The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Ah, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Cited in Aja Romano’s glorious “I’m done explaining why fanfic is okay.”, The Wide Sargasso Sea is sort of the lynchpin for my senior thesis on derivative and transformative works; Pride and Prejudice, my second choice, doesn’t have such a high profile published transformative work that haunts its footsteps and aims to correct an injustice. (And also I think you get cursed for eternity when you cite Lost in Austen in MLA format. I’m just saying.) After finishing off Jane Eyre, I picked up The Wide Sargasso Sea eager to dive in… only to discover that the pool was a bit shallower than I expected.
The Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette Cosway, who is later known as Bertha Mason. Just a child during the 1833 emancipation of the slaves in Jamaica, Antoinette carefully watches her mother and brother as the family’s fortunes fall. But when everything is at its bleakest, her mother saves them with a strategic marriage—after which she descends into madness. Later, as a young woman, she marries an Englishman, but the efforts of a relative drive them apart and Antoinette finds herself falling into the madness that plagued her mother.
Friends, I’d like to make a word happen: the word is ur-texting. I’ve been experiencing this as I forge ahead this summer with my efforts to educate myself cinematically (last viewing: Black Swan, last notes: where did you take my brain) and see films that are the original of things I’ve seen over and over again. On the one hand, it’s like pop cultural deja vu and quite educational; on the other, the novelty is really removed. Imagine trying to read The Tale of Genji while maintaining the novelty of it being a novel in a world where they haven’t existed. As a woman from fandom, this concept—the concept of rescuing a character and giving them depth that the text they come from denies them—is in the very air I breathe. And I’ve seen it done better.
I think part of my disappointment stems from my expectations. The Wide Sargasso Sea is a text I’ve been hearing about since high school, cited in the kind of discussions that I love to have with great praise. With my kind of background, I was… well, I was expecting Wicked: The Life and Times of Bertha Mason, essentially. Wicked gives the Wicked Witch of the West a sympathetic backstory, an explanatory personality, and a living, breathing woman; The Wide Sargasso Sea gives me sadness instead of a real woman. Jean Rhys takes a very postcolonial approach to Jane Eyre, riffing on Bertha’s mother’s description as a “mad Creole”. The racial focus is a bit ambiguous here, but Rhys appears to be aiming for ambiguous. The point is that Antoinette and her mother occupy a space between black and European that cannot be resolved in her society, not that she’s actually one or the other. It’s lightly but firmly put, and definitely rich, especially when Antoinette’s relationship with the never named Rochester deteriorates due to, in part, some implications that Antoinette isn’t completely white. (The other part being equal parts madness and sexual infidelity, the latter of which Rochester himself commits.)
No, where it falls apart to me is the treatment of Antoinette’s madness. Again, I think I was expecting that The Wide Sargasso Sea gave a different reason for her madness rather than simply falling prey to it, as Jane Eyre itself proposes. To be fair, there’s hints of ambiguity here and there in both Antoinette’s madness and the madness of her mother, which I enjoyed—if you are accused of being mad, as Rochester accuses Antoinette, can you ever prove your sanity? But it’s undeniably into madness she falls. It’s hard to get a handle on wan Antoinette, who seems to be a receptacle for great sadness, teetering on the edge of sanity, and not much else. Yes, Rhys succeeds in making Antoinette sympathetic—the accusations Daniel, her supposed relative, hurl at her appear to be unfounded, and there’s something engaging about her sad-eyed childhood. But it feels less like an attempt to make Antoinette a real person and more like an attempt to make us feel sorry for what an awful life Antoinette has had. And, personally, I wanted an Antoinette that fought, laughed, and cried like a real woman instead of a sad-eyed cypher.
…and now to actually procure the rest of the novels on my reading list for my thesis!
Bottom line: Perhaps it’s an age gap, perhaps it’s because I’m from fandom and this sort of stuff is old hat to me, but The Wide Sargasso Sea, when it’s not lightly exploring racial issues, seems more focused on making us feel sorry for what an awful life Antoinette has had rather than giving us a living, breathing woman. Eh.
I borrowed this book from a professor.