Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Antoinette Cosway is a Creole, meaning a person of French descent, in the West Indies. She comes from a stock of slave-owning European settlers, who are left quite high and dry, when slavery is abolished. Her father dies, leaving her, a mentally incapacitated younger brother and her mother Annette, the Coulibri Estate, near Spanish Town in Jamaica. It is an impoverished existence they live; fearful of the resentful freed slaves, never completely belonging to the land that has become suddenly hostile, yet not knowing of any other place to go. But her mother is young and pretty and manages to marry a rich Englishman Mason, who is willing to lavish her and her children with his wealth and love. But when the Coulibri Estate is burned down by former slaves, and her brother dies, her mother goes insane. The effect of all this on Antoinette is quite devastating. The only thing constant for her is her sense of the place; it is a sense that even the hostility of the locals does not manage to displace. “I love it more than anywhere in the world. As if it were a person. More than a person.”, she says.

Mason manages to get Antoinette married off. To an Englishman in search of a fortune. And so begins the second part of the book, narrated from the point of view of the husband. He is out of place in the West Indies. He sees the beauty of it, yet knows that the place has secrets he will never guess at. It is in a sense a metaphor for his impression of his wife as well – he sees her beauty, but he is suspicious of her past, of the secrets she will never let him into. “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, “What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.”

Antoinette is never able to shake off her husband’s suspicions about her mental normalcy, once he discovers her mother’s insanity. He begins to distance himself from her and the effect of that begins affecting her mentally. In desperation, she tries ‘obeah’, the West Indian version of voodoo, but all that results in is a further alienation, when her husband guesses at the truth. As a reader, you root for Antoinette and want to tell her, like her beloved Christophene does, Christophene, her father’s black mistress, that she should go away from her husband, that he is not the man for her, that “ ..this is not a man who will help you when he sees you break up. Only the best can do that. The best – and sometimes the worst.”But Antoinette never does that. Instead she goes to England with him. A place that to her, a Creole girl who has the sun in her, seems like cardboard – “It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it.” And he locks her up, his Bertha, as he calls her, insane beyond redemption, secreted away from the world with Grace Poole for company. And Antoinette, longing for “the smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering – the smell of the sun and the smell of the rain” does what we know she will do – burn down the house and jump to her death.

We know she will do that, because somewhere in the book, the knowledge creeps up on us that we know Antoinette. We know her because we have seen her before as the mad Mrs. Rochester, the one who prevents Jane, lovely sweet Jane’s wedding to her beloved Mr. Rochester. So that is really what this story is about. A prequel to Jane Eyre, the story of the woman locked up in Thornfield Hall, the woman who causes Jane so much grief, the one who we always knew had a story to tell.

Jean Rhys tells that story and tells it so beautifully. She brings alive the vivid lushness and colour of the Caribbean as also its strangely gothic horror. She fleshes out the Bertha of Jane Eyre, creating a fragile beautiful woman who somehow ends up as the crazed wife of a man who never really knows how to love her. It is a haunting book; and if you have at some point read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea will resonate that much more. Jean Rhys is quite a story-teller.


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