Orbis Terrarum & 1% Well-Read: Wide Sargasso Sea

WideSargassoSeaWe had a short trip to make this week, and Gone with the Wind was too cumbersome to carry on the plane. The pristine library copy of The Manual of Detection holds only one remaining unread chapter for me, not enough for four or so hours on a plane (not to mention any possible time waiting for late flights), so I decided to take the tiny paperback copy of Wide Sargasso Sea based on the fact that it would fit easily in my purse.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966, Jean Rhys offers readers the life story of Antoinette Bertha Cosway, better known to Jane Eyre lovers everywhere as “the first Mrs. Rochester.” No matter, though, if you have not read Jane Eyre (or have not read it in a long, long time), as that story has very little bearing on this one, the story of Antoinette’s life leading up to (and including a small portion of) her time in England. The events of Antoinette’s life are recounted in the first person by herself and her husband (who, as a point of interest, is not named in the book).

As the book opens, Antoinette watches her mother sink into a depression, a warning of future madness. Antoinette’s father, an English plantation owner in the West Indies, has died, leaving Antoinette, her mother, and little brother to fend for themselves. The emancipation of slavery on those isles has made life treacherous for the Cosway family: they are hated and taunted; her mother’s horse is poisoned; they are called “white cockroaches”; they tend not to leave their estate. Antoinette’s mother eventually marries another Englishman to save them from poverty, but their problems with the emancipated locals persist, and eventually they are driven from their estate. Antoinette’s mother descends into madness, and Antoinette is sent to a convent school from which she is released after her marriage to Rochester is arranged. They are married and travel to Granbois, a family estate, for an extended honeymoon, during which their tenuous relationship unravels.

My summary is paltry, but the book is complex. Almost every page seems to mark some social injustice, be it race or gender related: white against black; black against white; black against black; men against women. I found it interesting that this book, set in the 1830s in the West Indies, echoes some of the same issues in Gone with the Wind, primarily in the relationships between the domestic help (or slaves) and their employers (or owners). Christophine, the maid who essentially raises Antoinette, sings and talks to herself to communicate her feelings to the white people the same way Mammy talks to herself loud enough so that the whole house can hear. Christophine is technically “free,” but she still uses a sort of “sideways” communication with the whites, an indirectness based on mistrust and inequality. Antoinette and her Aunt Cora are wise enough not to mistake such techniques for wiliness or stupidity, as the husband does.

And although Antoinette and Scarlett seem different on the surface–Antoinette anxious and frightened, Scarlett proud and stubborn–one wonders if mere circumstance wouldn’t change the outcome for either of them. If Antoinette had a secure, protected and happy childhood, could she have grown to be as proud and determined as Scarlett? If Scarlett had been bullied and taunted, if she’d lived with such uncertainty of safety in her own home, would she too not have been a candidate for madness? The parallels are too many to discuss here, and I would not be surprised to find many dissertations and scholarly essays on the subject.

This novel, published in 1966, also seems to echo the contemporary struggle for racial and gender equality that was so pronounced at the time. Many feminist critics especially equated women’s struggle for equality with the civil rights movement in this country. Whether or not the contemporary angle was something Rhys consciously considered, I do not know, but many of the same themes–women as mad, spoiled children; blacks as untrustworthy criminals out to take what they do not deserve–are repeated continuously throughout the book. But because the narrator is never in third person and not omniscient, we get a very personal account of these struggles, both through Antoinette’s and the husband’s eyes. Antoinette does not empathize generally with the emancipated Dominicans–she fears them, and in some sense, she seems to think of herself very much as the outsider, the “white cockroach.” On a personal level, however, the person she trusts more than anyone is Christophine, who tells her to trust no man because they only want to take away rights and property.

Although the book was interesting to me in terms of themes and issues, on a personal level I was unable to connect with Antoinette or the husband. I admit this is partially due to the fact that I find mad, rambling narrators exasperating. Antoinette’s madness is very self-conscious; in fact, it almost seems self-fulfilling. Such knowing madness to me is the least interesting kind. If she believed herself to be perfectly sane, and we could see her madness only through his eyes, I believe it would have been more poignant. Of course, I suppose the point is that she partially succumbs to madness because she learns that her husband does not love her, and has as essentially bought the cow for her milk, as they say. She goes mad because, well, she has nowhere else to go. But Christophine (my favorite character in the book) does not believe this, and neither do I. Then again, the “madwoman in the attic” was a modern trope for many women writing in the early to mid-twentieth century, so in a sense it makes Antoinette a universal character, rather than a personal one.

I see why this book is a classic, and I’m happy that I read it. It’s almost impossible to cover every aspect of a book in these short posts. I don’t want to give the writing short shrift, either, because Rhys’s descriptions, the visual sense she offers, enrich the book–the tropical heat juxtaposed with the cool visions of England lend a depth to the story, help us to understand these struggles on a grand scale. There’s also the idea of religion: the convent, the obeah practiced by Christophine, the idea of Adam and Eve in the garden represented in Antoinette and the husband at Granbois. Great depths, this book has. I will not tell you that you will love it, because I didn’t, but I do think that if you read it, you’ll be amazed and pleased. I was.

Passages:

“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, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and strong. I never went near it.”

“Everything was brightness, or dark. The walls, the blazing colours of the flowers in the garden, the nuns’ habits were bright, but the veils, the Crucifix hanging from their waists, the shadow of the trees, were black. That was how it was, light and dark, sun and shadow, Heaven and Hell, for one of the nuns knew all about Hell and who does not? But another one knew about Heaven and the attributes of the blessed, of which the least is transcendent beauty.”

“One morning soon after we arrived, the row of tall trees outside my window were covered with small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind. They fell in a day, and looked like snow on the rough grass–snow with a faint sweet scent. Then they were blown away.”

“I began to walk very quickly, then stopped because the light was different. A green light. I had reached the forest and you cannot mistake the forest. It is hostile. The path was overgrown but it was possible to follow it. I went on without looking at the tall trees on either side. Once I stepped over a fallen log swarming with white ants. How can one discover the truth I thought and that thought led me nowhere. No one would tell me the truth.”

“There is no looking-glass here and I don’t know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us–hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?”

*book image from powells.com; not the same edition reviewed here

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9 comments

  1. I’ve never read this one, but I did read Jane Eyre way back when, and intend to re-read it someday soon. I’ve always heard that WSS is very complex and challenging, but it sounds as though it’s not without its own rewards. It sounds like it has a lot of meaty discussion points – probably great for a book club!

  2. I read this book years ago and, like you, I thought it was interesting but not really absorbing. There was plenty to make me think but nothing to make me *feel* and the best books do some of both.

  3. Steph, it is definitely a book with great depth. You are right–great for a book club.

    Teresa, I think you are exactly right. Even as I was thumbing through the pages for quotes as I wrote the post, I kept finding interesting parallels, catching things…but I didn’t feel a pull to read it again.

  4. I can certainly see your point on the self-knowing madness. It just isn’t as believable that way, nor as affecting. I’d attempted to pick this up a few times but didn’t. The Jane Eyre connection is the certainly what pulls me.

  5. So not just another Jane Eyre fan fiction. Sounds like a very interesting book. Thanks for the review. 🙂

  6. Claire, except for the very end, I would say there really is no Jane Eyre connection. It’s not like reading Coetzee’s Foe or Notes from Underground, where if you’re unfamiliar with the original text, you might not quite get it. You could read this as a “stand-alone.” Still, I’m interested in re-reading Jane Eyre now because I want to see Rochester in his own environment, so to speak, and see if there are any clues as to why Rhys portrays him as she does.

    Tuulenhaiven, welcome. It’s not Jane Eyre fan fiction by far…and it’s worth the read.

  7. I read this before I read Jane Eyre, which I think was actually an advantage. Because I had no attachment to Mr Rochester, I wasn’t put off by his portrayal in this book. Some fans of Jane Eyre told me they disliked the book for that reason.

    Personally I loved it, and the passages you shared are a good reminder of the beauty of the writing. I really should re-read this, as well as read more Jean Rhys.

  8. Nymeth, I wanted to love it, and you are right: the writing is beautiful. I was not put off by Rochester, either…it seemed to me they were both in an untenable situation given the times and expectations. Have you read anything else by Rhys? I’d love to read more of her. It sounds like her other work is much different than this one–and written so much earlier.

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