For all the depth and context that Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea adds to its antecedent, Jane Eyre, Rhys’s text actually revises very little. In constructing a complex history for the madwoman in the attic, Rhys stays true to the details of Brontë’s novel, borrowing exact phrases and images in addition to names and events from the original story. Wide Sargasso Sea fleshes out Brontë’s one-dimensional Bertha, shifting readerly sympathy from a male to a female victim as it complicates Bertha’s story with supplementary perspectives on Antoinette’s vague descent into something like madness.
What Rhys’s novel attempts to revise is not the story itself, but rather our judgment of its characters. Yet, even this revision does little to serve a contemporary reader who will already bring a postcolonial, feminist anger and suspcion to Jane Eyre. If Rhys’s text supplements and expands rather than rewrites Brontë’s text, relies little on the reader’s knowledge of Jane Eyre, and gives minor attention to the actual events at Thornfield Hall, is it really necessary to read the two texts together? Do we benefit from reading the two texts together? Or, perhaps more importantly, is anything lost in unifying the two distinct stories? Does our reading of Jane Eyre and its characters ever fundamentally change?
Rhys’s novel seems to keep Brontë’s novel wholly intact, but for one aspect: Rochester’s mental interiority. We see him, in Wide Sargasso Sea, immerse himself in a web of defensive half-truths that ultimately becomes the story he tells Jane on the day of their would-be wedding. We also see this self-deception begin to corrode Rochester’s sanity. Toward the close of Part Two, Rochester’s narration devolves from a straightforward conversation (between himself and Christophine), to an unspoken but still clearly defined conversation (between himself and an italicized other), to a strange, raving string of half-finished sentences that comes closer to madness than Antoinette’s internal monologue ever does:
“She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. So pleased, so satisfied.”
“Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover, for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.”
“The tree shivers. Shivers and gathers all its strength. And waits.”
“(There is a cool wind blowing now — a cold wind. Does it carry the babe born to stride the blast of hurricanes?).”
She said she loved this place. This is the last she’ll see of it. I’ll watch for one tear, one human tear. Not that blank hating moonstruck face. I’ll listenÉIf she says good-bye perhaps adieu. Adieu — like those old-time songs she sang. Always adieu (and all songs say it). If she too says it, or weeps, I’ll take her in my arms, my lunatic. She’s mad but mine, mine. What will I care for gods or devils or for Fate itself. If she smiles or weeps or both. For me.”
Antoinetta — I can be gentle too. Hide your face. Hide yourself but in my arms. You’ll soon see how gentle. My lunatic. My mad girl.” (99).”
“You hate me and I hate you. We’ll see who hates best. But first, first I will destroy your hatred. Now. My hate is colder, stronger, and you’ll have no hate to warm yourself. You will have nothing. _I did it too. I saw the hate go out of her eyes. I forced it out. And with the hate her beauty. She was only a ghost. A ghost in the gray daylight. Nothing left but hopelessness. Say die and I will die. Say die and watch me die.” (102).”
What do we make of Rochester’s crazed intermal language? Should we allow Wide Sargasso Sea’s Rochester to seep into our understanding of Brontë’s Rochester, to construct him as a man so close to madness himself that he must locate and contain madness in his abjected wife? Doesn’t this revision change Rochester’s motivations to fear and self-denial? How does that alter his anger and resentment at being “fooled” into marriage with a crazed woman?
Rhys’s novel picks up one of Brontë’s favored images, the looking-glass, but where Brontë’s mirror marks a self-splitting, Wide Sargasso Sea’s looking-glass evokes the protagonist’s desperate desire to identify — with her past (22), with a hateful black community (25), with her own complicated colonial status (27), with a dream-world (49), with an image of herself that looks like her mother (and so, with her mother), with her sexual identity (106-7). with a hope for the future (78), and with the reality that she has become a madwoman, a “ghost” (111-12) (see below for quotations). Why the emphasis on reflection, and how does it benefit Rhys’s text? Does the continual failure to identify with mirrored images speak to a larger difficulty of mirroring Brontë’s text with Rhys’s, or an imperial present with a colonized past? Is Rochester’s chiasmic language — “you hate me and I hate you” — meant to create a similar type of reflection? If so, does he identify with his wife-as-ghost? Is there always a power structure underlying attempts to locate one’s image in another?
In this article (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2929895) Ronnie Scharfman reads the obsession with mirrors as a marker of Antoinette’s failure to identify with her mother and subsequently develop mental and emotional maturity. Can/should we read this as a pre-Oedipal mother-daughter mirror stage situation gone awry? What about his argument that the (mother) text creates the (daughter) reader who recognizes herself in the text and is thus able to thrive? Is Wide Sargasso Sea, as semi-descendant of Jane Eyre, as susceptible to revision?
Finally, speaking of mirrors, Antoinette’s name contains “you” (toi) inside her mother (Annette); her name also echoes Aunt and, with its exotic sound and three syllables, Christophine as well. An echo of external characters, Antoinette seems left with nothing to identify herself — indeed, she is not identified by name until relatively far into the novel. Is Rhys trying undermine her own elaboration of the Bertha Mason character by constructing Antoinette (in name as well as in personality) out of the features of the women who raise her? Is it significant that, despite her active sexual life, Antoinette can’t replicate herself and produces no children of her own?
Some texts for discussion
“I used to think that every timed she looked in the glass she must have hoped and pretended. I pretended too. Different things of course.” (78)
“I stared at them and they did not move. I could see myself in the looking-glass the other side of the room, in my white chemise with a frill round the neck, staring at those rats and the rats quite still, staring at me” (49)
“I looked at her and I saw her face crumple up as she began to cry. We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass.” (27)
“They all looked the same, it was the same face repeated over and over, eyes gleaming, mouth half open to shout” (25)
“All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the train, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything” (22)
“I laughed when I saw the lovely colour spreading so fast, but I did not stay to watch it. I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her — the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her.” (111-112)
“Her name oughtn’t to be Grace. Names matter, like when he wouldn’t call me Antoinette, and I saw Antoinette drifting out of the window with her scents, her pretty clothes and her looking-glass.” (106-7)
Scharfman, Ronnie. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2929895) Available at JSTOR.