Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys rose to fame with her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. At 16, Rhys left Dominica and moved to England. When Rhys read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a young girl (see my post on Jane Eyre here), she began to imagine the Caribbean upbringing of Rochester's infamous Creole wife, Bertha Mason. Years later, Rhys decided to "try to write her a life." And Wide Sargasso Sea resulted, telling the story of Antoinette Cosway (later Bertha Mason) and her madness.  "The result is one of literature's most famous prequels, a novel that seeks to humanize the racially pejorative characterization of a West Indian madwoman." (x) The novel highlights themes of racism, the oppression of slavery, and the link between enslavement and madness. As Rochester begins to question his hasty marriage to Antoinette, he becomes more abusive and paranoid towards her. In turn, Antoinette sinks into further despair. One of my favorite quotes of the novel is when Rochester is writing about his motivations for leaving the Caribbean;
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.  
In Jane Eyre, the reader doesn't understand why Rochester has locked his wife in the attic, or how that situation came to be. Rhys gives them a backstory that is wonderful in itself. It isn't simply a retelling of Jane Eyre - it is a masterpiece in itself. Even if you haven't read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is still a powerful novel that I recommend. Rating: ★★★★

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