Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Wide Sargasso Sea

Because Wide Sargasso Sea can be seen, and was intended as, an answer and expansion to Jane Eyre I couldn't help but mainly focusing on the similarities and differences between these two novels. And there are plenty. On the one hand, there is the narrative voice. Of course, this difference is pretty obvious, as Jane Eyre is pretty much a classic example of an Victorian novel with a first person narrator that is as reliable as a first person narrator can be. But, I think, what is striking about Jane Eyre's narrative voice is that it is mature and self-assure in its tone, although through important parts of the book Jane is either young or confused or both. This is quite different in Jean Rhys's novel. Not only does the narrative voice change in the different parts of the novel, the narrative voices, in my opinion, are also at times more personal and often fittingly insecure. Especially in the first part of the book, concerning Antoinette's childhood dominated by confusion and anxiety as a result of the neglect of her mother and these sense of being in-between groups. This cannot only be felt in what is narrated, it can be also seen in how it is narrated, especially during the scene in which her family's house is burnt down.

An interesting commonality I see between Jane and Antoinette is the place the school – boarding or convent – takes in their lives. Both grew up in a insecure, rather harsh home in which both have to struggle with neglect and animosities. The prospect of going to school is a possibility of a safe haven. Both still have to struggle in school, but at least for Jane this more or less works out, she meets and finds friends in important and influential female figures in her life. Antoinette also considers the convent her refuge, but things do not work out as fine as they do for Jane.

The narrative voice in the second part of the novel is the point of view of Mr. Rochester. He, in my opinion, has some common features with Marlow's perspective in Heart of Darkness. He is also an Englishman in a situation and setting he fails to understand, recognize ,accept or at least tolerate when he visits Antoinette, her home and her family. Suspicious of all conventions and habits that in some way oppose or do not fit to 'proper' Victorian, English conventions. He tries to force everything into these conventions. This goes as far as renaming his wife Antoinette Bertha, in order to make her more English. Also, although he marries her, this is merely a convenient business and financial, rational act for him. Nd he treats the relationship with the professional, cold, matter-of-fact, one might say Colonialist attitude appropriate for the relation between two parties of a contract, but not of two lovers, at least in our modern understanding, despite all sexual contact.

Bertha is quite confused by this situation, desperately wanting him to love her, and even more confused, if not anxious, about the looming unknown goal and image that is England. To her this idealized place of Rochester's appears cold and scary, I think.

The novel appears to point out that this being torn between two her Caribbean self – which isn't all that stable either – and and the English other is part of the reasons that turn her into the madwoman in Jane Eyre. The book also seems to present the idea that Antoinette/Bertha appears 'mad' because the English society makes her appear mad by force and treat her accordingly. This makes me think of Said's Orientalism and the way i.e. African 'savages' are portrayed by Colonial powers such as Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

1 comment:

  1. I really like the connection you make to Heart of Darkness. I don't think I ever would have noticed it. I think there's an interesting tension in both Jane Eyre and WSS between the authorial voice and the voice of the actual characters; I'm not sure how to put it into words yet, but this post certainly has me thinking about it.

    Thanks for a nice read.