Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sure I Know the Queen, May 2008

By Jodie

The great thing about literature is that it is capable of change. New forms of literary expression appear and our personal views about books can change with each reading. New authors are also capable of effecting change on old classics through the form of revisionist fiction, where a writer creates a different version of a text written by another author in order to express new opinions on the story. Many British classics have been revised in this way such as Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea, Robinson Crusoe in Foe and most recently Rebecca in Rebecca’s Tale.

The main point of much revisionist fiction is to give a voice to a character in the story who has been denied one. They may lack the ability to express their thoughts for many reasons; in Rebecca it is because of death, in Robinson Crusoe because of a physical inability to speak and in Jane Eyre because of madness. All these books contain characters who have been rendered speechless, for some reason, by the authors who have created them, and the revisionist companions to these books aim to give them a measure of justice by providing them with a forum in which to explain their side of the story. As this is revisionist fiction’s purpose, it often gives voice to the thoughts of minorities as they were traditionally denied the means to refute the opinions of the main narrator who is usually associated with the dominant portion of society in some way.

Jane Eyre boasts a truly independent female narrator but her happy ending comes from the death of another woman, Mr Rochester’s first wife ‘Bertha’ who he met in the West Indies. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea follows the assumption of many critics that while Charlotte Bronte championed female emancipation in Jane she found it easy to subjugate Bertha, once she realised that it was necessary. This idea is based on the feeling that Bertha is quietly marked as a woman of mixed race in Jane Eyre. It is judged possible that Charlotte Bronte understood the realities of her world well enough to see that a strong, sensible female narrator created by a female writer would be derided, so she included a mad, evil woma to divert their hatred from Jane. By making her West Indian and almost certainly mixed race could have been Charlotte Bronte’s way of separating her from the main body of women, who she wished to champion. Her male audience would be unable or at least unwilling to tie Bertha to Jane as white women were supposed to be a higher order to black women. This allowed her to make Jane self-reliant while also showing an agreeable reflection of men’s idea that females were weak, unbalenced and dangerous. No suggestion that Jane shared this madness of gender would be allowed as no white man would want to admit any kind of equality, even a negative one among women of different races. Charlotte Bronte would be able to create a successful case for the great abilities of her gender yet also give men someone to dislike and sneer at, appeasing them and diverting them from sniggering at Jane.

In this way we can see how Bertha’s madness appears not as a natural facet of her character, as is maintained in Jane Eyre, but as a lie imposed by the dominating force of her white author. This is the idea that Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea translates into fiction as she removes Bertha’s madness and gives Rochester’s first wife a means of expression. In doing so, she analyses a fictional novel as if it were a historical source relating to real events. She thinks about who has created this source and looks at how their biases, social position or race may have given them motives for portraying events in a certain way. Based on an examination of the author’s probable biases Rhys determines it unlikely that the book shows Bertha as she really was and in doing so follows a school of literary criticism that has been around for years. Rhys and her fellow revisionists then take it one step further by setting out to rewrite events in a different way and shaping a novel around how they think things might have happened.

This is my favourite thing about revisionist works; their authors have become so involved another’s fictional world that they are invested in characters as if they were real people who could be treated unfairly by their own authors. To some people it may seem unbelievable presumptuous or ignorant to butt into another author’s creation but I see it as a sign of good literature when it stimulates debate and encourages rebuttal. This argumentative stirring is a sign that people are talking about books and fiction as seriously as they might about the state of the economy or politics. It is an encouraging indicator that the arts are still important to people.

21 comments:

Eva said...

I'm planning on reading Wide Sargasso Sea soon, so I really enjoyed your discussion of it. Thanks!

Imani said...

I avoided reading the Rhys novel for a long time because I thought it would change my mind about how good Jane Eyre was. Luckily, it turned out that I simply added another splendid book to my "Read" list.

Tash said...

I just finished reading Wide Sargasso Sea with my uni class. Although I wasn't a big fan of Jane Eyre, I took more of a liking to WSS. It reminded me of a movie I saw as a child, and have always dreamt about (Although I can't even remember the name of the movie now!). Perhaps it was the vivid imagery of the setting paired with the colonial era which captured my transformation the most. Whatever it is, I can't exactly put my finger on it. All I know is that something, in Jean Rhys' novel, got me back to a place I enjoyed as a child.

Emily Jane said...

I was directed here from my uni course, and really enjoyed your post. Your reasoning behind Bronte using Antionette/Bertha as a 'deflector' for Jane is an interesting one, and makes a lot of sense given the period she was writing in. I'd been at something of a loss to understand Bronte's (and Jane's) treatment of Antionette/Bertha, but this theory suggests some interesting potential reasons. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how you write that many people believe to revision another author's work is 'butting' in, as i have heard this from many other also. Having read WSS, i found it much easier to read than Jane Eyre, and also opened my mind to some new interpretations and views on Charlotte Bronte's book. I believe Jean Rhys' revisiting of Jane Eyre also is a great way of keeping classic literature alive and offering a new interpretation

littlejess said...

I really enjoyed reading Jane Eyre and walked into Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea without realising that it may change my opinion of the classic novel which unfortunately it did.

When reading Jane Eyre I instantly liked Rochester and somehow didn't really think deeply about his past mistakes, or about his mad wife, Bertha or even about Jane Eyre's neglect in giving poor Bertha a voice.

However, after reading WSS my opinions have altered. It has given Mr Rochester additional layers to his already complex character and made me less trustful of the author's take on certain characters.

I guess you could say it's making me think beyond what is written and questioning the trustworthiness of the author and narrator.

I just saw a trailer for the film of Wide Sargasso Sea:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp2qLFiCLkQ

Perhaps if I watch this and Rochester is easy enough on the eye, my original opinion of him will be restored.

Adrian rosenfeldt said...

I think that it is a fantastic idea to write about some of the more minor and voiceless characters that appear in what we would call canonical or classic novels or texts. I think that Jean Rhys does a brilliant job of doing this in Wide Sargasso Sea. In Rhys' novel we are transported into a seemingly totally different world from that of Jane Eyre, and yet we recognize the many connections and overriding themes inherent in Bronte's classic text. Through Rhys we see a compelling and full-portrait of a character that we feel wasn't given a proper hearing in Jane Eyre.

Nicole said...

I really loved Jane Eyre, having never read it until this year as it is on our Uni list. I have never really read anything like Wide Sargasso Sea in relation to another text. I really enjoyed the way Rhys created a pre-madness Bertha and gave a whole new perspective to her character. I need to polish up on my history knowledge, but other than that, a fantastic read. =]

michael said...

i really enjoyed your post! i really loved reading Jane Eyre for my uni class and loved moving form that into WSS for all the reasons you stated: its sparked debate over the added perspectives. Many would disagree that this does inspire good literature, but i am with you and absolutely love it when a novel can make you feel so enthused that you want to argue about it!

Larisa said...

I think WSS is great. Once you've read it though,you can never go back. I couldn't think of Jane Eyre the same. It is really hard to determine who the victim is. Is it Bertha? Jane? Rochester? It all depends on what boo you read and what light you read it in. I read WSS with a bias towards Rochester, but after reading it, I'm not so sure! Perhaps everybody is a victim..

Katie said...

I prefer Jane Eyre over Wide Sargasso Sea as I found WSS slightly confusing in structure and still believe that Bertha is mad. However, I see the interest and importance of exploring characters more deeply than their original author did and can appreciate WSS in this respect.

wendy said...

It was strange to come back and read Jane Eyre as an adult compared to when I was 14yrs old. It seems that although i still love the novel Jane Eyre, there is a part of me that acknowledges another side to this book. IT feels as if it is no longer just about love overcoming all.

I believe reading WSS has opened my eyes to the fact that love comes with its many strings.

I feel almost deceived by the novel Jane Eyre as it completely dismisses the sentiments of another valid character.
WSS broke my heart as the novel considered a young woman in need of love and affection but was rejected by all the people she cared about. It seems as if this girl was destined to live a terrible lonely life.

Erin said...

I have also been directed by my uni course to this post, and a good read it was too, especially the bit about revisionist fiction as a whole.

Thank you.

Susan said...

Jane Eyre was about living through harsh times and difficult circumstances, and about love conquering over all.

I have fallen in love with the idea that you can go through harsh times, hit rock bottom and still come out alive. Holding onto the fact that having a strong passion for one person can keep you going, even when everything seems utterly hopeless.

Since reading WSS, discovering that Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette, is not just an insane lunatic, but is actually a person with thoughts, feelings and emotional needs. It broke my heart to discover what a sad story hers was, and for those around her not to recognise who she was after insanity took hold.

In such brutal circumstances, it’s a shame that she was locked up and hidden from the world.

Cathleen said...

I have always been frustrated with the character of Bertha in Jane Eyre. I hated how Rochester felt he could dismiss her and marry another. It made me feel that he didn’t value or deserve Jane, and I couldn’t buy his argument for not being married. Bronte wrote her novel in a time when marriage was for life. You didn’t get a divorce. It made no sense to me that Bronte would allow Rochester to dispose of his unwanted wife after discovering she was ill; what kind of a husband did she want for Jane? In light of Rochester’s own illness when Jane marries him it seems especially unfair.

Wide Sargasso Sea further impressed upon me that Rochester’s behaviour was abysmal. Not only did he marry for money and to please his relations, but after having fallen apparently in-love with his wife he allowed himself to be persuaded against her despite his better judgement.

It made me see Jane Eyre both as a weaker and stronger character, if that makes any sense. She is weaker because she accepts Rochester’s story about his first wife, and love him anyway. But this also makes her stronger in my eyes. What a woman, to be able to see past such faults in a man’s past and personality and love him still. The world would be a better place if we could all be so understanding and forgiving.

Elizabeth ENG1TOT said...

i love that WSS gives Antoinette a voice, and explains that her maddness was forced upon her. Like child-Jane, she is presented as fundamentally flawed, however Bronte denies her Jane's ablity to defend herself. I also love that Rhys' decision to change her name from Bertha to Antoinette...What kind of tropical temptress has a name like Bertha???

mel said...

Mel ENG1TOT said...

I like the way characters that didn't have much of an identity in a previous work, are able to have one made for them by another author. This new identity gives a whole new perspective on who you think the character is and their background information.

Renae said...

I also have been directed to your post through uni. personally i had trouble getting into Jane Eyre however I loved WSS. I think revisiting texts and creating a voice for the minor characters is a wonderful thing. It's almost like reading a series, but better because it never gets boring due to the different voices and perspectives.

Adam said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Wide Sargasso Sea and the confusion and uncertainty that Rhys created and asked the audience to question around the characters Bertha and Mr Rochester; however I think we shouldn’t let Rhys novel distort our original opinions/interpretations of Jane Eyre. Rhys has crafted a beautiful novel and managed to keep me almost uncomfortable of my place within the novels world, just never quite understanding fully what is transpiring. However this is merely her attempt to shed light on a character that Bronte saw fit not to further develop, we can’t allow another’s interpretation persuade our own.

Of course it’s good to ask this questions and I am in no way trying to disregard Wide Sargasso Sea’s merit but Bronte clearly left the Bertha character under developed so the reader could form their own sympathies. Rhys’s novel dispels the ambiguity that Jane Eyre created and clearly manipulates the reader to believe that Mr Rochester, if you held him in high regard, isn’t the person that you believed him to be. Believing the Mr Rochester is a heartless fiend, one could assume, destroys the love story that Jane Eyre truly is.

Anonymous said...

I found your theory on Antoinette being used to deflect hatred off Jane very interesting. I also believe what Jean Rhys was trying to accomplish through Bertha was taking the assumed and the judged and transforming her into a character whom is no longer the two-dimensional mad woman of Jane Eyre, but a character of substance, whom is not so easy to judge and is not used simply as the token device Antoinette is in Jane Eyre: the crazy wife who keeps Mr. Rochester and Jane apart (until her very convenient death of course). By doing this, Wide Sargasso Sea makes us question the other characters in Jane Eyre, especially Mr. Rochester. He once may have been perceived as the romantic lead, but now has a question hanging over his head, how much of a role did he play in Antoinette's mental instability? I'm sure Rhys's personal history made her feel a connection with Antoinette/Bertha that compelled her to write an account which plays Antoinette as the victim, and gives reason behind her extreme lunacy.

Jessica said...

I was also directed by my uni course and found your blog really insightful. It has opened my eyes about trusting the narration of Jane Eyre, and I thought WSS did Bertha justice :)