Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea

Three years ago, I wrote about favorite books I haven’t read. Sometimes it happens that, based on the presentation of a certain book (through a movie, TV series, through another book or an essay) or, more directly, on reading its first page or chapter I get a strong feeling that the book is important, that it’s going to be one of the treasured. As soon as I acknowledge this feeling, I leave the book aside. Out of fear maybe; maybe just because I want to save it for a better time, less stressful, when I would be able to invest more energy and presence of mind into reading it.

I always take into consideration the fact that the hunch could prove wrong – it being right so far does not mean it is unmistakable. So, there’s a regular dose of fear that the book in question will not be good, or that it will not mean anything to me, which, in a way, is what’s more important in these cases.

I approached Wide Sargasso Sea with reserve. Nevertheless, I was crushed. Such a small volume, so densely packed. Gloriously complex, mighty, disturbing. Devastating. Even though I knew the story, its end, in particular, I found myself hoping – for a little bit of sympathy and understanding, for just a little bit less stubbornness… It was a painful experience, I must admit. Something heavy lay on my chest, especially during the reading of the second part. In Antoinette’s words:

Such terrible things happen [..] Why? Why?

The opening lines, in which every word has its purpose, has a meaning, set expectations very high. The book is full of symbolism, there’s a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of parallels (a lot of foreshadowing through parallels too). It isn’t a book one reads once. It calls for multiple readings.

Instead of writing about what I perceived and understood, I want to note the scenes and sentences that left me in confusion, things that left me wonder.

  • Mount Calvary convent. The girls are stitching and listening to stories from the lives of the saints. All of the sudden, this:

Quickly, while I can, I must remember the hot classroom. The hot classroom, the pitchpine desks, the heat of the bench striking up through my body, along my arms and hands. But outside I could see cool, blue shadow on a white wall. My needle is sticky, and creaks as it goes in and out of the canvas. ‘My needle is swearing,’ I whispered to Louise, who sits next to me.

Why does she need to remember it quickly, while she can? At what moment in her life is she remembering this? The use of present and past tense in the last sentence is stunning.

  • The same conundrum here, when she’s talking about England with Christophine:

I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, I must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

  • What is the meaning of the story about rats and moonlight?
  • Antoinette’s husband is unnamed. Her father as well. Why?



P.S. Tremendously glad that I joined Rhys Reading Week, I send many thanks to Jacqui and Eric Karl for organizing it. Congratulations are in order too!


10 thoughts on “Wide Sargasso Sea

  1. This is a Rhys I have yet to read mainly because I’d like to save it till the end. Eric may well be able to offer a view on the scenes you mention, so I’ll let him know about your post. The imagery/symbolism sounds incredibly striking, an intoxicating mix of the seductive and the unsettling.

    Delighted to hear that you enjoying the Reading Week – glad you could join us!

    1. Thank you for that Jacqui. I would appreciate it.
      I have been thinking (and reading) about the novel this whole week and my thoughts are running wild. There’s so much to delight in, to appreciate, and, as I have noted, there are also things I can’t get my mind around. It might be helpful to read letters from the period during which she wrote this novel.

      It’s not a bad idea to save Wide Sargasso Sea until the end and see how you can connect it with stories and novels that came before it.
      I am going backwards!

  2. So many insightful reviews of this book have come through my reader as a result of this Rhys reading week. I must admit that I didnt understand a lot of WSS either but the power of the language propelled me forward

    1. This has been a great week. I just wish I had more time for the book, for reading reviews and discussion, for writing down some of my own observations. Maybe, in days to come..
      Perseverance is good in these cases. It makes the second reading more clear and more rewarding.

  3. I was going to explore this book once but was then distracted by reading about the Sargasso Sea, which is fascinating. I suppose I would rather read Jane Eyre first, just to know what is going on properly, as a completist.

    1. Isn’t it? Starting with the name itself. Sargasso. I think it had something to do with not picking up the book sooner. Its magic kept me on a distance, but at the same tame it kindled the flame.

      I almost went that way myself (exploring Sargasso Sea), but I managed to stop at the right time. I will get back to it, though. It’s extremely interesting.

      Yes, it would be good to read Jane Eyre first – to ensure the highest possible level of understanding and appreciation.

  4. I’m glad you’ve joined in, Anna. I think the switch in tense works as a kind of foreshadowing for what is inevitably to come in Antoinnete’s life as it has already been written by Bronte. This is perhaps hightened by the idea of madness – that she has lost control of time and that desire to quickly remember details is an effort to pull herself out of losing her sanity. Also, in Rhys’ other novels there a curious mixture of tense as the women in them often slip between memories and the present and a predicted ideal future. These are just ideas and Rhys’ intention might have been quite different. It’s definitely a novel that warrants multiple rereadings.

    1. Thank you for the insights, Eric. I think she is foreshadowing as well. So many other elements in the novel share the same function and that makes the story feel rather deterministic. It had to happen the way it happened. But, I played with a thought, a possibility that Antoinette is narrating from the attic – I wondered if I had missed a solid clue somewhere. I dropped the thought. Narrating from the end point would be too simple for Rhys, if I may be so bold to state, considering I only read two of her works.

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