Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)

I hated this book. Which is a shame, because I actually quite enjoyed reading it; I found it thought provoking and evocative. The hatred was insidious, creeping up on me after I had put the book down...

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette, a girl brought up in colonial Jamaica in the 19th century. Her family used to own a plantation, but falls into poverty after the death of her drunk, lazy father. They are despised by the Jamaican’s living around them. One day, hostile neighbors storm Antoinette’s house, setting fire to it, and killing her brother. After spending the rest of her childhood in a nunnery, Antoinette marries a man, Mr. Rochester, in an arranged marriage. At first they seem intoxicated with each other, but he hears rumours that Antoinette’s mother was crazy, and fears madness is in her blood too. He becomes distant, capricious and cruel, and this precipitates the very thing he fears; Antoinette’s slide into madness.

This book was written as a prequel to Jayne Eyre. I think that’s a good idea, and the execution is quite clever – but since I haven’t read Jayne Eyre, I can only really judge Wide Sargasso Sea on its own.

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

Why I hated this book

So why did I hate Wide Sargasso Sea? I think there were four key reasons.

Firstly, I hated how complicated it made life seem. Wide Sargasso Sea suffers from the ‘literary delusion’. Moments in our lives are – fundamentally – fleeting and ephemeral. They are gone in a breath.  Literature, on the other hand, writes about a world whose essence is the opposite; sentences in books are permanent and re-readable. I think this creates an inherent tendency for fiction to overstate the complexity, meaning and importance of every day life. A real person might have complicated motives, but they are mostly instinctive, half-formed and transitory. In literature, too often, motives are fully formed, intricate and imbued with a wider symbolic meaning. Wide Sargasso Sea falls dangerously far down this hole. Everything is just so, clinically complicated. I felt like I was wading through treacle.

“I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what's called loving as I was - more lost and drowned afterwards.” 

Secondly, I hated its attitude towards mental health.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, mental illness is described in an incredibly imprecise, wishy-washy manner. This book was written in the sixties, and I think its attitude has dated badly. It reminds me of a world of lobotomies, and ‘raving loonies’.  The book describes Antoinette acting a bit oddly, but to me seems to lack a real curiosity about anything real that’s going on in her head. What kind of mental illness is she suffering from? What logic is she using to justify her behaviour? How is she trying to cope with it? I understand it is supposed to be symbolic, but it just seems like a shoehorned, generic plot device to bring the drama to a crescendo. Even as symbolism, does it make any sense? A country might be dealing with a conflicting sense of identity, but where does madness come into it?

Thirdly, I hated its attitude towards men. The main male character, Mr. Rochester, acts emotionless, cold and almost pathologically towards Antoinette. Even in the beginning of their relationship, for example, he is described as being overcome with desire for her and fulfilling it ‘without even a caress’. As their relationship progresses, he calls her by the wrong name, stops speaking to her, and eventually sleeps with another girl within Antoinette’s earshot.  Since Mr. Rochester narrates large swathes of the book, there is a great opportunity to understand the motivations behind that kind of vindictive behavior and to get inside the male psyche. Except its squandered. Mr. Rochester simply describes himself acting like a bastard without any explanation. To me that expresses an astonishing lack of curiosity as to the motivations of the main character in the book.

Fourthly, I hated its attitude towards women. The plot in summary: a women with a troubled background grows up and marries a man who falls out of love with her because he thinks she’s mad. This causes her to turn mad. Is this great feminism? That could almost be saying ‘women are what men make them’. I don’t think that’s the message the author intended. But Antoinette Crosby is portrayed as a strong, independent women, who has managed to survive an exceptionally tough upbringing. And yet she goes mad because her husband falls out of love with her.

In Fewer Words

The following metaphor might seem below the belt – but I’ll let it stand. Wide Sargasso Sea is written in hazy language. Lots of the action happens in the gaps between sentences. The characters are driven into bizarre actions and illogical feelings for unclear reasons. When you sing in the shower, it sounds great partly because the water obscures your voice and lets your brain imagine it is hearing something operatic. Perhaps Wide Sargasso Sea is great in exactly the same way.


  1. Intriguing reaction/review; thanks for sharing so much detail. Enjoyed reading your take on the book.

  2. I didn't read this, but I saw the movie and loved it, because I didn't know what it was about. When I put it together who these people were in the end it was like watching The Sixth Sense!