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The Masculinist Center and Feminine Periphery: Film Adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea

In Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Jean Rhys brings the periphery to the center by rewriting the story of Bertha in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) as she appropriates the “madwoman in the attic” within post-Emancipation Jamaica. Rochester and his first wife Bertha in the literary terrain of the Gothic romance are recontextualized and dis/replaced in Rhys’s postcolonial novel and transported from the urban space― England to Jamaica―to the tropical island of the Caribbean as Edward Rochester and Antoinette Cosway Mason. Two decades later, the dialectic of the center and periphery in the novel is transported to the screen as film adaptations in 1991, 1993, and 2006. The aesthetic preoccupations of the directors Michael Gilkes, John Duigan, and Brandon Maher relatively converge in conveying the spirit of the novel, yet diverge in their distinct strategies of style, tone, and design of the literary source text. By ideologically departing from the textual predecessor and neglecting the reproach of the colonized, Antoinette, who demands a way of expression against the dominant discourse by bitterly uttering, “There is always the other side, always” (Rhys 81), the 1993 and 2006 film adaptation of the novel have sympathetic detachment from the perspective of the periphery, which is the focus of this study.

Contrary to extensive scholarship on Rhys’s novel as a canonical postcolonial novel, criticism on the film adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea is limited to a book chapter published almost two decades ago and two journal articles. Comparing how the cultural background of the directors shapes their production of meaning, Jane Bryce argues that Duigan’s film focuses on entertainment by following established Hollywood conventions “to suspend the viewer’s capacity for disbelief,” while Gilkes’ fourthly-five-minute film Sargasso! A Caribbean Love Story, released by the Caribbean Tales Inc. with a budget of $30,000 has an educational function with the involvement of regional institutions like the University of the West Indies. Stressing his pedagogical instead of commercial motivation, Gilkes claims,

We in the Caribbean, always more acted upon than acting, need to re-establish those priorities which ‘the people’s TV’ should serve: literacy… education and meaningful information. The involvement of our educational institutions, therefore, in TV and radio production and programming is essential. (qtd. in Bryce)

Despite the film’s educational commitment stated by both Gilkes and Bryce, the title of the film ironically accentuates the romanticized and sensual part of the complicated legal and financial partnership of the characters. In his article, Doris Hambuch argues that Maher’s TV adaptation is closer to the spirit of the novel despite its infidelity to the plot line of the source text, while Arash Moradi and Alireza Anushirvani promises to analyze Duigan’s film as a reflection of the anxieties of aborigines in Australia, which is a reference to Duigan’s background; however, their article simply discusses the novel instead of the films and has a brief mention of only the 1993 version.

The scarcity of criticism points out the necessity of urgent scholarly attention devoted to the analysis of not only the TV adaptation of Brandon Maher in 2006 but also the earlier versions to investigate the fundamental, intersectional, and intertextual relations between them and their unique aesthetic dimensions within the comparative approach of adaptation studies and feminist film theory. They deserve scrutiny as useful representations in understanding and interrogating the visual legacy of colonialism and patriarchy as established institutions perpetuating the marginalization of women. Addressing the evident scholarly need and expanding the previous research on meeting the spectator’s expectations in conventional cinema, this study argues that the 1993 and 2006 film adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea are mainstream films with the visual and narrative concerns of the metropolitan masculinist viewpoint, reflecting the political, racial, and sexual subjugation of the imperial center over the colonial periphery. They reduce the polyphonic and heterogeneous points of view in the novel to a single monolithic male perspective. Focusing on the social and ideological level of the visual narrative as a complex cultural and social product, this study seeks to understand the choices made by the directors in dealing with the conventional binaries commonly deployed in narratives which deal with the displacement of the politically marginalized: the opposition of the center to the periphery; the urban to the tropical; the masculine to the feminine.

In transporting the spirit and the mechanics of one sign system (novel) into another (film) as adaptations, the form of the original work changes while its content is reframed to rhetorically and aesthetically highlight the different aspects of the story. The recent criticism in adaptation studies concentrates more on new assessments in the variations of the texts and intertextuality by moving away from the naïve notions of fidelity to the original source as a moralistic approach in evaluating the adaptation’s “success.” According to Christopher Orr, it is not about “whether the adapted film is faithful to its source, but rather how the choice of a specific source and how the approach to that source serve the film’s ideology” (72). Rather than discussing the proximity or fidelity of the adaptations to the original text, the adaptation is considered for its own reinterpretive potential as an independent artistic form that has the intertextual relationship and historical and cultural connections with the source material. It is not a matter of similarity or dissimilarity between the source or the derivative texts, but rather of the recontextualizing and reformulation of the memory of source text within a new context. In this respect, as “material variations” of the same story, adaptation is “repetition without replication” (Hutcheon 7). Repetition in adaptation creates an illusion of sameness, which “allows the spectator to satisfy his/her desire for repetition during the performance of the film” (Orr, “Written” 3). However, it is challenging to both satisfy the spectator’s desire for repetition and appeal to a mass audience since translating the verbal sign system of the novel to the verbal, visual, and oral system in cinematic narrative is both an aesthetic challenge to the literary original and economically-driven attempt for artistic and commercial success.

Appealing to the global market and meeting the spectator’s expectations undoubtedly shape the choices made by directors as in the 1993 adaptation Wide Sargasso Sea, directed by John Duigan, released by an Australian company Fine Line Features, and rated NC-17 due to its explicit sexual content. Duigan collaborated with Jan Sharp, both the film’s producer and screen writer, and Rhys’s biographer Carole Angier; however, he exposes his dissatisfaction about the alliance in an interview, saying, “I had major disagreements with [the production company and] the producers… I think the film did suffer from that division… I felt that it had some major flaws so I wasn’t particularly happy with it” (Duigan). Duigan’s statement draws attention to how the actualization of the text in the adaptation process is up to not only film maker but also various participants (before, during, and after the production) such as the director, (who is ultimately held responsible) performers, composer, cinematographer, and the dynamic interaction with the audience and critics. Besides textual context involving the connection between the adaptation and other texts, the outside influence like the producer, audience, market, and the other production materials shape the director’s choices and interpretive strategies.

To set up audience expectations and appeal to the knowing audience, Wide Sargasso Sea (2006), produced by Kudos Film & Television for BBC Wales as a film for TV and directed by Brendon Maher is advertised as “the prequel to Jane Eyre.” Maher’s film overtly asserts an intertextual link with the English literary canon to create an illusion of familiarity and “to fill in the gaps.” Linda Hutcheon emphasizes how “adapters rely on this ability to fill in the gaps when moving from the discursive expansion of telling to the performative time and space limitations of showing” (121). At the interplay of expectation and surprise, the knowing television audience would bring a different interpretation to the adaptation with their tracing of intertextual relationships and overlaps. To reinforce audience’s visual and audial immersion and the pleasure of familiarity, the adaptations of classical novels by the British TV includes a certain style with “the use of longtake, extreme long shots of grand buildings,” “the preference for slow, smooth tracking shots,” and “their use of a certain type of elegant, decorous or wistful orchestral music on their soundtracks” (Cardwell 80). Whether they are screened in theaters worldwide or displayed on TV for a relatively exclusive audience, Duigan and Maher’s adaptations have an international scope to maximize the dissemination potential. Concerned to appeal to diverse global audiences, both films serve the reinforcement of patriarchal and colonial discourse by solidifying the imperial center and silencing the subjugated by appealing to the spectator’s desire for repetition and pleasure.


In Wide Sargasso Sea (1993), Duigan’s visual language has linear conventions of classical narrative technique that symmetrically follows the sequence of actions and speeches in Rhys’s prose. Duigan establishes a narrative parallelism with the first-person novelistic approach as the novel switches between different narrators by using a female point of view only in the first half of the film in exploring the level of objectivity, the emotional and psychic world, and the childhood traumas of Antoinette. This illusion of sameness creates the emotional and intellectual resonance and provides a temporary point of identification for the viewer. To be loyal to the chronology of the hypotext and its first-person narration, Duigan uses voiceover―a hybrid verbal-visual filmic syntax and a visual equivalent for novelistic effect to insert memories of the character and allow the use of flashback as a rhetorical effect for the introductory descriptions of the setting and characters. The relationship between different shots and the verbal narration is reinforced by the voiceover simultaneously creates an aural dimension and contributes to the contextualization of an image. What is seen and what is told are completely different; however, the spectator is distanced and drawn in at the same time, and cognitively expected to establish an immediate link between the simultaneous image and sound tracks as part of the symbolic and pictorial construction.

The emphasis on the voiceover, which is autobiographical and confessional, helps the viewer follow the mind of the narrator who reveals the individual and collective psyche to build an intimate connection. In the opening sequence, a French-accented unidentified adult female voice in the “present” heard and the images of a tropical setting in the “past” are unfolded with verbal descriptions of the impoverishment and displacement of the Cosway family after the slave emancipation in 1834, when the Cosways lost their plantation, leading to the death of Mr. Cosway, whose “loss” of as a former slave owner was not financially compensated by the British government. The voice-over proceeds narrating the ambivalent position of Creoles on the island and their racial otherness―the main conflict in the narrative―among the European whites and free native blacks. Although the female voice is heard and who is speaking matters, giving the woman’s voice an accent reduces its discursive authority by ascribing to woman “linguistic incapacity and a general vulnerability” (Silverman 61). The discursive impotence of the female voice and the subordination of female corporeality isolates the “unseen Other” from enunciative authority within the diegesis. She is heard but not seen, which would be “dangerous,” according to Kaja Silverman, since “it would disrupt the specular regime upon which dominant cinema relies; it would put her beyond the reach of the male gaze” (164). However, the divorce between women’s speech and image is “only temporary; the body connected to the female voice is understood to be in the next room, just out of frame, at the other end of a telephone line” (Silverman 165). This ephemeral liberation of the female subject speaking out of frame is illusive as it indicates her disembodied and limited verbal and visual representation. The retrospective speech of Antoinette is both nostalgic and tragic, dramatically portraying her lonely and vulnerable years in which she constantly seeks for maternal affection, social acceptance, and approval. Duigan juxtaposes the complex social and political history of the Caribbean with the traumatic childhood and adolescence of Antoinette, the distant relationship between the mother and daughter, and hostilities they experience which accelerate their physical, emotional, and racial alienation.

By contrast, Antoinette’s mother, childhood, and convent days are visually omitted in Maher’s adaptation as a different emphasis of the director within his major structural rearrangement, but briefly narrated by Antoinette during Edward’s interrogations. She is pressured to talk, and her past is involuntarily “extracted from her by an external agency,” which is her husband, and “uttered by her in a trancelike state” (Silverman 31). Antoinette is visually and thematically displaced on the screen, while the plot sequence is radically reordered to stress the conflict, established at the beginning of the film. Dechronologizing the narrative of the novel through the manipulation of time and space relations, Maher expands the possibilities of perception. Rather than taking a conventional approach, Maher resequences the storyline to represent cinematic illusion and a temporal dimension. The non-linear narrative strategy both challenges and entangles the spectator’s desire for repetition by subverting the narrative about time and setting in the source text with the opening of the film that corresponds to the closure of the novel. This shift in plot sequence attempts to explicitly make an association with the literary and cinematic reputation of Jane Eyre to create a sense of nostalgia as if it was a nineteenth-century Victorian novel adaptation to appeal mass audience, English in particular. As if they were in the fictional universe of Jane Eyre, the spectators are consciously absorbed in the canonical and thus familiar text in the opening scene of the gothic portrayal of the Victorian country mansion Thornfield Hall and in following shots of eerie portrayal of Rochester’s first wife Bertha― the inspiration for Rhys’s novel. 

Maher depicts Antoinette’s physical confinement and displacement in the opening scene where she is lost and confused while Grace Poole is annoyed in the gothic scenery of a room shrouded in darkness as a liminal space, where the dialogue between them is: “When are we going to England?” and “You are fool. This is England.” The contrast between spaces is highlighted in the following sequences of shots where “the cardboard world [in England] … with no light in it” (Rhys 162) is grimly dark, “sad and cold and empty” (Rhys 169) contrary to the Caribbean, stereotypically depicted with purple hills, green fields, palm trees, blue sea, and sunny sky in the pastoral landscape painting on the wall at which Antoinette stares. (see Figure 1) In a close-up view of Antoinette’s amazed face in an emotional moment to convey intimacy and intensity, the red flames are seen on the background, symbolizing revenge, liberation, and destruction of Thornfield Hall as a patriarchal/colonial structure and forming a striking contrast by making the dull space momentarily hot and bright. The color-coding mise-en-scène serves for the visual architecture of the structure in the opening sequence and brings the static image to “life” as the viewer looks at the painting with Antoinette in an over-the-shoulder shot. The painting is fading-out while the timeframe, location, music, and the point of view abruptly shift in the following shots, showing foggy purple mountains, a green scenery, sunny day, and black women and men carrying boxes to the room where Edward Rochester is watching outside behind the curtains with uneasy manners and expression of repugnance, contempt, and bitterness on his face. Through the technique of shot/reverse-shot, the spectator is urged to identify with the gaze of Edward whose point of view aligns with that of the spectator. The use of a single long flashback and the visual transformation from a grotesque domestic interior to an open and lively landscape is a novelistic manipulation of dimensionality and a smooth transition of the focus from Antoinette’s displacement in England to Rochester’s alienation in the Caribbean.

The Masculinist Center and Feminine Periphery: Film Adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea
Hediye Özkan,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Antoinette is looking at the painting while the flames cover the room.

The hostile untamed nature and people around Edward are presented in the following shots by a rotten exotic fruit full of worms, a reference to Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, constant attacks of mosquitos, sickness, fever, and the mocking laugher or giggles of the natives. Like Adam, Edward is banished from England by his punitive father, a God-like figure, (the viewer never sees or hears him but feels his omnipresence) who punishes Edward by favoring his eldest son as the only heir of the estate according to the English law of primogeniture. Exiled from the patriarchal space, symbolically castrated, Edward becomes simply vulnerable to the supposedly dangers of the wild, untamed, and “feminine” environment as a space of alienation in which he is relatively forced to make an arranged marriage with Antoinette for her dowry. Deprived of paternal affection, he expresses resentment to his “Dear father,” conveyed through the male voice-over, reporting that £30,000 will be paid to him for his marriage so that he will no more be a burden and disgrace to the family in a wide-angle shot of Edward and Antoinette holding hands and ceremonially standing in the light of an open cathedral-like door, showing marriage as a symbol of sacred institution. The embodied male voice-over is self-revealing and authoritative. Contrary to the aforementioned female voiceover, it has the discursive control by speaking over the image of himself in the act of writing a letter in the following scene. The voiceover technique allows both directors to create an illusion of sameness by referring to the shifting point of views in the source text. Although it seems like Edward sells his soul for money, it is significant to remember that Antoinette is, in fact, sold by her step brother Richard after her father’s death in both films. Maher does not characterize Antoinette’s step father Mr. Mason perhaps to have a consistent God-like father figure, thus Richard Mason accompanies and directs Edward, portrayed as a victim tricked into an arranged marriage. Both Edward and Antoinette are displaced by the patriarchs of their families due to monetary ambitions as Edward bitterly confesses to Richard: “My father is as eager to wash his hands of me as you are to be rid of her.”

This financial security, however, does not decrease the prevalent sense of insecurity of Edward on the island where his rational restraint is challenged by sensual lure. More of a nightmare than a dream-like reality of the island disorients Edward, who is used to the domesticated and civilized nature of England―the desired center/there, compared to wilderness of the island―colonial periphery/here. Both characters question the reality of each other’s diametrically opposed worlds by comparing the mountains, seas, rivers of the island to the millions of people, thousands of buildings and streets of suburban England in Maher’s adaptation. The dichotomy of small island―Jamaica and big city―England that challenges their perceptions about the “center” will evolve into a clash between their cultural and racial background in their marriage. Duigan portrays this clash through a conversation in one scene where Edward refused to eat a tropical fruit, an indication of his antipathy and antagonism to his new surrounding and a biblical reference to the fruit of seduction. He is fearful of both landscape and its women. As a manifestation of this terror and skepticism, he spits the fruit, and Antoinette teases him about being “so English!” He rhetorically replies, “Of course I am. What else could I be?”, yet Antoinette gives both literal and playful answer: “Well, you could be like me, French, Welsh, a little Irish, a little pirate.” Antoinette’s ontological and epistemological identification with European colonists distances her from the cultural edifice of the Caribbean where she was born and grew up. Edward, on the other hand, addresses Antoinette “my little outcast!,” classifying her as a peripheral subject and the colonial Other in the following bed scene. She is neither English nor European based on his hegemonic vision. Antoinette pulls him into her space to break his deliberate resistance while Edward defies her as an “outcast,” a reference to her ambivalent racial and social status not only in the island but also in the English community he belongs to. In the pool scene, symbolizing repressed sexual desires, he ponders, “What would my friends in England think of you, wild creature, untamed, Miss Rochester.” This scene reflects his fear of racial mixing―miscegenation and social pressure due to his marriage with a Creole woman who does not fit in the Victorian ideologies of racial purity and cultural superiority. She is an outsider in the supposedly spiritually and morally superior English culture as being a “wild” and “untamed” Creole woman while he is “so English”, thus carries the “white man’s burden.” The idea of civilization versus savagery defines their position in their relationship as Edward systematically strives to “civilize” Antoinette to make her a Victorian woman to promote English national identity.

Masculine/Imperial Dominance

The relations of power and the racial and social clash between the characters are further explored through the symbolic language of the reenactment of the colonial encounter in both adaptations where Antoinette puts a wreath on Edward’s head, an indication of his symbolic imperial authority on the island― an extension of Antoinette’s identity― highlighting the dichotomy of civilized/ savage, colonizer/colonized, and superior/subordinate. In the master-slave connotation of the scene, by eagerly saying, “Now you are an emperor,” Antoinette ritually submits to him and the dominant culture―England. She situates herself within the periphery through the high perception of her husband, indicating the political and colonial relationship between England and the Caribbean. Edward, the embodiment of the Empire and an archetypal colonizer figure, stands in front of the mirror as not only the owner of the house but also Antoinette’s body and property. This scene symbolizes the rigid political and racial hierarchy between Antoinette and Rochester, suggesting female racial and sexual passivity.

Edward’s emblematic colonial role is also conveyed when he first appears in the film in a ship with British flag, highlighting a symbolic “invasion” and imperialist conquest while the sailors attempt to pull out a drowned sailor covered with seaweed, a suggestion to Rochester’s entrapment in his marriage and symbolic castration anxiety. Pretending to be a haughty and pious abolitionist, he does not approve of slavery upon seeing the natives in Duigan’s film; however, in Maher’s film, Edward overtly identifies with “Christopher Columbus on the shores of the New World” saying, “You are my undiscovered country and I claim you!” in a bed scene. With an equation of landscape and women’s body, Edward’s masculine colonist culture forms a sharp comparison with the “mysterious, exotic, feminine virgin” native culture.

Embodying the role of the colonizer, Edward’s imperialist reinvention of Antoinette begins with renaming her as an assertion of dominance as if like a slave-owner branding his slaves. He linguistically recreates her by calling her “Nettie” Antoinette’s mother’s name, after their argument in Duigan’s film. This scene, on one hand, is a reference to Antoinette’s future similar to her mother’s tragic fate, while on the other, “constitutes an attempt to occlude her genetic links with her mother and by extension with the family’s supposed hereditary insanity” (Sanders 102). In Maher’s adaptation, on the other hand, Edward claims that he will find “a proper English name” saying, “l’d like to think of you as something else.” To name is to legally and psychologically possess. As the epitome of colonialism, Edward’s subordination based on European epistemology reinforces the annihilation of selfhood by reconstructing Antoinette’s perception of herself according to the colonizer’s self-image.

Antoinette, however, verbally resists his linguistic and racial impositions of imperialist ambitions by clarifying that she is Creole, not like them or English by referring to the racial hierarchy in which she is trapped. In a state of cultural in-betweenness, she does not know who she is. Outside the circle of white respectability due to their declining economic status and the free but subordinate blacks due to their white colonist background, Antoinette is Othered by both English and natives, which accelerates her subjective ambiguity. She is both European and native and scornfully branded as “white cockroach” by the blacks and becomes socially outcast as a naturalized West Indian of European descent. Helen Tiffin explains, “The white Creole is, as a double outsider, condemned to self-consciousness, a sense of inescapable difference and even deformity in the two societies by whose judgment she always condemns herself” (328). Pointing out the outsider position, the voice-over narrates, “The English matrons hated my mother’s Frenchness and her irrepressible beauty.” The English inclination to look down on the French in Jamaica problematizes the place of Creoles in social structure as Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin mention: “place, displacement, and a pervasive concern with the myths of identity and authenticity are a feature common to all postcolonial literatures in English” (24). Due to ideological, racial, and historical barriers, Antoinette and her mother are Othered, unwanted and humiliated by both natives and English, which exacerbates betweenness and identity crisis.

Male Gaze and Fantasy

Pleasure in looking is reinforced in the fantasy world of the mainstream cinema, considered “in monolithically phallic terms” (Silverman 208), appealing to the conventional obsessions and assumptions in consumer society. According to Laura Mulvey, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (62).1 The ways of looking and spectacle in the traditional narrative cinema are structured around the fantasies and repressed desires of the male performer with whom the spectator is identified. Participating in the male performer’s power by means of identification, the spectator feels the sense of possession of woman and gaining control. The male performer is the main controlling figure as the meaning maker, while the visual presence of women merely serves for the enjoyment of the spectator as an erotic object to be looked at. The controlling male gaze voyeuristically is on the woman, making the spectator share his point of view. The identification with the camera and look of the male hero creates an illusion of a world that yields erotic pleasure and satisfy voyeuristic desires of the spectator.

Offering identification with the male narrative agency, both films appeal to male gaze and fantasy by depicting white man as the object of desire within the dynamics of repressed male and “exotic” unbridled Creole sexuality to satisfy the voyeuristic demand. Pornographic and interracial sex scenes, Edward’s rape attempt, frontal male and female nudity blatantly serve for the male gaze and phantasy in Duigan’s film although sex is obliquely mentioned in the novel. The film’s NC-17 rating undoubtedly creates a specific framework of reception and prospective consumers as the audience is part of the context of reception. The reviewers locate their own reading of the film as some of review titles are “Fear and loathing on location” in Newsweek, “Hot Nights and Naked Flesh in Jamaica” in Rolling Stone, and “Lust at Sea” in New York (Bryce). As the review titles suggest, the film is in the category of specific spectatorship and market. Set in the exotic Caribbean, a fantasy-evoking unfamiliar territory, a symbolic female terrain, Duigan’s film is an erotic fantasy appealing to the male gaze. For Jamaican novelist Michelle Cliff, the film is “A soft-porn romp in the tropics, a sort of Emmanuelle goes to Jamaica, complete with jungle rhythms [...] from wet dream to castration nightmare [...] this film is terrified of the dark” (qtd. in Bryce). It is produced within a specific cultural nexus and heavily relies on the concept of female sexual appeal and identification with the leading actor.

The spectator is restricted to look, stare, watch, and scrutinize woman and her body through Edward, whose eyes the camera follows. In a dancing scene where two bare-chested black men are playing drums, Antoinette and sexualized back maid Amelie are portrayed as if two rivals, fighting for the attention of Edward who is portrayed as the object of desire in the second half of the film. We see through Edward’s look, and he takes place of the viewer while woman’s body is fetishistically objectified and fragmented (face, breasts, legs) with close-ups and the erotic image appears directly to the spectator. Besides dancing women, black drummers are placed on the side of the spectacle. They are sexualized with close-ups to their sweaty shiny bare chests in fragmented scenes going back and forth between the moves of women’s bare feet and drummers’ fast hands which simultaneously gets faster, lauder, and intense during the earlier orgasm scene where Antoinette and Edward are having sex in their marriage chamber. The rhyme and tempo together create pace and tension and enrich the audial and visual perception of the audience. When Antoinette eventually notices Edward’s stares, she invites him to dance with them but is rejected. Ironically, in the same evening, Edward attends a party where he willingly accepts to dance with a young woman who believes that the island is not an appropriate place for a lady. Their conversation manifests how the island is rejected and Othered as well. The slow saloon dance in the elaborately decorated hall draws a contrast between the fast dance in front of the honeymoon house and highlights the metaphorical polarity between civilized/ uncivilized worlds, between Jamaica and England, and between Antoinette and Edward.

To present women as sexually desirable, Duigan reinforces a stereotypical view of black woman through Amelie, depicted as a shameless and lascivious servant, who seduces her white master and becomes the victim of white mistresses’ jealousy and wrath. Amelie, a jezebel figure contrary to masculinized and desexualized Mammy figure Christophine, stands totally nude near the door of her log cabin. She seductively stares at Edward, suggesting sexual proclivity and feeding the stereotypes that the black women are available and lustful. The gaze of the spectator and that of Edward is neatly combined in the conventional scene showing Amelie’s naked body, a product ready for consumption. Associations between women and sexuality in this scene are explicitly built. This scene along with other scenes where Amelie seductively stares at Edward and giggles calls for the imminent voluptuous interaction between the two which occurs when Edward wakes up sick at night due to the unexpected effect of love potion Antoinette gives him to restore their relationship. Half-naked Edward grabs and copulates with Amelie (see Figure 2) who seems like enjoying the moment, while inside the room; Antoinette desolately hears the loud noise of the betrayal. Already racially, linguistically, and financial isolated, Antoinette is now sexually and emotionally displaced in her marriage. The following shots indicate that Amelie spends the night with Edward, who is staring at her lying in bed. Edward ironically offers money, technically Antoinette’s money as “a little gift” in return for Amelie’s sexual favor, saying, “You’re beautiful enough to get anything you want.” The one-dimensional stereotypical portrayal of black woman legitimizes the laud and intense sexual encounter on the porch. Black woman―the exotic other is propagated as either dangerous or criminal like Christophine or sexually promiscuous like Amelie who leaves by saying, “I feel sorry for you,” a sarcastic and symbolic invitation of the spectator to share her sympathy for him.

The Masculinist Center and Feminine Periphery: Film Adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea
Hediye Özkan,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. Edward is about to strip Amelie.

Besides black women’s stereotypical erotically-potent position, they are portrayed as precarious like Christophine who is “the most ferocious-looking creature,” “sounds like an old witch!,” and has “disgusting” language according to Edward. Besides Antoinette who gives him the love position, Christophine’s intimidating image as an obeah woman evokes the threat of castration. Exemplifying this apprehension, Mulvey explains the ways of escape from the castration anxiety of male unconscious:

preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or the saving of the guilty object,… or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the repressed figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. (64)

To bring Christophine’s “crimes” to light, Edward, who represents the Law, writes a letter to the chief who informs him about her background in the novel. In Duigan’s film, his knowledge about Christophine’s past is implied in a conversation where he threatens her by calling the soldiers and showing them the poison in the wine bottle as her “guilt.” He punishes Christophine by driving her out from both his and Antoinette’s spheres to reclaim his masculinity and imperial subjectivity. Likewise, Edward learns Antoinette’s secret and “guilt” after a conversion with her half-brother Daniel, who implies Antoinette’s inherited “madness” and her sexual stain, saying, “You are not the first to kiss her pretty face.” The mental and racial taint follow a sexual taint which ruins Edward’s sexual fantasy about pure chaste woman. As if long waiting for this moment, he immediately punishes Antoinette by exposing her “guilt,” a devaluation of her sense of self, and breaks down her emotional stability with his sexual betrayal.

When Christophine, the only protector of Antoinette and the main threat for Edward’s masculinity is silenced and physically eliminated, her absence creates the opportunity to perpetuate his dominance over Antoinette. Edward’s frustration and the growing erotic obsession are portrayed with the rape attempt in a scene of male violence. This is the projection of forced subjugation and an imperial ramification of political and cultural dominance of the empire and the inadmissible eruption of male desires for exotic women like Antoinette, eroticized and exoticized as Duigan’s choice of female star Karina Lombard, a half-Lakota Indian with a dark-complexion. Rationalizing his imperialist lustful expansion earlier in the film through an interior monologue, Edward reveals his voyeuristic and sadistic thoughts: “I am hungry for her”; however, “No matter how close we are in the dark... she is still a stranger to me... a stranger who does not think or feel as I do”. The unconcealed language of physical desire reasserts violence which drives the male character’s behavior and the sexual power relations. The sexual drive as Dennis Porter puts it “seeks to dominate and humiliate and finds its ultimate expression in a rape” (548). Expecting a negotiation after his betrayal, half naked Edward approaches Antoinette, lying on the bed in her white undergarments, with a suggestion of physical invitation and an assurance, saying, “Everything’s clearer without [Christophine]”. Antoinette rejects his offer of an olive branch and defensively hits his hand in a cat-mouse game scene where they are portrayed like a prey and predator, circling in the room, waiting for a timely escape or a fatal attack. Edward eventually grabs and faces down her on the floor (see Figure 3) while he is on the top, trying to limit her movements and touching her thighs. Expecting a kiss when he allows her to turn, Antoinette spits in his face which primitivizes as well as sexualizes exotic woman. Contrary to how, “Antoinette requires Rochester to be the sadist to her masochist in order for him to help her transform a reenactment of historical slavery into physical pleasure” earlier in the film (Gilchrist 476), by spitting she declines such physical pleasure as a response to his infidelity. The spectator’s sexual satisfaction is, on the other hand, stimulated in the physical confrontation of the male and female stars. Mulvey associates voyeurism with sadism which “depends on making something happen, forcing a change in another person, a battle of will and strength, victory/defeat…” (64). Though Edward’s sadism ends up with defeat, humiliation, and remorse (as he pretends to hold back tears and demands sympathy after he releases her), the spectator achieves sexual gratification by watching and experiencing the morbid form of enjoyment.

The Masculinist Center and Feminine Periphery: Film Adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea
Hediye Özkan,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Edward forces Antoinette to lie down and touches her thighs.

Erotic pleasure is blatantly central in Duigan’s film and manifestly shown while erotic is coded in the language of particular scenes in Maher’s adaptation since Edward is depicted as the object of desire while Antoinette is forcibly associated with Bertha in Jane Eyre. In the opening scene, where Edward is asleep on a chair, the ghostly figure of Antoinette cautiously approaches to her estranged husband who is able to hold a glass of drink while sleeping. (see Figure 4) Antoinette’s gaze is steady, and her monstrous portrayal resonates with Jane Eyre’s definition of her as a “beast or human being … covered with clothing, a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, a wild mane hid its head and face” (Brontë 250). The abominable depiction clearly motivates Rhys, who feels a need to write back to Brontë’s demonization of Bertha: “She [Bertha] seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life” (Rhys, “Interview” 235). Gaps and silences in the narrative provide motivation and a starting point for the adapter as “Appropriation is frequently involved in a process of reading between the lines, offering analogues or supplements to what is available in a source text, and drawing attention to its gaps and absences” (Sanders 60). Rhys’s retrieving the woman’s repressed story through textual decolonizing, however, does not relatively resonate in Maher’s visual narrative since Antoinette’s haunted portrayal indicates that the film relies on the foreknowledge of the established canon Jane Eyre rather than Wide Sargasso Sea. This familiar reference in newly resonant context stimulates the sense of similarity and difference of the audience and reinforces the canonical status of Jane Eyre by not liberating the repressed character from the spectator’s expectations deriving from prior knowledge.

The Masculinist Center and Feminine Periphery: Film Adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea
Hediye Özkan,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4. Antoinette is staring at sleeping Edward.

Besides her creepy depiction in the opening scene that reinscribes the canon, Antoinette’s actions and one-sided interaction with Edward in the subsequent scenes draw an image of a sexually obsessed and mentally unstable lover/stalker. In an attempt to inhale Edward’s scent, Antoinette disturbingly gets closer to his face with a desiring gaze at his lips, touches the edge of the glass and licks her finger afterwards, as an implication of an indirect kiss. A sequence of shots of flashbacks shows Edward’s naked buttocks and Antoinette’s groping, a love making scene where intense panting is simultaneously mixed with his whispery voice, ironically promising how he would keep her safe. The sensation of fear though floats all around her as if she woke up from a nightmare and accidentally drops the candle that burns down the gothic mansion along with her fears. Haunted by her repressed traumatic remembrance, Antoinette is portrayed not only like a hysteric ghost starving for attention, but also a lascivious woman who is reduced to recall only the love making memories with her estranged husband. The manifestation of feminine interioriority and psychic drama depicted through the flashbacks create a sense of unreality, reveal the train of thought inside the character, and illuminate a certain aspect of the story as the rapaciousness of her sexuality situates Edward as an object of desire.


While the film maker’s intentions to adapt a material can be based on both aesthetic and financial factors such as capitalist desires for gain and mass audience reception, Rhys explains her bold intention of why she chose the marginalized literary character for an appropriation, saying, “I had always wanted to write about [Bertha Mason] ... I was annoyed about the poor lunatic West Indian, she’s not a true character at all, unlike Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, so I wrote her” (Rhys and Burton 108). Her pedagogical impulse and deeply personal and idiosyncratic commitment are at play in revisiting the fragmentary allusion of the familiar story and creating a sustained postcolonial and feminist appropriation as a subversive response to the canonical cultural authority of the original text. Positioning itself in relation to its canonical precursor by envisioning a kind of backstory against the very specific historic-cultural context of post-Emancipation Jamaica, Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea gives voice to the marginalized, engages in larger social, racial, and cultural critique through reworking, and involves in the political and aesthetic dimensions of intentionality by culturally relocating the text.

In the network of textual associations between the source, adaptations, and appropriations, the meaning is complicated and expanded with a revised point of view that alters our experiences with the precursor. While Rhys is drawn to the idea of showing things from the perspective of the disenfranchised and off-stage character, the film adaptations of Wide Sargasso Sea abandon Rhys’s political sensibility by diluting the postcolonial critique of the source material. Both film adaptations are sympathetic to the position of Edward Rochester while Antoinette is pushed to the margins on the screen in Duigan’s film as a Creole exotic woman craving for the attention of her white “master” while from Maher’s non-linear standpoint, Antoinette’s traumatic childhood, convert years, and her mother’s story are only talked of, never seen. This approach manipulates the spectator to relate to Edward’s ostensible predicament. Perhaps as an essential reaction to the aesthetic displacement and social and spatial marginalization, Antoinette takes charge of her actions and leaves the screen by her choice through suicide, a symbol of self-assertion, self-liberation, and replacement in the Caribbean. Thus, she is liberated from the metropolitan space of England, temporality of life and novel, and the spatiality of the screen. By doing so, she rejects displaced representations of women on the margins of life and their stories and emancipates her body, soul, and exoticized/eroticized image from the incarceration of master narratives.


1  Mulvey revised the binary oppositions and reconsidered the role of the female spectator who is excluded by the mainstream cinema in her essays “Afterthoughts on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She argues that the female spectator can uneasily identify with the active position of the male hero by crossing the gender lines.

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Bryce, Jane. ‘“That is not for beke’ Global versus Local in Two Film Versions of Sargasso.” Jean Rhys’s Home Page, The University of West Indies, 2005. https://www.open.uwi.edu/sites/default/files/bnccde/dominica/conference/rhys/bryce.html

Cardwell, Sarah. Adaptation Revisited: Television and the Classic Novel. Manchester UP, 2002.

Duigan, John. Interview by Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. 28th April 1994, 16th May 1997.https://misacor.org.au/item/15123-john-duigan. Accessed 21 Nov. 2022.

Gilchrist, Jennifer. “Women, Slavery, and the Problem of Freedom in Wide Sargasso Sea.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 58, no. 3, Fall 2012, pp. 462-494.

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Moradi, Arash, and Alireza Anushirvani. “John Duigan’s 1993 Film Adaptation of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea: Repossessing and Reclaiming Rhys’s Liberated Antoinette/Bertha.” Journal of Language Horizons, vol. 1, no. 1, Spring-Summer 2017, pp. 95-107. 

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasure. 1989, Palgrave. pp. 14-26.

–––. “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel  in the Sun (1946).” Visual and Other Pleasures. Palgrave, 1989.

Orr, Christopher. “The Discourse on Adaptation.” Wide Angle vol. 6, no. 2, 1894, pp. 72-76.

–––. “Written on the Wind and the Ideology of Adaptation” Film Criticism, vol. 9, no. 3, Spring 1985, pp. 1-8.

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Wide Sargasso Sea. Directed by John Duigan, Laughing Kookaburra Productions, 1993.

Wide Sargasso Sea. Directed by Brendan Maher, BBC Wales and Kudos Film and Television,2006.