Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The madwoman in the attic

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: 17-107

I am intrigued. Jean Rhys is doing an impressive job of twisting the characters of a well known novel to suit her own ends. Her prose is compelling and beautiful, her setting both lush and threatening at once, and her pacing masterful and swift. She reminds me a little of Cather, but with more direct and pointed plot and a healthy sense of the dramatic.

This book is the story of Mr. Rochester's first wife, from Jane Eyre. It is, however, as far removed from the style of Jane Eyre as a book written 119 years later should be. Antoinette Cosway (standing in for Bertha Mason, if you've read the Bronte) lives in Jamaica with her mother, a widow, on a large estate that is falling to pieces. Antoinette's widowed mother no longer has the money for the upkeep of the family land, and is despised by the local people as a former slave owner. The two have a servant, Christophine, who is also ill regarded because she hails from Martinique. Antoinette's mother eventually attracts a new husband, the proper and English Mr. Mason, who dismisses his wife's concerns about the animosity of the locals with contempt. Not long after the marriage, however, a mob burns down the house. Antoinette is hurt in the crisis and is sent to a convent to recover, where she later attends school. She never goes back to live with her mother, who dies several years later.

At this point, there's a large leap forward in time, and the narration changes from Antoinette's perspective to that of Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester comes to Jamaica on family orders to marry Antoinette, now a grown woman. Shortly after his arrival he contracts a tropical fever, which he recovers from, but he occasionally still shows signs of confusion as a result. He marries Antoinette as planned, moves with her to another part of her family estate, and tries to settle into the marriage. He both loves and is attracted to her, but is puzzled by her erratic behavior and signs of paranoia (she is often afraid, discusses her own death on a regular basis, and sometimes stays in bed all day). One day, Mr. Rochester gets a letter from a distant cousin of Antoinette's that warns him that she's going mad just like her mother did, and informs him that her mother is still alive and locked away in an asylum, raving. Mr. Rochester sets out to find the author of the letter, but gets lost in the jungle and has to give up.

Like I said, I'm intrigued and entertained. I like the characters, who are realistic and flawed. I like the fact that Rhys is commenting on a familiar story but making it entirely her own. I appreciate the post-colonial perspective and the fact that Rhys is forcing her reader to rethink a classic work of literature. It's not as though she's saying Jane Eyre is wrong or racist or should be condemned as colonial. Instead, she's simply saying that we should consider new perspectives on all of the characters; each of them has a story that is worth telling.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, I may have to pull that off the shelf and read it when I am done with the Louise Erdrich that I am reading right now.



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