Please note: this review contains spoilers for ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’
You perhaps may never have heard of the book Wide Sargasso Sea, but I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Wide Sargasso Sea rewrites and continues Bertha Mason’s story, as first seen in Jane Eyre.
Bertha Mason was Edward Rochester’s first wife. In Jane Eyre, we never hear her speak a word, and we only learn aspects of her backstory from Rochester. Because of this, essentially all we learn about her is of her ‘madness’ and how Rochester was ‘fooled’ into marrying her. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is little more than ‘the madwoman in the attic’.
Moved by Bertha’s story, and annoyed that so little of Bertha Mason is seen or revealed in Jane Eyre, Rhys decided to rewrite and expand upon Bertha’s story. In her novel, Rhys provides Bertha with a new name, a backstory, and most importantly, a voice. Unlike in Jane Eyre where Bertha (named Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea) serves as a thrilling plot twist and haunting presence, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha/Antoinette gets to be whole. She gets to be human.
I didn’t know what to expect before reading Rhys’ novel. There are two main things that surprised me.
Firstly, I was surprised to see that Bertha/Antoinette isn’t the only narrator in Wide Sargasso Sea. As well as having Bertha/Antoinette as a narrator and gaining greater insight into her backstory and perspective, we also get ‘Rochester’ (although, in Wide Sargasso Sea, the husband is never named) as a narrator. This surprised me because, as the novel was written with the main goal of adding to Bertha’s tale, I assumed that it would primarily follow Bertha/Antoinette’s point-of-view. However, I did find it interesting to see how the unnamed husband’s mental state deteriorates, and to gain insight into his thoughts and motivations right before deciding to lock up his wife in the third-story room behind the tapestry.
Secondly, I was surprised with how much of the novel expands upon/deviates from Jane Eyre. Although there are characters and partial plot points which parallel Jane Eyre, most aspects of Wide Sargasso Sea change and add to the narrative. In fact, apart from the final part of Wide Sargasso Sea which most directly names characters and events from Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre, most of the novel involves narrative which has been entirely created by Rhys.
Would I recommend this book? I’m not sure. Although the novel was short, it was a rather dense read and every sentence had to be read and considered carefully. This in itself isn’t necessarily a flaw, but I do think it is something to keep in mind for anyone who is considering reading Wide Sargasso Sea.
I think that if there are any Jane Eyre lovers out there contemplating reading this, but who are worried that it will somehow taint the original novel, don’t fret. Because most of Wide Sargasso Sea is different to Jane Eyre, you can almost read it as a novel entirely separate from Jane Eyre if you really wanted to (although be warned, part 3 (the shortest section in Wide Sargasso Sea) is very heavily based on Jane Eyre.
Overall, I think I liked Wide Sargasso Sea. Either way, I’m glad I read it and I look forward to reading it again someday. I think I will have a better understanding of the book when I’m able to reread it at another time for pleasure rather than having to read it for class.