I read Wide Sargasso Sea in a first year lit class and it was my first encounter with post-colonialism, as well as the first time I’d really given colonialism much thought. So if you’ve ever heard my rant about Pirates of the Caribbean 2 (so very, very racist) you have Jean Rhys to thank!
Her novel tells the story of Antoinette, the first wife of Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It’s kind of hard to describe it without being spoilery, and you know how I hate that. Here goes: set in the 1800s, the story is split into three parts. In the first, Antoinette tells the story of her upbringing during the ending of slavery in the Caribbean. The second part is told by Rochester, an English man come to the Carribean to marry a woman for her fortune. He describes his uneasiness about the marriage and slowly builds up to the paranoid suspicions that seem intensified by the alien landscape. The final section is of Antoinette’s confused dreams and thoughts.
Antoinette is a fascinating character. As the daughter of a slave owner and a mother from Martinique, Antoinette is caught between two worlds; accepted neither as black nor truly white. Her upbringing positions her to walk between the worlds, looking white while showing more affinity with the native traditions she has been brought up in. But what this book really brings home to me is the arbitrary labelling nature of racism. As Rochester becomes increasingly paranoid about Antoinette’s history, the colour of her skin, the land she owns, the money she has inherited, the things she believes, who she is – none of it matters. ‘Black’ characteristics are just there to label the things that Rochester fears about Antoinette. She is sensual, nostalgic, uncertain and vivacious. Everything he sees can be twisted to represent race because there is no true basis for racial judgements. And so Antoinette was always doomed.
Like the other white, male characters in the book, race is dangerously simplified for Rochester. ‘You don’t like, or even recognize the good in them,” Antoinette’s mother yells at her second husband, “and you won’t believe in the other side.” The workers on the estate are not seen as anything near people, merely a set of stereotypes. But what Jean Rhys does is write back to these stereotypes. By creating a history and real character for Rochester’s first wife she fills in the stereotypical sketch of ‘blackness’ that was drawn with a real woman made the victim of a ‘complex historical moment’ (as 1001 Books puts it).
Jean Rhys captures the voices of haughty Rochester, his short descriptive sentences getting longer and longer as he descends into paranoia. She paints strong willed Antoinette, passionate and fierce, as well as a cast of characters on the island both friendly and malicious. The jungle is lush, tense, and secretive, providing the perfect backdrop for the action. This book truly and intensely captures a moment in history and the unfortunate place of Carribean women in it.