February 04, 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea - "Jane Eyre" 's nemesis?

Novels often inspire as do characters in those novels. However, it was an inspired artist in this case that lead to the writing of Wide Sargasso Sea. Jean Rhys took up the challenge to lend a voice to the 'lunatic' woman in Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel "Jane Eyre", and in the process brought alive the 'crazy' first wife of Mr. Rochester. A vivid and passionate portrayal no doubt, but one that made me wonder about Ms. Rhys's motive for targeting this character. My findings lead me to the Creole identity issue, especially as it related to women, specifically to Ms. Rhys who was born to a Creole mother and a Welsh doctor in Dominicana. In an interview, Rhys admitted being angry about the way in which Bertha, the first wife of Rochester, is portrayed in Bronte's novel, and the Creole in Rhys rose to the challenge of writing a 'rich novel about a poor woman' to present Bertha's case. Rhys in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea lent charisma and motive to the mysterious, hated, and feared Bertha of Jane Eyre. However, how the free spirited Antoinette Bertha Cosway with 'the sun in her hair' ends up becoming the violent and crazy Bertha Mason of Bronte's novel is for the reader to fathom.

Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, published over a hundred years after Bronte's Jane Eyre, explores the complex identity of the female Creole through the travails of Antoniette, Rhys' main protagonist. Antoniette, like Rhys, is the offspring of a West Indian mother and a white father, and is sensual, passionate, and beautiful, but she is also extremely secretive and insecure; quite the enigma to the young Edward Rochester who is completely taken by her when he first meets her on her island. Antoinette has grown up in a community where she is often referred to as the 'white nigger', and after being abandoned by her 'crazy' mother, is a lonely child who has a desperate need to belong. Her plight is quite like the sargassum weed that latches onto any support it can find in the lifeless and shore less Sargasso Sea. Like the weed, Antoinette too is basically a floater, a live but homeless organism in search of anchor. Antoinette's quest for an anchor / home is the adventure that Rhys takes the reader on, and the ride is quite the emotional roller coaster because the reader, who, though sorry for Antoinette, is perplexed by her querulous behaviour in her relationship with Edward, who after their marriage, carefully avoids any kind of contact with her and yet claims that Antoinette, " had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I had found it."

Wide Sargasso Sea proved an intriguing read, one that not only forced me to revisit and rethink Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, but also got me thinking about the Creole identity and has compelled me to look for writings that would help me better understand the Creole psyche. Any suggestions?

27 comments:

Sreekumar said...

Guess thats the ultimate tribute to a novel, when someone else takes off the story from where it was left.
Creole story seems to be fascinating, though not similar but even the roma people have somewhat similar though older history.

Id it is said...

sreekumar,
thank you for that link; the romanian gypsies have intrigued sociologists over the last so many decades! Unfortunately there has been very little literature coming out of the Roma diaspora which would help us get an insight into this ethnic group. Would you recommend any readings (fiction or non fiction? The fact that they are a displaced and migratory group would make their experiences very different from the Creoles who were occupied by another ethnic group on their own land.

Khakra said...

is the emotional rollercoaster an embodiment of Creole culture? bit curious about that one, or maybe there's a hint of idealism somewhere in the guy. actually for some reason idealism's just stuck on my head after reading the review of "My revolutions" in today's NYT. Written by Hari Kunzru. you might like it.

net-net4 said...

No suggestions....
Just wanted to leave here onother one of your moving poems i edited on my page :)

Id it is said :

Joy from color
Fun with paint
Zeal to the brushes
And space in the pallet..
Promises..
Freedom to the artist
and thus..
Peace to the world !

- Id It Is -

Id it is said...

khakra,
The emotional roller coaster has to do with the reader having to rethink and regrasp the character of Edward Rochester.It also has to do with conflicting emotions emanating at the same time. For example loving and hating a character all at the same time, feeling the betrayer and the betrayed simultaneously, and wanting to hold on to the romance that was Jane Eyre without being labelled a rascist.

Thanks for the heads up on Kunzru. I put it on my 'to read' list. Idealism is a worthwhile preoccupation; it pushes us to dream, and 'revolutions' as we all know happen because someone dared to dream so let's dream on and let that idealism 'stick'!

Eshuneutics said...

Do you know the "Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole"? She is well known, but her book not so. It has a lot to say about her identity as a Creole woman, a "yellow" woman.

Id it is said...

eshu,
Good to hear from you!
No I hadn't heard of her; I'll check out this book you mention. Thanks.

Sreekumar said...

Perhaps I gave the impression that i know much about the roma's. Whatever little i know, is available online. I was intrigued because they had been identified (on genetic and linguistic basis) as origination from the subcontinent and migrating to Europe very early.

White Rose said...

Wonderful post!

I have read a lot of Rhys' work. And all of her main characters are always out of step with the rest of the world. Never quite belonging. And always tinged with paranoia. Which stems, I'm sure, from being a Creole and a woman. Always on the fringe of society but never quite accepted.

Anonymous said...

I think Rhys's story could have been set any time and any when. For me setting tends to be subordinate to meanings and themes so that themes of 'not belonging'and/or 'being other/ed' happens everywhere and everywhen.

I'm guessing when people talk about WSS they tend to focus on the Dominica experience for Antoinette; but all the characters are out of place and poor Antoinette is out of place at home, in marriage and in Thornfield.

But that's not to say setting is unimportant to meaning, but that this setting - after emancipation, on a tropical colonised island, at the end of empire - does many things other than 'not belonging'. it revisions the story of jane eyre, it resets the stage, it complicates bronte's themes and so on.

Anonymous said...

In my view Rhys’ Antoinette compliments Bronte’s Bertha. I felt sorry for Antoinette when Rochester, pushed by lies and his own weakness, turns on her and decides that she must be mad. I honestly think her reaction to Rochester’s infidelity, whilst a little over the top, was valid. Bronte’s Bertha is shrouded in mystery and lies and for me this took away her identity in the book. I was left with the unsympathetic, slightly hateful feeling that she got what she deserved in the end. After reading Rhys’ contribution I re-evaluated that feeling and I now truly feel sorry for her. She was hidden away, told she was mad, and left to rot in that madness. Rochester is the villain both books, Antoinette/Bertha the victim.

Rhiannon said...

I agree that Rhys writes the Dominica setting and the Creole character of the marginalised 'other' very well, casting light on the possible social poison behind both Rochesters treatment of his wife and her 'maddness.'

April said...

I agree with ANNOYMOUS. After reading both WWS and Jane Eyre, I found myself drawn to Antionette/Bertha's character. As Jane Eyre is supposed to be the 'heroine' in the novel by Emily Bronte, of course as readers, we are going to favour her and feel sympathy towards her plight. While we remain alientated towards Bertha as she is percieved as the villian in the masterpiece. In WSS, I felt empathy for Antionette, which is later highlighted in Jane Eyre. She was obviously stuck in a loveless marriage, shoved away at Thornfield and classed as an embarrassment due to her origins. WSS addresses issues that makes the readers respond differently.

Anonymous said...

Jean Rhys adds a new level to 'Jane Eyre', exploring one of the minor characters and definitely portraying her in a softer light than she was in 'Jane Eyre'.

Anonymous said...

I believe that 'Wide Sargasso Sea' should not be publicised as a precursor to 'Jane Eyre'. The novel stands alone as a masterpiece of 20th Century literature. Indeed, it does give insight into the mystery that is Edward Rochester and sheds some light on the past of the 'mad woman in the attic'. However, one cannot compare the two or use one as an extrinsic resource of the other. Each should stand alone for their individual merits.

Essentially, Rhys' insight into Creole culture and historical context is an area of relatively untapped culture, unlike the English countryside, explored in much 19th century literature. Hence, 'Wide Sargasso Sea' is the singular effort of Rhys, not a Rhys-Bronte hybrid.

Melissa ENG1TOT said...

I had no idea about Rhys life. It really puts into persepective the book, and helps me understand it better. I love The Wide Sargasso Sea. Although it is suppose to be in relation to Jane Eyre, it can really stand alone as well. There is so much more to be understood about this book.

Melissa ENG1TOT said...

I really enjoyed this book as well. I didn't know as much about Rhys's life, but now that I know it aids to my understanding of the book. Although it is suppose to be in relation to Jane Eyre, I find that I like it more when I think of it as a stand alone novel. I loved the book from the beginning to the end. I can't wait to uncover some of the other mysterys between the lines.

MELISSA ENG1TOT said...

I really liked this novel. But I didn't know so much about Rhys life, not that I do, I understand the novel even better then I once did. I like to think of this book as a stand alone novel, and not in relation to Jane Eyre. I find it more appealing and interesting that way. But overall I loved the book!

Lyndon said...

I really liked this book because it addressed the character of Bertha. I wanted more information about her after reading Jane Eyre. I did not see the reason why she was made Creole in Jane Eyre and this book helped me see her life before she was imprisoned by Rochester.

Kirsty ENG1TOT said...

I agree that WSS was certainly an intriguing read. I liked the way Rhys took the aspects of Jane Eyre related to Bertha and designed her own story around them, allowing WSS to directly coincide with Jane Eyre at the end. I also likely how WSS provides another dimension and another way of thinking about Jane Eyre. I have to admit when I read Jane Eyre I didn't pay much attention to the situation of Bertha apart from feeling upset for Jane's sake the she couldn't marry Mr Rochester. Having read WSS I have come to see the situation differently and realise everyone deserves to have a voice, so it is great Jean Rhys gave one to Bertha in this novel.

Anonymous said...

I am in the same boat. I found some aspects of WSS to be unfamiliar, particularly when the plot becomes entangled with the political situation of the colony. But maybe this is what Rhys was aiming for. The book is about feeling out of place, feeling a long way from home; and the stream of consciousness style of narration, combined with unfamiliar slang pushes these themes onto the audience, so that they too feel alienated from the story, from the characters and from the political situation. I don't think you ever end up sitting completely comfortable with the story, it is not a relatively easy read like Jane Eyre, and it is also less clear (i found) to understand who Rhys wants you feel more sympathetic towards, unlike Jane Eyre, where there are clear cut good guys like Helen and the Rivers' sisters, and identifiable bad guys, like the Reid family and Mr Brocklehurst. In this way, maybe Rhys' intention was to raise more questions about Jane Eyre rather than answer them, and to make us as reader's feel separate from the action, rather than drawn in. Perhaps, in this way, we can see the events of Jane Eyre more objectively.

Emily G said...

Derivative works can be quite interesting - Wide Sargasso Sea being an example.

I was directed here by my university course - ENG1TOT - and have to say that you've summed up the plot very neatly. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

You know it has to be a magnificent book when another person feels the need to add to the story. It's impressive the way that the characters and story instantly grasp the readers and as seen inspires them to want more. "wide sargasso sea" adds to the intesnsity of the novel "Jane Eyre" by emphasising and giving us a better characterisation of the characters in Jane Eyre that are not explored enough for the readers liking.

Rachel, ENG1TOT said...

I loved the fact that the character of 'bertha' in jane eyre, now has a wider identity as "antoinette" in Wide Sargasso Sea. It challenges Charlotte Brontes identity of the crazy woman, and gives her a more personable edge. I went for disliking this character in Jane Eyre to actually understanding more about the character and backgrounds, and identifying with her plight. I think its great that Jean Rhys gave a ,inor character a bigger role to play, as it makes both stories more interesting!

Rebecca J Eng Tot said...

I also enojoyed the use of the character 'bertha' in jane eyre. As there is more depth to her with the use of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. I believe that it's such a compliment for someone to continue on with a story and add more to the characters.

Martyna (ENGTOT) said...

Culture and race is a crucial part of Wide Sargasso Sea. Without understanding the forces that shaped the Creole culture, it is difficult to appreciate the effect culture and race have on the characters of the story. Creoles are caught between English and blacks. With the emancipation act, Creoles lose their place in the social hierarchy in the Caribbean. Knowing Rhys' background, it is not difficult to see why she would take issue with a one-dimensional depiction of a mad Creole woman in the attic. Bronte does not allow us to sympathise with Bertha. However, with WSS, even if we do not take it as a literal prequel (which we shouldn't as it wasn't written by the original author), at the very least, it makes us return to Bronte's book and revise our opinion of the madwoman in the attic.

Anonymous said...

'Wide Sargasso Sea' isn't seen in my eyes to be a nemesis of 'Jane Eyre' for, as it has been stated by other's commenting as well, it is adding more to the original characters of Charlotte Bronte's novel, and reflecting the themes concurrently to suit our modern society.