In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys tells the story of a young Creole woman, Antoinette Cosway, growing up on the island of Jamaica. However, you probably know her as Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, the iconic “mad woman in the attic.” We follow Antoinette as she tries to navigate racial tensions, her ultimately doomed marriage to Rochester, and the many problems in her family. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a furious spectre, barely more than a grunting animal trying to scratch our heroine’s eyes out. Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, gives Antoinette a voice, her own story to tell, and even her own name (I’ll get back to this).
If you have ever taken any class that touched on postcolonial literature in your life, you already know this title. Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the ultimate must-read titles in the field, a work that other postcolonial rewritings of classic literature are measured by; this is how it’s done. As a fan of both Jane Eyre and reworkings/reimaginings of well-known stories, it is downright embarrassing that I have not read this novel until now. However, when I came across a copy in a second-hand bookstore, I decided that it was finally time to correct this oversight. So did it live up to the hype?
One thing that is very striking about this book is how Rhys creates her setting; she describes the landscape of Jamaica in a way that is lush and vibrant to the point where you can almost smell the spices in the air while you’re reading it. Everything on the island is intense – the colours, the flavours, the smells, the sounds – and death lurks around every corner. There is decay all around, from rotting flowers to abandoned houses getting overrun by nature. Nature on this island is an unstoppable force that is both beautiful and terrifying, completely indifferent to humans, mysterious and eternal. Everything is too hot, too bright, too strong, too sweet.
When Rochester arrives, it is too much for him to bear and he has trouble perceiving the island as a real place. Both Jamaica and Antoinette are too Other for him to come to grips with and he never stops feeling like an outsider. As a result, he is disconnected from his bride:
It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry. When at last I met her I bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her. I played the part I was expected to play. She never had anything to do with me at all.
Later, he tells her that he feels like Jamaica is his enemy – and on Antoinette’s side. There are too many secrets, too much darkness, and even the trees seem out to get him. She tries to convince him him that the island is indifferent:
‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else.’
The moral of the story in a nutshell, right there.
Antoinette, for her part, has created a romantic version of England in her mind, put together from novels and songs. She pours over maps and tries to imagine what snow looks like since she is determined to be happy there, a different person. To her, England is just as much an illusion as Jamaica is to her husband:
‘Is it true,’ she said, ‘that England is like a dream? Because one of my friends who married and 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.’
At first Rochester is drawn to Antoinette’s innocent sensuality and mystery, but over time he becomes increasingly frustrated with how little he actually understands her and lets the rumours about her and her family that are circulating on the island get to him. He becomes jealous, possessive, and even abusive. One way he tries to exercise control over his wife is renaming her Bertha, but she shouts at Rochester that this new name is a kind of sorcery and that he is trying to turn her into someone she’s not. It is an attempt to erase her identity and her family’s history of mental illness, everything that makes him uncomfortable.
In the end, they leave for England, miserable, without any hope of reconciliation. Something deep inside Antoinette has cracked and Rochester is filled with nothing but bitter anger:
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.
This is a fever dream of a novel that spirals into pure pain towards the end, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone interested in (post)colonialism and/or Jane Eyre. Rhys’ style is beautiful and I especially loved the dive into stream-of-consciousness writing towards the end of the book. Bertha Mason has always intrigued us, but Wide Sargasso Sea breaks the “mad woman” trope wide open and turns it on its head in an absolutely fascinating way. This book deserves to be as important as it is, and even though some of the racial politics went quite over my head, it got me where it mattered. The ending is just brutal and I will remember these words for a very long time:
If I was bound for hell let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.