Name: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Genre: Post Modern, Psychological Fiction
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is the short 1966 novel she wrote in response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and is part of the series of short classic books that I planned to read in 2022.
The book tells the back story of Bertha Mason, Mr.Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre who he kept locked away in the third floor of Thornfield Hall. This novel serves as a back story to her character who in Rhys’ novel is actually called Antoinette Cosway and is a Creole heiress.
I haven’t read Jane Eyre before but you do not need too much knowledge of the story to be able to understand this novel. It is split into three parts and told from the perspectives of different characters.
Part One is told solely from Antoinette’s perspective on Coulibri, an island in the Caribbean. The Cosway’s were formerly wealthy but since the abolition of slavery they have fallen into poverty. Antoinette’s mother, Annette, must marry a wealthy English gentleman named Mr. Mason who is hoping to exploit their situation. As they marry, the family return to some of their former wealth which incites anger from their neighbours, many of which used to work on the estate as slaves and they attack and burn down their house, killing Antoinette’s mentally disabled younger brother Pierre who is trapped inside. Annette has already been experiencing mental health issues but her grief sends her over the edge to insanity. Mr. Mason sends her away to live with a couple who torment her and Antoinette never sees her again.
Part 2 moves the story on a number of years and is told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester (though he is unnamed in this novel), however we briefly switch perspective to Antoinette here as well. The couple are newly married in an arranged marriage by Mr. Mason and are heading to their honeymoon in Granbois, Dominica. Initially happy, trouble begins to loom as suspicions develop between the couple and Rochester hears from a man named Daniel, who claims to be Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother and says she is just like her mother and asks for money. Rochester’s belief in these stories make the situation worse and he begins to be unfaithful and emotionally abusive towards Antoinette – insisting on calling her Bertha Mason and flaunting affairs in her face. This increases Antoinette’s feelings of paranoia and her mental health deteriorates. In desperation, she visits her childhood nurse Christophine and begs her for an obeah potion to attempt to reignite her husband’s love. However it acts as a poison on her husband and he refuses Christophine’s offer to help and takes Antoinette to England.
The short third and final part of the novel acts almost as an epilogue and is where the narrative intertwines with Jane Eyre. Antoinette is now renamed by her husband fully as Bertha and is largely confined to the attic of Thornfield Hall. The first section we hear from Grace Poole who is the servant tasked with guarding her and effectively her jailer where we hear about what has happened so far and how badly Antoinette’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship has gone wrong. The book finally returns to Antoinette’s perspective in the final pages but she is clearly mad and has lost complete track of time on how long she has been confined. She fixates on options of freedom, such as her stepbrother Richard but when he says he won’t interfere in Mr. Rochester’s wishes she attacks him with a knife. Antoinette then dreams of flames engulfing the house and the freedom this could give her and believes it is her destiny to fulfill this vision. Finally, she wakes from her dream and starts the fire which kills her and maims Rochester in Jane Eyre.
I really enjoyed reading this book and it was definitely apt to read this book around the time I’ve been reading the Noughts and Crosses series as both books contain very similar themes and comments, particularly on racism. However whilst that series is set in a similar society to ours, this novel is set in the 1820’s so has a very different story to tell.
As mentioned above, I’ve never read Jane Eyre but in doing some background research into this novel and reading the foreword I like how Rhys has chosen a character who isn’t mentioned much in that novel and isn’t allowed to speak for herself and creates this backstory for her.
What we get is a prequel to the original novel, which offers a post colonial perspective on what it was like to be of mixed race in the British Empire. This is shown in how Rochester’s initial suspicion and eventual rejection arises from Antoinette’s Creole heritage which is really what starts his suspicions and sets the later events in motion.
In the first part Antoinette also talks about being called a “white n***er” by her neighbours due to the poverty her family fell into after abolishing slavery which shows how the planter class who owned slaves were treated following the Slavery Abolition Act by the people they formerly enslaved.
I also did pick up on the feminist themes of the novel as it explores the power dynamics between men and women during that time and how many women were seen as unequal and inferior to their husbands following marriage. This is shown in the second part of the novel as we start to lose some of Antoinette’s voice and she is drowned out by Mr. Rochester and in the third part by Grace Poole. Also that he is able to be unfaithful and call her by a different name so she loses her identity is abusive but she sees no way out due to the standards of the time.
It is also interesting how the novel depicts mental health as well. Both Antoinette and Annette explicitly go through mental breakdowns during the course of the novel and the events surrounding them. Some suggest Rhys making their names sound so similar could be a sign of how mother and daughter have similar fates. It can also potentially be argued that Rochester also experiences a decline in mental health as he goes from a loving newlywed to a jealous, suspicious, angry husband who forces his wife to lost her identify, her life and her home to live in England.
My only personal thing is parts of the novel especially towards the end of the second part can be quite hard to follow what is going on, for example I didn’t realise Antoinette actually gives her husband the potion for example as I read this on a synopsis whilst writing this review.
Also from a structural point of view as I’ve mentioned with my Mrs. Dalloway review I do prefer books split into chapters but this is in three parts with the middle part in particular being very long and making up about two thirds of the book but thankfully it does have line breaks to make it easier.
I have also pointed out already there is some language in the novel which is dated and some might be offended by although this is only a few references.
I hope you liked this review and if you agreed or disagreed then please let me know in the comments down below.