The Madwomen in Our Attics: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea’s Treatment of Feminism

Megan Mericle

Abstract


The novels Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys portray women’s roles in two very different societies. Both novels presented feminist ideals that were unheard of before their publication. Brontë’s novel is set in Victorian England in the early 1800s, a time in which women’s rights were limited and their roles within society were strictly defined. Rhys’ novel is set in the mid-1800s, and it explores one of Jane Eyre’s minor characters, Bertha Mason. The novel takes place in the postcolonial Caribbean and briefly in England. Although the novels are set in roughly the same time period, the periods in which they were written were vastly different. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, a time when England was undergoing the Industrial Revolution and a restructuring of the social system. Brontë’s novel illustrates the changing view of women in British society through its protagonist, Jane Eyre. Like the women of Brontë’s time, Jane fights to gain a new independence in her society. Rhys’ novel was written in 1966, just after universal suffrage was established in Dominica. The novel portrays Antoinette Cosway, later to be known as Bertha Mason. It uses metafiction to illustrate the plight of women trapped in an imagined world of expectations and Antoinette’s descent into madness caused by attempts to restrain her wildness and independence. The research will examine the feminist themes present in both of these novels and determine whether they were advanced for their time or limited by their culture. The research will use specific examples from both novels, the work of critics contemporary to both Brönte and Rhys, and modern critics to support my conclusions. The novels will also be compared and contrasted with each other, as each presents a unique female perspective. Brönte’s treatment of the character of Jane as a wild thing unduly tamed by society contrasts sharply with Rhys’ treatment of Antoinette as wildness unbridled— a woman whose own wildness brings about her destruction. In conclusion, the research will demonstrate that both novels have differing, but similar feminist themes such as independence, respect and empowerment. But both novels are also somewhat confined by their time period and culture, in that their female heroines are forced to occupy traditional female roles.


Keywords


Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Feminism

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