Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel by Jean Rhys, is regarded as not only a great standalone novel, but also a powerful prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Published in 1966, the novel delves into the story of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ from Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason. However, in Wide Sargasso Sea she gets a new name and is given a more humane treatment as opposed to her ghoulish presence in Jane Eyre. This powerful novel gave rise to a more feminist approach to the analysis of Victorian literature, paving way for another Pulitzer winning masterpiece in literary theory: The Madwoman in the Attic by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert. It challenges the unfair portrayal of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre and brings out an admirable, heroic side in her. Wide Sargasso Sea, therefore, does the job of giving the voiceless a voice.
The novella begins in Jamaica in 1833, just after the momentous Emancipation Act, which liberated all slaves in the British colonies. Naturally, it became illegal to have slaves in the various estates and plantations in Jamaica. In the first part, the point of view is that of a young white girl called Antoinette Cosway. Her father was a former slaveholder whose death submerges the family in poverty. Her father’s estate, Coulibri, is in a ramshackle state and close to ruin. Moreover, Annette Cosway, Antoinette’s mother, is in a deep depression due to their financial troubles. Antoinette is found spending a major portion of her time with Christophine, her black nurse, who chooses not to abandon the declining family. Antoinette is more or less deprived of her mother’s love due to the latter’s mental state.
Some visitors arrive at Coulibri for the first time in a while. Among them, a certain Mr. Mason courts Annette for a short while and proposes marriage to her. In spite of the quickly spreading gossip among the islanders and servants, the two get married. Things seem to be improving for the Cosway family as Mr. Mason puts his wealth to use to restore the Coulibri plantation. Annette’s psychological problems are also greatly reduced. However, Annette does not want to stay in Jamaica anymore as she realizes that the freed former slaves have immense hatred for the white aristocracy. Mr. Mason completely fails to realize the situation and does not entertain her wish to go to Britain. Ultimately, Annette’s worst nightmare comes true. An angry mob sets fire to their house one night, and the Cosways are forced to flee the estate.
Several weeks later, Antoinette finds herself at her Aunt Cora’s house in Spanish Town. She finds out that her brother has passed away, and as a result, her mother has had a severe mental breakdown. Antoinette is soon enrolled in a convent where she receives her education on etiquette. In the meantime, her aunt goes back to England, her mother lives with a caretaker couple and her stepfather Mr. Mason visits her rarely. When she turns seventeen, Mr. Mason visits her and informs her that his friends are coming to visit from England in winter. It is also implied that one of those men are to marry Antoinette.
In the second part, we are presented with a new narrator, Antoinette’s husband, who has not been given a name by the author. However, the character is based clearly on Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre. After the marriage has taken place, the couple goes over to their honeymoon lodgings. The narrator explains why he married Antoinette hastily; when he arrived in West Indies, he was struck by a fever. He now seems to question his decision of marrying an unknown woman. However, he married her mainly because of her stepbrother’s promise to give him unconditional control over her dowry. This was incredibly advantageous for the narrator who happens to be a second son, and who according to the British law of primogeniture, doesn’t inherit anything. Moreover, he has also accrued some debt, which this money is going to take care of.
The wedding party arrives at one of Antoinette’s inherited islands, Granbois, where she spent her youth. The Rochester inspired narrator has mixed feelings about the place. On one hand, he is charmed by the scenery, on the other hand, he doesn’t trust the servants and isn’t impressed with the honeymoon house. Antoinette tries her best to help him understand the Carribean culture, which seems to work for a while. In the passage of a few weeks, they seem to be comfortable with each other and become physically involved to an extent of an addiction.
One day, Rochester receives a letter from someone who claims to be the late Mr. Cosway’s illegitimate son. This Daniel Cosway is supposed to be Antoinette’s half-brother. In the letter, he paints Antoinette as a madwoman and asks Rochester to visit him to get the whole story. Rochester falls for those words completely, even the servants can sense that his attitude has changed towards Antoinette.
Next, the point of view is again that of Antoinette’s who is on her way to visit good old Christophine. Incidentally, Christophine has taken up a form of dark magic called obeah. When Antoinette seeks help from her through dark magic, Christophine gives her the advice of leaving her husband instead. Antoinette points out that under the British law, all of her money now belongs to her husband, so leaving him is pointless. Hearing this, Christophine finally decides to help.
Shifting back to Rochester’s perspective, we see that Daniel Cosway has written to him again. When Rochester visits him, Daniel defames the Cosways by implying that Antoinette had an incestuous relationship with Sandi, her half-brother. He demands money from Rochester in return for keeping his mouth shut. Disgusted, Rochester leaves but is affected by this meeting. Upon returning to Granbois, Antoinette speaks to her husband directly, who admits to having visited Daniel. When Antoinette tries to explain her past to him, she becomes distraught. Rochester tells her to take some rest and speak later when she is feeling better. She then asks him to come to her room and slips a powder into his drink that Christophine had given her.
Rochester wakes up in his wife’s bed, realizing that he was drugged and they have had sex again. He feels sick to his stomach and gets very angry. He gets back at Antoinette by seducing a servant girl called Amalie within his wife’s earshot. Antoinette, affected by her husband’s doing, disappears for a few days. Upon return, we find her in a drunken state and she verbally abuses Rochester for what he has done. She has clearly lost all control of herself.
The loyal Christophine arrives and also accuses Rochester of meting out psychological harm to Antoinette, who is now trying to bite like an animal and is throwing objects. Christophine suggests that Rochester first try to treat his wife with love and then return to England without her, practically begging him. Though he does consider the latter option, he promptly changes his mind when Christophine says that Antoinette might marry elsewhere. At this, he gets very angry and throws Christophine out of the house. He threatens to call the police and report to them that she practices obeah. Christophine leaves the property as she has no choice.
Rochester begins to plan his return to Jamaica in order to consult some doctors regarding Antoinette’s unstable mental health. He makes a symbolic sketch of an English house where a woman is standing on the third floor. They leave after a few days and tell Antoinette that she will never see that island again. A young Carribean boy pitifully cries and requests Rochester to take him along, however, Antoinette is emotionless. Rochester hates everything even remotely Carribean and does not take the boy with him.
Towards the short final part of the novella, we see the perspective of Grace Poole, a hired woman who guards Antoinette in the attic where she is kept like a prisoner. Grace describes that she is being paid really well for her work. It is found out that Rochester’s father and elder brother have passed away, so ultimately, Rochester becomes the sole inheritor of his father’s property. One last time, the point of view shifts to that of a confused and distraught Antoinette. She is completely devoid of the sense of space and time, having no idea where she is and for how long she has been in that state. Moreover, her past life is only a vague and fragmented memory. Towards this very end, circumstances and Rochester’s brutal treatment has really turned Antoinette into a madwoman. At night, when Grace Poole is fast asleep, Antoinette steals the attic’s keys and sets herself free. She sneaks about the house freely every night. She has many recurring dreams of fire every night, which she one day turns into a reality. She wakes up from such a dream, takes a candle and is seen preparing to burn the house down to the ground.