The Relationship with Jane Eyre

In reading Wide Sargasso Sea you do have to keep Jane Eyre in mind as it acts as a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's novel despite the fact it was written a hundred years later. Rhys' text is obviously set within the mother-text of Jane Eyre and as such its end is predestined as it literally comes before Rhys's beginning. This sense of predetermined events lends the novel overtones of tragic inescapability.

Rhys was fascinated by the plight of Creole heiresses, these figures of tragic females fallen victim to the political changes in patriarchal colonial society. She was reportedly outraged at the representation she found in Jane Eyre of Bertha as she is portrayed not only as a horrific and dangerously passionate woman but also as a bestial and racially inferior subject. Rhys was resentful of this caricature of the Creole created to enhance the perfection of the English and virginal heroine. "That's only one side" Rhys protested "the English side".

Rhys sets out to show the other side - that neglected by Brontë's predominantly English and biased cultural representations. Rhys sets out to undermine this text's representations of Creoles that were created in order to perpetuate the English sense of racial superiority and highlight the successes of the imperialist project. She opens up the narrow view of events we find in the Victorian novel.

Her sentiments precede those of feminist Gayatri Spivak who constructs similar arguments in her article 'Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism' (1985, Feminisms ed. Warhol and Hendl). As Spivak shows Jane Eyre herself is marginalized and is only saved from this interminable position by the cultural contestant of Bertha, Jane is thrown into the centre and received as superior following this passage where Bertha is rendered as bestial and animalistic by imperialist prejudice:

"In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face" (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë p.295)

Here then the Creole woman is represented in horrified terms as the absolute Other: frightening and despicable. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys gives the 'madwoman in the attic' her own voice, interior logic and sympathetically portrays the psychological demise of Antoinette. Rhys charts the effects of the political shifts on individual lives and identities and gives Antoinette a voice to speak back to Rochester's and Brontë's indictment of her in Jane Eyre. The narrative personas of the novel allow for both an externalisation and internalisation of madness and we see the effects of racial isolation and patriarchal oppression with stark clarity in the final scenes of Antoinette's imprisonment, dreams and final cathartic and empowering suicide.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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