Dreams as Bridges in Wide Sargasso Sea
While getting to know a character in a novel, sometimes it is difficult to picture a character with more complexity than the limited image the worlds of the novel paint of them. In Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, we are able to imagine the life Bertha Mason of the novel Jane Eyre (or Antoinette Mason nee Cosway, as Rhys as renamed her) might have lived in the Caribbean before being brought to England and ultimately before being locked away in Edward Rochester’s attic. (Of course, Jean Rhys openly states that her fictional English man is not Rochester.) She is a strange girl from her youth, although she is exceptionally perceptive despite her incomplete sense of self-awareness. She is suspicious of things that happen around her, but she is also naive enough to accept most circumstances without putting up a fight. She wants deeply to be loved, but she inhabits a place that does not allow her to be truly accepted by anyone; she lives in the awkward space between white and black, between English (and Caribbean) and African, between loyalty and duplicity, and between dreams and reality. Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of her life are her dreams (I will, in this post, focus on the first two dreams). Her dreams serve as not only bridges between her subconscious and reality, but between the alternate universe of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.
The language of Wide Sargasso Sea is itself often dream-like, making the reader unsure if the events of the book (even the non-dreams) are really happening or if they are the result of the character’s instability. Antoinette, an often isolated girl, has a very active imagination from the beginning. Her first dream, which begins after her friend Tia’s traitorous behavior towards her, is vague and menacing: “I dreamed that I was walking in the forest. Not alone. Someone who hated me was with me, out of sight. I could hear heavy footsteps coming closer and though I struggled and screamed I could not move.” Antoinette, ever the perceptive child, can sense there are enemies and other things to fear in her life. As the reader can tell from this first dream, though, she does not yet understand what it is she fears, or how to prevent herself from becoming hurt. In this early period of her youth, her dreams serve as a bridge between her subconscious and reality, presenting her emotional turmoil to her in a way that increase her awareness without drawing the attention of those around her.
Antoinette’s second dream, which occurs after she is informed she must leave the convent she has spent her adolescence in, begins, “Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen.” Antoinette is clearly afraid and suspicious of the situation she has found herself in, yet she does not wish to fight it. This dream is clearly meant to foreshadow the appearance of the “young English gentleman” in Antoinette’s life, as well as their doomed yet inevitable marriage.
The dream continues: “Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. ‘Here?’ He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. ‘Not here, not yet,’ he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress.” The dream continues to foreshadow future events: the unhappy honeymoon location in Massacre, her future husband’s dislike and eventual disdain for her, her misery at not receiving the love she so desperately seeks, and the abusive sexual dominance her future husband will have over her.
The second dream is not over yet, though, and it continues: “We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, ‘It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.’ I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. ‘Here, in here,’ a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.” In the end, Antoinette’s subconscious foreshadows even her passage to England, and her confinement in the Attic. Her dreams at this point in her life serve as a bridge between Bertha in Jane Eyre and Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Antoinette’s desire for love and her often incomplete sense of self-awareness keep her from heeding her dreams in a way that could change the tragic outcome of her life. This portrayal of her is, ultimately, a perfect explanation of (or a perfect addition to) the image of Bertha Mason painted in Charlotte Bronte’s novel.