‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys

This is my favourite book of the term so far. It’s also on my favourite module, which is probably my favourite because my seminar tutor is so enthusiastic! Before I continue, if you’ve never heard of this book you should know that it is a sort of rewriting back to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, ‘Jane Eyre’, telling the story of Bertha, Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife in the attic. I really enjoyed the links back to Jane Eyre and personally found it quite difficult to distance it from the 19th century novel, however despite this it can easily be read as  a stand-alone text completely separate from Jane Eyre if you haven’t previously read that – I don’t think I would define it as a ‘prequel’.

Even though I technically knew what was going to happen in the end, the novel was in no way ruined by this pre-knowledge of the text. The story is incredibly imaginative and so different from ‘Jane Eyre’ that there is no way you could predict any of the events that lead up to her move to England.

I really liked the different narrators and thought the use of more than one omniscient narrator was particularly effective as the novel is all about giving a voice to a character which gets very little representation in ‘Jane Eyre’. The character that we know as ‘Bertha’ in ‘Jane Eyre’ is Antoinette in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – Bertha is the name that the elusive character of Rochester perversely forces upon her after their marriage. The novel is almost a grotesque parallel of the element of Bildungsroman in ‘Jane Eyre’ – it follows the life of Antoinette from her childhood to when she marries Rochester and leaves for England but there are significant similarities between Antoinette and Jane. Neither Antoinette or Rochester (who is not actually named in the novel) are very reliable narrators but this only adds to the mystery and suspense of the novel.

In a way the novel is trying to answer the many questions in ‘Jane Eyre’ about Bertha/Antoinette and Rochester’s previous life. However just as many questions are created as answered and I think ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ brings in wider social and historic contexts about colonialism and the effect that it had on the inhabitants of the islands which became British colonies and the people who were brought there through the slave trade. Antoinette’s identity as a Creole woman is a major theme in the novel and her difference from Rochester is something that is explored. The way the Creole people are perceived and their cultural difference from Europeans despite the sameness of their skin colour is something which concerns Rochester; I felt that the main reason Rochester begins to think that Antoinette is mad is because of the cultural stereotypes and gossip he is exposed to.

The question of ‘madness’ is very ambiguous in the novel – both characters seem to become consumed by it. The definition of what ‘madness’ actually means is questioned; is Antoinette actually mad or does she only appear more and more ‘mad’ to Rochester because she is different from him? This was definitely the thing that most interested me about the novel. In ‘Jane Eyre’ it is never really questioned that Bertha/Antoinette is ‘mad’ – the episode where she bites the hand of her relative seems conclusive on the matter – yet ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ makes you consider the part that gets overlooked: how she became to be ‘mad’. To be honest I think I’d turn a little bit mental if someone started calling me a name that wasn’t mine and then locked me up in an attic!

Rochester also appears influenced by this ‘madness’. His desire to possess Antoinette and own her even after admitting that he did not love her is definitely irrational, if not neurotic. I think his ‘madness’ borders on a kind of frenzy; the island is so different from everything he had ever experienced in England and this ‘otherness’ is prevalent throughout the text so that even Antoinette starts to feel estranged from somewhere she once felt at home.

There is so much more that could be said about this novel – I have barely scratched the surface of the themes that the novel touches on! It is a complex and compelling story and very well written.


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