Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
When night comes, and she has had several drinks and sleeps, it is easy to take the keys. I know now where she keeps them. Then I open the door and walk into their world. It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it.
Those who have never come across Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre should avoid reading this review, as it reveals most of the plot of the novel. Anyway, I strongly recommend reading Jane Eyre before it’s 20th century “prequel”, Wide Sargasso Sea.
Those who have enjoyed Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece probably remember Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife; the mad woman in the attic. Despite the fact that she only appears on rare occasions, her violent outbursts and increasing madness creep on the novel like a dark reminiscence of the gothic.
Her role is important, indirectly, because she gives a disquieting ambiance to Thornfield hall, where Jane works as a governess. Bertha Mason accounts for most of Rochester’s fits of temper, and before being the cause of his accident toward the end of the book, she is the impediment to his marriage with the heroine.
Despite her importance as a generator of events, she stands as the gothic ghostly element rather than being a real life-like character. This adds to the fact that her Creole origin (note that Bertha Mason is a white Creole; a British woman born in the Caribbean) defines her, in the beliefs of metropolitan 19th century, as “tropicalized by her environments, emotionally high-strung, lazy, and sexually excessive”. Rochester, in an attempt of self-justification to his bride-to-be, depicts his wife (that he had to marry according to paternal prescriptions) as a real monster:
I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she has tried me indeed: her character ripened and developed with frightful rapidity; her vices sprang up fast and rank: they were so strong, only cruelty could check them; and I would not use cruelty. What a pigmy intellect she had – and what giant propensities! How fearful were the curses those propensities entailed on me! Bertha Mason, – the true daughter of an infamous mother, – dragged me through all the hideous and degrading agonies which must attend a man bond to a wife at once intemperate and unchaste.
How do we expect a 20th century feminist writer born in Dominica to react to Jane Eyre’s Victorian and racist views? By rewriting Bertha Mason’s life of course, and from the beginning. Some critics argue that Wide Sargasso Sea stands by itself in the world of literature, however, proceeding my own reading I couldn’t keep Jane Eyre out of my mind, and I think Jean Rhys wanted it that way too. After all, even if Rochester is never called by his name, we perfectly recognize him and as for most of the other characters, she has kept the same names (for instance Grace Poole, Bertha’s keeper).
Wide Sargasso Sea is divided in three parts of unequal lengths: the first part, the heroine’s childhood, is narrated by Bertha herself (or rather Antoinette, Bertha is the name Rochester will choose to call her by, despite her dislike of it). In the second part, the narration is shared between the male character (let’s call him Rochester) and Bertha-Antoinette; we witness the birth and fatal evolution of the relationship between the two protagonist in the Caribbean.The third part, taking place in England, leads to the expected conclusion: it is short but intense. After an introduction by Grace Poole, Bertha, from the attic where she has been locked up, resumes the narration until the dramatic conclusion.
Of course, there’s no surprise in the conduct of the events here, so why read Wide Sargasso Sea in addition to Jane Eyre?
Simply because it makes a powerful complement to it (I prefer calling it a complement rather than a revision), and enlightens the character of Bertha Mason, as well as Rochester (who still manages to remain sympathetic and victimized): First of all, Jean Rhys emphasizes the similarities that already exist in Brontë’s novel, between Bertha and Jane Eyre (Jane doesn’t appear but once, almost in a ghostly manner, in Wide Sargasso Sea). Rhys also provides a knowledge of the Caribbean world and its problems derived from colonization, it reveals the discrepancies between British and Caribbean cultures. Thus, Jean Rhys, dealing with Bertha’s evolution toward madness, brings us back to the initial sense of the word “alienation”. Bertha is alien to Rochester’s metropolitan culture and he strengthens her sense of inadequacy, as we can see in this scene between Bertha and Rochester:
“Is it true” she said, “that England is like a dream? Because one of my friends who married an Englishman wrote and told me so. She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.”
“Well” I answered annoyed, “that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.”
“But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?
“And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?”
“More easily”, she said, “much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream.”
“No, this is unreal and like a dream”, I thought.
This incomprehension between the two cultures is at the root of Bertha’s subsequent madness. Madness for Bertha mostly derives from the uneasy feeling of being unable to tell the difference between dream and reality, when reality eventually becomes dream-like.
As a conclusion, reading Wide Sargasso Sea will forever change your perception of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Despite the shortness of this book, it deserves a long review, which just shows how dense and rich this novel is, most of all in its intertextuality with Jane Eyre…