Wide Sargasso Sea
|Wide Sargasso Sea|
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Eric Thomas|
|Publisher||André Deutsch (UK) & W. W. Norton (USA)|
|Publication date||October 1966|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Wide Sargasso Sea is a 1966 postcolonial parallel novel by Dominica-born author Jean Rhys. Since her previous work, Good Morning, Midnight, was published in 1939, Rhys had lived in obscurity. Wide Sargasso Sea put Rhys into the limelight once more, and became her most successful novel.
The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's famous 1847 novel Jane Eyre. It is the story of Antoinette Cosway (known as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre), a white Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage with Mr Rochester and relocation 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 opening of the novel is set a short while after the 1833 emancipation of the slaves in British-owned Jamaica. The protagonist Antoinette conveys the story of her life from childhood to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman (implied as Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre). As the novel and their relationship progress, Antoinette, whom he renames Bertha, descends into madness.
The novel is split into three parts. Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica and is narrated by Antoinette. Describing her childhood experience, she includes several facets of her life, such as 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 following their marriage and is set in Granbois, Dominica. One of the likely catalysts for Antoinette's downfall is the suspicion with which they both begin to view each other, fuelled by the machinations of a supposed relative of Antoinette's, Daniel Cosway (Boyd). Antoinette's old nurse Christophine's constant mistrust of the husband and Rochester's unwavering belief in Daniel Cosway further aggravates the situation, added in when he becomes unfaithful to her. This increased sense of paranoia tinged with the disappointment of their failing marriage unbalances Antoinette's already precarious mental state.
The shortest part, Part Three, is once again from the perspective of Antoinette, now known as Bertha, as she lives in the Rochester mansion, which she calls the "Great House". It traces her relationship with Grace, the servant who is tasked with "guarding" her in England. It also traces her even more disintegrating relationship with Rochester as he hides her from the world. Making her empty promises to come see her more, which only become less as he adventures off with relationships with other women, eventually with Jane Eyre. Narrating in a stream of consciousness, Bertha decides to take her own life as she believes it to be her destiny.
Comparison to Jane Eyre 
The most striking difference between the two novels is that Wide Sargasso Sea transforms Rochester's first wife from Bertha Mason, the infamous "madwoman in the attic," to the lively yet vulnerable Antoinette Cosway. She is no longer a cliché or a "foreign," possibly "half-caste" lunatic, but a real woman with her own hopes, fears, and desires. Wide Sargasso Sea tells her side of the story as well as Rochester's, detailing how she ended up alone and raving in the attic of Thornfield Hall. It gives a voice not only to her, but to the black people in the West Indies whom Rochester regards with such loathing. In Rhys' version of events, Antoinette's insanity, infidelity, and drunkenness are the result of Rochester's misguided belief that madness is in her blood and that she was part of the scheme to have him married blindly.
A minor difference is that in Jane Eyre, Richard Mason refers to Bertha as his sister. In Wide Sargasso Sea he's the older stepbrother of Antoinette from her stepfather's previous marriage. As Antoinette, Bertha's given more siblings and half-siblings, in Jane Eyre, the only known siblings she has are Richard and an unnamed younger brother who is also mentally ill, and harshly described by Rochester as "a complete, dumb idiot."
The characters of Jane Eyre and Antoinette are very similar. They are both independent, vivacious, imaginative young women with troubled childhoods, educated in religious establishments and looked down on by the upper classes — and, of course, they both marry Mr Rochester. However, Antoinette is more rebellious than Jane and less mentally stable, possibly because she has had to live through even more distressing circumstances. She displays a deep vein of morbidity verging on a death wish (making her more similar perhaps to the character of Helen from Jane Eyre) and, in contrast with Jane's overt Christianity, holds a cynical viewpoint of both God and religion in general.
Major themes 
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 #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, produced by Chamber Made.
- 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.
See also 
- From Antoinette to Bertha: the process of 'colonising' within the marriage in Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea
- Wide Sargasso Sea study guide, themes, quotes, & teacher resources