The Theme Of Isolation In ‘Jane Eyre’ And ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’
The theme of isolation is utilised in English literature to shape the principal characters and provide a particular vision on some crucial aspects of their identities. The aim of this essay is to compare and contrast the ways, in which Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys interpret the theme of isolation to construct such characters as Rochester and Jane from the novel Jane Eyre and Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea. In these literary works the ideas of isolation are presented as a direct result of characters’ loneliness that they have experienced since early childhood, thus the writers apply both to social and inner isolation. The reality, in which these people live, is so harsh that they isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Such alienation is a complex psychological disorder that influences the formation of characters’ identities. Isolation results in the expulsion of a person from all social affairs and interactions, preventing him/her to become a full member of society. Although Jean Rhys utilises the similar idea of isolation as Bronte’s narration, she provides her own interpretation of this issue. Contrary to Bronte, the writer considers that madness of a woman is not innate, but rather is a consequence of the injured self that is formed in a person because of isolation and oppression. In this regard, isolation is perceived by characters as a certain rescue that seems to save them for a time being, but, in fact, it gradually destroys these protagonists. The fact is that the identity of a person is created through certain social and cultural interactions with people, but isolation deprives him/her of acquiring the completeness of identity.
Jane Eyre and Antoinette Cosway, the principal female characters of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, are portrayed as entirely isolated personalities who, despite the different background and different living conditions, experience similar loneliness and despair. Jane is a little orphan who is treated cruelly by her aunt and who is isolated from the rest of the household. When Jane is sent into Lowood Institution, her isolation is aggravated; she is transformed into a reserved and serious woman with low self-esteem and lack of hopes. Similar to Jane, Antoinette’s isolation starts at home and continues in the nunnery, influencing her identity. She spends almost all time in the room and close people regard her as mad, although she acts in a rather normal way. But, contrary to Jane, such prolonged isolation results in more complex psychological destruction and further madness of Antoinette. As she claims at the beginning of the narration, “no one came near us. I got used to a solitary life” (Rhys 18). No one notices her and her family; instead people betray her trust and hopes. Antoinette’s isolation in childhood shapes her personality, negatively influencing her adult life and relations with people. This vulnerable and emotionally destroyed woman lives in her own created world, and when Rochester, a person whom she loves, alienates from her, she can no longer endure this isolation. Antoinette seeks love and attention, but her own husband fails to understand her.
Rhys reveals that Rochester’s isolation can’t be explained by his severity; instead he is portrayed as a destroyed personality who is forced to marry a person chosen by his family and who has to live in a place alien to him. Antoinette regards Rochester’s alienation as his inability to accept something that is different from his well-ordered life and habits. As a result of Rochester’s alienation, his attitude to Antoinette is sometimes negative, and gradually, she is transformed into a mad female, like her own mother, but Rhys opposes to the view that Antoinette inherits this madness from her mother. Instead, throughout the narration she stresses on the fact that isolation inevitably brings a woman to this psychological disorder. Antoinette’s mind is split and she flees into the past, isolating herself not only from the outside world, but also from her present life. Such isolation appears to be really dangerous for such a sensitive woman, and, as Coral Howells puts it, “Antoinette’s moment of authenticity is also the moment of her destruction” (121). In pursuit of escaping this isolation, Antoinette commits a suicide.
Thus, Antoinette fails to eliminate the negative emotions and feelings that are evoked by her loneliness and isolation. Although Jane Eyre also experiences anger and scorn towards her relatives, she manages to destroy these emotions. Unlike Antoinette, this young woman who feels isolation since childhood meets a person who experiences the same loneliness, and falls in love with him. This powerful feeling saves her from despair and finally destroys her isolation, she no longer wants to alienate from people, and especially from Rochester. The relations between Jane and Rochester differ from the relations between Rochester and Antoinette; in the case of Bronte’s narration both characters destroy their isolation and find necessary strength in each other, they are identical in many ways and are unable to live apart. As Jane claims, “I am mot talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities or even of mortal flesh; – it is my spirit that addresses your spirit. equal, – as we are!” (Bronte 238). Rochester’s wives have really traumatic past that is aggravated by their isolation, but they respond differently to it. Although Jane loses her parents and is constantly ignored by society, her isolation helps her to develop some skills that provide her with necessary strength and allow her to overcome negative feelings. She becomes a mature young woman who possesses own viewpoints and who is able to evoke powerful feelings in another person. Jane expresses her dreams and loneliness in her beautiful drawings that allow her to successfully cope with her isolation. When Jane learns about Rochester’s wife, she decides to isolate herself from him, but finally she feels that he needs her and returns to him. Being an orphan, Jane understands that she has nobody to rely on, and she learns to rely only on herself. Contrary to Jane, Antoinette lives with her mother at the beginning, but she is alienated from her, because her mother is attached only to her brother, and when she loses him, she is destroyed.
As a naïve and lonely girl, Antoinette finds comfort in her isolation, but deep inside she strives for attention and love. When she marries Rochester, she believes and trusts him, considering that he is her closest person. But when his attitude towards her changes, she isolates herself from him, destroying their relations. According to Schapiro, “Both characters are furious at being unrealised by the other” (99). Unlike Jane who becomes mature in Lowood School, Antoinette remains a little child who is greatly depended on other people and who is unable to act independently. In this regard, Antoinette’s madness aggravates alienation of Rochester who isolates himself even more after his unsuccessful marriage. Rochester finds it impossible to love a woman who is imposed on him, and when he starts to name her “Bertha”, he reveals his isolation from her. When Rochester meets Jane, he is attracted to her from the very start, but he finds it difficult to trust a woman again. He makes constant attempts to alienate from her, but he is unable to escape his feelings. Therefore, Antoinette’s isolation from reality and from close people slightly differs from isolation of Jane and Rochester. Their isolation is of different nature, they are socially isolated human beings. This especially concerns Jane who is distinctly alienated from society throughout the narration. When she marries Rochester, a member of the upper class, she still distances herself from others. Contrary to Antoinette who sometimes applies to provoking behaviour to attract attention of people towards her, Jane limits her relations to some close people. But unlike Antoinette, she doesn’t isolate herself from reality, trying to overcome the difficulties with her powerful spirit and moral principles.