Jean Rhys, “Wide Sargasso Sea”

1966

Moving from Jamaica to Dominica to England, Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of “Bertha” Antoinette Mason in a parallel reworking of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. As the last sentence demonstrates, one of the protests of the novel is against Rochester’s renaming itself, which moves her from “A” to “B,” a sort of lowered ranking as well. Rather than seeing Bertha as “impediment,” which is how she is named in Bronte, the text sees her madness as a dual result of the colonialism and patriarchy that have determined her life. (Interesting that she bites him at mention of the word “legally.”)

Yet Rhys’ novel does not condemn Rochester. He is given tremendous space and perspective in the middle part, so that we leap from Antoinette’s sanity to insanity via his narrative – “a middle passage” in the book. The Sargasso Sea is a swirl in the midst of the Atlantic, collecting and swallowing. Much of the novel centers around the way that most language does not signify, save in songs or names – in this sense, Rhys also reclaims bodily affect as a mode of signification with eyerolls and gestures that Rochester cannot read as anything but madness. Furthermore, the fabula (story-order) and sujet (plot) divide is dramatized through the reader learning key facts by A’s eavesdropping.

Rhys reclaims pathetic fallacy as well – in Bronte’s novel the hot tropics are the site of passion and madness, but in Rhys’ world, England is cardboard and unreal, while the island’s natural space is vibrant and vivid. It is the desire to cathect herself onto the land around her which fails in England and drives her truly mad.

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