Restoring the silenced voices in Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a novel that was written as a prequel to Jane Eyre, 120 years after Brontë’s work was originally published in 1847. Both texts can be viewed as feminist works, yet the notion of womanhood differs drastically in each. Although both novels also heavily criticise male control over the female experience, Rhys adds in the dimension of racial oppression pertinent to Victorian Britain. We can see this revisionism present in modern day feminism. Rhys’ novel invites us to question how linked issues of race and gender are – this concept of ‘intersectionality’ is a source of great contention between schools of feminism.

Jane Eyre traces the journey of the eponymous heroine, and provides a social critique for the repression and obstacles that restricted women in Victorian Britain. We are fl eetingly presented with the mixed-race character Bertha, who serves as the protagonist in Wide Sargasso Sea. Although Brontë largely conceals her in Jane Eyre, a modern reading allows us to view her as the principal victim of the cultural oppression that Jane alludes to. Bertha is deprived of a voice in Jane Eyre, but Rhys seeks to restore that voice in Wide Sargasso Sea.

The respective plots of the novels revolve around the female experience in relation to societal repression, much of which manifests itself through Rochester. He is an expression of the Victorian patriarchy, and his attempts to control both Bertha and Jane are reflections of the stifling environment of Brontë’s era.

In Rhys’ novel we are presented with the story behind Rochester’s marriage to Antoinette, later to be known as Bertha, who is of creole heritage. Rhys depicts her as an intermediate between black and white. As the daughter of a slave owner and his slave, Antoinette experiences an identity crisis, compounded by poverty and bullying as a child. Rochester never loves her, yet marries her for a £30,000 dowry. This seems to represent Britain’s soulless relationship with its colonies in the Victorian era, and the compression of her personality by both misogyny and imperialism subsequently leads to the severe deterioration of her mental state. The disparity between the novels is that in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette is a victim. In Jane Eyre, however, she is bound to a chair and locked away in the attic.

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Whilst Antoinette is portrayed as mentally unstable in both novels, Rhys’ work is more aligned with modern ideas of mental health, and Rochester’s disregard for the causes of his wife’s discontent can be considered emblematic of the current failings of mental healthcare.

He is portrayed as a convinced manifestation of white male privilege in both books, but Rhys’ reading is starker with his colonialist disdain for her difference; Antoinette’s curly hair, distinct English diction, and different mannerisms enrage her husband.

Many laud Rhys as a pioneer for highlighting the discomfort of the British when confronted with social difference, and it is interesting to note that she was writing as a contemporary to the climate of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Wide Sargasso Sea presents a more fluid concept of what it means to be a woman, and provides a more modern insight into the many layers of oppression suffered by Antoinette, including patriarchy and colonialism. Feminist commentators have added that the novel was a necessary addition to Jane Eyre, in the same way that modern feminists suggest that feminism must draw on various oppressions such as racism and classism to truly create a holistic image.

The best illustration of this dynamic is when Rochester imposes the more English name ‘Bertha Mason’ onto his wife, in place of the more florid ‘Antoinette’.

This is an example of how Antoinette’s individuality is such a threat to Rochester that he has to reshape her identity so that he can feel at ease: a kind of censorship of her difference.

As with all great works, Wide Sargasso Sea has many echoes relevant today. We cannot view feminism as a binary struggle between male power and female disenfranchisement – there are several facets of such dynamics.

The case study of Antoinette also serves as an example of the complexity of mental health. At the end of Jane Eyre, she sets Rochester’s house alight and commits suicide: a potent way of describing the dangers of mishandling mental health.