Dreams as Narrative Structure in Wide Sargasso Sea

By E. H. Townsend, illustrator: From Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte), New York: Putnam and Sons, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I waited a long time after I heard her snore, then I got up, took the keys and unlocked the door. I was outside holding my candle. Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do” (190). Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), is a post-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). The novel has become a contemporary classic in its own right.

In the narrative, the main character, Antoinette, has a series of dreams which serve as a skeletal structure for the book and also as a means of empowerment for Antoinette. The dreams serve as an outlet for Antoinette’s true emotions, which she cannot express in a normal fashion. The dreams also become a guide for how she will take back her own life. While the dreams foreshadow events for the reader, they also illustrate the maturity of the character, each dream becoming more complicated than the previous. Each of the three dreams surface in Antoinette’s mind at a crucial point in the character’s waking life and the development of each dream represents the development of the character throughout the story. 

The first dream takes place when Antoinette is a young girl. She had tried to befriend a Black Jamaican girl, Tia, who ended up betraying her friendship by stealing her money and her dress, and by calling her “white nigger” (26). This first dream clearly outlines Antoinette’s fear about what happened earlier in the day and her youthful naivety: "I dreamed that I was walking in the forest. Not alone. Someone who hated me was with me, out of sight. I could hear heavy footsteps coming closer and though I struggled and screamed I could not move" (26-27).

The dream not only points out her new fears, which have stemmed from the abuse received by her “friend,” Tia, but also the detachment of her dream world from reality. The dream points out her confusion about what is happening in the world around her. She does not know, in the dream, who is following her, which underlines the fact that she does not realize how many people in Jamaica wish her and her family harm. The fact that, in this dream, she uses only the past tense, suggests that Antoinette is not yet developed enough to know that the dreams are representational of her life.                                   

Antoinette gains empowerment from this dream, in that it is her first warning of danger.  She wakes up and recognizes that “nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing” (27). These words foreshadow future events: the burning of Coulibri, the second betrayal of Tia (when she throws the rock at Antoinette), and her eventual departure from Jamaica. The first dream has matured her mind a bit to the possibility that all things may not be well.

Antoinette’s second dream occurs while she is at the convent. Her step-father comes to visit and give her news that a suitor will be coming for her. Antoinette is mortified by this news, saying “[i]t was like that morning when I found the dead horse. Say nothing and it may not be true” (59). The dream she has that night is, again, frightening but important:

Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind.‘Here?’ He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly.  ‘Not here, not yet,’ he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, ‘It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.’ I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it.  ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. ‘Here, in here,’ a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking. (60)

The first observation that can be made by studying this dream is that Antoinette’s character is maturing and becoming more complex. The dream is darker than the first, filled with much more detail and imagery. This suggests that Antoinette is more aware of the world around her, but the confusion of where she is going and who the man guiding her is, makes it clear that Antoinette is still unsure of herself, simply following along because she does not know what else to do. 

Secondly, one must note that, unlike the first dream, this is told in the present tense, as if it is happening at the moment and the reader is meant to listen in. Why does she narrate the dream like a story, rather than a memory, as she told it after the first? The answer to this question must be that this dream is a part of her rather than simply something she vaguely experienced. In the first dream, Antoinette does not recognize at all where she is walking or who is chasing her; however, in this dream, while there is still some confusion, she does know that she is in the forest outside Coulibri and that it is a man, rather than “someone.”

Also, the second dream alludes to future events. It is known that her step-father plans to marry Antoinette to an available suitor. The white dress, which she tries to keep from getting “soiled” represents her being forced into a sexual and emotional relationship. One can assume, then, that the white dress represents a wedding dress and that the “dark man” would represent Rochester, who she eventually marries and who does eventually grow to hate her. 

Thus, if the man represents Rochester, then it is also certain that the changing of the forest at Coulibri into a garden with “different trees” must represent Antoinette’s leaving the wild Caribbean for “proper” England. The eventual ending of Antoinette’s physical journey is Rochester’s attic in England and this, also, is foreshadowed in her dream: “[i]t will be when I go up these steps. At the top.”

The third dream takes place in the attic at Thornfield. Again, it takes place after a significant moment; Antoinette had been told by Grace Poole, her caretaker, that she had attacked Richard Mason when he came to visit. At this point, Antoinette has lost all sense of reality or geography. Poole tells her that they are in England and Antoinette responds, “‘I don’t believe it . . . and I never will believe it’” (183). This confusion of identity and placement carries on into her dream, where it is unclear whether or not Antoinette is awake and relating from memory, or dreaming.

The reader is led into the dream, first, by Antoinette’s episode with the red dress. The dream becomes a continuation of the foreshadowing set forth by this dress: “I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire” (186). She continues, “I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now” (187).

From here, the dream immediately begins. This dream is much longer than both previous and is explained as if not a dream, but reality. This time, the dream is not singularly past tense or present tense, but a combination of both because Antoinette seems to be telling it from memory, as if the events actually happened. She incorporates her dream events with events that had actually taken place: “At last I was in the hall where a lamp was burning. I remember that when I came. A lamp and the dark staircase and the veil over my face. They think I don’t remember but I do” (188).

As her dream progresses, she begins entertaining even more distant memories. She sees Christophine, even asking her for help, which is provided by “a wall of fire” (189). Antoinette ends up outside, on the battlements, where she remembers many things from her childhood, which flow seamlessly between past and present:

I saw the grandfather clock and Aunt Cora's patchwork, all colours, I saw the orchids and the stephanotis and the jasmine and the tree of life in flames. I saw the chandelier and the red carpet downstairs and the bamboos and the tree ferns, the gold ferns and the silver . . . and the picture of the Miller's Daughter. I heard the parrot call as he did when he saw a stranger, Qui est la? Qui est la? and the man who hated me was calling too, Bertha! Bertha! The wind caught my hair and it streamed out like wings. It might bear me up, I thought, if I jumped to those hard stones. But when I looked over the edge I saw the pool at Coulibri. Tia was there. She beckoned to me and when I hesitated, she laughed. I heard her say, You frightened? And I heard the man's voice, Bertha! Bertha! All this I saw and heard in a fraction of a second. And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought Why did I scream? I called "Tia!" and jumped and woke. (189-90)

This dream is filled with symbolism which are important to the reader’s understanding of what has happened and what will happen. They are also a guide to Antoinette. The grandfather clock and flowers, for example, bring Antoinette back to her childhood where she was not always safe but, for a time, felt like she belonged. The fire, which is warm and colorfully red represents the Caribbean, which was Antoinette’s home. She realizes, when Tia calls to her, that her place was in Jamaica all along. Many people wanted Antoinette’s family gone, Coulibri was burned, and yet, in Jamaica, Antoinette had a home. Her identity was ripped away from her by the move to England and especially by Rochester, who, for a time, has been calling her “Bertha,” a made up name.

Each of the dreams in Wide Sargasso Sea has an important significance to the development of the book and the development of Antoinette as a character. The first dream displays her innocence to the reader while awakening Antoinette to the fact that there is real danger ahead. In the second dream, Antoinette foreshadows her own marriage to Rochester and her removal from the Caribbean, where she is no longer sure she belongs. Finally, in the third dream, Antoinette is given back her sense of identity. This last dream provides Antoinette with a course of action for breaking free of her subjugation as Bertha Mason while also foreshadowing to the reader events to come in Jane Eyre.

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Burgess, Adam. "Dreams as Narrative Structure in Wide Sargasso Sea." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/dreams-in-wide-sargasso-sea-3964610. Burgess, Adam. (2021, September 3). Dreams as Narrative Structure in Wide Sargasso Sea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dreams-in-wide-sargasso-sea-3964610 Burgess, Adam. "Dreams as Narrative Structure in Wide Sargasso Sea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dreams-in-wide-sargasso-sea-3964610 (accessed March 21, 2023).