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As the cult of domesticity grew during the nineteenth century, society began to fixate on the proper role of a woman. Jean Rhys examines the contradictions and consequences involved in setting such standards through documenting the decline of Jane Eyre’s “madwoman,” Antoinette Cosway. Forever the victim of alien ideals, Antoinette struggles to reconcile her exotic, passionate behavior with the pristine reserve valued by the European world. Yet, although convention discouraged sexuality, Rochester lusts after the Caribbean women, further aggravating Antoinette’s moral confusion. Ultimately, Rochester fears Antoinette’s explosive passion and eradicates it through suppressing her exotic heritage. Rhys creates a world of cultural tension in which Antoinette fails to resemble either the quintessential Caribbean or European woman.
The females in Antoinette’s life promoted several disparate lifestyles, crippling Antoinette’s ability to develop as a woman. Christophine epitomizes one facet of the Caribbean woman; single and independent, she believes that a dependency on men leads only to heartache and danger. Christophine detests the man assumed to be Rochester, and advises Antoinette, “Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world” (60). Antoinette matures under Christophine’s authority and therefore cannot ever fully accept a docile role as wife. Antoinette is simultaneously influenced by her mother’s sensuality. She is captivated by Annette’s dancing and watches from afar as Mr. Mason “kisse[s] her—a long kiss” (17). Antoinette’s almost voyeuristic behavior reveals her innate sensuality, one that Rhys associates with the islands throughout the rest of the book. However, as the Caribbean and European cultures clashed, so did each culture’s respective perception of women. At the convent, Antoinette envies the “aloof” and “even-tempered” de Plana girls (33). While the Caribbean is personified as ardent and capricious, the European world shares the characteristics of the pristine de Planas. Antoinette desperately desires to resemble the a de Planas, and therefore constantly vacillates between European and Caribbean ideals. “When I grow up I want [my hair] to look like yours,” Antoinette tells Hélène de Plana (32), exposing her need to reflect European standards. Antoinette feels the urges of the Caribbean woman, yet nonetheless strives to become a paragon of European femininity. Rochester’s contradicting actions towards her further complicate her perception of herself as a woman.
Antoinette’s marriage to Rochester intensifies her internal struggle between independence and obedience. Antoinette first submits to Rochester through simply agreeing to wed him; when Rochester asks Antoinette if her qualms were merely a mistake, she “only nod[s],” revealing Antoinette’s position in a weak limbo between defiance and acceptance (47). She humbly accepts the European standard and strives to gratify Rochester. However, Rochester taints Antoinette’s innocent desires with his own impure ones. Antoinette cannot fulfill Rochester in the traditional European sense, for he “was thirsty for her, but that is not love” (55). Therefore, sexuality melds with submission, creating an impure amalgamation of European and Caribbean behaviors. In her endeavors to become an accommodating wife, Antoinette loses her chastity, paradoxically isolating her from European standards of domesticity. Simultaneously, Rochester separates Antoinette from her Caribbean nature. Antoinette laments that he “never calls [her] Antoinette now,” because he “found out it was [her] mother’s name” (68). In effect, Rochester chips away at Antoinette’s link to fiery womanhood while polluting her attempts at achieving gentility. “[The Caribbean] is as indifferent as… God,” Antoinette laments, for she understands neither Caribbean cultural standards nor those of Europe (78). Although Antoinette struggles to identify herself as a woman even initially, it is Rochester who truly fragments her femininity, or lack thereof.
After recognizing the consequences of his behavior, Rochester attempts to restore Antoinette’s identity through robbing her of her ancestry. The passionate Creole that Rochester previously lusted after transforms into a “red-eyed wild-haired stranger” (88). After observing the futility of pursuing a docile role, Antoinette descends into an extreme form of the “tropicalized” Creole woman (33). Rochester fears this madness. While Antoinette slides to one extreme, he desperately attempts to drag her to the other. Rochester seals his wife within a “cardboard world,” one that resists all unpredictability or fervency. Ironically, only when Rochester forces a boring, domestic reality upon Antoinette does she fully awaken to her true position as a woman. Antoinette’s red dress demonstrates this awakening, for it represents Antoinette’s “intemperate and unchaste” past in the Caribbean (110). However, although Grace Poole attempts to force a dull gray wrapper around Antoinette, Antoinette observes that “it was if the fire had spread across the room” from her dress (110-111). The simple sight of her red dress reignites a symbolic fire within Antoinette, reminding her of her innate sexuality and passion. The extreme circumstances within Antoinette’s cardboard world reveal her true, unadulterated role as a woman. Ultimately, Antoinette identifies with the fierce independence of her mother and chooses her heritage over sterile British femininity.
In the final moments of her life, Antoinette manages to cast aside the desires and needs of others in order to discover her true passion and autonomy. This maturation renders her suicide not a tragedy but a victory. Antoinette’s prophetic dream revolves around fire, which Rhys utilizes as a symbol of Antoinette’s true ardor. Antoinette watches symbols of her crippled womanhood burn. When an orchid, found in Antoinette’s own “Garden of Eden,” blazes, Antoinette’s tainted sin chars and disappears. Antoinette’s dollhouse disappears within the inferno, and with it goes Antoinette’s memories of being Rochester’s “marionette” (92). Freed from the painful roles that she played as a woman, Antoinette can be consumed by her own pure passion. When Antoinette finally awakens, she has awoken not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. Antoinette moves into the night towards what readers of Jane Eyre recognize as her suicide, but with the flame of a candle. This physical fire leads her through the darkness, suggesting that ultimately, Antoinette’s inner fire led her to her true role as a woman; one of fervor, liberty, and unwavering love for those around her.
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