Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea is one of those novels: I know I ought to read them, because they're touchstones of entire genres of creative and critical writing, but I put them off for one reason or another. Well, let me be blunt: I put off reading anything else by Jean Rhys after slogging through her incredibly bleak 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight in a British Modernism class in college. Regular readers of this blog will know that I do not shy away from the dark or dismal. Most of my favorite authors are widely regarded as "depressing," and I'm sure for many people there wouldn't be much to choose between the comically cynical (Bukowski, Céline, Thompson, Beckett) and the fluidly psychological (Woolf, Welty, Rushdie, Joyce). I devour the works of all these writers with abandon, and find many of them laugh-out-loud funny. But Jean Rhys almost did me in. Good Morning, Midnight struck me as the actual experience of clinical depression, distilled into book form. There was absolutely no relief from drab, ugly surroundings and crushing loneliness, not even in the form of a few equally-depressed friends to share the protagonist Sasha Jensen's burden, or an occasional wry humorous touch. There seemed to be no passion, love, or even affection left in any part of Sasha's psyche. Dismal, unredeemed, solitary alcoholism reigned from the book's opening pages to its brutal close. When I put it down, I had had enough.
Luckily, Wide Sargasso Sea is a much different novel. This re-working of Jane Eyre's madwoman-in-the-attic, which Rhys set largely in her native West Indies, was published in 1966 - ten years after most people thought its author had perished in an alcoholic stupor. It was instrumental in kicking off the whole field of postcolonial studies, and remains a touchstone text. Although the story of Antoinette Bertha Mason's terrifying childhood, arranged marriage, and subsequent slide into insanity is certainly dark, a few factors save this late novel from the all-out brutality of Rhys's early work. For one thing, whereas Good Morning, Midnight is set on the cold, rain-drenched streets of Paris and London, which Rhys and her characters plainly detest, Wide Sargasso Sea unfolds in the sometimes-sinister but always vibrantly beautiful West Indies, a place Antoinette loves passionately. (This alone separates her from Sasha, who I remember as loving nothing, even tepidly.) Rhys's feelings about her Dominican roots are not unmixed, but she and Antoinette share an ability to relate deeply to the West Indian landscape in a way she certainly doesn't do with Europe.
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 overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered - then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, and deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.
Encapsulated here is the tension of Antoinette's early life: a neglected existence in a beautiful place she loves, which is nonetheless full of darkness and forbidden objects and ideas. It is also host to an explosive racial politics that means she is never fully "at home," even in the house where she grows up. As the young daughter of a former slave owner just after emancipation, she is caught in a position impossible for a child to understand: her parents and the other white colonizers represent a shameful legacy that has recently been rejected, but she in turn is rejected by the black community for her white skin (and privileged attitude). Rhys conjures the oppressive atmosphere of secrets and fear with a sure and vivid hand; I love her style, particularly in the sections narrated by Antoinette.
Not only that, but I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity Rhys brings to both Antoinette and her husband (who is not explicitly named, but is patterned on Brontë's Rochester). Rochester is not cast as an unmitigated villain, nor Antoinette as a blameless victim. Their relationship from the first has the doomed cast of a Greek tragedy, but not because one or the other begins the story as a tyrant. I admired Rhys's subtlety and compassion in this regard: she obviously feels strongly for the oppressed West Indians both black and white, but she does not pretend that any particular member of the oppressing class is a heartless monster. At the same time, being a sympathetic person doesn't stop Rochester (or Antoinette, for that matter) from perpetuating the prejudices and cruelties begun by their compatriots.
Rhys does make a number of decisions that puzzle me - chief among them, the structure of the novel. One of her stated aims in Wide Sargasso Sea is to give a voice and a personal story to the "poor ghost" Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's novel. This is what she starts out doing, letting Antoinette Bertha Cosway/Mason narrate the events of her childhood and early adulthood. But then, just as we reach the eve of Antoinette's meeting with Rochester, the narration switches to his internal monologue. With one brief exception, we don't regain Antoinette's narrative voice until she has succumbed to madness and been locked up in Thornfield Hall. This was obviously a conscious choice on Rhys's part, but it strikes me as such a strange one: just at the point when the reader would benefit most from Antoinette's point of view, she is silenced. I can think of a number of rationales for structuring the book this way; if it was important to Rhys to make Rochester a sympathetic character, for example, the easiest way is to get inside his head. In one of the essays appended to my edition (the Norton Critical), Lee Erwin argues that the structure of Wide Sargasso Sea is meant as a reaction against the traditional Regency/Victorian novel that ends (we assume happily) with the heroine's marriage. Antoinette's story seems to "end" with her wedding, but since her marriage rather spectacularly doesn't work out, she must return to enact the only other traditional feminine ending: madness and death. Erwin also points out that Rochester's narration, in which he is disgusted because his white wife reminds him of a black woman, lets us see how closely allied are the white Creoles and the black ex-slaves in the eyes of the colonizer, even if they are forever sundered in their own eyes. All of these ideas are interesting, but I was still left unsatisfied with Rhys's decision to let Rochester tell such a large portion of Antoinette's story. In a novel this short, it seemed tantamount to denying Bertha Mason a voice all over again.
And speaking of the appended essays to the Norton Critical Edition: I got a lot out of them. I collect Nortons but don't always read the additional materials; sometimes I finish the actual novel and feel "done." This time, though, maybe because the novel itself is so concise, I felt primed for some high-quality critical responses, and the Norton editors did not disappoint. I especially appreciated Sandra Drake's discussion of how Rhys incorporates West Indian obeah/voodoo beliefs, specifically imagery around zombi-ism, into Antoinette's story. She points out that:
Like many Caribbean beliefs, the zombi is of African origin. A number of African societies thought that bokors - "sorcerers" who turned great powers to evil ends - could reduce persons to automatons and force them to do the bokor's will, including work for him. A number of Caribbean scholars have been intrigued with the question of why this belief should have attained much greater importance in the Caribbean than in Africa, coming to its fullest development in Sant Domingue, later Haiti. Laroche and Depestre suggest that it was because it was so well suited to represent the condition of plantation slavery in the Americas.
So interesting! I will quite possibly never think of zombie movies in the same way again. Drake goes on to explain that Caribbean believers in obeah/voodoo feared zombi-ism much more than they feared death, since they believed that upon death their spirits would be transported back to Africa, whereas zombi-ism trapped the spirit indefinitely in a helpless slave state. Therefore, she argues, Antoinette's "awakening" from her zombi trance and plunge off the roof of Thornfield is actually a triumph, rather than a tragedy. I started out quite skeptical about this claim, but I have to say that Drake summons such strong textual evidence that I ended up more or less convinced.
As a postcolonial re-telling of Jane Eyre, Rhys's novel was hardly a revelation to me. When I studied Brontë's novel in college, there wasn't a student in the class that didn't gag, groan, or otherwise react negatively to the passage where Rochester equates the West Indies to a sinfully contaminated Hell, and is about to commit suicide until a "wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement...and the air grew pure." To a modern reader, the cultural chauvinism and xenophobia in this scene fairly leaps off the page; I hardly need an entire response novel to convince me of it. That wasn't the case, though, in 1966, and the fact that some of Rhys's points now seem obvious is a testament to how influential Wide Sargasso Sea and similar studies have been over the past forty years. Not only that, but its stylistic and character-driven merits make it a compelling read even without its political agenda.
(Wide Sargasso Sea was my third book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1960s.)