Jean Rhys wrote this as a novelistic, literary response to Charlotte Bronte‘s classic and brilliant 19th century novel, Jane Eyre. (If you haven’t read the latter, it is not necessary to do so first, to appreciate Rhys’ work; however, if you do read it first, and Wide Sargasso Sea afterwards, inevitably, I think, you will gain a richer, deeper appreciation of just how clever and powerful Rhys is in this novella and will see it as a sort of dialogue across the centuries between two brilliant novelists from two vastly different childhoods and life experiences.)
The reason Rhys felt compelled to write this sort of creative response to Jane Eyre, was because she wanted to re-position and put to the forefront of her readers’ attention the character of Mrs Rochester, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s original novel. Rhys felt that Bronte had treated Mrs Rochester poorly, not only because she remains in the background, like some scary Gilmanesque wallpaper, but also because of her portrayal there as somewhat two-dimensional – if you think this is unfair, just remind yourself of the depth and complexity Bronte gives her other secondary characters in Jane Eyre). Instead, we meet only disembodied madness, in lieu of any literary effort to convince the reader that she possesses a real identity (and is not simply being possessed!), of her comprising flesh and blood and having her own thoughts and feelings; she certainly has no voice of her own in the original and Bronte seems to think nothing of this (perhaps because of her being influenced by Gothic novelists, as so many 19th century writers were, and in such fiction, mad characters were usually ghoulish and unreal; absurdly so, even). But Rhys, whether rightly or wrongly, also attributed these problems of characterisation to Bronte’s own ideological viewpoint and socialisation (educational and social/societal upbringing): namely one where many of her own class, and others besides, in the 19th century society, were typically pro-colonialist/pro-imperialist and often racist, too (so Mrs Rochester’s Creole history is innately attributed to her madness).
Rhys challenged such perspectives by writing her own interpretation in fiction, a novella that in part is a ‘pre-history’ of the events in Jane Eyre (although, significantly, her last section corresponds to a major event in that novel, with the burning of Mr Rochester‘s house). Most importantly, Rhys focuses her attention on the female white Creole, Antoinette Cosway – in Jane Eyre we know her only, first, as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, when we know her as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. (By the way — if you’re interested in the subject of how women and madness – and mad women! — is represented in literature in the 19th century and beyond, by male and female writers, there are two truly outstanding, landmark literary feminist studies readily available: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary ImaginationElaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. And for one focused on the sexual politics of literature, I still think the landmark feminist literary classic, Sexual Politics by Kate Millet, is the best.)
As a result of Antoinette/Bertha’s character being placed front and centre in Sargasso, Rhys creates a range of reader perspectives, understandings and emphases that contrast sharply with Jane Eyre — not least in that, with Rhys’ fiction, Antoinette at long last has been given her own voice and thoughts, as a result of which she gains her own identity and humanity for the first time, instead of being relegated to the status of symbol, and ‘only’ being imprisoned in a space of madness and silence, one that for which — in both fictions — Mr Rochester is responsible. But Rhys is no optimist as a writer — see below for further comments on this matter – more a ‘negative realist’ to Bronte’s ‘positive realism’ and so Antoinette/Bertha’s outcome remains the same in both fictions. However, in Sargasso, we none the less have something else, too – something fundamentally richer and more rewarding in one important regard: when it comes to Antoinette/Bertha, unlike in Jane Eyre, we have gained an in-depth understanding of and insight to the character’s original circumstances and motivations that lead to her madness and death.
This is a powerful, haunting, hallucinatory and deeply poetic fiction (the style, in these terms, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story, split into three parts, has the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, is about the marriage and is from both Mr Rochester’s imperialist viewpoint and patriarchal sensibility — he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette’s sizeable dowry and land – as well as from Antoinette’s perspective. Through both of them, we come to understand her troubling, unbearable circumstances: not least, that she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of her female servants, while all the time supposedly being devoted to her. Meanwhile, you experience Rochester’s own confusion and growing revulsion towards the local people and their way of living, his loathing of the heat and the tropical intensity of the Caribbean, so alien to his upper-class English background. The last – and most dramatic part — has the reader returning to ‘Antoinette’, now Bertha, who is not only left without anyone who cares and feels for her plight, but is imprisoned, literally — the original ‘mad woman in the attic’ — in Rochester’s house in England; a terrifying, distressing world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor communication – and symbolically, too, in silence and her nightmarish visions; she is effectively made persona non grata as a result of her being locked away and out of sight, before she commits her last act of desperation.
Throughout the story, you experience the intense feelings and views of all those involved, and the stifling physical environment of Antoinette’s original home; you also feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles and psychological and material motivations of Antoinette and Mr Rochester, as well as the locals, including the servants. There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; and for Mr Rochester there is only unremitting nature of the patriarchal power structure and his troubled self, such that it deprives him of any meaningful identity, beyond that of his family’s expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority. Sargasso is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.
It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre. Frankly, it is remarkable and, also, it is genuinely unique in Rhys’ oeuvre – nothing else she wrote before compares with it in terms of its poetic, hallucinatory atmosphere; yet what is consistent ever-present in her writing, including within this novella, is the depth of Rhys’ psychological understanding of female isolation, anguish, subjugation and survival (in her oeuvre, her women characters, sadly, rarely have the opportunity to live and enjoy themselves; in this way, interestingly, she echoes Anita Brookner’s women, though the latter writer’s own seem always to have some ‘room of their own’, of financial independence, and often find some way eventually to live on their own terms, all be them compromised in some way from experience as a result of their dealings with men).
RECOMMENDATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE, BUT INTEND TO
Even though there are cheaper, decent editions available, such as the one by Wordsworth publishers, I highly recommend instead that you buy/read the Penguin Classics 2006 edition, especially because of its outstanding, wonderful introductory essay — both insightful and wise — by Stevie Davies, the novelist and academic. Please note that it must be at least 2006 copyrighted/publication date, otherwise you won’t find Davies’ essay in it, as there are several other Penguin editions before this one, with Davies as editor.
RECOMMENDATION FOR STUDENTS:
If this novella is on your reading list, then I recommend Penguin’s Student Edition, edited by Hilary Jenkins. This is a genuinely worthwhile and helpful edition for students. Jenkins has written quality editorial material from start to finish: she provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author’s life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you’d expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story’s geographical, cultural and historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading. None the less, do please try to read Stevie Davies’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition. Frankly, either edition would suit you as a student, and both editions’ introductions are worthwhile to all other readers interested in a more in-depth approach that explain clearly both Sargasso and Jane Eyre in terms of their respective literary histories, authors and themes.