Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: "Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys

I wanted to like "Jane Eyre" so badly.

And I did like her--Jane Eyre the character. Jane wasn't the problem. It was that fucking Lord Rochester. What an asshole. I want to dig up his imaginary corpse and punch him in his dusty, moldering nuts.

Fortunately, there's a version of that story where Rochester isn't portrayed as a smoldering aloof hero--a Batman of the English countryside, if you will--but rather the greedy, insufferable white devil I suspected him to be all along.

Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" is about Rochester's first wife, the madwoman in the attic, Bertha. In "Jane Eyre," Bertha is said to be Creole, a woman of British descent born and raised in the Caribbean colonies. Rhys shifts the timeline of her book to coincide with the emancipation of slaves in Jamaica, and re-imagines "Bertha" as Antoinetta, a daughter of slave owners who lose everything when they were unable to make the shift to a post-slavery world. An unnamed English nobleman, whom we assume is Rochester, marries Antoinetta for her stepfather's money when she's barely seventeen and fresh out of the convent school. While at first they are happy together at a small house in the Jamaican countryside, a man claiming to be Antoinetta's half-brother by her biological father and a former slave contacts the nobleman. The man tells him that Antoinetta's mother went mad, that Antoinetta herself had shown signs of madness as a girl, and that Antoinetta's stepfather and stepbrother swindled in nobleman into marrying an obviously defective piece of merchandise. The nobleman then refuses to touch or speak to his wife, who doesn't understand why he's suddenly treating her so coldly, and then she actually does go mad when the nobleman dismisses all of her servants, takes her to England, and shuts her up in the attic so he won't have to look at her anymore.

I feel like there should be a name for this genre, where non-western or minority writers re-tell a classic Western story from one of the non-western or minority character's point of view. Rhys re-tells "Jane Eyre" from the perspective of the madwoman in the attic; David Henry Hwang re-imagines Puccini's opera "Madama Butterfly" as a spy story with an actual Peking opera star as Butterfly; Alice Randall re-writes "Gone With the Wind" with Mammy's daughter (and Scarlett's half-sister) as the narrator.

These types of stories are fascinating to me because one, there are not enough minority voices in literature, and the further back in history you go, the less there are; and two, it's a valuable exercise to contrast how white writers see and portray minority characters and how those characters see and portray themselves. These works break down white constructs of what it means to be black, or Oriental, or Creole, and re-define them based on how actual black people, Orientals, or Creoles experience race and identity.

By doing this, the writer also breaks down and re-defines the concept of whiteness, which hitherto has been the unexamined default, the norm, defined by what it is not rather than what it is. The apparatus of societal power is exposed  by those crushed underneath it, to those who are its beneficiaries but are barely aware of its existence. James Baldwin in "The Devil Finds Work" talks at length about how white people can never really know black people, but how black people know white people better than white people know themselves because such knowledge is necessary for survival in the white man's world.

Works like "Wide Sargasso Sea" reveal aspects of "Jane Eyre" and the character of Lord Rochester that weren't present in the original novel, in addition to offering a richer and more meaningful back-story for a marginalized character from the original work. The relationship between the colonizer, England/Rochester, and the colonized, Jamaica/Antoinetta, moves to the forefront of the story and illuminates how larger societal ideas about life and civilization affect individuals. "Jane Eyre" presents the events as one unlucky individual with an insane wife without examining the very ideas of sanity and insanity and how they relate to colonialist attitudes about the effects of geography and environment on individuals living away from the civilized motherland.

I could go on in this vein--I haven't even really touched on Rhys's shifting of the timeline of her book to coincide with emancipation and how the black characters in her book deal with freedom and have to re-define their relationships to the whites in Jamaica. But I've already written way more than I planned to about "Wide Sargasso Sea" and I'm afraid that the only people who will find this interesting are other scholars of postcolonialism (which my spell-check doesn't even recognize as a word, so I know I'm drifting pretty far from the mainstream with this review already).

I recommend Jean Rhys's "Wide Sargasso Sea" for fans of classic literature, especially "Jane Eyre"; people who enjoy the hard-to-name genre of non-white authors re-telling white stories from the perspective of non-white characters; and anyone interested in the history of the Caribbean and the Age of Imperialism.

Final Grade: B+.

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