Rhys impressed me most with her style and imagery. So many writers can paint a beautiful picture or manipulate word patterns for aesthetic integrity. Yet Rhys instructs her own style and imagery to serve a distinct purpose in her work, as if the two components would compel a Hollywood studio to provide casting credits alongside the other characters. With hints of Hemingway and other expatriate writers, her first-person narrative exposes the sensitive psyche’s of the prime characters pertinent to the understanding of the land’s role in the story. The setting, like a piece of art, stands ready to receive the psychological projections of the viewer and, in kind, to effect the psychological course of their lives.
I read Wide Sargasso Sea first in college as part of a post-colonial literature course. Yet, having not read Jane Eyre before that time, I understood Rhys’ work as a creative argument against English cultural imperialism in the West Indies. Thanks, Jean, I got it. It was a crappy element in human history. Moving on. Now, having finished Jane Eyre, I decided to revisit this book.
Rhys tells the story of Antoinette, known in Jane Eyre as Rochester’s wife, Bertha; the insane woman imprisoned in Thornfield Hall, under the supervision of Grace Poole, burning Rochester’s bedroom, attacking her own brother and eventually razing Thornfield to the ground. To my dismay, Bronte describes her with little sensitivity or consideration for her femininity or plight under Rochester. To Jane, Bertha, or Antoinette, simply represented an obstacle, though an obstacle that Jane respects. Rhys, having her own experiences of the West Indies and Creole culture, obviously felt compelled to tell Bertha’s story.
Upon finishing Wide Sargasso Sea, I initially wanted to compare Jane Eyre to Antoinette. Though Jane embodies several characteristics which we may respect – her obstinacy, her courageous speaking and her steadfast integrity – one might feel that Jane does not represent all women, though she might arguably represent who many women, and men for that matter, wish to be. Antoinette, on the other hand, could arguably represent more women as they are. Antoinette lived under the heavy burden of fear, an unnamed fear, an impending doom. Rhys seems to leave that fear open to interpretation. Could she fear the lingering reputation of her mother’s demise, the future of marrying into English convention or, saddest of all, her own strength and prospect for independent choices? In looser terms, but perhaps in similar circumstances, many women feel this same fear. How will people treat me if I choose my own path professionally or domestically? How will the lives and choices of previous women influence how others evaluate me? Or how unhappy will I be if I simply drift into conventionalism?
And consider the setting of the West Indies: for Rochester, and likely for many readers, the setting represents a completely foreign concept. Rochester feels consistently uneasy because he feels the land hides something he cannot anticipate. Antoinette fears it at times because she doesn’t fully understand its impact on her. I would argue that the land represents a permeating feminine mystique that oppresses both Rochester and Antoinette. For Rochester, the land, despite all its paradisaical attributes, feels like a dream, something intangible and unreal, something to which he cannot relate or feel connected with. The land frustrates him. To cope with the frustration, he condemns the land and hates it outright.
He imparts these feelings on Antoinette herself. He decides to call Antoinette Bertha (not unlike his persistent references to Jane as Janet) when he finds out about her family history of hysteria and insanity. Of course, he does not consider, nor does Antoinette’s step-brother and match-maker Richard, that her mother’s demise and Antoinette’s doom might stem from oppressive conventionalism which dictates feminine roles in a colonial English culture. The men in the story categorize the insanity as a clinical, hereditary condition. Ironic, since it only happens to the women who endure the path of conventionalism because they fear the prospects of independent living, upholding their own households and earning their own living – prospects unavailable to them at the level needed to maintain a particular social standing in a West Indian historical period when freed slaves scoff at ruined landholders – oh how the mighty have fallen!
Where the women might feel a particular kind of victimization at the hands of fate, Rochester shares a similar sentiment. As the second born of a wealthy Englishmen who bequeaths his fortune to his eldest son, Rochester must marry into his fortune. He feels uncomfortable with the situation but at the request of conventional dictatorship, like the women, he must accept his social fate. But his disposition sours into hatred when he discovers Antoinette’s insane family history, ironically, from a man named Daniel, biblical prophet of doom, who claims to be the illegitimate offspring of Antoinette’s father born of a previously owned black woman. Rochester marries in order to obtain his fortune, and Daniel (though some call him Esau, the first born robbed of his birthright by Jacob in the biblical story) expels his knowledge to obtain one for himself. Rochester then develops a hatred for his plight, not only condemned to marry in order to gain a fortune, but trapped with a crazy woman. His hatred then spawns a sort of self-pity, as we see in Jane Eyre, which, in his mind, justifies his treatment of Bertha at Thornfield.
Yet I can appreciate this course of the story. With such a fall for Rochester’s character comes the kind of room necessary for a kind of redemption for his life with Jane Eyre. Or course, Antoinette’s fate commands not only sympathy but outright fury for her function as a literary device rather than a person. And surely, there inlies Rhys’ motivation for writing this piece. This course of debate may last through the literary age where one man felt victimized, one woman afraid, and one looming conventionalism stood arrogantly over a people who desperately wanted their freedom. The heroine would appear, but Antoinette would senselessly and unfairly fall slain at an imperfect alter.