Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre

An added dimension

It is possible to read and enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea without any knowledge of its relationship to Jane Eyre but an important dimension of the story will be missing. It is certain that Jean Rhys herself expected that her readers had a passing knowledge of Charlotte Brontë's novel even if they didn't know it in detail. For more information on Jane Eyre see Texts in detail > Jane Eyre.

In an interview in 1979 Jean Rhys said that, on reading Jane Eyre as a child, she resented the way in which Creole women were represented as mad and that this inspired her to present Bertha's life from an alternative perspective, giving her a fuller history. Locating the genesis of her novel so directly and immediately in childhood reading may be an exaggeration. She was an old lady when this interview was given and had been delivering varying versions of the sources of Wide Sargasso Sea for some time.

A work of many years

What does seem to be true is that the novel took many years to write before its publication in 1966. The earliest reference to Wide Sargasso Sea is in one of Jean Rhys' letters in 1945, although there are also indications that a manuscript of an earlier version called ‘Le Revenant' was burnt during the war.

The link with Jane Eyre was made explicit in a letter in 1949 when Rhys explained that the title for a new novel she was working on would be ‘The First Mrs Rochester'. Although by 1949 she claimed that the novel was semi-completed with the remainder mentally worked out, surviving letters don't raise it again until 1957, when she re-read Jane Eyre in a copy borrowed from the public library in Bude. Rhys' reaction to this encounter with Brontë's Bertha was more negative, but it did re-establish a significant connection with her story.

The novel evidently progressed in fits and starts with long gaps in which Jean Rhys did not work on it (see: Author > Writing Wide Sargasso Sea).

Dating Wide Sargasso Sea

The only date given in Wide Sargasso Sea is 1839. Antoinette embroiders this on her sampler while at school in the Mount Calvary Convent in Spanish Town. The first pages of the novel, however, accurately establish an historical context post 1833.

The relationship with Jane Eyre

Because of varying date references, it is difficult to date the action of Jane Eyre with any certainty. Details of social behaviour, books and decorative taste often seem to belong to the early decades of the nineteenth century, but other references place it closer to the novel's date of composition in the 1840s.

Jean Rhys has specifically focused the historical period for her novel to a time when the white Creole planters were at the lowest point in their fortunes. According to the reader's view of the dating of Jane Eyre she has either echoed or deliberately changed the time period of Brontë's novel.

‘Writing back'

Stimulated by indignation against Charlotte Brontë's ‘madwoman in the attic' Wide Sargasso Sea ‘writes back' to the earlier novel. More than a dialogue between the two texts, this is an attempt to question, expose and correct a major English novel.

Characterisation of Bertha in Jane Eyre

In Jane Eyre Bertha Mason is characterised as sub-human and like an animal:

‘In the deep shade, at the further 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 man, hid its head and face.'

(Jane Eyre , Vol. 2, Chap. 11)

Depiction of the West Indies in Jane Eyre

Bertha's home, the West Indies, is described by Rochester in hellish terms, as strange, wild and violent:

‘The air was like sulphur–streams – I could find no refreshment anywhere. Mosquitoes came buzzing in and hummed sullenly around the room: the sea, which I could hear from thence, rumbled dull like an earthquake - black clouds were casting up over it; the moon was setting in the waves, broad and red, like a hot cannon-ball- she threw her last bloody glance over a world quivering with the ferment of tempest.'

(Jane Eyre, Vol. 3, Chap. 1)

Character shaped by background

Charlotte Brontë's novel connects the mad woman with her place of origin as if the one explained the other. Rochester justifies his attempted bigamy with Jane on the grounds that his family tricked him into marrying a woman whose family background was already tainted with insanity and this was well known. He goes on to explain how, on further acquaintance, he discovered his wife was ‘the true daughter of an infamous mother' implying that her sexual nature was depraved.

Rhys' restoration

Jean Rhys' project is to correct what she perceives as Brontë's caricature and to construct in Wide Sargasso Sea another version of the Caribbean and its culture. In the process, she will show weaknesses in the earlier novel and reveal how complicit it is with Victorian prejudices against colonised peoples – their ‘inferior' morals, their ‘excessive' sexualities, their ‘tendency' to violence and lack of control.

Bertha's humanity and identity

Jean Rhys restores Bertha Mason's humanity in several ways. She questions the nature of her madness by writing her a life conditioned by isolation and a fragile sense of personal and cultural identity. She also shows how these qualities are made worse by an arranged marriage to a man incompatible with her in character and cultural background.

Rhys also restores ‘Bertha's' name and her connection with her mother embodied in it (Antoinette/Annette). This exposes the injustice in Rochester's substitution of Bertha as a name which hides - and so makes more comfortable for him - both her personal identity and her legacy of family and cultural history

Rhys' appreciation of Jane Eyre

Despite Jean Rhys' anger at Jane Eyre, she was also respectful of its value and quality. Her own novel shows this ambiguous attitude to the earlier story in several ways.

Jane and Antoinette

Rhys draws parallels between Jane Eyre and Antoinette:

  • Both are isolated, powerless and without protection, in a world hostile to unsupported women
  • Both of them lose their mothers, if in different ways, but find important substitutes who are teachers or servants
  • Both experience dreams that are significant for later events in their stories.

However, there are also strong contrasts between them:

  • Antoinette is vulnerable while Jane is made stronger by her experiences
  • Jane has a more coherent sense of herself
  • Jane establishes equality in her relationship with Rochester.

Stylistic echoes

There are some similarities in style between the two novels. Like Charlotte Brontë, Rhys makes use of:

  • The Gothic tradition
  • Images and devices central to Jane Eyre, including the colour red, ghosts and dreams. See: Jane Eyre > Literary context > Charlotte Brontë and the novel.

Again, though, there are differences:

  • The first sections of Wide Sargasso Sea are set against Jane Eyre obliquely; even if we know the latter novel well, we don't become aware of it initially
  • Antoinette Cosway is not immediately recognisable as Bertha Mason, although the name Mason may provide a strong clue confirmed by Grace Poole's narration opening part three
  • The time scale is also more specific. Wide Sargasso Sea is set in the years immediately after the 1833 Emancipation Act, whereas Jane Eyre could be set any time between the 1820s – 1840s.

Narrative approach

One of the most significant technical differences between the two novels is the narrative method:

  • Jane Eyre is told in the first person
  • Wide Sargasso Sea is told by different narrators; Antoinette, Grace Poole and Rochester in the main, although it also manipulates additional devices for making audible the voices of others.

The result is a novel which ‘writes back' against its ‘master narrative' through the different perspectives of these multiple voices. Marginalised voices move to the centre, so that dominant voices are joined by those normally suppressed or silenced (see: Narrative in Wide Sargasso Sea).

The novels' endings

The ending of Wide Sargasso Sea was the place where Jean Rhys was faced with the sharpest dilemma around similarity or difference. Was there a way in which she could avoid giving Antoinette the same fate as Bertha, dying as she burns down Rochester's house? Readers should consider the final sections of the novel:

  • In a sense Antoinette burns the house down twice, first in her dream and then setting off to do it for real
  • How should her tone of voice be interpreted? Is she resigned to the fate set for her by Charlotte Brontë or is there something new and different?
  • The critic Judie Newman thinks that Jean Rhys managed to evade the dominance of Jane Eyre through this double burning. Antoinette sets off with her candle and the text leaves it open as to what happens.

The Gothic and the uncanny

Wide Sargasso Sea makes powerful use of the tradition of Gothic fiction. This is another aspect of the novel which connects it to Jane Eyre. (See: Jane Eyre > Literary context > Charlotte Brontë and the novel.)

Both novels employ characteristic Gothic features. In Jane Eyre:

  • Thornfield Hall is a classic Gothic setting, full of dark passages and ghostly apparitions
  • Rochester, in Bronte's novel, fulfils some of the qualities of a Gothic villain, darkly brooding and harbouring a mysterious secret.

Jean Rhys' novel not only echoes these Gothic qualities but also develops them for new purposes:

  • Thornfield Hall is not the only Gothic setting in Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Jean Rhys gives the Caribbean landscape a Gothic intensity in its colour, heat and tropical abundance. Antoinette, a native, sometimes feels a sinister threat behind its beauty but it is Rochester, the incomer, for whom this is predominant
  • His experiences in the landscape often feel like bad dreams in which the beauty of the place is intense and overpowering
  • He also has uncanny experiences of the strange and eerie. The place feels full of ghosts, of the past, of barely contained violence. Sometimes he feels as if he has become a ghost too.

By using Gothic and uncanny devices in her writing in this way, Jean Rhys is able to represent Rochester's interior fears and conflicts about the place, its culture and Antoinette. See: Narrative > Narrative genres in Wide Sargasso Sea - Realism and Gothic.

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