Wide Sargasso Sea
Lesson 74 Chapter 4 Module 7
Writing sequels or prequels to great works of fiction is a challenge few have managed to do well.
In today’s lesson, the author is doing just that.
With her book, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys manages to create an entire prequel that explains the backstory for the crazy woman who lives in the tower in Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre.
It has won numerous awards and critical acclaim as a work of modern fiction that stands on its own (along with being the prequel to another book), in large part because it follows its own voice and vision.
Jane Eyre is one of the most textbook examples of a gothic romance novel that exists (well, this and her sister Emily’s own work, Wuthering Heights.)
One of the hallmarks of gothic writing is how much the setting affects the story and characters.
In Jane Eyre, the entire experience of Jane (an orphan with a rough childhood) as she matures into womanhood and becomes the governess at Thornfield Hall, for the ward of a man named Mr. Rochester.
Here’s where that gothic setting really comes into play. The grim, grey, cold, and damp moors of rural England provide the perfect backdrop for Jane to easily grow nervous about the ghostly experiences and strange situations that occur around her.
Nothing is quite the way it seems.
Now, I’m going to have to give you a bit of a spoiler here, but the book has been around for 150 years, so hopefully you aren’t too disappointed.
The ghost that has been haunting Thornfield Hall ends up not being an apparition at all, but Rochester’s insane wife who lives in a tower, that he supposedly was tricked into marrying.
And she’s intent on making Rochester’s life hell, because of her madness, but he promised to love her for all time, in sickness and in health, so he’s on the hook.
This is an important character point, because Rochester is pretty much the quintessential archetype for a complete jerk.
Now we know why! It’s because he’s saddled with this crazy lady and young ward, and just wants to live his life, but has these obligations.
What Wide Sargasso Sea explains, though, is the story of how Antoinette (her real name—Rochester begins calling her Bertha on their honeymoon, mostly because of the aforementioned quintessential archetype for a complete jerk thing) descends into madness and eventually enacts the horrific and climactic incident that paves the way for Jane to live her happily ever after with her true love.
So why all this conversation about characters, which we talked about last week, in a week that we are supposed to be learning about settings?
Well, it’s because setting is the major factor that influences the characters in Wide Sargasso Sea.
The first two sections of the book explain how the colonialism and surroundings of the Caribbean islands (Jamaica specifically) impacted every situation that Antoinette and Rochester entered into during their young lives and courtship.
The final section, which today’s excerpt is pulled from, explains what happened to Antoinette when Rochester uprooted her from the now decolonized island and brought her back to England. And locked her in a room in a tower of his estate.
She had a family history of issues, sure. But as you’ll note from the setting you copy, the surroundings we place our characters into can have as much of an influence (if not more) than the other characters and life events they come across.
Reading this account, rather than the romantic skew that Brontë tell the story in, it’s kinda easy to see how this poor woman was done in by the isolation and gothic sadness of her English relocation.