Wide Sargasso Sea Essay - Critical Context

Jean Rhys

Critical Context

After her fifth novel, Good Morning, Midnight (1939), was published, Jean Rhys disappeared and her books went out of print for nearly twenty years. When she was finally traced to an address in Cornwall, she was at work on the novel that would become Wide Sargasso Sea and would win both critical and popular acclaim.

In the 1920’s, Rhys’s first editor and patron, Ford Madox Ford, had praised her “passion for stating the case of the underdog.” Indeed, she was the underdog, and the heroines of her first five books were thinly fictionalized versions of herself. Feminist critics justly assess her heroines as early, unenlightened, unliberated victims of a male-dominated world. Perhaps because the initiating subject of Wide Sargasso Sea, the madwoman in Jane Eyre, was remote from herself, it placed greater demands upon her imagination than did the earlier books, and she was able to invest not only her heroine but also her villain with completely credible personalities. As monstrous as he becomes, Rochester is understandable, at times sympathetic, and at least once near the height of his hatred and paranoia, offered the possibility of redemption by realizing, but not believing, that everything he had thought was true of his wife was false.

Finally, though, the tyranny that he exercises over her could not have been otherwise, since it is the tyranny of the imperialist over the colony and is ingrained in his personality by his upbringing in his native land as surely as Antoinette’s victimhood is required of her as a Creole woman in that place in those circumstances. She struggles against her victimhood with her own good sense of life, with all of her feeling and energy, and her ruin as a result has the grandeur of tragedy rather than the pathos of melodrama.