Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
W. Norton & Company, 1966, 176 pages
Fiction (Published Fan-Fiction)

Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea takes a famous secondary (tertiary, really) character of a classic and fleshes her out to full person-hood. As a prequel to Jane Eyre, the novel explores the life of the woman in the attic before she was driven to madness. Her childhood in the Caribbean, her marriage to Edward Rochester, and her imprisonment in his manor are all examined in Rhys’s narrative, supplemented by chapters about Rochester as a young man and his struggles with his unwanted marriage and a wife he perceives as insane. Whether Bertha Mason, known as Antoinette Cosway in Sargasso, is in fact mad in earlier chapters is unclear, though her insanity by the end is clear. The path to that point is muddy, though, resulting in a text that is thought-provoking if confused.

Rhys provides no context for her story, even opting to use an alternative name for Bertha/Antoinette for much of the story and hardly ever naming Rochester. Without the knowledge that Sargasso is, in fact, intended as a prequel to Jane Eyre, readers will find few clues to the connection and may be therefore lost for the purpose of the novel and its implications. This issue of vagueness is exacerbated by a prose style that utilizes dialect (both in pronunciation and grammar) which, while perhaps accurate to the location and helpful in characterization, serves to further obscure the content of the novel in a text that is already confusing.

While Antoinette’s plight is certainly one for pity (at least from what I could tell), it’s difficult to feel sympathy for her when readers are left feeling so uncertain of the events and circumstances. The novel is full of maybes — maybe Rhys’s depiction of people of color who live on the island (generally in a service capacity, as is accurate to history) is racist, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe the novel gives Antoinette more agency and calls into question her insanity, but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear; maybe Rhys layers a newer generation of feminism onto what is generally considered to be an early feminist novel (Jane Eyre), but it’s hard to tell when the overall text isn’t clear.

Maybe I’m missing something or was choosing to read this as a leisure read rather than as an academic one. Maybe this book is better suited for the classroom, where discussion around the maybes and professor-provided context can shift the focus to pieces that I overlooked. Wide Sargasso Sea is, no doubt, a great opportunity for scholarly work. But ultimately, it’s not something to read for fun, even for fans of Jane Eyre.

I read this book as part of Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge, fulfilling challenge #11, “Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location,” and I happily leave it behind with two hearts.

❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤