Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

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Wide Sargasso Sea was an immediate critical success. The book won for its author two prestigious awards, the W. H. Smith Literary Award and the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society for Literature. Critics were attracted to Rhys's imaginative retelling of the story of the madwoman Bertha Mason from Charlotte Bronte's beloved novel, Jane Eyre. The tie to Bronte that probably brought Wide Sargasso Sea its wide readership also brought its share of controversy. Early reviewer Walter Allen declared that the book could ''not exist in its own right'' and only works as an interesting appendage to Bronte's better novel. Others disagree. Michael Thorpe believes that Wide Sargasso Sea actually forces readers to see Jane Eyre as a flawed, ''more 'dated' work, marred by stereotyping and crude imaginings.’’

Critical attention to Jean Rhys and her last novel is ever growing. As Judith L. Raiskin writes in her introduction to the novel, ‘‘Wide Sargasso Sea has served as a touchstone text for critics interested in modernism, feminism, and post-colonial theory.’’ If feminists have, in the words of Raiskin, ''been challenged by a novel that rewrites an English classic [Jane Eyre] long touted for its feminist vision,’’ they have come to see how ‘‘the issues of race and slavery raised in Wide Sargasso Sea complicate not only many evaluations of Jane Eyre but also the readings of Rhys's 'European fiction' that analyze exploitation in terms of gender only.’’ In other words, feminist critics have been forced to understand both how women are simultaneously united by gender and divided by racial and class difference in their assessments of Rhys's novel.

But Wide Sargasso Sea has not only challenged feminist critics to reexamine Rhys's other works. Pierrette M. Frickey states that not until the publication of this last novel did Rhys become ''known as a West Indian writer.’’ Critics try to trace the significance of Rhys's Caribbean childhood in the structure and imagery of the novel. Sandra Drake argues that Rhys draws on a particularly Afro-Caribbean literary tradition, and that she uses her knowledge of voodoo and zombies to make an anti-European statement in Wide Sargasso Sea. Kenneth Ramchand, however, is quick to point out that not all West Indian writers and critics want to claim Rhys as one of their own. He quotes poet Edward Brathwaite who believes that ''white Creoles in the English and French West Indies have separated themselves by too wide a gulf and have contributed too little culturally.. .to give credence to the notion that they can.. .meaningfully identify or be identified with the spiritual world on this side of the Sargasso Sea.’’ But many find it hard to argue with the West Indian feeling of Rhys's last novel. Indeed recent critics point, with humor, to the 1974 assessment of A. Alvarez that Rhys was ‘‘the best living English novelist.’’ In her indictment of English imperialism and in her evocation of a Caribbean landscape and culture, Jean Rhys is a powerful and gifted novelist, but certainly not English.

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