Rhys wrote this as a response to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics), wanting to re-position the character of Mrs Rochester, the "mad woman in the attic", into a primary position, rather than being voiceless and without any expressed identity of her own, as in Charlotte Bronte's story. Rhys does this by setting her story prior to the events in Jane Eyre; effectively the novella is a prequel to the latter. Most importantly, she prioritises the white Creole, Antoinette - her original name: in Jane Eyre we know her only as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, she is explained as being Bertha, the first Mrs Rochester. As a result, her character in 'Sargasso', being placed front and centre, creates an entirely different set of interpretations and emphases, not least that Antoinette achieves her own identity and humanity here, rather than being relegated into a prison space of madness and silence, one in which Mr Rochester himself was responsible for.
This is a powerful, deeply haunting and hallucinatory, deeply poeticised novella (the style, in this regard, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's Beloved (Vintage Classics); it is an original and heartbreaking of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story is split into three parts, the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, regarding the marriage and written both from Mr Rochester's imperialist viewpoint and sense (he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette's sizeable dowry and land), and Antoinette's increasingly troubled self (she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of the female servants, while being with her); all the while you experience Rochester's own confusion and increasing disgust with the local people and the way of living, the heat and the tropical intensity of the place, so alien to him from his English, cold viewpoint. And, the third and most dramatic part, in which we once again return to "Antoinette", now Bertha, not only abandoned, but left imprisoned - the original "madwoman in the attic" - in Rochester's house in England; a world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, no interest; she is effectively made persona non grata for all the years she is locked up there.
Throughout the story, you experience the intensity of all those involved, the stifling physical environment, you feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles between Antoinette and Mr Rochester, and the locals, including servants. There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; for the male, there is simply the repetition of the male-dominated power structure, such that it deprives the male of any real identity, beyond that of his family's expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority. 'Sargasso' is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness. It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre, and is highly recommended.show more