Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

wide-sargasso-seaIt’s hard for me to figure out where to start with this one. I’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks, because I really disliked this novel. I was expecting to love it. I finally read Jane Eyre last winter, and it completely blew me away. I was hoping Wide Sargasso Sea would enter into a conversation with Jane Eyre. It’s such a good hook for a novel: to give voice to the voiceless woman in the attic. But Wide Sargasso Sea was disappointing.

For weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why I disliked this book so much. In many ways, I think it has to do as much with the conversation surrounding the novel as the book itself: it’s lauded as a feminist book, and yet, to me, it felt decidedly un-feminist. It felt, to me, like a meditation on exploitation–of women, of poor people, of indigenous people, of black people. In Wide Sargasso Sea, just about everyone–except for Mr. Rochester–is exploited. This might be a truthful depiction of the world at a certain time and place–the postcolonial Caribbean–but it’s unclear to me why simply reflecting this fact in a novel is especially feminist. Important and/or worthwhile, yes, but, given the way the book is structured, and who actually tells most of the story–not radical.

Before I get into what I found problematic about Wide Sargasso Sea, let me take a moment to discuss Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea does not make sense without it. Jane Eyre is a remarkable feminist achievement. It falls short in some regards, the most glaring one being the woman in the attic. Rochester is deeply flawed. What irks me, though, is how much of this discussion revolves around Rochester.

Was he good, we want to know, or was he bad? Was he a decent man who made a mistake or a misogynist monster? Yes, these questions are worth discussing, but I am much more interested in Jane than I am in Rochester. Was Rochester bad? Yes, I think he was. He locked a woman in an attic. It’s right there in the text. Maybe she’s crazy and dangerous, or maybe she’s smart and angry and homesick and heartbroken. Either way, Rochester keeps her locked in an attic. It’s bad.

But it’s not my opinion of Rochester that matters; it’s Jane’s. She decides she loves him anyway. She refuses to be anything less than his wife and his intellectual equal and she does not compromise on what she wants. She decides what she thinks about Rochester, and what she will and will not put up with. She loves him, woman in the attic or not. Perhaps Jane sees what she wants to see because she loves him, but that is her decision to make. He treats her with the utmost respect; whether or not he treats others that way is up for debate. Can we critize her for loving someone who kept his wife trapped in an attic? Of course we can. But Jane makes that choice for herself. Painting Rochester as purely good or evil is too simple. He did bad things. He should be held accountable, and he isn’t, technically, in the book. But this is often how the world works: we love imperfect people.

In Jane Eyre, a woman decides for herself want she wants, and the terms by which she wants it. She wants to be with Rochester, whole and complete, not as his mistress or his secret, but as his wife, powerful and seen. She’s the engine behind the story, and this, in my opinion, is what makes the book so feminist and so remarkable.

By contrast, in Wide Sargasso Sea, a woman is a destroyed by a man.

Writing a book in which a man drives a woman to madness is not necessarily un-feminist; sometimes revealing the ugliest truths about the world leads to productive and useful conversations about those truths. But Rhys portrays women as captives in their environments and powerless in the face of men. I’d argue that this is a distinctly non-feminist outlook–not because it’s a book about how sexism and misogyny cause trauma, but because the woman–Antoinette–is given so little agency.

Wide Sargasso Sea is widely lauded for giving the woman an attic a voice. But, as far as I could tell, Antoinette, the woman in the attic, is not given a voice. The bulk of the book is told from Rochester’s perceptive. Rochester! How can a book give voice to a voiceless woman when 2/3 of the novel is told from the POV of the man who kept her captive?

Antoinette’s story becomes Rochester’s story. It’s about what he does to her, how he drives her mad, how he ensnares her, disrespects her, forces her to leave her home, doesn’t listen to her, doesn’t bother trying to understand her. It’s Rochester, Rochester, Rochester all the time. There is so little of Antoinette–her own thoughts, desires, fears. When it’s not Rochester, it’s how others see her–her mother, her stepfather, the people who used to be slaves on her family’s plantation. Antoinette herself remains a mystery.

Perhaps this was Rhys’ intention, to illustrate how a man can use his power to destroy a woman. Antoinette is taken from her home and forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. She looses her family and her sense of self. Her husband begins calling her by a name that is not hers. It is easy to see why she breaks. But there’s nothing original or illuminating or feminist about that. In order for that story to be illuminating or moving or new, it has center Antoinette, as Jane Eyre centers Jane. I was ready and willing to read a tragedy, but I was expecting a tragedy told from the point of view of the woman who did the suffering, not the man who made her suffer.

I have to admit that I was so fed up that by the time I got to the very last section (the shortest section in the whole book), which takes place in the attic and is narrated by Antoinette, I was so desperate to be done with the book that I did not give it a close reading. The whole book felt dreamlike and confusing, disjointed, poorly structured, passages slipping from my mind as soon as I’d read them. Perhaps I was not patient enough. Perhaps there was something I missed in that final section, where we finally get a glimpse into Antoinette’s mind. I’ve been putting off writing this review for so long that now I can hardly remember anything that happened in the book. I only have my notes on how deeply frustrated it made me.

I haven’t even gone into the whole post-colonial nature of the novel. The intense background racism made it difficult to read, although it made sense, as the novel takes place post-slavery in a colonized Caribbean country. Many of the supporting characters are black people who had worked for Antoinette’s family. Race plays a major role and is certainly a part of Antoinette’s identity–she’s not white like Rochester, i.e. English, but she is white. I recognize the importance of placing books in their historical context, and Rhys certainly does that here, putting the role of the slave trade in British history front and center. But I was so distracted by the bizarre structure of the book and my anger at Antoinette’s voicelessness that I can’t now articulately address this aspect of the novel.

Perhaps I’ll read it again. I was so appalled by it, upon finishing, that I did a lot of reading about it, and some of what I read made me want to give it a second chance. For now, I stand by my original reading of the book, which was, unlike Jane Eyre, a troubling, confusing and decidedly unfeminist experience.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Add yours

  1. Perhaps… and this is just me playing the devil’s advocate… this isn’t really a feminist book at all, but only purported to be. Perhaps you are more on the mark than those who led you there. Just a thought.

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