Wide Sargasso Sea
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Eric Thomas|
|Publisher||André Deutsch (UK) & W. W. Norton (US)|
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 postcolonial novel by Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, who had lived in obscurity after her previous work, Good Morning, Midnight, was published in 1939. Wide Sargasso Sea "re-noticed" Rhys, and became her most successful novel.
The novel is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's famous 1847 novel Jane Eyre. It is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman—he is never named by the author—who soon renames her, declares her mad and then requires her to relocate to England. Caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans, Rhys's novel re-imagines Brontë's devilish madwoman in the attic. As with many postcolonial works, the novel deals largely with the themes of racial inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimilation.
The novel opens a short while after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire on 1 August 1834. The protagonist Antoinette relates the story of her life from childhood to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman (implied as Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre). As their marriage progresses, Antoinette, whom he renames "Bertha" and confines to a locked room, descends into madness.
The novel is split into three parts. Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica and is narrated by Antoinette. Describing childhood experiences, she reviews several facets of her life, including her mother's mental instability and her mentally disabled brother's tragic death.
Part Two alternates between the points of view of her husband and of Antoinette during their 'honeymoon' excursion to Granbois, Dominica. Likely catalysts for Antoinette's downfall are the mutual suspicions that develop between the two and the machinations of Daniel, who claims he is Antoinette's (illegitimate) brother; he impugns Antoinette's reputation and mental state and demands hush money. Antoinette's old nurse Christophine's open mistrust of the Englishman and his belief in the hateful accounts about Antoinette aggravate the situation; then he openly becomes unfaithful to her. Her increased sense of paranoia and the bitter disappointment of her failing marriage unbalance Antoinette's already precarious mental and emotional state.
Part Three is the shortest part of the novel; it is again from the perspective of Antoinette, now known as Bertha. She is now largely confined to 'the attic' of Thornfield Hall, the Rochester mansion she calls the "Great House". The story traces her relationship with Grace, the servant who is tasked with guarding her as well as her ever more disintegrating non-life with the Englishman as he hides her from the world. He makes empty promises to come to her more, but actually sees less of her as he ventures off to pursue relationships with other women—and eventually with the young governess Jane Eyre. Voicing her thoughts in stream of consciousness and believing it her destiny, Antoinette/Bertha decides to take her own life.
Wide Sargasso Sea is usually thought of as a postmodern and postcolonial response to Jane Eyre. Rhys uses multiple voices (Antoinette's, Rochester's, and Grace Poole's) to tell the story, and deeply intertwines her novel's plot with that of Jane Eyre. In addition, Rhys makes a postcolonial argument when she ties Antoinette's husband's eventual rejection of Antoinette to her Creole heritage (a large factor in Antoinette's descent into madness). As postmodern and postcolonial literature have taken a greater place in university curricula, the novel has been taught to literature students more often in recent years.
Awards and nominations
- Winner of the WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, which brought Rhys to public attention after decades of obscurity.
- Named by Time as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
- Rated number 94 on the list of Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
- Winner of Cheltenham Booker Prize 2006 for year 1966.
- 1993: Wide Sargasso Sea, film adaptation directed by John Duigan and starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker.
- 1997: Wide Sargasso Sea, contemporary opera adaptation with music by Brian Howard, directed by Douglas Horton.
- 2004: Wide Sargasso Sea, BBC Radio 4 10-part adaptation by Margaret Busby, read by Adjoa Andoh (repeated 2012, 2014).
- 2006: Wide Sargasso Sea, TV adaptation directed by Brendan Maher and starring Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall.
- 2011: "Wide Sargasso Sea", song written by rock 'n' roll singer Stevie Nicks about the novel and film; it appears on her 2011 album In Your Dreams.
- "Emancipation", The Black Presence, National Archive.
- "Wide Sargasso Sea at The Penguin Readers' Group". Readers.penguin.co.uk. 2000-08-03. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
- "The Empire Writes Back: Jane Eyre". Faculty.pittstate.edu. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
- Lacayo, Richard (2005-10-16). "Time magazine list of All-Time 100 Novels". Time.com. Retrieved 2011-01-02.
- "Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha and Jane Eyre"
- Wide Sargasso Sea study guide, themes, quotes, & teacher resources
- Review at JaneEyre.net