Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’ account of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason (aka Cosway). Fans of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre will recognize her as Rochester’s insane wife from the West Indies he kept locked in an attic. Bronte never indeed developed the character of Antoinette, leaving readers to wonder what kind of life Antoinette had and had she always been mad? In 1966, Jean Rhys finally completed Wide Sargasso Sea after working on it for nearly twenty-seven years.
The novel is structured in three parts with Antoinette and Rochester’s alternating point of view. The first and second part takes place in the West Indies, and the third part is only Antoinette’s point of view while living in England.
The story starts with Antoinette’s description of her childhood and the difficulties her family faced living in Jamaica in the 1830s shortly after the end of slavery when racial tensions were at its highest. As a white Creole child, Antoinette lives with her mother and sick brother in poverty until her mother re-marries wealthy Mr. Mason.
Racial problems are also one of the major themes of this novel. When racial tensions erupt during Antoinette’s childhood, black workers burn down her house, Coulibri, a plantation house and symbol of oppression. After the fire that culminates in the death of her sick brother, Antoinette’s mother goes mad, and Mr. Mason places Antoinette in a convent until the age of eighteen when she leaves to marry Rochester.
“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”
Isolation is another strong theme in this novel, be social isolation, geographical isolation, as well as the isolation Antoinette suffers throughout the story. First, the abandonment and lack of love from her mother, the betrayal of her friend Tia, and ultimately the isolation she feels from Rochester. The entire novel has a very oppressive and claustrophobic feel to it.
The second part of the novel revolves around Antoinette and Rochester’s marriage. A marriage which is sour from the beginning. Rhys makes a point to demonstrate the couple’s incompatibility and inability to understand each other. Rochester’s failure to be flexible and to adapt to his new surroundings and new way of life, and Antoinette lack of communication skills.
“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.”
In the third and final part of the book, Rochester and Antoinette move back to England after the death of Rochester’s father and older brother. The story changes again to Antoinette’s point of view. The move to England and the isolation from everything she’s ever held dear, including Rochester, drives her to insanity, and the novel ends with the house fire.
I really loved this book. I think because I also felt a need to know more about Antoinette and Rochester’s story. I loved the way she depicted the Caribbean with such rich and sensual imagery. This is indeed a masterpiece where Rhys was able to beautifully merge her story to a very known novel and do it all with immense style and sensibility.
“She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass […] I’ll take her in my arms, my lunatic. She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me.”
This novel is part of my list of books in The Classics Club Challenge