Zombies! Black magic! Riots! Rum-soaked Caribbean honeymoon! Squishy bugs! Monkeys!
OK, so we were kidding about the monkeys, but all that other stuff? It's all in Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and it's widely considered a literary classic. How could this be, you ask?
Jean Rhys first read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in 1907, when she arrived in England as a teenager. As a native of the Caribbean herself, she was "shocked" by Brontë's portrayal of Bertha Mason, Rochester's Creole wife who was locked up in the attic (Rhys 1999: 144). Nearly fifty years later, Rhys turned the story of Brontë's "madwoman in the attic" into a full-length novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which pretty much established Rhys as one of the greatest novelists in the twentieth century.
Wide Sargasso Sea isn't just a prequel, but a significant re-writing of one of the classics of Victorian fiction. Instead of a shrieking specter, we get a psychologically nuanced portrayal of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason, a young white Creole girl coming of age in Jamaica while it was still a British colony. The Caribbean is no longer an exotic afterthought, but a vibrant locale described with an eye trained on its dense social, cultural, and historical landscape. The marriage of Antoinette and Rochester is no longer just a painful back-story, but a stage on which the sexes battle it out for emotional and economic control.
Wide Sargasso Sea also alters the historical setting of Jane Eyre by pushing the chronology up almost thirty years later in order to take advantage of another foundational moment in Jamaican history, the abolition of slavery in 1834. Setting the novel during this tumultuous period enables Rhys to situate the figure of the white Creole woman in the complex of shifting race relations under British colonial rule.
No wonder, then, that Wide Sargasso Sea isn't just a fascinating and entertaining story, but a work that has profoundly impacted the way that readers approach the "great books" of Western literature. The novel challenges us to read these texts critically for the untold stories of characters who are marginalized because they don't fit into the dominant paradigm of what a hero or heroine ought to be.
(Oh, and can you "get" Wide Sargasso Sea without having any idea what Jane Eyre is about? Absolutely. Can you love Jane Eyre and be seduced by Wide Sargasso Sea at the same time? Of course – many people do. The beauty of Wide Sargasso Sea is that it lets you have it both ways.)
What do you get when Lost meets Mean Girls, sprinkled with a little Night of the Living Dead, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the three Star Wars prequels? Welcome to the world of Wide Sargasso Sea, with its blend of twisted romance and island mystery, occult magic and literary self-reference.
Let's start with Lost. An island where unexplained things happen, where conventional notions of space and time are turned inside out, where you're constantly threatened by "Others" whose intentions remain obscure, where there are constant allusions to literature and philosophy – sounds a lot like Rhys's Caribbean, doesn't it? It might be tough to see balding John Locke stirring up an obeah (or voodoo) potion à la Christophine, but both are charismatic characters whose influence comes largely from their claim to know more about how the island operates than everyone else.
Judging by all the prequels out there, you could say that the pre-history of a story can be just as compelling as the story itself. Be it Hannibal Lecter or Indiana Jones, Wolverine, or Yoda, prequels offer the tempting possibility of understanding how a fascinating character works. When they really deliver, like Wide Sargasso Sea, they offer another way of enjoying your favorite tale.
But the novel doesn't just tap into some tried-and-true cultural motifs – it relates to some important contemporary social questions as well. Antoinette's struggles with her self-image and her sexuality speak to issues of body image, self-esteem, and even relationship violence that many people face at some point in their lives. And if you've ever been the victim of gossip, you know that even after the gossiper has apologized profusely and attempted to clear the air, the gossip is out there, part of the way the world looks at you whether you like it or not. The novel gets at the uncomfortable truth that words can hurt just as much as sticks and stones.