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 white 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 white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans, Cosway is Rhys' version of Brontë's devilish "madwoman in the attic." As with many postcolonial works, the novel deals with the themes of racial 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. 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 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; he becomes visibly unfaithful to her. Antoinette's increased sense of paranoia and the bitter disappointment of her failing marriage unbalance her already precarious mental and emotional state.
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. Expressing her thoughts in stream of consciousness, Antoinette/Bertha decides to take her own life as she believes this is her destiny.
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 was also considered a feminist work, as it dealt 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.
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.