Wide Sargasso Sea

“None of you understand about us,” I thought.

When I first read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, I approached it as a continuation of Jane Eyre. That is to say, my high school English class introduced it as another entry into the world of that novel, and I went along for the ride. As I have previously mentioned, Jane Eyre is my favorite book, so accepting another book into the saga—essentially placing it on the same level as the Charlotte Brontë novel—was quite a tall order. I could reconcile my conflicting emotions only by considering it an interesting alternate history, a sort of thesis on racial tensions and colonial themes which were present in Jane Eyre, but not of primary importance. I think I was somewhat worried that if I accepted Wide Sargasso Sea unconditionally, I would be acknowledging flaws or shortcomings in Jane Eyre, and emphasizing an aspect of the novel which I thought detracted from its triumph as a proto-feminist text. Thus, I appreciated this book, but at a remove. I enjoyed the writing style, and certain passages, but I also resented it for the way it somehow implicated Jane in the crimes perpetrated against Bertha Mason.

When I read it this past time, conversely, I was more interested in how it was representative of Caribbean experience. This eased my mind, and allowed me to become much more absorbed in it. Rhys, who was born in Dominica, expertly portrays the harsh beauty of Caribbean life, especially for poor white Creoles like the Cosways, Bertha Mason’s family. She well understands the contrast between the lushness of the land, and the suffering of its inhabitants.

The novel begins with the family hopeless and destitute, marooned at the untamed Coulibri Estate, in Jamaica, with little chance of escape. Since the death of her father, Antoinette (as Bertha is called in this novel), has lived a pathetic existence; she is too poor to be accepted by the white people, but too white (i.e., marked by a slaveholding past) to be accepted by the black people. Thus, she molders away on the crumbling estate, beyond the reach of everyone but her family and a few faithful servants. It looks as though this might be her fate, but everything changes when Antoinette’s mother, Annette, marries the wealthy Mr. Mason. It is not only his name that signifies a shift closer to the details of Jane Eyre—his presence brings the Cosway family one step closer to England. Indeed, this juxtaposition of the English vs. the non-English is quite significant. Before Mr. Mason enters their lives, Antoinette and her family are strictly West Indian. After Mr. Mason and Annette marry, Englishness begins to insinuate itself into their lives in ultimately dangerous ways. Racial tensions mount, and the first significant fire of Antoinette’s life results in the destruction of the only home she has ever known.

Soon after, Antoinette’s mother is gripped by an insanity that everyone regards as hereditary. Antoinette is sent away to a convent for schooling. The family has been dissolved; part one ends. Part two of the book begins with narration by Mr. Rochester, who has just been pressured into marrying Antoinette (or Bertha, as he calls her, insisting on using her middle name). It is obviously a terrible match: his heart belongs to England, while hers is in the Caribbean. They feel uncomfortable with one another, and their union is based entirely on the selfish intentions of their family members. This section does Rochester no favors, portraying him as morally weak, but it also shows just how victimized both parties have been. Still, it is heartbreaking to read Antoinette’s attempts at a loving relationship when we readers know just how repugnant Rochester finds her. She tells him, “I never wished to live before I knew you,” while he admits:

As for the happiness I gave her, that was worse than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.

It is hard to read about this Rochester and think of Jane, painful to imagine the true depths of suffering that he and Bertha reached before he found his redemption (and she, of course, never found hers).

The novel ends where it must, of course, with England and insanity and fire. But the journey there is moving and profound, agonizing yet of critical importance. It is easy to read Jane Eyre and feel a vague pity for Bertha Mason, to lament that anyone should meet such an end, yet brush her off as something symbolic—or worse, animal. It is impossible with this novel, however, to ignore those questions of lost innocence and inhuman treatment, of an imposed insanity that may have been prevented. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha Mason and Edward Rochester are both compelling victims, the casualties of two dissimilar worlds attempting to merge without understanding on either side. While this may not be Jane Eyre, it is a worthy successor; it understands the suffering behind the scenes, and restores a voice to a shadow.

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Banana Bottom

That Sunday when Bita Plant played the old straight piano to the singing of the Coloured Choristers in the beflowered school-room was the most exciting in the history of Jubilee….

In the opening pages of Banana Bottom, our protagonist, Bita Plant, returns home to the titular village after spending seven years being educated abroad. As we learn, it was after her rape by the aptly nicknamed Crazy Bow that Bita was adopted by husband and wife ministers, Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, and sent from her home in the West Indies to receive a proper education in the “mother country,” England. Now that she has returned, the Craigs, as well as the inhabitants of Banana Bottom and the larger town of Jubilee (where Bita lives with the Craigs), are curious to see if the “experiment” worked. Did Bita, whose skin is one of the darker shades represented on the island, and whose family is not wealthy, become a “proper” English lady? And if so, is she now too cultured and worldly to find any value in her small Jamaican community?

Bita had had seven years’ sound education. Priscilla Craig had conceived the idea of redeeming her from her past by a long period of education without any contact with Banana Bottom, and at the finish she would be English trained and appearing in everything but the colour of her skin.

Everyone who meets Bita is entranced by her, for in many ways she is indeed not like the other girls. She speaks proper English, is an avid reader, and, as a representative of the church, cannot participate in unseemly activities, such as attending tea-meetings. Yet, Bita is not as different as she appears to be. She maintains that her education has done nothing to make Jubilee displeasing to her; she is perfectly happy where she is. If anything, her time away has, in fact, made her more aware, and thus more appreciative, of her native land. She absorbs the sights, the sounds, the local color, with renewed vigor. Bita’s education has not changed who she is, but enhanced it. From the beginning of the novel to the end, she is unwavering in her sense of self; this is not the story of Bita’s education and growth, but rather her gradual understanding and acceptance of who she has always been.

Bita mingled in the crowd, responsive to the feeling, the colour, the smell, the swell and press of it. It gave her the sensation of a reservoir of familiar kindred humanity into which she had descended for baptism. She had never had that big moving feeling as a girl when she visited the native market. And she thought that if she had never gone abroad for a period so long, from which she had become accustomed to viewing her native life in perspective, she might never have had that experience.

As the novel continues, certain events transpire that force Bita to make a choice about the life she is living with the Craigs. She is on the path to marry a man of their choosing, the seemingly respectable Herald Newton Day, but she realizes early on that she could never marry him, let alone learn to love him. Is the path her benefactors have provided, and the gratitude she owes them for her education, enough to keep her? Bita finds herself increasingly drawn to Banana Bottom, and to a lifestyle the Craigs would not accept. Her first transgression occurs at a tea-meeting, in which she finds herself giving in to the desire to dance. Naturally, the Craigs disapprove, but Bita realizes that she does not feel as though she has done something so terrible. From this point, she begins to wonder if she could really spend her life yielding to others’ expectations. Shouldn’t she have the right to choose how she wants to live, and whom she wants to marry?

It’s no coincidence that the plot sounds as if it could belong to a Jane Austen novel. Bita has a lot in common with Austen’s heroines, as well as with other strong female protagonists in British literature. Indeed, she herself could probably pick up on the similarities, being well-read in the classics of her mother country (and temporary home). This is one of the interesting aspects of the novel, and something that makes it more accessible to readers who are not familiar with Caribbean literature. The author, Claude McKay, emphasizes the shared culture of the West Indian and British people. Or, to put it another way, he shows the ways in which West Indians are British, as well. The tension between the British side and the West Indian side, as exemplified in the character of Bita, shows the inherent difficulty in being one of the colonized, identifying with the colonizer. Bita has grown up reading stories of English ladies, speaking the English language, and in many ways being immersed in English culture—even before traveling to England. Yet she will never be a true English lady; her difference will never be invisible. McKay poses the question of how to reconcile these two sides, how to take the best of each and live a life of one’s own choosing. He infuses the story with his own philosophy—sometimes seamlessly, other times a bit heavy-handedly—in an effort to outline a way to do this.

Much of the story is charming and well-written, filled with evocative turns of phrase and colorful characters. Upon opening to the first page, the reader is immediately transported to a vibrant island full of  music; the book is easy to get lost in. Still, McKay falters at times, attributing overly-philosophical thoughts to unlikely characters, and stepping out of the action to elaborate on his personal views. Additionally, this is not an internal book—we never really get a sense of who Bita is as a person. McKay will dip into her state of mind when he wishes to, but there is no ongoing access. As a result, Bita, and especially the other characters, can seem a bit thin, merely colors added to the palette in order to suggest a richer experience. Is the book actually richer for them? At times, certainly, but they fade in and out in a way that, though perhaps true to life, does not add to the cohesiveness of the book. Sometimes their inclusion feels unnecessary, or, at the very least, underutilized.

I loved Banana Bottom until towards the end, at which point I felt that everything was resolved too tidily. What I had initially accepted as a work of imagination suddenly became, too obviously, a vessel for conveying a very particular message. The focus shifted to McKay’s (for lack of a better word) “agenda,” leaving all other areas to suffer. I thought the ending, though not dissatisfying, did a great disservice to the characters, essentially showing them to be symbols rather than people. Perhaps this is not entirely fair, since there is actually not any great shift in tone. Still, as the ending reaffirms the themes of the novel, it also somehow highlights the particular purposes of each character. I found them conforming to their given roles, within McKay’s philosophy, rather than growing and living on beyond the book. In short, I didn’t wonder what came next for them; I didn’t see them as real people who could exist outside of the book.

Yet, as condemnatory as that may seem, I really did enjoy the novel. It opened up a whole new world to me, and it was a quick, delightful read. Though not perfect, of course, its good qualities greatly outshine the bad. Banana Bottom is a wonderful introduction to Caribbean literature. It feels familiar enough to be accessible, yet different enough to be a thoroughly fulfilling experience.

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