Jean Rhys “Wide Sargasso Sea”

Jane Eyre is probably one of my favourite novels of all time, and when a family member lent me this prequel, I was quick to devour it.

My expectations were not high, however. I was excited about the Jane Eyre BBC adaptation, and when it turned out to be outstanding and very loyal to its source material, I was keen to watch the prequel that they advertised afterwards. I was not as impressed. I found it dull and could not really connect with Bertha.

As it turns out, after reading this novella, the BBC adaptation was as loyal as the Jane Eyre’adaptation. It was sexy, colourful, brooding, exotic and menacing, and whilst I did not appreciate this at the time, I do after reading this. Unfortunately, this loyalty means the shortcomings of the TV adaptation are also true of this novella. It is quite difficult to feel for the heroine, like we are clearly supposed to, and the author opts to make Rochester (who, interestingly, is never named) out to be a villain, and her madness is entirely his fault.

It is a plausible exploration that aligns itself with Victorian gender politics; when women were sent to lunatic asylums for as little as depression, and then sent mad inside of them. Actually, it is highly relevant, and it gives the reader a completely different view of Bertha’s story. This is a double edged sword though. As interesting as it is, and perhaps right, in many respects, it is pretty difficult to grasp the characterisation of Rochester in this manner for all the people that adored his character in Jane Eyre.

Besides the character of Bertha, and the fact that this novella is a prequel, it can firmly stand on its own. Not, perhaps, as a story or something to be enjoyed, but for the thematics and how the language complements them. The narration is riddled with imagery, foreshadowing and sheer elegance. It deals with gender politics, Victorian martial laws, colonialism, race, and of course, psychology. Having said that, I would recommend reading ‘Jane Eyre’ before embarking on this, as much of it would be lost if you have not read Jane Eyre first. It also may soil your view on Rochester for Jane Eyre and give away plot details which would ruin the novel for you considerably.

If you have read Jane Eyre, I would not say that this is vital, but if you are curious about Bertha’s character this novella fleshes her out a bit, though there is still something about her that is lacking. I felt more sympathy for her in Jane Eyre without all of this background to be honest.


6 Responses to “Jean Rhys “Wide Sargasso Sea””

  1. This is a very interesting take on the novel which I read nearly 20 years ago. While I don’t feel up to a full critique after so many years (!), I would say that I don’t think the novel should really be seen as a prequel, at all. Rather, I think Rhys is taking the sparse bit of information that we are given in the novel and using it as a pretext to do her own thing. I do think her own thing is very much tied to a feminist critique of the world which Jane Eyre inhabits. Whatever the case may be, now I am going to have to go back and read it again! Thanks. I think.

  2. I also don’t believe this should be viewed as a prequel to Jane Eyre, after all we are talking about a novel with a completely new character, a completely new story. And rather than make Rochester out to be the bad guy, I think this novel makes us see (for those of us who have read Jane Eyre) that things are not always black and white, there is not always one good guy and one bad guy it all depends on your point of view. Another thing I would like to mention is that her name is not Bertha, it’s Antoinette and if a person is going to refer to main character of Wide Saegasso Sea that person should refer to her as such because if not you take away her true identity and make her nothing more than the mad woman that attacked people in Jane Eyre. Rochester calling Antoinette Bertha is part of what made her lose herself, he took away her identity.

  3. I guess he succeeded, as I call her Bertha. πŸ˜‰

    You make a fair point, and this novella is actually very detached from Jane Eyre, indeed she avoids any names used in Jane Eyre. Whether it is labelled as a prequel or not is not what really concerns me – I used the term with flippancy.

    I found that any essence on grey moral areas were already explored thoroughly in Jane Eyre and did not feel as if WSS had anything to add to it. Like I said, I actually felt more sympathy for the heroine before, as both her and Rochester’s actions were explained in JE. I felt as if Rhys blamed Rochester and I had mixed feelings about that. I am always greatly encouraged by reading feminist critique in novels, especially regarding Victorians, and I felt it a just path to follow, but my previous love of Rochester soiled it all. In any case, it’s just me unable to venture into the novella without any preconceptions, which was a shame of course.

  4. naomijones Says:

    It is easy to start reading a book with preconceptions, especially if the the prequel came afterwards, and at a completely different time.

    It was a little challenging to read, as it was written in a completely different style to Jane Eyre. I had to read the novella a few times before I could really appreciate what the book was trying to tell me.

    Wide Sargasso Sea can also be interpreted as Rhys’ metaphor for the British colonisation of the Caribbean, placing Rochester as the British coloniser, and Antoinette, or Bertha, as a symbol of the Jamaican landscape and people.

    I actually had to write an essay on the subject for AS Level coursework. I’ve since improved it. I’ve put it on my blog, and I’d very much like it you could read it and see what you think about it.

    • I would love to, but you haven’t left a link to your blog. 😦

      Thanks for the comment. I think a prequel to such a nation wide loved novel will always provoke different interpretations and opinions. πŸ™‚

  5. I apologise for that, I assumed that one would be able to go to my by clicking on my username like other websites.

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