The dichotomy of portraying women as either angel or monster is present in many works of literature, including Snow White and Jane Eyre. This categorization of the female existence is a patriarchal means to exploit and silence women. In Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, the supposedly monstrous woman comes in the form of the “mad woman” from Jane Eyre. Although Rhys’s novel portrays a woman as mentally unstable, it diverges from “Snow White” and Jane Eyre because it offers the “monster’s” side of the story and justifies her condition.
In the story of “Snow White”, women are portrayed as either pure or heinous to encourage patriarchal standards of women; the woman portrayed as monstrous even carried the word “evil” in her name. The Evil Queen is a devious woman who plots to kill Snow White out of jealousy for her beauty; she is assertive, and the primary instigator of action in the story. Matching up these traits with an evil woman encourages a patriarchal agenda. The untouched woman in this story is the passive, beautiful, complacent Snow White who lays dead in a coffin as an object of desire for the prince during the main plot to this story. This objectification of Snow White at once dehumanizes her body and glorifies it, thus encouraging women and girls who read this story to imitate this deadening of a vibrant life. The women who attune themselves to patriarchal standards are raised up as pure while those who do not conform to expectation set forth by a male-dominated culture are portrayed as evil.
In Jane Eyre, this angel and monster juxtaposition presents itself in the form of Jane and Bertha. Bertha is the “mad women in the attic”. She is fiery, passionate, and violent, and she is secretly Rochester’s wife. In contrast, Jane is calm, cool, and collected in regards to nearly everything. She is the replacement for a “failed” wife, a new and improved version who does not have outbursts or fits of madness. Jane was indeed progressive in her approaches to love and marriage, but her overall more feminine and favorable nature was what led Rochester to love her over his own wife. While Rochester did have a logical grievance about being tricked into marriage with Bertha, her madness is used as a silencing tool in this novel, rather than an attempt to bring visibility to women struggling with mental health. Bertha has no voice throughout the novel, and she is only allowed to communicate by making animal-like grunts. It is dehumanizing to obliterate this character’s voice, and oppressive to label her mad as the result. She is refused a chance to explain her “madness,” nor are any attempts to understand her made.
The Wide Sargasso Sea responds to the erased voice of the mad women in Jane Eyre by explaining the life of Bertha, whose given name was Antoinette. This novel shows how women are exploited through labels of madness while also sharing the voices of these women as a way to understand their madness. Jean Rhys describes Antoinette’s childhood that involved her brother’s death, the loss of her mother’s sanity, and the towns hatred towards her. These traumatic childhood events move her towards the symptoms of madness. The novel then hints that Rochester, her husband, seems to push her over the edge into full insanity. He becomes very distant to her after receiving hateful letters about her and doesn’t believe her explanations about the rumors he hears. He then sleeps with their servant right next to her while she could hear. He attempts to change her identity to be more English by calling her Bertha. Rochester even makes her despise the one thing she has ever truly loved: the island. He also traps her in his attic with the intention to make her miserable rather than divorcing. This novel shows the steps leading to Antoinette’s madness and even shows Rochester’s own madness. Rochester helped lead her into madness and exploited her for her money. Antoinette’s mother is another example of a women driven to madness and exploited with that label by men. Her mother warned her husband that they had to leave the island for their safety but he wouldn’t listen. This resulted in her parrot and son’s death. She became intensely heartbroken and lost. She was put into care for her mental instability and it is hinted that she is raped by her caretakers. This woman went mad with the help of men who didn’t listen and sexually assaulted her. This novel is unique because it gives the reader a look into the life of Bertha, a woman who was dismissed as crazy and denied a chance to justify her madness. It depicts the same portrayal of mad women seen in Snow White and Jane Eyre but it gives these “mad women” a voice to tell their stories. This voice revealed the injustices that drove them to madness.
Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea contains labeling of mad women as almost inhuman parallel to “Snow White” and Jane Eyre. Even as the Evil Queen in “Snow White” is given a voice, the only words she spits out are laced with hatred or beguilement. However, Rhys’s novel provides a full-bodied version of the oft-denied voice of this perceived other. A voice that tells a story about hardships and injustices practiced against them. A voice that explains that the very men dismissing them as mad are the ones responsible for their madness; Antoinette mourns the life lost to atrocities committed against her, and is still dismissed by her society. The women in “Snow White” and Jane Eyre are puppets in a patriarchal agenda to convince female readers that deviance from the norm will earn them no love, and both the pure and the monstrous are tools used to manipulate women, or are written by women manipulated by this oppression. Jean Rhys does not shy away from stripping the layers back off this abuse to reveal the imperfect insides that all women possess, the beauty that comes with being fully human and female.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press, 1999. Print.
Grant-Schaefer, G. A. (George Alfred), 1872-1939. “Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs : an Operetta in Three Acts, Based on Grimm Brothers’ Tale.” 1938: n. pag. Print.
Rhys, Jean, Judith L. Raiskin, and Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.