Title: Wide Sargasso Sea
Author: Jean Rhys
Publication Date: 1966 (this edition 1999)
LC Call Number: PR 6035 . H96 W5
So, I’ve taken a while with this, partly because I was paying attention to other things in my life, and so I ended up reading rather slowly in small parts, and this book doesn’t really lend itself to that, so I’m not left with as much to say about Wide Sargasso Sea as I’d like. But I am left with some things I noticed, so here they are…
For those who don’t know, I’m reading it along with Jane Eyre because it’s a companion or an answer to the earlier book; Rhys was fascinated by the figure of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, “the Creole” and wanted to compose her stories. Interestingly, the edition I used includes some of Rhys’s letters, which reveal that she actually felt ambivalent about piggybacking on Jane Eyre and considered whether she should try to separate her book from Brontë’s and make it stand on its own. But… well, if I hadn’t known, I probably would not have realized until the very end that it is playing on Jane Eyre. At the same time, I don’t know how I could read it without reference to the other book.
What really struck me was how similar Antoinette (who in this book is not called Bertha until Rochester decides that that is her name) is to Jane, in the details of her life if not in her personality—and especially in her dreams. In Jane Eyre, Jane has a few different dreams, but the most interesting one is the ambiguous dream that she reports to Rochester the morning that they attempt to marry. Curiously, she doesn’t narrate this dream to us, but only reports it to him, in a way that made me (suspicious twenty-first century reader that I am) wonder whether it was a real dream or a last attempt on her part to get him to confess any secrets he may have had. In any case, her dream involves being lost and stumbling through ruins, in great danger, and at the end of it, she sees Bertha.
Jane’s dream bears an odd and obviously not coincidental resemblance to Antoinette’s experience. Antoinette is a white woman who grows up in Jamaica, just after emancipation. During her childhood, angry mob attacks her home and burns it down, because her family was formerly a slaveholding one. The scene is a scary one, and it is strongly reminiscent of Jane’s dream. Like Jane’s dream, it happens in the middle of the night, after Antoinette has been sleeping. She attempts to protect her brother, much as Jane finds herself carrying a baby in her dream. Like the dream, there’s a great deal of confusion, and she is lost as familiar places become strange. In Jane’s dream, Thornfield Hall is a ruin, prefacing its actual destruction later in the book; in Wide Sargasso Sea, Coulibri is actually destroyed during this scene.
Later, when Antoinette is in school, she has the dream as a dream, and it’s even closer to Jane’s this time:
Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking toward the forest. It is still night and I am walking toward the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. … I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. … We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upward. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there… I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. (35-36)
This, too, is similar to Jane’s dream. Jane, too, sees the wall and attempts to climb it, but she cannot, because she is impeded by a child. However, Jane struggles to catch a glimpse of Rochester, while Antoinette walks beside him as he leads her on. By the end, Antoinette’s dream has taken on strong sexual overtones: “’Here, in here,’ a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.” (36). To Antoinette, this dream is Hell.
Oddly, this connection is also there in Jane Eyre—but there is so much going on in Jane Eyre that it is easy to overlook. When Rochester first tells Jane of his first marriage, she asks him whether he would behave the same way toward her, if she went insane. This is an interesting show of compassion; she recognizes herself in Bertha in a way that Rochester immediately discourages by claiming that it is not Bertha’s insanity, but her immoral nature, which causes his disgust. This, of course, is probed much more deeply in Wide Sargasso Sea; his revulsion seems to be based largely in is fear of the Caribbean, which Antoinette understands better than he does (though she is not quite comfortable there either). His behavior, certainly, is not exemplary, but he applies a double standard which allows him to excuse himself while condemning her. Rhys lays out the story in such a way as to call into question Rochester’s account of himself, and brings the reader to question the account of himself he gives Jane. He believes it, certainly—but while he likes to describe Jane as otherworldly and perhaps supernatural, we know that his behavior toward at least one woman who came from a world different from his own and attempted to make use of the supernatural was not at all what he claims he would do were Jane to suffer the same condition.
There are other parallels which critics who are much smarter than I am have pointed out; I know this because the edition I was reading also included some criticism (and one of them (Erwin) pointed out the dreams as well– a nice confirmation of what I’d noticed myself). But the last one—and I don’t remember whether this was in the criticism or not—was the room in which Antoinette finds herself at the end of the book. It has a red carpet and red curtains, just enough to remind us of the red room in Jane Eyre—the one that her aunt locks her into for a night as a punishment, despite her terror and conviction that it was haunted. Antoinette is not locked into the red room—she gets there by escaping from the room in which she is supposed to be imprisoned.
So if the moment I described above is almost a moment of solidarity between Jane and “Bertha,” this is a moment of disconnect. Jane is willing to go away and allow Bertha to continue to be imprisoned in a fashion that is very, very similar to her own experience, which she describes as traumatic and cruel, and which precludes our feeling sorry for Mrs. Reed even when she dies. And this particular connection is one that doesn’t present itself in an obvious way to the reader of Jane Eyre (or to me, at least). Rhys sees it, though, and the important thing in this book is not really the similarities between Jane and Antoinette, but the differences in the ways that they are treated.
Wide Sargasso Sea doesn’t, in fact, make it entirely clear what causes these differences, but a large part of it is fear—Rochester’s colonialist and racist fear of Caribbean cultures which he does not understand and places that he cannot easily map. It’s Christophine, the obeah woman, who embodies these fears for him throughout the book, but by the end, Antoinette has been classed with her in his mind. She identifies with the Caribbean too much for him to be comfortable with her. By the end, he believes that her attempt to use a love potion on him is really a poisoning attempt, but he also sees that she got it from Christophine and I think he understands that it is magic—and I think it’s that, more than whatever happened with her cousin Sandi, that causes him to react so strongly.
There’s a lot more in this book. It’s quite dense and I can’t claim that I read it even closely enough to get a really good reading out of it. But even so, I can detect that there is a lot here, and I admire the sharpness of the light that it shines on Jane Eyre.