because I'm really a Savage Individualist.
--Rhys (Letters 275)
Jean Rhys's presentation of the post-Emancipation Jamaican setting of Wide Sargasso Sea as one of despair subverts a conventional, progressive conception of history: that the end of slavery marked a triumph of goodwill over vicious greed and a spiritual and ethical advance for mankind. In the novel, the locus of despondency is Antoinette, for whom the Abolition of Slavery Act means the deaths of her immediate family members. As the Imperial Abolition of Slavery changes the political status of the West Indies from British protectorates to colonies, Antoinette suffers a childhood without protection and an adulthood of cultural and gender oppression. From Antoinette's perspective, the liberation the New English bring both rips away safety and imposes new, repressive social controls. While laying out the psychic costs for Antoinette, Rhys wages a broader, anti-Enlightenment critique of European, masculinist rationalism, objectivism, and liberalism. In Rhys's defiant vision, sex and violence drive human behavior, and women's profound differences from men further defy the basic assumptions of humanism. Sexual difference marks a radically alternate relationship to power, language, and meaning. Rhys's experiments to forge a new discourse to accommodate this relationship are fierce. The resulting troubled and troubling narrative world challenges readers to accept truly disturbing and widely offensive extended metaphors of femininity and the primitive, of Africa and unbridled sexuality, of sadomasochism and historical slavery, of black-on-white rape and emancipation, and of violence and sexual liberation. Through these difficult analogies, Rhys plays with the meanings of "slavery" and "freedom" to suggest, audaciously, that the Abolition of Slavery was emblematic of a civilizing force the world was better off without.
European women as bonded slaves is one of the most pivotal of these metaphors. Protesting not a lack of women's rights but a set of European expectations for Creoles. Rhys ironically borrows the Enlightenment analogy of women's subjugation and chattel slavery. In its revision of Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea highlights Charlotte Bronte's use of the eighteenth-century, bourgeois, feminist, woman/slave analogy that Mary Wollstonecraft made famous. As Wollstonecraft frames the comparison, women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent" (5). In contrast to Bronte's heroine, Jane, Rhys's Antoinette is "slave-like" for the very reasons Wollstonecraft isolates: vanity, sexual proclivity, uncultivated reason, inadequate education, and undeveloped virtue. Wollstonecraft opines. "An immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure, for sway, are the passions of savages; the passions that occupy those uncivilized beings who have not yet extended the dominion of the mind, or even learned to think with the energy necessary to concatenate that abstract train of thought which produces principles" (187). In her unbridled sexuality, propensity for gazing in the mirror, disregard for facts and abstract principles, and fetishization of her red dress, Antoinette is virtually a composite of the women Wollstonecraft warns against and against whom Bronte created her plain, independent, morally-virtuous heroine. Rhys changes none of the terms of Bronte's madwoman. She remains beautiful,...