Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics

doi: 10.7392/Research.70081927

Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach

Akintunde Olasupo

ORCID ID 0000-0003-3804-6787, Department of English, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria


This paper attempts to take the wraps off the notion of ‘segregation’, using the literary expertise of the Welsh-born Caribbean writer Jean Rhys, in her ground-breaking novel Wide Sargasso Sea. Through a psychoanalytic reading and interpretation of Rhys’s text, the paper argues that segregation has often been wrongly masked through common human preconceptions, such as racial, gender and religious prejudice, which, as the study posits, are mere catalysts. Conversely, segregation purports to be psychological: its real nature is hinged on some human psychological debility which tends to be tenuous, yet elusive. Segregation tears apart the human psyche and enables the eruption of suppressed and repressed id not only in the segregationist but also in the segregated. Its usual aftermath on us as human beings is nothing but foolhardiness and cataclysm.

Keywords: segregation, psychoanalysis, id, ego, stereotype, catalyst, intertextuality.

Citation: Olasupo, A. (2013). Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics, Online(open-access), e70081927. doi:10.7392/Research.70081927

Received: January 16, 2013.

Published: February 16, 2013.

Copyright: © 2013 Olasupo, A. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.



Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps more than any other literary work produced in the late 20th century by a West Indian writer, displays the complexity of the experiences of the human psyche, especially in issues of racial and gender segregation. Perhaps, her attempt to string together the thematic preoccupations of her previous novels explains the reason not only for the complexity of the narrative, but also for its astronomical achievement in the literary sphere, despite her prior public disappearance from the literary scene. According to Elaine Savory (1998: p. 1), 

It is crucially important to explore the contexts of Rhys’s work, especially her placement of the role of writing in her life and of race, class, nationality, gender and religion. She was interestingly contradictory on these subjects, and inclined therefore to tell a story which was Janus-faced, capable of capturing opposing readings of the world which usually failed to communicate well with one another.

Savory alludes to the Classical mythological figure, Janus, who is believed to possess a pair of faces, each pointing at different directions at the same time, to depict the fictional and non-fictional contradictions that exist in the psyche of Rhys and as also portrayed in her heroines. Rhys’s complex upbringing and life experiences seem to explain the complexity of all her works, but most notably, her Wide Sargasso Sea. Though the narrative reproduces the distinct sensibilities of a West Indian writer, it also carries the hallmark of European modernism. 

Born of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother, Rhys’s parental heritage positions her between two competing ideologies: ‘one that sought to exoticize Caribbean life and one that incorporated the racial pluralism of West Indian values’. 

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She is also believed to have been brought up by black servants who got her introduced not only to the language of the indigenous Caribbean people, but also to their customs and religious beliefs. The totality of her upbringing has a great deal of influence on her masterpiece. Going by these complexities in her life, Panizza (2009: p. 1) describes Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea thus:

Because of its hybridity, its medley of cultural references and moods, the extreme passions and fears it unfolds, Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s most problematic novel, revealing the author’s own psychological complexity and the inner conflict that tore her mind apart and that is variously reflected in all her heroines. With them, Jean Rhys shared the Caribbean origins and the difficult integration into British society that resulted in a mental split that she in writing, her characters in living, will try to resolve.

Although many scholars have pointed out that Wide Sargasso Sea is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1776), some others have argued that, looking at the context of Rhys’s life experiences, her masterpiece is in a class of its own. The reason for this latter assertion could be because the context behind the content of the narrative is an expression of the writer’s experience, not merely a retelling of an earlier work. However, suffice it to say that, from all indications, there is the vivid display of intertextuality between Rhys’s narrative and Bronte’s. Apart from Bronte’s Jane Eyre, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas has also been argued to have influenced Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Earl McKenzie (2009: p. 56) elucidates on the intertextuality that exists between the two literary works:

While V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas is the story of a man who succeeds in making the West Indies his home, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea... is an account of a woman who is unable to do so.

As a result of its versatile nature, the narrative has been interpreted from various perspectives, such as feminism, post-colonialism, and so on. Nonetheless, it is the belief of this study that the story has more to say concerning the complex psychological effects of the human nature called ‘segregation’ on whoever it possesses and wherever it is domiciled. Moreover, it has more to say “through its experimentation with narrative and exploration of the unconscious.”

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Notably, segregation does not only affect the female characters in the story, male characters are also affected; it does not only affect the coloured characters, white characters are not left behind. Hence, the whole narrative is described as “a brilliant psychological portrayal” (Sandra Drake, 1999: p. 194).

Alienation and Madness in Wide Sargasso Sea

To begin with, the narrative is divided into three parts, with Rhys’s protagonist, Antoinette, narrating the first part while her unnamed husband, who is Rochester in Jane Eyre, narrates the second part, and then the third narration goes back to her. Rhys’s avant-garde narrative perspective is suggestive: it presupposes the complex, undulating nature of the human psyche and its inability in establishing the ‘centre’ amidst interlocking emotional and psychic experiences that trouble it. Rhys first suggests this very nature of the human mind through her title, Wide Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is said to be located mid-way between the Atlantic Ocean and the West Indies. It is known for its complex currents, which make it very difficult for sailors to navigate. McKenzie (p. 1) puts it this way:

Like the Sargasso Sea, a mass of seaweed surrounded by swirling currents in the Atlantic Ocean, the novel’s troubled heroine is suspended between England and the West Indies and belongs fully to neither.

Rhys, therefore, uses the Sargasso Sea to foreground the complex nature of the currents of the human mind as regards race, gender, and segregation. However, in the midst of these, she attempts to locate the ‘centre’ of the spherical nature of the human psyche in the character of her heroine, Antoinette. Interestingly, locating the ‘centre’ is paramount in Caribbean works that examine issues of slavery, exploration, segregation, and so on:

The explorer’s narrative, always pointing from the center to the islands located at the margins of the seas, is a narrative produced by the center, for the center, and of the center. 

(Harry Garuba, 2001: p. 61).

This is what Rhys attempts to achieve in her masterpiece. Having grown up amidst different kinds of people in the West Indies, she determines to write her story focusing on islands, as the Caribbean is known for these. She attempts to find, as it were, the centre of gravity of her life experiences. However, as W.B. Yeats boldly declares in his classic poem, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” (line 3). For Rhys’s characters, things, in one way or the other, fall apart such that the centre, which is as far as this study is concerned, the human psyche, is fettered, battered, and ultimately shattered. The whole narrative, in the words of Howells in Kamila Vrankova (2007: p. 123-124), is the psychologically traumatic effect of segregation and alienation:

Accordingly, Jean Rhys’s story of alienation is centred on two crucial metaphors: the sea and the island. The sea as an image of separation and an increasing distance suggests the split in both space and time: the conflict between different civilisations, between the past and the present... as well as between the inner world of the individual and the surrounding reality....”

Hence, the popular saying that, “The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart” should not be jettisoned because the aftermath of such conquering of the mind is usually catastrophic.

Of particular interest to this research is the psychological cause of the different levels of madness that pervades the narrative. Insanity at various levels is preponderant in Antoinette’s family, beginning with her father, Alexander Cosway, who is said to have drunk himself to death; then to her mother, Annette; also, her brother, Pierre, and finally Antoinette herself. However, this study focuses, most importantly, on Rhys’s heroine and the subtle psychic cause of her supposed madness. Is she actually mad as the characters in the narrative are made to believe? Ironically, though she claims to hear a sound in her head while she is incarcerated by her husband, a symptom of madness, she claims to know the reason for her forced migration from Jamaica to England.

While making use of different levels of relationship, such as daughter/mother, friend/friend, individual/society, wife/husband, Rhys’s narrative explicates segregation’s subtle manoeuvring of the human psyche through ‘hatred’. The series of inimical and hostile behaviour of the native blacks towards their non-black neighbours in the narrative justifies this assertion. As a grown-up child, Antoinette feels alienated from Annette, her mother. She presupposes that her mother’s sudden change in behaviour has something to do with Pierre, her mentally-deranged brother:

My mother got a doctor from Spanish Town to visit my younger brother, Pierre, who was staggering when walking and could not speak clearly. I do not know what the doctor said or what my mother said to the doctor, but I do know that the doctor did not return and, thereafter, my mother changed (WSS, p. 7).

Perhaps, Pierre’s mental illness, as well as the poverty in the family, owing to the passage of the British Emancipation Act of 1833, which freed black slaves in Jamaica, is responsible for Annette’s somewhat repelling behaviour which makes her neglect and ward off Antoinette’s affectionate advances:

My mother wanted to be seated next to Pierre or walk wherever she wanted without anyone bothering her, wanted peace and quiet.... My mother said: “Leave me alone, I want to be alone” (p. 8).

According to Anne Simpson (2005: p. 116),

Rhys creates a mother in Annette who is genuinely incapable of offering love to her daughter, who repeatedly fails to mirror Antoinette’s attitudes and behaviour, and who thereby demonstrates how a child’s sense of her own reality may be steadily eroded.

Such a child is forced to jettison the:

belief in love and in loving. Instead, ordinary hate establishes itself as the fundamental truth of life. The child experiences the parents’ refusal of love and their constant aloofness or harshness as hate, and he or she in turn finds his or her most intense private cathexis of the parents to be imbued with hate.... To be cathected by a parent, even to the point of becoming a reliable negative self-object for him or her, is a primary aim for children, as their true dread is that of being unnoticed and left for dead (Bollas: 1987, pp. 129-130).

Antoinette does not only feel segregated through her mother’s unfriendliness, she also feels hated by the native black Caribbean people in her neighbourhood. She receives taunts from the black children around her vicinity: 

One day a young girl followed me, singing “Go, white cockroach, go, go.” I started walking fast, but she walked faster. “White cockroach, go, go. Nobody wants you here. Go away” (p. 10).

Even from her bosom friend, Tia, a black Caribbean girl, Antoinette feels hated. She once refers to Tia as a ‘nigger’; her friend, however, retaliates by saying that Antoinette and her family are “white niggers,” not like the “real white people” who have money and position. When she later returns home, wearing Tia’s clothes, because the latter steals her clothes, her mother is embarrassed to see her girl’s slave-like appearance. Believing that her mother is ashamed of her, Antoinette decides that what Tia says about her must be true. Consequently, she fears that she can never belong to white or black people. Hence, she feels psychologically maladjusted, seeing herself as an alien and a recluse.

Most pathetically, her feeling of hate and segregation reaches its climax and her world comes crumbling down when once again her closest and only friend, Tia, pelts a stone at her during the fire incident that claims Pierre’s life and destroys Annette’s parrot, Coco:

Then, not far away, I saw Tia and her mother, and ran to her because she was all that remained of my life, as it had been. We shared the meal, we slept next to each other, and we had bathed in the same river. As I ran, I thought, I will live with Tia and be like her.... When I came, I saw the rough stone surface that was holding, but I saw the cast. Nor felt. Just noticed something wet ran down my face. I looked and saw her face contorted, as if to like to mourn. We looked, with blood on my face and tears in hers (pp. 29 & 30).

Antoinette’s hope of sharing part of her life with her bosom friend is brought abruptly to an end since Tia, like every other black Caribbean, chooses hostility rather than hospitality. This is what hatred does: once it takes hold of the human psyche, it brings in other unpleasant things, such as animosity, hostility, and of course, madness, no matter how small. In the narrative, almost all the characters, both blacks and Creoles, display one level of madness or the other. Annette’s reclusive attitude, earlier on in the story, foreshadows her eventual and complete insanity; Tia’s intermittent display of hatred towards Antoinette connotes another level of madness; the arson raid carried out by Mr. Mason’s black servants, and much later, Antoinette’s husband’s imposed and painful isolation all showcase one level of insanity or the other. And so, Antoinette has many archetypes for the demonstration of hatred. 

Since both she and her family are alienated based on colour and class, she bottles up not only the hatred of her mother, but also the envy of the native Caribbean people on the island. Her ultimate fury at the end of the narrative is anticipated by the remote hatred she experiences right from her childhood. In her final encounter with Tia, during the burning down of the Coulibri Estate, Antoinette’s sublimation of her repressed id, a somewhat hostile response to those who would later hurt her feelings, is foreshadowed:

We looked, with blood on my face and tears in hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass (WSS, p. 30).

She is like a “wounded child who has become an assailant in reaction to repeated experiences of neglect and loss” (Simpson, p. 117). So, through Antoinette’s experiences in the narrative,

Rhys establishes a world in which everything rests on problematic and strained relationships: between people of different nationalities, races, languages, classes, against which the struggle to maintain connection even within a family can seem puny and defeated (Savory: p. 136).

However, this hatred vividly presupposes what prejudices people of different races hold against one another as they get along in their relationships. The narrative begins in 1839, six years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, of which Jamaica was part. As a white daughter of ex-slave owners, Antoinette has a double complexity, which makes her neither white nor black. Since her widowed Creole mother belongs neither to the black community not to the dominant class, being despised by both groups, Antoinette “... becomes a double outsider: ‘white nigger’ for the Europeans and ‘white cockroach’ for the Blacks” (p. 124). Jean Rhys herself being a white Creole, Antoinette’s story reflects the author’s own “sense of displacement:” her feeling of being “dispossessed at home” and living as an exile in England (Vrankova).

Looking critically at the Cosway family, the hatred from their immediate community brings internal fear that stare each member in the face. For Antoinette’s mother, she does not only dread Pierre’s illness, she also fears the hatred of the black people in Coulibri against white Creoles. She tells Mr. Mason, her new husband, of her fears:

One day my mother said flatly: “We could leave the farm in the hands of an administrator. Here, people hate us. At least, hates me.... I do not want to stay in Coulibri. It is dangerous. It is dangerous to Pierre” (WSS, pp. 17, 20).   

At the beginning of the story, Antoinette questions why her family does not have friends coming around visiting; her mother tries to hide her fears:

When I asked why so few people visited us, she said the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate, where we lived was very bad and now the road repairs had passed into history.... I got used to the solitary life.... (p. 6).

Unfortunately for both Antoinette and her family members, “Mr. Luttrell, our neighbour and only friend” (p. 6) kills his dog and subsequently commits suicide due to the economic crunch which former slave owners unavoidably experience because of the Emancipation Act that freed all British colonies at that time. 

Annette’s fears become real when she loses her horse and her parrot, Coco, the family’s estate and Pierre, her son, to an arson raid set up by Mr. Mason’s black servants:

God! They have gone to the back! They set fire to the rear of the house! (p. 24).

Turning over to the wife/husband relationship, the novel seeks to humanise the racially pejorative characterisation of a West Indian madwoman. This is important for Rhys because, as Vivian Gornick (1986: p. 9) puts it:

All her life she felt herself a sexual innocent crushed by the Mr. Mackenzies of this world: men of power who were aroused by her and then turned on her, reviled and humiliated her, left her “all smashed up.”

Therefore, through the character of Antoinette, Rhys seeks to correct the stereotypical portrayal of the female folk, not only in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but in most phallocentric literary works. Though Rhys’s heroine hopes to find some respite in her English husband, who is Rochester in Jane Eyre, she is faced with perhaps the same hatred which she experiences as a little girl. Thus, she is condemned as an outsider, who belongs neither to the Caribbean nor to England. Ultimately, conflict ensues between European and West Indian consciousness through Antoinette’s fatal relationship with Rochester. As Vrankova (p. 124) puts it, 

Both Antoinette (Bronte’s Bertha) and her husband (Bronte’s Rochester) are trapped in an imposed and painful isolation.... In the marriage of the two protagonists, the cultural, social and religious differences become insurmountable due to the paradoxical similarity of the unsolved conflicts and frustrations deep in their minds.

In the narrative, Antoinette’s unnamed husband is portrayed as a man who has no moral respect for women; rather, he “sees women as objects to be exploited for money and sex” (McKenzie, p. 59). For instance, he agrees to marry Antoinette not only because he is offered thirty thousand pounds dowry by Richard Mason, Antoinette’s step-brother, but also because he would ultimately own all her assets. He admits that though Antoinette is beautiful, he sees her dark eyes as sad and alien. In fact, in courting her, he admits that he is only playing a role. And when he eventually rejects her, he compares her with a dead girl: “I drew the sheet over her gently as if I covered a dead girl” (WSS, p. 88). Antoinette’s husband’s domination could be said to, in one way or the other, conclude and finalise her alienation and supposed madness. Thus, at the level of husband/wife relationship,

This novel is a powerful portrayal of the possible tragic consequences of patriarchy, which I take to be the sum of all material, sexual and ideological efforts to dominate women.... This domination plays a critical role in her eventual alienation, “madness”, and the dehumanizing control of her body which we see in her transportation and incarceration (McKenzie, p. 59).


Rhys’s heroine, in a similar vein as the author herself, is torn between two opposing worlds. Suffice it to say that her psyche is suspended between these two worlds; however, she belongs to neither. The racial and gender alienation, as well as the hatred, which she suffers in the hands of those she unwittingly thinks are her own people condemns her to be regarded as a madwoman. Just like the complex currents of the Sargasso Sea, the human psyche is torn apart amidst complex human feelings, which constitute complex human responses to issues of segregation. Though racial, gender, and religious prejudices are physical manifestations of man’s impish nature, the real issue behind the human nature of segregation is precipitated upon some human psychological debilities which tend to be elusive and tenuous.


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Cite this paper


Olasupo, A. (2013). Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics, Online(open-access), e70081927. doi:10.7392/Research.70081927


Olasupo, Akintunde. “Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach.” Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics (2013): e70081927. Web. 13 Feb. 2013.


Olasupo, Akintunde. “Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach.” Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, no. open-access (February 13, 2013): e70081927.


Olasupo, A., 2013. Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics, Online(open-access), p.e70081927. Available at:


1. A. Olasupo, Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach, Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, e70081927 (2013).


1. Olasupo, A. Alienation and Madness: A Literary-Psychopathological Approach. Open Science Repository Language and Linguistics Online, e70081927 (2013).


Research registered in the DOI resolution system as: 10.7392/Research.70081927.

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