“Antoinette is trapped between two cultures, clearly without status, a condition which is clearly linked to her descent into madness”
In light of this view, consider Rhys’ presentation and use of setting in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Isolation is a key theme in wide Sargasso, and Rhys uses setting to allude to this. The Coulibri estate is the epitome of isolation with the road between them and the Spanish town is described as “very bad”. This is a metaphor for the loneliness of Coulibri and the degradation that the area is under after the Emancipation Act of 1833. Rhys is stressing how the Act had affected the life of the Creoles as “road repairing was now a thing of the past”. The road could perhaps be symbolic of the interaction between Creoles and the local black population, which is now non-existent. Antoinette’s lack of a cultural identity is clearly emphasized by her relationship with Tia; whom she struggles to relate to especially on the themes of money, as both girls have lived very different economic lives. Money interrupts their supposed blossoming friendship and results in Antoinette calling Tia a “cheating nigger”. Rhys’ use of such vulgar language further emphasizes the cultural and racial differences between the two characters. This also reminds us how much of an influence the adult world has on children.
Once Rhys establishes the difference between Antoinette and the black community, she then goes about demonstrating the difference between Antoinette and the white English through the use of the wedding that Rhys describes soon after her argument with Tia. Antoinette admits that she “hides from them” when they visit Coulibri. Rhys highlights the fear the Antoinette feels to further emphasize the divisions between her and her ancestors from England. The fear of the outside world could perhaps also be linked to her time in England where she never really was allowed to become accustomed to the social norms of the country, clearly linked to Antoinette’s descent into madness.
The death of Annette’s horse, who had been “poisoned”, was the Cosway’s last mode of transport from Coulibri to civilisation. Annette laments: “now we are marooned”; the feeling of hopelessness and segregation could perhaps be foreshadowing Antoinette’s decline into insanity later in the novel, where she is locked away from society by Rochester. The use of the word “marooned” further emphasises the sense of exile from society that the Creoles feel. Stephanie Courtney concluded that “through social ostracism, legal restrictions and negative verbal labeling, the society dominated by male colonizers seeks to confuse the Creole woman’s notion of self, thereby conquering not only a class of people, but also the threat that individuals such as Antoinette pose to socially constructed norms involving race and gender.” The locals’ hate of their past oppressors is understandable, but the Creoles are also unsavoury in the eyes of the white Europeans, seen as blemished from their time in the Caribbean. The death of the horse, a symbol for power, represents the final slide into the paralysis of isolation.
Although the Coulibri estate was linked to Antoinette’s entrapment, the burning down of the house also symbolises the final destruction of any sort of cultural relationship that she had. This could also be foreshadowing the burning down at Thornfield the end of the novel. Like Coulibri, Thornfield is a place of entrapment and the burning down should symbolise freedom but instead it just destroys her last fragment of identity, eventually resulting in her death. After Coulibri is destroyed, Rhys uses temporary locations to further stress her detachment from society. She stays at her aunt’s house, and the thing she is told is that her hair “had to be cut”. The use of such as strong statement shows that she is still trapped even after such a liberating event such as the burning down of her metaphorical prison. The fact that this is the first thing she hears is Rhys reminding the reader that Antoinette cannot be freed by a purely physical action, alluding to the inevitable madness that will develop as the novel goes on.
Rhys creates Coulibri as the epitome of entrapment. Theoretically, it being burned down should be a liberating moment, but by continuing to culturally confine Antoinette, she stresses the extent of emotional discord that lives in her mind. This is a clear indication of the insanity that will mature in the mind of the protagonist.