It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read Wide Sargasso Sea, so forgive me if I’m a bit hazy on some of the details. But yeah, I would just like to reflect on how wonderful this truly awful book was.
And by truly awful, I’d like to clarify that I mean incredible. It is just easily the most depressing thing I’ve ever read, and part of my reflection will be about why I think it had that effect on me.
So yeah, that’s the loudest thought that I can’t get out of my head. Because I am prone to morbid curiosity, and most of the media that I consume is horrendously depressing. For some context, Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author (I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that in a literature course, I’m sorry), most of my favorite music is heartbroken and dejected (here’s probably my favorite love song of all time) and my favorite movie of all time would have to be Tokyo Story by Yasjuiro Ozu (please for the love of God check it out, it’s genuinely incredible). This isn’t to brag or gatekeep depressing art or anything, just wanted to provide context (and link y’all to stuff I like, shh). So yeah, depressing stuff is my wheelhouse. I don’t like happy endings, I don’t like neat and tidy stories, and above all I hate characters who are just straight up good. I love a grey story, where characters are complicated, and there are no bastions of purity.
We get it, you’re depressed. So what?
Well, that was all to say that Wide Sargasso Sea is right in my wheelhouse. But I’ve got to say, this book hit different. Normally, I just sit there after consuming something like this and think to myself “damn, that was heavy.” I might reflect on the beauty in the despair depicted, or on the weight of the social commentary. But with Wide Sargasso, I was honestly just kind of shaken? I finished the book in the morning, and this cloud just hung over me for the rest of the day. It wasn’t depression, but like hopelessness almost. The closest thing I can think of when I think of the ending of Wide Sargasso is the ending of BlacKKKlansman. This is something I’ve literally just now thought of, so give me a second while I switch gears and start comparing Wide Sargasso to my favorite Spike Lee Joint.
Okay, so for those not in the know, BlacKKKlansman is a 2018 film directed by Spike Lee (one of the best to ever do it) and tells the (true) story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. It was marketed as a bit of a comedy but honestly, that movie is funny and tragic and deeply disturbing. For the sake of this piece of writing, we only need to discuss the final scene in the movie. I honestly don’t want to spoil it (if you haven’t seen it please do, it’s an incredible film) so I’ll say it like this; at the end of the film, there’s a scene which ties the protagonists and the black power movement of the 70s to modern America, particularly Charlottesville (which had just happened around the time the film came out).
The fact that stories about racism are so timeless sucks.
All throughout BlacKKKlansman, you’re inundated with parallels to modern race relations, but this ending scene really wraps it all up in a bow. And while Wide Sargasso doesn’t really have any bows like this, I do think they are both striking for the same reason. I think that both pieces of media do a really good job of showing the way that systems and the status quo make people suffer, and how those things perpetuate through the decades. Wide Sargasso doesn’t explicitly tie itself to modern events (at least in any way that I was able to detect) but I think the fact that a tale like it was written so long after its events take place speaks volumes to that notion.
So yeah, I think the reason Wide Sargasso and BlacKKKlansman both affected me so much was because of their timelessness. Both are period pieces about bygone days, but their stories on race in our society are still important within the context of modern discourse. A lot of the depressing media I consume tends to be just sad stories. Unfortunate events, unrequited love, and other such tragedies. But with these stories, the events aren’t isolated. There’s no one antagonist. Sure, Wide Sargasso Sea has Rochester and BlacKKKlansman has David Duke, but they aren’t the real bad guys. They didn’t invent the systems that they benefit from. Instead, they’re just greedy, evil men taking advantage of the world they live in. This isn’t to say that either character isn’t bad because they both are. They’re flat out awful. But Wide Sargasso isn’t depressing because Rochester is mean and abusive and manipulative. It’s depressing because Antoinette is oppressed at every turn, by every system in her life, and by every person who has any power over her. The status quo is the antagonist, and as such our protagonist has absolutely no chance. That’s what gets me.
My mini identity crisis.
I think there’s an awful lot of self-evaluation in this conclusion as well. It makes me think about the place of privilege that I come from. I am a straight white man after all. I’m of Portuguese and British descent, two nations which famously colonized and subjugated a large swath of the worlds peoples. If I had been alive in Rochester’s time, in his shoes, would I have done the same? If I had been around in the 70s, would I have aligned myself with David Duke? I tend to think no, given I’m about as left leaning as they come, but how could I know? My own granddad is a racist for goodness sake, so who’s to say I wouldn’t have turned out the same way? And what would be the modern-day equivalent of Rochester and Duke? Am I responsible for perpetuating what’s left of these oppressive systems in any way? And how can I be better than those that came before me?
I sure hope I’m not perpetuating any of this, and I try to be conscious of these things. But that’s what gets me about these stories. I can only read them from my own perspective and my own background, which is that of a white dude. So with that in mind, I wish that more white dudes would read this sort of thing. Because it really puts a lot into perspective for me, and I think this is the type of story that could really be transformational. It’s a great book, and if I ever feel like I can cope with the hopelessness again, I will without a doubt reread it. Sorry if this reflection was aimless at points. The more I thought about it and the more I wrote, the more places my brain went to.
And just for another analogue for Wide Sargasso Sea, you should look up the film I mentioned earlier, Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu. It chronicles the heartbreaking effects that the rapid change in culture and development in Japan in the 1950s had on the families of the time. It’s an incredible film with a lot of similarities to this book, but be warned, I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder during a movie.