Similarities Between Jane Eyre And Wide Sargasso Sea
In The Cambridge Introduction to Jean Rhys, Elaine Savory states that getting a valuable insight into the biography of Jean Rhys is inevitable in order to see how she built her real-life experience into her fiction.
Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, which is located in the West Indies, in 1890. She is originated from an ethnically mixed family with Welsh and Creole ancestors. Creole, in her case, means the white population who were born and raised in the Caribbean area. Dominica was a British colony in her time and the British obtained a serious control over the country when they imposed the Crown Colony Rule in 1898 which lasted until Dominica became independent in 1978.
In her teenager years, she left Dominica with her aunt to complete her education in England. At first, she attended school in Cambridge, and from there, she went on to study on the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1909, but she left the school in the same year. It was said that she chose to left since her father died, however it is also stated that her West Indian accent was the real reason since it was unacceptable for theatre in England. Because of the political relationship between England and Dominica, and her Creole origin, she had a mixed relationship with England and she felt that she is rather an outsider.
During her life, she had several affairs and marriages that caused her emotional breakdowns. She also had to face some difficulties like living in poor circumstances when she could hardly support herself financially. That is the reason why money and sex are usually present in her fiction.
On the other hand, she was influenced by French poetry since it reminded her of the French Creole who were also the members of the community of Dominica, and she had some friends who encouraged her literary career. Among them, the most famous one was Ford Maddox Ford, who was known for his help in publishing the works of promising writers.
Rhys wrote some prominent novels during her literary career such as After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie; Good Morning, Midnight and Quartet which were mostly published in the 1930s. However, her most famous literary work is definitely Wide Sargasso Sea, which she started writing during the period of World War II, but it was only published in 1966.
Wide Sargasso Sea was generally praised by the critics and generally, positive reviews have been written about the novel, however there were some accusations that the book might be too close to Jane Eyre and therefore, if a reader have missed to read Jane Eyre before Wide Sargasso Sea, he or she might miss Rhys’ purpose in her novel.
After the huge success of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys became a prominent writer, who were generally praised by the critics and the media mythologized her as a “dead writer come to life”. (Savory 109) As a result of her literary work, numerous overviews of her work and anthologies about Rhys criticism were written, especially after the release of Wide Sargasso Sea, therefore she is considered as a member of the literary canon.
Wide Sargasso Sea might become successful since it represents certain changes in the viewpoint between the two books which I would like to briefly describe.
In The Madwoman in the Attic, it is stated that Bertha, the secret wife of Edward Rochester is, in a sense, Jane Eyre’s own secret self. Gilbert and Gubar said that Bertha is “truest and darkest double” of Jane. She is the “angry aspect of an orphaned child, the ferocious secret self, Jane has been trying to repress”.
The two writers claim that Bertha is the part of Jane’s soul and identity, however I believe that Bertha has her own personality and she is an individual character opposed to the fact that we get little information about her in the work of Charlotte Brontë.
Wide Sargasso Sea is highly intertextual with Jane Eyre. It is usually considered as the prequel of Brontë’s novel since Rhys’ work tells the story of the woman who is mad and closed in the attic and the story of the young Mr. Rochester.
In her novel, Jean Rhys gives the other side, the West Indian side of the story which is missing from Jane Eyre and which is needed in order to get a full image of the character of Bertha Mason. Rhys was concerned that Brontë marked Bertha as simply mad without giving a background of her past that might explain her insanity except for the fact that her illness was inherited by her family.
In a letter, Rhys wrote that her biggest problem with “the mad white West Indian woman” in the novel of Charlotte Brontë is that she seems to be “off the stage” with her horrible laughing and, and Rhys wanted to put her on the stage by providing reasons for her madness.
As a result, Rhys created the story of the childhood, early adulthood and marriage of Bertha, who was named as Antoinette Cosway, which shows the circumstances that leads to her madness and incarceration in the attic of Thornfield Hall as the wife of Rochester. Furthermore, Antoinette represents Bertha’s West Indian self before the encounter with the English such as her stepfather, her stepbrother and her husband, who took control of her life.
Antoinette, as the narrator of the story, tells her own experiences on the level of consciousness, however, she only remembers back her life as she sits in the room where she is imprisoned as a madwoman.
As the scenes go on from her childhood to her marriage and incarceration, Antoinette explains all of them with great care and she tries to find explanation for her condition and imprisonment. But she is only able to remember coherently when Grace Poole, the woman who looks after her, is sleeping and she drinks from the drink that Grace kept in the room and is probably a kind of alcohol.
We get a detailed insight into her childhood experiences through her point of view. On the other hand, little information is revealed about her marriage since the experience of the marriage is narrated by her unnamed husband in the second part of the story, where Antoinette continues the storytelling as a character.
In Jane Eyre, there is no question that Bertha is marked as mad, whereas in Wide Sargasso Sea, there is neither confirmation, nor denial about her insanity. In the former book, madness was marked as a negative concept since lunatic people were believed to be morally wrong and weak, whereas in the latter one, “the story gives a new perspective to insanity and not just the negative view of a mental breakdown”. In the latter one, madness is rather an escape from the cruel reality than mental breakdown since Antoinette cannot bear her isolation and the rejection she receives from everyone. I think it is the most important change in the viewpoint between the two novels.
All in all, I suppose that Wide Sargasso Sea is a book about the madwoman in the attic who is originally the character of Charlotte Brontë, but in the novel of Rhys, the madwoman gets her own voice and comes out of the attic to tell her own story which shows that she was not born to be mad but rather she becomes insane for certain reasons.
- Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2000. 2th edition. Print.
- Savory, Elaine. The Cambridge Introduction to Jean Rhys. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2009. Print.
- Gregg, Veronica Marie. Jean Rhys’s Historical Imagination Reading & Writing the Creole. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press. 1995. Print.
- Roper, Valerie P. Woman as a Storyteller in Wide Sargasso Sea. Caribbean Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1/2, Women in West Indian Literature. March-June, 1988.
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