In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys focuses on developing a narrative history for Brontë’s character Bertha, one of few characters who are not given the opportunity to speak for themselves in Jane Eyre. Rhys’s text appears to function as a companion to Jane Eyre, rather than a rewriting of it, preserving key plot points, lines of text, and descriptions from Brontë’s text as she maps the skeletal fragments of Bertha’s recorded history onto the fleshed-out examination provided in Wide Sargasso Sea. Although Jane and Bertha have admittedly disparate lives and upbringings (one is an orphan, while the other still has her mother; one lives an independent life, while the other ends up locked away in an English manor) Rhys rather surprisingly seems to pull threads of Jane’s personal narrative into Bertha’s early life. One striking similarity is Bertha’s time spent being educated at a local convent, which here she narrates:

This convent was my refuge, a place of sunshine and of death where very early in the morning the clap of a wooden signal woke the nine of us who slept in the long dormitory. We woke to see Sister Marie Augustine sitting, serene and neat, bolt upright in a wooden chair. The long brown room was full of gold sunlight and shadows of trees moving quietly. I learnt to say very quickly as the others did, ‘offer up all the prayers, works and sufferings of this day.’ But what about happiness, I thought at first, is there no happiness? There must be. Oh happiness of course, happiness well. [34]

Much as Jane ultimately finds a semblance of personal peace once she fully immerses herself in the routines of Lowood, so too does Bertha find comfort while shilded within the walls of the convent. How can this imposition of childhood similarity between Jean and Bertha be read when one considers the stark distinctions in most other aspects of their lives? That is to say, although the trajectories of Jean and Bertha seem to momentarily meet in this shared junction, they quickly resume their polarization. Does Rhys mean for us to read Bertha’s eventual slip into psychosis as a result of or as an occurrence in spite of the specificity of her geographic location, familial history, surrounding political climate, and so on?

Identity formation and self-recognition is a crucial aspect of Brontë’s text, as Jane is at times unable to recognize herself in her own reflection, but these themes are similarly considered in Wide Sargasso Sea. While still sane, Bertha (then called Antoinetta) often admires her reflection in her “looking-glass.” However, in a particularly telling moment, Antoinette sees her reflection in someone who is racially and socioeconomically other. As her family is fleeing their burning house, Antoinette sees her peer Tia and is overwhelmed with a sense of their similarities when Tia hurls at rock at Antoinette’s face, splitting it open: “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). What are the significances of this scene, both as a potential re-imagining of Jane’s failed self-recognition and in terms of a colonialist reading? Does this less conventional identification of self affect our understanding of our narrator?

Similarly of interest regarding identity in Wide Sargasso Sea is the renaming (or perhaps more accurately, unnaming then renaming) of Bertha in the text. Although she begins the text as Antoinetta, a decision on Rhys’s behalf that seems to delay the synching of the texts, as insanity sets in, so too does the overwhelming use of the name Bertha as a means of referring to the character. Although both Bertha and Antoinetta are “given names”, they seem to represent two entirely distinct people. How does this process of renaming work in regards to Bertha’s character? What is the relationship between this bifurcation of identity and the many other identity divisions experienced by Bertha (being raised in multiple places, having multiple father figures, residing in two highly distinct countries)?

Although Jane certainly enjoys nature, evoking it both in her artwork and during periods of change in her life, it appears to take a more limited role in the overall text of Jane Eyre than the descriptions of and immersion of characters in the tropical natural spaces of Wide Sargasso Sea. Though this is surely primarily a means of centering the text in Jamaica and Dominica, the lush landscape is considered in depth both by Antoinetta and the Mr. Rochester figure of Rhys’s text. Is Rhys utilizing nature to ends distinct from those of Brontë in Jane Eyre?

15 February 2010