Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Antoinette Cosway has taken some hard knocks in life. Her father is dead and she lives on a deteriorating plantation with a mother who is most likely suffering from severe depression. She has just a few remaining servants, one of whom may be a voodoo priestess. Mother and child are despised on the island, and it is hoped that they will soon die in poverty. Soon, Antoinette’s mother is revitalized when she remarries, and Antoinette Cosway, taking her stepfather’s name becomes Antoinette Mason. Her mother’s marriage has mixed results in what it accomplishes for Antoinette, but it significant in that it  has major future ramifications  for her future.

The narrative in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea can successfully be read in two ways; most famously it is known as the novel which explores the life of Bertha Mason before she meets Edward Rochester, the brief life they had together, and then her tenure as crazy woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It is also an insightful work of Caribbean literature addressing the attitudes that former slaves had toward their masters, and the way those from the continent looked down upon the creole inhabitants and colonizers of the islands – especially the women. Wide Sargasso Sea works well as a stand alone novel, and can be understood whether you factor in Jane Eyre or not.

I enjoyed Rhys’ novel, but believe me, it did nothing to help my opinion of Rochester – even though a substantial part of it is written from his point of view.  Rhys explores some of the stereotypes that were associated with creole women, those same inexplicable stereotypes that are always trotted out when stigmatizing groups of people as “other” and inferior- they were lazy, sexually wanton, and of course, not that bright. There is also that hysterical fear and question of whether the races have remained “pure”, and in this specific instance if Antoinette is of pure white ancestry, and if she is, whether she has had sexual relations with a black man.

Rhys also explores the bondage that women suffered in having no choice in marriage and the detrimental effects of being married for their money, their sometimes very literal loss of identity (like when Rochester randomly decides to call Antoinette by another name, Bertha), and the vulnerabilities they suffered without male protection. Sadly that last one is a theme that also came up strongly in my reading of the very contemporary Disgrace.

Rhys is a thought provoking and insightful writer. She puts the truth of people and their situations into her colorful characters and their dialogue, and lets her readers draw their own conclusions. It’s not a happy book, and if you’ve read Jane Eyre you don’t go into it with much hope for Antoinette because you already now the ending, but I enjoyed reading it and the perspective that it provided.  It’s also one of those books that will yield more with each reading. Jane Eyre fans and those looking to read plantation era Caribbean fiction should definitely check this one out.

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