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176 pages, Paperback
First published October 1, 1966
Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard!—as I found out after I had wed the daughter; for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points. I had a charming partner—pure, wise, modest; you can fancy I was a happy man. I went through rich scenes! Oh! my experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it! But I owe you no further explanation. Briggs, Wood, Mason, I invite you all to come up to the house and visit Mrs. Poole's patient, and my wife! You shall see what sort of a being I was cheated into espousing, and judge whether or not I had a right to break the compact, and seek sympathy with something at least human.So, he is not only describing her (and her family) in incredibly insulting terms (by being downright mean, dismissive and condescending), he also dehumanises her in the most horrid fashion (as can be seen in the last sentence of that quote^^). As if this wasn't bad enough we then get to see Bertha in action as Rochester orders the crowd to come to Thornfield to see her, to judge for themselves:
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.Here again, Bertha is seen through a colonial gaze and gets thus dehumanised. She is seen as a "beast", a "wild animal" who is devoid of speech. She is perceived as being dangerous, uncontrollable and maniac. A few moments later, Jane describes: "Mr Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek."
“Is there another side?”Jean Rhys tells Antoinette's story from the time of her youth in Jamaica, to her unhappy marriage to a certain unnamed English gentleman, who renames her Bertha, declares her mad, takes her to England, and isolates her away from the rest of the world in his mansion. [Sounds familiar? No. Then reread Jane Eyre with your eyes fucking open this time.] Rhys uses multiple voices (Antoinette's, her husband's, and Grace Poole's) to tell the story, and intertwines her novel's plot with that of Jane Eyre. In addition, Rhys makes a postcolonial argument when she ties Antoinette's husband's eventual rejection of Antoinette to her Creole heritage (a rejection shown to be critical to Antoinette's descent into madness).
“There is always the other side, always.”
I wonder why I have been brought here. For that reason? There must be a reason. What is it that I must do? When I first came I thought it would be for a day, two days, a week perhaps. I thought that when I saw hime and spoke to him I would be wise as serpents, harmless as doves. ‘I give you all I have freely,’ I would say, ‘and I will not trouble you again if you will let me go.’ But he never came.When she physically crosses the Sargasso Sea and goes to England she believes the ship had lost its way and that she is not really in England. She completely loses her identity, which points out how wide the Sargasso Sea has been for Antoinette. What haunts the reader of this text is the knowledge of what will happen to Antoinette, and the sense that secrets are hidden because people do not want to see what they see, or know what they know.
Bertha is not my name. You are trying to make me into someone else, calling me by another name. I know, that’s obeah too.”The uncanny control he exercises over her derives from his power as a patriarchal Victorian who has stopped listening to all the islands’ voices. In his fear of Christophine’s obeah magic and the passion between him and Antoinette he has reduced his wife, who loves him, to a spiritless shell: “Like a doll. Even when she threatened me with the bottle she had a marionette equality.”
Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do. There must have been a draught for the flame flickered and I thought it was out. But I shielded it with my hand it burned up again to light me along the dark passage.When she sets her fatal blaze at Thornfield Hall, it’s because she imagines a red dress spilling across the floor like a flame, recalling an episode in which Christophine tells her to wear a red dress instead of a white one bought for her by Rochester. When asked “You frightened?” for the last time in a hallucination, it is by Tia, a Jamaican girl who was her friend before a mob descended on Antoinette’s childhood plantation home, burning it to the ground. In response to Tia’s call, Antoinette jumps toward her out on the mansion’s ramparts, and the novel ends. The fire that consumes her is directly linked to the one set by that group of newly freed ex-slaves. It is an act of resistance, not madness.
Rochester: “One morning soon after we arrived, the row of tall trees outside my window were covered with small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind. They fell in a day, and looked like snow on the rough grass--snow with a faint sweet scent. Then they were blown away. [...] It was a beautiful place--wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret.”By far, though, Wide Sargasso Sea's biggest misstep is in, well, its very reason for being: its depiction of Antoinette. Her sections should be the most significant, most powerful of the entire book, yet she remains almost exactly as she did in Jane Eyre: a shadow of a woman, indistinct, never able to be truly understood or even pictured. The missed opportunity here for a three-dimensional Antoinette is so very, very disappointing; Rhys only skimmed the surface of this mystery woman’s history.
Antoinette: “I can remember every second of that morning, if I shut my eyes I can see the deep blue colour of the sky and the mango leaves, the pink and red hibiscus, the yellow handkerchief she wore round her head, tied in the Martinique fashion with the sharp points in front, but now I see everything still, fixed for ever like the colours in a stained-glass window.”
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.I’m sure I never would have read Wide Sargasso Sea—honestly, I’m not sure I ever would have even heard of it—if it were not included on the Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Novels list. I read Jane Eyre a couple of years ago, so I was mildly curious to read a backstory of that novel’s “madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, I had a lot of problems with this book.
In spite of its connections to Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea is more than, to use a contemporary term, fan fiction. It is its own jewel of a novel, which can be read with or without its original inspiration in mind.That, my friends, is just utter nonsense. Wide Sargasso Sea is literally a fan fiction, a possible backstory of Bertha, and to a lesser degree, of Edward. I have trouble imagining anyone would have cared about this novel but for its connection to Jane Eyre. Moreover, the ending here would be incomprehensible without a familiarity with the original novel.
“And what does anyone know about traitors, or why Judas did what he did?”
“I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what's called loving as I was - more lost and drowned afterwards.”
“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”
Image: Karina Lombard as Antoinette Cosway in the 1993 film adaptation of the story.