Jane Eyre but with the context of Wide Sargasso Sea

This will be another reflection on Wide Sargasso Sea, but with more of a focus on the way that it made me change my perspective on Jane Eyre.

I’d like to first summarize my thoughts with a rap analogy: reading Jane Eyre and then reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a bit like thinking that Eminem’s Lose Yourself was deep when you were a kid, only to hear Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides when you get older. The same could be said about our two books here. Jane Eyre is a solid social commentary of some awful oppressive systems of its day, sure. But it’s also ableist and racist and comes from a bit of a place of privilege in ways. Wide Sargasso Sea, on the other hand, is a well-crafted, intersectional masterpiece which tackles the intricate web of oppression that effects so many people in our modern world.

What is the Sargasso Sea?

One thing that backs this up to me is the name Wide Sargasso Sea. I’d never heard of the Sargasso Sea before, but for those not in the know it is apparently a region of the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of North America and the Caribbean. It is dead in the middle of any route that a ship would have to take to get from Europe to the Caribbean, which is why I think this book was named after the sea. It’s the area of the ocean in which the Bermuda Triangle resides, and as such it’s known as a place of mystery, a place where things go missing and people get lost. It’s a physical barrier between England and the islands where Antoinette grew up, and it serves as a strong metaphor for the wide divide between the English and those they colonized.

While Rochester is our only main Englishman antagonist (besides Antoinette’s step father), the systems which oppress Antoinette are wholly English. The only woman who shows her any compassion, Christophine, is a black woman from Martinique, another one of these islands. Not only that, but Antoinette’s real death occurs as she has her last bit of rebellion crushed and is dragged off to England, resigned, through the Sargasso Sea.

So yeah, this major point of the novel is the large divide between England and the Caribbean. Not only is that to reflect the differences between the characters of the books, but also the authors themselves. Bronte is a white woman who, (hot take) in an attempt to climb out of oppression, ends up stepping on people of color and the disabled. It’s like, such classic a classic example of toxic white feminism.

Something something separate the art from the artist or whatever. Or maybe don’t?

Like yeah, I get it. Bronte didn’t have the century and a half of race relations to reflect on that we have, so it makes sense that some of her perspectives may be a bit backwards. But maybe that means we should qualify her work with that of Jean Rhys? Dr. Helms has of course done that here, but it seems to me that not many others have. there are infinitely more resources on Jane Eyre than on Wide Sargasso Sea, leading me to believe that Wide Sargasso doesn’t get the recognition and study that it deserves.

I think they’re two essential parts of the same whole, and without Wide Sargasso, we run the risk of falling into the same ideological trap that Bronte did. Hell, I honestly don’t even think that you need to read Jane Eyre before reading Wide Sargasso Sea. I think you could get away quite well with just Wide Sargasso, although Jane Eyre does sort of enhance the experience of Rhys’ work.

Veering off track and talking about a YouTuber

In preparation for this, I watched one of the only videos on YouTube I could find talking about Wide Sargasso Sea, a review done by a black German booktuber called books by leynes. In it she dunks on Rochester, swears a lot (so content warning), and compares the two books essentially. She also quotes a podcast called Marlon and Jake Read Dead People, in an episode where they’re discussing Wide Sargasso Sea. I haven’t listened to the whole thing yet, but the quote says “In a lot of ways, it was a novel that finally slammed the door on the 19th century. You can’t read Wide Sargasso Sea and read Victorian lit with a rose-colored lens anymore. You realize that these are some nasty, hypocritical people who destroy everybody in their wake who are not them.” Man, what a quote. That is essentially what I was trying to get at with this whole bit on the YouTube video. It’s a fun watch but that quote is what really got me. Because I totally understand what he means. With Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys was of course trying to give Antoinette a voice and show these deep racist tones in Jane Eyre. But more than that I think, Jean was writing a commentary about the mostly white, mostly male novels coming out of 19th century England. Maybe that’s why it took her a decade to write it.

Wrapping things up

Yeah though, this isn’t to say that this whole class was a waste or everything that we read besides Wide Sargasso is racist garbage, but it is to say that Wide Sargasso Sea is (to me) the most important book that we read this class. It highlights the importance of intersectionality and subjugated voices, and it serves as a wonderful way to grapple with the shortcomings of books written by dead white people.

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