So, Wide Sargasso Sea is an unofficial prequel to Jane Eyre. In this novel, Rhys considers an unanswered question in Jane Eyre – who is that mad woman in the attic and how did she get there? She then puts this tale in the middle of important issues plaguing a recently emancipated Jamaica, the misplacement of post-colonial white Creoles, and the racial and cultural superiority of the new British arrivals.
This book reads like a dark dream. The energy and atmosphere of the prose is listless, sexual and intoxicating. Jean Rhys weaves words that engage all the senses – the strong, almost nauseating scent of the night-blooming moon flowers, the sight of the heap of chicken feathers in the corner of Christophine’s house, the wooziness of the islanders as they chugged their white rum, and the feeling of total despair as Antoinette discovers her mother’s horse lying dead under the frangipani tree.
Seeing most of the story unfold through Antoinette’s eyes tells us the internal warfare of a woman trapped between race, class and circumstance. The intermission of Rochester’s narration also shows us how the foreigner struggles to make sense of everything in the Caribbean Islands – the post-slavery politics, the rules of upper class economics, and least of all, the woman he has agreed to marry.
My copy had a very comprehensive discussion about the subtleties that every detail in the prose conveyed. This is great because getting subtleties is not my strongest suit and some underlying messages go right over my head sometimes. With that out in the open, Rhys is a very particular writer. Every phrase has a meaning and the nuances that you get from the sentences reminded me how awesome the subtle but vast difference between “tsokolate eh” and “tsokolate ah” in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere was. Wide Sargasso Sea just feels like Noli , with Rhys’ mastery in playing with mystery, decay, racial, social and sexual conflicts to make a novel that is as much lyrical and literary, as it is political.
With Wide Sargasso Sea, we are not merely being entertained with the romantic drama between Antoinette and Rochester, we are also given a historical and societal exercise to remind us about the harsh transition from slavery to emancipation, and the tragedy of how human beings try to own each other, without pity, in slavery, marriage or parenthood.
BONUS: There’s a TV adaptation!