Art by Gabriel (IG: @profesito)
Rhys’s novel is like a lucid dream that bleeds into reality—our reality.
What’s the greatest devil’s advocate position you could take? Saying that concealed carry is a great idea because it’ll boost the nation’s manufacturing industry? That we should indeed build the wall, and ransack Barron Trump’s shiny trust fund to do it?
I don’t know, but one contender might be sympathizing with cold, stiff, privileged old Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s postcolonial prequel to Jane Eyre.
Rhys’s novel fills in the origin story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane first wife who tries to keep him from marrying Jane in Bronte’s novel by setting fire to Thornfield Hall. In Rhys’s reimagining, Bertha becomes a white Creole heiress by the much more elegant name of Antoinette Cosway, a victim herself of a mansion gone up in flames and a ridicule-filled youth of poverty. In the eyes of Rhys—or most of her modern scholars, at least—Antoinette is a beautiful, strong-willed, passionate girl whose fragility stems from an irresponsible history of white ancestors enslaving her now freed and resentful neighbors, and whose genuine hope for love is thwarted by Rochester’s toxic cocktail of colonial arrogance, paranoid xenophobia, unfaithfulness, and general misogyny.
Little wonder that Rochester is an unlikeable character in Rhys’s novel. But Antoinette, for her part, unnerves her husband early on by speaking of death and suicide during their honeymoon, and the rumored Cosway family history of madness and tragedy that so spooks Rochester is perhaps not far off from Antoinette’s own account of her childhood: her parents both go mad and die after the family fortunes crumble, ex-slaves set fire to their estate, and Mrs. Cosway’s new husband dismisses her, leading to the version of Antoinette who now swears nature is better than people and calls a somewhat sinister, voodoo-dealing ex-convict a mother figure.
This brilliant handling of Antoinette’s tortured childhood, reliance on feminine ideals of beauty, and racial ambiguity was actually what first intrigued me about Rhys's novel. To be sure, a ctrl+F search of the word “looking-glass” in the text would bring up countless times in which Antoinette either looks in one or expresses anguish that she cannot keep track of her identity now that the attic of Thornfield Hall she’s confined to doesn’t have one. But more than the vulnerable objectification of women, the looking glass motif also represents her conflicted cultural identity as her insanity mounts: Antoinette equates looking at her Black acquaintance Tia while her house burns in the novel’s start to seeing herself “in a looking glass,” connecting the turmoil of Antoinette’s mixed Creole identity with the violence around her. And just as her frustrated younger self could never join her reflection—her “other half”—by kissing a glass mirror, the fully insane adult Antoinette at the novel’s end dreams of jumping into a reflective pool of water to rejoin Tia and her own reflection as Thornfield Hall burns, speaking in a lucid “I” for once as she finally gathers her fragmented identity.
There’s another mirror in the story, though, and that’s Rochester’s equally unhappy childhood and adult loneliness. From their neglectful guardians to later isolation, Antoinette and Rochester ironically share quite a few parallels in their lives beyond their mutually mounting insanity and hatred. In yet another example of the book using sweeping political realities to excuse personal sins, Rochester, too, is the victim of primogeniture laws that deprive him of his inheritance and force him to marry rich for social survival.
This, then, is Wide Sargasso Sea’s greatest feat. It isn’t admirable because it vindicates its characters, but because it damns them all; it makes room for their salvation precisely through that damnation, by dispelling ideas of hurt cancelling out hurt or past injustices paying for future ones by saying that yes, I am insane, yes, I have made your life more difficult, but you do not get to do this to me, too. Pain begets pain in Wide Sargasso Sea, but the only canceling out here is that only by feeling sorry for both villain and victim—in some twisted binary star system of mutual terrorization—does one recognize the pure, unbiased, equal-opportunity-distastefulness of both their actions.
More than any fluff or aesthetic symmetry, this is the reason why Antoinette and Rochester’s lives are so contrivedly similar in the novel. But if that’s so, why don’t we ever consider that Rochester, too, might have gone insane in the tropics as an excuse for his more abusive moments in Jane Eyre? He certainly leaves the West Indies rambling about controlling his wife as all “mine, mine, mine,” but standards of the American legal system aside, would that forgive him for what he does? Blame is a ball that never lands in Wide Sargasso Sea—whether it’s blaming someone for going insane, feeling fear, descending from slave owners, or even sympathizing with a conventionally distasteful character, Rhys’s novel questions how we assign guilt and blame for unconscious, mental, or maybe even involuntary mistakes. Lydia Davis asks in her winding essays if thinking about someone is equal to doing something to them—to doing hurt to them—and indeed, whether it’s the distortionary effects of racism or just plain paranoia about one’s surroundings, Wide Sargasso Sea pushes the bounds of the real and imagined by asking us if prejudice is a tangible attack.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved takes a similar view that holding racist thoughts only hurts white people by eroding their humanity, but Jean Rhys takes a wider look at the power of the mental and the abstract. If anything, Wide Sargasso Sea is about the danger of not just echo chambers, but feedback loops in all their forms: setting influences character, but character influences setting in the sense that if you see the trees of Jamaica as beautiful like Antoinette or menacing like Rochester, they become that, and you are in turn comforted or driven further insane by the reality you have (consciously, and thus voluntarily?) constructed. In that sense, Rhys’s novel is like a lucid dream that bleeds into reality—our reality.
On one level, Wide Sargasso Sea is about using the political to justify personal horrors; on another, it’s a slippery and seductively dreamy slope about how personal lapses of sanity and autonomy can start to mold the world around you to your own and others’ detriment. Whether about white people, Black people, or those in between like Antoinette, it challenges us to weigh the blame and guilt that comes with having good intentions, unconsciously bad ones, or any sort of intentions at all. It divorces people from their actions so we can judge the latter more purely, precisely because we are so uncertain about both the former’s race/gender/other U.S. census traits and the most primally comforting labels of all—good and bad.