‘Dear Father. The thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition…I have a modest competence now. I will no longer be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love…I have sold my soul or you have sold it.’
-Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, p.39.
In Jean Rhys’ novella Wide Sargasso Sea, relationships between parents and children are shown to be entirely unhealthy, leading to warped perceptions of the self and oppressive monopolisation of the impressionable children. Ultimately, relationships between parents and children in Wide Sargasso Sea are entirely governed by patriarchal social codes. Rochester is used as pawn by his father, who rejects him due to the feudal codes of primogeniture. As a result, he finds himself essentially traded into a marriage, as well as his personality and moral centre being warped and moulded by his experiences; it is his unhealthy relationship with his father that forms the basis of his treatment of Antoinette.
Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with his father stems from his father’s patriarchal adherence to primogeniture, the idea of ‘the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, especially the feudal rule by which the whole real estate of an interstate is passed to the eldest son.’2 Rochester’s position as the second born son leaves him penniless; as Spivak comments, ‘Rhys makes it clear that he is a victim of the patriarchal inheritance law of entailment…’3 However, unable to endure the idea that ‘a son of his should be a poor man’4, Rochester’s father ‘sought me [Rochester] a partner betimes’5. In Rhys’ use the verb ‘sought’, the idea of Rochester’s inferiority to patriarchy and his father is first introduced; in his father’s seeking of a bride, Rochester is forced to play the role ‘sought’ by his father. In essence, Rochester is treated as a pawn in order to gain further social position, his relationship with his father being little more than a relationship of transaction. This is most clearly shown in Rochester’s first letter to his father after the marriage:
‘Dear Father. The thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition…I have a modest competence now. I will no longer be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love…I have sold my soul or you have sold it.’ (p.39)
The language of transaction is paramount within this letter; the use of the terms ‘paid’ and ‘sold’ suggesting Rochester’s inferiority and to his father, as furthered in the idea of his father’s selling of his sons soul for money and status. Moreover, the transactional language connotes greatly to a semantic field of slavery; just like a slave, Rochester is owned by his father, and therefore the patriarchal society that his father embodies. In this way, Rochester’s own journey can very much be seen as mimicking the Middle Passage, this being ‘the part of the [slave] trade where Africans, densely packed onto ships, were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies.’7 Despite travelling to the West Indies in luxury, Rochester is basically transported and sold to the West Indies by his father to an uncertain fate. In order to keep his father happy, Rochester carries out his wishes; ‘…it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry. When at least I met her I bowed, smiled. Kissed her hand, danced with her. I played the part I was expected to play’ (p.44). The latter phrase emphasises Rochester’s pawn-like status; he is nothing but a game piece monopolised by his overbearing and ‘avaricious, grasping’8 father. It is this unhealthy relationship with his father that sculpts Rochester into a patriarchal emblem; Rochester, like his father, comes to embody rigid nineteenth-century social codes, later on using them to lock up and dominate his wife, Antoinette. As Purdue and Floyd argue, ‘Rochester represents patriarchy that births patriarchy as an unbroken chain’9; ultimately, his fractured and volatile relationship with his father warps his morality- for him, oppression and transactional relationships are acceptable and normal. As Rochester himself remarks, ‘how old was I when I learned to hide what I felt? A very small boy. Six, five, even earlier. It was necessary, I was told, and that view I have always accepted’ (p.63). It is clear then that Rochester’s unhealthy relationship with his father thus leads to his internalising of ‘male-dominance ideology’ and ‘blind obedience to…cruel social rules’ that ‘result[s] in his tragic marriage life’10, as well as his oppressive attitude towards Antoinette. Rochester and his relationship with his father, therefore, acts as a clear example of the flawed and unhealthy relationships between parents and children within Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.
Featured Image: Illustration by Edmund Henry Garrett, as created for the publisher Bernhard Tauchnitz’s 1850 edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.
1. Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/primogeniture [Accessed 24th March 2018).
2. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Enquiry, Vol.12 (1985), pp. 243-261, p.251. Available at http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/pg/masters/modules/femlit/gayatri_spivak_three_womens_texts_and_a_critique_of_imperialism.pdf [Accessed 20th March 2018].
3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin, 2006), p.351.
4. Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.351.
5. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Penguin, 2000), p.39. All further references to Rhys’ text are to this edition, and page numbers will be presented parenthetically.
6. ‘The Middle Passage’, The Abolition Project (2009). Available at: http://abolition.e2bn.org/slavery_44.html [Accessed 22nd March 2018].
7. Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.351.
8. Melissa Purdue and Stacey Floyd, New Woman Writers, Authority and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), p.104.
9. Yang Shuang-Ju, ‘A Feminist Study of Rochester in Jane Eyre’, Sino-US English Teaching, Vol.9 (2012), pp. 1258-1263, p. 1260.
Written by Steph Reeves
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.