Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Highly recommended.
Jean Rhys, troubled by the one-dimensional Bertha Mason in Brontë’s classic Jane Eyre, or perhaps seeing an opportunity to take the depiction of Creoles out of the hands of English writers, decided to “write her a life.” The result is Wide Sargasso Sea, in which the Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre (Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea) finally steps out of the realm of caricature and becomes both human being and symbol. In the Norton Critical Edition edited by Judith L. Raiskin, several commentators expound on their views of what that symbolism means from a Caribbean, British, and feminist perspective.
First, I have noticed that several reviewers mistakenly assume Antoinette is of mixed race (the modern assumption about what Creole means). In the context of the time, however, Creole meant a person of English or European descent living in the Caribbean. Rhys makes this even clearer with terms such as “white Creole” and “white cockroach.” This is an important distinction because it, combined with her French ancestry and poverty, sets Antoinette apart from the wealthy English and from the former slaves on the islands who are of African descent. That theme of having no home, no society, nowhere to go, and, essentially, being nonexistent, is integral to the storyline — and fits in perfectly with Bertha’s role in Jane Eyre.
Another important point is that Antoinette’s mother (as well as her nurse) is from Martinique, a French island at a time when the French and the British were in bitter conflict. This makes Antoinette even more alienated from the societies in which she dwells but of which she is not a part. It’s interesting to note that some of the academic commentators mistakenly attribute her mother’s birthplace and the origins of the nurse Christophine (one calls her a Haitian, no doubt because of that island’s strong associations with obeah) and even get Christophine’s name wrong.
Although there are parallels between Antoinette and Jane, between Antoinette and the Black child Tia, and even between Antoinette and her carefully unnamed husband (Rochester), this is a brilliant novel that does not depend on the reader’s knowledge of Jane Eyre; like Antoinette herself, it stands alone. There are also many cycles throughout the book, including Antoinette’s repeated dream. Antoinette’s lack of identity is reinforced by Rochester’s invocation of a principle of obeah; he calls her Bertha, a name that is not hers (this also emphasizes the predominance of an English identity over that evoked by the French name Antoinette). There are the clear dichotomies between Rochester and his England, where he is a disenfranchised second son, and Antoinette and her Caribbean, where she belongs neither to the wealthy whites or the freed slaves.
Wide Sargasso Sea invokes the Bible several times. Rochester’s father and older brother betray him to Antoinette’s stepfather Mason for 30,000 pounds, alluding to the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot takes from the Romans for betraying Christ. There are numerous references to a rooster or cock crowing at key moments, as the cock did after Peter had denied Christ three times. The Christian allusions are intermixed with the presence of obeah throughout — just as the Christian faith and obeah beliefs from Africa became intermingled in the Caribbean.
Reality and dream are equally inseparable. “Is England like a dream? . . . She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.” The unnamed husband (Rochester) retorts, “Well, that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.” Their erotic life is no less a dream. “I watched her die many times . . . Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. . . . It was at night that I felt danger and would try to forget it and push it away.”
Rhys, saddled with the pre-determined ending of Jane Eyre, manipulates its foreshadowing and symbolism brilliantly. Rochester says, “I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.” Obeah woman Christophine responds, “You choose what you give, eh?” In a return to the beginning, Antoinette, determined mad by an equally mad Rochester, burns down Thornfield Hall, just as her own childhood home was burnt by the freed slaves who held her and her mother in such contempt (“white cockroach”).
There are seemingly endless layers of meaning within the slight 112 pages of Wide Sargasso Sea, about ethnic and national identities, about imperialistic and patriarchical repression, about madness, and about the relative relationship between reality and dream. Ultimately, Antoinette reclaims her identity and reality through a dream — and with her death. The more times you read this rich novel about a poor woman, the more you will discover.
8 December 2002
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf