on 11 February 2002
This novel not only gives a voice to Bronte's madwoman from the attic, but it shows the woman as the true underdog she is --doubly oppressed by race and sex. A white Creole, the heroine Antoinette comes from an impoverished former slaveholding family on a Caribbean island, and as such is hated both by the black population (who continue to be exploited despite the formal abolition of slavery) and by the rich English "newcomers." After the death of her father and stepfather, and after her mother has been driven mad by their desperate citcumstances, Antoinette is sold, for the price of her dowry, to a young Englishman who wants to make a quick fortune. Rochester (who is never named and whose identity can only be guessed from the plot), is at the same time attracted and intimitated by her independence and exotic beauty, but soon the lush beauty of Antoinette's island turns into a nightmare for him too, as he is drawn into a net of lies and intrigues. Not willing nor able to listen to her side of the story ("There always is the other side," she once says to him), he begins to hate Antoinette with a hatred so fierce that it drives him to crush her personality until the point of madness.
In this novel, identity is never a simple and stable thing, and this is as true for Rochester as it is for Anoinette and the black servants who work for them. Despite the antagonistic feelings they all have for each other, there is a subtle mirroring taking place, blurring the distinction between "you" and "me", "them" and "us." Rochester's first person narrative (sandwiched and interrupted by Antoinette's first person account) reveals the extent to which he, too, increasingly feels a loss of control over his life and world, himself getting to the brink of madness. But with typical male dominance he decides to break Antoinette rather than be broken by her world (which he can neither understand nor accept), and so he ships her off to England, into the exile of his attic from which she shall never return alive. You will never read "Jane Eyre" the same way after having read this novel!
on 22 December 2011
WARNING: A PLOT SPOILER IS INCLUDED IN THE FIRST PARAGRAPH
This book was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre (JE). It focuses on Rochester's first wife, JE's `madwoman in the attic'. In chapter 27 of JE we are given a brief back history of this woman and of how Rochester came to marry her, but this is recounted by Rochester himself: we never get to hear from her, despite her importance in the plot of JE. By contrast, in WSS Jean Rhys makes her the centre of the story as Antoinette Cosway; the name `Bertha' by which she is known in JE is foisted on her, against her will, by Rochester; this is one of several ways in which Rochester appears in WSS as an oppressive and bullying man. After she and Rochester marry she develops some disturbing behaviour symptoms which eventually turn her into JE's `madwoman', but WSS implies that this behaviour is not (as Rochester claims in JE) hereditary but instead is the result of his poor behaviour towards her. The story in WSS takes us through her life from a young girl to her eventual suicide; the bare details of the suicide are recounted in chapter 36 of JE, but WSS provides an explanation based on Antoinette's gathering despair at her treatment and her hopeless predicament.
Writing a prequel or sequel to any famous and widely admired book is bound to annoy some people who fear that the original work is being exploited, or that its themes and characters are being distorted. There is evidence of this in some of the readers' reviews of WSS. The most frequent complaint is from reviewers who object to WSS on the grounds that it turns Rochester from (what they see as) JE's romantic hero into a villain. In my view this criticism is based on a misreading of JE, which surely presents him not as a hero but as a flawed character: for example, his willingness to involve Jane in what would have been a bigamous relationship is not romantic but instead is deeply selfish, since in the context of the times this risked a huge scandal which would have tainted Jane as well as destroying Rochester. So, if he comes across as selfish in WSS I would say that Rhys is being true, not false, to JE.
More generally, I felt that WSS is true to, and in some ways enhances, JE's themes and ideas. JE was arguably the first ever novel in which the central female character is more impressive than her male counterpart (Jane is better educated, more intelligent, and in every sense a more moral person than Edward Rochester) and in which the female character's life objectives are taken as legitimate in their own right rather than subservient to those of a male character. For these reasons it is a landmark in the history of feminist literature. WSS in no way distorts this central theme: on the contrary, it adds to it by presenting a somewhat similar story (Antoinette is likewise superior to Rochester) albeit in a more complex context in which the central male-female relationship is complicated by cultural clashes between natives and colonialists. So, I certainly didn't feel that WSS is in any sense exploiting or distorting JE; on the contrary, it's entirely consistent with JE's approach. Moreover, in some ways it made me appreciate JE even more than I already do, by emphasising the timelessness of its themes.
I was already very familiar with JE before I read WSS, and I find it difficult to imagine how I would view WSS if I had read it without ever having read JE. Does it stand up as an outstanding novel in its own right, independent of its distinguished ancestor? I suspect not, partly because it doesn't provide the reader with enough feel for Rochester's character and motivations and in this sense is a little unbalanced as a stand-alone novel. I can see why Rhys didn't expand her treatment of Rochester: she presumably assumed that most readers would already be familiar with JE and would therefore simply transfer their acquired knowledge of the character to WSS. Of course this is an inevitable dilemma for the author of a prequel/sequel, and I don't want to criticise Rhys: it's impossible to write such a book in a way that is wholly satisfactory regardless of whether or not the reader is familiar with its ancestor, and I am sure she made the right decision in aiming the book mainly at those already familiar with JE.
As a big fan of JE (and indeed of all the Brontë novels) I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who has already read JE. To someone who has not, though, I am not sure that I would recommend reading it as a stand-alone novel.
on 25 May 2001
Antoinette, like most of Jean Rhys's other female characters, is a woman that hovers between two worlds: black and white, English coldness and tropical warmth,sanity (accepted behaviour) and madness. Although given a poignant voice, she is helpless because she doesn't know how to use it. She goes mad insofar as madness is silencing her voice and retreating more and more inside herself - and letting others speak for her. She is the perfect victim, as she doesn't distinguish the boundary between love and madness anymore. Unlike Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to which I think this novel is an answer, this woman has loved deeply and has suffered a great deal on account of that love through no fault of hers. Madness is the result of prolonged emotional distress, and comes as the only outcome when she ceases struggling against her bleak reality and can't face it anymore. Having read this book after Jane Eyre, I can't help but feel that at least Antoinette had the chance to have the voice she never had in Charlotte Bronte's novel. At last, the story told on the silenced madwoman's point of view!
on 30 January 2011
`Wide Sargasso Sea' is a novel of three parts as it opens in part one we find ourselves in Jamaica in the 1830's. Antoinette Cosway, now Mason, tells us the story of her youth from growing up with her mother and disabled brother several years after her father seemingly drank himself to death after the emancipation of the slaves - so he then leaves his family in the same state. Things change however when Antoinette's mother meets Mr Mason, and Englishman of wealth who asks for her hand and restores the land, only the local community have other ideas and in a rebellious act burn their house down. From here things seem to deteriorate further with the death of her brother causing a madness in her mother soon Antoinette is sent to a convent. If you're thinking I have given everything away then you would be wrong as this all happens in just part one which is a mere 40 pages.
The next narrator to take the helm is an unnamed English gentleman (though clearly it's mean he is Rochester) who has recently married. As we read on we begin to recognise who is wife is and how he married her due to a mixture of her bewitching allure and also for the fortune she holds from the death of her steward, I think that's the write expression I am sure I could be wrong. From here I shall say no more on the plot other than that our new narrator receives word that the wife he met may not quite have the history or the stability he is lead to believe and as the reader we follow on from there.
The thing that I loved the most about `Wide Sargasso Sea' was the writing. Jean Rhys manages to depict a steadying madness both through Antoinette's first person narrative, which becomes more jumbled and slightly confused as she reflects on her youth and again later in the book, and through the observations people make of her. Jamaica is vividly drawn, I could smell the flowers and feel the heat and delight of the land as well as its darker sides which Rhys makes sure we enter on several occasions. Antoinette, or Bertha as she becomes, is a complex character and if you're like me you will be left wondering if the madness was always there or whether circumstances and desperation could be the cause.
I didn't really know what to expect when I started `Wide Sargasso Sea' as all I had really heard about it was that it was a prequel of sorts to the classic novel `Jane Eyre'. Whilst this is in many ways true to simply say that would be to do Jean Rhys a disservice because actually this is a novel that you can read as a stand alone tale of a young woman born into hard circumstances, the decisions she has to make and the effect that this then has on her throughout her life.
on 18 February 2000
Jean Rhys writes or rewrites the love-story that was never told in Brontes famous novel "Jane Eyre" between the wild native woman and the English gentleman Rochester. Through her use of different narrative language Rhys creates understanding for the lost and impossible love between Antoinette and her English husband. The love that was not understood in "Jane Eyre". This work by Rhys examines the problems as well as the beauty in mixing two so different cultures as shown in "Wide Sargasso Sea" with colourful and passionate language.
on 26 June 2007
Even thought I didn't enjoy the film too much the book itself is phenomenal. The story of Bertha, the first Mrs. Rochester, "Wide Sargasso Sea" is a not only a brilliant deconstruction of Charlotte Bront's legacy, but is also a damning history of colonialism in the West Indies. This novel addresses the issue of race and culture, but it also addresses the inner thought processes of a woman confronted with cultural chaos between the Creole, Jamaican, and British in the Caribbean.
Told from different points of view, the text is a tapestry weaving Bertha's story with Edward Rochester's early life. Like the seaweed the book is named for, the structure floats in and out of artistic consciousness as though on a sea of many unwritten stories. Although some might argue that "Wide Sargasso Sea," detracts from "Jane Eyre," I feel that Jean Rhys gives us a fuller understanding about the cultural historiography that produces "great literature." As a champion for the silenced voices, Charlotte Bront herself was all too aware of societies' injustices.
While today, "Jane Eyre" is generally accepted as a tract on social class, feminism, and conscious production of art, 150 years ago, Bront was lambasted by contemporary critics as unchristian, seditious and a poor writer. I can not help but think Bront, as social critic, would have cheered the publication of "Wide Sargasso Sea." A wonderful book for anyone studying Latin America or the Caribbean.
on 15 January 2011
This and 'A Voyage in the Dark' mark Rhys as one of my favourite novelists. Depressing, yes, but so beautiful and practically flawless. I am drawn to her writing, and 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is the creme de la creme.
I must say, my first reason to buy this book was that it was linked to Jane Eyre (Antoinetta is Bertha; her husband is Mr Rochester) and at the time, anyway in any shape or form related to Jane Eyre was good enough for me. But this is not just some fanfic-like prequel. Oh no. 'Jane Eyre' clearly struck a chord with Rhys, and 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is the result.
It's hard to tell whether 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is a tribute or a criticism of it 'Jane Eyre'. Clearly the characters left a mark on Rhys, and she is very respectful of them, but you do tend to feel that the novella is the act of rushing to the voiceless Antoinetta/Bertha's defence. And Mr Rochester is not praised much. Yet, Mr Rochester has a voice in this--it is not the same witty, humoured one that we know, albeit--and he is shown as humane. Most of us prejudge; most of us run from madness.
The brilliant thing about 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is it's dream-like quality, and it's implicitity. There are questions left unanswered. We, the readers, are treated as intelligent creatures.
Also I should just like to say that Andrea Ashworth's Introduction is a particularly interesting one.
on 31 March 2011
This book is stunning, intricate and heart-breaking. It is far more than just a prequel to 'Jane Eyre' (indeed, its anachronisms demonstrate that this is not what it aspires to be); it is an intimate study of the troubled race relations of the West Indies, a torturous depiction of marital betrayal and a devastating exploration of the causes and effects of mental break-down. In much of the novel, Rhys writes - unusually - from the perspective of her male protagonist as well as the female and the interplay between the two voices is fascinating, as is the deeply uncomfortable non-story of how Bertha got her name. Read this when you have the time to be immersed completely in the scents and customs of Jamaica, which Rhys conjures perfectly.
on 1 August 2004
Great novels should subvert certain traditions and conventions and Wide Sargasso Sea certainly does that. It provides the voice of 'the other', the unknowable mad wife, Bertha in Jane Eyre. Rhys' response to Jane Eyre is to provide us with a haunting, unnerving account of Antoinette, Bertha's real name. It has no chapter division and moves from one narrative voice to another without warning. This supports the overall theme of displacement and dreams. The issues of race and gender are accurately portrayed as more complex than black and white, male and female. Slavery and freedom are highlighted not just in the emancipation act but also in asking us who are now the real slaves, the former slave owners. Much of the character description is given through Antoinette's stream of consciousness and dialogue which must have been a shock to its English audience in the sixties when people were not that well-travelled. Overall, from its opening page providing hints of a dark past and a possibly thwarted future to its Thelma and Louise like ending this book holds us in suspense and makes us rethink assumptions held by many to this day.
on 8 July 2001
A wonderfully written prequel to Jane Eyre, recounting the story of the mad Mrs Rochester in her native land. It is a highly unusual genre of a novel, where the writer knows that the majority of the audience is fully aware what happens in the novel before they've read it.
Died Hard Charlotte Bronte fans approve of this novel, which shows the completeness with which Jean Rhys is successful in telling the untold story of Bertha (Antoinette as she is in this novel).
The novel is a fusion of opposing forces, and delves into the conflict within Antoinette as she fights the opposing forces in her and Rochester. The forces of black and white (of which she is both and neither)play on Antoinette, as do those of the cold, stark, hardness of Rochester compared to her own passionate warmth, with neither Rochester or Antoinette understanding each other's culture, personality or needs. Rhys wonderfully portrays the opposing worlds of the warm vibrant Caribbean of Antoinette's homeland and the cold, austere England where she finds herself even more a victim.
The major protagonists are both portrayed as victims, one of circumstance and environment and one of arrogance. Our sympathies are forced to lie with Antoinette as she has no control over anything, and in a sense is a pure victim. Whilst Rochester is seen as losing control over his own perceptions, and therefore chooses to believe the rumours, whilst Antoinette is painfully incapable of refuting the rumours.
This is ultimately a satisfying book, giving voice to the mad creature in Jane Eyre.