'Well,' I answered annoyed, 'that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.'
'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?'
'And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets bu unreal?'
'More easily,' she said, 'much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream.'
'No, this is unreal and like a dream,' I thought.
Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea presents the story of Bertha Mason--whose name is really Antoinette Cosway--the mad wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, who is imprisoned in Rochester's attic and appears, from time to time, to light things on fire and generally make things difficult for Jane. Bronte's depiction of Bertha can seem almost like a parody of Victorian literature, which banishes to the metaphorical attic both the victims of colonialism (think of the slaves on Thomas Bertram's plantations in Mansfield Park) and women who, unlike Jane Eyre, cannot be meek or pure.
Rhys starts by situating Antoinette in a difficult place in her native Jamaica: she is a Creole woman of both black and white descent, and therefore a kind of outsider even before she meets Rochester and is spirited away to England. Her black neighbors treat her family with suspicion, calling them "white niggers." In a frightening, evocative scene which the novel never is really able to reproduce, Antoinette's black neighbors burn her family's estate to the ground. Antoinette's brother dies in the fire, and so does her parrot:
I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.
The parallels to Antoinette/Bertha, who spends much of Jane Eyre setting stuff on fire and eventually dies in a conflagration of her own making, are clear. Like Coco, Antoinette is a beautiful thing doomed to suffer at the hands of oppressive forces. Rumors of her mother's insanity dog her all her life, but no one seems interested in recognizing this destruction as a pretty good reason to go insane. Antoinette becomes the mad Bertha, yes, but Rhys wants us to ask why.
Rhys style is laconic, spare, and effective. It leaves out much more than it says. Rochester is never named, though he is the narrator of half the novel. She has a knack for leaving out key information that makes the novel mysterious and compelling, but not particularly easy to read, despite the simplicity of its language. The reasons for the dissolution of Antoinette and Rochester's marriage--he comes to believe that she has married him to steal his money, I think, partly thanks to a troublemaker who claims to be Antoinette's brother--are difficult to follow.
The most unforgivable thing about Wide Sargasso Sea, though, is that it makes no real attempt to reproduce the character of Mr. Rochester, whose sarcasm and megalomania are the some of the most compelling aspects of Jane Eyre. It seems like missing the point to judge Wide Sargasso Sea by the quality and character of Jane Eyre, I know. But it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn Rochester, who is already a quite suspicious and not quite trustworthy character, into a bitter, scheming colonialist. He spends most of Jane Eyre running roughshod over Jane's psyche, after all. But Rhys doesn't seem interested in Rochester, especially, even as a narrator; it's Antoinette she wants us to think about it. That's all well and good, but why make Rochester a narrator at all?
I wonder how much one might get out of this novel if they'd never read Jane Eyre. But I also wonder if it might not be better--and able to stand on its own considerable merits--without the ghost of Jane Eyre hovering around.