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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