Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea

I woke up this morning to a sunny, dew-dropped day. Yawning, stretching out my taut limbs, and letting my eyes adjust to the light streaming through my blinds, what do you think was my first thought of the day? It could have been the fact that I have choir practice or that I finish up my last two hours of Driver's Ed today. Perhaps I was contemplating on the excitement that my best friend is sleeping over at my house tonight. But no, my mind was occupied by Wide Sargasso Sea.

Not much of a way to start the morning, huh? After all, I've despised Wide Sargasso Sea even before I finished the novel. Something about taking the sanctity of Rochester's character and turning it into a villain (well, even more of a villain I should say) was just unforgivable in my mind. I couldn't fathom my beloved Byronic hero being turned into something I couldn't see him as. Not to say that I saw him as perfect, because I didn't. Rochester had a list of obvious (and almost inexcusable) flaws. Perhaps I couldn't bear the thought of taking those flaws and turning him into a character completely consumed by them.

But I can't help but have an artistic appreciation for Wide Sargasso Sea. It is a valiant effort to dare the opinions of Jane Eyre puritans and orchestrate a story told from the POV of the woman in the attic. If I were an author, I would probably take the same route. With a novel such as Jane Eyre told in the first-person, there's so many allies left open for different interpretation, and when one examines them we find that Bertha's alley is perhaps the widest. What do we actually know about the lunatic hidden away on the third floor besides what Rochester tells us? Jean Rhys capitalizes on Rochester's weakest point to tell Bertha's story. We only know what Rochester tells us, and from what we've seen throughout Jane Eyre, Rochester isn't always the most honest of men. Hmmm...

It's actually quite interesting to shift the focus to the character that often times readers think the least about. In the source material, Miss Bertha Antoinetta Mason is almost just an inserted obstacle. She serves no other purpose than to make things harder for the heroine we're supposed to be focusing on. The focus is never for a minute on the character herself; she merely functions as a tool to peal away the layers of other characters (namely Jane and Rochester).

 For example, during the whole revelation of Bertha's existence, the heart of emotion still lies with a tortured Rochester. Who do we fill pity for? Least of all Bertha who's been locked up in a decrepit and fly-ridden attic for all these years. Our thoughts are bent only on Jane and Rochester. What will become of their relationship? What will Jane do? Awww, poor Rochester. And even in the end if we sit down and do some serious introspection, most of us will admit that we were almost relieved when Bertha threw herself off the roof because it was a basic signal that Jane and Rochester were free to be together.

Jean Rhys wipes away that attitude by making Bertha a person. She wasn't always a lunatic. When she was young and beautiful she wanted all the same things that Jane wished for. She was at the mercy of her position in the exact same way Jane was. Entering into an arranged marriage with Rochester might not have been as romantic as a passionate affair with miss Jane Eyre, but do you really think that Bertha knew what she was getting herself into any more than Rochester did?

Grant it, what I'm saying isn't exactly how Rhys paints it. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Miss Mason is the victim, Rochester was in on the bargain the whole time, and it was she who fell madly in love with a man who was using her only to discard her later.

Wide Sargasso Sea take an extreme view on the story but after finishing it and recovering from my initial disgust, I did learn to see Bertha Mason differently than I had before. Though Rhys's portrayal of the story is never in my mind when I read the actual source material (thank goodness), it still managed to impact me in a way that made me a better reader of Jane Eyre. That's the idea here. You might hate the story or absolutely adore it, but either way it helps mold you into a better reader.

That's how I took it, anyway. 

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