This tale of subjugation and madness will show you there is another side to every story...
Wide Sargasso Sea refers to Charlotte Brontë’s 19th century classic, Jane Eyre, giving a voice to literature’s most marginalized subject, Bertha Mason. Bertha, Mr. Rochester’s violently mad first wife, is the original ‘madwoman in the attic’, that symbol of confined Victorian womanhood. Disturbingly, Brontë’s novel aligns Bertha’s madness and sexual excess with her Creole identity, and denies her a voice, a history and her humanity. As readers also, we are far too caught up in the love story of Jane and Mr. Rochester to question what turned Bertha into the monster the novel portrays.
It is this complacency which Rhys challenges in Wide Sargasso Sea: retelling the story from both Antoinette (Mr. Rochester later renames her Bertha) and Mr. Rochester’s perspectives, Rhys gives Bertha a voice and exposes the darker side to Brontë’s romantic hero. Rhys believes that Brontë's novel is ‘only one side - the English side’, and as Wide Sargasso Sea teaches us, there is another side to every story.
The novel is set in the sensuously and beautifully described Jamaica, where Antoinette Cosway, a lonely Creole girl, grows up in a world of isolation and conflict between the crumbling white aristocracy and the insurgent emancipated slaves. Through her description of this world, Rhys sensitively shows us why Antoinette grows up distrustful and without a sense of belonging.
All but deserted by her family, Antoinette agrees to marry an Englishman, Mr. Rochester. However, her husband is mistrustful of his foreign surroundings, and fuelled by his prejudices, he believes the vicious rumours he hears about Antoinette. Through his cruel behaviour he drives her to madness and, in a sinister re-enactment of master and slave relations, renames her Bertha and takes her back to England.
Wide Sargasso Sea thus challenges us to question the unnerving discourses underlying Jane Eyre. And yet, Rhys’s novel is also well deserving of literary merit in its own right, as it explores the complex issues of identity, slavery and madness with sensitivity and intelligence. A thought-provoking and enjoyable read.