Jean Rhys Long Fiction Analysis
Jean Rhys’s first novel, Quartet, reflects closely her misadventures with Ford Madox Ford. The heroine, Marya Zelli, whose husband is in prison, moves in with the rich and respectable Hugh and Lois Heidler. Hugh becomes Marya’s lover, while Lois punishes her with petty cruelties. The central figure is a woman alone, penniless, exploited, and an outsider. In her next novel, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, the central figure, Julia Martin, breaks off with her rich lover, Mr. Mackenzie, and finds herself financially desperate. Voyage in the Dark tells the story of Anna Morgan, who arrives in England from the West Indies as an innocent young girl, has her first affair as a chorus girl, and descends through a series of shorter and shorter affairs to working for a masseuse. In Good Morning, Midnight, the alcoholic Sasha Jensen, penniless in Paris, remembers episodes from her past that have brought her to this sorry pass.
All four of these novels show a female character subject to financial, sexual, and social domination by men and “respectable” society. In all cases, the heroine is passive, but “sentimental.” The reader is interested in her feelings rather than in her ideas and accomplishments. She is alienated economically from any opportunity to do meaningful and justly rewarding work. She is an alien socially, either from a foreign and despised colonial culture or from a marginally respectable social background. She is literally an alien or foreigner in Paris and London, which are cities of dreadful night for her. What the characters fear most is the final crushing alienation from their true identities, the reduction to some model or type imagined by a foreign man. They all face the choice of becoming someone’s gamine, garçonne, or femme fatale, or of starving to death, and they all struggle against this loss of personal identity. After a silence of more than twenty years, Rhys returned to these same concerns in her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea. While the four early novels are to a large degree autobiographical, Wide Sargasso Sea has a more literary origin, although it, too, reflects details from the author’s personal life.
Wide Sargasso Sea
Wide Sargasso Sea requires of the reader a familiarity with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). In Brontë’s novel, Jane is prevented from marrying Rochester by the presence of a madwoman in the attic, his insane West Indian wife, who finally perishes in a fire that she sets, burning Rochester’s house and blinding him, but clearing the way for Jane to wed him. The madwoman in Jane Eyre is depicted entirely from the exterior. It is natural that the mad West Indian wife, when seen only through the eyes of her English rival and of Rochester, appears completely hideous and depraved. Indeed, when Jane first sees the madwoman in chapter 16 of the novel, she cannot tell whether it is a beast or a human being groveling on all fours. Like a hyena with bloated features, the madwoman attacks Rochester in this episode.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a sympathetic account of the life of Rochester’s mad wife, ranging from her childhood in the West Indies, her Creole and Catholic background, and her courtship and married years with the deceitful Rochester to her final descent into madness and captivity in England. Clearly, the predicament of the West Indian wife resembles that of Rhys herself in many ways. In order to present the alien wife’s case, Rhys writes a “countertext,” an extension of Brontë’s novel that fills in the “missing” testimony, the issues over which Brontë glosses.
Wide Sargasso Sea consists of two parts. Part 1 is narrated by the girl growing up in Jamaica who is destined to become Rochester’s wife. The Emancipation Act has just been passed (the year of that imperial edict was 1833), and the blacks on the island are passing through a period of so-called apprenticeship that should lead to their complete freedom in 1837. This is a period of racial tension and anxiety for the privileged colonial community. Fear of black violence runs high, and no one knows exactly what will happen to the landholders once the blacks are emancipated. The girlish narrator lives in the interface between the privileged white colonists and the blacks. Although a child of landowners, she is impoverished, clinging to European notions of respectability, and in constant fear. She lives on the crumbling estate of her widowed mother. Her closest associate is Christophine, a Martinique obeah woman, or Voodoo witch. When her mother marries Mr. Mason, the family’s lot improves temporarily, until the blacks revolt, burning their country home, Coulibri, and killing her half-witted brother. She then attends a repressive Catholic school in town, where her kindly colored “cousin” Sandi protects her from more hostile blacks.
Part 2 is narrated by the young Rochester on his honeymoon with his bride at her country home. Wherever appropriate, Rhys follows the details of Brontë’s story. Rochester reveals that his marriage is merely a financial arrangement. After an uneasy period of passion, Rochester’s feelings for his bride begin to cool. He receives a letter of denunciation accusing her of misbehavior with Sandi and revealing that madness runs in the family. To counter Rochester’s growing hostility, the young bride goes to her former companion, the obeah woman Christophine, for a love potion. The nature of the potion is that it can work for one night only. Nevertheless, she administers it to her husband. His love now dead, she is torn from her native land, transported to a cruel and loveless England, and maddeningly confined. Finally, she takes candle in hand to burn down Rochester’s house in suicidal destruction.
In Brontë’s novel, the character of the mad wife is strangely blank, a vacant slot in the story. Her...
(The entire section is 2437 words.)