So I will admit that I am avoiding my grammar homework a bit and I have also fallen far behind on my book blogging. The dreary, slow wait for spring is not conducive to productive work habits! So here I am hoping to kickstart spring into gear through my go-get-em attitude. Despite my lack of blogging, there has not been a lack of reading. After reading “Longbourne”, I felt drawn to read “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys. I had read it back in university, and “Longbourne” made me want to read another classic retake.
“Wide Sargasso Sea” is inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. It is the story of Mrs. Bertha Rochester and an exploration of her descent into madness. I enjoy this book because it presents a different interpretation of events and points the finger of blame at Mr. Rochester instead of towards the crazed Jamaican woman we are introduced to in Bronte’s book. In Part One, Antoinette is the narrator. Antoinette has a difficult beginning to her life. She is a Creole born into a society attempting to transition out of slavery but still steeped in colonialism. Her father kills himself after losing his wealth, and she and her mother become slightly strange in their poverty and isolation on their plantation out in the jungle. Her mother eventually marries a rich Englishman, but their happiness is quickly destroyed when their house and small son are killed by a riot of unhappy locals. Antoinette’s mother is placed in an asylum and her stepfather retreats back to England. Antoinette is placed in a safe and educational environment at the local convent in Spanish Town. She grows into a beautiful woman, and is removed from the convent by her doting stepfather and introduced to Edward.
Part Two is almost entirely from Edward’s perspective, which is interesting that most of the marriage and Antoniette’s supposed change in character is all from Edward’s perspective. Within a month of meeting, Edward and Antoinette are married. Rhys never explores why Antoinette marries Edward so quickly but she does seem to fall in love with her husband very quickly after the marriage. Edward, however, realizes that he does not like or know the woman that he married and feels tricked by her exotic beauty and intense lovemaking. It turns out he was deliriously sick for three weeks of the month they were courting, yet he is still the one who convinced Antoinette to marry him despite her misgivings. (I personally think it was his desire for money, status and pride that caused him to push for marriage so quickly.) Mr. Rochester begins to call her Bertha to symbolize that he does not recognize her as the woman he married but also to begin to try to alter her into the silent puppet wife he would like her to be. She is completely heartbroken when her repeated efforts to make him love her again fails and she overhears him having sex with one of the servant girls. She grows crazy with her despair and confusion, and Edward is convinced this is her true genetic nature revealing itself. He drags her to England with him so he can live his life while she is locked up but well taken care of. In Part Three, Antoinette narrates her life in England between her periods of insanity and we get to see a more forgiving perspective as to how she burnt that great house down.
With her name, her dignity, and her country taken away, it is little wonder that Antoinette gives into madness. It is possible that she may have a tendency to madness from her mother, but even Rhys presents the possibility that Antoinette’s mother may not have been completely mad. She may have had a lapse in sanity due to the loss of her home and the sudden death of a dear son. And she could have stayed that way because she was locked away from her husband and daughter, forced to stay in a country she hated, and was regularly raped and kept drunk by her caregivers. I would say those are enough reasons to make any person go crazy.
The depth of conversation provided by Rhys’s exploration of the other side of the popular Bronte story is what makes me come back to this book. However, I find that Rhys’s writing gives into this feeling of madness that circulates around all of the characters. Mr. Rochester has these weird, irrational side conversations with himself that lost me, as a reader, for a bit. Particularly at the end of Part Two, Mr. Rochester seems to lose his mind in his self-absorbed world of power and wealth, his discontentment and confusion with his current life, and his determined possession over this wife he hates. Instead of commenting and describing the madness in the situation, Rhys’s writing only describes Mr. Rochester’s frenzied and erratic thoughts. I was a little bored by the story and strange writing at this point.
Despite some writing and plot shortcomings, Rhys paints a powerful picture and presents a compelling alternative story to what Edward Rochester presents to Jane Eyre in Bronte’s book. I will be re-reading “Jane Eyre” and will keep in the back of my mind this portrayal of Mr. Rochester as cruel and off kilter. Perhaps I will catch something new in this classic story or find something different in the characters because of Jean Rhys “Wide Sargasso Sea”. That is the beauty of novels; their ability to alter your perspective through storytelling.
3/5 bacon strips