Wide Sargasso Sea
a novel by Jean Rhys, published in 1966. Inspired by C. Brontë's Jane Eyre, this novel radically reinterprets events from its predecessor in the light of Rhys's Caribbean background and experience; the central character, minor though crucial in Brontë's narrative, is Bertha Mason, or Antoinette Cosway as she is renamed here. The first section of the novel is narrated by Antoinette: it is an account of dispossession and loss of heritage, set in the West Indies in the period immediately following the abolition of slavery. Through a complex web of interrelationships Rhys explores the wider cultural and historical questions of identity and the relationship of centre and periphery. Antoinette loses her mother to madness and her surname—symbolizing her vanished paternal heritage—to her English stepfather's. Her sensibility displays the intermingling of colonial and indigenous elements; her internal conflicts mirror the shifts and contradictions of historical events. The second section of the novel is narrated by Rochester, Rhys's most complex male characterization. Antoinette is seen through his eyes both as the embodiment of his male fear of his own sexuality, and as the disruptive and chaotic Other of imperial discourse. Rochester represents the imperial centre; Antoinette is an emblem of settler colonialism, despised by the masters and locked in an ambivalent bond of dependence and hate with the black population of slaves. In the background is the black populace, harbingers of a nascent era of nationhood. The stripping of Antoinette's name by Rochester—who renames her Bertha—is a potent metaphor for the loss of identity to the Other's alienating gaze. Antoinette's atavistic reversion to superstition, drunkenness, and childhood paranoia confirms Rochester's worst suspicions about the effect of ‘native’ blood and culture on the settler population and reflects the ruptures of the colonial enterprise. The third section is again narrated by Antoinette. Now a virtual prisoner in Rochester's English home, she identifies totally with the madness imposed on her, and reacts in the only way she has learned: her bid for autonomy and release is the burning of her prison and its inhabitants. It is here that the novel connects with its predecessor, rewriting it from the perspective of the oppressed; but even the most sensitive critics have failed to note that Antoinette's tools of rebellion have been borrowed from the black insurgents of her own islands. Thus the novel with its ambiguous conclusion signals a continuing exploration of the construction of cultural identity and the relationship of master and slave.