Published in 1847, Jane Eyre shocked Victorian England. Written in a form of a Bildungsroman, usually reserved for the male voice, the story follows Jane’s journey of maturation as she develops her own identity. We see her grow from a child with unfortunate circumstances into an assertive woman who is able to marry a man, Edward Rochester as his equal. Victorian England was in an era of rapid economic growth and social upheaval as the sharp divisions between classes began to be disrupted. Charlotte Bronte, who had written under the male pseudonym Currer Bell in order to be taken more seriously, was both criticised and praised as she challenged gender norms by putting the spotlight on a woman who was neither exceedingly beautiful or born into affluence, yet able to steadily reach happiness by being headstrong and independent. Bronte was able to speak a truth that let many Victorian women find relatability and comfort within this book, maintaining its popularity even to today.
It was surprising to see Jane Eyre front and centre on the sheet for text suggestions for this assignment. Many of the feminist values emphasized in Bronte’s work are still if not more relevant today. Prior to conducting research into different manifestations of Jane Eyre I was at a loss at how others could appropriate this story into something with new meaning. When I stumbled upon Wide Sargasso Sea I was honestly shocked at how Jean Rhys was able to give new purpose to the story Charlotte Bronte had begun. Published in 1966, over a century after Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea lends an outlet for the Creole Woman’s voice. The main character is not Jane this time but instead Bertha, the elusive bestial madwoman locked up in the attic and Rochester’s first wife. Jean Rhys writes:
‘The Creole in Charlotte Bronte’s novel is a lay figure- repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive, which does. She is necessary to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls and laughs horribly, attacks all and sundry – off stage. For me she must be right on stage.’
In Jane Eyre, Bertha is a menacing and sinister presence. She is described as a ‘clothed hyena’ and the reader never truly understands her as a person. She is only another one of Jane’s obstacles in her journey of self-empowerment. Delving into this project with minimal knowledge of the plight of the Creoles, Bertha was one of the characters I gave little thought to. Jean Rhys herself was a Creole and similarly to how Bronte weaved pieces of her own life into her story, Rhys was able bring to the surface a side of Bertha and Bronte’s work that is both uncomfortable yet critical in understanding women’s voices. Although Jane Eyre is still widely celebrated today for its feminist values, which challenged a context that heavily rejected and suppressed women’s self-agency, it lacks in intersectionality. Rhy’s post-colonial response to this has given a voice to a marginalized character and subsequently racial identity.
Wide Sargasso Sea exposes the circumstances that led the beautiful Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway to become Bertha Mason. It is revealed Rochester had married Antoinette for her hefty fortune, their union being one without love. As the majority of the story cover’s their honeymoon, the reader begins to realize Rochester is not what he seems in Jane Eyre. Antoinette’s struggle for a place of belonging stems from her delicate identity of being a Creole woman. Someone of European decent born into the West Indies, neither accepted by the black communities freed from Creole subjugation yet also unable to assimilate into European circles due the believed contamination of their blood due to the island tropical climate.
Antoinette confesses to Rochester: ‘’I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.’’
Her sense of self is vulnerable due to her racial complications and unlike Jane who is able to further define herself as she matures, Antoinette falls deeper into uncertainty. The symbolism of the name is significant in understanding how identity is so important to characters like Antoinette who do not. Rochester renames Antoinette into Bertha upon realizing in horror she shares her name with her mad mother. Although Antoinette is indignant at first, she succumbs later when she feels hopeless. Antoinette’s renaming and censoring is evidently a metaphor for the subjugation of colonies. Rochester cannot and will not understand Antoinette and can only strip her of her last piece of identity and lock her away. Through Rochester and Antoinette’s relationship, Rhys reveals the imperialism that covertly lines the narrative in Jane Eyre and examines this acclaimed feminist story with new racial context. Jane, who is white, does not have to experience Rochester’s repulsion and xenophobia towards other cultures and her autobiography written 10 years after a happy marriage with him is pointedly named ‘Jane Eyre’. Jane escapes her husband’s control as she only agrees to marry him when her autonomy would not be compromised.
The use of voice and point of view is also significant in both texts in. In Wide Sargasso Sea, point of view changes multiple times throughout showing how difficult it for women and especially women with racially ambivalent backgrounds to sustain their own voice. Part 1 is written through the eyes of Antoinette, Part 2 is taken over by Rochester and Part 3 is told through Bertha, Antoinette’s new assigned fragmented identity. In this way Rhys is also to display Antoinette’s downfall. As Jane Eyre is an autobiography of sorts, Jane has full control over how her story is portrayed. She even is granted the power to address the reader with the line:
‘Reader, I married him’.
The way the two individual heroines’ use their voice is also indicative of the way they both develop into womanhood. As children, it is expected for their accounts to be somewhat unreliable, although Antoinette is more disjointed than Jane. However, from that point onwards, Antoinette’s only becomes more interrupted while Jane’s only becomes more sequential and organised.
Antoinette and Jane also seem to mirror each other. Jane has a similar experience of being locked up as a child where she also questioned her own sense of self. She faints from fright and awakens to a fire similarly to how Antoinette awakens to her own home burning as a result of the black community’s protests. They grow up with many hardships and the absence of familial love and also end up marrying the same man. In Jane Eyre, Antoinette seems to be a manifestation of Jane’s fear of Rochester’s ability to dominate and ruin her (mirror reference). The major aspect of themselves that is different is their racial background. This difference between them decides the fact that Antoinette must die in order for Jane to prosper even if their lives do seem to parallel each other.
Those familiar with Jane Eyre would already foresee the tragic ending awaiting Antoinette. Her fate is predetermined, only making her story more heartbreaking. Rhys makes use of foreshadowing to exemplify the hopelessness of her situation. On their honeymoon, Rochester already decides to hide her away in the attic as he says: ‘I drew a house surrounded by trees. I divided the third floor into rooms and in one room I drew a standing woman.’ Antoinette also seems to foresee the end as she dreams of her act of arson and suicide before committing to it: ‘Now at last I know why I was brought here and what I have to do’. She is still a character that cannot escape her death even when granted a voice.
Postcolonialism relied on an understanding of the drivers of colonialism to finally achieve momentum as a movement. Wide Sargasso Sea will inevitably be bound to the text it is so desperately trying to deconstruct. As I was doing some background research into the construction of each book, I thought that the title of Rhy’s work was brilliantly chosen and summative of the work as a whole. The Sargasso Sea is a calm area surrounded by more violent waters, resulting in it being overabundant in sargassum, a type of seaweed. However, it is within the confines of the stagnant waters of the Sargasso Sea where marine endangered species can breed and recuperate.
Sylvia Maurel says it best: ‘In its dormant waters, repetition has a creative function, both lethal and fecund, The Sargasso Sea is the seat of cyclical renewal, of creation within recreation.