Jean Rhys and Charlotte Bronte - Wide Sargasso Sea: Backgrounds, Criticism

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Wide Sargasso Sea: Hating Rochester

Mar 9, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:the book is leaving my house

Cons:I'll never be able to read Jane Eyre the same way again

The Bottom Line: The Bottom Line thinks authors should leave other author's stories alone.


I'm a big fan of the Bronte sisters, with their tragic heroes and dark mysteries. This is what led me to picking up Wide Sargasso Sea, a 1966 offering by Jean Rhys that imagines the story that led to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

::: The Premise :::

In Rhys' version of events, Rochester's mad wife is a young woman living in the Caribbean whose family has a genteel past but has fallen on hard times. After her mother remarries to try to better the family's station and her brother dies, she is married off to Rochester, who finds her attractive at first, but eventually lets his hatred of slavery and her family's history eat away at him until he finally confines her in the attic.

::: Leave Bronte Alone :::

The blurb on the back of Wide Sargasso Sea claims that the New York Times called the book a "tour de force by any standard" when it was released. I'm going to go on the assumption that they had different standards for novels back in the day, because this book left me cold.

Where Rochester seems tragic and sympathetic to an extent in Jane Eyre, he's virtually a monster in Rhys' version of the story, turning a girl who has lived through nothing but tragedy and abuse into a madwoman for no good reason. Rhys also uses the conceit of never using the girl's name, as if she is below our contempt as well as Rochester's. While it makes sense in the context of Rocheter's view of her, it's annoying, and added to the writing style, leaves the reader feeling stuck in a fog.

I fear that my enjoyment of Jane Eyre will forever be colored by reading Wide Sargasso Sea, and I wish that I, and Rhys, had just left well enough alone.


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