Emilie Bronte’s 1842 novel, Jane Eyre had haunted me for days when I read it for the first time last winter… It’s finely drawn character studies and windswept, high gothic imagery were captivating. Knowing some readers find it’s Victorian sensibilities remote and particularly the titular character, Jane’s perceived obsequiousness grating…for me, it was masterpiece of Victorian fiction and a showcase for Charlotte Brontë’s considerable narrative skill. It wasn’t long after that I discovered a novel that I had been meaning to read for years was connected to its plot. Thus my taking down Wide Sargasso Sea from the “Other Countries” section of my World Literature shelves.
Jean Rhys was a Dominican writer who published four novels and a book of short stories in the 1920’s and 30’s which gathered some critical acclaim, most importantly by Ford Maddox Ford, with whom she had an affair (this affair reportedly spawned a lot of her early writing). Her alcoholic dependency started at this time. She sank into obscurity for some 20 years before she produced the novel reviewed here.
Being careful to try and avoid spoiling the plot of both novels…The three part novel’s first two parts are set in the Caribbean, and the story takes up the life of Jane Eyre’s famous ‘mad woman in the attic’ character. Antoinette is a half-caste creole girl, and is first encountered in the dysfunctional Colonial Jamaican household. We follow her upbringing through her schooling to young womanhood. The middle section follows her move to the lush tropical island, Dominica with Rochester. Lastly we see her in England at Thornfield Hall.
The three sections that form the backbone of the structure are intertwined voices, all narrated in first person and alternate points of view. Part 1 is from the young Antoinette, Part II is from the perspective of a young Rochester in their new haunts in Dominica, finally jumping to Antoinette/Bertha again from the novel’s compelling crescendo of its last 11 pages. Each section is pitched at a different narrative register. The prose is rich as the tropical landscape, yet purposeful and not overburdened. Rhys evokes the double nature of the island’s affecting atmosphere:
The road climbed upward. On one side the wall of green, on the other a steep drop to the ravine below. We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter call it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing. Those hills would close in on you.
Wide Sargasso Sea is considered a modernist work of post colonial fiction. It explores themes of enslavement and displacement as well as its consequences, not only in the dialectic of the oppressed vs the oppressor through the character’s relationships, but also subtextually in imagery and symbolism. Fire, madness, heat, coolness, fever, voodism all play roles in developing these themes. The fire in Part 1 portends Rocheser’s fever in part II, as well as the madness at the novel’s concluding segment. Rhy’s prose sets the reader on edge through out the novel. There is doubt cast through out, sentences often set the reader down at a place not looked for at their beginning.
What I took away
For all its nuanced yet accessible and dreamy prose, this is in many ways an edgy novel. Since oppression and its influence on sanity (cultural as well as personal) is a main theme, the overall atmospheric affect for me was one of claustrophobia. I would personally recommend having read Jane Eyre first, especially for the ending segment; it is more fully fleshed when held up in light of the older novel.