Wide Sargasso Sea

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Wide Sargasso Sea is a spin-off. And we all know how I love spin-offs. That is to say, generally quite well. Better yet, this is a spin-off of Jane Eyre. Who didn't wonder about the mysterious woman in Mr. Rochester's attic and how she came to be there? Jean Rhys conveniently gives us a highly emotional answer.

Antoinette, the woman who becomes Bertha Mason (questions? Yeah, me too. I'll explain in a second) lives in Jamaica shortly after slavery has ended. Her parents were slaveholders, and also her father was perfidious and libidinous (and the father of many others, if you know what I mean), so Antoinette's now-widowed mother, herself, and her disabled brother are the objects of the former slaves' hatred. And because this is Jamaica, the hatred doesn't just results in gossip and dirty looks. It also includes black magic, poison, and violence. And it all occurs in a steaming, dark jungle.

So Antoinette is hated, but also very rich and very beautiful. And Mr. Rochester is in desperate need of money, and new to the area. So he doesn't know about Antoinette's dark past, of which slave-holding relatives are not the only secret. (I.e., hereditary insanity. Fast-forward to the attic).

When I describe this book, I find myself wanting to like it all over again. It has depth and complexity. It is original, and the world Rhys has created is very engrossing. The characters' motives are so convoluted, they themselves don't understand them. They do horrible things to each other without knowing why, and leave it up to us to analyze, How could you possibly do that? I think that is where the book lost its appeal for me. No matter how artistic or beautifully complex, I don't like to read about people destroying each others' lives, at least not without something to redeem our faith in human nature. Because as dark as real life can be, I think there is always something redeeming. But that is a rant for another time.

Anyway, to sum it all up, here are the things I liked:
* I was worried I would hate Mr. Rochester. I didn't. He definitely did terrible things in this story, but it is clear that he is not just a villain.
* I liked that Antoinette's madness was not simply explained by her parents' mental health history. There are many contributing factors, and Rhys leaves it to the reader to decide which factors truly caused Antoinette to leave reality.

Here's what I disliked:
* As aforementioned, the horribleness.
* The narrative was hard to follow, pretty much all the time. It was a little stream-of-conscious-y, and sometimes it was hard to pick up what the narrator left off. Sometimes the narrators randomly changed, without warning. Also, many points in the plot were only insinuated. While I understand that this was probably part of the complexity and darkness surrounding Antoinette's madness, I felt that some things would have been more clear if we had been permitted into the scene, instead of just trying to figure it out from the scattered thoughts of whomever was narrating.
* Mr. Rochester starts calling Antoinette Bertha. What? Ok, so names are a big theme in the novel, and calling Antoinette by Mr. Rochester's favorite lady name is a symbol of how he is trying to turn her into something he wants instead of accepting her for who she is. Still seemed too gimmicky and forced to me. Her name should have just been Bertha in the first place.*

I really wanted to love this book, but I did not. I am sure it is brilliant and everything, but it just didn't win my heart or my mind. Or my enjoyment. Or much else. Although it did win some of my money, because I keep forgetting to take it back to the library. 2.5/5.

*It has been a looong time since I read Jane Eyre, so if her name actually was Antoinette and Mr. Rochester actually did change it, please correct me!


  1. I had the same reaction as you: in theory, I should have loved this but I just didn't. :( So frustrating!

  2. Hmm. I loved this novel - thought it to be quite brilliant, really. But to each his/her own, I suppose.

  3. @Eva - Even now when I think about the premise, I think it is so interesting, and Rhys really did a great job, but the story just didn't do it for me for some reason. Good to know I'm not alone!

    @Roof Beam Reader - When I think about this novel more objectively, I think it is pretty brilliant. I think Rhys' prose connected with the atmosphere of the novel quite well - I just didn't "get along with it" I guess you could say. Your comment and some other thoughts I've been having have actually resulted in a reevaluation of my ratings system so my ratings can reflect both the literary merit of the book and my personal enjoyment.


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