Sunday, September 10, 2006

29. Wide Sargasso Sea

by Jean Rhys

At #94 on the Modern Library 100 list, Wide Sargasso Sea is a book I’ve wanted to read for some time, although I’ve been a little hesitant. Jane Eyre is my second favorite book ever and I would hate to have a modern retelling spoil it for me in any way, but because Wide Sargasso Sea isn’t really a retelling of Jane Eyre but an explication of how Mr. Rochester’s first wife came to be the crazy woman in the attic, it seemed pretty safe. It was safe, but I also wished I could have liked it more.

The weird thing about WSS is that I wasn’t enjoying it at first, but the more I read it, the more I wanted to know how it turned out. I mean, I know how it turned out, but I wanted to know how it got there. In the beginning, Antoinette Cosway is our narrator and we see her life in Jamaica as a child. I think it’s Jamaica…Jean Rhys isn’t too keen on actually acknowledging the setting to her readers, so it’s difficult to tell exactly where everyone is. This is actually one of the bigger problems with the book, this confusion, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Being a poor white family places the Cosways on a social station lower than the blacks, so from childhood Antoinette is used to being derided and ostracized. Her younger brother, Pierre, is either mentally or physically handicapped – I don’t think we’re ever told exactly what’s wrong with him – and her mother is in a crumbling marriage with Mr. Mason, Antoinette’s English stepfather. After a fire claims the Cosways’ house and little Pierre in the process, Antoinette is sent to live with her aunt. The one time she visits her mother afterwards she’s witness to the madness that’s deteriorating her brain and psyche. Clearly, this is foreshadowing for Antoinette’s fate.

The second part of the book is narrated by Mr. Rochester after he comes to the unidentified island. Here is another problem that goes along with not knowing where everyone is: there is nothing that tells us we’re in Rochetser’s head. In fact, the name “Edward Rochester” is never mentioned and it’s only because I’ve read Jane Eyre so many times that I was able to figure out who the new narrator was. This means, of course, that Wide Sargasso Sea is not a book that can stand on its own. If you just saw the book at a store and though it sounded interesting but had never read Jane Eyre you would have know idea what was happening. You could argue that because the story is based on what happens in Jane Eyre, reading the original work is crucial to understanding the second, but shouldn’t any story, even if it’s based on a previous work (with the exception of a series) be able to stand on its own? Take Wicked, for example. I know you can understand Wicked without having read the original Oz books, because I’ve read Wicked, but not Oz, but I think you could also understand Wicked even if you’ve never seen the movie The Wizard of Oz. You might not like it as much, but the story doesn’t fall apart just because you haven’t experienced the original source. If you don’t possess an intimate knowledge of Jane Eyre, you can forget about understanding Wide Sargasso Sea.

So, at some point that’s skipped over in the story, Rochester and Antoinette get married, but even though they seem somewhat attracted to each other at first, it’s not a love marriage and it’s not long before their relationship dissolves into animosity. It seems as though Rochester were tricked into the marriage by Mr. Mason and Antoinette’s stepbrother and it’s a dark secret that her mother went crazy. The same, of course, is expected of his wife. Then Rochester starts calling her Bertha (the name she has in Jane Eyre) because…I don’t know…he likes the name? That is seriously the explanation we get and it was at this point that the story became interesting to me because I found that incredibly mean and I wanted to know in what other ways Rochester stripped his wife of her identity. They fight constantly and Antoinette turns to her housekeeper for voodoo assistance and then she goes completely insane, at least by Rochester’s standards, and Rochester drags her off to England. We know what happens after that, what with the attic and the fire, but it was interesting to see this from “Bertha’s” surprisingly lucid perspective.

Now, I don’t need an author to spell out everything for me – I’d like to think I’m a little bit smarter than that – but I can’t stand it when I’m completely lost in the middle of a book and I don’t know who’s talking or where we are or why the things that are happening are important. I think it’s the author’s job to provide some amount of guidance, otherwise why am I reading your book? So, I’m not sure why this ended up on the Modern Library 100, but having read Jane Eyre as many times as I have I can at least say it was an interesting imagining of how the woman in the attic came to be. I just wouldn’t recommend it on it’s own.


Blogger jenclair said...

I didn't really care for it. The possibilities were terrific, but I just don't think it worked. This is embarrassing because it is always listed way up there as a classic in it's own right. I mostly thought it bland, and Jane Eyre was never bland!

11:25 PM  
Blogger piksea said...

I read the Norton critical edition of WSS and it gave a lot of the background. More than telling Mrs. Rochester's tale, Rhys is really telling a story about the state of affairs in the islands in the time period. There was a lot of civil unrest and uprisings of the native peoples.

I would have liked it better if they hadn't made Rochester such a jerk. I really liked him in the original. At least Rhys never once mentions him by name.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Piksea - I can see how Rhys was trying to do that. But, the story itself is still confusing and I don't think people would have understood anything without some background knowledge. She just doesn't effectively get her points across, which is unfortunate. And I agree, it would have been nice if Rochester weren't portrayed so jerky. It was such a far cry from the Rochester we meet in Jane Eyre.

1:49 PM  

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