jane eyre retold | 2020.01.18

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys | Review

Rhys, Jean_Wide Sargasso Sea

Original Publication: New York, Norton [1966]

Genre: Postmodern Fiction

Pages: 171

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback

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A few years ago, I went to my first aerial dance performance. And I have to just say, wow! Those people are some sort of next-level strong and disciplined, for sure. The dances at this particular performance were themed after the tales told through classical literature. The production was a wonderful salute to libraries and reading, however, the last piece would especially haunt me.

A woman walked slowly onto the stage, all on her own, dark music and dark lighting, a single ominous chain hanging from the theater’s rafters, waiting, waiting for her fateful grasp. After the fun and ruckus interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, The Cat in the Hat, and others, this seemed to be the performers’ way of foreshadowing something deeper was on the brink of exposure.

This last piece was the story of the “mad wife” locked in the attic of secret propriety in the well-known, much-loved Jane Eyre story that Charlotte Bronte’s ghost has woven into the hearts of many modern readers. As the woman on that stage climbed the chain and wrapped herself again and again high above the stage, I found myself explaining to my partner the backstory of the book that the dance was referencing. After summarizing the story of Jane Eyre in a few sentences, my partner’s expression furrowed. I looked closer at the scene displayed before me and breathed a sigh of agreement with him.

Jane Eyre’s Bertha character was nothing more than a plot device, seen from this vantage point. How could we have agreed that this perspective was ever acceptable? Why was she allowed to be left by her husband to languish in that cold, dark attic? The story Bronte tells leads society to believe that Bertha was in the way of true love’s indispensable force. But what brought Bertha to her “madness” in the first place? Maybe being married to such a man as Rochester would drive anyone to insanity.

Rhys’s is known, by those who have had the privilege of being exposed to her work, for diving into the behind-the-scenes stories of the misfits of society’s constant need for constant propriety. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys imagines the story of Bertha’s Jamaican-born backstory and Rochester’s manipulations, but she does this by exposing the messiness of money-driven class structures and the narrow options women faced during Bronte’s time in our cultural history.

After the aerial dancer’s and Rhys’s interpretations of this canonized tale, I don’t think I have it in me to ever see the tale of our lonely and much-lauded Jane Eyre in the same way. All I can do is question why Bronte’s heroine would ever choose to return to the man who would dared to lock his wife in a damp and dark attic, trying to hide his shame at having been saddled with a “mad wife” while perhaps he had been the catalyst, while perhaps he might have tried harder to help her find her way back into the community he had ultimately forced her into and then, in the same breath, ostracized her from.

How can a person win when the only option is to stay quiet and not speak out against the abuses reined down on them? Throughout history, women have constantly been beaten and locked away into submission because of the voices they dare raise. Rhys shows this tragedy from the perspective we should have been seeing from the outset. Shame on you, Ms. Eyre (and, really, Ms. Bronte) for abandoning your fellow woman in the name of “love.”