Reviewing “Wide Sargasso Sea”

I came to know about this book in less than ideal circumstances. A mentor of sorts used it to shame me. At that point, I knew nothing about the book or its author and it was implied that my lack of knowledge meant that I cared nothing for books. Needless to say, I was hurt and had subconsciously been avoiding reading it till I came across it in a book fair. I don’t know what changed but I decided that I must have it, so I did and after having read the book I can understand where he was coming from.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t agree with the method he used. I am adamantly against shaming people for not having read or watched or done something or the other, it implies that the way you have lived your life is somehow superior to others. That being said, “Wide Sargasso Sea” is without a doubt a must read.

Jean Rhys is one of those writers that was instrumental in the formation of literature as we know it through her modern and experimental writing style as well as her choice of subjects and yet somehow managed to remain obscure. Her life could and has been described as tragic because her genius was recognized so late in her life that there was little that she could gain from it. Though not commercially successful for most of her life, she none the less lived in a way we may expect of a brilliant writer. She was a drunk, passionate and at one point burned the only version of this book that she had at the time, over a fight with her husband. It really is quite fascinating and if you leave this review unconvinced about reading the book, at least give Rhyse a quick google search; it’ll be worth your while.

“Wide Sargasso Sea” is a response to one of the great English Classics “Jane Eyre”. After having read the novel, the writer was struck by the fact that so little is said about Rochester’s wife, even her name is not made available to the reader. All we know is what Rochester tells us and this struck Rhyse as unfair. At one point in the novel, the ironically unnamed Rochester asks Antoinette (Mrs. Rochester)  if there is another side to the stories he has been told about her to which she responds “there is always another side”.

This is the essence of the novel.

Rhyse wants to give a voice to those that have so neatly been suppressed in the canonical and romantic “Jane Eyre”. This in itself may not seem impressive and might even sound like fanfiction but it is the way in which Rhyse brings this story to life that makes it so significant.

For starters, the majority of the novel is set in Jamaica or at least a construction of it. This brings the post colonial context in which is a primary force throughout the novel. Antoinette’s family used to be slave owners but after the emancipation proclamation, they are left without servants or money. They’re as poor as the former slaves and reviled by them for their past. Antoinette in spite of being raised in the West Indes for most of her life is never accepted by them and remains in a sort of racial purgatory. This becomes evident in her obsession with race and the novel’s repeated focus on racial gradation.

On the one end there is the prosperous white male and on the other the black male. Both of them have a place (though one is distinctly more favorable) everything else in between is in purgatory.

The writing style reflects this as well, as every non-white character has a dialect and the narrative in itself is surreal. Both Antoinette and her husband have subjective and staccato impressions of the world and that is depicted through the varied descriptions of the same events. Everything seems to happen in a dream, something highlighted all the more by the unreliability of the narrative which is brought before the reader repeatedly.

A lot happens to set the scene for the core story. We get a picture of race relations at the time but it is the second part that the main plot starts. Antoinette gets married to Rochester who is presented as a well to do English gentleman but when she gets back to Jamaica for her honeymoon things begin to go awry.

Antoinette’s husband begins to hear stories about her and starts believing that he has been tricked into marrying an insane woman and the eagerness with which he believes it is palpable.

The conclusion is known to anyone who has read Jane Eyre. Eventually, Antoinette is branded as insane by a husband who cannot understand her and slowly made so as he keeps her trapped in the attic till she finally in an uncontrollable episode sets the mansion on fire.

I think what struck me the most about the novel was the readiness with which Antoinette is considered insane. As a creole, she has no real home and is not understood in Jamaica or in England so society does what it always does when faced with something it doesn’t understand, which is, lock it away.

You may have at some point heard about literary theories in relation to “The Madwoman in the Attic”. It is a book written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar which examines Victorian literature from a feminine perspective. Its core concept revolves around this very idea, the eagerness with which we dispose of everything that we can’t understand, particularly the feminine, because it threatens the ways in which we see the world.

By the end, the only story that remains is of the tragic Rochester who was duped by the insane woman who only wanted him because he was of a “better race”. Antoinette never has a chance to explain herself.

There is so much more in the novel to discuss but that would take too long and give away too much which I feel I may have already done. Do give this a read if you have the time, it feels almost like you are giving the character life by acknowledging the story. It really is worth it and serves as a good reminder to always question the story given to you.

Rating- 4 stars

 

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