Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys)

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys, 1966
W.W. Norton & Co.

189 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393308808

A sensual and protected young woman, Antoinette Cosway grows up in the lush, natural world of the Caribbean. She is sold into marriage to the coldhearted and prideful Rochester, who succumbs to his need for money and his lust.

Yet he will make her pay for her ancestors' sins of slaveholding, excessive drinking, and nihilistic despair by enslaving her as a prisoner in his black British home. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—August 24, 1890 
Where—Dominica (Caribbean)
 Death—May 14, 1979 
Where—Exeter, Devonshire, England
Education—Perse School for Girls, England, UK

Rhys was born in Roseau, Dominica. Her father, William Rees Williams, was a Welsh doctor and her mother, Minna Williams, was a third-generation Dominican Creole of Scottish ancestry.

Rhys was educated at the Convent School and moved to England when she was sixteen, sent there to live with her aunt Clarice. She attended the Perse School for girls where she was mocked because of her accent and outsider status. She also attended Cambridge from 1907–08 and spent two terms at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London in 1909.

The instructors at RADA despaired of Rhys ever being able to speak what they considered "proper English" and advised her father to take her away. Unable to train as an actress and refusing to return to the Caribbean, as her parents wished, she worked with varied success as a chorus girl, adopting the names Vivienne, Emma or Ella Gray.

After her father died in 1910 Rhys drifted into the demimonde. Having fallen in love with a wealthy stockbroker, Lancelot Grey Hugh ("Lancey") Smith (1870–1941), she became his mistress. Although Smith was a bachelor he never offered to marry Rhys and their affair ended within two years, though he continued to be an occasional source of financial help.

Distraught both by the end of the affair and by the experience of a near-fatal abortion (not Smith's child), Rhys began writing an account which later became the basis of her novel Voyage In The Dark. In need of money, she posed nude for an artist in Britain, probably Dublin-born William Orpen, in 1913.

During World War I, Rhys served as a volunteer worker in a soldiers' canteen. In 1918 she worked in a pension office.

In 1919 Rhys married the French-Dutch journalist, spy and songwriter Willem Johan Marie (Jean) Lenglet, the first of her three husbands. She lived with him from 1920 wandering through Europe, mainly in London, Paris and Vienna. They had two children a son who died young and a daughter. They divorced in 1933. She married an editor, Leslie Tilden-Smith in 1934. They moved to Devon in 1939, where she lived for many years. He died in 1945, and two years later, in 1947 she married Tilden-Smith's cousin Max Hamer, a solicitor, who spent much of their marriage in jail. He died in 1966.

In 1924 Rhys' work was introduced to English writer Ford Madox Ford and they met in Paris, Rhys thereafter writing short stories under his patronage. Ford praised her "singular instinct for form" and recognized that her outsider status gave her a unique viewpoint. "Coming from the Antilles, he declared, with a terrifying insight and...passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World." At that time her husband was in jail for eight months for what Rhys described as currency irregularities: Rhys moved in with Ford and his longtime partner, Stella Bowen and an affair with Ford quickly ensued.

In Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, the portrayal of the mistreated, rootless woman continued. In Good Morning, Midnight, published in 1939, Rhys used a modified stream-of-consciousness technique to portray the consciousness of an aging woman.

In the 1940s, Rhys all but disappeared from public view, eventually being traced to Cheriton Fitzpaine, in Devon. After her absence from writing and the public eye she published Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, which won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys returned again to the theme of dominance and dependence, through the relationship between a self-assured European man and a powerless woman. Diana Athill of Andre Deutsch's publishing house helped return Rhys' work to a wider audience and was responsible for choosing to publish Wide Sargasso Sea.

Later years
In a brief interview shortly before her death, Rhys questioned whether any novelist, not least herself, could ever be happy for any length of time. She said that: "If I could choose I would rather be happy than write.... If I could live my life all over again, and choose ...."

Rhys died in Exeter on May 14, 1979 before completing her autobiography. In 1979, the incomplete text appeared posthumously under the title Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
(Older works have few, if any, mainstream press reviews online. See Amazon and Barnes & Noble for helpful customer reviews.)

The novel is a triumph of atmosphere-of what one is tempted to call Caribbean Gothic atmosphere.... It has an almost hallucinatory quality.
New York Times

Working a stylistic range from moody introspection to formal elegance, Miss Rhys has us traveling under Antoinette's skin. It is an eerie and memorable trip.
The Nation

Discussion Questions 
1. As a child, Antoinette Cosway wonders why the nuns at the convent do not pray for happiness. When Antoinette and Mr. Rochester arrive at their house after their wedding and journey, they drink a toast with two tumblers of rum punch. Antoinette says, "to happiness." Why does happiness elude her? When is she happy and what happens to those moments of happiness?

2. Antoinette's childhood is heavily overcast by threat. What are the threats from outside her household? What are the threats from within? To whom and to what does she turn for protection?

3. What is the racial situation as Antoinette is growing up? What does it mean that she gets called "white cockroach" and "white nigger?" How well do Antoinette and her mother understand the mindset of recently liberated slaves? What about the outsiders like Mr. Mason and Mr. Rochester?

4. How does Antoinette's experience of her mother's rejection shape her life? Is Antoinette like her mother? Could she have escaped her inherited madness? At what point is it too late? Is she really mad?

5. Sandi, Antoinette's cousin who is black, makes an appearance in each of the three sections of the novel. Were you surprised by Antoinette and Sandi's last scene together? What are the barriers that keep these two characters apart? In your opinion, could these barriers have been surmounted?

6. Mr. Rochester seems to marry Antoinette for money, or perhaps for lust, or perhaps for power. Mr. Rochester makes love to Antoinette in part to gain power over her. Antoinettte persuades Christophine to use the power of her obeah to entice Mr. Rochester to her bed. Amelie has sex with Mr. Rochester for her own purposes, and Mr. Rochester sleeps with Amelie for his. What are the relationships between money, lust, sex, and power in the novel?

7. Perspective switches two times in the novel. What is the effect of reading the same story from different people's points of view? Which narrative voice do you trust more? Why?

8. For Antoinette, England is a dream; for Mr. Rochester, the Caribbean is a dream. How do these perceptions keep them from understanding each other? Do they want to understand each other? How does it protect each of them to remain distant?

9. Many of the characters are mad and many are drunk. How do madness and drunkenness serve the characters? Do they give the characters freedom? protection? the ability to see the truth? the ability to hide from it?

10. Whose account of Christophine seems closest to the truth to you? How does her obeah work or not work under these circumstances? How good is her advice? Can Antoinette follow it?

11. Language plays an important role in the novel. Mr. Rochester cannot understand patois. Does this give his "servants" power over him?

12. Mr. Rochester starts to call Antoinette "Bertha," instead of her real name. "Names are important," she says toward the end of the novel. Does changing her name separate her from her family and her home?

13. In Jane Eyre the madwoman in the attic is a very unsympathetic character, an obstacle that stands in the way of the union of Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë portrays Mr. Rochester as a man with a dark past who nevertheless is not to blame for the burden with which he is saddled. Wide Sargasso Sea obviously sees this situation from a different angle. What are some of the factors that might have led to the difference between Charlotte Brontë's version and that of Jean Rhys?

14. Wide Sargasso Sea has two fires—one in the first section and one in the last. How are these fires related? Who dies, who goes crazy, who is set free? Is there a parallel between the parrot in the first fire and Antoinette in the second?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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