Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys – Book Review

Antoinette Cosway has taken some hard knocks in life.  Her father is dead and she lives on a deteriorating plantation with a mother who is most likely suffering from severe depression and just a few remaining servants, one of whom may be be a voodoo priestess.  Mother and child are despised on the island, and it is hoped that they will soon die in poverty.  Antoinette’s mother is revitalized when she remarries, and Antoinette Cosway, taking her stepfather’s name becomes Antoinette Mason.  Her mother’s marriage has mixed results in what it accomplishes for Antoinette, but it significant in that it  has major future ramifications  for her future.

The narrative in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea can successfully be read in two ways; most famously it is known as the novel which explores the life of Bertha Mason before she meets Edward Rochester, the brief life they had together, and then her tenure as crazy woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It is also an insightful work of Caribbean literature addressing the attitudes that former slaves had toward their masters, and the way those from the continent looked down upon the creole inhabitants and colonizers of the islands – especially the women.  Wide Sargasso Sea works well as a stand alone novel, and can be understood whether you factor in Jane Eyre or not.

I enjoyed Rhys’ novel, but believe me, it did nothing to help my opinion of Rochester – even though a substantial part of it is written from his point of view.  Rhys explores some of the stereotypes that were associated with creole women, those same inexplicable stereotypes that are always trotted out when stigmatizing groups of people as “other” and inferior- they were lazy, sexually wanton, and of course,not that bright.  There is also that hysterical fear and question of whether the races have remained “pure”, and in this specific instance if Antoinette is of pure white ancestry, and if she is, whether she has had sexual relations with a black man.

Rhys also explores the bondage that women suffered in having no choice in marriage and the detrimental effects of being married for their money, their sometimes very literal loss of identity (like when Rochester randomly decides to call Antoinette by another name, Bertha), and the vulnerabilities they suffered without male protection.  Sadly that last one is a theme that also came up strongly in my reading of the very contemporary Disgrace.

Rhys is a thought provoking and insightful writer.  She puts the truth of people and their situations into her colorful characters and their dialogue, and lets her readers draw their own conclusions.  It’s not a happy book, and if you’ve read Jane Eyre you don’t go into it with much hope for Antoinette because you already now the ending, but I enjoyed reading it and the perspective that it provided.  It’s also one of those books that will yield more with each reading.  Jane Eyre fans and those looking to read plantation era Caribbean fiction should definitely check this one out.

Read More Reviews At: Literary InvestigatorMuch Madness Is Divinest Sense100 BooksSoy Chai Bookshelf

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 January 2011 Reading List [TSS]

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19 Responses to “Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys – Book Review”

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  1. Stephanie says:

    I definitely was not a fan of this one. As a stand alone book, maybe I would have had a different reaction, but I did not buy this story as being that of Bertha, and that disconnect was way too much for me to overcome.

    • Nicole says:

      I wasn’t that crazy about Rochester in JE, so I could see that I wouldn’t have cared for a younger version of him either. This was interesting book because I was able to read it as both a prequel and see it for its own thing at the same time.

  2. I don’t think I’ve read Jane Eyre – she it be read first?

    • Nicole says:

      Ahh. Tricky question. Some people really love Jane Eyre and Rochester. If you really love Jane Eyre, then you might not necessarily like Wide Sargasso Sea. If you read WSS first, you can possibly see it as a stand alone, and will maybe appreciate it for itself. It’s a little spoilery for JE, but it won’t affect it much. WSS will probably be a little richer if you read Jane Eyre first. I guess it depends on how much you are likely to like Jane Eyre, and how much of a purist you are about the book.

  3. Martha says:

    This is one of the books that has been on my I Should Read It lists for a while but I just keep skipping it. I did like Jane Eyre so I’ll have to get this one someday.

  4. You are very right that it stands alone. In fact, if you didn’t know that Rochester’s wife’s name was Bertha Mason, there would be no clues that this book was related at all until the last few pages.

    • Nicole says:

      I think the last few pages are even read that way because you have Jane Eyre in your head. They aren’t explicit if you don’t know the story. Is Jane even mentioned by name. I think you would just think they were all random crazy people.

      • Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily scream Jane Eyre unless you know that story, but if you didn’t know the story and that it was supposed to be an alternative to Jane Eyre, that last chapter would make basically no sense at all.

  5. A very thoughtful review, you’ve definitely put this book on my radar.

  6. Cass says:

    I’ve been wanting to read Wide Sargasso Sea for the longest time, but I promised myself I wouldn’t read it until I read Jane Eyre. The problem is that every time I TRY to read Jane Eyre, I get stuck and can’t finish it. Yikes. Hearing more about how good Wide Sargasso Sea makes me want to try Jane Eyre yet again, so thanks for the encouragement!

    • Nicole says:

      I think WSSis a litmus tes for how much you like Jane Eyre and her relationship with Rochester. I thought it was pretty skeevy so I was more open to an interpretation of how that came to be. I don’t think fans of the relationship will care. If you can’t even read Jane Eyre…not sure. What part do you get stuck at? I really think the last section of the book is pretty much filler and barely interesting.

  7. Trisha says:

    What a fascinating topic! I love the premise. Time to add another book to the wish list…

  8. iliana says:

    One day I’ll have to get to this one. It’s been on my shelf for ages! I wonder though if I should give Jane Eyre another re-read though. Oh and I missed your review of Disgrace, off to check that out!

  9. Kathleen says:

    You have made me realize that I didn’t read this one at the right time because I didn’t like it and I so obviously missed something. I’m putting it on my list to reread.

  10. Jenny says:

    I have heard such amazing things about Wide Sargasso Sea, but I love Mr. Rochester too much to read it. Jane Eyre is one of my world’s favorite ever books, and I reread it every year, and I am too afraid that Wide Sargasso Sea would make me hate Mr. Rochester. Not worth it.

    • Nicole says:

      Yes. Stay far far away. But seriously…if you love Jane and Rochester I doubt that this will change your mind. But don’t risk it!

  11. Sherry says:

    I read this one a few years ago and wrote about it here: http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=1232

    I didn’t care for it all that much, but I did find it thought-provoking.

  12. stacybuckeye says:

    I love Jane Eyre so I really need to get to this one!