‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is the remarkable, contemporary prequel to ‘Jane Eyre’. Written by established author Jean Rhys, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ offers an alternative perspective to the demise and character of Bertha Mason. Rhys’ novel seemingly directs primary focus towards the previously affluent lifestyle of Antoinette Cosway, a young Creole daughter of ex-slave owners, throughout the collapse of white aristocracy, within 19th Century Coulibri, Jamaica.
Upon my initial reading of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, I was rendered surprisingly disappointed, as a result of the fluctuation in narration. I began the novel with an overwhelming preconception that Rhys’ intention was to humanize Antoinette Cosway and perhaps condemn Brontë’s uncompassionate portrayal of Bertha Mason. Whilst the novel certainly explores identity and repression of the self, the change in narrator most-definitely evoked a sense of confusion. As my previously voiced opinion of the domineering Mr Rochester still lingered throughout the duration of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, I could not help myself but to question Rhys’ intention in giving a voice to the oppressor in Part Two of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Why heighten the omnipresent control of Mr Rochester, within the already corrupt patriarchal society of the novel, as an exposure of traditional 19th Century values? Personally, I believe that the resounding voice of Rochester ought to be silenced, not amplified. However, with great doubt, must come great understanding; Rhys may well have paradoxically criticised Rochester’s looming presence in awarding him with a voice, just as society gifted men with freedom of expression and revoked liberty from women.
However, all criticism aside, I fully support the alternative portrayal of Bertha Mason, or more preferably Antoinette Cosway. Only as Rhys tries to piece Antoinette’s fragmented identity back together, as Charlotte Brontë so cruelly destroyed, can I wholly appreciate the many sides to a defamatory tale. Enslavement being a key theme of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, Rhys depicts the changing ideologies within the West Indies, after the Emancipation Act. Be that as it may, entrapment also presents itself in the form of dependency upon men. Feminine expectations and traditional ideals are imposed upon Antoinette as a young girl. In charting her plight into dependency, in order to remove traces of vulnerability and instability, Rhys submerges Antoinette into a forsaken life of dehumanization and loss of identity. As Rhys exposes Rochester’s imposition of a new identity- ‘Bertha Mason’- upon the defenseless Antoinette, a decline into insanity ensues. Madness is a heavily debated issue, concerning ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’: is it a representation of repressed sexuality, a label fit for the uncategorisable or the consequence of overbearing male dominance?
Incantation and superstition further intensify the portrayal of madness, combined with the absurdity of self expression and the expectation of female conformity. In an attempt to sustain what little power remains, women use Obeah sorcery in a desperate attempt to regain any sort of independence and control, for example Christophine (a loyal servant of the Cosways). From an alternative perspective, Christophine is perhaps a representation of Antoinette’s strongly-desired, authoritative voice or even the identity she never had. However, Antoinette’s failure to find ‘the self’, results in the fatal categorisation as the ‘madwoman’ of Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’.
Seemingly, some surprises are better to be read, than said. That being said, I must refrain from discussing the depths of madness, gender and racial prejudice, as well as finer details, such as friendships, acts of violence, dreams and symbolic settings. With so much to talk about, yet so much to reserve, it is of greater justice to recommend the enlightening read of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’.