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Wide Sargasso Sea Paperback – January 25, 2016
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- New York Times Book Review
“The distillation of [Rhys's] life and craft… Nowhere is her prose more supple, more assured.”
- Sara Paretsky, “You Must Read This,” NPR
“Working a stylistic range from moody introspection to formal elegance, Miss Rhys has us traveling under Antoinette’s skin. It is an eerie and memorable trip.”
- The Nation
About the Author
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In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s plans to marry Jane are frustrated by the revelation that the long-suffering man is already married and in fact, his mad wife is locked in the attic. But what is her story? And if she is ‘mad’, how did she get that way?
The wife is Antoinette Bertha Mason Rochester, nee Cosway; she prefers Antoinette. Rhys is masterful showing the descent of Antionette’s life and mind as well as the gradual rise of Rochester’s contempt and control of her. The evolution of Antoinette’s voice from clarity to ‘madness’ is exquisite and sad.
Like Rhys herself, Antoinette is of Creole descent. We meet her growing up in Dominica with her widowed mother and disabled brother. From the beginning, Antoinette is unsure of who she is. As white Creoles, they are rejected by both the English and the Blacks, who call them “white cockroaches.” As women, they lack status or agency. After the Emancipation Act frees the slaves, Antoinette’s slaveholding family, once wealthy, becomes destitute.
Antoinette’s mother pursues the only option she believes is open to her, and marries a rich white carpetbagger, Mr. Mason. Mason decides to replace the family’s remaining servants with Eastern coolie workers. The staff overhears, however, and they set fire to the home, Coulibri, resulting in the death of Antoinette’s brother and leading to her mother’s emotional devastation.
Mr. Mason abandons his mad wife to abusive caretakers and sends Antoinette to convent school. It is his responsibility to identify a husband for her, howe
ver, and he does. It’s an unnamed English gentleman, though readers of Jane Eyre will recognize him as Mr. Rochester.
As a second son, Rochester needs the money bequeathed to Antoinette by her stepfather. They wed, and at first the match seems successful. Rochester breaks down Antoinette’s reserve through affection and physical passion. Antoinette responds, opening herself to experience a happiness her childhood had trained her to never expect.
Yet Rochester has a nagging distrust of his exotic Creole wife, and antipathy for Dominica.
Geography becomes a proxy for the perceptions and misperceptions of the spouses. Neither view the home of the other as “real.” Antoinette sees England as cold and dark; in her eyes Dominica is lush, beautiful and fragrant. Rochester views the technicolor Dominica as ominous and threatening, as if he were about to be devoured by a giant Venus flytrap.
And then there is the Sargasso Sea, a dead-calm oceanic mire that Dominica borders upon. For Antoinette, it’s a metaphor for her deepest fears. For Rochester, it is a physical barrier between himself and his beloved England.
Rochester receives a letter received from a man who may or may not be Antoinette’s brother by her father and one of his slaves. The letter warns Rochester he was tricked into marrying a degenerate girl with a family history of madness. These allegations prey on Rochester’s insecurities and cause him to abruptly reject Antoinette. Her fragile sense of identity shaken and desperate to win back her husband’s affection, Antoinette resorts to means which unintentionally goad Rochester into acting on his worst impulses. The rift between them devolves into a chasm leading to her own undoing.
Rochester drags his broken wife to cold and dark England, where he confines her to the attic, under the care of servants paid for their discretion.
The Wide Sargasso Sea is a stunning work of understanding and empathy for all characters in this book – and the next.
I've read Jane Eyre (not required reading for Wide Sargasso Sea) and liked it, so decided to try Rhys again and was bowled over by this book!
If you want to be haunted by what you read to the point where the characters, imagery and overall feeling of the work follow you around for days afterward, Wide Sargasso Sea is the book for you. This is the Jean Rhys I was looking for. Hats off to her. Short, but tremendous.
Unlike, Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is hardly a romance. In many ways, it is in fact, a chilling horror story that exposes the harsh realities of the world.
While Antoinette Cosway lacks Jane Eyre's strength and inner dialogue that has captivated readers for centuries, she manages to leave the reader haunted.
Ultimately, Jane succeeds where Anne fails because she makes the best of the unfair hand that she was dealt and overcomes adversity. Anne never seems to try very hard, leaving one to presume that she suffered from the same genetic defect that plagued her mother.
The strongest woman in Wide Sargasso Sea is Christophine, a former slave who completely understands human nature.
Top international reviews
He was tricked into marrying Antoinette (as is revealed in Jane Eyre, but there is more detail in Wide Sargasso Sea) and he didn't abandon her when her madness became apparent or have her committed to an asylum because he knew what those kind of institutions were like.
In wanting to marry Jane, he didn't feel as though he was already married and committing bigamy because Bertha was no kind of a wife.
I liked the way Wide Sargasso Sea gives the reader the social and historical context to the life of Rochester's first wife, how they met and how being mixed race means that she was never really accepted by black or white people in the West Indies where she was born and raised.
Wide Sargasso Sea is narrated in turn by Antoinette and Mr Rochester. I liked the vivid descriptions of the landscape and the way the heat of Jamaica contrasts with the cold in Jane Eyre.
I did feel it was a little disjointed in parts, but a good read for any Jane Eyre fan.
I had to read this for my book club and I was really reluctant to read a 'prequel' to my beloved "Jane Eyre", but this was beautifully written and so different in tone and setting, with a completely different energy that it was immensely enjoyable on its own merits. I did feel it added to my understanding of Mr Rochester and my enjoyment of the original book.
Also, it's super short, so great for these bookclub months when everyone is really busy. No harm in being pragmatic!
If you are particularly interested in the character of Bertha Mason/Antionette, Madwoman in the Attic is also a good non-fiction read.
The book has three parts and each part sees a different narrator. Part one takes place during Antoinette's childhood and it is she who narrates. Part two takes place just after Rochester and Antoinette marry and it is Rochester who narrates. Then finally part three, which takes place in England. Antoinette is now within the attic of Thornfield Hall. At the beginning of part three, we hear briefly from Grace Poole, Antoinette's guard, we then hear the remainder from Antoinette herself.
Personally, this short novel really came to life during parts two and three. I found it interesting that during part two - following the marriage of Antoinette and Rochester - we hear the story from his point of view. Rhys wrote this novel to give the mad woman in the attic a voice, yet here she takes it away again to a certain degree. Although this is not meant as a criticism on my part, it is interesting to ponder why.
However depsite all this, WIDE SARGASSO SEA is a beautiful, fraught novel of love, obsession, death, folklore and madness. There are many layers to this little book and many themes - for example, there is a recurrent theme of dreams and mirrors. Rhys is also an expert at not only creating very believeable characters but also at bringing the location to life. The way that she describes the forest, through the eyes of Rochester, really helps you to understand just how hostile he finds the foreign place he is living in with his new bride.
I loved this book. Regardless of whether you have read "Jane Eyre" or not, there is much to enjoy here. I'm really looking forward to discussing it with my bookclub.
Oh, and a final comment on this particular edition - I highly recommend it. I read this book in preparation for a bookclub; the introduction, explanatory notes etc, were very informative. And, as each page has small line numbers next to the text, the commentary does not have to get in the way of your reading experience - if you want the explanation, you just turn to the back of the novel and find the relevant note.
"Language notes and activities
Further Activities and Background Notes
Suggestions for further Reading
It is entirely up to readers as to which and when any of these aids should be explored but their presence can be an enormous benefit.
I would strongly recommend this edition.
I also liked the idea of finding a voice for the first Mrs Rochester and exploring the reasons why she was considered mad, and shut away in the attic (in Jane Eyre).
It's a fairly short book yet packs in a great story.
I have to say I felt sorry for Antoinette, she never seems to be helped and although you know Mr Rochester has been duped too, couldn't he have done more for her? You also see just how vunerable the position of a woman was at this time.