'Is it true,' she said, 'that England is like a dream? Because one of my friends who married an Englishman wrote and told me so. She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes. I want to wake up.'
'Well,' I answered annoyed, 'that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.'
'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?'
'And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?'
'More easily,' she said, 'much more easily. Yes a big city must be like a dream.'
Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea is considered to be one of the most important postmodern feminist texts. It is a classic example of a postcolonial text 'writing back' to its colonial counterpart. In this case that counterpart is Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
I remember being puzzled by the existence of the madwoman in the attic when I first saw Jane Eyre as a movie adaptation. The woman's presence was hardly explained any better in the actual novel. Apparently during his wild youth, Mr. Rochester travelled to the Caribbean colonies where he met and married a beautiful Creole woman. After returning to England with his imported wife, Mr. Rochester realised his grave mistake: the woman, Bertha Mason, turns out to be (or was rapidly on the way of becoming) mentally instable, a shrieking lunatic. Rochester, the practical, problem-solving man that he is, decides that the best way to deal with his difficult wife is to lock her up in a small room in the attic and pretend that she does not exist! This is where Jane Eyre steps in the picture. A calm, quiet, innocent English girl, she is everything that Bertha is not. Who can blame Mr. Rochester for wanting to marry Jane instead?
I think that many of today's readers find Mr. Rochester a deceitful and horribly insensitive husband, but perhaps at the time, the treatment of Bertha would have been more understandable to readers. After all, she was a "foreigner", a colonial subject from another world, a cultural background that, back then, justified discrimination and subordination. She is treated like an animal, a beast that Rochester and Jane have to deal with before they can be together.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys takes the character of Bertha Mason and gives her a personal history, a background and a voice. She tells the story of Antoinette (Bertha is a made-up name her husband insists on giving her), a Creole girl growing up on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Antoinette's life changes when she marries a nameless Englishman, no doubt Mr. Rochester. Unlike her, he does not feel at home on the colourful island and cannot understand his wife's sympathies with the local people. His increasing doubts are further supported by rumours about a streak of madness that runs in Antoinette's family.
Told through the competing voices of Antoinette and Mr. Rochester, the novel shows two sides of a relationship that seems to be doomed from the very beginning. Neither can fully understand the other, but Rochester desperately tries to define and construct a patriarchal image of his wife that he would be able to control and restrict. When this fails, he takes her to England and restricts her life in a much more concrete way: by locking her up in a small room in the attic. And we remember how Jane Eyre ends...
Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea. Penguin Books. 2001.
Penguin Books: Wide Sargasso Sea
Kirjasto.sci.fi: Jean Rhys
Wikipedia: Wide Sargasso Sea
Wikipedia: Jean Rhys