A new perspective

Readers sometimes find the events in Wide Sargasso Sea difficult to disentangle due to the fragmented style of narration. This overview of the story summarises the plot briefly, but it is not a substitute for reading the novel!

Wide Sargasso Sea rewrites Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) from the perspective of Bertha Mason, the mad first wife who was incarcerated by Rochester in the attic of his house, Thornfield Hall.

Note on the organisation of the novel

Wide Sargasso Sea is arranged in an unconventional way. (For more on this, See: Structure of Wide Sargasso Sea) Instead of the usual chapters, it is organised into three unequal parts. These parts are:

  • Part one Antoinette's first narrative
  • Part two Rochester's narrative (mainly)
  • Part three Grace Poole's narrative and Antoinette's final narrative

Each part is divided into a succession of sections separated only by blank spaces on the page. For this reason, this part of the guide is divided into the three parts of the novel and then into the separate sections. These sections are indicated by the location of the white spaces accompanied by page numbers from the paperback Penguin Modern Classics edition, in the hope that you can find them easily in your own edition of the text.

For ease of reference, I have taken the liberty of naming Antoinette's husband Rochester (as he is later revealed to be) throughout.

Part one

The heroine of Rhys' story is called Antoinette (Bertha, the uglier name, was imposed on her by Rochester after their marriage). In part one of the novel, Antoinette narrates the story of her childhood as a white Creole from the planter class growing up on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean (see: Social / political context > Creole identity and language). Narrated in the first person, this is also, in a sense, an historical novel because it is set in the years after the Emancipation Act of 1833 gave freedom to the slaves in the islands.

The sugar estates are in a fragile economic state but Antoinette's family is even worse off because her mother has been widowed. They are reduced to an economic level on a par with the black community around them and are subject to their hostility and mockery for this situation. Rescue comes through the remarriage of Antoinette's mother to a wealthy Englishman, Mason. He restores their fortunes, sends Antoinette to school and provides her with a handsome dowry.

Part two

In part two we hear a new voice, that of a young Englishman, but we never know his name. This un-named narrator, a younger son, has been sent to the Caribbean to make his fortune and does so by marrying Antoinette. He too tells his own story in the first person and we see the Caribbean and its people and landscapes through his eyes. His perspective is coloured by his culture shock, his suspicion and veiled resentments caused by family relationships back in England.

The relationship between this young man and Antoinette is characterised from the beginning by a mixture of sexual passion and cultural alienation, by unequal power relationships and hidden personal and cultural histories. These two represent their respective cultures just as much as they do particular and individual characters.

Part three

In part three we meet the world of Jane Eyre overtly for the first time. At first the voice is that of Grace Poole, Antoinette's nurse/gaoler in Thornfield Hall. Then the voice is that of Antoinette herself, who is evidently driven to madness by her marriage and incarceration. We learn the state of her mind as she prepares to burn down the house.

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