Book review: ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys

“Justice. I’ve heard that word. I tried it out. I wrote it down. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me. There is no justice.”

― Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys, a Dominican-born British author, wrote this story as a response to Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. In Jane Eyre, her love interest Mr Rochester had a dark past. He was married once when he was young and he kept his deranged wife Bertha locked in the attic and kept her as a secret from his society. There was not much said about the character Bertha in ‘Jane Eyre’ except that she was deranged and her family had a history of mental illness, and that Mr Rochester was tricked into marrying her for her money.

Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ gives Bertha, whose real name is Antoinette Cosway, a voice. And her story represents racism, colonialism, and the power of the relationship between men and women.

The story sets in Jamaica, just after the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Antoinette was a little Creole girl who lived with her mother, brother and their servants in a sugar plantation in Coulibri. Since the abolition of slavery, the family lost their fortune and it forces Antoinette mother to remarry. When the local people see that the family they loath comes back into prosperity, they become angry and set the house on fire, killing Antoinette’s brother.

After the incident, Antoinette’s’ mother suffered from a mental break down and never recovered. Little Antoinette was sent to live in a monastery and she never sees her mother again. Her stepfather came and picks her up when she is seventeen and she is to be married to an Englishman from a family he knows.

From this point in the story, we will have two narrators: Antoinette and the Englishman (who is Mr Rochester but his name is never mentioned here). Through his eyes, we will see the lushness of the island, the intoxicating magic in the tropical air, and the beauty of Antoinette. However, their marriage cracked when suspicions came between them. Antoinette’s half-brother secretly meets up with her husband and tells him things about Antoinette’s past, her mother and her mental illness. From then on, the marriage came crashing down. Her husband becomes emotionally abusive and distant. He started calling her Bertha and displayed his infidelity without shame in her house.

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

― Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Antoinette’s mental state becomes more and more unstable as she grows with paranoia and bitterness. And I guess we know what happens to her as told in Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Her husband takes her to England and locks her in the attic.

This book, although short, is a very powerful one. Jean Rhys addresses what the Victorian novelists dismissed: slavery by the British. She reminds us that it’s not always rolling hills, dreamy manors, afternoon teas and dinners and dances – some suffered, enslaved, died, disgraced for the prosperity of the British empire.

“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”

― Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Furthermore, we see how complicated Antoinette’s life is. Her family was slave owners and she was called ‘white nigger’ by the local people because of their wealth. Her friend Tia threw a stone at her and she found out that after all this time, Tia befriends her because she was told to. On the other hand, her husband Mr Rochester looks down on him because she is a Creole and not English. After a menacing letter from Daniel, her husband started to realise that in this island, a white man can sleep with any black women and as a result, children with light colour, yellow like Daniel, brown like Amelie the servant, or “pretty colour” like Antoinette are everywhere in this island.

“Long, sad, dark alien eyes. Creole of pure English descent she may be, but they are not English or European either.” 

The book is also about unequal power between men and women. In a place like Coulibri (and many other places similar where there were slaveries), white men have the sexual license to be with any women. The offspring with light colours seen in this island were proof of white men domination. But a white woman with a black man? It is seen as a disgrace. There was a scene related to interracial sex, of Antoinette’s mother with a black man that she accidentally witnessed when she was a child. Her mother was mentally ill and her husband sent her to be looked after by a black couple, and she saw how her mother surrendered in the black man’s kiss and into his arms. On the other hand, what is seen as a disgrace when done by women is another matter when it’s done by men. And Rochester, just like the white men before him, fell into the temptation of the forbidden fruit of West Indies paradise, the interracial sex.

A white man does not really degrade himself with a black woman, because the male is assumed to dominate the female as white dominates black. But a white woman who submits willingly to sex with a black man is seen as degrading her race as well as herself. And the possible result—pregnancy and a child of mixed race—is harder to hide and presents a greater threat to the “purity” of the white racial line than does the by-blow of a man. Had the kind of scene depicted here occurred more often in real life, white separateness and supremacy would soon have disappeared, along with white pretensions to moral superiority.

Elizabeth Dalton, “Sex and Race in Wide Sargasso Sea,” in Partisan Review, Vol. 67, No. 3, Summer 2000, pp. 431–443.

It is not hard for me to say that this book should be compulsory reading. After ‘Jane Eyre’, reading this book gave me a new perspective that I was too ignorant to see. There are so many things we can pick up from ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ which are still relevant today more than ever.

This edition of Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin, 1986. I bought it second hand but it’s listed on eBay.

2 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys

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  1. I didn’t know the history of the origin of this book. Thank you for sharing! ( Though, I’ve never read Jane Eyre… I do know enough of the premise to follow)

    I’ve never stopped to think about the historical double standard of interracial children. Lighter skinned children were held higher than their peers due to their skin color. And a white man could be with a black woman, though it was never an equal relationship. But the idea of lighter-skinned children from a white woman and a black man must have been scandalous! Ugh. History makes me so mad sometimes.


    1. There’s almost no reference to Jane and events in the book so yeah as long as you know the premise of JE, it’s fine. 🙂

      Yes, I guess little Antoinette did not consider himself as ‘black’ (and neither her peers) but as she grew older and received rejections from both sides, I think she realised her privilege and disadvantage. In JE, Antoinette is described as ‘dark hair’, ‘discoloured’ and ‘black’, and that she married Rochester because he was ‘of a good race’. So, even though she’s ‘higher’ in her native island, in England her race wasn’t considered good enough.

      It is sad that this kind of thinking still exist these days. And like you said, sometimes it’s not just between races, but also within it because of different shades of skin colours.

      Liked by 1 person

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