Jane Eyre

From Madwoman to Rebel: Jean Rhys’s Reinvention of Bertha Mason in Wide Sargasso Sea

Jean Rhys’ 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea rewrites Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre from a modern, postcolonial standpoint. Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic” from Bertha Mason’s own point of view. In Jane Eyre, Bertha is “hidden away,” both in terms of her physical place in the attic and also in terms of her own history and voice. Rhys, however, develops Bertha into a complex character: in Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway is a strong woman who rebels against and overcomes the colonial and patriarchal oppressions that face her as a result of her West Indian identity. Rhys’ novel depicts Antoinette’s ultimate vengeance on Rochester at the end of Jane Eyre as a valid response to this oppression. By shifting points of view and rewriting certain events in Brontë’s text, Rhys subverts the colonialist framework out of which Jane Eyre and Brontë herself came.

In writing Jane Eyre and the character of Bertha Mason, Charlotte Brontë appears to have relied on several colonialist pretenses. Ellen Friedman writes that Jean Rhys “exposes the assumptions of…nineteenth-century English imperialism, Christianity, and patriarchy that served as the context for Charlotte Brontë’s text” (1175). The first of these...

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