Wide Sargasso Sea opened my eyes to a new interpretation of Jane Eyre and has made me reconsider whether I view Mr. Rochester as a sexy literary hero. I was wary of Wide Sargasso Sea to begin with; I thought it was strange that a “prequel” novel would be considered a classic in its own right. After I finished the novel, I realized it was a great novel as it forced me to reconsider one of my favorite novels and realize that poor mad Bertha may have been more than a one-dimensional crazy lady in the attic.
SPOILER ALERT (My review will contain many details of the novel). Wide Sargasso Sea is split into three parts. In part one, Antoinette is a young girl with a sad upbringing. Her father was a slave owner who died while she was young. Slaves have recently been emancipated in Jamaica and Antoinette, her mother Annette, and her brother Pierre live with the few servants who have chosen to remain. They live a poor existence and are looked down upon by other white people for being poor and by black people for having owned slaves. One loyal servant is Christophine who is a surrogate mother to Antoinette. Life changes when Annette marries the rich Mr. Mason who restores their Coulibri Estate. The local people riot and Pierre is killed in the subsequent burning of Coulibri. Annette is driven mad by these events and is put away by her husband Mr. Mason. Antoinette spends the rest of her childhood in a convent.
Part II is from Mr. Rochester’s point of view, although he is never named. He arrives in Jamaica, is sick, and then is quickly married to the beautiful and rich Antoinette. He feels anger that with his status as a second son he was “forced” into the marriage in order to keep his standard of living. He and Antoinette journey to an estate of Annette’s in Dominica. They enjoy an idyllic honeymoon until Daniel Cosway, an illegitimate child of Antoinette’s father, writes to Mr. Rochester to tell him about the madness in the family and possible madness (and promiscuity) of Antoinette. Mr. Rochester starts to view Antoinette with suspicion and starts calling her Bertha for no apparent reason. Antoinette wants to win his love back and gets a love potion from Christophine that she uses on Mr. Rochester. Thinking he has been poisoned, Mr. Rochester then stumbles off in anger. Upon returning home, he has “relations” with a servant, Amelie in the room next door to his wife! She hears everything through the thin walls. She is driven mad by the actions of Mr. Rochester.
Christophine implores Mr. Rochester to love Antoinette as that is all Antoinette wants. If not, she wants half of Antoinette’s money to take her away, heal her, and allow to have a happy life with someone else. Mr. Rochester grows full of jealous rage at the thought of Antoinette being with any other man and refuses this plan. Instead he takes her back to Jamaica, and then to England.
Part III is from Grace Poole’s point of view. It is very short and basically tells of a very mad Antoinette living in the attic of Thornfield and consumed with dreams of fire. She awakes from the dream and seeks to fulfill it.
The story was written in modernist, spare prose. It was a book I could put down, but it also was a book that got me to think greatly about many different issues. One issue was that of being a white person in the Caribbean and how that person could be an outcast from the local black culture as well as the white European culture. It seems like a very lonely place to be.
The main issue that concerned me was women’s lack of rights after marriage. Antoinette had 30,000 lbs that were given directly to Rochester upon their marriage. After that point in time, Antoinette couldn’t decide that Mr. Rochester was a cheating scumbag, take her money and run. She was stuck with him for better or worse and he was allowed to do anything with her as he pleased. I could see how Rochester was lonely and felt himself stuck in this situation, but to treat Antoinette the way he did with the cheating and then the imprisonment in his attic, all while benefiting from her wealth is beyond disgusting.
The sexual politics are interesting too. Mr. Rochester and Antoinette seem to have a healthy sex life, but he grows enraged at the thought that she may or may not have had relations with her mulatto half-cousin before her marriage. Apparently though, it was okay for him to have relations with her maid. He also grows enraged at the thought of her moving on and marrying someone other than him. But he is okay with locking her in the attic while he gallivants around Europe with opera singers and pursues young Jane Eyre. What a double standard!!
I was also struck by the imagery in part one of Annette’s poor parrot Coco. Coco had its wings clipped by Mr. Mason and tried to escape the house while aflame. His poor clipped wings failed him and he fell to his doom. This was great imagery that eerily paralleled Antoinette’s fall to doom from the alighted Thornfield Hall.
I love how the novel gave me these points to think about as well as a new light to see Mr. Rochester and “Bertha” in. I’m afraid I may never think of Mr. Rochester the same again . . .
I read the Norton Critical Edition of this novel. It had helpful footnotes on almost every page, a brief biography and letters of Jean Rhys, a sampling of Jane Eyre as related to Bertha, as well as critical analysis of Wide Sargasso Sea. I’ll admit that I did not read all of the critical analyses. I’ll also admit that I much preferred the prose and wording of the original Jane Eyre sections as compared to Wide Sargasso Sea.
Book Source: My friend Wendy passed this book on to me.