Book #42: Wide Sargasso Sea
Whether you love Wide Sargasso Sea or you hate it, you’ve got to say one thing about Jean Rhys—the book’s author: She’s got nerve.
Imagine, today, a writer sitting down to tell the story of Jay Gatsby’s childhood or Atticus Finch’s experiences in law school. That, essentially, is what Jean Rhys did.
She decided that Charlotte Bronte left some openings, and she took the opportunity to fill them in. That takes a pair, my friend.
So, if anything, at least Jean Rhys has that to say for herself.
But, in my opinion, she has more than that—because she pulled off a well-written, haunting novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea is written as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As I’ve mentioned 157 times, I haven’t read Jane Eyre so I’m woefully inadequate to compare the two, even though I tried.
I’ve gathered main plot points to Jane Eyre from what you guys have told me and from just reading about the book, so I think I have a marginal understanding of what it’s about and how Wide Sargasso Sea connects it together.
This novel focuses on two characters from Jane Eyre: Bertha Mason (the “crazy woman in the attic”) and Mr. Rochester. Rhys tells about Bertha’s childhood (then known as Antoinette Cosway), how she watched her little brother die when some recently freed slaves burned down their house, which led to her mother going crazy.
It lays out how Antoinette, who inherits a good deal of money, enters into a prearranged marriage with the English gentleman, Mr. Rochester. Then Rhys outlines their move from Jamaica to the isolated Caribbean island of Dominica—and how Rochester is haunted by the “black magic,” voodooish characteristics of the island and its inhabitants.
The tension in the story builds as Rochester is unable to cope with the culture Antoinette has brought him into, while also realizing he doesn’t really love her.
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.
One of the strongest qualities of Wide Sargasso Sea, to me, is the visual nature of the book. When I thought back on the novel after finishing it, Rhys’ use of imagery was the first thing that came to my mind. I love this passage, from early in the book, comparing the garden at the Coulibri estate (where Antoinette grew up) to the Garden of Eden in the Bible.
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest trees, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.
The story alternates between first-person narratives from Antoinette, Mr. Rochester–who goes unnamed–and, finally, Grace Poole, Bertha’s caretaker, who has a short narrative in the final section.
It’s not a difficult book to read. The sentence structure is fairly simple, but the themes might be complex and it takes a bit to get used to the story shifting to and from the points of view of different characters.
Wide Sargasso Sea is full of symbolism: fire represents social and political rebellion. Antoinette’s red dress represents her identity and beauty.
And the land itself, the Caribbean, so foreign to Mr. Rochester, is tied up in Antoinette’s identity. I read one person say the land in Wide Sargasso Sea could almost be a character itself. And that’s true. So much of this story revolves around property and land, whether it’s in Dominica or Coulibri.
There’s a dark feeling to this novel. Maybe it’s the fact that I know what happens to Antoinette in the end (in Jane Eyre), so it’s sad to see how she slowly devolves into what she eventually came.
So an ominous feeling pervades Wide Sargasso Sea. You might not know exactly how this novel ends, but if you know the story from Jane Eyre, you know the ultimate fate of these characters. And, for Antoinette, things don’t turn out so well.
I would definitely recommend Wide Sargasso Sea, especially if you are a fan of Jan Eyre. I’m always reluctant when one author steps in to fill perceived gaps in another author’s story, but I think Jean Rhys pulled it off, telling how Antoinette Cosway became Bertha Mason–the “crazy woman in the attic.”
The Opening Line: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.”
The Meaning: The Sargasso Sea is a portion of the North Atlantic Ocean that is found in the Bermuda Triangle. Many strange disappearances have happened there, and it’s known for being so salty, and so overrun with seaweed, that no sea life exists in that portion of the ocean. It’s this “death” that separates the Caribbean (Antoinette’s home) and England (Rochester’s home).
Highlights: Beautiful imagery, even haunting. Rhys created a world connected to Jane Eyre that’s believable.
Lowlights: The Mr. Rochester character feels inconsistent. He seems to abruptly change without enough cause to explain the change.
Memorable Line: “There is always the other side, always.” – Antoinette Cosway (perhaps explains why Rhys wrote the book?)
Final Thoughts: Solid book. Good prequel. Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t life-changing or anything, but I think it’s a worthy read, especially if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre.