JeanRhys was born in Dominica, one of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, in 1890.
The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother, Rhys
grew up in the final days of England's
colonial heyday, a time that witnessed the waning of an aristocratic and
exploitative Creole culture. Her parents' heritage situated Rhys
between two competing ideologies—one that sought to exoticizeCaribbean life and one that incorporated the
racial pluralism of West Indian values. Rhys was further influenced by the black servants who raised her and
introduced her to the language, customs, and religious beliefs of the native Caribbeans.
While Wide Sargasso Sea
reflects the distinct sensibilities of a West Indian writer, it also bears the
stamp of European modernism. At sixteen, Rhys left
her home in Dominica and
moved to England,
aligning herself more closely with her father's Welsh heritage. A feeling of
displacement that characterizes both Rhys's own life and the lives of her characters left her unable
to root herself to her ancestors' home.
Throughout the 1920s, Rhys
traveled in Europe as a bohemian artist, living sporadically in Paris, where
she became familiar with the innovative works of modern artists and writers.
This period of wandering placed Rhys on the
outskirts of conventional society. Thus marginalized, she began to question the
codes and traditions of the male-dominated urban environment. Plagued by
poverty, illness, and alcoholism, she felt firsthand the psychological and
physical toll of being a single woman in a patriarchal culture—a theme she
explores in much of her writing.
Rhys's first four novels—Postures or Quartet
Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934),
and Good Morning (1939)—mirror
her own life, with heroines who lead drifting, alienated lives as stigmatized
outsiders. While these early novels met with some success, they never went far
in establishing Rhys as a leading European
With some reluctance, Rhys settled down
a country for which she felt little fondness. She more or less disappeared from
the literary scene until the 1960s, when her work was rescued from obscurity. The 1966
publication of Wide Sargasso Sea,
twenty-seven years after the appearance of her last novel, reflects the
culmination of her earlier heroine sketches, while
shifting focus away from an industrial European context and back to a
nineteenth-century Caribbean landscape.
When Rhys read CharlotteBrontë'sJane Eyre as a young
girl, she began to imagine the Caribbean upbringing of the character Rochester's infamous
Creole wife, Bertha Mason. Years later, Rhys
recalled, "I thought I'd try to write her a life." The result is one
of literature's most famous prequels, a novel that seeks to humanize the
racially pejorative characterization of a West Indian madwoman.
An aesthetic experiment in modernist techniques and a powerful example of
feminist rewriting, Wide Sargasso Sea gives
voice to a marginalized character and transforms her
original tragic demise into a kind of triumphant heroism.
As a West Indian writer, Rhys seeks
to uncover an alternate truth, exposing the limits of a literary canon that
assumes a shared white heritage in its audience. She writes this conflict into
the very dialogue of her novel, creating, in the characterization of Mr.Mason,
an unflattering picture of patriarchal entitlement. When Annette
describes her sister's marital problems—specifically her husband's tyrannical
behavior—Mr.Mason responds coldly "That's her
story. I don't believe it"; he effectively silences the Creole woman's
voice. Rhys aims to restore this voice with her
text. She intended Wide Sargasso Sea to
stand on its own, apart from Brontë's novel, as a
challenge to the canon.
If Rhys's novel breaks thematic conventions by foregrounding the
story of Antoinette / Bertha, it also
innovates stylistically, adopting narrative, temporal, and aesthetic schemes
that reflect a cultural and racial pluralism. Entrenched in the literary
concerns of the mid-twentieth century, Wide
Sargasso Sea features a web of symbols and images that underlies its
dream- like plot and informs its feverish snatches of dialogue. Delving into
the psyche of her principal characters, Rhys
examines their fragmented identities and unconscious fears, focusing on an
inner world that mirrors the impressions of an evocative physical landscape.
The tripartite structure of the novel, with its shifts in narrative voice and
jumps through time and space, affords the book a complex, porous surface that
differs markedly from the linear progression found in its nineteenth-century
counterpart. Championed by postcolonial, feminist, and modernist critics alike,
Wide Sargasso Sea struggles against
dominant traditions and espouses the cause of the under-represented.
Wide Sargasso Sea has generated
heated debate among these literary critics, resisting easy categorization
within the context of twentieth-century fiction. As a postcolonial work, the
novel indicts England's
exploitative colonial empire, aligning its sympathies with the plight of the
black Caribbeans. However, Rhys's narrator—a white
Creole—remains a step removed from racial oppression, and struggles primarily
against the dictates of patriarchy. For this reason, the character is a
touchstone for feminist theorists. That Wide
Sargasso Sea is a rewriting of JaneEyre—a
text long upheld as a triumph of feminist liberalism—complicates the feminist
debate. Rhys's text also invites psychoanalytic readings, through its
experimentation with narrative and exploration of the unconscious. In its
formal techniques and thematic sources, Rhys's novel incorporates modern and postmodern devices of
fragmentation, while drawing, at times, on Romantic notions of sublimity,
passion, and the supernatural.