Although Wide Sargasso Sea presents itself as a distinctly modern rewriting of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys clearly adopts more than a general plotline, or paradigm from her Victorian predecessor. Rhys, for example, maintains an air of the supernatural throughout her novel, and this theme often manifests itself in the author's treatment of nature as something which reflects the internal, emotional and mental chaos of the characters themselves. Thus, like Brontë, Rhys allows this expressionistic tendency to fuse matters of style and text with matters of theme and content in her novel. Using devices such as personification, symbolism, allegory and metaphor . . . sentence fragmentation, ambiguous verb tenses, and infected prose, Rhys, therefore, reveals Wide Sargasso Sea as a work which emerges out of the Victorian aesthetic and roots itself in the definitive struggle of Modernist prose.
Aside from these stylistic trends, Rhys furthermore, relies on setting as a central force of meaning in her text. For example, in the following passage, Rhys uses literary devices along with a description of Rochester's natural surroundings to foretell and recapitulate the events within the narrative, to establish the characters within an underlying moral groundwork, and finally to reach her audience by evoking an overall yearning for human sympathy in the novel:
Under the oleanders . . .I watched the hidden mountains and the mists drawn over their faces. It's cool today; cool, calm and cloudy as an English summer. But a lovely place in any weather, however far I travel I'll never see a lovelier.
The hurricane months are not so far away, I thought, and saw the tree strike its root deeper, making ready to fight the wind. Useless. If and when it comes they'll all go. Some of the royal palms stand (she told me). Stripped of their branches, like tall brown pillars, still they stand—defiant. Not for nothing they are called royal. The bamboos take an easier way, they bend to the earth and lie there, creaking, groaning, crying for mercy. The contemptuous wind passes, not caring for these abject things. (Let them live). Howling, shrieking, laughing the wild blast passes.
How does the above passage act as an allegory for the relationship between Antoinette and Rochester, and how does Rhys' insistence on the humanization of natural objects help to reinforce this allegory?
Rhys often either switches tenses within her narrative, and this overlap of past, present, and future (as noted in the first paragraph of the above excerpt) creates a certain timelessness within the narrative. Does this manipulation of tense have any other effects within the novel? For example, do you think Rhys is trying to reveal something general about consciousness, or is she in the above passage trying to key us into something about Rochester's character and mental state? How does Rochester's use of tense ambiguity, syntax, and sentence fragmentation align him with the natives of Jamaica whom he so despises? Also, does the way which Rochester speaks attribute a certain insanity to his own character and perhaps reveal his own madness as a twisted game which he projects onto Antoinette? Think about how the voice behind his narrative differs from Antoinette's infected prose. For example, Rochester's constant use of parenthetical phrases and italics reveal him as a character who is in constant conversation with himself. Is this just a symptom of his manipulative nature, or does Rhys reveal this inner dialogue as something else which constitutes madness?
Not only does Rochester's descriptions of the external world act as metaphors for some of his own assumptions about, gender, class, and race, but it allows us to make moral judgements on his character. How are Rochester's perceptions of and attitudes towards nature (here and elsewhere in the novel) linked with his moral status? (Think on the above comment "let them live" and also perhaps look at page 172 and the end of part II).
Finally, Rhys's usage of literary devices and infected prose is more or less effective in terms of its overall ability to convey meaning within the narrative. However, as a matter of opinion, do you think such attempts at infusing the text with authorial opinions or moral outlining is subtle, or is it somewhat forced and obvious?
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.
Last modified 7 January 2004