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“There is always the other side…”: The “Other Women” of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

« Il y a toujours une autre version des faits… » : les « autres femmes » de Jane Eyre
Patricia Gott
p. 49-63


Si Jane Eyre de  Charlotte Brontë se lit essentiellement comme un  roman qui recèle un secret en son cœur, le propos de Wide Sargasso Sea  de Jean Rhys et de Rebecca de Daphné Du Maurier est en partie de  dévoiler les strates qui enveloppent ce secret pour atteindre la  vérité que contient Jane Eyre. Alors que Rhys et Du Maurier comblent  les lacunes dans l’histoire de la première épouse, apportant des  informations auxquelles Brontë se contente de faire allusion quand  elle décrit le secret de Rochester ― l’existence d’Antoinette / Bertha  Mason la folle―, les lecteurs éprouvent des sentiments variés face à  ces exemples apparemment innombrables de connivence entre les trois  romans. Juxtaposer ces trois textes pour les lire comme un ensemble permet une interprétation plus riche et plus complexe par le  biais du syncrétisme qui se met en place.

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Texte intégral

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—
Surpassing Material Place—
Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.
– Emily Dickinson.

1If Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre reads essentially as a novel with a secret embedded deep within its core, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca are about exposing the layers surrounding this secret to reach the truth that resides within Jane Eyre. The unmasking of this secret involves ripping off the facade of dissimulation surrounding the characters of Edward Rochester and Maxim De Winter, so that their silenced first wives, Antoinette and Rebecca, can tell their stories, and Antoinette’s plaintive dictum, “There is always the other side, always” (77) can be realized. Besides illuminating the myriad parallels that inform the fates of the three heroines as they move from freedom to imprisonment and back again, I will comment on the archetypal nature of the metaphors of female captivity and empowerment that interweave their way through these timeless texts.

2Early in the process of researching and thinking about these three novels, it becomes readily apparent that, while Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are most often discussed together, comparisons to Rebecca are made far less frequently, most likely because it is regarded primarily as a romantic thriller and has therefore not been deemed canon-worthy. The dismissive attitude expressed by Angela Carter in her comment that Rebecca “shamelessly reduplicated the plot” of Jane Eyre (quoted in Horner and Zlosnik 162) represents the sorts of disparaging critical stances held toward this work. Rebecca arguably produces the most visceral reaction of the three texts, considering the extremely negative light in which the eponymous first wife is depicted. Joyce Millman indicates that this thriller continues to resonate with contemporary readers precisely because it deals so nicely with the “buried junk in our psyches” (“Rebecca Without Ghosts”). Whatever the reason for ignoring this third text, it becomes increasingly clear that Rebecca varies the formula in some very intriguing and disturbing respects.

  • 1  As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have famously noted, several critics have interpreted Rochester’ (...)

3For the reader unfamiliar with these texts, it may be worthwhile to enumerate some of the more obvious parallels between the works. In Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Nina Auerbach identifies three main areas Du Maurier lifted from Charlotte Brontë: “Jane Eyre is, like Rebecca, a class romance, the first-person narrative of a poor working girl, whose moody employer falls in love with her. Like Maxim, Brontë’s Rochester is hag-ridden by a first wife, the secret of whose demonic existence he alone knows.” (This last point can easily be disputed, as Rochester has engineered a small conspiracy to conceal the fact that he has already has a wife even as Jane becomes increasingly agitated by the mysterious screams echoing through the caverns of Thornfield Hall). Finally, Auerbach adds a third basis for comparison: ”Like Maxim’s Manderley, Rochester’s Thornfield burns down at the end, leaving its owner crippled and diminished, but a husband at last” (117)1.

4Other aspects of the text provide examples that stand as almost complete borrowing. An indelible sense of place permeates Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea in particular; however, all three novelists employ profuse instances of natural imagery that contribute to the moody tone and function as extreme examples of foreshadowing. While the sea does not function as a living, active presence in Jane Eyre, its influence as plot device and primal symbol is vast in Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea. The sea literally subsumes Rebecca as it becomes her final resting place, and it also figuratively subsumes Antoinette, as she is carried off to her cold incarceration after crossing from the sultry Caribbean islands to arrive in damp England. The geographical intersection between the three writers is startling: several of Du Maurier’s books, including Rebecca, were inspired by the years the author spent living in Cornwall which in the 1930’s, “was already well established as a site of romantic sublimity and this allowed [Du Maurier] to make a connection between her own relocation and her admiration for the Brontës” (“Du Maurier, Daphne”). Coincidentally (or perhaps not), Rhys was living in North Cornwall during the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea, according to her biographer Carol Angier (475).  One wonders about the influence which the setting had on Rhys’s state of mind during the painstaking and laborious writing process of what she regarded as her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea.

5This tangible relation to place helps explain why in Wide Sargasso Sea especially, and Rebecca, to a lesser extent, the natural world takes center stage. Often it is described in overpowering terms, such as the garden path in Rebecca which disappears in the underbrush after the burning of Manderley, or the controlling metaphor of the choking weeds of the Sargasso Sea, an allusion to yet another text, Ezra Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme,” with its immortal line, “Your mind and you are our Wide Sargasso Sea.” The forest Rochester describes in Wide Sargasso Sea acts as a metaphor for the impending loss of self that he believes will blot out his Englishness, which, to his mind, equates to a superior civilization than Antoinette’s Creole ancestry and island upbringing. While the natural world is featured less starkly in Jane Eyre, it is highly significant in one of the more dramatic scenes which underscores the turning point of the novel. The cleaving of the chestnut tree the night before the thwarted wedding of Jane and Rochester stands as an ominous symbol of the division within Rochester and is indicative of the profound obstructions the couple will soon face in their relationship: “Descending the laurel walk, I faced the wreck of the chestnut-tree; it stood up black and riven: the trunk, split down the centre, gasped ghastly” (235).

6As far as the estates themselves, the descriptions of and the roles played by Manderley and Thornfield are telling. Both mansions operate on literal and symbolic levels. Manderley, located on the coast, stands as “both a ‘real’ house and the stuff of dreams […] a romanticized Gothic space poised on an edge that makes it potentially wild and ungovernable” (“Du Maurier, Daphne”). The imposing Thornfield, with its towering turrets and battlements, stands as a metaphor for England itself. Rochester’s linkage to this extreme bastion of Englishness and patriarchal inheritance stands in stark contrast to the revulsion he feels towards the sensory profusion of Jamaica; the fact that he associates that place with Antoinette contributes to his renunciation of her. Notably, both ancestral homes must be incinerated in order for Jane and the second Mrs. De Winter to fully realize their marriages to Rochester and Maxim respectively. This illuminates the degree to which fire stands as the key symbol of rebirth and purification in the three works. As Mona Fayed compellingly argues, it takes the strength behind a female symbol such as fire to destroy the patriarchal symbol that is Thornfield (451).

7When we turn to characterization, we see even more direct borrowings. In one of the more clever conceits in the history of English literature, all three novels describe the plight of three young heroines, but only two are granted the dignity of first names. To the frustration of many a reader, the first name of the narrator of Rebecca is never once revealed.  Du Maurier glibly claimed that the reason for this was that she was unable to devise a name for the character (The Rebecca Notebook 3). (Significantly, Rhys’s Rochester is never referred to by his name; this mirrors Antoinette’s estrangement from her identity when Rochester takes it upon himself to rename her “Bertha.”)  Of the three first wives, arguably Antoinette/Bertha engenders the most sympathy because she symbolizes all women whose identities have been stripped and voices stilled by patriarchal strictures. The powerful impact of Jean Rhys’s revolutionary gestureof allowing the first wife to speak in her own words in Wide Sargasso Sea cannot be underestimated. In a 1979 interview, Rhys commented on the circumstances that inspired her to conjure up the plot of the postmodern Wide Sargasso Sea:“What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life” (Vreeland 235).

8The second wife of Rebecca, while hardly a “poor ghost,” is depicted as a sort of “plain Jane,” i.e. a female who is so completely unconcerned with her appearance to the point of looking a bit derelict, indeed waifish. The epithet is apropos, as Maxim continually refers to her as a child; at one point, he indicates that he has married her precisely because she does not present herself as a mature woman: “I ask you [to wed]  […] because you are not dressed in black satin, with a string of pearls, nor are you thirty-six” (37).  He also repeatedly condescends to her, even going so far as to infantilize her:

When you were little, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key? […] A husband is not very different than a father. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It’s better kept under lock and key (200).

As we soon learn, Maxim has ample reason for keeping his family secrets under lock and key.

9While Maxim’s doppelganger Rochester does not relate to Jane for her particularly childlike manner, he does upbraid her in other ways, until he realizes she will not be cowed by his superior social position. However, the Rochester of Wide Sargasso Sea quickly comes to treat Antoinette as if she has no power, essentially subsuming her of any vestige of strength and individuality. (This is not unlike what occurs to the first wife in Rebecca as nearly all the characters come to revile and despise her for her assertions of will, an aspect which will be discussed later). One of the myriad ways Rochester strips his first wife of her humanity occurs when he mockingly refers to Antoinette as a marionette, and by doing so, makes her the plaything of a child “to force her to cry and speak,” in the words of Antoinette’s nurse Christophine (Rhys 93). The countless references to children are exemplified by Jane and the second Mrs. De Winter, orphans from the beginning, unlike Antoinette who only becomes parentless after her brother dies in the inferno of her ancestral home. Her mother’s subsequent bouts of madness have essentially orphaned Antoinette. (Although Antoinette’s Aunt Cora initially tries to protect her niece, in the end, she is helpless to save her from an unhappy arranged marriage to a British stranger).  As for Jane, with the exception of her teacher, the kindly Miss Temple and the Rivers sisters (who turn out to be her long-lost relatives), not one adult female looks out for her; indeed most could be said to be actively working against our young heroine’s development. Numerous similarities abound between Jane’s aunt, the vindictive Mrs. Reed, and the termagant Mrs. Van Hopper, a sort of anti-surrogate mother who treats the narrator of Rebecca, her social underling, as if she were brain-dead.

10The fact that the narrators have few advocates may help explain why each of them concocts intricate dream and fantasy worlds, embodied by the creative outlets they use to express their subconscious selves. The archetypal power of these concoctions takes several forms, but the scenes which focus on painting point to an appreciation of the heroines’ hidden passions and sensibilities.  Jane and the narrator of Rebecca each sketch or paint.  Jane’s paintings focus on disassociative, otherworldly symbols, including icebergs, huge heads, a feminine bracelet (possibly suggestive of Bertha’s chains), cormorants, drowned corpses, and the primeval sea. Rochester’s compliment on Jane’s creativity reveals a Gothic imagination that her plain and sensible demeanor does not suggest: "I daresay you did exist in a kind of artist's dreamland while you blent and arranged these strange tints" (108).

11Further underscoring the archetypal aspects of the work, all three women journey perilously through the harrowing passages of portentous dreams. Jane’s three dreams in particular deserve comment—sometimes their purpose appears to be working out her past childhood traumas, such as the dream of the punishing Red Room of her childhood, others function to express her anxiety about her present and future uncertainties. One of the more vivid dreams involves Rochester linked with Blanche Ingram, as the gates around Thornfield clang shut, barring Jane from entering and from access to her beloved Rochester. For the narrator in Rebecca, the final dream of the narrator presents the most disruptive image of all.  In a terrifying rendering of the towering sway the dead first wife still holds over her, the narrator peers into a mirror and sees Rebecca’s visage glowering back at her. Out of her “cloud of dark hair” (375), Rebecca constructs a snaky, Medusa-like rope that wends itself around Maxim’s neck. (Significantly, this occurs right before the De Winters discover the fire that consumes Manderley). This mirrors, literally and figuratively, Antoinette’s final dream: “It was then that I saw her ― the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her” (154). Dissociated from herself, she watches herself escaping from her attic tomb to torch the home of her husband and keeper. Notably, an earlier version of Antoinette’s dream back in the Caribbean indicated that in England, a place of “cold and not belonging” (67), she would find both the impetus for and the means of escaping her chains.

12As Rhys’s aforementioned quote so poignantly indicates, the first wife is regarded as little more than a ghost figure in the eyes of her husband and indeed the entire household. Both Jane and the narrator of Rebecca are haunted by the specter of the first wife before she ever materializes. (It should be added that she never really does fully materialize in Du Maurier’s novel insofar as Rebecca is denied a voice.) And, after she learns that Maxim has killed her, the narrator of Rebecca stands in awe before the full force of Rebecca’s personality which is finally vaporized: “Rebecca’s power had dissolved in the air, like the mist had done. She would never haunt me again” (283).

  • 2  In another striking instance of intertextuality, the fictional account of Bertha Mason’s insanity (...)

13In addition to being dehumanized into malevolent spirits, the women have also had to suffer the indignity of being further marginalized into “madwom[en] of the attic,” in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s memorable phrase. As Elaine Showalter notes, for the “crimes” of intemperance and a lack of modesty, Bertha has been pronounced mad by Rochester as he seeks out male doctors who will confirm the diagnosis of monst[rous] sexual appetite (67). Of course, we may really wonder who is mad. As Rhys suggests, it is a sort of madness to desire to subdue, confine, and, in Rebecca’s case, kill women, largely because in asserting themselves, these wives refuse to fit the social paradigm of perfect women, i.e. passive, modest, and sexually discreet. The numerous examples of women incarcerated for sexual behavior that Showalter uncovers in The Female Malady indicate the degree to which the Victorians punished transgressive women: “Since the reproductive system was [considered] the source of mental illness in women, women were the prime carriers of mental illness, twice as likely to transmit it as fathers” (67)2. This echoes Rochester’s comment on the origin of Bertha’s insanity in Jane Eyre and, and to a lesser extent, Antoinette’s supposed madness in Wide Sargasso Sea. The Rochester of Jane Eyre alleges that “Bertha Mason is mad [because] she came of a mad family―idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!” (249). Wide Sargasso Sea’s Rochester comes to believe the insinuations that have been planted in his mind that, because Antoinette’s mother has been shut off from society because of her mental instability, Antoinette by extension must also be mad.  Instead of a pat “sins of the fathers” explanation, Antoinette’s main ally Christophine provides a more compassionate explanation for Antoinette’s mother’s madness: “They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad” (97).

14In terms of their sheer physical presence, the comparisons between Bertha and Rebecca abound. Both women are continually contextualized as Other, illustrated by descriptions of them as dark and huge, towering over others. [Perhaps the only flattering description Rochester offers up of his first wife occurs when he describes Bertha as “Tall, dark and majestic” (26), while Rebecca’s “cloud of dark hair” and large size are perhaps her most prominent identifying features (375).] Furthermore, in all three texts, the male protagonists continually denounce the sexuality and purported promiscuity of their wives.In Jane Eyre, Rochester pleads for sympathy for “all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife that is at once intemperate and unchaste” (261).The purported half-brother of Antoinette, Daniel Cosway, tells Rochester that he is “not the first to kiss [Antoinette’s] pretty face” (76).]  Never mind that Maxim and Rochester each have had ample prior experience with women—in Rochester’s case, numerous sexual partners.

15Up to this point, the commonalities and intersections between the three novels stand as mere surface details in comparison to a darker undercurrent running beneath all three works which is inarguably the most sinister: the fact that the male protagonists in all three works appear to be hell-bent on destroying their wives. While Maxim takes the ultimate step when he coolly kills Rebecca, arguably, the fate of Rochester’s first wife in both Brontë’s and Rhys’s texts stands as far worse. Although she is not murdered by her husband, she is first stripped of her identity and then imprisoned for what Rochester calls her madness; more precisely, it should be called his madness, or at the very least his hatred for her, which is bound up inextricably in his inability to understand her. As he prepares to leave Jamaica with a reluctant Antoinette in tow, he reflects:

I hated the place. I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it (103).

The question arises as to why Antoinette allows herself to be taken to England when even she realizes that he does not have her best interest in mind. One reading is that she believes her fate to be irrevocable and wholly inevitable.

16Several blatant examples of double standards weave their way through the other two texts. For one, to his mind, Rochester’s premarital intercourse that leads to a child out of wedlock is permissible, but any sort of dalliance or aberrant behavior on the part of his wife violates prevailing social norms. Also, the extreme jealousy Rochester expresses when he learns that Jane has been living under the roof of St. John Rivers is more than slightly unsettling, considering that Rochester attempted to earlier cultivate these same feelings in Jane regarding his affair with Blanche Ingram. Additionally, Rochester reacts in an extremely possessive manner when Jane indicates that she is leaving Thornfield to see her sick Aunt Reed. A similar sort of perverse scrutiny of the female’s need for independence is evident in Maxim’s treatment of Rebecca.  Maxim disparagingly notes of his wife that she took a flat in London and would stay away for days at a time (273), exposing his hypocrisy. Both Maxim and Rochester see nothing amiss in leaving their wives for days and even months at a time, whether it be to London, a neighboring estate, or Kingston in Wide Sargasso Sea.

17The issue of who holds the power dynamics changes continually in Rebecca, but sexually speaking, it is most often the dynamic and defiant Rebecca, as evidenced by the parade of lovers she escorts to her beach house, including her “n’er-do-well” cousin Jack Favell. In addition to Rebecca’s assertion of free will, it may well be her unwillingness to abide by polite bourgeois notions of fidelity that most bothers Maxim, even more than her assertion of her will. Perhaps the main reason Maxim resents Rebecca and Rochester resents Antoinette can be located in each man’s contempt for what he views as his wife’s uncontrollable, uncontainable sexuality. Rebecca and Antoinette share a great deal in terms of their sensuality and attempts to assert themselves, but also in terms of how others respond to them. Rochester’s comment on Antoinette’s desire [“Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was—more lost and drowned afterwards” (55)] ricochets in the attraction that Maxim professes for Rebecca in the early days of their marriage. When Maxim tells his second wife that he was overpowered by wife number one’s comeliness, what he really appears to be saying is that he was swayed by the reaction of his male peers to her “breeding, brains, and beauty” (270). In Rochester and Antoinette’s case, the imminent dissolution of their marriage is quickly foreshadowed by Antoinette’s ominous wish to die, which careers back and forth in Rochester’s head.  It will be echoed later in Maxim’s claim that Rebecca goaded him to kill her.

18An even more transgressive act than promiscuity in a patriarchal culture may be for a woman to proclaim her complete rejection of men. Indeed, what may have been most aberrant about Rebecca was that she was not monogamous and not exclusively heterosexual. Mrs. Danvers’ comments about Rebecca’s disdain reveals what the housekeeper believed to be true of her mistress: “She despised all men. She was above all that […] Love-making was a game to her, only a game. She told me so. She did it because it made her laugh […] I’ve known her to come back and sit upstairs on her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you” (337). The implication many readers take is both women were at some point engaged in relations with one another which is reinforced by the Hitchcockian depiction of Danny as mannish and severe, the stereotypical (and indeed only) representation of lesbians in 1930’s popular culture and literature.

19Whatever Rebecca’s sexual preference, perhaps Maxim’s most vicious attack on her occurs when he sneeringly indicts her as “vicious, damnable, rotten through and through” (269). He indicts her even more harshly when he casts her out of the human community: “Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (emphasis mine) (269). According to Horner and Zlosnik, dualism even more than misogyny motivates Maxim in this context:

It is Rebecca’s willfulness (sic) that drives Maxim to murder and which makes him place her on the side of the devils. Woman, for Maxim, is the Other necessary for the construction of the masculine self; moreover, she is an Other that has two faces: that of demon and that of angel. Thus he construes Rebecca as evil, and the narrator as good and innocent—a bifurcation repeated in Ben’s description of Rebecca as giving him ‘the feeling of a snake’ and of the narrator having ‘angel’s eyes’. (105)

20One cannot help but ask the following question: how can a man who has murdered his first wife serve as a suitable mate for his second? Even more troubling is the issue of why a wife would want to stay with such a husband, and indeed, as is the case of the narrator of Rebecca, cling to him even more tightly after learning of the ignominious end of her predecessor.  Like Rochester, Maxim’s comment that he has been “a bit of a brute” towards his new wife reveals elements of sadism. This interpretation is seconded by Charles Dance, the actor who played Maxim De Winter in a 1996 Mobil Masterpiece Theatre production of Rebecca:

He is very difficult because he does treat his wife appallingly, turns on a sixpence and becomes absolutely charming, and then five minutes later he becomes a brute again. I am told by women that I have spoken to that he is one of the great romantic heroes in literature, along with people like Rochester and Mr. Darcy, who all act in a brutal way from time to time. If a man like that is to be found attractive, then great" (Lyall).

Dance’s comment that if a woman is stimulated or excited by her abuser, the abuse is somehow acceptable, is disturbing to say the least.

21In connection with this point, Du Maurier’s comment that she did not conceive of Rebecca as a love story is extremely telling. Her biographer, Margaret Forster, notes:

[Du Maurier] herself saw [Rebecca] as “rather grim,” even “unpleasant,” a study in jealousy with nothing of the “exquisite love-story” her publisher claimed it to be. There was more hatred in it than love, in her own opinion, and she had tried very hard to show her unnamed heroine as intimidated, humiliated and even abused through most of the story […] She had wanted to write about the balance of power in marriage and not about love. (137-138)

22After the respective denouements in all three texts, locating one positive note made by the male characters in their references to the marginalized figures is difficult, if not impossible. There are very few, if any, instances of Maxim commending Rebecca; in one exception, as Mary Wings notes, Maxim lauds her interior decorating sense, a clear example of socially designated feminine behavior (21). However, one indicator of Rebecca’s strength emerges after Rebecca’s doctor informs Maxim that she was fated to die of a cancerous growth. Her insistence that she not be deceived about the diagnosis indicates her unwillingness to continue living in a fantasy world, specifically in terms of her decision to bust the façade covering the sham marriage she has made with her husband. Maxim’s telling response to this information stands as perhaps the most transparent example of hatred toward women in the three works. Coolly rationalizing his behavior in classic “blame-the-victim” fashion, he claims Rebecca fabricated being pregnant with his child “because she wanted me to kill her” (370).

  • 3 As a young girl, Du Maurier bemoaned the fact she was not born a boy, dressed in masculine attire, (...)

23Seen from another perspective, examples of Rebecca’s refusal to fit into expectations of normative feminine behavior abound. While Rebecca was able to play the immaculate hostess, she was also keen on flouting convention, as shown in her propensity to whip her horses and seduce countless lovers. This is underscored by Mrs. Danvers’ declaration, “She ought to have been a boy.  I often told her that” (240).  After exhaustively ruminating on whether Maxim still loves her, the narrator tells him that she will act as “a sort of boy, “a friend and companion to him” (262), which may be her way of saying she’s a bit weary of having to live in the shadow of an extremely powerful and seemingly perpetual female ghost3.

24In the end, though, ironically enough, after attempting to prescribe the female character’s every action, literally and symbolically speaking, both men lose their physical strength due to the actions of female characters. Presumably, Mrs. Danvers is responsible for the fire in Rebecca, while in Wide Sargasso Sea, it is the first wife, Antoinette, who torches her attic chamber. In the aftermath of the fire, Du Maurier describes Maxim rather like Rochester after the latter has been made lame and blind: “beautiful still but lifeless,” like a “a mask”; in short, “formal and cold” (5). Maxim’s second wife also notes that, after the fire, her husband smokes and talks constantly, “snatching at any subject as a panacea to pain” (6).

25Perhaps the most compelling question should now be raised: how do readers, particularly adolescent female readers reading Jane Eyre and Rebecca for the first time to learn about male and female relationships, romance and sex, and gender issues, go about understanding what motivates Maxim and Rochester to so cruelly cast their wives aside? Is it fear, jealousy, hatred―or all of the above? In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys effectively portrays how Rochester’s deep-seated insecurity is motivated primarily by fear―fear of himself most of all. In reference to the propensity of some men to make women into “Other,” de Beauvoir supplies a fitting explanation of Rochester’s brutal and seemingly irrational behavior towards Bertha and Antoinette: “In all civilizations and still in our day woman inspires men with horror: it is the horror of his own carnal contingence, which he projects upon her” (167). While the Rochester of Jane Eyre acts as if he believes he is doing God’s will by taking Bertha to England, (as if making her a captive will somehow save her mortal soul), Rhys’s Rochester acts primarily out of selfish motives. In Coral Ann Howells’ assertion:  

Whereas in Jane Eyre, imperialism is understood as England’s social mission, with Rochester convinced he is performing his duty to God and humanity by taking his mad wife to England, in Wide Sargasso Sea, his behavior is exposed as being far less creditable. Instead it shows the male will to dominate combined with a strong impulse toward revenge and punishment (108).

  • 4  In Du Maurier’s novel and the 1996 Mobil Masterpiece Theatre’s adaptation, Maxim admits to killing (...)

This certainly factors into Rebecca’s fate as well. Although the two men’s behavior is somewhat akin to one another, Rochester’s brusqueness towards Jane and incarceration of Bertha pales in comparison Maxim’s violent treatment of Rebecca4. Maxim’s neurotic secrecy and savage tendencies emanates from his fear that he will be found out for his vengeful murder of Rebecca.

26This leads us to another pertinent set of questions: first, to what degree does the ill-treatment and sometimes masochistic behavior of our heroines result in the ill punishment they receive at the hands of men, so that, secondly, they will ensure deliverance from said punishment? Certainly, the meek and passive heroine of Rebecca, until she finally musters up enough courage to assert herself in front of the formidable Mrs. Danvers, acts in an extremely submissive, passive manner, almost to the point of having no intact personality of her own, as she constantly looks to others to decide whether she is behaving according to the protocol established by the first Mrs. De Winter. Of the three heroines, Jane possesses more independence of spirit than the other two heroines; in many respects, she is the embodiment of the feminist dictate that Christophine sternly issues to Antoinette: “Women must have spunks to live in this wicked world” (60). Jane asserts herself around Rochester, running the opposite way when her better judgment informs her she would be trapped both emotionally and physically were she to stay in a bigamous relationship with Rochester. (One could read her actions as emerging out of her almost inhuman ability to stick to her moral code; alternatively, one might ask if, on some level, she is aware of Antoinette’s existence, just as the second wife of Maxim is constantly haunted by the ghost of Rebecca.) Jane’s determination to make her own way, no matter the cost, makes her most unusual; in fleeing Thornfield, Jane practically insures her impoverishment. As a nineteenth century governess and orphan, she has fewer financial resources than the other two heroines, at least until she comes into her fortune. This is a clear reversal of Antoinette’s situation; initially possessing a small fortune, she is denied access to her money, but is deprived of it after she marries Rochester. (Also, Maxim’s second wife, living as she does in the twentieth century, would have more options than the other two women as regards her ability to make a living for herself, however meager it might be).

27Even today, many readers can readily recall their first encounter with the prim governess Jane Eyre and the brooding, enigmatic Edward Rochester as they journey through the Gothic chambers of Bronte’s classic text. Sampling the students in my recent women’s literature course, I found that English majors and non-majors alike are still captivated by this almost archetypal work in which the young heroine, rather than being proverbially “swept off her feet,” carves out a space in which to assert her independence and individuality before being encompassed by the heady world of romance. When these same students were exposed to the work of Bronte’s successor Rhys, discussions centered around issues of equality and the retention of one’s autonomy in relation to the love object, topics about which students had volumes to say. And when Rebecca, the twentieth century incarnation of Mr. Rochester’s first wife was introduced in the mix, the discussion became even more pointed and intense. Clearly, these works still strike resonant chords and nerves today.

28Interestingly enough, despite the fact that many of my students had read Jane Eyre first, several came to see Jane as subsidiary to Antoinette, who functions as the bridge and ultimately the redeemer of the plight of the spectral presence of the other woman as she takes up the candle and makes her way down the hall to live out her dream. This single act transforms her into an active agent, the sole determiner of her fate, and the main catalyst for the consummation of Rochester and Jane’s union as well. Readers today, students and non-students alike, interpret the ending of Wide Sargasso Sea as either a partial victory or a total defeat, depending on how one regards the torching of Thornfield. Although the ensuing conflagration is implied rather than depicted directly, Rhys suggests that Antoinette’s decisive action is inevitable for the assertion of the will. Even though her physical form disintegrates, it is therefore a positive act from the standpoint that Antoinette is finally able to determine her agency and reclaim her identity in the ensuing conflagration, much like the mythical Phoenix rising triumphantly from the ashes. By doing so, Antoinette rejects Bertha, thereby extinguishing the misappropriation that has haunted her.

29This is also a limited victory for the second wives in Rebecca and Jane Eyre. After Mrs. Danvers makes Manderley her funeral pyre, Maxim has little choice but to forsake his attraction to old secrets. Finally the ghost of Rebecca can be thoroughly exorcised so the second Mrs. De Winter can ascend to her position, just as Jane can now fill the dead Bertha’s role. As Rhys and Du Maurier paint the portraits of these first wives, circumstances that Brontë only hints at in her portrayal of Rochester’s discarded first wife Bertha/Antoinette Mason, readers experience a variety of responses, including disgust toward the uncontrolled misogyny directed at the discarded first wives, and recognition at the seemingly endless instances of collusion between these powerful works.  One cannot help but wonder whether, if the murdered Rebecca were allowed to tell her story, in what respect it might not resemble Antoinette’s journey, or what judgment might Jane pass about the plight of her ghostly literary descendants.  Finally, whose archetypal voice will be the next to emerge?

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Works Cited

Angier Carol. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1990.

Auerbach Nina. Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Brontë Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2001 (1847).  Carter Angela. Expletives Deleted. London: Virago, 1992.

De Beauvoir Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

“Du Maurier, Daphne.” Literary Encyclopedia, <>, 20 Oct. 2001, 10 Jan. 2005.

du Maurier Daphne. Rebecca. New York: Doubleday, 1938.

---.  The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories.  Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1980.

“Editorial Reviews of Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress.” <> 10 Jan. 2005.

Fayed Mona. “Unquiet Ghosts: The Struggle for Representation in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.” Modern Fiction Studies. 34.3 (1988): 437-52.

Forster Margaret. Daphne Du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Horner Avril, and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne Du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination. London: Macmillan Press, 1998.

Howells Coral Ann. Jean Rhys. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

“Literary Gothicism: An Overview.” Norton Anthology of Literature: Topics Online, 2003. 10 Jan. 2005. <>

Lyall Sarah. “Ghosts Abounding: Rebecca and Rebecca." NY Times Television Book. April 13-19. 10 Jan. 2005. <>

Millman Joyce. “Rebecca Without the Ghosts.” 11 Apr. 1996.

22 Dec. 2004. <>

Rebecca.  Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Richardson, and George Saunders. The Selznick Studio. 1940.

Rebecca. Dir. Jim O’Brien. Perf. Emilia Fox, Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, and Faye Dunaway. Mobil Masterpiece Theatre. 1996.

Rhys Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996.

Showalter Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Vreeland Diana. “The Art of Fiction.” Paris Review 21 (1979): 231-237.

Wings Mary. “Rebecca Redux: Tears on a Lesbian Pillow.” in Liz Gibbs (ed.). Daring to Dissent: Lesbian Culture from Margin to Mainstream. London: Cassell, 1994.

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1  As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have famously noted, several critics have interpreted Rochester’s injuries at the end of Jane Eyre as standing for a sort of symbolic castration that serves as punishment for his grasping attempts to control those around him (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination 368). Only when he has been “tamed” or mutilated can he be deemed a suitable husband for Jane. Interestingly enough, in the original epilogue Du Maurier penned, the narrator is childless and Maxim’s crippled body is described as wracked by physical pain (Rebecca Notebook 25).  In addition to this, Manderley burns down, like Thornfield Hall, but the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre version ends in a similar fashion to Jane Eyre, with Maxim attempting to rescue Mrs. Danvers, just as Rochester has tried to save Bertha. However, both actions can be described as “too little too late”, as the mad wife and aberrant housekeeper must be punished by death. Also, as a result of their efforts, both men end up maimed, but the fate of Maxim is in some ways worse than that of the blinded Rochester who eventually regains his sight―Maxim is in all probability castrated. [Perhaps this is why the second Mrs. De Winter says, “We would not talk of Manderley. I would not tell of my dream” (4)?].

2  In another striking instance of intertextuality, the fictional account of Bertha Mason’s insanity apparently made a distinct impression on medical professionals of the nineteenth century, even influencing the treatment of those deemed mentally unfit. Showalter notes: “The image of Bertha Mason haunts [John] Conolly’s book Treatment of the Insane Without Mechanical Restraints (1856), and supports his argument that insane women should be treated in insane asylums rather than at home” (Showalter 68).

3 As a young girl, Du Maurier bemoaned the fact she was not born a boy, dressed in masculine attire, and was the recipient of poems from her father in which he indicated he wished she had been a boy (Forster 13-14). Much later, writing to the object of her affection Ellen Doubleday in 1947, Du Maurier discusses this phrase at length and her mixed feelings about her gender going all the way back to her childhood:  “And then the boy realized he had to grow up…and not be a boy any longer, so he turned into a girl, and a not unattractive one at that, and the boy was locked in a box forever. D. de M. wrote  her books and had young men, and later a husband, and children, and a lover, and life was sometimes lovely and sometimes rather sad […] she opened up the box sometimes and let the phantom, who was neither boy nor girl but disembodied spirit, dance in the evening when there was no-one to see”. (quoted in Forster  222). As an unnamed reviewer of Nina Auerbach’s Daphne Du Maurier: Haunted Heiress notes, “Her own phrase for her secret self, ‘the boy in the box,’ hints at her sexual ambivalence and her alienation from the prescribed roles for women of her day” (Editorial Reviews).

4  In Du Maurier’s novel and the 1996 Mobil Masterpiece Theatre’s adaptation, Maxim admits to killing his first wife. The censors demanded that this be taken out of Hitchcock’s version (Auerbach 137). In the 1996 version, the second wife turns to Maxim after he confesses he’s murdered Rebecca; also, they clearly have had sex right before he tells her that he hated his wife, which appears to operate as some sort of weird wish fulfilment here. The scene parallels Rochester’s revelation to Jane about Bertha’s imprisonment. Although Rochester is portrayed as being far too noble to be capable of literally killing his wife, in the end, his transformation of Bertha Mason into the “poor ghost” that Antoinette becomes in the finale of Wide Sargasso Sea could be said to be closely aligned with murder; however, it is arguably more cruel than simply killing her would be.

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Patricia Gott, « “There is always the other side…”: The “Other Women” of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV - n°4 | 2006, 49-63.

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Patricia Gott, « “There is always the other side…”: The “Other Women” of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°4 | 2006, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2009, consulté le 21 octobre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.1809

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Patricia Gott

Dr. (Wisconsin, Etats-Unis)
Patricia Gott is an assistant professor of English at University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, where she teaches courses in twentieth century British literature, women’s studies, and first-year composition. Her current research interests include Jean Rhys, Edna O’Brien, and Jeannette Winterson.

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