Review: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Warning: spoilers for both this book and Jane Eyre

29429901Wide Sagrasso Sea is about the hopeless abyss between coloniser and colonised, although the colonised here is represented by a white Creole (i.e. an earlier coloniser). It’s about how Antoinette became Bertha – the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre – through a process of relentless othering by her husband who refuses to recognise her as his social equal and, resenting the fact that he’s been thrust into this marriage for the humiliating reason of monetary need, he drives her to madness with his hardness, and with his willingness to listen to vicious rumours from this „alien“, as he repeatedly calls it, environment. I don’t think it was really the rumours themselves – he had two competing accounts and he chose to trust the one coming from strangers, because he needed an excuse to bury this unequal, from his point of view, marriage he could only associate with humiliation – even though it’s clear, I thought, that he did love Antoinette. He hates that he was forced to marry her for money, he is anxious that she might not be fully white, he is furious that he feels lost on this island, a continuously rejected stranger. All of this works to facilitate his willingness to erase his wife – both her identity, by calling her Bertha (and she confronts him directly about it – „I know, that’s obeah too“), and later, as we see in Jane Eyre, her existence in his life.

It’s a story about the stubbornness and impermeability of a imperialist culture that will not make room for any alternative narratives or points of view as much as it is an account of how Bertha Mason came to be locked in the attic. Rochester could have been happy with Antoinette but that would have meant adjusting his idea of what is truth and what is reality, and as a Victorian materialist, as a representative of a colonising empire that needs all its excuses to occupy, loot and enslave, he cannot do that. The fact that Antoinette ends up a mad woman in the eyes of proper British society not only underscores its rigidity but replays the age-old view that non-conforming women are crazy, not right, unhealthy, and need to be removed from the world. The violence of misogyny here echoes the violence of colonialism, two kindred philosophies practised by wealthy white men.

The introduction, explanatory texts about obeah, slavery and the Caribbean islands, and the notes to the text are a real asset to this edition – they put me in context and helped me understand the setting, atmosphere and a lot of references that would have flown over my head. To me, they made the reading more enjoyable.

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