Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society. Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel. Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical. Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.
Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories. Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious. Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story. Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels. In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.
A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished. First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income. We see her descend into insanity. Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches. The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality. The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there. Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people. All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere. In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.
I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her. That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree. Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.
I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires. In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants. And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester. Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving. He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo. Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England. She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers. Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise. Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.
The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future. Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving. At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.
I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book. Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe. How much research did she do about the island life for the novel? And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s? How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?
Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.
- #199 – The Greatest Books – Meta list of 66 lists
- #125 – A List of Books – Meta list of 13 lists
- # 95 – Modern Library Top 100 Novels
- # 81 – Radcliffe’s Rival 100 Best Novels
- # 79 – 100 Novels Everyone Should Read – The Telegraph
- # 53 – 100 Books of the Past Century by Koen Books
- # 45 – Top 100 Books by Newsweek
- # 13 – 100 Best Novels In English Since 1900
- ALL-TIME 100 Novels – Time Magazine
JWH – 8/29/14