Wide Sargasso Sea

Iona Glen

Edited by Karli Wessale

Art by Fatima Seck

There is always the other side, always (Rhys 106)

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys is a dark, compelling novel that charts the backstory of the infamous ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), exploring themes of colonialism, gender, and power. Rhys wrote the novel in response to Brontë’s oblique representation of the Caribbean and Mr Rochester’s first wife, investigating processes of oppression through the character of Antoinette Mason, renamed Bertha by her husband as a means of controlling her identity. In Rhys’ version of the story, Antoinette’s marriage to an unnamed Englishman in the 1830s unravels dramatically following revelations of her mother’s alleged promiscuity and mental disintegration. She becomes Brontë’s ‘intemperate and unchaste’ creation who thwarts Jane’s marriage to Rochester, spiralling into madness and, eventually, arson and suicide (Brontë 270).

I first encountered the novel when I was seventeen, five years after I had studied Jane Eyre at school, reading all its vivid, hallucinatory, and disturbing 156 pages in one sitting. One important line struck me: ‘There is always the other side, always.’ (106)

I found this ‘other side’ by accident, and I felt frustrated that I had stumbled on the book by sheer luck and not through my academic curriculum. This idea of the importance of alternative narratives inspired my university studies on history, gender and the complexities of cross-cultural interactions. Wide Sargasso Sea’s examination of the impact that colonial ideologies of race, gender, and class have on a personal relationship is highly relevant to the practice of cultural history. On the Making History website, Miri Rubin characterises this practice as ‘an approach which considers the domain of representation and the struggle over meaning.’ The novel is a valuable source because it highlights how the shifting ideologies of race and gender intersect with each other to create dominant cultural representations that remain so influential today.

Dissatisfied with Brontë’s portrait of the Caribbean as a Dominican-born white Creole, Rhys rewrote Antoinette’s story, bringing the marginalised elements of Jane Eyre to the centre. Despite denials of imperialist themes in canonical works of British literature by critics such as Bernard Porter – who argues that the ‘tropical imagery’ of Jane Eyre is just an exotic flavouring to the conflict in its love story – the existence of colonialism is crucial to its narrative (Porter 171). The Caribbean is the source of Rochester’s wealth as well as the eventual family inheritance that makes Jane his social equal. The influential postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak notes how Bertha is constructed as Jane’s animalistic ‘dark double’, creating the cultural oppositions of self/other, rational/irrational, light/dark so important to maintaining European superiority in colonialist discourse. As a response to a celebrated novel of the Western canon, the study of Wide Sargasso Sea illuminates how the voices of women and non-European people have been obscured and demeaned in traditional Eurocentric historical narratives.

This flawed but powerful book taught me many things I have found crucial to my own understandings of history, particularly the importance of destabilising received knowledge and the power of unreliable narrators when their voice is privileged over others. Rochester and Antoinette are the two narrators of the book; their alternating voices and competing representations of the Caribbean landscape enact a power struggle over the story. Rochester racializes his disenchantment with Antoinette: his belief in her madness is influenced by colonialist fears of racial miscegenation and degenerate ‘bad blood’ (81). He describes her ‘long, sad, dark alien eyes’, musing that although she is a white Creole ‘they are not English or European either’ (56). On Antoinette’s part, she also wishes to align herself with black Creole culture as a way of finding belonging. Her own narration significantly omits any sense of responsibility for the participation of her ex-slave-owning family in colonialism. During her childhood, Antoinette’s family estate is burned to the ground by ex-slaves freed by the recent Emancipation Act (1833); at the end of the novel she takes up this form of rebellion against an unjust master by torching Rochester’s home. This analogy of the subjugation of women by men with that of slaves by colonisers is of long-standing and intensely problematic, highly relevant to current feminist discourses about intersectionality and hierarchies of privilege. This tension was recently illustrated by the controversial publicity for the film Suffragette (2015), when its white actors were photographed in t-shirts with the slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, reiterating the racist ideas that prioritised white female suffrage over other marginalised groups.

Rhys also shows how colonialist ideologies and agendas impact the ways that Antoinette and Rochester represent the Caribbean. She reveals glimpses of the agency of the black Creole characters around the two narrators, suggesting the inadequacy of attempts to classify and control their behaviour. What is not shown is as important as what is shown, and Rhys highlights rather than obscures these gaps. This approach acknowledges Rhys’ limitations as a white Creole author who cannot define black experience, reflecting the limitations of wider European colonial discourses.  Christophine, Antoinette’s former nurse from Martinique, is a crucial character in the story. In a confrontation with Rochester, she asserts herself against his fixed conceptions of power and knowledge, saying to him: ‘Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know’ (133). Through these instances of resistance, the novel stresses that Eurocentric systems of understanding do not and cannot tell the whole story. Within the subjective and splintered narrative of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys reveals the existence of many other ‘other sides.’

Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, four years after Jamaican independence within the broader context of decolonisation and the civil rights movement. The study of the novel in a cultural history course might provide a point of entry not just into the 1830s or the 1960s but the ways in which these eras are intertwined, demonstrating that our knowledge of the past is always shaped by subsequent interpretations. What we know as history is stories shaped and passed through many hands. I think it is important and indeed rewarding to acknowledge this instability in historical perceptions. This allows us to examine how constructed ideologies of race, gender, and class have interacted with each other to constitute lived experience, and challenge traditional historical representations in British culture and literature.

Works cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Wordsworth Classics, 1992.

Gajanan, Mahita. ‘Meryl Streep and co-stars attract backlash over Suffragette T-shirt slogan’. The Guardian, 2015. www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/05/meryl-streep-backlash-suffragette-t-shirt-slogan.

Gilchrist, Jennifer. ‘Women, Slavery, and the Problem of Freedom in Wide Sargasso Sea.Twentieth Century Literature 58: 3 (2012): 462-95.

Mardorossian, Carine. Reclaiming Difference: Caribbean Women Rewrite Postcolonialism. University of Virginia Press, 2005.

Porter, Bernard. The Absent-minded Imperialists: Empire, Society, and Culture in Britain. OUP, 2006.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin Books, 1966.

Rubin, Miri. ‘Cultural History’. Making History. www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/themes/cultural_history.html.

Spivak, Gayatri. ‘Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’. Critical Inquiry 12:1 (1985): 243-61.

About the author:

Iona Glen is a final year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, with a special interest in cultural history as a way of combining her love of art and literature with the study of mentalities. Next year, she hopes to study at postgraduate level in London.

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