Rochester's Illness

Zoe Ripple '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

The following scene from Wide Sargasso Sea takes place after Antoinette and Mr. Rochester spend an evening together drinking wine, debating her rightful name and questioning their happiness ("We are letting ghosts trouble us. Why shouldn't we be happy?"). Mr. Rochester desires his wife, who has never looked "so gay or so beautiful." He wants to "bury my face in her hair as I used to do", longing to return to a time that has passed. They drink, they sleep, but when he wakes, Mr. Rochester feels physically ill and believes he has been poisoned: Antoinette has attempted to take his life, which seems to make him as "mad" as she is. His reaction to illness, and perhaps to the entire situation in which he lives, is both a physical and emotional one. Strikingly, it seems that these terms used to describe Mr. Rochester could be used to describe Antoinette at other moments in the book, which for me allied an otherwise disconnected couple.

I woke in the dark after dreaming that I was buried alive, and when I was awake the feeling of suffocation persisted. Something was lying across my mouth; hair with a sweet, heavy smell. I threw it off but still I could not breathe. I shut my eyes and lay without moving for a few seconds. When I opened them I saw the candles burnt down on the abominable dressing table, then I knew where I was. The door on to the veranda was open and the breeze was so cold that I knew it must be very early in the morning, before dawn. I was cold, too, deathly cold and sick and in pain. I got out of bed without looking at her, staggered into my dressing room and saw myself in the glass. I turned away at once. I could not vomit. I only retched painfully.


I do not remember that day clearly, where I ran or how I fell or wept or lay exhausted. But I found myself at last near the ruined house and the wild orange tree. Here with my head in my arms I must have slept and when I woke it was getting late and the wind was chilly.


To what degree might this illness also be a reflection or manifestation of an emotional response Mr. Rochester has about his entire marriage to Antoinette? In this passage, is it possible to imagine this "wretching" human being as Antoinette rather than Mr. Rochester?

What does this say about their positions relative to one another? Are there other passages in the novel when perhaps Mr. Rochester or Antoinette might be substituted for each other?

What are the implications for their characters if they act/behave similarly? Does Mr. Rochester become mad, does Antoinette become sane?

In the scene that ensues, does Mr. Rochester behave in a way that might mirror the behavior or thought process of his supposedly mad wife? What happens to Mr. Rochester in these moments, and how does this affect him for the remainder of the text?


Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.

Main Web Page Caribbean Jean Rhys Discussion questions

Last modified 7 January 2004