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on February 2, 2003
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Highly recommended.

Jean Rhys, troubled by the one-dimensional Bertha Mason in Brontë's classic Jane Eyre, or perhaps seeing an opportunity to take the depiction of Creoles out of the hands of English writers, decided to "write her a life." The result is Wide Sargasso Sea, in which the Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre (Antoinette Cosway in Wide Sargasso Sea) finally steps out of the realm of caricature and becomes both human being and symbol. In the Norton Critical Edition edited by Judith L. Raiskin, several commentators expound on their views of what that symbolism means from a Caribbean, British, and feminist perspective.

First, I have noticed that several reviewers mistakenly assume Antoinette is of mixed race (the modern assumption about what Creole means). In the context of the time, however, Creole meant a person of English or European descent living in the Caribbean. Rhys makes this even clearer with terms such as "white Creole" and "white cockroach." This is an important distinction because it, combined with her French ancestry and poverty, sets Antoinette apart from the wealthy English and from the former slaves on the islands who are of African descent. That theme of having no home, no society, nowhere to go, and, essentially, being nonexistent, is integral to the storyline-and fits in perfectly with Bertha's role in Jane Eyre.

Another important point is that Antoinette's mother (as well as her nurse) is from Martinique, a French island at a time when the French and the British were in bitter conflict. This makes Antoinette even more alienated from the societies in which she dwells but of which she is not a part. It's interesting to note that some of the academic commentators mistakenly attribute her mother's birthplace and the origins of the nurse Christophine (one calls her a Haitian, no doubt because of that island's strong associations with obeah) and even get Christophine's name wrong.

Although there are parallels between Antoinette and Jane, between Antoinette and the Black child Tia, and even between Antoinette and her carefully unnamed husband (Rochester), this is a brilliant novel that does not depend on the reader's knowledge of Jane Eyre; like Antoinette herself, it stands alone. There are also many cycles throughout the book, including Antoinette's repeated dream. Antoinette's lack of identity is reinforced by Rochester's invocation of a principle of obeah; he calls her Bertha, a name that is not hers (this also emphasizes the predominance of an English identity over that evoked by the French name Antoinette). There are the clear dichotomies between Rochester and his England, where he is a disenfranchised second son, and Antoinette and her Caribbean, where she belongs neither to the wealthy whites or the freed slaves.

Wide Sargasso Sea invokes the Bible several times. Rochester's father and older brother betray him to Antoinette's stepfather Mason for 30,000 pounds, alluding to the 30 pieces of silver that Judas Iscariot takes from the Romans for betraying Christ. There are numerous references to a rooster or cock crowing at key moments, as the cock did after Peter had denied Christ three times. The Christian allusions are intermixed with the presence of obeah throughout-just as the Christian faith and obeah beliefs from Africa became intermingled in the Caribbean.

Reality and dream are equally inseparable. "Is England like a dream? . . . She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up." The unnamed husband (Rochester) retorts, "Well, that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream." Their erotic life is no less a dream. "I watched her die many times . . . Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. . . . It was at night that I felt danger and would try to forget it and push it away."

Rhys, saddled with the pre-determined ending of Jane Eyre, manipulates its foreshadowing and symbolism brilliantly. Rochester says, "I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place." Obeah woman Christophine responds, "You choose what you give, eh?" In a return to the beginning, Antoinette, determined mad by an equally mad Rochester, burns down Thornfield Hall, just as her own childhood home was burnt by the freed slaves who held her and her mother in such contempt ("white cockroach").

There are seemingly endless layers of meaning within the slight 112 pages of Wide Sargasso Sea, about ethnic and national identities, about imperialistic and patriarchical repression, about madness, and about the relative relationship between reality and dream. Ultimately, Antoinette reclaims her identity and reality through a dream-and with her death. The more times you read this rich novel about a poor woman, the more you will discover.

Diane L. Schirf, 8 December 2002.
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on July 16, 2002
I have read several books over the past year that were inspired by or offered different viewpoints on other books and stories. These included "The Red Tent", "Wicked", "The Hours", and most recently "Wide Sargasso Sea." I have enjoyed reading all of them and love seeing new perspectives on classic tales. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is Jean Rhys' take on Bronte's "Jane Eyre". However, instead of focusing on Jane Eyre, Ryhs instead turns the lens onto the life of Bertha, the mad woman who is locked in the attic of Mr. Rochester's house. The story takes place in Jamaica and Dominica in the mid-1800's. It is a time of unrest between the English colonizers, the recently freed slaves, and the Creoles. Antoinette Cosway (Bertha) is the Creole daughter of former slave owners and an heiress. Rhys relays Antoinette's lonely childhood and her misfortunes with friendship and love. Antoinette's family arranges a marriage for her with a young English gentleman, Mr. Rochester. The book sheds a new, completely different light on the character of Mr. Rochester than what we saw in "Jane Eyre".
"Wide Sargasso Sea" is narrated in several different voices including Antoinette and Mr. Rochester. These voices switch throughout the novel with little warning. Some may find this hard to follow. The novel also creates a great sense of place. Rhys does an excellent job of evoking the hot, humid atmosphere of the Caribbean.
"Wide Sargasso Sea" was a recent selection in my book group. We enjoyed discussing it while dining on Caribbean fare. The discussion focused on topics such as colonialism, rich vs. poor, slavery, love, and of course madness. This was a good book for a discussion group since there were many themes to cover and also since it was inspired by "Jane Eyre", the group could also compare both books. I read the Norton Critical Edition of "Wide Sargasso Sea" which contained footnotes and an Appendix of essays and articles written about the book. The footnotes helped to deepen my understanding of the book since there were many references (literary and otherwise) that I may've missed.
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on July 8, 2006
What I found most memorable in this book are the connections it makes between the personal and public, the objective and subjective, and the natural and supernatural realms. It can be read as an extremely important analysis of racial politics, and the politics of disenfranchisement. I read it as an ingenious account of how a person becomes a ghost, impressive because the story presents a profound and serious examination of the process of how this happens.

My grandmother used to say that, "There is no black magic. There is jealosy." Wide Sargasso Sea reminded me of my grandmother's saying because it also exposes the "witchcraft", the black magic people practice every day without knowing it, through petty emotions that give rise to bad intentions and manifest in evil acts. Wide Sargasso Sea is a story of how jealosy, hate, and pride can kill people, and still do. It is also the story of the spiritual effects of such "witchery."

Wide Sargasso Sea is also a story of love, rather than a "love story." In our society, we like to think it's love when an affair works out and ends up in marriage and children. When it doesn't work out, we like to say that it is not love, and we call it co-dependency, obsession, and a host of other terms from psychology. I believe that Wide Sargasso Sea poses the controversial argument that when love goes bad, it's still love--that love can be a hideously negative thing. Poor Antoinette, the heroine, binds herself to a man whom she knows hates her--categorically--because she is a creole--and being unable to break off from him she damns herself and ends up becoming a ghost in her husband's cold English house. At least, that is my reading of the finale.

I was also impressed by the face-off between two of the central characters--Christophine, an Obeahwoman (witch) and the Rochester character who is not so named in the book. When they face each other about Antoinette and Christophine tries to get him to leave her and part of the fortune--in his mind he comes up with hateful and racist arguments and perspectives on Christophine. In the end, Christophine, for all her Obeah powers, cannot defeat the racist hatred of Rochester. And his intention all along was to take Antoinette to England and lock her up in his attic--a prisoner and a dirty secret he would never show to anyone. Yet another instance in the story showcasing the witchery, the black magic, of our petty human emotions.
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on October 3, 2013
"Wide Sargasso Sea" was a disappointment to me. I had heard of it for many years, and finally decided to read it after first reading another, earlier Jean Rhys novel. There is much to be admired in the skillful presentation of a tropical setting that evokes both beauty, and menace. And there is much to be learned regarding the historical setting of the novel as Rhys imagines what it must have been like to live during the time of the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies in the early 19th century. However, the story was presented in a confusing manner, with alternating first person narration that forced the reader to determine who the speaker was when a change was made. And Antoinette suddenly, halfway through the novel, had a previously unmentioned "brother" whom I finally determined was her step-brother. I had to force myself to finish the novel, because I wanted to understand how Rhys was going to connect her story to "Jane Eyre." It was an interesting device, to try to flesh out the character and past history of Rochester's "mad" wife, but I found the book to be tedious and depressing. On the other hand, perhaps that tone is exactly the one intended by the writer as a commentary on the lives of women during a time in which women were entirely dependent on men for their financial well-being. Hmmmm---now I remember that Rhys herself was a victim of similar conditions as a young woman in England, and this theme was also apparent in the Rhys novel that I read previously ("After Leaving Mr. McKenzie"). At any rate, if you are at all inclined to read this novel, do so, and come to your own conclusion about its merit.
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on May 15, 2014
One of the best works of colonial and feminist lit. I've read in a long time. I've never been a huge fan of Jane Eyre and this book beautifully emphasizes some of the horrid flaws apparent in Bronte's work. I do think you need to have a basic understanding of Jane Eyre in order to fully appreciate this novel. I found Rhys's writing to be tragic, yet liberating, and the ending, veering into Jane Eyre's plot, suggests the inevitability go the whole thing: Rhys isn't arguing for a re-writing of the novel, because it cannot be re-written. She is simply giving a voice to one of the most ignored character tropes in Western/Victorian literature, the mad woman in the attic, and thus, liberating her from the confines of the page. Through this, she also toppled the conventional notion of the Bildungsroman right on its head, a beautiful inversion that is also heartbreakingly tragic.
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on February 17, 2015
Sadly, "Wide Sargasso Sea" wasn't what I was hoping it would be. Although the Norton edition is very comprehensive, the novella itself was disappointing to me. It feels like a slightly forced attempt to present Bertha as an innocent, naive victim of her creeping madness, which ends up rendering her as a pretty one-dimensional being. As I'm sure the author intended, it's far more of a response (a disagreeing one at that) than a supplement to "Jane Eyre," offering an alternative view of the events described by Rochester, rather than a more literature-based exploration of couple's courtship and marriage. I'd have much rather read something that showed Bertha as a fully dimensional character capable of committing conscious sins (such as willfully cheating on her husband) while suffering the effects of her hereditary mental illness, than this view of her as an addled young woman helplessly destroyed by madness.
I appreciate it as an attempt to re-write this part of the Jane Eyre story, but I don't think it really hits the mark. In my reading, it merely moves Bertha from one side of the stock character spectrum to the other.
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on November 14, 1999
I take a college english course, and this book was one of the requirements for the course. At first i wasn't sure whether I was going to get into it, but after reading into the first few pages, and seeing the movie, I thought that Wide Sargasso Sea was one of the best books I have read in a while. I have not read Jane Eyre yet, but I intend to because I felt I was kept hanging by not knowing what happens to Antionette in the end. It's definetly a sensual book, and the way Rhys describes the setting was wonderful.
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on November 29, 2011
I really liked this novel because it gives Antoinette or most well known as Bertha a story of her own. If you have not read the novel Jane Eyre, this novel might be a little confusing. It allows the audience to not look at her as the crazy woman or the monster in Jane Eyre. It allows the audience to see her as a human being and find out who she really is. Although it allows you to feel as soft spot for her, it also makes the audience dislike Rochester. Even though in this novel he has no name, we all know it is the infamous Rochester and it depicts him as a bit of an jerk. He hates everything, including his wife and he marries her just for the money. He has an affair and pushes her away when he finds out the truth about his new wife's famiy. It can be said that Bertha's demise was his fault. However, all in all this novel is a very good read.
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on May 15, 2006
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys creates a lush picture of the West Indies as she knew them and a vibrant background for the enigmatic figure in Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester's mad wife. However, while her development of Mr. Rochester's character in Part II of the novel is admirable and a worthwhile exploration of Charlotte Bronte's initial imaginings, her development of Bertha Antoinette Rochester nee Mason, is not what one might hope for. Rather than personal connection, we are given a setting for Antoinette's development. And as vividly as that setting is depicted, it is not enough to give the reader insight into Antoinette's experience. At the end, I was left feeling that Rhys had given us the cop-out explanation that Mr. Rochester offered Jane: that Bertha's madness was hereditary.

While the book overall is worth reading, if just for the lovely writing, the Norton Critical Edition is not. The numerous footnotes are unnecessary and repetitive and distract from the work. The selections from Jane Eyre at the back are unnecessary as well; those reading this book as a companion to Bronte's work most likely own or have access to a copy already. The critical essays, as a whole, were uninspired. Unless this edition is required for a class, I recommend the lighter, unannotated version.
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on January 1, 2000
I recently read this wonderful book for a course on Narrative Theory. I have not read _Jane Eyre_, though my wife reminds me I have seen at least parts of two versions of that book on film. As a consequence, I read this (despite the knowledge gained reading the forward) without the "benefit" of viewing it as a prequel to Ms. Bronte's work.
Standing alone, on its own, the book is a challenging story of interpersonal clashes, misunderstandings, fear, and loathing all rolled into a sort of gothic romance. Ms. Rhys has done a wonderful job of character development, of manipulating narrative devices, to develop her personal insight to private desires, fears, and madness.
For those who have read or are going to read it, I have two questions: first, given Antoinette is the narrator of the story, at what time in her life is the story being told? Second, what makes so many readers name Antoinette's husband "Mr. Rochester"?
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