Books Read in 2015 – 4. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

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Genre: Post-Colonial, Feminist, Classics

Narrative Structure: Various first person accounts

Rating: 3/5481558

Published: 1966

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: This tells the back story of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. It starts with her childhood and her mother’s story and then moves to tell the story from Rochester’s point of view when he meets her and then she resumes the story when they are in England. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: This is one of those books that has been on my metaphorical shelf for a long time. Although I only bought this copy about three years ago, I first heard of Rhys’ novel about twenty years ago when I was doing my first degree. 

I enjoyed this less than I expected to. It wasn’t a bad story but I expected to love it and I just didn’t. Maybe that was the problem.

I didn’t really take to Antoinette as a narrator although she did not narrate the entire novel. The first part is from her point of view and again, certain parts are narrated  by her later in the novel. As a child, she watches her mother’s life ruined by her marriage and the hatred of fellow islanders. The family fall prey to violent attacks, one of which results in a fire that kills Antoinette’s brother and sends her mother into madness. Her husband is unable to understand and instead hides his wife away. This foreshadows Antoinette’s experience with Rochester (although he is never actually named).

Rochester narrates the next part and it is quickly clear that while he is sexually attracted to Antoinette, he does not love her and the marriage has been for money. He does not understand or even try to understand his new wife and she resorts to Obeah ( a sort of voodoo) to try and control him. He falls prey to the gossip of Daniel who claims to be Antoinette’s illegitimate brother who impugns Antoinette’s reputation and demands money to be kept quiet. There is a clear gulf between the two, caused mostly by the patriarchal society in which they live and the fact that Antoinette with her Creole heritage fits in with neither the black Jamaican nor the White Europeans.

At first, I felt a bit sorry for Rochester. He seemed as much a victim of the time as Antoinette but then he began to act more cruelly towards her – openly committing adultery, for example – I realised that while he had been used, he was still the one who was ultimately in control of the situation. He had all the power, Antoinette had to resort to black magic to try and gain some control.

Finally, they arrive in England and Antoinette has control of the narrative again. Now she is clearly unbalanced and her husband adds to this by keeping her locked in the attic. However, she manages to roam around the house at night like a dream reminder of Rochester’s casual cruelty. She dreams of setting fire to the house and the novel ends as she seems about to bring this dream into reality.

The final part was probably the most successful. I’m not sure that Rhys really captured Rochester’s voice or convinced me of his motivations. Antoinette’s narration was most successful when she was maddest and about to exact her revenge. Ultimately I didn’t feel much about the ending or all the way through really. There is no doubt that this is a clever novel but it left me feeling a little cold.

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