This page last revised 13 May 1997
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys confronts the possibility of another side to Jane Eyre. The story of Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester, Wide Sargasso Sea is not only a brilliant deconstruction of Brontë's legacy, but is also a damning history of colonialism in the Caribbean.
The story is set just after the emancipation of the slaves, in that uneasy time when racial relations in the Caribbean were at their most strained. Antoinette (Rhys renames her and has Rochester impose the name of Bertha on her when their relationship dissolves) is descended from the plantation owners, and her father has had many children by negro women. She can be accepted neither by the negro community nor by the representatives of the colonial centre. As a white creole she is nothing. The taint of racial impurity, coupled with the suspicion that she is mentally imbalanced bring about her inevitable downfall.
Rhys divides the speaking voice between Rochester and Antoinette, thus avoiding the suppression of alternative voices which she recognises in Bronte's text. Rochester, who is never named in the novel, is not portrayed as an evil tyrant, but as a proud and bigoted younger brother betrayed by his family into a loveless marriage. His double standards with regards to the former slaves and Antoinette's family involvement with them are exposed when he chooses to sleep with the maid, Amelie, thus displaying the promiscuous behaviour and attraction to the negro community which he accuses Antoinette of harbouring. Their brief days of happiness at Granbois are halted by his willingness to believe the worst of Antoinette. His betrayal of her is set up before he recieves the information from Daniel Cosway.
Rhys negotiates with Bronte's text. As an already canonical text, the merging of Antoinette's fate into that of Bertha's is inevitable, but Rhys allows us to interpret the fate of Antoinette differently by having the ending open. Antoinette dreams of the fire and leap to her death, but the novel ends with her resolution to act rather than a description of her death or an exact repetition of Bronte's words. Thus the possibility of a different fate for Rhys's character is left intact. The more recent text can be said to have an influence on the earlier text and to extend its possibilities.
The character of Christophine is important as a site of alternative power. Christophine forces Rochester to recognise her as the holder of judicial authority and she reduces him to mimicry of her words as he admits that her words echoed in his head. This is a reversal of the normal coloniser/colonised role where, according to Bhabha and Fanon, the colonised is a mere parrot who must come to terms with the master discourse of the metropolitan centre. The source of Christophine's power is obeah (see Voodoo) and she is central to the narrative action, as Antoinette calls to her at the end of the novel to release her form the zombie-like state to which Rochester has reduced her.
The desire to rewrite the master narratives of Western discourse is a common colonial practice, with texts like The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations being given the same scrutiny that Rhys affords to Bronte's text. The telling of a story from another point of view can be seen as an extension of the deconstructive project to explore the gaps and silences in a text. Since writing has long been recognised as one of the strongest forms of cultural control, the rewriting of central narratives of colonial superiority is a liberating act for those from the former colonies. Rhys's text is a highly sophisticated example of coming to terms with European perceptions of the Caribbean creole community.
This project was completed under the direction of Dr Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Eimer Page. Please e-mail me with your comments.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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