Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea

infobox Book |
name = Wide Sargasso Sea
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Jean Rhys
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
series =
genre = Postmodern Novel
publisher = Deutsch (UK) & W. W. Norton (USA)
release_date = October 1966
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages = 192 pp
isbn = ISBN 0-233-95866-5
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is a 1966 postcolonial parallel novel by Dominica-born author Jean Rhys. After many years of living in obscurity since her last work, "Good Morning, Midnight", was published in 1939, "Wide Sargasso Sea" put Rhys into the limelight once more and became her most successful novel.

The novel acts as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's famous 1847 novel "Jane Eyre". It is the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, a white Creole heiress, from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage and relocation to England. Caught in an oppressive patriarchal society in which she belongs neither to the white Europeans nor the black Jamaicans, Rhys' novel re-imagines Brontë's devilish madwoman in the attic. As with many postcolonial works, the novel deals largely with the themes of racial inequality and the harshness of displacement and assimilation.

Plot introduction

The opening of the novel is set a short while after the 1834 emancipation of the slaves in British-owned Jamaica. The protagonist Antoinette conveys the story of her life from childhood to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman (implied as Mr Rochester from "Jane Eyre"). As the novel and their relationship progress, Antoinette, whom he renames Bertha, descends into madness.

The novel is split into three parts. Part One takes place in Coulibri, Jamaica and is narrated by Antoinette. Describing her childhood experience, she includes several facets of her life, such as her mother's mental instability and her learning disabled brother's tragic death.

Part Two is from the point of view of her husband following their marriage and is set in Granbois, Dominica. One of the likely catalysts for Antoinette's downfall is the suspicion with which they both begin to view each other, fuelled by the machinations of a relative of Antoinette's, Daniel Cosway (Boyd). Antoinette's old nurse Christophine's constant mistrust of the husband and Rochester's unwavering belief in Boyd further aggravates the situation. This increased sense of paranoia tinged with the disappointment of their failing marriage unbalances Antoinette's already precarious mental state.

The shortest part, Part Three, is once again from the perspective of Antoinette, now known as Bertha, as she lives in the Rochester mansion, which she calls the "Great House". It traces her relationship with Grace, the servant who is tasked with 'guarding' her in England. Narrating in a stream of consciousness Bertha decides to take her own life as she believes it to be her destiny.

Comparison to "Jane Eyre"

The most striking difference between the two novels is that "Wide Sargasso Sea" transforms Rochester's first wife from Bertha Mason, the infamous "madwoman in the attic," to the lively yet vulnerable Antoinette Cosway. She is no longer a cliché or a "foreign," possibly "half-caste" lunatic, but a real woman with her own hopes, fears, and desires. Wide Sargasso Sea tells her side of the story as well as Rochester's, detailing how she ended up alone and raving in the attic of Thornfield Hall. It gives a voice not only to her, but to the black people in the West Indies whom Rochester regards with such loathing.

The characters of Jane Eyre and Antoinette are very similar. They are both independent, vivacious, imaginative young women with troubled childhoods, educated in religious establishments and looked down on by the upper classes - and, of course, they both marry Mr Rochester. However, Antoinette is more rebellious than Jane and less mentally stable, possibly because she has had to live through even more distressing circumstances. She displays a deep vein of morbidity verging on a death-wish (making her more similar perhaps to the character of Helen from Jane Eyre) and is not so overtly Christian as Jane.

There are several differences between the chronology of Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, most notably Antoinette's age. The "Bertha" Jane sees at Thornfield Hall is middle-aged; Antoinette in Rhys' novel is about five to ten years younger. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is also set much later than the events of "Jane Eyre". In Brontë's novel, set in the 1810's, Jane receives a book published in 1805. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is set after the abolition of slavery, placing it roughly around 1836 - nearly three decades later.

Major themes

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is usually taught as a postmodern and postcolonial response to "Jane Eyre". [ [http://readers.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141185422,00.html "Wide Sargasso Sea" at The Penguin Readers' Group Website] ] [ [http://faculty.pittstate.edu/~knichols/colonial3c.html The Empire Writes Back: "Jane Eyre"] ] Rhys uses multiple voices (Antoinette's and her husband's) to tell the story, and deeply intertwines her novel's plot with that of "Jane Eyre". In addition, Rhys makes a postcolonial argument when she ties Antoinette's husband's eventual rejection of Antoinette to her Creole heritage (a large factor in Antoinette's descent into madness). As postmodern and postcolonial literature have taken a greater place in university curricula, the novel has been taught to literature students more often in recent years.

Feminist criticism would view the world in which Antoinette lives as a patriarchal society, with the convent where she is sent by her Aunt Cora representing a matriarchal bubble within this patriarchal world. Her descent into madness and eventual death (although the latter is not shown in the novel) can be seen as her spirit being crushed by the oppressive male world around her as her husband removes her identity. Her name, Antoinette Cosway, a symbol of her selfhood, is gradually taken from her: when her mother remarries she becomes Antoinette Mason, when she herself marries she becomes Antoinette Rochester and finally her husband insists on calling her Bertha.

Awards and nominations

*Winner of the WH Smith Literary Award in 1967, which brought Rhys to public attention after decades of obscurity.
*Named by "Time Magazine" as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. [ [http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/0,24459,wide_sargasso_sea,00.html "Time Magazine" list of All-Time 100 Novels] ]


*1993: "Wide Sargasso Sea", Film adaptation directed by John Duigan and starring Karina Lombard and Nathaniel Parker.
*1997: "Wide Sargasso Sea", Contemporary Opera adaptation with music by Brian Howard, directed by Douglas Horton, produced by Chamber Made.
*2006: "Wide Sargasso Sea", TV adaptation directed by Brendan Maher and starring Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall.


External links

* [http://www.qub.ac.uk/schools/SchoolofEnglish/imperial/carib/colonising-marriage.htm From Antoinette to Bertha: the process of 'colonising' within the marriage in Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea]

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