(Review) Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Publication Date: 1998, copyright 1966
Publisher: W. W. Norton and Company
Genre: Fiction, West Indies, British
Edition: Paperback
Source: Self-purchase
Rating: Very Good


I was intrigued by this book before I ever began reading the first page. I am a Jane Eyre fan. I've read this book a few times. I've read a few other books by Charlotte Bronte and her sisters. Jean Rhys took the story of Jane Eyre, and shifted the focus to the first wife of Rochester who was considered the mad woman hidden away. He called her Bertha. Her name was Antoinette. In the story Jane Eyre, Jane is the protagonist. We feel empathy for Jane. We want the best outcome for Jane. However, Antoinette has a story too. And Rochester is not all he seems to Jane.
The story is in three parts. In the first part, Antoinette is the voice. In part two, Richard is the voice. In part three, Antoinette is the narrator again.
The second half of the book is filled with criticism of the story, letters written by Rhys, an excerpt from Jane Eyre, and a definition of the ecosystem of the Sargasso Sea.
What is the Wide Sargasso Sea about? The time period is 1840s. For most of the story it is in the West Indies. In brief, it is the sad tale of Antoinette. The dynamics of her family and the affects on the family after her father died. Her mother's sad life and illness. The culture of the West Indies and its affects on Antoinette as opposed to the British way of life. A marriage made under false pretenses that affected both people. Life's cruel blows tatter the life of Antoinette; and the reader is left wondering if she already had a propensity towards mental illness, or was it the people in her life that drove her to the tragic end?
The Wide Sargasso Sea is a story that the reader can pick apart until it becomes crumbs. It is a story used by literary majors to study and discuss. My copy is a Norton Critical Edition and it states it can be used by teaching instructors.
I am not a literary major. I am a reader and blogger.
The first point in my review is this is a story that made me think and analyze the characters, and it is a story that is thought provoking.
Antoinette was born and raised in another world. The West Indies was a society and culture in stark contrast to England. She was also living in the turmoil of people who were slaves and hold hatred toward any whites. Her family was once wealthy but now they live in poverty. In the story, it is remarked upon that she drank from the leaves of plants. She had few items of clothing. Antoinette did not have security in family nor where she lived. However, this place is all she has ever known. She spent time in a convent (another odd pseudo-sheltered life.) As a young beautiful girl she became an inheritor of wealth; and because she is a woman, she is thrust into a marriage not of her choice. She is a pawn, an object of desire and money.
My favorite quote in reference to the above:
She is representative of our constant, long struggle against suppression in a society that still persists in perceiving woman as object and not as subject and continues to tell its tale without her sound and fury, signifying nothing. Page 239.
I enjoyed reading the several criticism writings as much as the story itself.

Other notable points in the story:
  • Abuse towards whites. Abuse towards blacks. Both sets of people were fearful of one another and it is displayed in anger, hatred, and abuse. 
  • Mental illness and how this was dealt with in the mid 1800s.
  • A Catholic convent that did not teach the Bible or Christian teachings. I'm still scratching my head as to what exactly they did teach. 
  • Sexual abuse. The dynamics of sex in marriage. Relationships between men and women. 
I debated on whether to rank the book as good or very good. My defining points in awarding it very good is it is extremely thought provoking in regards to men and women, as well as the culture and society of Antoinette and Richard's homelands.