Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

 

Themed Book Reviews

| Home | Fiction | Listserv | Creative Archives | Scholarly Archives |
| Book Review Archives | Critical Essays | Contribute | Search the Site |

 

Voodoo Special Issue Home

Wide Sargasso Sea
ISBN: 0393308804
By: Jean Rhys
Reviewer: Winter S. Elliott

August 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea is not exactly a pleasure to read.  The book abounds with emotions, but they’re bitter, angry, violent; the reader feels burned, not warmed, by the destructive fire that both opens and ends the book.  Yet, while not necessarily fun, Wide Sargasso Sea is a worthwhile book, for it represents a particular kind of Caribbean response to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys responds to Brontë’s characterization of Edward Rochester’s first wife Bertha, renaming the character Antoinette and telling the story of her childhood in Jamaica and the early days of her marriage to the unnamed “Rochester-ish” character.  While the book stands as a feminist revision of Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic,” it also explores race relations in the Caribbean islands. 

The Caribbean background of the novel is full of life, but it is an unwelcoming vibrancy, an overabundance of heat and vegetation and wildlife inhabited by former slaves and former slave-owners.  White men, from Antoinette’s father to her new husband, clearly come to exploit the islands and remain willfully ignorant of the human cost of the riches that they take back to England.  The children of these men, like Antoinette, belong nowhere; they are neither truly English nor a part of the culture of the former African slaves.  Those slaves, in Rhys’s view, have assimilated into the islands, transforming themselves and the land into a symbiotic whole that the invasive English fear and resent.  The islands, then, offer only eventual madness and death for whites, and it is this fate that Antoinette, despite her desperate search for love and home, is unable to escape.

Christophine, attached to Antoinette’s family since before the end of slavery, seems to know the fate that awaits her charge.  Christophine’s presence is a continuous strand throughout the first two parts of the book, and it is only in the third part, set in England, that she disappears.   Consequently, Christophine, a former slave, appears inseparable from the Caribbean islands, sharing her nature and her personality with them.  She is also a practitioner of “obeah,” in this novel clearly a kind of black magic/voodoo involving drugs, deception, and zombies.  It is something to be feared, at least by the whites; and it is something “that is not for béké [whites].  Bad, bad trouble come when béké meddle with that.”  Despite that knowledge, Christophine agrees to concoct a potion for Antoinette to deliver to her husband in the hopes of gaining his love; unfortunately, as she predicted, “bad, bad trouble” is the only result. 

Antoinette’s tragedy – the disaster of her birth, her marriage, her life – forms the basis for the novel, but no less touching is Christophine’s plight.  Throughout much of the novel, Christophine appears to love Antoinette like a daughter, and she does all that she can to save Antoinette.   Unfortunately, all of her power, all of her faith in the spirits, all of her hope cannot save Antoinette from the racial fears and hatred set in motion by slavery and perpetuated after the Emancipation Act of 1833.  This is very much a novel of black versus white, and while causes are clear, solutions are not Rhys’s concern. 

Ultimately, if there is magic in this novel, it is a black magic, devoted to death and destruction.  In writing her response to Brontë’s Bertha, Rhys has created another character in need of reclamation and response:  Christophine. 

   

Contact Women Writers