WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: Part One

Hello, hello, is anyone out there? I’ve let this blog lie fallow for some time, and I miss it terribly. If you read this, let me know you’re out there.

What with Facebook and Goodreads, it feels as if some of the purpose of the blog has become obsolete or at least redundant, since I do brief, timely posts elsewhere. But some things cry out for a longer form, and right now that’s my reading of Jean Rhys’ postcolonial classic revisioning of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Wide Sargasso Sea.

I last read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time in 2008, and again in November 2013. The first time I read itin 2008, I was baffled. I didn’t understand the Jamaican dialect, such as the opening, or the many details, which Rhys drops like tantalizing breadcrumbs through the short novel, often explaining things later, like family relations.

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad, and that road repairing was now a thing of the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed–all belonged to the past.)

WSS has grown on me with each reading. I found the Norton edition with its footnotes and critical material helpful to understand the details so I could focus on the beauty of the prose and the power of the story, however short. I’m not sure I’d feel right about re-reading Jane without also re-reading Antoinette’s story.

Antoinette is one of the many authorial choices Rhys made as she crafted the book over a period of 20 years. In Bronte’s book, she is called Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys changes this to Antoinette (more properly French), after her mother Annette. Bertha, we learn, is what the Mr. Rochester character (though he is never named) calls her, after his own mother, who is not mentioned in WSS otherwise. Rhys also changed the time period of her novel, placing it just after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, which took place in 1834 so that slavery, race, and class more firmly underlie the story. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and the story was set earlier in the century.

Additionally, Rhys adds a layer of family beyond what Bronte invented. Antoinette is the daughter of Mr. Cosway. Mason is the man who marries Annette after Cosway has died. He is the father of Richard, the man who claims to be “Bertha’s” brother in Jane Eyre. I don’t know if their is significance in the names: a causeway is a raised road over low or wet ground where a mason is a worker. I wonder if this is mean to signify a fall in status.

In Part One, narrated by Antoinette, we see the unrest in the aftermath of emancipation, and the family’s precarious situation, tolerated only out of pity because they were poor. When Mason marries Annette and begins to repair Coulibri, there is a revolt, and a group sets fire to the house. The family is driven out, Antoinette’s younger brother dies, her mother goes mad and refuses to see Mr. Mason, and Antoinette languishes in a coma after being struck with a rock thrown by a former playmate. When she finally wakes, she finds her mother refuses to see her, and is sent to a convent by Mr. Mason, who visits periodically, and tells her about some English friends he wants her to meet. The section ends with a dream:

Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. “Here?” He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. “Not here, not yet,” he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, “It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.” I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. “Here, in here,” a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.

For Antoinette, fire is associated with rebellion, anger, and the loss of her mother. She, like Jane Eyre, is effectively orphaned at a young age, narrates her story from girlhood, is sent to a boarding school, put at the mercy of distant relatives, and has a a family servant who is kind to her. Like Jane, she is a poor outsider.

The next section jumps ahead in time and is narrated, but for one short part, by the man Antoinette marries.

What did you think of Part One?

7 Responses to “WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: Part One”

  1. Heideland Says:

    Part One is amazing for all the symbolism; every little thing has an echo in Jane Eyre. Right down to the parrot Coco, a tropical creature who startles and reacts to the sounds of approaching strangers, “Qui est la? Qui est la?” But when surrounded by flames cannot fly away to save itself, its wings having been clipped to keep it grounded/imprisoned. By far the richest section of the story, the part you keep turning back to to enrich your knowledge of what follows after.

  2. carolyn Says:

    I’m still here. OH HAI.

    ps. This book sounds horrifying but then I hate all the Brontes’ books so I don’t think I’d love a reimagining of them either. :)

  3. girldetective Says:

    Carolyn! Good to hear from you. If you hate Jane Eyre, this still might be a good book for you, as it gives voice and life to the maligned and marginalized woman in the attic. It is a very different book, short and timely.

  4. girldetective Says:

    There are many seeds in Part One that bloom later.

  5. Amy Says:

    I tagged several spots in this section that reminded me of Jane: Great mistake to go by looks, she said, one way or the other. There are more ways than one of being happy, better perhaps to be peaceful and contented and protected. Antoinette’s religious thoughts when she arrives at the convent.

    Interesting connection about the names. I never thought of that.

  6. Heideland Says:

    Also, pay close attention to the cultural and symbolic shift which “a dress dragging on the ground” undergoes in Part 2. Fascinating stuff.

  7. V Says:

    Blog away!