To be able to discuss adequately how the master narratives of Bronte and Rhys' time are revised, one must first understand what those master narratives were and what the social mood of the time was. From there one will be able to discuss how they were revised, and if in fact they were revised at all. Bronte is known as one of the first revolutionary and challenging authoress' with her text Jane Eyre. The society of her time was male dominated, women were marginally cast aside and treated as trophies for their male counterparts. Their main role in life was to be a mother and a wife, " Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life... the more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it." A quote from a letter Robert Southey wrote to Bronte.
A clear sign of the mentality and opposition Bronte was up against. A woman's "proper duties" of course being to tend and wait on her "master's" every whim and need. Women during Bronte's time had no clear voice, none that was of any merit, they were a silent category of society, silenced by their male oppressors. Bronte's book was in fact written before the first women's rights movement had happened, yet it puts forward an image of an independent strong character, of a passionate and almost rebellious nature.
A character "refusing subservience, disagreeing with her superiors, standing up for her right's, and venturing creative thoughts." I put forward that Bronte throughout her text not only revises the themes of male power and oppression, but reconstructs them also. The text is a female bildungsroman of it's time, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly tackling the patriarchal view of women. Immediately from the start Bronte's character Jane is different. She is an orphan, mis-treated and despised by her family. She has no clear social position, is described as "less than a servant" and treated like one. A protagonist who one would assume had no characteristics worth aspiring too.
Jane is displayed perfectly in her hiding behind the curtain. She is placed by a window, which beyond is icy and cold, contrasting immensely from the inside of the fire and warmth. A clear statement of the icy coldness of the family she has been put to live with, and her fiery and passionate nature which we discover throughout the book. Children were very much taught to be seen and not heard in Bronte's time, so for a young girl to be so volatile and passionate would immediately have been deemed by society as a trouble maker.
Any sign of deviancy would be punished by the patriarchal system of that time, especially that of a deviant girl. As the patriarch was entirely male, the oppression of the female gender was swift and harsh. At Lowood Jane ultimately has to conform to the rules and regulations of the male domination to exist and live. Here she becomes a "quiet... disciplined and subdued character." This time in Jane's life, brings up questions and queries into whether Bronte does in fact revise master narratives, which I will look at later on. Throughout the course of the text this female character pulls herself up from no social standing to somebody with a wealthy inheritance, eventually marrying the man she loves under her conditions, without having to compromise her beliefs or herself.
Jane's relationship with Rochester is a key element of Bronte's revising the master narrative. She of course falls in love with Rochester whilst she is a member of his staff, she has no independence of her own, whether that be financial or otherwise. She ends up fleeing Thornfield, for despite her love of Rochester, she wants to be equal, and knows he ultimately wants to 'master' her. A sign of what a typical Victorian marriage was like, in which the woman would submit to the man and obey his orders. Bronte dissects this notion, as Jane does eventually return to Thornfield, but only when Rochester himself suffers injuries and is stripped of his independence. She not only comes back and is able to be the eyes for Rochester, but she comes back with her newly found financial independence and equality.
"Reader, I married him!" A clear dig at the Victorian view of marriage. It wasn't women that married men, it was men that married women! And certainly had there never been seen an equal marriage, or even really a marriage based on 'love' in previous literature. Jane herself said "I suppose your love will effervesce in six months or less. I have observed in books written by men, that period assigned as the furthest to which a husband's ardor extends." One could view Jane Eyre as a 'Cinderella story'. A girl falling in love, and moving from pauper to princess, and claiming the prince. Even the characters in Jane Eyre could be compared to Cinderella, a popular story during Bronte's time.
Aunt Reed likened to the infamous step-mother, Rochester her Prince. Bronte even seems to pick up on references from Cinderella, one being as Jane left the party at Thornfield, she noticed her "sandal was loose" adjusted it, and rose to see Rochester. Easily linked to Cinderella loosing her slipper in the fairytale, and that being the key to the prince finding her. Once viewed in this light, the question of whether Bronte does in fact revise any master narratives can be brought up. Lowood is crucial in the analysis of this suggestion, here, as I spoke before, she becomes 'disciplined and subdued', the opposite of the fiery strong character we have come to view her as.
Is it possible that Jane Eyre is not in fact as ground breaking as suggested? During her time at Lowood she is forced to submit to the social norms, she can not be outrageous or too fiery here, for she will surely be punished. Her refusal to be Rochester's "mistress" could be nothing more than, because socially it would be deemed wrong for her to live with a married man, then she too believed it to be wrong. Intrinsically instilled in her are values and morals of her society, of Bronte's society, which are ultimately created and enforced by men, the dominator's of the status quo. Her use of the word "master" towards Rochester at the end revises no master narratives, the fact that she can only marry Rochester once she has come into money, does not suggest a revised master narrative. The protagonist still marries, still has to be of a certain status to marry, and still ends up submitting to her husband in the use of the phrase 'master'. Agreeably Bronte is daring in her ideas, she revises the narratives of women as weak, vulnerable characters, only judged on their beauty.
And provides a strong, independent female, who knows what she wants, and amazingly, despite all the odds, gets it. All at the expense it could be argued of Bertha, Rochester's first wife, who as a female is completely silenced. Wide Sargasso Sea not only revises Jane Eyre, it, like Jane Eyre, challenges the views of the time. It confronts the racist views of Bronte's era, and the fairy tale feminist view that is provided in Jane Eyre, that also lingers in today's century. Written during the second big feminist movement, the undercurrent of the book poignantly suggests women simply can't have everything, they have to loose out on one part of their life. Jean Rhys immediately revises Jane Eyre, by giving Bertha a voice.
The character who was not so much a living person, as a ghost like, demonic influence in Bronte's book, is given a background, a history, and a story by Rhys, which alters the light in which we read Jane Eyre forever more. Wide Sargasso Sea is written in first person narrative, yet by many different characters. Rhys brings to light the single subjectivity of a white Jane Eyre and magnifies the many voices of her text. Clearly making a point that you can never hear a story from one person's perspective, specifically one white woman's perspective. One of the most important images in Wide Sargasso Sea is I believe, when Colibri is burnt down. As important as the fire and the imagery behind the fire is, my focus is based more on a small act whilst the family are still in the house.
Antoinette's mother "was twisting her hands together, her wedding ring fell off and rolled into a corner near the steps." The wedding ring is a very physical symbol of marriage for all to see. A life long commitment. The loss of a wedding ring, or the act of taking it off, can be seen as the loss and destruction of the institution of marriage. In one small action Rhys has made a clear statement.
The institution that in Jane Eyre is so keenly looked up to, aspired to almost, and held with such respect, is here unraveled in one action. The ring is in fact never picked up again because the fire breaks out in the back of the house and the attention is diverted. The matter of life or death distracts the characters from the symbol of marriage and monogamy. Something that one could argue was the main focus in Jane Eyre. Marriage continues to be a negative end in Wide Sargasso Sea. Annette, Antoinette's mother, appears to marry to try and claw her way out of a terrible social standing.
Believing a man will help her to escape the stigma of her skin colour that has been attached to her. Antoinette herself, although she is the financially sound spouse, as soon as she marries Rochester, is not given a voice. Her whole identity is taken away from her, signified very clearly by Rochester giving her a new name because he simply didn't like her other one. The narrative of Rochester takes over, and it is only his view of what she says that we are given.
Only when she begins to unravel herself is she given a voice again. In her madness she is allowed to speak. It appears Rhys is portraying marriage as a dependence on men, which only leads to chaos and madness. The female looses her identity, her voice, and ultimately her sanity.
Both Jane Eyre and Antoinette have fiery, passionate characters. Antoinette like Jane Eyre, is taught at a convent that femininity and womanhood is to be polite and mild mannered. The two de Plana sisters at the convent are praised for "they sit so poised and imperturbable." Here once again is another example of Rhys' revision. Whereas Jane does become quiet and mild mannered, almost loosing her fiery character all together. Antoinette does not, Rhys keeps her as an impassioned outspoken female. The consequences of this are indeed she is locked up and driven 'mad', but she doesn't loose her character like Jane.
With one final blow to Rochester and his authority, she burns down his house, and the symbol of her confinement. Completely contradictory to Bronte, Rhys is saying you either marry and loose yourself, or you keep yourself and are crushed by male authority. It is not possible to have everything. In an era where women were beginning to have full time jobs, bring children up, be a wife, and keep time for their selves, this is revolutionary, almost offensive. The character of Rochester is even brought into question, for if the barbarian that is displayed in Wide Sargasso Sea, is that of Jane Eyre, then how could he ever be somebody's everything? His character is portrayed as one of dictatorial, rude, selfish and arrogant, things that surely can not change. Rhys draws a shadow over whether Jane Eyre really has ended up with everything, suggesting maybe in reality she traded in herself for somebody she does not truly know.
Both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are ground breaking novels of their time. They both revise aspects of their era, that would rarely, if ever, have been touched on. Wide Sargasso Sea having the double revision of challenging Jane Eyre, as well as social beliefs. "The devices that connect the two texts also rupture the boundary between them.
Although this rupture completes Rhys' text, it results in a breakdown of the integrity of Bronte's." As much as Bronte's text was revolutionary of her time, so too was Rhys'. Time changed and what was once revolutionary became simplified and unbelievable. The fact remains, that without Jane Eyre, there would be no Wide Sargasso Sea, the two text's are mutually exclusive, and just as revolutionary now as when they were written. -Gordon, Lynda ll, Charlotte Bronte: A passionate life. (London: Vintage, 1995) -Margaret McFadden - Gerber, Ed Frank N Magill, Critical Evaluation, Master plots, Vol 6, (1996) -Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin: First Published 1847) -Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, (London: Penguin: 1966) -Ellen G Friedman, Breaking the Master Narrative: Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, in Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Princeton University Press, 1989,.