her like the events that compromised her mother’s mental health. Antoinette becomes an alcoholic and loses her sense of self, just like her mother. By the end of the novel, Antoinette is “tied to a lunatic for life – a drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way,” just like Rochester had predicted (149). Antoinette will forever be connected with her mother and be unable to break the cycle, which is why she will be trapped, figuratively, in the Sargasso Sea, a tumultuous cycle that leads to insanity.
The sargassum that fills the Sargasso Sea represents the racial constraints that prevent Antoinette from identifying with England or the Caribbean. Due to the color of her white skin, Antoinette was unable to connect with the colored people on the island where she was raised. Even though Antoinette was a creole, the people on the island viewed her differently because she was partially European. She was referred to as a “white cockroach,” and could not maintain a friendship with her colored “friend,” Tia. The unbridled hostility Antoinette receives from the colored people on the island demonstrates Antoinette’s inability to identify with those on the island. Due to Antoinette’s mixed heritage, she is fully unable to identify with the English either. When Antoinette’s mother saw her spending time with Tia and growing up like a “white nigger,” her mother became ashamed of her for not embracing the white race. As her life progresses, Antoinette’s mixed descent is one of the reasons Rochester is unable to love her. The discrimination Antoinette was subjected to by both whites and people of color is represented by the sargassum that traps Antoinette. Antoinette recognizes this dilemma and even questions her white heritage when she states that people “tell [her she is English] but [she does] not believe them” (162). As a result, Antoinette is entangled in the sargassum of the Sargasso Sea by the racial limitations imposed on her by the people of the Caribbean and the English, which is why she fails to fully identify with either race.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.