A reductive explanation of Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS) would be “a 1960’s novel that serves as a revisionist complement to Jane Eyre that fleshes out the story of Bertha.” This would leave one to expect a post modern novel that revised the Bertha character in light of evolving social attitudes. That would not necessarily be wrong. One might also expect the novel to challenge and outright reject imperialist ideas of the Caribbean and its people as savage and unknowable and, perhaps, as sinful or morally ambiguous. That would be off the mark.
Rhys places Bertha/Antoinette on a cultural island of her own. As a White Creole she is looked down upon by Europeans and Jamaicans (and Dominicans). We might have expected Rhys to portray the British/Europeans as the villains but, while Rochester (or the character we must assume is Rochester) is not painted in a positive light, the Jamaicans in Part One and Amelie in Part Two serve as antagonists along with Antoinette’s new husband. This strikes me as a laudable literary choice, going beyond a more simplistic flipping of “good” and “bad” characters. For example, in Wicked, Maguire simply makes the Wicked Witch/Elpheba the sympathetic protagonist and Oz, Dorthy, etc. the antagonists. Rhys largely takes morality out of the equation and uses Antoinette’s White Creole status, as well as her position as the daughter of a slave owner, as a device to create conflict and isolation for the character, thus creating a compelling and effective narrative.
The most revisionist element of WSS is the unnamed version of Rochester. Rather than the enlightened, sophisticated, and Byronic figure of Jane Eyre, Rochester displays close minded attitudes that seem in step with the time of the story but must have been a deliberate choice by a writer in the 1960’s to point out embarrassing aspects of imperialist thinking. It is ironic and hypocritical that Rochester comments “Nothing that I told [Antoinette] influenced her at all,” (56) when he makes little effort to understand his new bride or the cultures he finds himself surrounded by. These attitudes go hand-in-hand with his imprisonment and, if I may, emotional abuse of Antoinette but they are not all that make up the character. His actions may not be easily excusable, but they do not lack explanation. He is not a moustache twirling cartoon villain.
As the footnotes in the Norton Critical Edition illuminate for the reader, WSS takes into account a variety of historical developments. However, it does not act as an allegory for the experience of one particular group or another. Antoinette’s story is not limited to a representation of the White Creole or former planter experience. Nor are black Caribs limited to one stock type. Instead, Rhys writes three dimensional characters who are rarely presented as acting in a completely moral manner. Indeed, she does not strip Antoinette/Bertha of the madness portrayed in Jane Eyre, but rather offers up a more fleshed out character, allowing the reader to understand Antoinette’s madness, but not going so far as to ask the reader to excuse it.
From the workshop/MFA point of view, Rhys’ greatest achievement is verisimilitude. This is a result of characters that are, at times, morally ambiguous and resist the more contemporary tendency toward social responsibility in literature in lieu of honest portrayals that suit the narrative rather than another agenda. While WSS presents the “other” of Jane Eyre as more than “unknowable” or a simple cliche, it does not go so far as to cast Antoinette as morally upright, allowing the novel to serve as a companion to Eyre but not as a complete rejection of Bronte’s work. Because Rhys has prioritised character and verisimilitude, WSS can stand on its own as a work of literature.