Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

*This post may contain spoilers for those that have not read Wide Sargasso Sea, published in 1966. * 🙂

“Blot out the moon,

Pull down the stars.

Love in the dark, for we’re for the dark

So soon, so soon.”

“There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

How true this is for Mr. Rochester and Antoinette: the death of who they each could have been being so much more haunting than the ultimate end of life.

I had no idea this little gem existed prior to hearing about it on various blogs. I have
to wonder what Charlotte Bronte would have thought of this extension of Jane Eyre, but I was impressed. I was swept into another world, another time, another place … rich with culture, Obeah, secrets, and emotion. Jean Rhys laid down some exquisite prose: haunting and sweltering: her words seemed to capture the thick, heavy, sweltering atmosphere of the Jamaican setting. Oppression, a major theme of the novel, is brought to life for the reader in the metaphor of oppressive humidity in her words.

Racial tensions play an interesting role in the novel. The white folks are the minority here and this “reverse discrimination” is what ultimately drives Antoinette’s mother
mad. Tragedy, fueled by this racial strife and hatred, takes her home, her son,
and her mind leaving her daughter Antoinette vulnerable to a marriage with a
man who is little more than a stranger, rather than the “colored” boy she loves. But,
despite the fact that Rochester and Antoinette are married for reasons that
have nothing to do with love, they seem to fall for each other anyway and are
initially happy together. Ironically, they are drowning in their passion for one
another as Daniel Cosway enters the story: a man I despise.

Daniel, who claims to be Antoinette’s half brother, takes it upon himself to write a letter to Rochester claiming that he has been duped into marrying a woman who is
hiding many secrets including the history of mental illness in her family. It
appears that Rochester becomes convinced that Antoinette is destined to be just
as crazy and immediately begins to push her away. It is as if in an instant,
Rochester’s world becomes colored by a shadow of negativity and all that he experienced before was just a beautiful dream. This one petty, vindictive action by Daniel puts in motion a chain of events that leads to the heartbreaking death of who both Rochester and Antoinette could have been and she becomes the lunatic in the
attic of Thornfield … Bertha … a zombie .. “a living person who is dead.”

“Very soon she’ll join all the others who know the secret and
will not tell it. Or cannot … they can be recognized. White faces, dazed eyes,
aimless gestures, high pitched laughter … they’ve got to be watched. For the
time comes when they try to kill, then disappear. But others are waiting to
take their places, it’s a long, long line … I too can wait – for the day when
she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a
legend. Or a lie.”

The question is this: Was mental illness hereditary for Antoinette, an unavoidable destiny? Or was her fate caused by specific circumstance? If not for this letter and what followed could Antoinette have led a normal, healthy, happy life or would another event down the road have still triggered the same type of breakdown? Could Rochester have saved her if only he could have tried?

A young Jean...

Favorite Quote: “His name was Disastrous because his Godmother thought it such a pretty word.” – Antoinette Cosway

Jean Rhys 1890-1979