100 Novels: Burning Down the House with Jean Rhys


Wide Sargasso Sea
By Jean Rhys
(1966)

 Jean Rhys’s classic revisionist novel Wide Sargasso Sea resurrects an obscure, strange figure, Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and gives her her own book. Essentially a plot device used in Jane Eyre to keep separate lovers Jane and Rochester until the end of the novel (Rochester marries the Creole Bertha for money but keeps her hidden away because of her madness), Rhys renames Bertha, christening her Antoinette Cosway, and  explores her history from childhood to mad-arsonist of Thornfield Hall.

Rhys separates the narrative into three parts: part one follows Antoinette’s childhood, in which Antoinette and her family get burned out of their plantation during a slave revolt, an event that eventually leads her mother into madness, and Antoinette being sold into marriage to Rochester; part two follows — mostly — Rochester through his marriage to Antoinette to his increasing disdain for his wife after learning — mostly misinformation — about her past; and part three records Antoinette’s descent into madness (the voice reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper “— another madwoman in the attic), though the precise nature of Antoinette’s madness is somewhat vague (it’s brought on it seems by some combination jealousy, fear, and perhaps voo doo). The novel ends in flames at Thornfield Hall.

And, though Rochester spurns Antoinette, eventually sleeping with a house servant, Rhys’s portrayal of Rochester shows empathy toward him — his motives seem in part a result of an ego battle with his father.

What’s interesting about Rhys’s take on these two characters is the depth she gives both —  Antoinette isn’t just the madwoman in the attic who torches Thornfield Hall: she’s affected by family, culture, history, and her relations with other people, including Rochester; there is no single cause to her madness; and Rochester isn’t just a brute bent on belittling his wife, he’s a young man caught up in a strange situation, in a strange place he doesn’t quite understand.

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