Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a parallel novel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, following the story of Mr Rochester and Bertha Mason, his first wife who is seen in Jane Eyre mainly as the madwoman kept secretly hidden away in the attic.
The connection to Jane Eyre is something which Rhys alludes to both in the names of the characters and the depiction of a fire at the end of the story, coinciding with the fire seen in Brontë’s novel; a connection which is demonstrated subtly rather than being overtly referenced.
”The Mr Rochester and Bertha of Wide Sargasso Sea are arguably not those first created by Brontë’’
While Wide Sargasso Sea is inspired by the work of Charlotte Brontë, it does much more than simply expand upon the events seen in Jane Eyre. Instead, Rhys uses this connection in order to further explore certain elements seen in Jane Eyre. For example, rather than using the connection to reinforce established representations of the characters and simply provide a backstory which follows our expectations as readers of Jane Eyre, Rhys uses this relationship between the two novels and our previous knowledge to subvert our views of Brontë’s characters and their circumstances. The Mr Rochester and Bertha of Wide Sargasso Sea are arguably not those first created by Brontë. For instance, while in Jane Eyre the dark and brooding character of Mr Rochester is counteracted by in his passionate love for Jane and the explanation of an unhappy past, in Wide Sargasso Sea the manipulative and cold man we see appears much less redeemable.
Rhys’ representation of the characters and various events within her novel furthermore serve to bring to light underlying themes within Jane Eyre, themes which may go unnoticed by many readers, most prominently those of race and colonialism; Bertha’s white creole heritage and the implications of this upon her relationship with both Mr Rochester and the other inhabitants of the islands serving as the main tools used to highlight these themes within Wide Sargasso Sea.
”Rhys’ representation of Bertha shows her slow descent into madness as an unavoidable familial affliction triggered by her treatment at the hands of others’’
Furthermore, the novel also provides a rather different viewpoint of the theme of mental illness concerning the character of Bertha. While Brontë mainly represents Bertha’s madness as an innate and animalistic quality, something which appears justifiably feared by the other characters, Rhys’ representation of Bertha shows her slow descent into madness as an unavoidable familial affliction triggered by her treatment at the hands of others – something which is pitiable rather than frightening.
Overall, Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea can be seen as an example of the continued relevance of themes touched upon in Brontë’s works, such as Jane Eyre, and is just one example of her influence upon modern literature, providing a source of inspiration to writers such as Jean Rhys.
Image Credit: Alice Ellen