by Jean Rhys
Genre: historical fiction, classic literature
Read: 28th March 2017
Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys’s return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction’s most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed in its sexual relations, that it can literally drive a woman out of her mind.
A new introduction by the award-winning Edwidge Danticat, author most recently of Claire of the Sea Light, expresses the enduring importance of this work. Drawing on her own Caribbean background, she illuminates the setting’s impact on Rhys and her astonishing work.
Well, I tried to like the novel, but the disjointed, dream-like writing style only adds to the confusion. I have a hard time believing people just went mad due to the climate when they were doing basically nothing all day – only enjoying the shade. Isn’t this the perfect time and place to bond, to find companionship? Isn’t nature supposed to be healing in such circumstances? The author certainly did everything to alienate Rochester – hostile, devious servants, an overbearing gossip mill, old resentments, etc. He’s a reasonable man in Jane Eyre, even if a short-tempered one at times. Here we can hardly recognize him at all, and that is not good writing.
I was so frustrated with the book. There are so many issues intruding into the tale that have no place there at all – who cares about the servants when they are now free and old plantations are gone. Rochester has nothing to do with them, and he treats everyone kindly from the very beginning. Why be hostile to the one person treating you like a fellow human? It makes no sense at all. Antoinette does her very best to make him hate her as well – not communicating with him at all, being more friendly and free with servants, etc. If you can have sex with your husband, you can also talk to one another like civilized people. Just saying. Love isn’t indulging the other person’s every whim, fancy, or irrational moment, but helping them get healing and solid ground beneath their feet.
The author did not convince me that Antoinette (or Bertha, as Rochester calls her – why again?) wasn’t mad as a hatter from her childhood. It’s no wonder that she’s a savage little beast as a child, when she is growing up practically without parents – her mother certainly did nothing to raise her. Then there was the trauma of the burned down house, the vicious attack by the blacks, the betrayal of the one person she thought her friend, and overall animosity of all mixed race people against her. Why again? There’s no reasonable explanation for this hate against her. Her father? Pfftt… he’s dead and the family destitute, so why bother? Even though the mother remarried, why bother with her?
So in a nutshell; the book tries to be edgy, feminist, and whatnot, but it utterly fails in the portrayal of madness and a crumbling relationship. A background story about Bertha from Jane Eyre it certainly is not.