~By Nikita Budhiraja
“Brontë might have started the fire but Rhys burned down the house”.
Wide Sargasso Sea was Jean Rhys’ return to the literary stage. Known for its brilliant and rich prose and haunting women characters, Jean Rhys culminated her career with this extraordinary piece of literature, my favourite so far. More than any book from the Brontë catalogue.
The title is both peculiar and apt. An area of the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the Caribbean, apparently a deadly voyage, Sargasso Sea is a no Man’s land between people and cultures. It is also famous for waters full of weed which trap the boats and claim the life of everyone aboard. The metaphorical importance of the Sargasso Sea is clearly visible.
In this prequel to Jane Eyre, Rhys gives voice to yet another unconventional woman, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Literature’s infamous ‘Madwoman in the attic’. Set in the lush green landscape of the West Indies, this is the story of Bertha Antoinetta Mason, a Creole heiress. Born into the Cosway family who have been slave owners for years, Antoinetta is an innocent member of the 1830s’ Jamaican society. Living in a hostile neighbourhood, with a mother reduced to madness, Antoinetta has never had a sense of belonging to any person, place or culture whatsoever. Just as she reaches maturity, Antoinetta is married to Edward Fairfax Rochester who, ironically unnamed in the book, is drawn towards her innocent sensuality. Stuck with an uncertain identity, Antoinetta finds a proposing love in this figure of Rochester. However, he couldn’t pretend for a long time and when this mask falls, Antoinetta finds yet another place she couldn’t belong to. Her eventual decline into Madness is beautifully and poignantly captured by Rhys.
“You can pretend for a long time, but one day it all falls away and you are alone. We are alone in the most beautiful place in the world.”
While reading, I was reminded of Emily Brontë’s intensely passionate characters and at some point, you would be too. But let’s not forget that Rhys’s passion is also ideological in many ways. And for me, it outshines the one in Wuthering Heights.
Brontë cannot be blamed for the bland depiction of Bertha. As someone writing in the peak of the British Empire, she had these Victorian ideas inherent in her psyche. However, Rhys is not the least lenient to Rochester in her work. Unapologetically brutal, she did in a shorter prose what Brontë could not do in a descriptive novel.
In my opinion, It is a perfect piece of literature dealing with sublime themes of Racial identity, ethnicity, belonging, abandonment, marriage, wealth and madness.