Wide Sargasso Sea

As a lover of Jane Eyre, I've always known that sooner or later, I should get around to reading Wide Sargasso Sea.  (If you haven't read Jane Eyre, please stop reading this review now, as there's no way to review the one without spoiling the other.)   Jean Rhys drew upon her own childhood to craft the backstory of Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the first wife of Edward Rochester and resident madwoman in the attic at Thornfield.  In Jane Eyre, Rochester tells his side of the story -- how as a young man, his father and brother sent him off to marry a beautiful and wealthy Creole girl in Jamaica and even though he knew the marriage was arranged for her money, he let his sexual attraction for her get the best of him.  He was not told about the fact that three generations of Bertha's family had eventually succumbed to madness.  Consequently, wedded bliss doesn't last long and their life together rapidly goes downhill as she degenerates (and lest ye think we're talking about a calmer kind of crazy, he says Bertha was promiscuous, drunk, slovenly and violently insane). Meanwhile, Rochester's father and brother have both died, resulting in Rochester inheriting the estate (since Rochester was the second son, the marriage to Bertha at least had given him some kind of income).  Rather than locking her up in an asylum (like her mother was), Rochester brings Bertha to Thornfield and sets her up to be cared for, locked away in the old house with Grace Poole as her companion and nurse.  Rochester, meanwhile, runs around Europe drinking and making poor romantic choices, contributing further to his tormented soul.  In Jane Eyre, readers are to understand that both Rochester and Bertha were screwed here -- Mr. Rochester was shafted with a crazy first wife whose very existence means he cannot have a normal, happy life and Bertha goes insane in a cold foreign country without knowing anyone around her aside from the husband she might recognize and would almost certainly have conflicting feelings about at even her most lucid moments.

So.  Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 and told the story of Antoinette Cosway from her childhood through her marriage to an unnamed Englishman and her descent into madness.  The novel is lauded for transforming the character of Bertha into Antoinette, a real person with hopes, emotions, and experiences.  In addition, as a post-colonial work, Wide Sargasso Sea is more concerned with the racial relationships of the time and place, particularly viewed from Antoinette who does not wholly belong to either caste, the oppressed blacks or ruling whites.  There are similarities between Antoinette and Jane Eyre beyond the fact that they marry the same man.  Both women have strong characters and feelings and endure difficult childhoods. 

I have heard before -- and perhaps you have heard the same -- that if you love Jane Eyre, then you will not like Wide Sargasso Sea and if you hated JE, then you'll enjoy WSE. You already know I love Jane Eyre and in my case, I suppose this holds true.  It's not that I truly *disliked* WSE, but I just wasn't taken with it.  I was disappointed on a number of levels and the things I did like did not quite compensate.  To begin with, after all the talk about how this is Bertha's story, I was irritated at how many details Rhys changed. The time period was completely altered to allow for certain historic riots in Jamaica to take place in the course of the story and Bertha's family tree was shaken up so she was not a Mason after all, but the stepdaughter of Mr. Mason. Obviously Rhys was emphasizing the racial tension and interested in integrating the story in to elements of history that provide a sound basis for this conflict, but it irked me that this moved the story by many years and so wasn't giving a real depiction of the history Bertha might have experienced.  Additionally, I never felt as though Antoinette was quite the heiress-on-the-verge-of-insanity that Bertha was supposed to be so that her wealth was such a temptation. Certainly both stories admit that Rochester's lust for the seemingly beautiful Bertha/Antoinette meant he didn't oppose the marriage in the beginning but I didn't understand the Mason family rush to get Antoinette off their hands, even if she was this awkward between-castes woman.  (I mean, come on, Jane Eyre should have proved just how easy it is to lock someone away for much less expense than what was surely paid to Rochester.)  And finally, I suppose that I take issue with the much-praised point that this novel finally fleshes Bertha out as a character.  Perhaps I'm letting my enjoyment of the novel blind me but I didn't think there was a lack of empathy for Bertha... in fact, I thought it was actually quite apparent that Bertha is an extremely tragic character who was dealt an even worse hand than Rochester, as she's a woman whose family paid someone to take her away before she became a burden and so she was sent to a cold, unfamiliar land where she lost all grip on her sanity and so became an awful figure, not responsible for her own actions and every day suffering because of the actions taken against her by others.  No, we don't totally deviate the course of the novel to focus entirely on Bertha, but nor should we expect to!  Certain elements of racism are glazed over as standard for the period but I never felt like Bertha was a simple pawn being used whose back story was totally disregarded.  It simply wasn't her story.  That doesn't mean she isn't a character without great depth--indeed, she's actually quite compelling given that she's insane and off-stage for most of the story that takes place at Thornfield.  It's certainly one thing to say that this gives us a better understanding of the history of Jamaica and the West Indies, but I bristle a little at the suggestion that Bertha was not a character with depth until Rhys came along.

Something I did not expect to enjoy but did was the fact that the narration changed up several times.  Mostly we heard from Antoinette but we also hear from the nameless husband (though it didn't help us in liking him at all) and Grace Poole.  I did find the history quite interesting, as it's a time and place I know little about.  The narrative was not always lucid enough for me to feel like I was actually learning something unless I did further research, but I enjoyed the shift of perspective.  I initially appreciated the depiction of the relationship between the nameless husband and Antoinette, as it seemed like we were showing a certain amount of responsibility on each side... but the more I read and thought, the more I felt Rhys was placing the blame at the nameless husband's feet.  Rochester was getting the shaft here the same way Rhys seemed to think Bertha had been shortchanged in the original tale.  His prejudice is heavily played (which is fair, as it's present in Jane Eyre and largely glossed over in his general hatred for the world) and while Antoinette's insanity starts to creep through, it's as though the husband caused it by rejecting her and her heritage.  But wasn't Rhys supposed to be giving us a character who was stronger than that?  Not some simple woman who could be so easily crushed by rejection from a man?  Is there an Eleanor Roosevelt thing here about how no one can make you feel stupid without your permission?  The Antoinette character certainly has feelings but her deterioration seems to be in allowing others' opinions to get through to her until she loses her own self.  I liked Bertha better when I had to imagine the situation of a girl who was bartered off, a victim of hereditary insanity tragically struggling to assert any personhood as she lost control of her mind, even if that meant her actions turned her into something Rochester found loathesome.

I give Jean Rhys credit for bringing us a different perspective on Jane Eyre, even if I'm not entirely sure it was needed for the reasons many point to as its main virtues.  It might make one uncomfortable but the interesting conflict between whites and blacks was the best study of the book, perhaps mostly so in the "white nigger" concept and in Antoinette's inability to find a place with either group and so further isolating her.  The book, in my opinion, might have been more successful in its story without the requirement of using Bertha/Antoinette, but would not nearly have achieved the same notice without that hook.  (One thing which neither of these novels touch on explicitly is the thing that I would have found the most horrifying of all -- the mental institutions of that time, which all other accounts seem to describe as hell on earth.  Just as Rochester spares Bertha from that fate, so we, too, are spared from the horrifying account of conditions in such places.)  In the end, I suppose I'm glad I read it but I had expected to come away with more from Wide Sargasso Sea.  A more satisfying treatment of madness?  Or perhaps Rhys's style is simply not to my taste.  I'll have to do some digging to discover other literature that deals with stories set in this time and place and perhaps I'll find those stories more satisfying, even if they don't give me the excuse to watch multiple adaptations of Jane Eyre and inserting random Rochester lines in to my every day speech. ("Kitty cat, don't struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation." or "If you move out of Brooklyn and if that boisterous channel should come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.")  Still, even with all this, I found that I spend a long time thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea, long after I had set it down, and so it certainly has stuck with me.  I couldn't quite bring myself to read all the accompanying essays in my Norton Critical Edition but I have a feeling I'll likely read a few of them before too many months have passed.  Perhaps this is one I'll have to earmark for a future list... "60 to re-read before 60"... and then we'll see if my opinions towards Rhys and her adaptation have softened.

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