Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

Published twenty-five years after Jean Rhys’s previous book, Wide Sargasso Sea was Rhys’s last novel. Different in some respects from the rest of Rhys’s work (Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the Caribbean, not in London or Paris, and occurs in the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century), Rhys’s last novel continues her passionate explorations into the lives of tragic heroines who are alone, outsiders, and underdogs. Continuing in a long tradition of women’s writing, Rhys explores the cultural alienation that results from imperialism and gender roles. Wide Sargasso Sea is Rhys’s revision of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre. The novel’s position within the literary canon is thus significant both as a continuation in the tradition of women’s writings and as a rebellion to a woman’s text within that tradition. Voicing approval and contempt, Rhys creates a dialogue with her literary predecessor.

Rhys grants Antoinette what Brontë denied Bertha, a voice. Rhys does the same for Jane Eyre’s Rochester. The two main characters in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway Mason and the unnamed Englishman, tell their versions of the tale in their own voices. Wide Sargasso Sea is in three parts: Antoinette’s childhood, the newlywed period, and Antoinette’s period of imprisonment in the attic of her husband’s English home. Of the three parts, the first and third are told in Antoinette’s voice. The second is told primarily in the Englishman’s voice but is interrupted by a brief section in Antoinette’s voice at a point of crisis. This intermingling, modern in technique, symbolizes the attempt at dialogue. The intermixed voices of Antoinette and the Rochester character reveal two sides of the same story, but the characters neither hear nor understand the other person or the other culture.

The dialogue between authors is effected by Rhys’s choice not simply to vindicate the West Indian woman who Brontë depicts but also to write that particular woman’s story. Writing within the framework of the earlier novel, Rhys responds to the stereotypes informed by Brontë’s nineteenth century English culture and social status. Rhys develops sympathetically the complex character of the woman who in Jane Eyre is merely a lunatic. Antoinette’s story, as told in Wide Sargasso Sea, predates the story in Jane Eyre. It explains the Englishman’s inability to understand or to love his wife, and it shows what lies behind Antoinette’s suicide. Rhys speaks back to Brontë but, by placing her story within the narrative of Brontë’s work, allows Brontë to have her say. Rhys juxtaposes the English heroine of Jane Eyre, who fights for and acquires selfhood, equality, independence, and happiness, with the alienated Antoinette, who not only loses all that the English heroine gains but also loses her freedom and her life.

Still, as obviously as Wide Sargasso Sea rejects the optimism of Jane Eyre, a kinship exists between the two women characters. Rhys locates her story in five places—Coulibri, Mount Calvary, Grandbois, Jamaica, and Thornfield—closely paralleling the five physical locations of Jane Eyre. Additionally, Rhys’s novel shifts smoothly between reality and an otherworldly, dreamlike state, echoing the gothic and romantic elements of the earlier work. Rhys begins and ends Wide Sargasso Sea in the voice of Antoinette, the character Brontë leaves utterly voiceless. Rhys also leaves Brontë’s main character and narrator not merely voiceless but completely unconsidered. These techniques provide the opportunity to compare the intimacies of both characters and unites them. They are both isolated women struggling for survival in a world dominated by men. Connecting these women and contrasting their fates, Rhys voices the conflict between her theory and that of Brontë on the available opportunities for women, yet ultimately reaffirms Brontë’s essential argument in Jane Eyre. As Christophine declares: “Women must have spunks to live in this wicked world.”

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