Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
There are two major themes that surface repeatedly. The first is how the bondage of dependency becomes like slavery.
This is illustrated in race relations and even more so in gender relations. The second shows the conflict of values between the colonials and the West Indians that stems from the meeting of European and African-Caribbean culture - and how these values can be corrupted by money.
A minor theme is the social stratification resulting from racial identity. This goes beyond black and white, into parentage and geography.
There is a physical as well as a psychological mood in Wide Sargasso Sea. The physical mood is sensual and exotic with sweet and intense descriptions of tropical beauty. Nature overgrows all that is untended. The psychological mood is nightmarish. There is a feeling of foreboding until the very end along with moments of emotional anguish and madness. This combination of moods creates an unusual, scary kind of beauty in this simultaneous romance and tragedy.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Jean Rhys was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890 on the island of Dominica. Her father was a doctor from Wales, her mother a white Creole of Scottish descent whose family had lived in Dominica for generations and had owned slaves.
When she was sixteen Rhys moved to England to study at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Wanting a stage career, she traveled as a chorus member with “Our Miss Gibbs” for three seasons. During this time she changed her name repeatedly. After World War I she went to Paris and was married in 1919. When her husband was jailed Rhys had an affair that ended the marriage. During these difficult times, Rhys was most productive with her writing. She remarried and continued to write. Her husband died in 1945. She married a third time in 1947.
Rhys’ feelings of bitterness, insecurity and revenge, and her life outside of the conventional society of the time were reflected in her short stories, The Left Bank (1927) and novels. Postures (1928 - later retitled Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) have female main characters who are passionate, despairing, and lead drifting lives much like Rhys herself.
Rhys disappeared from the public eye for twenty-seven years, reemerging with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). As is typical of Rhys’ heroines, Antoinette, the main character of this novel, shares certain autobiographical details with the author. Wide Sargasso Sea largely follows Rhys’ childhood in Dominica and the characters are described much like Rhys’ own family. This last novel received critical acclaim. Rhys won the Royal Society of Literature Award and the W. H. Smith Award.
She says of herself in her autobiography Smile Please, which was unfinished and published posthumously, “Writing took me over. It was all I thought of.” Jean Rhys died in 1979, at the age of 87, in England.
Wide Sargasso Sea takes us into the past of one of fiction’s famous characters: the mad wife in the attic of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Rhys turns this classic novel inside out and explains the story of the character that had no real voice in Bronte’s book. As she deconstructs Jane Eyre, Rhys also gives us a condemning history of colonialism in the Caribbean.
Antoinette Mason is the prequel character to Bertha of Jane Eyre. Rhys has created a history for Rochester’s infamous Creole wife that attempts to civilize the disparaging characterization of the madwoman. Through Rhys’ words we understand what may have brought Bertha to her plight. In Jane Eyre we are sympathetic to Bertha’s husband Rochester who was wronged by his father and brother.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s unnamed husband, who later becomes the character from Jane Eyre, is a betrayer whose willingness to believe the worst about his wife is part cause for her insanity. Antoinette’s (Bertha’s) confusion and inability to convince him otherwise, and Rochester’s self pity foster a cold hatred between them. The thin, beautiful Antoinette then evolves into the demonic, corpulent Bertha.
This unusual genre of literary re-creation, where most readers know what happens in the novel before they read it, can however stand on its own. It is the story of a culturally mixed woman struggling to create a coherent life in a society that rejects her from both sides. It is a critique of colonialism and capitalism during the waning of the exploitative white Creole culture. The ending is left open so that the reader may interpret the fate of Antoinette as something different than Bertha’s.