Self-Respect for Antoinette and Jane
In the two (possibly) parallel novels, Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea, the two leading female characters have many things in common. They are both involved romantically and legally with (we think) the same man; they both lived through less-than-ideal childhoods; and they both encounter the same or similar characters throughout the action of their respective stories. But there are also many ways in which they differ. I was mostly interested in the way self-respect plays a role in each woman’s life. While Jane sets goals for herself, that she must reach a point where she can respect herself as a person, Antoinette slowly loses respect for herself without even realizing it.
In Jane Eyre, the title character does more to stand up for herself than does Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. According to the late Mr. Reed, Mrs. Reed was supposed to treat Jane like one of her own (Bronte 21). However, it is clear she favors her own children and goes as far as to specifically dislike Jane. Jane is completely aware of the unfairness of the situation and, at one point, even decides to defend herself against John (5). She is also fully aware of the unfair treatment she and the other girls receive at Lowood and repeatedly makes efforts to point this out to other people she encounters . Jane respects herself enough to realize that being low-class does not condemn her to being mistreated.
Antoinette, in Rhys’s novel, is more docile when facing her situation. She knows that her younger brother Pierre is favored by her mother, but she is not as antagonistic as Jane. Though it hurts even more that her own mother is the one who disowns her (47-48), Antoinette does not act on her feelings but keeps them to herself. She is a daughter of a rich family, but she feels less empowered to speak up for herself than Jane, the orphan cousin and “charity child.” Antoinette is disrespected by others as much as, or perhaps even more than, Jane; but rather than using this to fuel the fire of self-respect, Antoinette sees the way others treat her and begins to think she must deserve it. Her self-respect is slowly peeled away by others; she lives for the people in her life and not herself. She even says to the young Englishman, “Say die and I will die…try, try, say die and watch me die” (92). She puts her life in her husband’s hands; he can literally simply tell her to die and, apparently, she will.
Jane Eyre is driven by a constant desire to make life better for herself; she wants to live a happy life, respect herself, and feel accomplished. Antoinette, on the other hand, is driven to please the others in her life. She tries to be a good child so her parents will like her; for example, she makes a point to kiss her stepfather goodnight when her Aunt Cora tells her to, even though she doesn’t really want to (36). Later in the novel, she does all she can to please her husband, the young Englishman (maybe Rochester, but as we’re never quite sure). When she feels her husband no longer loves her, she goes to her old friend Christophine asking for help in making him love her again (107-114). When Jane feels she can no longer live with the man who lied to her, she leaves (302-306). Ironically, it is Jane’s low social status that allows her to make this choice for herself, and Antoinette’s aristocratic status that prevents her from leaving her husband. In her lowest moments, it is self-preservation and a desperate need for self-respect that keeps Jane Eyre going—perhaps because, for her, self-respect was something she had to work to gain during her lifetime. Antoinette, being the daughter of a wealthy family, was born into self-respect, but proceeds to lose it throughout the novel. She is desperate to make her husband love her and is willing to lower herself in order to do so. Jane insists on keeping her respect for herself even at the cost of Mr. Rochester’s love.
Given they are possibly pining for the same man, it is fascinating to compare the two women. It seems, by the end of Jane Eyre, he has come to grips with the fact that his wife must be an independent woman. In Wide Sargasso Sea, he has yet to learn this vital lesson. Too bad for Antoinette, he learns much later how to love a women who respects herself as a human being.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Bantam Classics, 1981. Print.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966. Print.