Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys tells the story of the first Mrs. Rochester, from Jane Eyre. As I recall, Charlotte Brontë, gives few details about the "mad" wife of Rochester, implying that he's doing her some favor by keeping her locked in the attic for who knows how long.

Rhys's novel seeks to fill in the large gap of Antoinette's life story. She writes from various perspectives, beginning with her childhood in Jamaica to her ill-fated marriage and journey to England with Rochester. Far from "mad" she's, much like Jane, a victim of 17th century gendered politics - trapped in a marriage, without access to her own inheritance, she's stuck with an angry dude who won't even call her by her real name. Rhys makes it quite clear that rather than going "mad", women in such circumstances have zero recourses. Says a Jamaican housekeeper of Antoinette's mother:
They tell her she is mad, they act like she is mad. Question, question. But no kind word, no friends, and her husban', he go off, he leave her. And they won't let me see her. I try, but no. They won't let Antoinette see her. In the end - mad I don't know - she give up, she care for nothing. That man who is charge of her he take her wherever he want and his woman talk. That man, and others. Then they have her. Ah, there is no God.

Aside from offering a feminist view of Antoinette's situation, she also examines the racial tensions of post-slavery Jamaica and the entitled, colonial attitude of Rochester toward everyone that lives on the island. Antoinette, as a Creole of European decent, is a figure despised by African descendants living in the Carribean and thought simple-minded and unsophisticated by Europeans like Rochester. She explains to him:
It was a song about a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.

I found Rhys's writing style to be very contemporary and was impressed by how she pulled off the neat feat of "borrowing" a character from someone else's novel (and such a famous novel!) while still creating a book that can exist and stand apart and alone from the point of inspiration. Few others have pulled it off successfully (there's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and by Tom Stoppard, The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, which I haven't read but is supposed to be quite good; and March by Geraldine Brooks, which won the Pulitzer) and there are also some real stinkers (Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund, Scarlet... let me know if you think of others!)

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