Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is the background story of Bertha from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. It plays on reversing the readers’ view of who the true villain and victim are of the story, and gives sympathy to Bertha, originally named Antoinette. By showing her history, Rhys intends to reveal the good that was in the villain, Bertha/Antoinette, and the evil in the victim, the unnamed husband who we assume to be Mr. Rochester. However, the technique employed by Rhys doesn’t give a reliable source in any part of the story leaving it still open for debate on whether either side can be completely trusted as a reliable narrator.
Part one is told in the first person view of Antoinette as a child. By using this point of view Rhys shows some of the traumatic events that shaped her life and how she saw the world at that time. The reader can begin to side with her in the story by seeing how unfairly she is treated by the locals for something she had no control over, as well as the impact of how she was treated by those raising her. Yet, this point of view is neither impartial nor broad enough to truly give a good picture of all that has happened at that time. Antoinette lives a very isolated life, and at times seems to miss parts of the tale where it jumps and moves about as if she isn’t sure of the story herself. Like when there are six weeks missing because she was unconscious and had no idea how she ended up at her Aunt’s house, or even when her mother dies and all the reader hears of it is her simple comment, “She died last year, no one told me how, and I didn’t ask.” This leaves much of the story open ended as to whether she doesn’t know the facts or just aren’t going to share them, and what little Antoinette does share is often more confusing than helpful. With this lack of awareness alongside the transitions Rhys gives from one part to the next also subsequently leaves the reader missing necessary information.
Part one ends with Antoinette being visited by her stepfather who oddly asks her whether she can dance or not, and then Antoinette wakes up from a dream she says was about Hell. From that Part two begins with her already being married, but the story is now being told from the point of view of her unnamed husband. By switching to another character at this crucial time the reader is once more left out of essential knowledge to give a real determination of what is going on with Antoinette’s life. Instead we are seeing her now through the eyes of man who feels like he was bought and forced into marrying a woman he doesn’t really appreciate. “Her pleading expression annoys me. I have not bought her, she has bought me, or so she thinks.” Also, considering he decides to simply lock her up instead of trying to get her help would only influence him to try and show himself in the best light and her in the worst. This leaves the reader at the mercy of his side of the story, and only knowing Antoinette through this view during the time she is supposedly beginning to go insane makes it hard to determine if she truly is as bad off as he believes her to be.
Yet again, in Part three, the story goes back to Antoinette telling the story. Now, she no longer knows where she is, and doesn’t believe it when they tell her she’s in England. She, as well, has no way of knowing what day or time it is, limiting her viewpoint even more so. Nevertheless, Rhys manages to recreate Grace Poole as not the good nurse watching after a sick woman, but the evil greedy woman who is keeping a helpless victim trapped in a lonely room. Mr. Rochester is now the cruel husband who locked her away from everything she knew and loved. As before, she can’t be seen as an objective narrator because she does show signs of insanity as she starts to scream in the night, attacks her brother with a knife, and dreams of burning the house down. While it may not be her fault that these terrible things have happened which drove her to do evils of her own, Antoinette is still not reliable and can only be considered one part of a tale that is obviously full of misdeeds on everyone’s part.
Ultimately, Jean Rhys creates an intriguing background for a woman that is normally seen as completely mad and dangerous, and does give her a new voice for which to call on the compassion of the reader. All the same, the technique he uses is a mix of jumbled pieces of the story that jumps from one moment to the next without a decent transition, and switching between two narrators at the worst times to give a narration that you can’t fully trust. This technique makes the book an interesting story, but one that is unreliable and gives very little credence to anything that is said by any of the characters within.