24 February 2008


When I read JANE EYRE in high school, I had a teacher who stressed over and over that girls love Jane, boys love Holden Caulfield (the hero of another book we read in class that year). I'm not saying it made me doubt my femininity, but I strongly disliked Charlotte Brontë's story of the virtuous, unlucky Jane. Mostly, I hated the ending, or more specifically, Jane's reaction to her fate as described at the end of the book -- really, she's settling for this, and she's happy about it? I can appreciate JANE EYRE as a Bildungsroman for girls, and rare at that time; I just have no desire to read it again.

I knew going in to WIDE SARGASSO SEA that it was a postcolonial response to JANE EYRE, and I was surprised how much I liked the book and found it to be not at all the "Teachable Moment" I was expecting with the phrase "postcolonial response." Instead, Rhys' novel is something of a page-turner, even as we know how it ends. Instead of following plain Jane, we are in the footsteps of Antoinette Cosway, a Creole girl in Jamaica from a family who used to be rich, the woman who in JANE EYRE is known as Bertha, Rochester's mad wife.

Antoinette is something of an afterthought for her mother, who remarries and then sends her away to a nunnery to be educated; later, her stepfather's family will arrange a marriage for her with a visiting Englishman. During their planned honeymoon in Dominica, Antoinette and her new husband see their new union going sour, for reasons which are never completely clear -- is the Jamaican woman taking after her mother in madness? Does he have an ulterior motive for her? Was their marriage a mistake to begin with?

What I enjoyed most about this book, oddly enough, was the unreliability of both narrators. The husband, who is never named, has the seeds of paranoia planted within him via a letter from a man claiming to be Antoinette's stepbrother. He has been paid a large dowry, and he acknowledges his desire to make the best of things, but his suppressed doubts keep creeping back to invest an uncanny darkness in his wife's littlest actions.

At the same time, Antoinette's relationship to her husband is clearly deteriorating, and her attempts to communicate with him only leave him confused and cold. I admired the way Rhys took Brontë's trite Victorian snapshot of Bertha (which in WIDE SARGASSO SEA is a name Antoinette's husband starts to call her, though she resists it), an obstacle to Jane's happiness, and made her a woman I was not only sympathetic to but was rooting for when, ultimately, she goes to England and to her fate. It is a book without easy answers, of which Jane might have disapproved -- but which had me thinking about the novel long after I put it down.

Progress of LN VS ML: 41 read; 59 unread.


Elizabeth said...

**WARNING SPOILER ALERT** for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre

There was someone in my house in college who greatly disliked Jane Eyre (the character) because she saw her as weak, and who greatly admired Catherine (from Wuthering Heights) because she saw her as strong because she did whatever she wanted, exactly when she wanted to.

I, however, always saw Catherine as a slave to her own passions, whereas Jane has the strength of character to give up what she really wants (to marry Rochester) in order to do what she thinks is right. (Of course, the ending then cheats somewhat, because she gets to marry Rochester anyway, but then again I’ve always had a weakness for happy endings: I’ll take Cymbeline over Othello any day.)

As far as whether her ending is really happy or not, I always thought that in order for the reader to feel what Jane is feeling, the reader has to be in love with Rochester (just as the reader of Pride and Prejudice has to be in love with Darcy, and the reader of Emma has to be in love with Mr. Knightley): because what ending is happier than spending the rest of your life with the one you love? If the reader doesn’t feel that way, then the author has failed.

Ellen said...

In that case, I guess I was a little more in love with Heathcliff than with Rochester, because I liked Wuthering Heights slightly better. [WH spoiler] Catherine doesn't get her happy ending, but she doesn't have to trade what I saw as a loss of dignity by Jane.

Certainly if I had read these books closer to their original publication dates I might identify with one more strongly than the other.

Emily said...

Thanks for the review of Wide Sargasso Sea. I've never really thought to read it but I am re-inspired now.

I always liked Jane Eyre. I think if I were to read it now, I would like it less, but I loved it when I read it in high school. Partly it was in defense, as my (semi-sarcastic but still offensive) friend referred to it as a "Fat girl's book," because he thought it perpetuated this fantasy of an unattractive girl getting the man of her dreams. pooh.

Elizabeth said...

Morgan says that if you like post-colonial responses, he recommends WINDWARD HEIGHTS, which he read for his course on post-colonial responses to 19th-century literature.