Wide Sargasso Sea and Modernism

A Modernist text

Jean Rhys lived in Paris in the 1920s when the city was at the centre of the cultural movement called Modernism. Modernism was a very broad and diverse movement affecting all the arts in the early years of the twentieth century. Although generalisation is difficult and can be misleading, it helps to have some understanding of modernism in order to identify those formal and stylistic aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea which make it a very different kind of novel from Jane Eyre.

Characteristics of Modernism

Modernist writers often looked for new kinds of subject matter or a new perspective on conventional ones. Some of these subjects were often perceived by their audiences as controversial and sordid – for example, marginal life in the modern city, unconventional relationships or troubling psychological states.

Authors recognised that in writing about new subjects or experiences, they needed to find new ways of writing as well. For example, they experimented with different ways of organising their novels, abandoning conventional chapters or structuring them through repeated patterns of images, rather like poetry. They might also disrupt the linear, chronological order of their narratives and employ more than one point of view.

Like many others in the early twentieth century, they were interested in the unconscious mind and its powers. They were aware of Freud's work on the significance of dreams as a way of accessing the unconscious. They searched for new ways in which the interior life of their characters could be represented. Such ways needed to acknowledge that there could be a division between the social self and the private interior self. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, contemporaries of Jean Rhys, experimented with new ways of tracing the flow of characters' thoughts by developing ‘stream of consciousness' methods of narration. (See: Narrative > A variety of narratives > Stream of Consciousness)

Modernist influences in Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys was always on the margins of the literary world in 1920s Paris but she was guided in her writing by Ford Madox Ford. As a writer, critic and editor he was at the centre of these developments. (See: Author > How Jean Rhys became an author)

Aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea in which modernist influences are apparent include:

  • The use of several narrators to give different perspectives on the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester. The result of this is to promote an uncertainty about the truth and to question the version of events put forward by dominant authorities. In Rhys' novel the version of events given by Rochester in Jane Eyre is the dominant view. (See: Narrative of Wide Sargasso Sea)
  • The importance of recurrent images and patterns to structure the novel and express key themes (see: Structure of Wide Sargasso Sea).
  • The use of a first person narration and stream of consciousness techniques to represent Rochester's interior life in all its complexity and ambivalence (see: Characterisation and  Narrative of Wide Sargasso Sea).

Searching for such connections however can lead to some surprises. It has also been speculated that the novel owes something to popular culture, in particular one from a spate of ‘zombie' movies made at the time, called I walked with a Zombie (1943), described by its producer as ‘Jane Eyre in the Tropics'.

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