Jane Eyre & Wide Sargasso Sea
Jane Eyre took me 10 years to read and 4 false starts. Despite never finishing the novel, I had firmly entrenched negative opinions on Jane Eyre, particularly concerning Mr. Rochester. Knowing the basic plot, and having seen the 1996 film version around the time of my first attempt, I latched on to Rochester’s abusive qualities, and over the years became unyielding in my hatred of Rochester. Likewise, my confusion grew over everyone who finds Rochester the epitome of the romantic hero. Abuse isn’t sexy. Or romantic. Or anything to be desired in a partner.
However, I didn’t like how unfairly inflexible I was becoming, so I felt I needed to finally finish the book. Upon reading that one of the reading challenge categories was “read a book you previously abandoned,” I knew Jane’s time had come. Perhaps an exercise in futility, considering I’d abandoned her four times, but I was determined, and I knew my stubbornness could win this one.
As it turns out, I’m shockingly in the loving Jane Eyre camp. I fell for Brontë’s writing style and brilliant use of a first-person narrative – this is one of the few times I will praise first-person narratives. They often leave me feeling like my head is encased in wool, the words echoing loudly in my head as I read. However, Jane is an inquisitive and lively narrator, describing everything that is going on in her surroundings, and not just trapped inside her own mind. Despite being in her head, I do not feel like I am only in her head. Another reason I prefer a third-person narrative is the ability to get to know all of the characters and their thoughts. Difficult to do that in first person. But Brontë is able to tap into this by turning Jane into Rochester’s personal confessor. While I like this choice as it better serves the narrative, it is one of my least favorite things about Rochester.
Rochester is wildly inappropriate with his employee. He tells her intimate details about himself, artfully spinning a silent web around her, seducing her with words. Jane quickly comes to believe she is essential to him, to his very happiness and survival. And as she grows to believe this, he becomes the center of her universe, her heaven on earth. Aware of this, Rochester presses his advantage, spinning his web ever tighter around her through deceit and trickery and “clever” arguments (logical fallacies). Chiefest examples are the gypsy scene (Ch. XIX), and the chapter in which Jane and Mr. Rochester declare themselves and become engaged (Ch. XXIII).
Another unsettling aspect of Rochester is the way he dehumanizes Bertha and Jane. He strips Bertha and Jane of agency and community with his words and actions. Of course Bertha went mad – Rochester drove her to it. In addition to refusing to Bertha her name, he refers to her as a creature time and time again. Bertha is a vampire, sucking the life from him, which begs the question who made her so. Jane, on the other hand, is fey. He taunts her on her otherworldly look, and continues to do so throughout the novel. She calls him out on this, asking him to stop aligning her with the greenfolk, but he ignores her request.
Jean Rhys explores this idea of dehumanization further in Wide Sargasso Sea, but instead of creating a vampire, the Mr. Rochester character – unnamed in the novel – creates a zombie (a fitting change, as zombies come out of Caribbean folklore, and this is mainly told from Antoinette’s point of view). Antoinette has no peers, no community, and then is trapped in marriage to a destructive person who can’t understand her, can’t relate to her at all. But just as Rochester causes Antoinette to descend into madness, he sparks his own descent. His is harder to see, but he just as surely goes mad. His is just a quieter madness, but we are able to see it due to Rhys’s treatment of her first-person narrative.
Like Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea is in first-person (and an example of the head-encased-in-wool type of narration I don’t care for). However, I did like Rhys’s use of structure. Wide Sargasso Sea is in three parts. Antoinette narrates Parts I and III. Part II, the longest part, can be divided into three sections, with Rochester narrating sections 1 and 3 and Antoinette section 2. This enables us to get into Rochester’s mind and see the dangerous path he’s headed down.
Read the World: Read a book written over a century ago, then read a retelling of the book.
Modern Mrs. Darcy: Read a book you previously abandoned (Jane Eyre)
#BustleReads: Read a book by a modernist woman writer (Wide Sargasso Sea)
Dates read: January 6-12, 2016 (Jane Eyre) & January 12-17, 2016 (Wide Sargasso Sea)