A variety of narratives

Multiple perspectives

Jean Rhys' novel has two main first person narrators who give their own point of view on the events of the story. Also, the voices of other individuals and groups contribute to the narrative via such devices as:

  • Reported speech
  • Dialogue
  • Letters
  • Fragments of song
  • Place names.

This mixture of competing and often contradictory voices has meant that Wide Sargasso Sea has been called a ‘multi-vocal' or many-voiced novel. By looking at these different narrative methods carefully you can see how:

  • Jean Rhys builds up her story from multiple perspectives
  • The novel's form contributes to its themes and ideas.

First and third person narrative

First person narration

This method relates the story in the first person using ‘I'. It offers a writer some powerful possibilities:

  • The narrator is a character in the story so readers come to know them as a person
  • Readers feel close to the narrator because they share their experience
  • The story feels direct and immediate because the narrator participates in the action
  • The story can also seem authentic and ‘real' for these reasons.

However, first person narration imposes limitations on the way in which the story can be told: 

  • The action is seen only from a single point of view; the narrator's. This point of view is therefore one-sided and incomplete
  • What this narrator does not see or understand must be left out 
  • The author must use a range of other devices for telling readers the things the narrator does not know. These devices include letters, questions and reported speech/dialogue.

Third person narration

This is the alternative form of narrative method and the more popular. 

  • The narrator is not a character within the events related but is distanced from - or outside - them.
  • The narrator refers to all the characters as ‘he', ‘she' or ‘they'. Sometimes the narrator may use the first person ‘I' or ‘We' but this is used as a way of commenting on events and their significance
  • You may come across the term ‘omniscient' or ‘all knowing' to describe this kind of narrator.

Other aspects of narration to consider

Narrative irony

This happens when the author wishes to show that to some extent the narrative is unreliable. In a first person narration, for example, readers may be made aware that the narrator does not disclose things they know or have done. They may also be unaware of their own shortcomings. The effect of this is to create a sense of distance between the reader and the narrator.

Stream of consciousness

This is a method of narration in which the writing mimics a disjointed flow of interior thoughts and sense impressions. It is often used as a way of representing a wandering mind, confused memories, dreams or the unconscious. It was first developed by Modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the early part of the twentieth century. They were interested in finding ways of representing the workings of the mind and subjective experience.

The distinction between the author and the narrator

Whichever method of narration you are reading, do bear in mind that the voice you are hearing is not the author. Authors and narrators are two different things:

  • The first are (or were) real people
  • The second are constructions in language: they are made up
  • Narrators do not necessarily voice the opinions or experiences of their author directly.

Narrative and Wide Sargasso Sea

One of the most significant technical differences between Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea is the narration. 

  • Jane Eyre says on the title page ‘An Autobiography' and it is told in the first person by a single narrator, Jane herself
  • Wide Sargasso Sea is told by different narrators: mainly the un-named Rochester, Antoinette (who becomes the mad Bertha in Jane Eyre) and Grace Poole, her guardian and nurse.

So, although Jean Rhys wrote her own novel as a form of ‘writing back' in dialogue with Jane Eyre, she chose not to use the same narrative method. She had to find a method that worked with her own way of writing and one that connected the form of her novel with its key themes.

Narration and Jean Rhys' way of writing

Jean Rhys didn't write in a logical and organised way. She seems to have written in short and unconnected sections, on scraps of paper. Carol Angier, in her biography of Jean Rhys, says that in the autumn of 1961, when Jean Rhys was in Devon and in a depressed state of mind in writing the novel, the local vicar rescued the work she had done. It wasn't a manuscript but a mass of pieces of paper which he retrieved from ‘plastic bags and hat boxes, from under the bed and the sofa, from on top of wardrobes and inside kitchen cupboards'.

In a letter to Maryvonne Moerman (May 4th, 1959), Jean Rhys referred to this as her ‘patchwork' method (if you can call it a method) and connects it particularly to her choice of narration. She wanted to get all the necessary ‘colours' and ‘fabrics' arranged just right, though was hesitant about her ability to do so. They could be arranged either in a linear fashion, narrated in the first person, or the story could be divided into first the male then female narrative. She was disinclined to tell the story using the third person from the perspective of authorial omniscience. She said that she preferred direct thoughts and actions.

The letter presents the choices facing her as the author and the reason (directness) why she made the choice she did. The linear narration is the method of Jane Eyre; a clear chronological order and a single narrator who, as ‘I' tells her own story in the first person from childhood to final reconciliation with Rochester when, ‘Reader, I married him'. The first person female / male narrative was the method used by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea; she refers to the two main narrators who tell their own versions of the action.


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