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5.0 out of 5 stars A powerful novella of female madness and male control and an impressive re-interpretation of Jane Eyre, July 6, 2011
This review is from: Penguin Student Edition Wide Sargasso Sea (Penguin Student Editions) (Paperback)
Sargasso is a counterpoint and alternative history to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics). Rhys reframes the story so that the character of Mrs Rochester, the 'mad woman in the attic', is centre-stage, unlike in the original story where she is without voice or an identity of her own.

Rhys does this by setting her story prior to the events in Jane Eyre. Effectively, then, this novella is a prequel to that classic novel. Most importantly, Rhys prioritises the white Creole, Antoinette, which is her original name. In Jane Eyre we know her only as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, she is explained as being Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester.

By placing her character in 'Sargasso' front and centre, Rhys creates an entirely different set of viewpoints, understanding and emphases, not least that Antoinette achieves her own identity and humanity here, rather than being relegated into a prison space of madness and silence, for which Mr Rochester himself was responsible.

This is a powerful, deeply haunting and hallucinatory, deeply poeticised story. The style is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's Beloved (Vintage Classics). It's an original and heartbreaking of love unrequited, leading to madness.

Split into three parts, the story is first set in Jamaica, told from Antoinette's viewpoint as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation.

The second section is in Dominica, focused on her marriage and written within Mr Rochester's domineering viewpoint. We know he has only married her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette's sizeable dowry and land. His version of events is contrasted dramatically by Antoinette's voice, of her increasingly troubled self. She also that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of the female servants, while being with her.

Throughout this impressive section, you experience Rochester's own confusion and disgust with the local people and the way of living, the heat and the tropical intensity of the place, so alien to him from his English, cold viewpoint.

In the third and most dramatic part, we return to Antoinette, now Bertha. She's not only abandoned, but worse, left imprisoned: the original "madwoman in the attic", in Rochester's house in England. She is in a world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor interest. Silenced, she is made persona non grata for all the years she is locked up there.

Throughout the story, you experience the intensity of all those involved, the stifling physical environment, the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles between Antoinette and Mr Rochester, the suspicions and fears of the locals and the servants.

There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; for the male, there is simply the repetition of the male-dominated power structure, such that it deprives the male of any real identity, beyond that of his family's expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority. 'Sargasso' is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.

It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre, and is highly recommended.

A note on this edition:

Hilary Jenkins, who has written the editorial material, has done a service for all those who wish formally to study this work as part of their literary education. She provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author's life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you'd expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story's geographical and cultural, historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading.
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