A long weekend is ahead of us. This is exactly why today we have decided to review and recommend a novel for you to read, may you be on a sandy beach somewhere or curled up in bed at home. We have to warn you, however, this novel is not for everyone.
In her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, author Jean Rhys attempts to tell the story behind one of the most famous female characters in literature: Bertha Mason. In an older novel – Bronte’s Jane Eyre – Bertha Mason is merely a crazy women locked up in the attic of Mr. Mason who eventually becomes the female protagonist’s husband. The woman, whom we learn in the Brontë’s novel is actually Mr. Mason’s first wife, is quite a secondary character in that novel.
In Jean Rhys’s novel, however, Bertha Mason is the protagonist; in its core essence Rhys’s novel recounts the story of Bertha Mason’s journey to insanity with the intention of reversing the literary tradition of placing white women – like Jane Eyre- at the centre of narratives. Indeed, we learn in Jane Eyre’s novel that Mr. Mason married Bertha via an arranged marriage, and we also learn that Bertha used to live in one of the British Empire’s colonies, but that’s pretty much it.
Rhys’s novel takes place in the West Indies, a British colony. The theme of “race” takes front and centre; “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks,” are the novel’s opening lines. We later learn that Antoinette –the woman who eventually becomes a possession of Mr. Mason, so much so that he feels entitled to change her name to Bertha — suffers from an identity crisis conditioned by her racial status. While she is not of mixed racial descent per se, her Creole family is broke. In other words, she is not rich enough to be considered white, nor is she dark skinned enough to be considered one of the colonised. And in any historical epoch where racial ranks are so extremely stratified and consequential, a character like Antoinette will inherently face trouble.
Part 1, which takes places in the West Indies, is narrated by Antoinette. Part 2 also takes place in the West Indies, but is narrated by both Mr. Mason and Antoinette, after they get married. This back and forth between first person narrations is brilliantly executed by the author; we see the racial struggle, we see what a man like Mr. Mason thinks of Antoinette, and what Antoinette comes to think of a man like Mr. Mason. This part is dedicated to showing how Antoinette’s identity crisis, and Mr. Mason’s control of her, drives her mad. The final part is set across the “Wide Sargasso Sea”, in England, where Antoinette fully transforms into Bertha, or Jane Eyre‘s “crazy lady in the attic who happens to be Mr. Mason’s first wife.”
What this novel also ingeniously does is explore gender through race and politics of the colonised. The novel delves into the concept of feminising the colonised and the racialised and, in doing so, it highlights the strong ties between patriarchy, politics, and authority. We witness how a world that takes whiteness and masculinity as its ultimate standard, inherently produces complex hierarchies; black skin colour is inferior because it is not white, similarly womanhood is inferior because it is not manhood.
In other words, everything that is not white and masculine is an inferior reflection of that which is white and masculine. Speaking of reflection, the novel hugely relies on the mirror motif. There is an instance, for example, where Antoinette’s childhood home gets burnt down by some locals of the West Indies, including a friend of Antoinette’s. In the aftermath of the fire, Antoinette directly stares into the eyes of the friend that she thought had betrayed her, and states “The house was burning…when I was close I saw the jagged stone in her hand…we stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.”
In conclusion, if you are looking for a novel with several layers, complex themes, and great characters, this novel is most definitely for you.