Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso SeaWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I resent books that merely capitalize on classics (the …and zombie variety), I value books that attempt to show the fictive world from the perspective of the victimized when what we had before was the version of the victor (the retelling of Beowulf as Grendal’s Dam for example).
Wide Sargasso Sea falls into the latter group. Jean Rhys writes what might have been the story of the mad woman, Bertha, in the attic of Jane Eyre. I had read it once before, but my reading of Jane Eyre was very distant; this time it was recent and in some ways filled in gaps as this book filled in gaps in the earlier work, expanding the time Rochester was in the West Indies, betrayed by his family into a marriage for money.

The point of view shifts are handled well in parts 1 and 3, but are signaled too far into the changes in part 2; still the shifts have value. By shifting the narration from Antoinette (later to be named Bertha by Rochester, called Bertha Antoinette Mason in Jane Eyre) to Rochester Rhys gives us two perspectives on Jamaican life. Antoinette, a white Creole, an outsider to the black Jamaicans, though puzzled by the attitude of the ex-slaves, is more of the culture. Rochester’s middle portion shows him as totally outsider, uncomprehending.

Various versions are told, and at this read I have not resolved if any is meant to be “the” truth. Although there is madness in Antoinette’s family history, there is some possibility of it having been caused by external circumstances, likewise with her madness in part three. Regardless of which version is given credence, the Antoinette/Bertha character draws more sympathy.

It is a short, but rich, novel. Valuable in itself, but also a valuable expansion beyond the European version.

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