This essay has no notes from me on it, but this writer composed consistently persuasive, well documented argument. If there's time, I'll insert edits/commentary this weekend.
7 August 2010
An Oppressive Contract
Pressured into taking a subservient role in marriage, women during the 19th century were powerless in a society governed by men. According to English Common Law, when a man and a woman are married, they become “a single person in the eyes of the law—that person being the husband” (Phelps and Lehman, “Husband and Wife”). Women are left out of participating in the important decision-making in the marriage. By submitting themselves to their husbands, women begin to lose their own identity as they lose any sort of independence. In Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette has been set-up in an arranged marriage to Rochester. Their marriage did not last, as their incompatibility led to bitter disagreements causing Antoinette to lose everything that she once had. Arranged marriages oppress women into playing diminished roles in society in which they lose their own identity by being reduced to nothing more than mere objects dependent on men.
Antoinette’s harsh childhood in which she struggled to find an identity would contribute later to her emotional collapse in the end. Antoinette was born a Creole, so she could not find a niche in her society in which to be accepted. Antoinette tried to befriend the African people in the community such as Christophine and Tia. At first, Antoinette thought Tia was her friend; however, she betrays Antoinette, taking her money and clothes. Antoinette could not be accepted by the black community as they call her “white cockroach” (Rhys 13). Not only does the community reject her, but also her own mother as well. As a child, Antoinette could not find love as her mother was always looking after her brother. Her mother would push her away, “calmly, coldly, without a word” as Antoinette was “useless” (Rhys 11). This lack of being loved can affect the way she approached her relationship with Rochester. When she met Rochester, she was so desperate to find someone to love, that it blinded her judgment. She did not bother to take heed of Aunt Cora’s warning. When a person such as Antoinette never experiences the warmth and comfort of love, he or she will look for it in the wrong places and sometimes make wrong decisions. The internal struggle to find an identity as a young child can later affect an adult’s life. She did not belong in any one culture, so all her life she had to keep searching for a place to belong.
Moreover, Antoinette’s dependence on others for protection also stemmed from being lonely growing up. From her early childhood, she was always running away, escaping from the problems that she had to deal with in her life. Whenever Antoinette was faced with a challenge she would always tell herself that she “had forgotten” and that everything would be alright (Rhys 18). By burying her memories, she tries to avoid dealing with the issues in reality. Her agreement to marry Rochester was partly because she wanted a sense of protection and comfort that could be attained with marriage. When Coulibri was burned down, symbolically, part of Antoinette was also gone as this was her sanctuary where she can hide from the rest of the world. Antoinette made a poor decision as she makes herself vulnerable by being so dependent on others. She liked to be told that she was “safe’” and to be touched on “her face gently and touch tears” (Rhys 55). Antoinette fulfills a role that women were expected to play which was to be submissive and dependent. Women were expected to marry because society prevented them being able to assert their independence and pursue their own endeavors. Antoinette was incapable of empowering herself as she was just still very child-like in her dependence on others.
The arranged marriage between Antoinette and Rochester was based less on love than in economics. During this time period, the elite classes married primarily to combine wealth and to transfer property. The wife was expected to provide a dowry making marriage an important financial investment for the two parties. For men like Rochester, the dowry that they received would be the largest influx of cash that would ever be able to obtain. The function of marriage for the man and woman was mainly about social and economic functions while the “individual needs and desires of its members (especially women and children, its subordinate members) were secondary considerations” (Coontz 977). Rather than asking the woman what she thought of the arrangement set up by family, society has put all the decision-making into the hands of men. Women no longer had a voice to be able to assert their own opinions. Marriage was not based on individuals being mutually attracted to each other, but on the wealth and power that can be obtained.
Similarly, Mr. Rochester married Antoinette not for love, but for her wealth that he hoped would give him the power and prestige that he yearned for. Rochester wanted to secure his own independence from his father and brother by marrying Antoinette, effectively securing everything that Antoinette owned as well. Narrating most of part II, Rochester gives the reader his perspective of the marriage. Rochester did not feel any love during the wedding as he remembers it being “very strange” and that it “meant nothing” to him (Rhys 45). He was just there for the dowry that he was going to get after marrying Antoinette. In a way, the arranged marriage between these two is more of a business contract than holy matrimony. Both Rochester and Antoinette had their own reasons to get married with none being stemmed from love. Rochester wanted his money while Antoinette wanted security that Rochester seemed to offer. Women in this society were oppressed in their arranged marriages. They were not able to voice their own opinion as their husband decided for them. Antoinette just wanted to be loved with everything she had to endure in her childhood, but she found no security and warmth with Rochester in the end. In arranged marriages, the woman’s need is the one that has the least priority.
Moreover, since the marriage between Rochester and Antoinette was not founded on love, it was doomed to fail in the end. Besides the money that he would attain by marrying Antoinette, Rochester also enjoyed the physical pleasures that he would get with Antoinette. Rochester was not in love with her, but “thirsty for her” (Rhys 55). As a person who has been married rather hastily, he was never able to fully understand who Antoinette was. Instead, he only cared for what she looked on the outside and how she would satisfy his own physical desires. He was not able to take the time and peel away the mysteriousness of Antoinette and her background. The problem with arranged marriages is that when there is no connection between the two beyond the physical lust, they would gradually lose interest as their bond is not as strong as one formed from love. Rochester continues to distance himself from Antoinette to the point where he decides to cheat on her and sleep with Amelie. With Amelie, he was able to feel “so gay, so natural” for he had no “moment of remorse” (Rhys 84). Rochester feels no pain as he had removes any sort of emotional attachment to his wife. By making Antoinette feel jealous, Rochester is able to achieve dominance and control over his wife. This further drives Antoinette into a state of detachment from reality as she is devastated from her husband’s actions. As a young woman who had already experienced so much pain, it would have been extremely hard for her to know that her husband, whom she so desperately wanted to love, cheated on her. In arranged marriages during the 19th century, some men like Rochester did not marry for love so they did not have any loving emotions toward their wives. They only saw their wives as merely possessions and never cared for how they felt. When a relationship formed from lust goes awry, the weak connection between the two will be instantly revealed as the relationship disintegrates.
For Rochester, the Jamaican environment’s foreignness gave him a reason to deviate from the social norms as he was in a completely new world that was wild and unformed compared to that of a sophisticated 19th century Victorian Society in England. Rochester describes the natural, remote world with “the hills, the mountains, and the blue-green sea” as a world that was “not only wild but menacing (Rhys 41). It was a place with no rules that were dictated unlike the structured society back in England. Here in this savage place, he was able to show his desires that may not have been as accepted back in England. In the early Victorian Era, “men represented the fallen, sinful, and lustful creatures, wrongfully taking advantage of the fragility of women” (Lee, “Victorian Theories on Sex and Sexuality”). This society believed that men were given the ability to use their energy for going out and supporting the family, while the women were expected to just have children and watch the household. Men were expected to control their own inner desires and to be the protectors of women. The women were viewed as soft and weak as they were expected to depend on their husbands for everything. The conservative ideals of the roles both women and men were thought to lead to a happy marriage. Deviating from the Victorian ideals of an honorable, caring man with morals, Rochester would coldly ignore Antoinette’s problems. He would even make her suffer by cheating on her. With the marriage being in a foreign country, Rochester’s insecurity with being in an unknown place leads him to also place his fears onto Antoinette. He could not trust her, just as he could not trust the island itself. In arranged marriages, the feelings of women are ignored as they become nothing more than assets that come included in the marriage transaction.
Furthermore, Rochester’s controlling nature as a husband drives Antoinette into transforming into nothing more than a lifeless doll. When Rochester discovers that Antoinette had been deceiving him, he wants to have complete control over her life. As a white Englishman, he was expected to remain in control of his marriage and to show his role as head of the family. He was used to having his power over his wife that he must control her both physically and emotionally. Christophine, who has been the protector of Antoinette, blames Rochester for making “love to her till she drunk with it, no rum could make her drunk like that, till she can’t do without it. It’s she can’t see the sun anymore. Only [Rochester] she see. But all [Rochester] want is to break her up” (Rhys 92). Rochester is able to keep Antoinette in control by playing with her emotions and making her desire him, driving her into a frenzy of frustration and anger to the point where she succumbs to Rochester’s dominance. Antoinette’s naivety blinds her from realizing that Rochester never truly loved her. In arranged marriages, the woman is hurt sometimes because the husband may have never really loved her. When Rochester changes Antoinette’s name to Bertha, he effectively breaks down any sort of identity she had of herself. She becomes even more detached from society as she becomes a “marionette” who is forced “to cry and to speak” (Rhys 92-93). Rochester wants to remain in a position where he has control over his environment in this remote place in the world. He is able to conquer any remaining will that Antoinette has and in the end, Antoinette becomes a completely different person, bending to the instructions of her husband. The problem with arranged marriages during the time is that men played the dominant role in the relationship. They decided what the woman could do and could not. Rochester exercises his male dominance to subdue whatever passion and will that Antoinette has left in her. Woman needed to break free from their subservient role in a marriage to really be independent in society.
Moreover, since women were expected to remain pure and obedient, reputation was all a woman had. According to Robert C. Long, women were unable to free themselves from the confines of their marriage to their husband:
“Her social and intellectual growth was confined to the family and close friends. Her status was totally dependent upon the economic positions of her father and then her husband. The perfect lady’s sole role was marriage and procreation. All her education was to bring out her natural submission to authority and innate maternal instincts” (“Sexuality in the Victorian Era”).
During this era, women did not have the same personal freedom as they do in today’s society. Women had just a single duty in marriage, which was to reproduce and take care of children. This limited a woman from pursuing anything else that she would have wanted to do. Raised into a patriarchal world where they must conform to the wishes of an authority figure, women grew up to be nothing more than the property of men. They could not express their own thoughts and became powerless just as Antoinette became a mere puppet to Rochester. Since women were to remain devoted to the household, anything that would tarnish her image as a faithful and obedient wife would ruin her reputation and standing in society. She had to exemplify the ideal woman by being graceful and pure. When Rochester meets Daniel, he finds out that Antoinette could have been sleeping with others before she had met Rochester (Rhys 75). In Victorian society, reputation was all a woman had. They were expected to uphold the high standards that have been put onto them by society. In his mind, Rochester wanted Antoinette for himself as he wanted to be the one with the power in his relationship. Women become oppressed in these marriages as they are no longer able to express their own freedom and become trapped within their own prison. They must worry about how others view them as their only access into society is through their image and reputation. Women had to struggle to live up to society’s expectation rather to strive for their own goals.
Arranged marriages limit the role women take in society, forcing them into submission to become the possessions of men. Society fails to take into account the needs of women as it prioritizes the needs of men first. Although arranged marriages may help the family overall by continuing the family wealth and bloodline, it ignores the problems that women must face. Had Antoinette been able to choose her husband without any pressure, perhaps she would have chosen a creole man who could identify with her problems. By being able to choose her own husband, she would be able to empower herself from being just a subservient, dependent woman. Only when women are able to make their own choices are they truly freed from the oppression of society.
Coontz, Stephanie. "The World Historical Transformation of Marriage." Journal of Marriage and Family 66 (2004): 974-79. JSTOR. 3 Aug. 2010 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3600171>.
Lee, Elizabeth. "Victorian Theories of Sex and Sexuality." The Victorian Web. 1996. 3 Aug. 2010 <http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/sextheory.html>.
Long, Robert C. "Sexuality In The Victorian Era." Innominate Society. 1 Aug. 2010 <http://www.innominatesociety.com/Articles/Sexuality%20In%20The%20Victorian%20Era.htm>.
Phelps, Shirelle, and Jeffrey Lehman. "Husband and Wife." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Cengage Learning, 2005. 318-22. Gale.