Wide Sargasso Sea -- Jean Rhys' prequel to the novel Jane Eyre

Jean Rhys in her youth.
Jean Rhys in her youth. | Source
First edition of Rhys' book, Wide Sargasso Sea.
First edition of Rhys' book, Wide Sargasso Sea. | Source

Antoinette / Bertha

This novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, written by Jean Rhys, is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's 1847 famous novel, Jane Eyre. I had read Charlotte Bronte's novel many years ago, but just recently got around to reading Jean Rhys' postcolonial parallel novel set in the Caribbean on the island of Jamaica.

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, (Bertha Mason Rochester in Jane Eyre) a white Creole heiress, from her youth in the Caribbiean to her unhappy marriage with Mr. Rochester her descent into madness and her relocation to England.

As a Creole, Antoinette is caught in an oppressive patriarchal society as she belongs neither to white Europeans nor Black Jamaicans and feels the rootlessness and alienation that Rhys felt and struggled with during her own lifetime.

This is one of the most heartbreaking and heartwrenching stories I have ever read. The novel gives voice to the 'madwoman in the attic', one of the Gothic motifs Bronte used in her novel, as we see 'Bertha', Antoinette, convey the story of her life from childhood to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman. It is Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre although he is never named outright in Rhys' novel.

Rhys brings Antoinette Cosway alive and gives birth to a vibrant, beautiful, interesting, yet fragile woman. Rhys uses multiple voices to tell her story (Antoinette's, Rochester's, and Grace Poole's ) and deeply intertwines her novel's plot with that of Jane Eyre. Bertha as Antoinette is no longer a Gothic motif of the half-caste madwoman in the attic but a real woman with hopes, dreams, fears and desires but vulnerable and actually much like Jane Eyre in some ways.

The novel is divided into three parts:

  • Part I takes place in Coulibiri, Jamaica and is completely narrated by Antoinette. It describes her childhood experiences, her mother's mental instability, her pushing Antoinette aside, and her mentally disabled brother's tragic death.
  • Part II alternates between the viewpoints and narrators of her husband (Rochester) and of Antoinette following their marriage and is set in Granbois, Dominica, an island in the east windward island chain. We see the arranged marriage for money by Rochester and Antoinette as the pawn in this arrangement. We watch as the catalyst for Antoinette's downfall as the suspicion and distrust with which they both have for one another. And, we see the manipulations of a supposed relative of Antoinette's, Daniel Cosway, and his stories of the family's mental instability. We also see, Christophine, Antoinette's old nurse , who constantly distrusts Rochester and her deep beliefs in magic and voodoo of the black island culture, which also influenceds Antoinette. We watch Rochester's unwavering belief of what Daniel Cosway says about the family and this further brings about the decline of the marriage and of Antoinette.
  • Part III is the shortest part and is written from the viewpoint of Antoinette, now called Bertha by Rochester, as she lives in Thornfield Hall/Manor, as she calls it the "Great House". We see 'Bertha' struggle with what is her purpose in life and her purpose for being at the "Great House." This part traces her life and relationship with Grace Poole who 'guards' her in the hidden attic area on the third floor. It also traces her further disintegrating relationship with Rochester as he hides her from the world, promising to visit her more often, but then becoming involved with Jane. Finally, 'Bertha' takes her own life in the tragic manor fire as she believes it to be her destiny.

Of course, the most difficult part to read is Part II as we watch the marriage between Antoinette and Rochester disintegrate and the hate they end up having for each other. As Antoinette realizes Rochester doesn't love her or care about her, she tries to explain her mother's instablilty to him. Rochester's mind is pretty much closed as he believes the letter from Daniel Cosway that states that insanity runs in the entire family. As the gulf enlarges between Antoinette and Rochester, Antoinette's like for Rochester turns to hate and this instigates her descent into insanity.

Rochester, on the other hand, feels he has been duped and betrayed into marrying Antoinette by her step-brother, Richard, and his own father who arranged the marriage. He believes he has been married to a woman who is beneath him and in whose family insanity runs. Rochester believes it is only a matter of time before Antoinette declines into madness as her mother did and it becomes a self-professing prophecy when she does. Before he has even left the islands, Rochester devises the idea of locking Antoinette away in the attic at Thornfield Hall.

Antoinette becomes more confused as Rochester begins calling her 'Bertha' instead of Antoinette. She hates being called 'Bertha' which Rochester cruelly does to further the distance from her and what he perceives as her insanity. By the time Antoinette arrives in England, she is known only by the moniker, 'Bertha.'

Rhys brings forth in this novel the idea that a woman can become lost in her own society and thus driven out of her mind. This is the most disturbing part of reading this novel. Had Rochester not gone into the marriage with such suspicion and distrust, had he not believed the Daniel Cosway letter, had he treated Antoinette with care, respect and sensitivity, her descent into madness could have been prevented. Antoinette is far gone by the time they leave the islands for England, but had Rochester not locked her up and hidden her away from the world, they could have had a modicum of a life together.

What is truly sad and tragic is that the character of Antoinette and the character of Jane are very similar. Both are independent, vivacious, imaginative young women with troubled childhoods, educated in religious schools and looked down upon by the upper classes. Both marry Mr. Rochester.

Antoinette is more rebellious than Jane and less mentally stable than Jane because of her free wandering childhood without much notice, attention, or guidance from her mother. Jane, on the other hand, had the strict Puritan guidance of Lowood school.

Wide Sargasso Sea is usually thought of as a postmodern and postcolonial response to Jane Eyre, because the novel was written and published in the 20th century. Rhys began writing the novel in the 1940's and spent the next twenty years writing and editing her novel. It was finally published in 1966 and brought her great literary acclaim in the latter part of her life.

The wide Sargasso Sea with sargassum weeds.
The wide Sargasso Sea with sargassum weeds. | Source

Jean Rhys and her Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys lived from 1890-1979, was originally named Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, and became a 20th century novelist born and raised in the Caribbean island of Dominica, but educated from the age of sixteen in England. She remained and lived the rest of her life in England. She wrote several novels but is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).

Rhys, therefore, understood life in the islands, their history and the social strata in the islands over the years. Her father was a Welsh medical doctor and her mother, a third generation Domincian Creole of Scot's ancestry. She was able to incorporate this knowledge into her novels which all portrayed the mistreated, rootless woman as this is how she saw herself.

As Rhys was part Creole herself, she makes a postcolonial argument in her novel when she ties Rochester's rejection of Antoinette to her Creole heritage which is also a large factor in Antoinette's descent into madness.

Rhys parents sent her to England to attend the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge where she was seen as an outsider and ridiculed for her strange accent. She then went on for two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in 1909, but was asked to leave because she did not speak "proper English." Her unacceptance at these two schools influenced the characters in her novels, which all had trouble assimilating and being accepted in society.

She refused to return to the Caribbean with her parents after her time at school and lived quite a bohemian life in London. She became a chorus girl working in diffferent London shows. She married three times and when she began writing novels and short stories she was under the patronage of the English writer Ford Maddox Ford. She and Ford had an affair, but Ford did not leave his wife for her. It was he who suggested she change her name from Ella Williams to Jean Rhys which she did.

By the 1940's, Rhys disappeared from public view and spent her time writing Wide Sargasso Sea. She remained secluded until 1966 and the publication of the novel. The novel was a critical success at the time of publication and Rhys experienced literary fame from the time of publication until her death. This novel is considerded the best of the novels she wrote.

She titled the book, Wide Sargasso Sea, because of what the sea symbolizes in the book. The Sargasso Sea is a large area of ocean that expands from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to Gibraltar, its northern border and from Haiti to Dakar, its southern border. It lies all about Bermuda and extends more than halfway across the Atlantic Ocean. The entire area of the Sargasso Sea is roughly as large as the U.S.

The sea is a creation of the great currents of the North Atlantic and the Gulf Stream that encircle it and bring into it millions of tons of floating sargassum weed from which the sea derives its name. There is no flow of fresh water into the sea to dilute its saltiness as it is separated by coastal waters and from polar ice.

The wide Sargasso Sea is a mid-ocean region bounded by the strong currents that sweep around the ocean basins and which become the 'deserts and the wastelands' of the sea. There are few birds and few surface-feeding fishes and little surface plankton to attract them. Life in these areas of the ocean is confined to the deep water.

The sea is full of sargassum weeds, brown algae, belonging to several species. It lives attached to reefs and rocky shorelines of the West Indies and Florida. Poor fish swimmers cling to the weed which acts as a life preserver to keep from sinking to the bottom of the sea.It is a self-perpetuating community of plants that have become adapted to life in the open sea needing no roots for attachments.

And, herein, lies the symbolism of the Sargasso Sea in Rhys novel. Antoinette has had a life growing up in the Wide Sargasso Sea, but it is a desert, a wasteland of a life. She has metaphorically been tossed and turned, as the sargassum weeds, in the Wide Sargasso Sea, rootless, tossed and turned until she finally descends into madness. Being a woman in a patriarchial society, Antoinette has no control over her life, is forced into an arranged marriage, and she is like the sargassum weeds that just roll along with the sea.

Antoinette is as "the gloomy hulks of vessels doomed to endless drifting in the clinging weed are only the ghosts of things that never were."

The character of Edward Rochester

When I have read Jane Eyre, and I have read the novel several times, I always sympathised and felt sorry for Edward Rochester. I understood his motivation in wanting to marry Jane even though his mad wife was still alive in the attic in Thornfield Manor. I cheered the end, with Bertha's death, and Rochester's rebirth when Jane returns and they marry.

After reading Wide Sargasso Sea, my sympathies have changed. I now sympathise with Antoinette and feel sorry for a lovely, vibrant woman that was indeed made mad by those around her and her life experiences. I find Edward Rochester cruel and hard, and semi-responsible for her descent into madness. That he knew before he left the islands that he would lock Antoinette away in the manor attic with Grace Poole is horrible to me. I will never be able to read Jane Eyre again with the same open-mindedness toward his character.

As Jean Rhys has said about her novel, there are always two sides to a matter.

The currents that create the wide Sargasso Sea.
The currents that create the wide Sargasso Sea. | Source

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Comments 11 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

I am showing my ignorance here, Suzette, because I have never heard of this book. Thank you for the review and history behind it. Well done my friend.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: Thank you for reading this. You are such a loyal follower and I appreciate it so much. I just found out about this book a short time ago, and, of course, I had to read it being a Jane Eyre fan. This novel blew me away. The two novels together now are so, so interesting. Thanks for your visit - always appreciated.


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

This takes me back. Rhys was one of my instructor Mr. Johnny Land's favorites. We all read the "Sargasso Sea" (as he called it) as a favor to him. Great report and thanks for the memory.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: Thanks for you comments. Glad this brings back good memories. I just recently read the book and it really does a fine job of balancing the view of the the character Antoinette / Bertha. It really adds context to the novel, Jane Eyre. I can see why it was your instructor's favorite. I think if I was teaching Jane Eyre I would also require the reading of the Wide Sargasso Sea. Thanks for your visit - most appreciated!


healingsword profile image

healingsword 4 years ago from California

Hi Suzettenaples, Thank you for this excellent, sympathetic analysis of Jean Rhys' novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Your review clarified the novel for me; when I skimmed it years ago, I remember feeling frightened and sad in response to the emotions communicated by the novel. With your analysis, I see that I had empathically internalized Antoinette's experience in my first read and missed the bigger-picture analysis, and now that I understand the overall structure and meaning of the plot based on your clear, sympathetic interpretation, it definitely adds to my comprehension of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea. Great essay and much admired!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you healingsword. After reading Sargasso Sea, I was amazed at how my sympathies had changed and away from Rochester. I thought Rhys' novel was brilliant, and coming from someone who actually grew up on the islands Charlotte Bronte had her character of Bertha originally come from. I thought it was quite sympathetic of Rhys to write Antoinette's side of the story. Thanks so much for reading this and I'm glad you enjoyed it.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

A wonderful review and also very well presented.

Take care and enjoy your weekend.

Eddy.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks, Eddy. Glad you enjoyed this. You have a great weekend, also.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys should always be a companion to Jane Eyre. As a young girl reading Jane Eyre, I always had empathy for the poor mad captive. My heart was drawn to her even as I prayed for Jane to find happiness. As usual with your Hubs, I shall now have to read both books. Thanks for the review of a highly under loved and unknown book.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you, Hyphen. I was amazed at Rhys book. It is quite short so it doesn't take long to read. For me, it was such a interesting idea for a book - to show the other side of the story. I found it heartbreaking. I hope you enjoy it, though. It really is enlightening.


mckbirdbks profile image

mckbirdbks 4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

This presentation has such vigor. You instantly know you are excited about the subject. For some reason I am reminded of Daphne du Maurier, even the Rhys portrait is eerily similar.

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