Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Most of you probably know that Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and her childhood, family and how she came to be married to Mr. Edward Rochester in Jamaica. Jean Rhys wrote the novel in the 60’s as she struggled with poverty, alcoholism and despair. It is considered her best novel and a masterpiece and it revived her writing career and her reputation as an author. Rhys herself was raised in the Caribbean and based Bertha’s life on stories and details she remembered from her time spent on the islands in her youth.

The plot of the novel follows Bertha (Antoinette Cosway is her real name in this novel) as she grows up with a mentally unstable and poverty stricken mother. She lives with her mother and disabled brother on a dilapidated plantation, suffering abuse by the natives and slowly accepting that she is different (because she is creole) and will never fit in anywhere. After her mother marries Mr. Mason their life improves until her mother finally cracks and Bertha is sent to live in a convent. Eventually, we learn that she has married a Mr. Rochester and taken him back to her childhood home where their relationship takes a turn for the worse.

All of these details are very sketchy because the narrative is hazy, dreamlike and disjointed. Rhys’s style is not streamlined, not a straightforward telling of the story. She writes mainly from Bertha’s point of view and Bertha is confused and has disordered thinking most of the time. It is hard to piece together exactly what is happening in the story, but Rhys does a magnificent job of relaying the feelings of her characters so that it is easy to sympathize with them even when they are demonized by those around them.

I know several people who absolutely hate this book because they don’t like the way it portrays Rochester or his life before Jane. I’m not offended by the characterization Rhys creates here because I think it shows Rochester as an innocent, naive young man who married a woman he didn’t love out of duty to his family. Though you could surmise that Rhys is blaming Rochester for causing Bertha’s madness, I believe the madness was already present when he married her. And, yes, he did mistreat and neglect her, but he could have cast her off and left her in Jamaica to fend for herself but instead he took her to England where he could mistreat her on home turf. We know from Jane Eyre that Rochester is damaged, mistrusting and angry. Rhys has just given us her vision of why this might be and she has also given us a view of Bertha which I will never forget. I did read Wide Sargasso Sea when I was a teenager before I had ever read and loved Jane Eyre, so maybe that is why I don’t find it offensive or why it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of Jane and Rochester’s story.

The lush, descriptive language and the way the wildness of the landscape mirrors the wildness of the characters is an outstanding feature of this novel. I’ve read several Jean Rhys novels and I really like her style. Her novels are bold and different. Wide Sargasso Sea is a brilliant vision of life in Jamaica in the 1830’s and an imaginative take on how Rochester came to lock his wife in a secret attic at Thornfield Hall.

Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Has it or would it affect the way you view Mr. Rochester?

22 thoughts on “Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

    1. I’ve read a few of her 30’s novels and they are brilliant, but very different from Wide Sargasso Sea.
      Thanks for including the link about her life! I love reading anything about Ms. Rhys.


  1. I haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea. I think I’ve shied away from it for precisely the reason that you say many of its detractors dislike it. I love Jane Eyre and feel so tied to my impressions and opinions of those characters that I’m wary of anything that might contracdict them too much. Rhys sounds like a fascinating writer, though, so I maybe I’ll start out with some of her other work and see how it goes from there.


    1. If Jane Eyre is your favorite novel than you probably wouldn’t like Wide Sargasso Sea.
      I recommend Jean Rhys’s earlier novels – they are fascinating. I especially like After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie.


  2. Marie

    I should read this book again, I think. It has been awhile. I don’t think I ever read Jane Eyre the same again after reading it. I too like the dreamy, not quite sure of reality tone of the book.
    I haven’t liked Rochester for a long time, and Rhys probably started it. I think reading Jane Eyre as I am older makes me like the love story less each time. This is my sister and my big literary argument. She loves Jane Eyre. I too love the book, but I think their relationship is absolutely dysfunctional.


    1. I see the allure of Rochester, but I also see that he is manipulative and controlling. I think Wide Sargasso Sea actually makes me like him more because it gives a theory for why he might be the hard man that he becomes by the time he meets Jane.


  3. I love Jane Eyre but have been avoiding this book, for the same reasons as Miss Bibliophile (and the same reasons I’ve never been interested in reading any of the Jane Austen sequels or prequels). It does sound fascinating though, and I think you’ve convinced me to give it a try at some point!


  4. This is the only Jean Rhys book which I’ve read and I didn’t hate it, but it made me like Rochester even more I think. As you say, he could have abandoned Bertha there or even worse have had her committed to a mental hospital in England, that would have been a fate worse than death and plenty of husbands did it to get rid of their wives.


  5. This is one of those titles that I know, but I can never remember anything about the book itself, or who wrote it. I’m not that attached to Mr. Rochester, so I wouldn’t hesitate to read it on that account, though like Helen I generally avoid modern prequels or sequels to classic novels.


    1. This is really unique in that it feels like its own work and not a knock-off of Jane Eyre. Rhys has such a unique and distinctive writing style and tells an incredibly original story here – it is a wonderful book unto itself. I highly recommend it, especially if you are not attached to Rochester.


  6. I read both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea this year. I found the latter didn’t ruin my perception of Mr Rochester at all. I personally felt sorry for both Rochester and Bertha as they ended up together due to their families scheming, and were left alone to deal with the consequences. Like you what I really loved was learning about the time period, the islands, and the dark mood that pervaded the whole book. Would like to read more of Jean Rhys’s work now.


    1. Yes, they’re both victims here and become shackled together despite not really liking each other at all. It is incredibly sad!
      I like Jean Rhys’s earlier novels despite their depressing nature. She is a very interesting writer.


  7. I love Jane Eyre so much and Rochester also that as much as this book interests me due to it, it also makes me wary. I think it would affect my opinion of Rochester, and I would be happy with that if Bronte had written it, but as it’s sort of third-party I’m not sure that’s… right.


    1. If you are a die-hard Jane Eyre fan and don’t want your impressions changed at all – don’t read this! However, it does give a deeper interpretation of Rochester and his relationship with Bertha that is fascinating – and it really doesn’t make you hate Rochester, just see him in a different light.


  8. sakura

    I re-read this earlier this year for my book group and loved it. Jane Eyre is also one of my favourite books but I thought it complemented it although it did leave me with a more tainted impression of Rochester (not necessarily a bad thing as it painted a fuller picture of him). I have yet to read her other novels but I’m looking forward to reading more of her punchy prose.


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