Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys. Reflections on Second Reading

This post is a slightly edited version of the post I did the first time I read Wide Sargasso Sea, January, 2010. The first time I read it I sucked it up as fast as I could.  This second read i took more time reading it over a month long period. In the hiatus between treads   I have focused a lot on post colonial literature and if I were to do another calmer post today I would talk more on that.  

Wide Sargasso Sea is a work of great depth, born of pain, loneliness and inhabited by old  magic.  In it you will find no answers, only see deeper darker mysteries, if you open yourself to it.   

Many who commented on my first post said Rhys got the character of Edward Rochester all wrong.  I am now very willing to say she got it totally right and in the doing of this we can find the unraveling of much of the evils of colonialism, of western forms, of the craving of women to be dominated.  

I also noticed in the speech patterns an underlying resemblance to older Anglo-Irish dialect.  

The beauty of the prose is overwhelming.  The closing sections where we see descent into madness is at least equal to The Bell Jar.  

Below is my slightly edited original posts with a few pictures and quotes added.

I invite all comments and welcome dissent.  I know the extreme importance of Jane Eyre.

Wide Sargasso Sea  by Jean Rhys (1966, 150 pages-Penguin books-with an introduction and notes by Angela Smith.)

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its . Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it".

Before I begin my post on Wide Sargasso Sea I must make a preliminary statement.


One book often leads us to another.   When I finished reading Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier  I read the article on him.   Jean Rhys is mentioned as one of the many women  he had affairs with, mostly women in the arts and writers.      Ford Madox Ford was her patron and her first stories were published in a literary magazine which Ford edited.   After the six month relationship ended, Rhys wrote a novel, Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, in which a thinly disguised Ford is portrayed in a very negative way.  

Normally I see the life of an author as sort of an interesting side note, not as a central part of our understanding of a book.   I still firmly believe this but I will talk a bit more on Jean Rhys as a person because I think there are important things to be learned from the fusing of her life and work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea  is set in the late 1830s to early 1840s.    The work is a kind of prequel  to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847).    The book is the story of the first Mrs Rochester, the one who winds up as a mad woman.   More than this it is a story of colonialism, relationships between blacks and whites on the island, of men to women, of Europe to its cast off children, of order to chaos.    It is a story of how growing up in a place of wild beauty shapes people.   It is about life on a small island and the sense of place that can produce.   It is about patterns of speech.   Never have I see the spoken words of slavery era people of African descent conveyed in a more beautiful fashion.  (I do not know if the speech patterns and dialect in  the book are accurate.)     It is about love, passion and beauty.

The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, "Because she pretty like pretty self".

Slaves have just been emancipated.   The creoles (as the white residents of the island were called at the time) were to be paid a fee by the British government for their slaves, about half the then market value.  

She was my father's second wife, far too young for him they thought...When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told us that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was bad and road repairing was now a thing of the past.

“Very soon she'll join all the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough. They can be recognized. White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter. The way they walk and talk and scream or try to kill (themselves or you) if you laugh back at them. Yes, they've got to be watched. For the time comes when they try to kill, then disappear. But others are waiting to take their places, it's a long, long line. She's one of them. I too can wait—for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie ...” 

The economy  was based on sugar plantations which were not at the time an economically viable enterprise without slave labor.    The former slaves had no way off the island and no where to go.   Many never in fact left the service of their former owners but we do see the changing dynamics  of power.    In the 1830s there were five classes of people.   The largest class were freed slaves.   The second class were people of mixed heritage.   The narrator Antoinette (of two of the three sections of the book) tells us of the many different terms by which people could be designated by the balance of their racial heritage.   The third group were people of English background whose ancestors arrived after the advent of slavery on the island.   Before there were slaves on the island  it was largely populated by transported convicts and indentured servants.   With the introduction of the sugar plantations, it was became viable as an economic enterprise to import slaves.   The descendants of the first white occupants of the island were commonly called "white cockroaches".   There were also still carib people on the island, though their cultural identity was lost.   Antoinette was a  descendant of pre-slavery days whites.

Above all else Wide Sargasso Sea is about beauty and our ability experience it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible--the tree of life grew there.   But it had gone wild.   The paths were over grown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell...Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched.   One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus flower--then not an inch of tentacle showed.   It was a bell shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see.   The scent was very sweet and strong.   I never went  near it.

Let us take a second and ponder over this incredible prose.   The island smells of new life and death in the same breath.   There is great beauty there but we cannot really touch it.    There is a pervasive evil in this garden. Is  the snake colonialism and slavery?    Maybe the snake has a name, Mr Rochester.   But this would be too easy.    Rhys is going very deep with this.   The snake is old and slavery is as old as man but the snake is also wise and slavery is not.   Imagine the heroine of an English novel of the 1840 comparing an orchid to an octopus.   When the flower blooms its tentacles do not show.   The tentacles are still there.   There is deep passion in Antoinette to be able to respond to a flower so deeply.   Imagine her misery in the moors.    Why does she never go near the flower when it blooms?    This book has more questions than answers (we can learn more from a good question than a good answer).    The prose in the book is as beautiful as the octopus orchid.    It has tentacles to take us in.    The book smells of beauty but it knows the price this island paid for its beauty.   Like the garden, you sense beauty and death as a pair.

"If I was bound for hell, let it be hell. No more false heavens. No more damned magic. You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing.” 
The novel is divided into three sections.   Part one is narrated by Antoinette, know as Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.   The reason for the name change is explained  as the narration proceeds.   My reaction to the names is to see Antoinette as a free spirit, perhaps not quite in tune with reality.   Bertha is a grinder of hoe cakes.   (This me only maybe).   Part two is told from the point of view of her husband,  Mr Rochester while they live together as man and wife on the island.

We hear her husband speak of her after a month of marriage.

She held up the skirt of her riding habit and ran across the street.   I watched her critically.   She wore a tricorne hat which became her.   At least it shadowed her eyes which are too large and can be disconcerting.   She never blinks at all it seems to me.   Long, sad, dark, alien eyes.  Creole of pure English descent she may be,  but they are not English or European either.   And when did I begin to notice all this about my wife Antoinette?   After we left Spanish Town I supposed.

Compare this for a second to the passage from the thoughts of the wife I quoted earlier.   Her description of the flowers is overwhelmingly sensual while recasting the experience in a way that sees quickly into the depths of her mythic consciousness.   In the prose of Rochester we see the Imperial style of the colonialist, school master approved prose.   There is talk of Zombies and Obeah all of which very much confuses Mr Rochester.    Here is a conversation he has with an elderly black man, and ex-slave now a servant:

"Is there a ghost, a zombi there, I persisted."
"Dont know nothing about such foolishness"
It was nearly dark when we were on back on the red clay path.   He walked more slowly, turned and smiled to me.   It was as if he's put his service mask on the savage reproachful face I had seen.
This is a very rich book.   The patterns of speech are so exquisite. Here is a passage in which Antoinette is seeking advice from  a former slave woman about her marriage.

All women, all colours, nothing but fools.   Three children I have.   One living in this world, each one a different father, but no husband, I thank my God.  I keep my money.  I don't give it to no worthless man...But look me trouble, a rich white girl like you and you more foolish than the rest.  A man don't treat you good, pick up  your skirt and walk out.   Do it and he come after you.

Stop for a second here.   "Three children I have" is real, speech from the depths.  "I have three children", the speech of the colonial master.    "But look me trouble" compacts several paragraphs worth of Victorian era prose into four words.   Mr Rochester and the other English born whites are annoyed by what they call the ignorant speech patterns of the former slaves and the deeply rooted creoles.   They lack the ability to see the speech patterns of the islanders have roots as least deep as theirs. 

Part three of the novel is narrated by Bertha while she is living in England in the mansion of Mr Rochester.    "Bertha" is the name given her by Mr. Rochester and the narration is through her stream of consciousness.   As the novel proceeds we see her descent into madness.

I must say again the prose is incredibly beautiful.   Wide Sargasso Sea seems like a wild garden gone back to riot but   it is as carefully wrought as The Good Soldier or A Sentimental Education.   There is a tie, in my mind, to the earliest works of Kenzaburo Oe to Wide Sargasso Sea.   Here is what I said in writing on Oe's The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears:

There is a long established literary tradition of using the insane to say what cannot be accepted by those in fully sunlit worlds.    The narrator of  The Day He Himself Shall Wipe Away My Tears has very deep roots in western culture.    His ancestors were in the plays of Euripides, his great grandfather was Dostoevsky's  underground man,   he speaks through Crazy Jane.   Oe has stated that he has come to understand the meaning of his own works through reading the poetry of William Butler Yeats. 

Now I will add Antoinette of Wide Sargasso Sea to this ancestry.   

In her quite brilliant introduction Angela Smith  by a marvelous coincidence (proverbs for paranoids-there are no coincidences) cites Edward Said in his book Culture and Imperialism as stating that classic realist fiction develops in Europe in the 19th century because the power to narrate or block other narratives from forming and emerging is a way of asserting cultural superiority.   Culture and Imperialism is often referenced by Oe as profound analysis of colonialism and the western world's creation of the other in Asian countries.    It is interesting to me to note that Oe's very first works are written in a style unlike Victorian narratives.   As he got older and more educated in a western fashion (he studied French Literature and wrote his dissertation on Sarte) his form became more like the Victorian novel.    We can see in the very different narrative presentation in the parts of the book told by Antoinette, Mr Rochester and lastly Bertha exactly how the notion of acceptable narrative style and speech controls.   Parts of the work do mirror the forms and diction of a Victorian novel, other parts are quite other from this.     

The relevancy of this work to the Woman Unbound Challenge really does not require a supplementary explanation.     Rhys'  life itself is a perfect story for the challenge.  She was born in Dominica in 1890-she moved to England at 16-she published four novels in her 30s.   Then she more or less disappeared for twenty years.    In her introduction Anne Smith says Rhys worked in a series of  "Demi-monde" jobs.  This means she was a nude chorus girl in Paris, an artist model, the companion of rich men (when she was lucky) and in sadness a prostitute.     She disappeared from the public eye around 1940 and her books (four of them) all went  out of print.   (She died in 1979)

Here is a description of the later years of Rhys from a good short biography of her I found online

From 1939 to 1957 Rhys dropped from public attention. Having divorced Lenglet in 1933, she married in 1934 Leslie Tilden-Smith, an editor; he died in 1945. Two years later she married his cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who had served a prison term and spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966. With her second husband Rhys retired to Devonshire in 1939. She lived for many years in the West Country, often in great poverty, avoiding literary circles. In 1949 Rhys was arrested for assaulting her neighbors and the police.
Rhys herself was thought to be dead, but after a radio company became interested in her work, she returned to publicity. Her novel Good Morning, Midnight was adapted by the actress Selma Vaz Dias for the BBC. Encouraged by Francis Wyndham, Rhys started to write again, and her short stories were published in the London Magazine and Art and Letters. Rhys continued to live alone in her primitive Devon cottage at Cheriton FitzPaine, drinking heavily but still writing.

There is a recent biography of Ms Rhys, The Blue Hour:A Life of Jean Rhys by Lillian Pizzichini that has gotten good reviews on and   I hope to read it once it is out in paperback.  (I have now read this, it is decent - added Npv. 1, 2014)

I somehow imagined Ms Rhys making her way to a seat in the literary Pantheon.   I imagine the Brontes inviting her for tea but wondering if Father would approve of  her.    I can see Junichiro Tanizaki knocking Ford Madox Ford over as he rushes over to greet her.    Henry James looks very puzzled.     Flaubert knows of the places  she worked at in  Paris (in her demi-monde period) and suggests she have dinner with Turgenev, who will, of course, pick up the costs.     Walt Whitman keeps wanting to call it "The Wild Sargosso Sea."     Tolstoy asks if it is near the Caspian Sea.     Hemingway asks her if she prefers Scotch or Gin?    Of course she wants a Rum and coke.    Proust offers her his chair and makes a mental note to ask Flaubert what a demi-monde does?    Chekhov says "you know I am a doctor so should you need a physical please call me".

I will reread this at least once in 2015.

Mel u

I might do a series of ten or twenty posts on Wide Sargossa Sea next year, trying to force myself into a closer read. 



Mark David said...

Starting your review with a big "WOW" is certainly enough to catch my attention :)

I know little about the 1800s and Jamaica, but I recently learned that Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American, and he also writes short stories that highlight his heritage.

I think cultural identity is always an issue with countries that have been colonized by nations whose identity differs greatly from their own. Filipinos, for instance, often pride ourselves in being nationalistic even though in truth it's really the Western ideals that are more ingrained in our character.

Excellent review Mel :)

Mark David said...

By the way, I love passages that carry a deeper meaning, like the ones you quoted.

Book Dilettante said...

Nice review of the book, which I have always wanted to read. I thought that the setting was the island of Jamaica as she talked about Jamaican ladies and Spanish Town, the old capital of the island. I'll have to look it up to be sure. Thanks for all the detail of the author's fascinating life.

JoAnn said...

Fascinating post! I've been wanting to read Wide Sargasso Sea for quite some time...

Suko said...

What do I think of your review?


Your words reflect a great understanding of the beauty and meaning of this book. I now know I must read Wide Sargasso Sea.

Unfocused Idiot said...

WOW! What a great review.

Anna said...

I've been wanting to read this book every since I read Jane Eyre in college. Thank you for the beautifully written, detailed review.

Diary of an Eccentric

Akilah said...

The other great thing about this book is that once you read it, you absolutely cannot read Jane Eyre in the same way. Great review.

Traxy said...

Great review! Very in-depth. :)

My initial reaction to reading the book was not one of "Wow!!!" but rather "Well, I disagree." I didn't like the book at all, at least not from the perspective of being a "Jane Eyre" spin-off/prequel. Although I think it's good, because we can't all agree on everything! I mainly had gripes with the things that weren't consistent what we learn through JE, and I didn't think she'd "got" the character of Rochester at all. I'll give it another go after having read your review, and maybe I'll change my mind. :)

Mel u said...

Mark David-I read Junot Diaz two books maybe two years ago and liked them both a lot

Book Dilettante-you are right

Joann-I hope you get to read it soon

Suko-thanks as always

Autodidact 101-thanks

Anna-thanks you very much

Akilah-I will be reading Jane Eyre for the second time (first time 40 + years ago) and will see it now with Rhys work in my mind

Traxy-in truth I read the book not as prequel to Jane Eyre but for a study in colonialism among other topics and to bask in the beauty of the book-I will read Jane Eyre again soon but in truth if I see Rhys got Mr Rochester wrong it wont change my opinion of Wide Sargasso Sea at all-thank you for visiting my blog and maybe I am wrong to not care if it matches up to JE and it has been a long time since I read JE-I will read it soon and will comment in my post on your remarks

Laura's Reviews said...

Great review! The passages you quoted are quite beautiful. I just picked up The Wide Sargasso Sea and stared at it yesterday. I plan on reading it for the first time for the All About the Brontes Challenge. I'm going to listen to Jane Eyre on audiobook beforehand and compare. I've read Jane Eyre several times, but it's been a couple of years since my last read!

Traxy said...

Mel: Yeah, that's probably a much better way of looking at it, or reading it from that perspective. I got hold of it because it said to have the middle section from Rochester's perspective, but when I then read it, it didn't match up with the idea of it I had in my head. So reading it more as a novel of its own rather than as anything to do specifically with Jane Eyre probably gives you a better reading experience! :)

rosie posie said...

Your review is brilliant! I see Wide Sargasso Sea as an exposé of the colonialism and oppression that is rife within Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys is an incredible writer. If you read Jane Eyre you must read Wide Sargasso Sea!

Erotic Horizon said...

This book is so good - Mel summed it up brilliantely....

For people who have issues reading Jane Eyre - this is a wonderful precursor to that book....

I agree mel.... WOW...

Descriptive, emotive, wonderful sensory usage and just the all round package...


The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

That was a fantastic review; I thought it captured Rochester well but I am not a big Bronte fan.

Mel u said...

Bookworm1858-thanks for your kind words-and for your visit to my blog-

Danielle Zappavigna said...

I've just finished reading Jane Eyre and so am really keen to read this, I'm just so curious about it. I was under the mistaken impression that it was recently written, I didn't realise it was from so long ago!

Nancy said...

I'm actually reading this right now. :)