12

I read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea without ever having heard of Jane Eyre. I didn't see even it was a prequel to another work, because I try to avoid spoilers on the back of the book.

What, if anything, would I have missed while reading Wide Sargasso Sea? For example, were there references to characters who are also in Jane Eyre? Or direct allusions to events that would happen later?

In my reading, I felt the book lacked depth, and I wonder if it's because there was a whole other thread to the plot that I was completely missing.

6

Yes, a reader of Wide Sargasso Sea who is unaware of its connection to Jane Eyre is pretty much guaranteed to have missed the entire point of the novel.

Jane Eyre is so iconic that Rhys could simply assume knowledge of its plot while writing her own book. The heroine of Wide Sargasso Sea, her husband, and her half-brother are all very important characters in Brontë's novel. Without prior knowledge of those characters as they are in Jane Eyre, one would not get much out of Rhys's work. The power of Wide Sargasso Sea is that it forces us not merely to rethink where our sympathies lie vis-à-vis those characters in Brontë, but also to re-evaluate the entire world view that Brontë as well as her readers (ourselves included) take unquestioningly for granted.

So closely does Rhys's novel depend on Brontë's that there's no way to discuss their relationship without spoilers. Be warned, the following reveals important plot points about both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea.

In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine falls in love with her employer, a rich man named Mr Rochester. She is a governess in his household. She has noticed some mysterious goings-on: strange laughter, an unexplained murderous attack on one of Rochester's guests, etc. But she accepts the stated explanation that a drunken servant named Grace Poole is responsible for these events.

When Jane and Rochester are in the church about to be married, it is revealed, shockingly, that Rochester in fact already has a wife. She is a rich Caribbean heiress named Bertha Mason, and Rochester says he was "tricked" by his father into marrying her for her money. But as his father knew, Bertha is mad. So Rochester has kept his wife shut up in the attic. Grace Poole is in fact the servant who looks after Bertha, and the latter is the one responsible for the mysterious incidents.

Brontë's novel has no sympathy for Bertha. She is simply the inconvenient impediment that keeps Rochester and Jane apart. She cannot be a true wife to him, but prevents him from being able to marry the woman he truly loves. Ultimately she is responsible for burning down his house, killing herself and grievously injuring him in the process.

Indeed, Rochester is supposed to be the sympathetic figure. Poor man, tied to a mad wife! Thwarted in his true love because of a marriage he was tricked into! Nice enough to keep the lunatic at home instead of dumping her in an asylum! Punished for his attempted bigamy by being blinded and rendered lame while attempting to rescue the cray-cray bitch from a fire she set herself!

Wide Sargasso Sea neatly inverts these sympathies by showing us Bertha's point of view and telling her back story. Despised by the English for being a colonial; shut out of Jamaican society by virtue of being white and identifying with the English; married off to a cold and manipulative Englishman who carts her off to a cold and lonely island. Her husband becomes tremendously rich because of her money, then locks her up in the attic with nobody but a drunken servant for company; he then proceeds to have a love affair with the governess and is on the point of bigamy.

Jane Eyre is popularly regarded as a feminist heroine because of her independent-mindedness, but Rhys shows that the feminist independence of Jane, and the eventual triumph of her "true love" with Rochester, depend on the unacknowledged suffering of those who were exploited by Victorian imperialism and mercantilism. Being from the West Indies herself, she saw the violence inherent in the vast mechanisms of trade. The mercantile wealth of Victorian England was built on various sorts of exploitation: slavery, colonialism, sexism. Rochester's wealth comes from his wife, who in turn inherits it from her stepfather, who ran a plantation in Jamaica where slaves worked. Jane too inherits money from a distant relative who has become rich in the West Indies. The source of this tremendous wealth goes unexamined in Brontë, because imperial exploitation was an unremarkable fact in the Victorian world-view. But by retelling the well-worn narrative from a fresh perspective, Rhys opens our eyes and causes us to reassess our values.

tl;dr Read Jane Eyre, then re-read Wide Sargasso Sea to get what the latter novel is really about.

3

There is no consensus among critics about whether Wide Sargasso Sea stands on its own or not. For example, Francis Wyndham wrote in his introduction to the first edition (1966):

For many years, Jean Rhys has been haunted by the figure of the first Mrs Rochester—the mad wife in Jane Eyre. The present novel—completed at last after much revision and agonized rejection of earlier versions—is her story. Not, of course, literally so: it is in no sense a pastiche of Charlotte Brontë and exists on its own right, quite independent of Jane Eyre.

In "All That Foolishness / That All Foolishness: Race and Carribean Culture as Thematics of Liberation in Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea" (Critica 2.2, 1990), Sandra Drake wrote,

The novel stands on its own. It could have been written without the relationship of intertextual referentiality of Jane Eyre.

In addition, Jean Rhys wrote in a letter to Francis Wyndham dated 14 April 1964:

I think there were several Antoinettes and Mr Rochesters. Indeed I am sure. Mine is not Miss Bronẗ́̈́ë's, though much suggested by "Jane Eyre". She is, to start with, young not old. She is still a girl when she fires the house and jumps to her death.

However, neither this statement nor Sandra Drake's deny the deliberate intertextuality between Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre.

In the New York Times Book Review of 18 June 1967, Walter Allen wrote that Wide Sargasso Sea is only,

a triumph of atmosphere [which] does not exist in its own right, as Mr. Rochester is almost as shadowy as Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason."

(It is not clear why Allen claims that "Mr. Rochester is almost as shadowy as Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason", since Part Two, which represents more than 60% of the novel, is told from Rochester's point of view.)

Michael Thorpe wrote in 1977:

Though I have seen people ignorant of Jane Eyre respond to this novel as a self-sufficient work, it would be foolish to deny that many average readers come to it with some recollection of Jane Eyre and that Rhys relied in a general way on their doing so.

In "Burning Down the House: The Revisionary Paradigm of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea" (1993), Caroline Rody wrote,

Thorpe disagrees with Allen, as does another critic, Arnold A. Davidson, who argues vehemently for the text's wholeness, citing as precedents the famous literary borrowings of Shakespeare, Joyce, and others. (...) In striking contrast to these three male critics, none of the dozen or more female critics I have read finds it necessary to consider the "crucial" question of the autonomy of Rhys's text; most are interested, rather, in the nature of its attachment to Jane Eyre. The suggestively grim and awesome imperative that a text "stand and be judged alone" is alien to the model of inheritance implicit in Wide Sargasso Sea, which privileges relationships — to a mother first and, I shall argue, to daughters to come.

Obviously, all the critics cited above were familiar with Jane Eyre; I doubt that they know what it is like to read Wide Sargasso Sea without being familiar with Charlotte Brontë's novel. On a superficial level, the first two parts of Rhys' novel can easily be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre; it's only at the beginning of Part Three (the shortest part) that "Grace Poole", "Leah" and "Mrs Eff" may confuse readers who are unfamiliar with Jane Eyre. However, readers should be aware that the intertextuality between the two texts goes deeper than the level of the plot and the characters' names. Readers who are not familiar with Jane Eyre will not understand in what way "rewrites" the story of Bertha Mason/Antoinette Cosway and Edward Rochester.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.