This review may contain minor spoilers for Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
If you’ve ever read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte you would know that there is a character named Bertha Mason. She was Rochester’s secret, wealthy, Creole wife who was kept locked away in the attic because she had become violent and insane. You may have also wondered, how did Bertha Mason get there?
Jean Rhys is a Dominican-born author who read Jane Eyre and thought the same thing. As a feminist and anti-colonial response, she wrote Wide Sargasso Sea which is a prequel to Jane Eyre. The novel takes place in early nineteenth-century Jamaica post-emancipation. It follows Antoinette Cosway’s life from her childhood until her time in Rochester’s attic. Yes, you read that right… Bertha Mason isn’t her true name!
While this book was required reading for a literature class I had, I enjoyed every second of reading it. It was rich, profound, and overflowing with meaning. This made it great for my class, we could spend whole periods discussing the novel and delving deeper and deeper into its themes.
While Jane Eyre is often known as a feminist novel, the fact that it tears down Bertha as a madwoman because she is a wall to Jane’s love interest may seem to contradict this. In Jane Eyre, the reader may develop a feeling of resentment towards Bertha Mason, or Antoinette, because she serves as such a barrier between the two love interests.
However, Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea takes the feminist theme a step further. She does a spectacular job of switching it to Antoinette’s perspective so that the reader can form a connection to Antoinette. The reader will not feel resentment but sadness and anger when seeing what she has to endure in her life due to the patriarchal society.
Wide Sargasso Sea also takes a feminist perspective on Mr. Rochester and his relationship with Antoinette. One may think that in the middle of the book, when the perspective changes to Rochester’s, that the feminist view would be lost. However, that’s not true.
Throughout the entire portion we are reminded of how growing up in an imperialist, patriarchal England affected Rochester and put him and Antoinette in their position. However, it doesn’t justify Rochester’s actions. Reading Rochester’s thoughts, how he tries to justify his actions, and how he reacts to being surrounded by women and ex-slaves creates hatred in the reader that may not have grown if they didn’t have access to Rochester’s inner thoughts.
Meanwhile, Antoinette is a strong woman caught in this patriarchal society that takes away her identity and labels her as a madwoman.
Race and Colonialism in Wide Sargasso Sea
One of the things that I love about Wide Sargasso Sea is that Rhys does not shy away from the ugly truths about English history. I think that having some historical context is important to fully appreciate the book. Specifically, the resentment and strain that existed in colonies after the Emancipation of 1833.
The way that she writes makes you step back and think about all these things that were happening at the time, through every lens possible. For example, How the Emancipation affected slaves’ lives after they were freed such as those who were brought from other places. How it affected whites who were living in the colonies for profit such as Antoinette’s family. And how it affected the dynamic between these two groups.
It also highlighted the disconnect between the “motherland” England and its colonies. Rochester’s (and Mason’s, Antoinette’s father) reactions to the island throughout the novel bring attention to the fact that while he saw it as a beautiful place, he did not care about the island’s wellbeing or the wellbeing of its inhabitants. All he cared about was the money being made. This reflects the toxicity of an imperialistic country that does not care about the wellbeing of its colonies, only the money. Which brings about a lot of destruction at the end of the novel and in reality.
The novel is incredibly rich with meaning, symbolism, and important themes and is certain to get you thinking. There are so many things I could go into deeper detail about the book, however that would spoil it! Instead, I will highly recommend you read the novel, especially if you are planning on reading Jane Eyre, have read it, or just love historical fiction.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to have any knowledge of Jane Eyre to enjoy or understand Wide Sargasso Sea. They can be read in any order and Wide Sargasso Sea can be read independently without any loss of its plot integrity. On the other hand, I think that if anyone has read Jane Eyre then Wide Sargasso Sea should be next on your list!