Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea

The Representation of the Doubleness of Selfhood

by Liz Lewis

the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face ... and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit

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


In this study of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea I aim to consider the representation of the doubleness of selfhood, and how both between and within the two novels a continuous mirroring of double identity, (reflecting like a hall of mirrors), can be traced. I will concentrate chiefly on the duality of the female personae, although I will also consider briefly the concept of doubling across gender boundaries.

Miller maintains that 'doubles may appear to come from the outside as a form of possession, or from the inside, as a form of projection' [1]. Both novels explore this doubleness, between and within characters.

In Jane Eyre, the character of Bertha Mason can be viewed as both an external double and a projected double to Jane herself. Jane is full of vengeful, raging ire, (of which her name is indicative), and can thus find her literal double in Bertha. Her ire first manifests itself in the 'red room' scene of the opening chapter, foreshadowing the aggression which Bertha is to act out later. The 'fiend-like' Jane is threatened with being 'tied down' in 'bonds' (p7) if she will not submit to her oppression, just as Bertha is tied down after her attack on Rochester, her patriarchal oppressor. While Jane is described as 'a mad cat' (p7), the fully-realised madwoman we are told, flew at Mason and 'worried [him] like a tigress.' (p253).

Jane's battle for acceptance within the patriarchal prison in which she lives, however, necessitates a suppression of this anger. It is this stifling of her selfhood which generates the projected double, which will later actually emerge from Jane's psyche into a materialised separate entity - the stereotype of female madness. Bertha becomes the perpetrator of Jane's impulses, acting out the hidden rage which burns fiercely within her.

In Lowood, through the pacifying influences of Helen Burns and Miss Temple, Jane acquires restraint. However, this passivity can only be borrowed, as both women represent a desired selfhood which Jane can never quite reach. As with her cousins, Mary and Diana, Jane's selfhood 'dovetailed' (p423), with them, never quite combining in a true duality. Although Jane wishes to be like the virtuous Miss Temple and the spiritual Helen Burns, she cannot 'comprehend [the] doctrine of endurance' (p61). Instead, she becomes Helen's dark-double in the same way that Bertha is hers, acting out the rage of the oppressed, marginalised, orphan. When Helen is mistreated by the harsh Miss Scatcherd, Jane relates - 'the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day.' (p83).

In Thornfield the revenging-double takes on its strongest form. It is during her reverie of longing to transcend the prison of femininity - which is 'too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation' (p128) - and become part of the symbolic male world from which she is excluded, that Jane hears the mad laugh of Bertha. Her only relief from such oppressive thoughts, we are told 'was to walk along the corridor . . . backwards and forwards', just as later she will be confronted with her own external double as she '[runs] backwards and forwards' in her literal prison (p352). Although the patriarchal forces are more subtle at Thornfield, they are far more insidious. For through her intimacy with Rochester Jane suffers the trepidation of a dissolution of selfhood. She says of him fearfully, he is 'an influence that quite mastered me - that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his' (p207). As Gilbert and Gubar point out, it is after Rochester's sadistic attempts to gain mastery over Jane's emotions, by making claims of love for Blanche Ingram, that Jane is woken up by the screams in the attic, as Bertha physically attacks Mason. Although Jane doesn't openly rage at Rochester's behaviour, her secret double revolts. This double is both an external and a projected double; and thus the patriarchal house with its imprisoned madwoman is symbolically the house of Jane's body, with the madwoman in the attic of her mind. Consequently, through her double-self in Bertha, Jane must burn the house in order to be free of her 'demon rage' [2]. Both Bertha and the Bertha within her must be destroyed.

After Jane's acceptance of Rochester's marriage proposal her fears intensify and find release through her subconscious. As little Adele, the external double of the orphan child, whom Jane perceives as an - 'an emblem of [her] past life' - sleeps soundly beside her, Jane dreams her recurrent dream of the projected orphan double (the 'baby phantom'). This unwanted apparition symbolises Jane's past self haunting her, and it cannot be exorcised until her own dark-double acts out its own self-destruction, burns down the patriarchal house of Thornfield and revenges the orphan's plight. Indeed, in her dream her haunting alter-ego rolls from her knee at the very point of this destruction.

As Jane dreams about this intense action, her external double finally materialises in the figure of Bertha Mason. Jane sees her double face-to-face in the mirror as if it were her own: 'At that moment I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass' (p340). This image is a reflection of the incident in the 'red room', where Jane experiences the terror of confronting her own double for the first time. She perceives this double to be a ghost of her own substantial self, (just as her own projected double Bertha is later rumoured to be a ghost).

the strange little figure there gazing at me, with a white face . . . and glittering eyes of fear moving where all else was still, had the effect of a real spirit (p10).

Rhys's use of the mirror in Wide Sargasso Sea, to symbolise the duality of the self, can be seen to parallel Bronte's. Antoinette, whilst looking in the mirror, recounts 'the girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself' (p147). The two selves - the reflected self and the 'real' self - are separated from each other. Antoinette relates that when she 'was a child and very lonely [she] tried to kiss her [her own reflection]. But the glass was between us - hard, cold' (p147). Self-wholeness is prevented by a looming solid wall. As Coral Howells avers, 'it is the separation of the mirror which is operative, not the conjunction of self and image' [3]. The entities of selfhood, are thus doubly imprisoned in the world of reality, and the world of the mirror, which is itself a kind of chamber - 'a mysterious enclosure in which images of the self are trapped like diverse parchments' [4]. It has depth and a negation, which is itself paradoxically an actuality. In Jane Eyre also, little Jane whilst looking in the mirror relates: 'All looked colder and darker in that visionary hollow than in reality.' (p10).

Gilbert and Gubar point out further that the use of the mirror itself, (the impenetrable wall of separation), in women's writing can be seen to represent patriarchal judgement. Indeed, Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, illustrates how Antoinette's identity is so completely diminished through patriarchal oppression that when she looks in the mirror she does not recognise her own reflection:

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. (p154).

Antoinette does not realise that what she sees is a reflection of her deteriorated selfhood; for her selfhood has undergone an irretrievable split.

Rhys's great achievement in her re-writing of the Bronte text is her creation of an external double to the madwoman, which transforms the bestial Bertha into an individual woman who has been 'othered' by imperialistic and patriarchal oppression [5]. Rhys gives Antoinette a voice, and restores her humanity. Her madness is shown throughout the novel to be a reaction to oppression, rather than congenital, as the novel Jane Eyre implies. Rhys illustrates the injustice of Rochester's assumption that the mother's madness must inevitably be passed on to the daughter. Furthermore she illustrates how Rochester himself forces Antoinette to become this double of her mother. For in Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester's rejection of Antoinette is the final straw in her isolated, painful, emotionally-deprived life, which causes her to adopt an exact mirroring of her mother's expression, (a frown - 'deep as if it had been cut with a knife') which is symbolic of despair. Like her mother, Antoinette suffers a breakdown of selfhood, which allows Rochester to label her 'Bertha'; the stereotype of madness created by patriarchal society. The transition of the free-spirited Creole girl, who had 'the sun in her' (p130), to the bestial Bertha is the chilling metamorphosis which leads us through suspended time back to the other novel - Jane Eyre.

This passage from one text to another is ingeniously enacted by Rhys through a series of dreams, which merge into a circular pattern of enclosure from which Antoinette cannot escape. The first of these three dreams occurs after Antoinette's literal separation from Tia. Tia is what Antoinette wishes to be - her projected double - strong and resilient ('fires always lit for her, sharp stones did not hurt her bare feet.' (p20). Their separation is as painful to Antoinette as a splitting of the self. The first dream, with its threatening 'heavy footsteps' of 'someone who hated [her] . . . coming closer and closer' (p23), anticipates what the progression of the dream will carry her to: a division of the most extreme kind - madness. This lurking mad-double follows Antoinette through her transition into maturity and throughout the novel.

Tia too, as 'her own dark double' [6] remains symbolically with her. Tia acts out Antoinette's own rage and grief (which her name - Tia - symbolises), but from the other side of the mirror of racial division. Tia throws a stone at Antoinette which hurts her face, but as though it is happening to her image in the mirror, she doesn't feel it. The tears on her double's face mirror the blood on Antoinette's - 'It was [she says] as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.' (p38). To join her own dark double Antoinette must act out her vengeance and destroy Bertha, the 'othered' woman, and the patriarchal house which is imprisoning her.

Antoinette's marriage is the culmination of this enforced literal oppression, and the second of her symbolic dreams anticipates it. The mysterious man of the dream, the prophetic figure of Rochester, leads her into this prison of unreciprocated love, (as Rochester will later do with his false protestations of love and safety - his immaculate 'performance'). It is when she is trapped in her literal prison that Antoinette will have her final dream. In it she must jump off the roof of the attic back into that past where her identity lies and join with her projected double, Tia, who 'was there . . . beckon[ing]'. It is when she wakes and the dream ends that the decisive move has been made between the two texts. As Coral Howells avers, Antoinette's 'going along the passage is also her journey back into another text, Jane Eyre which is the only place where her history can have its ending'. [7]

Like that stagnant area of the Atlantic ocean from which the novel takes its name, the suspended overlap between the two texts imprisons Antoinette. Although her jump towards her own projected double is an escape out of the suspended present into the past, the escape is illusory. Although in spirit she jumps back into the past, in reality her jump ends in the smashing of her physical body at the foot of the patriarchal house. As Coral Howells says, if you jump back into the past there is nowhere to jump but to your death - thus 'Antoinette's moment of authenticity is also the moment of her destruction'. [8] Tragically she must burn the house with herself inside it, in order to destroy the patriarchal house of oppression. The only escape for Antoinette, from the terrible oppression of patriarchy, is suicide.

In Jane Eyre, however, Jane, after the destruction of her own dark double, is able to attain equality and peace, (although admittedly this equality only exists on the margin of society, in the secluded Ferndean). What Jane Eyre succeeds in doing, and what Antoinette does not, is to destroy her demon self - her raging ire - before it destroys her.

Antoinette and Jane can be seen as external doubles on a literal level, for they are both marginalised isolated women in a male patriarchal world. Although the contexts they live in are a world apart, their experiences are similar. Both are orphans in the emotional sense. Both, too, travel from one prison to another as the respective novels' progress. Antoinette's isolation in the nunnery and Jane's isolation in Lowood, (where she 'had lived the life of a nun') become paradoxically safe havens for them. They both embrace their isolation as a kind of security. Despite this doubleness, however, the fates take a very different turn. While Jane learns to survive through the practice of self control, Antoinette refuses to cry and 'bend' emotionally as Rochester wishes, and actually breaks her selfhood.

Rochester and Antoinette are separated by a gulf of misunderstanding, and in this misunderstanding of each other's worlds they too can be seen to double each other. The boundaries thus become blurred between self and other. Both are trapped in the other's world. Antoinette's dreams of imprisonment and the footsteps following her in the forest are a mirror image of Rochester's waking encounter in the 'hostile', illusory forest. He recounts 'I stood still so sure I was being watched that I looked over my shoulder.' (p86). The tragedy is that through their mutual misunderstanding of each other, neither realises that the following footsteps are the steps of the other.

Rhys, on a literal level in her rewriting of the Jane Eyre text, created a double to Bronte's Rochester which has the effect of subverting our belief in his innocence in the Jane Eyre text. In an alien context he is no longer the firm Byronic male without need for guilt or remorse. In his conversation with Christophine, stripped of this imperialistic and patriarchal justification, Rochester realises his own culpability, if only temporarily. When she chastises him for his intentional cruelty Rochester's inner voice says 'It was like that . . . It was like that'. But better to say nothing.' (p127). Through this small glimpse into Antoinette's world which Christophine has provided him with, he acquires a momentary recognition of Antoinette's vindication from guilt and lunacy: 'suddenly, bewilderingly, I was certain that everything I had imagined to be true was false. False.'

Rhys furthermore shows that Rochester's cruelty towards Antoinette is due to a projection onto her of his hate for his father, and the marriage arrangement which he has been pushed into: 'They bought me, me with your paltry money. You helped them do it. You deceived me, betrayed me' (p139). His anger is the anger of the oppressed. Like Antoinette he is a victim of imperialistic and patriarchal oppression. In this too they are doubles, but they do not recognise their duality.

In Jane Eyre, Jane and Rochester on the other hand, are true complementary doubles. From their first moment of meeting they experience a symmetry of thought. Jane's notions of the 'North of England spirit' (p131) when she unexpectedly encounters Rochester, mirror his 'unaccountably [thinking] of fairy tales' (p143). Unlike Antoinette, Jane feels 'akin' to Rochester, and he too sees in her his 'equal [and his] likeness'. The slight ludicrousness of the scene in which the despairing Rochester calls out to Jane, and receives a telepathic answer, followed by her frenzied return to him, can be read as a symbolic illustration of the merging of identity between them; a duality which crosses not just space and time but also gender barriers.

Rochester's decline into wildness, as a result of unreciprocated love, in Jane Eyre, constitutes another doubleness which crosses the gender boundaries of the novel. Like the Bertha/Antoinette persona, Rochester becomes 'mad' when Jane tries to leave him. Jane relates that 'his voice was hoarse and his look that of a man who is just about to burst an insufferable bond and plunge headlong into wild licence'. We are told that Rochester who 'never was a wild man . . . got dangerous' after Jane left him (p516). He too has a mad double hidden away; a demon rage that comes out when he is thwarted.

Miller points out that 'there is a popular duality which claims that there is no such thing as character, that human beings are a flux, and a sum of their changes, chances and contradictions' [9]. Certainly, an exploration of the layered doubleness of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre reveals that the doubleness of selfhood can exist across all boundaries, and that we all have a double life lurking within us.

Gilbert and Gubar. A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress. (in The Madwoman in the Attic).
Coral Ann Howells. Jean Rhys - The madwoman comes out of the attic - Wide Sargasso Sea.
Miller, Karl. Doubles: studies in Literary History

1. Karl Miller. Doubles. Studies in Literary History (Oxford University press 1985) p416
2. Gilbert and Gubar The Madwoman In the Attic - 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane's Progress' p349
3. Coral Ann Howells Jean Rhys 'the madwoman comes out of the attic' p115
4. Gilbert and Gubar The Madwoman in the Attic p343
5. In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys's re-writing of the unquestioned imperialism of Jane Eyre from the point of view of the white Creole woman, is central to an understanding of the novel. Although space limits an exploration of this issue within the essay, it must be noted that colonialism in the Rhys text can be seen as another double - the 'other side' of the imperialistic assumptions of Jane Eyre.
6. Coral Howells p121
7. Coral Howells p122
8. Coral Howells p121
9. Miller p47

© Liz Lewis, December 2001

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