The Modern Library List of Books

AvatarThoughts on reading the top 100 English-language books of the 20th century

94. Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started Wide Sargasso Sea. On the one hand, I had always found the title wonderfully poetic (the Sargasso Sea is a seaweed-covered region in the North Atlantic where many an ancient ships used to get stuck, for weeks, due to the circling currents that surround the Sargasso's perpetually calm waters) , and Jean Rhys, who was  Creole and an alcoholic, who had been a showgirl and – briefly – a prostitute, intrigued me. Actually, I've always been fascinated by women of the underclass – the whores, the addicts, the criminals – who, abused and abandoned, managed to bring soulful beauty into the world, despite their miserable lives. To me, Jean Rhys was the Edith Piaf of literature. 

On the other hand, I have a visceral repulsion for fan-fictiony books. I'm not exaggerating; I feel an almost physical disgust when I stumble across books like How Heathcliff Found His Way Back to Wuthering Heights (yup, that's a real one) or Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife: Pride and Prejudice Continues. Of course, I am in no way disputing the artistic power of allusive works – when the touch is light and writer, skilled and playful. However, more often than not, these companion fictions are unimaginative stories told in sub-standard prose; an embarrassment.

Needless to say, I approached Wide Sargasso Sea with ambivalence, but I closed it surprisingly pleased. While Rhys was clearly a fan of Jane Eyre, and Charlotte Bronte, one can imagine how Jane's racially charged description (a discoloured face – a savage face; the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!) of Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason, provoked and challenged Rhys: 

. . .a woman, tall and large, with thick and dark hair hanging long down her back. . . At that moment I saw the reflection of the visage and features quite distinctly in the dark oblong glass. . . [They were] fearful and ghastly to me--oh, sir, I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face--it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments! . . .[She]... was purple: the lips were swelled and dark; the brow furrowed: the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes. [She reminded me] . . .of the foul German spectre--the Vampyre.

But this book is so much more than a Jane Eyre prequel; it is complex tapestry of feminist and post-colonial themes. It is also a marvelous refitting of the gothic-romance genre of Jane Eyre.

While the meat-and-bones gothic tropes are here – madness and magic; death and decay; lost fortunes and leaked secrets – they're rubbed with jerk and given a distinctly Caribbean flavour. In Wide Sargasso Sea, love doesn't blossom in spite of dark-and-stormy nights and otherworldy frights – as is typical of the gothic-romance genre. Rather, it's the romance itself, that is terrifying. 
The story traces the transformation of Antoinette Cosway, the Jamaican daughter of slave-owners , to Bertha Mason, the mad woman locked away by her husband in the attic of Thorfield Hall. 
The 1834 Emancipation in Jamaica impoverished the Cosways.  Antoinette's father was cruel and hated, and after his death, Coulbiri Estate runs to ruin; the newly freed slaves have long memories, and – now they have a choice – the Cosway plantation is a place they'd rather not work. Antoinette's mother, Annette, bears the brunt of their ruined reputation. Abandoned by the whites (Coulbiri is too remote, too isolated, and everyone has problems of their own) and scorned by the blacks, the Cosways – Annette, Antionette, and her disabled brother, Pierre – fall into near-desperate poverty.

Rejected by her mother (who favours and fusses over Pierre), isolated from white children, tormented by the black ones (white nigger, white cockroach), Antionette leads a lonely childhood until her mother marries a rich Englishman, Mr. Mason.

It burns the blacks to see the Cosway widow and the Coulbiri Estate restored to wealth. Before the Cosways were something to laugh at; now they're something to hate. Annette senses the venomous loathing around them and begs Mr. Mason to move the family from Jamaica. But he doesn't understand island life, he thinks her ridiculous; in his opinion, the blacks are far too lazy to be dangerous. Of course, when he realizes that he's wrong, it's too late; his house is already half-burned to the ground. 
The family escapes, unharmed, but Coulbiri is destroyed, and when Pierre dies a short time later, Annette's grief overcomes her. She blames Mr. Mason – none of this would have happened, if he had listened to her. Hysterical, she tries to kill him. 
Not knowing what to do, Mr. Mason buys his wife a small house, and locks her up, alone, with caregivers. He rarely visits, and has no way of knowing she is being raped and abused. When she dies, it's rumoured she killed herself.

While Mr. Mason travels between the islands, further amassing wealth, Antoinette is sent first to live with an aunt, and then to be educated in a convent. Isolated from a world she finds threatening and cruel, for the first time in her life, she is happy. But when she turns 17, Mr. Mason fetches her to be married.

Mr. Rochester (who is never named) is taken with her beauty, but but he doesn't love her. He's a second son, in need of a fortune. Antoinette, suspects as much, but most of her life she has felt vulnerable, unsafe; she just wants to be protected. It's only after Rochester promises to take care of her, that Antoinette finally goes through with the marriage. 
However, within a matter of months, Rochester reneges on his promise. During their honeymoon in Granbois, Domenica, Antoinette, finally safe, lets go of her anxiety, and falls in love with her husband. Rochester is overwhelmed. He finds the landscape and the heat intense, he despises the natives, and is disgusted at himself for feigning love for fortune. When he receives a letter detailing the Cosway curse – Annette's mental illness and Antoinette's imminent hysteria – all his resentment and discomfort coalesces into anger at Antoinette. His blood as hot as the island noons, he seeks his revenge in the loins of a servant girl - loudly, in a room beside Antoinette's. 
Antionette acts like any other young woman would – hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – she is furious. Her heartbroken hysteria is all the confirmation Rochester needs; his wife is mad, like her mother. She tries to explain to him, but it's no use. When he returns to England, he locks her up, with a guard/caregiver in the attic of Thornfield Hall. 
Of course, after years of being locked in the attic, her ferocious anger gives way to real madness. The book ends with her in the process of liberating herself – by burning down the house.

The horror of Antoinette's situation is Kafka on the homefront, in the bedroom. She is pulled from the convent and thrust into a world – mercenary marriage – that she has had no preparation for. She naively asks for the one thing she wants – protection. In exchange, she gets a cruel husband (a zombie-man: nameless, souless, loveless; an automaton blindly sent out into the world to amass money). When she realizes the situation she finds herself in, she has no money, no rights and no one to fight for her interests. She is her husband's, to do with as he pleases, and he locks her up, a mad woman, first by slander, then by fact. 
Come to think of it, maybe Rhys' reworking of the gothic-romance has taken us all the way to blood-chilling, heart-breaking horror.



March 8, 2010 at 11:41 AM SocrMom78 said...

What a great review. I did not know what the Sargasso Sea was, and in that context, the fact that Antoinette got 'stuck' in her marriage (and later in the attic) makes sense when ships got stuck in the seaweed.

I also have to agree with you about the fan-fictiony stuff...there's no way it can ever be as good as the original so I have not even bothered. :)

March 12, 2010 at 6:43 AM Devon S. said...

Yeah, and while the Sargasso, geographically, separates the Caribbean from England, it's also a great metaphor (as oceanic quicksand, a barrier they can't pass) for the cultural separation of the white Creoles from England -- no matter how hard they try, they are never quite English enough.

I think that is something that Rhys felt sharply. She was asked to leave her studies in theatre because of her accent, and I am sure that's not the worst of the discrimination she experienced when she lived in London.

As a writer, it is hard enough to create in the shadow of the great works of Western literature. I can't imagine why a writer would set themselves up for the inevitable (and likely unfavourable) comparisons between their work and the original.

Rhys I think is an exception to all this because (I think) she was writing before fan-fiction was common, and books like Pride and Prejudice and Sea Monsters topped the best sellers lists (although I have read surprisingly good things about Pride and Prejudice and Sea Monsters.

Thanks for reading!

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