Still on the Shelf: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

This is the second of my Still on the Shelf series, where I’ll tell you, book by blessed book, why I periodically run a dust rag across them, pull them off the shelf, and open them up to read.

A lifetime of reading has left me with a sizable number of books. Throughout the years I have donated them for tax deductions and traded them for credit by the carload. But for all the trimming and weeding my collection has undergone these past decades, the ones remaining on the shelves are there for a reason: they’ve withstood the tests of time. Although I’m more inclined to pick up my Kindle these days, there are still plenty of books on my shelves, and Wide Sargasso Sea is one of them.

Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright: Reissue edition 1992
176 pages

What makes this book so good is what it implies rather than what it says.

Briefly, the story is a sort of long preface to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I didn’t know that as I read the book, so it was a delightful experience to come to the realization on my own. While it isn’t a requirement for you to have read Jane Eyre to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea, it does add an extra dimension to your reading enjoyment.

If you’ve read Jane Eyre or have seen any of the movie versions or the mini-series, you remember that Jane, after all her gothic trials and tribulations, fell in love with and was going to marry Mr. Rochester. And remember her discovering his secret — the mad wife locked in the attic? Yes, well, Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the first Mrs. Rochester. WSS shows how the crazy Antoinette became crazy (if that’s what she really was) and the power her husband (and any man, really) had over her (and every woman) as a moral right of the times.

wide sar

The story takes place primarily in the West Indies, and not only does it address the social injustices to women but also exposes the injustices of colonialism and slavery and the chaotic consequences of its abolishment. There is much going on in this novel.

Rhys’s vision for WSS, a reverse piggy-back type of thing, is clever. I hesitate to call it a prequel. Without rewriting or undercutting a beloved classic, Rhys succeeded brilliantly in incorporating egalitarian notions into history. What Bronte was criticized for, Rhys takes to an even higher level. The brilliance of Wide Sargasso Sea is here, in the way Rhys reveals the intertwining of lives and how sometimes that intermingling can strangle a person as surely as the seaweed that floats in that dangerous part of the ocean.

There’s an outstanding movie version of Wide Sargasso Sea, and I highly recommend you see it. In fact, this story is so intriguing that I’d recommend you do both — see the movie and read the book. Watch the movie first to get a magical feeling of imagery and tone, then read the book to fill in some of the details.

So, which is better — the movie or the book? In this rare case, I think it’s a toss-up.

And that’s why it’s still on the shelf.

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