Wide Sargasso Sea is the life story of Antoinette Mason, chronicling her solitary girlhood on her family estate in Jamaica, her coming of age in a convent school, and her early marriage to Edward Rochester, which ends disastrously in her madness and destruction. Antoinette is the mad wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a figure with whom Jean Rhys identified and was fascinated for much of her life. Instead of the raving animal who is Bronte’s character, Rhys’s Antoinette is a doomed but utterly sympathetic and understandable heroine who is unable to remedy the circumstances inflicted on her by history, family, and fate.
As a white Creole child on her family’s Coulibri Estate, with her father dead and her mother distraught with poverty, Antoinette belongs neither in the society of the recently freed slaves, who despise all white people, nor in that of the local whites, who reject her mother, Annette, for being a Martiniquoise, pretty, widowed, and poor. Cut off from all society and security, Antoinette finds a kind of painful solace in the wild bush and rain forest, which both attract and terrify her with their lushness and mysterious, menacing forms. She grows up as a wild child, until her mother marries one Mr. Mason, wealthy and recently arrived from England. The local blacks, however, fearing that the new prosperity at the estate might mean importation of indentured workers from India, one night form a mob and burn down the...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
In Charlotte’s Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre (1847), a man named Rochester keeps his first wife Bertha locked in an attic. Bertha is insane and comes from the West Indies, but her past is not explained. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys accounts for Bertha’s childhood and marriage. Since Rhys herself came from the West Indies and struggled in England, the story had special significance for her.
Born on the island of Dominica in 1894, Rhys moved to England when she was sixteen years old. Jane Eyre was one of the first books she read upon her arrival. The portrayal of Bertha always disappointed her. Rhys had four novels published between 1928 and 1939, then spent twenty-seven years writing Bertha’s story. When Wide Sargasso Sea was finally completed in 1966, it earned for Rhys long-deserved acclaim.
The book’s title refers to the body of water, part of the Atlantic, between the West Indies and England. Rhys never completely adjusted to the move from her tropical island home to England and other countries of Europe. She always felt cold and imagined Bertha felt the same. Rhys had chronic financial difficulties that kept her moving. She was married three times—two of her husbands spent time in prison. She drank heavily. Rhys empathized with human suffering, regardless of the cause, and sided with heroines facing less sensitive, well-organized societies. Bertha’s ill-fated marriage to the respectable...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Wide Sargasso Sea allows Bertha Mason, the madwoman married to Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s famous novel, to tell her story. Rhys creates a voice, a history, and a rationale for why Bertha is mad. She has been driven insane by the cold rejection of an embittered Englishman.
In this novel Rhys integrates a mature style and sensibility with the experience of her childhood in Dominica. Wide Sargasso Sea is the most structurally demanding of her novels. She had to write in the context of a previously written novel and blend this context into the story of her own life and that of Bertha.
In Rhys’s novel, Bertha has a different name, her own name, Antoinette. She is small and delicate, rather than large and swarthy as Brontë describes her. Rochester calls her Bertha; this name is hateful to Antoinette.
The novel is structured around Antoinette and Rochester’s alternating points of view and is divided into three parts. The first and second parts alternate between the voices of Antoinette and Rochester and are set in the West Indies. The third part is limited to Antoinette’s voice, after she has come to England and has been locked in the attic of Thornfield.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, the Caribbean is depicted in rich and sensual imagery. In the novel, the Caribbean is at a turning point. The white Creole is being rendered homeless because the cruelties of slavery are coming to an end....
(The entire section is 489 words.)