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. The author lived in obscurity after her previous work, Good Morning, Midnight, was published in 1939. She had published other novels between these works, but Wide Sargasso Sea caused a revival of interest in Rhys and her work. It was her most commercially successful novel, benefited as well by feminist exploration of power relationships between men and women.
The novel is written as a prequel and response to Charlotte Brontë's noted novel Jane Eyre (1847), describing the background to the marriage that Jane learns about after going to work for Mr. Rochester. It is the story of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to a certain English gentleman—he is never named by the author. He renames her to a prosaic Bertha, declares her mad, and requires her to relocate to England. Caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she fully belongs neither to the Europeans nor the Jamaicans, Antoinette Cosway is Rhys' version of Brontë's devilish "madwoman in the attic." As with many postcolonial works, the novel deals with the themes of ethnic inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimilation. It is also concerned with power relations between men and women.
The novel opens a short while after the Slavery Abolition Act 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, in part from despair at being torn from her island home in the Caribbean and subjected to an alien culture and climate.
The novel is split into three parts:
Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica, and is narrated by Antoinette as a child. Since the abolition of slavery caused her family to become very poor, Antoinette's mother, Annette, must remarry to wealthy Englishman Mr. Mason. Angry at the returning prosperity of their oppressors, freed slaves living in Coulibri burn down Annette's house, killing Antoinette's mentally disabled younger brother. As Annette had been struggling with her mental health up until this point, the grief of losing her son weakens her sanity. Mr. Mason sends her to live with a couple who torment her until she dies and Antoinette does not see her again.
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 aforementioned couple, 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 openly distrusts the Englishman. His apparent belief in the destructive accounts about Antoinette aggravate the situation; Rochester becomes visibly unfaithful to her and emotionally abuses her. He begins to call her Bertha rather than her real name and flaunts his affairs in front of her to cause her pain. Antoinette's increased sense of paranoia and the bitter disappointment of her failing marriage unbalance her already precarious mental and emotional state. She flees to Christophine's house, her former servant and the woman who raised her. Antoinette pleads with Christophine for an obeah potion to attempt to reignite her husband's love, which Christophine reluctantly gives her. Antoinette returns home and poisons Mr. Rochester unwittingly. He does not accept Christophine's suggestions of help for his wife and decides to take her back to England.
Part Three is the shortest part of the novel; it is from the perspective of Antoinette, renamed by her husband as Bertha. She is 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 disintegrating life with the Englishman, as he hides her from the world. He makes empty promises to come to her more but sees less of her. He ventures away to pursue relationships with other women – and eventually with the young governess, Jane Eyre. It is clear that Antoinette is not of sound mind and has little understanding of how much time she has been confined to her attic internment. She fixates on options of freedom including her stepbrother Richard Mason who, however, will not interfere with her husband, so she attacks him with a stolen knife. Expressing her thoughts in stream of consciousness, Antoinette dreams of flames engulfing the house and her freedom from the life she has there, she believes it is her destiny to fulfill the vision. Waking from her dream she escapes her room, sets the fire, and takes her own life by jumping from the roof.
Since the late 20th century, critics have considered Wide Sargasso Sea as a 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 rejection shown to be critical to Antoinette's descent into madness). The novel is also considered a feminist work, as it deals with unequal power between men and women, particularly in marriage. As works of 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.
Antoinette and her family are presented as something of a racial anomaly in the novel. They had been slave owners up until the Abolition of Slavery Act 1833 and since had lost all of their wealth. They are referred to by the Islanders as "white nigger" because they are so heavily disrespected for their former profession and, as they regain wealth, they become openly despised by the society around them. Rochester, as an Englishman, also marginalises Antoinette due to her Creole nationality. He eroticises her for being an Islander whilst also resenting her for the use of different customs. Antoinette, therefore, has a lack of racial identity; she is not English and yet her family history and her privilege as a white woman means that she can in no way be racially identifiable with the black people in Jamaica either. Lee Erwin describes this paradox through the scene in which Antoinette's first house is burned down and she runs to Tia, a black girl her own age, to "be like her". Antoinette is rebuffed by violence from Tia leading to her seeing Tia "as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass". Erwin argues that "even as she claims to be seeing "herself," she is simultaneously seeing the other, that which only defines the self by its separation from it, in this case literally by means of a cut. History here, in the person of a former slave's daughter, is figured as refusing Antoinette", the daughter of a slave owner.
Canonized novels in British literature often do not recognise the historic context of their setting. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys draws attention to the colonialism and slave trade by which both Mr. Rochester and Antoinette made their fortunes. The novel does not shy away from uncomfortable truths about British history that had been neglected in Bronte's narrative. Trevor Hope remarks that the "triumphant conflagration of Thornfield Hall in Wide Sargasso Sea may at one level mark a vengeful attack upon the earlier textual structure". The destruction of Thornfield Hall occurs in both novels; however, Rhys epitomises the fire as a liberating experience for Antoinette. If, then, Thornfield Hall represents domestic ideas of Britishness, then Hope suggests Wide Sargasso Sea is "taking residence inside the textual domicile of empire in order to bring about its disintegration or even, indeed, its conflagration."
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. 3 August 2000. Retrieved 2 January 2011.
- "The Empire Writes Back: Jane Eyre". Faculty.pittstate.edu. Retrieved 2 January 2011.
- Erwin, Lee (1989). "'Like in a Looking-Glass': History and Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea". Novel: A Forum on Fiction.
- Hope, Trevor (2012). "Revisiting the Imperial Archive: Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, and the Decomposition of Englishness". College Literature.
- Lacayo, Richard (16 October 2005). "Time magazine list of All-Time 100 Novels". Time. Retrieved 2 January 2011.