Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea displays the complexity of human emotions and psyche while dealing with issues like racial and gender discrimination.
It is crucially important to explore the contexts of Rhys’s work, especially her placement of the role of writing in her life and of race, class, nationality, gender and religion. (Elaine Savory 1998: p.1)
Her complex life and upbringing is reflected in all her works, but most notably in Wide Sargasso Sea. The black servants, who were believed to have raised Rhys, introduced her to the language of the Caribbean people and their customs and beliefs.
Because of its hybridity, its medley of cultural references and moods, the extreme passions and fears it unfolds, Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’s most problematic novel, revealing the author’s own psychological complexity and the inner conflict that tore her mind apart and that is variously reflected in all her heroines. With them, Jean Rhys shared the Caribbean origins and the difficult integration into British society that resulted in a mental split that she in writing, her characters in living, will try to resolve. (Panizza 2009: p.1)
There have been debates suggesting that Wide Sargasso Sea was a retelling of Jane Eyre based on the parallels between the lives of the two protagonists. But there have also been a few who acknowledge the piece as a masterwork and not merely as a retelling because the narrative is an expression of the writer’s experience. It can, however, be established that there exists an inter textuality between the narratives of Rhys and Bronte. V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is also said to have influenced Rhys, as said by Earl McKenzie (2009: p.56),
While V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas is the story of a man who succeeds in making the West Indies his home, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea… is an account of a woman who is unable to do so.
Despite the various perspectives from which the narrative has been analyzed, the text deals with the psychological effects of segregation, which affects both male and female, as well as colored and white characters, as described by Sandra Drake (1999: p.194) the whole narrative is “a brilliant psychological portrayal”. Rhys’s three part avant garde narrative perspective takes for granted the complex nature of the human psyche and its inability in establishing a centre amidst the emotional and psychological troubles it goes through. Rhys suggests this is her title “Wide Sargasso Sea”.
Like the Sargasso Sea, a mass of seaweed surrounded by swirling currents in the Atlantic Ocean, the novel’s troubled heroine is suspended between England and the West Indies and belongs fully to neither. McKenzie (p. 1)
Rhys uses the complex nature of human mind in regard to race, gender, segregation etc as a foreground in her novel, all the while attempting to locate the ‘centre’ of the psyche of her protagonist. Interestingly, locating the centre is a predominating theme in Caribbean works that examines issues like slavery, segregation, exploration etc.
The explorer’s narrative, always pointing from the center to the islands located at the margins of the seas, is a narrative produced by the center, for the center, and of the center. (Harry Garuba, 2001: p. 61).
Rhys attempts to achieve this, to find the centre of gravity of her life experiences. However, for her characters, things fall apart and the centre is shattered. The whole narrative is the psychologically traumatic effect of segregation and alienation, as said by Howells in Kamila Vrankova (2007: p. 123-124)
Accordingly, Jean Rhys’s story of alienation is centred on two crucial metaphors: the sea and the island. The sea as an image of separation and an increasing distance suggests the split in both space and time: the conflict between different civilisations, between the past and the present… as well as between the inner world of the individual and the surrounding reality….”
It is interesting to note how insanity, at various levels, is prominent in the protagonist’s family, beginning with her father, Alexander Cosway, who is said to have drunk himself to death; then to her mother, Annette; also, her brother, Pierre, and finally Antoinette herself.