Initial reception to Wide Sargasso Sea

Diverse reactions

Since its publication in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea has been the subject of many critical studies. These studies show very diverse reactions to the novel – reactions connected as much to the cultural position of the critic as to the novel itself. Critical response to the novel when it was first published demonstrated these diverse approaches from the outset. British critics also differed from their Caribbean counterparts. 

In 1966 the British critic Francis Hope reminded his readers in the New Statesman magazine of Jean Rhys' early novels. He called them ‘front-line reports from urban Bohemia' in the 1920s and 30s. He drew attention to her ‘extreme economy of form' and linked her to other writers from early twentieth century Paris, like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. 

In contrast, in 1968, in one of the first reviews by a Caribbean critic, Wally Look Lai focused on the treatment of gender relationships. He also saw these as symbolic of a wider cultural conflict between white Creole and English cultures. He was the first critic to place the novel within a specifically Caribbean literary tradition. 

An over view of critical approaches

It is helpful to consider critical approaches to Wide Sargasso Sea in four main categories.


This approach examines the novel as an example of Modernist writing and pays attention to:

  • Innovative aspects of form, style and language in the novel
  • Wide Sargasso Sea in the context of Jean Rhys' earlier novels
  • Her writing apprenticeship under the guidance of Ford Madox Ford. 


This approach concentrates on:

  • Gender relationships and especially the representation of female experience
  • The silencing of women's voices in society and in literary texts
  • The work of formerly overlooked or neglected female writers.

Wide Sargasso Sea offers a very rich field for this perspective because it is, in itself, in dialogue with another classic novel of female experience, Jane Eyre.


This approach to literary texts came to prominence in the 1990s with the decline of European colonial empires. Post-colonial critics re-evaluate the way in which the colonial experience has been represented in writings by the colonising nation. They consider:

  • The representation of colonised peoples
  • The effects of colonialism on perpetrator and victim
  • The claims made for classic texts (like Jane Eyre) that they have a timeless and universal significance.


This approach emphasises the historical and cultural contexts in which a text is written, published and read. Central to the approach are beliefs that:

  • Ideas and values current at the time the text was written shape the text, whether or not the author intended them to and whether or not contemporary issues are explicitly addressed in the text
  • The ideas and values of readers also affect the way the text is interpreted. Readers change over time, so interpretation of the work will also change.
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