How Jean Rhys rewrites Jane Eyre: the birth of polyphonic text, Wide Sargasso Sea

Ⅰ About Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea

Rhys was born in Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean Sea, in 1890.  Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was her fifth novel, which was published in 1966, when almost thirty years had passed since her fourth novel, Good Morning, Midnight, was published in 1939.  When an interviewer, Elizabeth Vreeland asked, “Where did the idea come from of reconstructing Bertha’s life - the Jane Eyre heiress who sets fire to the house and jumps from the parapet?” Rhys answered thus: “When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should she think Creole women are lunatics and all that?  What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been.  She seemed such a poor ghost.  I thought I’d try to write her a life.” (Vreeland, “Jean Rhys,” 234-35.)

Thus Jean Rhys writes in Wide Sargasso Sea, a prequel to Jane Eyre, events which might have happened before the encounter between Rochester and Jane, telling the story which was never narrated in Jane Eyre.  In this article, I’ll discuss how Rhys reads Jane Eyre and rewrites the novel by writing Wide Sargasso Sea.

Here, let me give you some biographical information about Rhys.  First, James Potter Lockhart, Rhys’ maternal great grandfather migrated to Dominica at the end of the 18th century and managed a sugar plantation, owning about 260 slaves.  When slavery was abolished in British law in 1833, the slaves were all turned into workers.  Then, William Rees William, Rhys’ father, who had Welsh and Irish blood in his veins, arrived in Dominica from Britain in 1881.  He became a sailor when he was young, and was later trained as a doctor.  He went to Dominica to open a medical practice, and met Rhys’ mother, William Minna Lockhart, and Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams, who was later known as Jean Rhys, was born.  In this way, Rhys’ identity is complex.  She was born in a British colony and though her parents had British blood in their veins, it was not easy for her to identify herself as British.  This complexity is reflected in the circumstances in which one of the main narrators, Antoinette, which is to say Bertha in Jane Eyre, survives as a Creole in Jamaica.

Ⅱ An image of Bertha constructed in Jane Eyre

As we saw in the last section, Jean Rhys describes Bertha as a “poor ghost.” Now, let us examine how Bertha is represented in Jane Eyre before discussing Wide Sargasso Sea.  First, it is Bertha’s laugh by which Jane recognizes Bertha for the first time, when Jane lingers in the long passage of Thornfield Hall.  Jane hears “a curious laugh” (Jane Eyre [JE] page 107) and she depicts this laugh as “tragic, as preternatural a laugh as I [Jane] ever heard.” (JE 107)  Then, on the night when Bertha sets fire to Rochester’s bed, Bertha’s strangeness of laughter is thus exaggerated: “This was a demoniac laugh - low, suppressed, and deep - uttered, as it seemed, at the very key-hole of my chamber-door…as I still gazed, the unnatural sound was reiterated: and I knew it came from behind the panels.” (JE 147)

Finally, Jane meets Bertha directly after her wedding with Rochester is arranged.  Jane sees Bertha in the mirror and describes her thus: “I never saw a face like it!  It was a discolored face - it was a savage face.  I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!” (JE 283)  Here Bertha is even compared to “the Vampyre” as if she were not a human being.

On the day of their wedding, the fact that Bertha is Rochester’s wife is exposed. Rochester, driven into a corner, starts insulting Bertha: “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family: - idiots and maniacs through three generations!  Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman and a drunkard!” (JE 292)  In this way, Bertha is deprived of a voice which can speak for herself and treated like a monster beyond reason in Jane Eyre.

Ⅲ Two narrators in Wide Sargasso Sea

Now we will see how Bertha, who is depicted like a monstrous mad woman in Jane Eyre, is reconstituted as Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea.  First of all, let us turn to the question of who narrates the story.  It is only Jane who narrates her story in Jane Eyre, so the story is told only from Jane’s point of view.  On the other hand, there are two narrators, namely Antoinette (Bertha) and Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, and they narrate their own stories alternately, so their stories are told from two points of view.

This novel consists of three parts.  Part one is narrated by Antoinette, who talks about her history, family, and life in Jamaica.  As a result of this, Antoinette (Bertha) is depicted as a real woman who has her own thoughts and emotion, not like the mad woman described in Jane Eyre.  Then, in part two, Rochester narrates, and it is revealed that he is an English man who is forced to live in the British colony, and suffers from anxiety and a sense of alienation.  Finally, in part three, Antoinette narrates again, and the setting of the novel is changed from Jamaica to England.

In part one, Antoinette depicts the way how she, a Creole woman, is alienated and isolated in Spanish Town, Jamaica: “I [Antoinette] never looked at any strange negro.  They hate us.  They called us white cockroaches.” (Wide Sargasso Sea [WSS] page 20)  “Real white people, they got gold money.  They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us.  Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.” (WSS 21)  In this way, her poor white family is ostracized by black people in this town, where slavery is abolished, and Antoinette is called a “white cockroach.”  At the same time, Antoinette can’t assimilate into white society either, and thus a Creole woman is pictured as having an unstable existence with an identity which is divided into two parts; a person who has European ancestry and a person born in the West Indies.

In part two, Rochester narrates his agony, indignation, and anxiety as a British man who is sent to the colony, which means Rhys implicitly expresses her sympathy and understanding towards Rochester.  Actually, Rochester is not the eldest son who could inherit his father’s estate, but the second son who is forced to live in the British colony, looking for a fortune.  That is to say, Rochester is depicted as a victim of the law of inheritance at that time, which was based on patriarchy of those days.  Rochester describes Antoinette like this: “the woman is a stranger.  Her pleading expression annoys me.  I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she thinks.” (WSS 59)  Here we can see Rochester’s frustration and puzzlement about the unstable circumstances in which he finds himself.

Now, let us examine the letter which Rochester tries to send to his father but fails to send: “I know now that you planned this because you wanted to be rid of me.  You had no love at all for me.  Nor had my brother.  Your plan succeeded because I was young, conceited, foolish, trusting.  Above all because I was young.  You were able to do this to me…” (WSS 133)  This letter shows that there were not only colonized people but also quite a few British who were victimized by the national project of colonialism.  Rochester, who has no possessions as he is not the eldest son, is sent to a colony, where he marries a woman he does not love.  It is noteworthy that Rhys depicts the anguish of the both sides; the colonized and the colonizer through the narratives of Antoinette and Rochester.

It is needless to say, though, that Rochester is not just a victim but also a victimizer, which is obvious from the fact that Rochester gives Antoinette another name, Bertha.  Antoinette complains to Christophine, her nursemaid about Rochester’s way of treating her: “When he passes my door he says.  ‘Good night, Bertha.’  He never calls me Antoinette now.  He has found out it was my mother’s name.” (WSS 94)  Considering the fact that a person’s name is inseparable from their individual identity, the way Rochester calls Antoinette Bertha can lead to negation of her identity.  Antoinette explains it in this way: “So between you [Rochester] I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.” (WSS 85)  Here it is implied that even individual identity can be determined by the relationship between the dominant and the dominated formed by imperialism.

Ⅳ Bertha/ Antoinette strays into the world of Jane Eyre

Rochester is again replaced by Antoinette as the narrator in Part three.  After Antoinette is brought back to England with Rochester, she starts to lose her senses.  This process is narrated with beautiful and poetic language, using a stream of consciousness style.  When night comes and Grace Poole, Antoinette’s maid, gets drunk and sleeps, Antoinette takes the keys which enable her to open the door and walk into “their world.” (WSS 148)  Antoinette thus describes the world into which she is brought: “It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard.  I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is colored brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it.  As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard.  They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them.” (WSS 148)  As Spivak discusses, “this cardboard world” represents a “book between cardboard covers,” namely the fictional England in the world of Jane Eyre. (243)  This implies that Antoinette (Bertha) is brought into an unrealistic, dream-like world, where she must play out her role as Bertha Mason, a character Charlotte Bronte created.

Now, let us examine the scene in Jane Eyre, in which Richard Mason, Antoinette’s brother is bitten by her and bleeds, and compare it with the same scene in Wide Sargasso Sea.  When Mason says, “she sucked the blood” “she said she’d drain my heart” (JE 213) in Jane Eyre, Antoinette (Bertha) is depicted as a vampire, an irrational horrible creature.  However, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Grace Poole’s depiction of this incident helps to rationalize Antoinette’s behavior: “So you [Antoinette] don’t remember that you attacked this gentleman [Richard Mason] with a knife? …I was in the room but I didn’t hear all he said except ‘I cannot interfere legally between yourself and your husband.’  It was when he said ‘legally’ that you flew at him and when he twisted the knife out of your hand you bit him.” (WSS 151)  Here, Rhys rewrites the scene in Jane Eyre and explains what causes Antoinette’s violent behavior, namely the legal system.  In this way, Rhys gives Antoinette “humanity” and “sanity” as “critic of imperialism” as Spivak points out.(242)  Antoinette’s violent reaction to the word “legally” is reminiscent of Christophine, Antoinette’s nursemaid’s remark: “That is English law,” (WSS 91), when Antoinette complains about her penniless state after her marriage with Rochester: “I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him.” (WSS 91)  Here, Rhys implicitly criticizes the society and its system in which the unfair relationship of the exploiter and the exploited can be justified through the Law.

Next, we will discuss the scene, in which Antoinette sees herself in the mirror: “It was then I [Antoinette] saw her [Bertha] – the ghost.  The woman with streaming hair.  She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her.” (WSS 154)  Here, Antoinette sees herself as the other reflected in the mirror.  This image represents Bertha, a ghost-like mad woman, described in Jane Eyre.  This is the moment when Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha meets Rhys’ Antoinette, and in the scene, the real and the unreal, England and Jamaica, reality and dream are all mixed up together.  Finally, Antoinette narrates: “Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do.” (WSS 155-156)  This inner monologue suggests that Bertha (Antoinette) is doomed to set fire to Thornfield Hall and leap to her death from the rooftop according to the logic of the novel.

It can be said that Rhys tries to save Bertha (Antoinette), by suggesting the world in which Bertha finds herself is not the real one but a dream.


Ⅴ Conclusion

It is found that the blank spaces in Jane Eyre are filled by Jean Rhys through writing Wide Sargasso Sea.  It is also revealed that the circumstances in which Antoinette (Bertha) survives as a Creole woman are harsh and unstable in Jamaica, while Rochester, who is sent to the colony, also feels loneliness and a sharp sense of alienation.  In addition, it is made clear that there is an implicit criticism of colonialism, imperialism, and patriarchy.

However, although Rhys criticizes institutional evils quite harshly, it does not mean Wide Sargasso Sea is totally antagonistic to Jane Eyre.  It is obvious that Charlotte Bronte also bitterly attacks a class society and the educational system in Jane Eyre, so the two novels turn to the same direction, as they criticize social evils and institutional corruption.  While Charlotte Bronte pays attention only to the problems in England, Rhys adds a wider perspective, such as the relationship between the colony and England, by which Rhys expands the view given in Jane Eyre.  It shows that Jane Eyre is as important as Wide Sargasso Sea as a social critique historically, politically worldwide.


Works Cited

Bronte, Charlotte.  Jane Eyre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) [Citations from this text are given with the page number and an abbreviation JE].

Rhys, Jean.  Wide Sargasso Sea (London: Penguin Books ltd, 2000) [Citations from this text are given with the page number and an abbreviation WSS ].

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty.  “Wide Sargasso Sea and a Critique of Imperialism” in Wide Sargasso Sea (New York & London: W.W.Norton & Company, 1999) 240-247.

Vreeland, Elizabeth.  “Jean Rhys: The Art of Fiction LXIV.”  Paris Review 76 (1979): 219-37.



About estherhawdon

a University lecturer, teaching English, engaged in translation, research on British novels from the 19th century to 21st century, love movies, music, meeting new friends
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