In the novels Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the theme of loss can be viewed as an umbrella that encompasses the absence of independence, society or community, love, and order in the lives of the two protagonists. They deal with their hardships in diverse ways. However, they both find ways to triumph over their losses and regain their independence.
The women in both novels endure a loss of personal freedom, both mental, and physical. Jane Eyre, in her blind infatuation with Mr. Rochester, allows her emotions to enslave her. She realizes her obsession when she states, “My future husband was becoming to me my whole world; and more than the world: almost my hope of heaven. He stood between me and every thought of religion, as an eclipse intervenes between man and the broad sun. I could not, in those days, see God for his creature: of whom I had made an idol” (Bronte 241). By design, Rochester seduces Antoinette and deliberately makes her depend on him. Christophine, Antoinette’s servant, in a conversation with Rochester accusingly contends “you make love to her till she drunk with it, no rum could make her drunk like that, till she can’t do without it. It’s she can’t see the sun any more. Only you she see. But all you want is to break her up (Rhys 153). After becoming totally enslaved by her feelings for him, Rochester adds insult to injury by physically abusing Antoinette. Her complete and total love for Mr. Rochester, who is passionless and devoid of any empathy, causes her to lose her mind. She realizes her mistake in marrying this cold, calculating man and vehemently states, “You see. That’s how you are. A stone. But it serves me right” (Rhys 148). Jane and Antoinette’s uninhibited desire to please those whom they love becomes detrimental to their peace of mind. Jane does everything she can to please St. John, her cousin, which ends with her completely paying no heed to her own thoughts and feelings. She realizes her dependence on his opinion, declaring “As for me, I daily wished more to please him: but to do so, I felt daily more and more that I must disown half of my nature, stifle half my faculties, wrest my tastes from their original bent, force myself to the adoption of pursuits for which I had no natural vocation. He wanted to train me to an elevation I could never reach; it racked me hourly to aspire to the standard he uplifted ” (Bronte). In her search for approval, Antoinette utilizes a voodoo potion to try and force Rochester to love her, which makes him despise her more than ever. He accuses Christophine of acting for Antoinette when he insists “You tried to poison me” (Rhys 153). Both Jane and Antoinette are prisoners of their intense feelings for the man they adore, leaving them open to pain and betrayal.
Jane’s foster family, the Reeds, restrict her rights, refusing to treat her as an equal to the other members of the family. Jane, at a mere eight years old, is chastised by Mrs. Abbott, the nanny, who asserts, “you are less than a servant, for you do nothing for your keep” (Bronte 11). When Rochester imprisons Antoinette in England, he deprives her of any sense of humanity. The people in their lives who yielded power over them unjustly repressed both women.
Jane and Antoinette are both ostracized by their respective communities as a direct result of their social positions. Jane is an orphan with no money and no close relatives. Although she is clearly a bright and unique girl, she is treated as an outcast due to her orphan status. She refuses to accept their low opinion of her however, and maintains “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God, sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad–as I am now”, illustrating her desire to persevere through the difficult times in her life (Bronte 279). Antoinette is in a similar position due to her status as a white Creole woman. She describes herself as a white cockroach, and she goes on to explain “That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all”, which illustrates her position in a type of social purgatory (Rhys 102).
As the novels progress, the women’s lives slowly begin to lose all sense of stability. When Antoinette is sent to live in a convent, her thoughts gradually devolve into random and cryptic statements, a direct outcome of the loss of a stable, secure life. The loss of her coherence is evident in the statement “Italy is white pillars and green water. Spain is hot sun on stones, France is a lady with black hair and a white dress because Louise was born in France fifteen years ago, and my mother, whom I must forget and pray for as though she were dead, though she is living, liked to dress in white” (Rhys 55). Likewise, when Jane finds that Rochester lied to her about his marital status, her distress is evident as she says, “I was in my own room as usual–just myself without obvious change: nothing had smitten me, or scathed me, or maimed me…Jane Eyre, who has been an ardent, expectant woman–almost a bride–was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale; her prospects were desolate…I looked at my love…it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle…Mr. Rochester was not to me what he had been, for he was not what I had thought him. I would not ascribe vice to him; I would not say he had betrayed me but the attribute of stainless truth was gone from his idea; and from his presence I must go, that I perceived well” (Bronte 260). This event turns her entire life upside down and changes all of her expectations for the future.
The relationships the protagonists experience slowly break down over time, adding to overall feeling of decay within the novels. When Antoinette’s brother Pierre dies due to the house fire, her mother loses her mind. Antoinette goes to visit her and when she embraces her mother, she “flung me from her. I fell against the partition and hurt myself” (Rhys 48). Although Jane admires her cousin St. John, she rejects his proposal for a loveless marriage of convenience. She finally stands up to his indomitable will, saying “‘I scorn your idea of love,’ I could not help saying, as I rose up and stood before him, leaning my back against the rock. ‘I scorn the counterfeit sentiment you offer: yes, St. John, and I scorn you when you offer it'” (Bronte 359). Jane similarly leaves Rochester when she finds out about his deceit. When Antoinette realizes Rochester does not love her, she scorns him, saying “my mother whom you all talk about, what justice did she have? My mother sitting in the rocking chair speaking about dead horses and dead grooms and a black devil kissing her sad mouth. Like you kissed mine” (Rhys 147).
Although the two women are fundamentally different people, they face many similar challenges throughout their lives. Jane and Antoinette respond to each type of loss they experience differently, and these choices ultimately demonstrate Jane’s inner strength and Antoinette’s inherent vulnerability, resulting in two very different endings, one happy and the other tragic.