Reviewing The Bronte Books Jayne Eyre English Literature Essay

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"There is always the other side, always" [1] , Antoinette says to her husband as she tries to persuade him that Daniel Cosways accusations are slanderous. In her reading of Brontë's Jane Eyre, Caribbean-born Jean Rhys became preoccupied with the character of Bertha Mason within whom she found peculiar similarities and parallels with herself. Like Bertha, a descendent of the white slave-owning class, her relations with black Caribbean's descended from slavery and could not be unaffected by the historical circumstances of the region, and as a Dominican-born white woman she could not consider herself first and foremost British. [2] Her novel Wide Sargasso Sea can be described as the novel in which Rhys takes the figure of Bertha Mason as her point of inspiration and places her as the protagonist, allowing her the possibility to achieve validity and self-hood and granting her the voice to tell her side of events. However this is not done for the purposes of 'completing' Jane Eyre, to add the 'missing jigsaw piece'; to assume so would belittle the novel to a single argument. Instead, the relationship between the two novels is much more dynamic and dimensional. Furthermore, the extent to which Wide Sargasso Sea should be read squarely in terms of Jane Eyre is also open to debate; Rhys's novel both engages with and refuses Jane Eyre as an authoritative source [3] . This conscious refusal is a central part of the postcolonial strategies that we find in Rhys's writing.

In her revision of Jane Eyre, Rhy's creates an alternative version to Rochester's account of his first marriage. She completely reverses the perspective, as one of her letters attests:

"The Creole in Charlotte Brontë's novel is a lay figure - repulsive which does not matter, and not once alive which does. She's necessary to the plot, but always she shrieks, howls and laughs horrible, attacks all and sundry - off stage. For me (and for you I hope) she must be right on stage. [4] "

In proposal to the view of the text as 'writing back', there are conscious areas of similar narrative material in the different texts, as if Rhys has attempted to pin-point certain points in Jane Eyre and explain them on Antoinette's terms. Both stories function around pairings on materialistic motives; the Rochester figure finds himself thrust into a foreign culture for financial reasons, while Antoinette's family use him as a status symbol; as an Englishman, he might restore the family name to popular identity and stability. Both matches are initially acquisitive and in both novels, the wedding is reported to have taken place in Spanish Town against a background of behind-the-scenes scheming, the estranged groom being presented as an easy prey in both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre. Also in both texts, the discovery of the mother's insanity and of Antoinette's younger brother's illness is only made afterwards, and in both texts Antoinette-Bertha's breathtaking beauty is felt to have evil connotations and is held responsible for foul play. The aspects of Rochester's life, afflicted by a mad wife following an advantageous marriage, are more or less identical in both novels. His complaints on her, specifically here about the lunatic's violent temper and her bad language, occur in both stories: "such language! - no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she." [5] "Your doudou certainly know some filthy language." [6] 

The allusions of insanity are also expressed in both novels, although they are somewhat more exaggerated in Jane Eyre: "It was a discoloured face - it was a savage face. I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments!" [7] The descriptions of Antoinette are kinder but nevertheless similar: "Her hair hung uncombed and dull into her eyes which were inflamed and staring, her face was very flushed and looked swollen." [8] However it is only in Wide Sargasso Sea that we learn of Antoinette's beauty; in Jane Eyre she is likened to an animal: "What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight 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." [9] 

Probably the most symbolic 'deja vu' of the two texts is in the conflagration of Thornfield. In Wide Sargasso Sea it is predicted and retold as dreams; Antoinette dreams that she steals out of her attic room, wanders through the main part of the house, sets fire to it and escapes to the roof from which she jumps, waking before she reaches the ground. In the final convergence with Jane Eyre, it is almost as if Antoinette has finally coincided with Bertha, as she 'sees' her: "it was then that I saw her - the ghost. The woman with streaming hair." [10] Here the reoccurrence of the image of 'streaming hair' which is also present of Jane Eyre identifies the separate visions as one. It is significant however that in Antoinette's version, death is subtly ruled out. It stark comparison is the macabre vision of Bertha's broken body on the pavement at Thornfield Hall: "and then, ma'am, she yelled and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement." [11] Rhys substitutes with more positive, angel-like imagery of flight; unlike Bertha, Antoinette does not leap to her death, but returns to wakefulness before the crash. This corresponds with what Rhys intended for Antoinette in her letters: "her end - I want it in a way triumphant!" [12] Antoinette's dream provides the foreshadowing of the chain of events that finally occur in Jane Eyre, so that it is made to appear as the continuation of Wide Sargasso Sea. Through this reversal, Jean Rhys usurps precedence, making it seem to us as if Wide Sargasso Sea came first and originated Jane Eyre [13] .

Most importantly, the echoing of the different events from Antoinette's point of view gives her a past. The events reported in Jean Rhys's novel are therefore invested with an explanatory function accounting for Antoinette's tragic fate. This reconstruction of causality is indeed the stated motive for Jean Rhys's revision of Jane Eyre:

"She (The Creole) must be plausible at least with a past, the reason why Mr Rochester treats her abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire, and eventually succeeds. [14] "

However in Charlotte Brontë's novel, the account of Bertha's life is quickly disposed of in one single chapter (Chapter 27), in which she essentially features as an example of the detrimental effects of excess as preached of by Victorian ideology. Until then, her part in the novel is limited to that of "a horrible laughter," or of a "shape" reminiscent of "the foul German spectre - the vampire." [15] In Wide Sargasso Sea, she becomes human. We learn of her difficulties finding her identity living in Jamaica as part of a family that previously owned slaves, when the power of the plantation-owning class is in decline. The burning down of her family home, Coulibri, resulting in the death of her younger brother and the following insanity of her Mother gives her validity for her anguish. A parallel can be drawn between the burning of Coulibri, her home, and the burning down of Thornfield, which becomes her prison. Through Antoinette we learn the different sides of 'Rochester's' character; the ease in which he decides that Antoinette is dangerous and begins to despise her, "tied to a lunatic for life - a drunk lying lunatic - gone her mother's way". [16] In discovering her mother's name was Antoinette he decides to call her Bertha in an attempt to change her fate; ironically as he attempts to undo one affiliation, he creates another, this time within Charlotte Brontë's novel. Although Jean Rhys makes significant alterations to Brontë's account of Rochester's first marriage, especially by the shifting of perspective, she cannot entirely emancipate herself from the plot of Jane Eyre. Her letters provide evidence that this was her plan initially:

It might be possible to unhitch the whole thing from Charlotte Brontë's novel, but I don't want to do that. It is that particular Creole I want to write about, not any of the other mad Creoles. [17] 

However, there are areas in which Rhys made a conscious effort to redefine Wide Sargasso Sea as a clearly opposing text to Jane Eyre. Donald D. Stone descried Jane Eyre as "Victorianized romance celebrating the virtues of home and duty as the reward for the rejection of the excesses of romance and Romanticism." Although this is by no means the only possible reading of Jane Eyre, in Rhys's reworking of this celebration of restraint and self-control she liberates all that Jane Eyre represses. It articulates an aesthetic of extremity, while meeting the demands of plausibility. Retracing the origin of her madness, Jean Rhys undertakes to emancipate Bertha from the straitjacket of stereotyped and non-plausible characterization. [18] Excess is 'naturally' indigenous to Wide Sargasso Sea; as outsiders like Mr Mason or Rochester repeatedly note "always one extreme or the other" [19] , Mason says of Antoinette's mother. Like her mother, excess is expressed by Antoinette's body; "her eyes...are too large and can be disconcerting." [20] On his first journey to Granbois, the true pinnacle of extremity, the Rochester figure is dumbfounded by the daunting intensity of the surroundings: "Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near." [21] The silences are "absolute", the noise "deafening", and the moths are the size of birds. Rhys creates a world in which Brontë's characters cannot cope, and Rochester's patriarchal impulse to put a check upon the excesses is what will causes tragedy to prevail over the idyllic world of romance. [22] In Jane Eyre, Rochester's stark version of his life in the Caribbean is all we have, while Bertha is reduced to shrieks and unintelligible noises. In this clash of perspectives we can trace a contest of power which is simultaneously colonial and patriarchal. Next to cold, sterile Thornfield and the quaint locations of Brontë's England, which presents the West Indies as an overheated, madness-inducing milieu, it is almost a modern Eden in Wide Sargasso Sea: "Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible - the tree of life grew there." [23] There is foreshadowing in the depicting of the garden at Granbois as a fallen garden, like Eden itself: "But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell." [24] It is a place of wish-fulfilment, magic, and sexual fulfilment - "In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight" [25] - but it is not long before 'Rochester' senses a malevolent presence and a sense of the demonic.

Wide Sargasso Sea demands that we think carefully about our attempts to fix meaning and resolve ambiguity, to discover one authoritative voice amongst the clamour of many voices. It throws into light that such attempts might not be too remote from colonial and patriarchal impulses to fix representations of others whose voices are consequently silenced. Perhaps it is ultimately the responsibility of the reader, who may or may not treat Jane Eyre as an authoritative source, and who may or may not have sympathy for the mad woman in the attic.

WORD COUNT: 2,195

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