Published in 1966, this novel appears on Modern Library’s and TIME magazine’s list of best books of the twentieth century. I had been attracted by the intriguing title of this novel for years — and being the book sleuth that I am, finally read the book to see if it merits placement on those lists.
Although Rhys had written earlier books, none received the acclaim this one did. This slim novel of less than 200 pages is packed with meaning. Every word counts; every line of dialogue line is to be chewed and digested. Rhys outdoes Hemingway both in style and thematic substance. She treats of cultural identity, the impact of environment on character, race relations, slavery, colonialism, gender inequality, and sexuality. In this sexually-charged tropical setting, practitioners of voodoo and black magic lurk in the lush foliage. Rhys creates a haunting, mysterious mood through compact, highly evocative prose in which understatement exerts incredible power.
The setting assumes the stature of a brooding character, first in Jamaica and Martinique then in the English mansion where Antoinette is trapped in seclusion. The English environment is so dark and oppressive that it can drive someone mad — and it does. One of Rhys’s great accomplishments is to capture in small increments how someone descends into madness. The tropics have a deleterious effect on Rochester, but Antoinette revels in her element on the Caribbean Island, loving the flora and fauna of her birthplace. To Rochester, who comes to the island for a marriage of convenience with Antoinette, the island is alien and incomprehensible. He is sucked into its mystery and loses his bearings as if he were spinning in a gyre. From the start, the reader knows something bad is going to happen, and in the end, it does.
The Sargasso Sea of the title conjures up the gyre, just as ocean currents cause masses of seaweed to collect and swirl in this area of the Atlantic. Myth has it that ships are becalmed and trapped in the floating morass of seaweed, but in actuality no ships have perished in the Sargasso Sea. Rhys used it to suggest the characters spinning through their own gyre of misunderstandings, caught between truth and lies, and unable to relate to anything strange or different.
Rochester is a prisoner of his own time and culture. He lives the double standard of early Victorian England, holding to the model of a subservient wife who is beautiful but without sexual appetites comparable to his libido. When Antoinette exhibits such an appetite, he is repulsed. Legally, he can dispossess her of her property and control all her money. As has been documented, cases exist of husbands in the nineteenth-century gas lighting their too curious wives, and actually having them committed to asylums, claiming they were uncontrollably hysterical. Rhys imagines that Rochester, the lord of the manor in Jane Eyre, was not the abused husband, but that he caused the madness of his wife Bertha, who he confined in the attic.
There are many spin-off books based on earlier novels, testifying to the power of the characters and plots of those earlier novels to capture the imagination of readers and to inspire them to invent sequels and prequels. And Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s brilliant prequel to Jane Eyre. More importantly, her purpose in writing it is to depict relations between the races, between the sexes, and between colonizer and the colonized. Implicit in the narrative is the indelible effect that climate and place have upon character. From birth to age sixteen, until she left for England, Rhys lived on the island and absorbed its flavor and culture. In England, she experienced a stark contrast in the temperament of the population, climate, and natural surroundings.
Wide Sargasso Sea deserves a place on a list of novels worth reading. Its themes can be extrapolated to contemporary life. The legacy of slavery and racism persists. The world still deals with the fallout from colonialism. Certain segments of the American population continue to treat people of other races or ethnic groups as not fully human and due equal right and opportunity under the law.
Maybe many of these themes will escape the reader. Maybe the reader has never read Jane Eyre and doesn’t see the genesis from Brontë’s novel. Maybe so, but what the reader will gain from reading this significant book is a masterful creation of mood, an element of fiction that does not always draw a lot of commentary in reviews. The reader’s senses are enveloped by a heady aroma of flowers, a sultry taste, and a pervasive aura of black magic working on the heart and soul.