Topic: ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and ‘Pygmalion’ (2009) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper on ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and ‘Pygmalion’ was written to show how contrasting attributes traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity are represented in different genres. It was written by Debbie McCauley on 14 June 2009 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

This essay seeks to explore how contrasting attitudes traditionally associated with masculinity and femininity can be represented in literature. This theme will be examined within two genres using the play ‘Pygmalion’ written by George Bernard Shaw and the novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, written by Jean Rhys. The background of both writers, as well as the social conditions in which they were working at the time, will be explored as well as certain passages from ‘Jane Eyre’, written by Charlotte Brontë, as this novel served as the impetus for Wide Sargasso Sea. 


George Bernard Shaw

Playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was born in Dublin, Ireland to George and Lucinda (Bessie) Shaw. Nineteenth century Ireland was plagued by difficulties. As a result of having been left behind by the Industrial Revolution, the country was culturally, economically and politically backward. Many citizens lived in poverty and had to contend with conflict caused by denominational and political differences which served to reinforce a rigid class structure.

Shaw however, had a reasonably comfortable childhood in Dublin. His family was able to employ a cook and nurse as well as a maid, and he was regularly exposed to art, theatre, music and literature. His parents had an amicable separation in 1873 when he was seventeen and at age nineteen (1876) he moved toLondonwhere he lived with his mother.

In London Shaw developed into a socialist and joined socialist intellectual group, the Fabian Society. He was a lifelong vegetarian and self proclaimed feminist who felt that women should be given the vote, ‘If I were a woman, I’d simply refuse to speak to any man or do anything for men until I’d got the vote. I’d make my husband’s life a burden and everybody miserable generally. Women should have a revolution – they should shoot, kill, maim, destroy – until they are given a vote’ (Shaw, as cited in Gibbs, 2005, p. 294).

According to Gibbs (2005), biography of Shaw he had numerous love affairs. ‘Shaw’s various love affairs of the 1880s and 1890s coincided with a tide of profound change in the role of women in society and in attitudes towards sexual differences’ (p. 123). He married Irishwoman Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend in 1898 at a Covent Garden registry office. Both were aged forty-one. Charlotte was a member of the Fabian Society and shared many of Shaw’s philosophies.

Despite rigid Victorian gender stereotyping, women were at that time making steady inroads into business, politics, economics and universities. Literature was being published questioning the subservient role forced upon women and much of Shaw’s work helped to influence changing attitudes towards women. His writing championed strong minded, independent heroines and mocked the very class system of which he himself belonged. Shaw wrote articles and delivered several speeches in favour of women’s suffrage and against their exclusion from politics. His work served to ‘influence the changing attitudes toward gender roles in late Victorian society, and his creative involvement in the formation of new paradigms of male-female relations’ (Gibbs, 2005, p. 3).

In Greek mythology Pygmalion was a sculptor from Cyprus who carved an ivory statue of a woman and promptly fell in love with it. The goddess Venus kindly brought the statue, Galatea, to life and Pygmalion revered her as the perfect woman, without physical or mental flaw. But what if she developed a mind of her own and became independent of her creator? Perhaps this was amongst the same thoughts that Shaw had when he developed the idea of writing a play of this name thereby promoting the women’s suffrage movement, ‘Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable’ (Shaw, p. 473).

Shaw wrote the five act play, Pygmalion, at the height of the women’s suffrage movement in 1912. Lauded as his greatest comic creation it was first performed on stage by Mrs Patrick Campbell (Eliza Doolittle) and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (Professor Henry Higgins) at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, on 11 April 1914. Phoneticist and confirmed bachelor, Professor Henry Higgins, is the play’s Pygmalion figure, believing that through his skill he can transform Eliza Doolittle, cockney Covent Garden flower seller, into a ‘duchess at an ambassador’s garden party’ (Shaw, p. 377). The play ran for 118 performances closing on 24 July. It was one of over fifty plays and play-lets, a number of short stories, five novels, and an approximate quarter of a million letters produced by prolific writer Shaw during his lifetime.

Pygmalion was published first in 1916. It subsequently underwent major transformations and was considerably altered independently of Shaw. DVD versions include ‘Pygmalion’ (1938) starring Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard along with the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.


Jean Rhys

Our second author, Jean Rhys (1890-1979), was born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams in Roseau, on the Island of Dominica. Her mother, Minna Williams (née Lockhart), was a third generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh-born doctor. When she was sixteen Rhys was sent for schooling in England, returning only once, in 1936.

Rhys’s historical novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, is set in the 1830s on the crumbling Coulibri Estate in Jamaica. Published in 1966, it tells the story of Edward Fairfax Rochester, ‘a tall fine English gentleman’ (Rhys, 1992, p.114), and his first wife, Jamaican heiress Antoinette Cosway. The book is widely considered a prequel to Jane Eyre (1847) a novel by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855). Rhys was inspired by Brontë’s madwomen locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall.  Brontë never allows this woman an independent voice, only the judgement of her husband, ‘Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!’ (Brontë, 2006, p. 382). The husband remains unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, so the choice to label him Rochester is made for convenience as he parallels the man who tried to deny the existence of his wife and commit bigamy by marrying Jane Eyre. The reader’s other assumption is that Antoinette, female protagonist of Wide Sargasso Sea, is one in the same as Brontë’s Bertha.

Lying at the core of both Pygmalion and Wide Sargasso Sea can be found the development of womanhood within a white patriarchal society along with the underlying themes of emancipation of both slaves and women. Rhys opens Wide Sargasso Sea in 1839, six years after the Emancipation Act of 1833 abolished slavery in the British Empire which includedJamaica. The violent history of the area with its conflicting cultures and tradition of slavery has left a tension underlying the characters interactions. Former slave owning families such as Antoinette’s were reduced to living in poverty and isolation. Quite justifiably they were regarded with hostility and suspicion by the majority of Dominica’s population, former slaves of African descent.

Similarly to Antoinette, Rhys was in a minority growing up as a white girl living in a largely black community and also in another minority as a Creole woman in England. Her post-colonialCaribbeanbirthplace has influenced the writing and shaping of her characters and settings. Wide Sargasso Sea seems to have a sense of nostalgia running through Antoinette’s character who secretly longs to be black and therefore belong. She is alienated, belonging to neither the black Jamaican inhabitants nor the white population, ‘I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all’ (Rhys, p. 93).

Likewise, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, it is apparent that Eliza doesn’t belong to the environment that Henry Higgins and fellow phonetics enthusiast Colonel Pickering reside in. The play serves to highlight class differences and how people are judged by the way they talk, ‘Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech’ Higgins tells Eliza, ‘don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon!’ (Shaw, p. 377). He believes that a new vocabulary, accent and clothing will serve to recreate Eliza.



There are different fictional voices to be found within both texts. A novel such as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is full of descriptive passages where the reader is privy to characters innermost thoughts and feelings, whereas the audience to a play are reliant on conversation between the characters and clever stage direction to articulate this. Following the tradition of drama, Shaw’s text contains dialogue with stage directions divided into five acts and has the advantage of being performed in the present day so, even unconsciously manifests the time in which it is staged.

The dramatic structure and historical context of the play is extremely important if we look at the message about women’s suffrage that Shaw was trying to convey:

Shaw had written a play he thought was about, among other things, a young woman finally emancipating herself from the domination of her male mentor.  In his view it was a play not about the growth of love between a master and pupil but about the pupils’ regaining, through struggle, her independent identity, thus echoing the way in which the classical sculptor’s creation comes to life. (Gibbs, 2005, p. 333)

Eliza is a young, single, independent working woman who is determined to improve her situation. The opportunity to do this presents itself when she acts upon Higgins boast and arrives at Higgins address requesting elocution lessons that will enable her to work as ‘a lady in a flower shop’ (Shaw, p. 384). Higgins instructions to his housekeeper to forcibly bathe Eliza, who objects to this treatment as she has never seen a bath before, has parallels with the imprisonment and force-feeding of suffragettes that was occurring at the time the play was written. By taking charge of redefining her social status, Eliza remains very much her own woman. This is reinforced when smitten Freddy enquires in Act III if she is walking across the park and she exclaims ‘Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi’ (Shaw, p. 419).

Our second heroine’s isolation and loneliness are painfully apparent as she narrates Part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette’s widowed but distant mother, Annette, is not a satisfactory role model as having been ostracised by society she is lonely and remote, only reviving when a new dress and social life present themselves. Annette’s descent into madness starts when her horse, a symbol of her independence, is poisoned, and she sees herself as ‘marooned’ (Rhys, p. 16). This culminates when Antoinette’s mentally retarded brother, Pierre, dies when Coulibri is burnt to the ground during a former slave uprising.

Antoinette finds her main support from black servant Christophine who, whilst she is a strong independent woman, also fits the stereotypical black female ‘mammy’ role. She turns to Christophine when Rochester betrays her with servant Amélie. In her surrogate mother and protector role, Christophine suggests she leave him: ‘A man don’t treat you good, pick up your skirt and walk out’ (Rhys, p. 100). Aunt Cora is another significant female role model. She opposes Antoinette’s marriage; ‘you are handing over everything the child owns to a perfect stranger’ (Rhys, p. 104) but as a white female in a Victorian patriarchal society she wields little influence.

Prostitution is an undercurrent that has a profound effect on female characters. Brontë, in casting Bertha as promiscuous, insane and violent, reinforces polite society’s repugnance for the prostitute stereotype, ‘Bertha Mason, the true daughter of an infamous mother, dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bound to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste’ (Brontë, 2006, p. 403). In Act I Eliza suspects that Higgins is a detective and she mistaken for a prostitute, ‘they’ll take away my character and drive me on the streets for speaking to gentlemen’ (Shaw, p. 372).

Being wrongly cast as a prostitute was a real fear felt by women and understood by Higgins housekeeper, Mrs Pearce ‘what is to become of her’ (Shaw, p. 391), and mother Mrs Higgins who suggests Eliza now has ‘the manners and habits that disqualify a fine lady from earning her own living without giving her a fine lady’s income’ (Shaw, p. 425). As sensible, solid, motherly figures they are also concerned that Eliza is living with two bachelors. As Eliza states: ‘I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.  Now you’ve made a lady of me I’m not fit to sell anything else. I wish you’d left me where you found me’ (Shaw, p. 433). 

Eliza is unaware that her father, cockney dustman Alfred Doolittle, has previously ‘sold’ her to Higgins for £5, declining Higgins offer of £10 whilst railing against the effects of ‘middle class morality’ (Shaw, p. 403). Alfred Doolittle is only interested in getting drunk and generally being as irresponsible as possible, and is quite willing to sell his daughter without hesitation if it gets him a few quid to get inebriated.

Salvation in Shaw's world seems to lie with women who are stronger, more sensible, and far more realistic than men. Higgins character is that of a disciplinarian, domineering and slightly distant father figure to Eliza reinforced by his being twenty years her senior. He expresses a feminist side when he says, ‘I think a woman fetching a man’s slippers is a disgusting sight: did I ever fetch your slippers?’ (Shaw, p. 453). Colonel Pickering seems a benign and affectionate grandfather figure that delights in Eliza’s progression and reigns in Higgins when he was becomes excessively bullying and authoritarian. Freddy, Eliza’s future husband, is a fairly inept character who is besotted with her.

In Part 2 of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Antoinette’s husband narrates the story. As a Victorian male, Rochester show signs of many of the same emotionally manipulating behaviour as Higgins, but in a much more predatory way. He is a non-inheriting second son, has a difficult relationship with his father and has been exiled to Jamaica where fever has sapped his mental and physical abilities: ‘I was married a month after I arrived in Jamaica and for nearly three weeks of that time I was in bed with fever’ (Rhys, p. 61).

Antoinette has been chosen as a bride for him because of her inheritance. As he says, ‘I have sold my soul or you have sold it, and after all is it such a bad bargain?’ (Rhys, p. 64). Treating her like a chattel, stepbrother Richard Mason offered £30,000 for Rochester to marry Antoinette. Desperate for money and with little option he agrees to his father and Mason’s scheme: ‘It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry’ (Rhys, p. 69).

A Spanish Town wedding ceremony is followed by a honeymoon at Granbois, an estate that once belonged to Antoinette’s mother.  Rochester’s character becomes tormented by Antoinette: ‘above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it’ (Rhys, p. 156). 

Shortly after their marriage rumours begin with a letter from Daniel Cosway who claims he is Antoinette’s illegitimate half brother and warns of the insanity in the family which prompts Rochester to actively look for signs of this in Antoinette. His misgivings about the marriage, hitherto kept under the surface, start to emerge. This culminates in his sleeping with the servant Amélie within Antoinette’s hearing. Soon afterwards both his father and elder brother die and he returns to England with Antoinette to claim his inheritance.

Both texts explore the female viewpoint in a society dominated by men where women are both ruled by men and dependent upon them. While one author is a female the other holds feminist sympathies. On marriage, under English law, a woman’s property used to pass straight to her husband. Womanhood was used as a commodity and as such could be traded, for example Antoinette’s marriage which resulted in financial security for Rochester. Antoinette, once she has married him, forfeits any legal right to her substantial inheritance, becoming a disenfranchised woman at the mercy of her husband.

This is different to the penniless and orphaned Jane Eyre who became an independent woman, earning her living first as a teacher and then a governess and Eliza who earned her own living selling flowers. Both these characters appear stronger and more resilient than the sheltered Antoinette who has come from a protected convent school environment, ‘this convent was my refuge’ (Rhys, p. 51). Eliza’s independence is, however, somewhat overwhelmed when she becomes a rich man’s experiment. The turning point in the play comes in Act 4 though, when Eliza takes off the ring that Higgins has given her, thereby freeing herself metaphorically from his domination.

Like Higgins, Rochester tries to mould Antoinette to his expectations, especially when he starts calling her Bertha, which is not her given name, and serves to further dispossess her by stripping her sense of identity.  She began as Antoinette Cosway, her mother remarried and so she became Antoinette Mason, on marriage she was Antoinette Rochester and then her husband begins calling her Bertha for no apparent reason, ‘Bertha is not my name.  You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name’ (Rhys, p. 133). This treatment has parallels to the capture of slaves, sale, renaming, transportation and imprisonment. Rochester affirms his Victorian patriarchal heritage when Christophine suggests that he and Antoinette separate. He quickly asserts his ownership over his wife and all her belongings.

Antoinette narrates Part 3 of Wide Sargasso Sea where she is imprisoned both physically and by marriage. Whilst locked in the attic she exists in a dreamlike state in the care of Grace Poole. Her stepbrother Richard Mason visits her there and she vents her confusion and hopelessness by stabbing him with a knife. The tragedy of Antoinette’s mad episode of pyromania and resulting suicide is the spectre that haunts the audience who is already familiar with Jane Eyre, serving as a tension filled undercurrent permeating the novel.

There is also a tension felt in Pygmalion between the two leading characters whose relationship is not defined. Eliza is sensible enough to know that Higgins doesn’t love her. In Higgins own words, ‘I’ll adopt you as my daughter and settle money on you if you like’ (Shaw, p. 454). According to Shaw’s enlightening epilogue she marries Freddy and they open a flower shop not far from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Shaw, p. 469) backed by Colonel Pickering. Higgins then teaches her to write. The original ending is thus:

Higgins ignores Eliza’s goodbye and orders her to buy ham and cheese, a pair of reindeer gloves, and a new tie.  Eliza replies ‘Buy them yourself’ and ‘sweeps out.’ Higgins is left alone onstage with his mother:

MRS HIGGINS: I’m afraid you’ve spoilt that girl, Henry.  But never mind, dear: I’ll buy you the tie and gloves.

HIGGINS: (sunnily) Oh, don’t bother; she’ll buy em all right enough. Goodbye. 

They kiss, Mrs. Higgins runs out. Higgins, left alone, rattles his cash in his pocket; chuckles; and disports himself in a highly self-satisfied manner. (Shaw, p. 459).

The episode reinforces that Higgins is more comfortable with his mother and idealizes women similar to her. He seemingly asserts his property ownership of Eliza by rattling his cash which he also has ownership over as he has failed to recognise Eliza’s independence as well as her consideration and rejection of himself. According to Gibbs (2005), ‘Shaw made numerous attempts to reinforce his idea that the play ultimately shows Eliza’s emancipation from Higgins’ (p. 332). This original ending seems to have more credibility and interest than the romantic, Cinderella like, predictable, inferior and frankly tiresome endings introduced to later print, stage and film versions that have caused the messages the play has to offer to be corrupted and polluted.

This essay has explored masculine and feminine attitudes represented within two genres, a play and a novel. It has explored the historical context that the texts were created in as well as the background of the two writers, finding that the author’s backgrounds have a significant impact and influence on the work that they produced. Rhys has uncovered Antoinette’s story, filling in the blanks about this much maligned and vulnerable young girl from her unhappy childhood and marriage to her relocation to England. Shaw has created a comedy in the form of a play that delivers an important, as well as entertaining, message in support of women’s enfranchisement.


APPENDIX: Pygmalion


Eliza Doolittle.............................. Cockney Covent Garden flower seller   

Professor Henry Higgins............ Phonetics professor

Colonel Pickering........................ Phonetics enthusiast

Mrs Higgins.................................. Henry’s mother

Mrs Pearce.................................... Henry’s housekeeper

Alfred Doolittle............................ Eliza’s father, Cockney dustman

Freddy Eynsford-Hill.................. Writes loving letters to Eliza on a daily basis

Mrs Eynsford-Hill....................... Freddy’s mother

Clara Eynsford-Hill.................... Freddy’s sister


Act I: Exposition......................... Covent Garden where we meet the main characters.

Act II: Development.................. Higgins’s laboratory in Wimpole Street. Eliza turns up requesting

elocution lessons, is bathed by Mrs Pearce and her father, Alfred Doolittle appears.

Act III: Middle............................ Mrs Higgins Chelsea drawing room. A transformed Eliza attends although

                                                         her drawing room conversation is inappropriate for the setting.

Act IV: Turning-point................. Midnight at Wimpole Street laboratory. After attending a garden party,

                                                         dinner party and the opera Eliza hurls Higgins slippers at him and takes

                                                         the ring that he bought for her in Brighton.

Act V: Ending.............................. Mrs Higgins drawing room. Higgins and Pickering arrive concerned that

                                                         Eliza is missing (she is actually upstairs at Mrs Higgins).  Alfred Doolittle

                                                         arrives complaining that he has come into money and been delivered into

                                                         the hands of ‘middle class morality’ and will need elocution lessons like

                                                         his daughter.  Colonel Pickering, Mrs Higgins and Eliza leave for her

                                                         father and stepmother’s wedding.


APPENDIX: Wide Sargasso Sea


Antoinette Cosway..................... Narrator of parts 1 & 3. Becomes Bertha Cosway Mason Rochester

Edward Fairfax Rochester........ Unnamed in the book, married Antoinette, narrates part 2

Annette Cosway/Mason............ Antoinette’s widowed mother. From the French colony Martinique

Christophine................................. Wedding present to Annette also from Martinique. Catholic.

Aunt Cora..................................... A poor English woman who marries an Englishman to

                                                         survive; moving between England and Jamaica. Husband

                                                         does not like her to be associated with the Cosway's.

Mr Mason..................................... Becomes Antoinette’s stepfather when marries Annette

Pierre.............................................. Mentally retarded brother who dies in Coulibri fire

Richard Mason............................ Stepbrother who pays Rochester £30,000 to marry Antoinette

Daniel/Esau Cosway/Boyd....... Claims to be half brother of Antoinette. Letter to Rochester

Mr Luttrell.................................... Neighbour who commits suicide.  His successors, the Luttrell’s

                                                         take over his property later in the story.

Mr Cosway................................... Antoinette’s father. Drank himself to death. Was a slave owner

Godfrey & Myra......................... Protestant Servants

Tia.................................................. Antoinette’s black childhood friend, daughter of an ex-slave

Amélie........................................... Servant who Rochester sleeps with

Baptiste......................................... Servant from St Kitts

Sandi Cosway.............................. Alexander Cosway’s son. Antoinette’s cousin


Part I: ........................................... (Martinique), Jamaica: Coulibri estate, near Spanish Town
Part II: .......................................... Granbois, Dominica
Part III: ........................................ Thornfield Hall, England



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