Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a short but dense literary work that becomes considerably more approachable when given some context. In the words of critic Anne B. Simpson, it is a text that offers "ambiguous and mutually incompatible interpretive possibilities." As such Rhys's work has been classified as a paragon of post-structuralism, a literary movement that insists upon the absence of absolute truth in the world. To be sure, Wide Sargasso Sea resists definition to an extent that many readers find frustrating. The narrative relies upon dream-like visions, fragmented impressions, incomplete sentences, and multiple first-person voices to create an unsettling overall sense of disorientation in the reader; this confusion in turn reflects the experiences of the work's main characters. Perhaps because its multitude of "interpretive possibilities," the novella has attracted a variety of critics, from feminists to deconstructionists to post-colonial theorists.
Undoubtedly the most important piece of contextual information about Wide Sargasso Sea is that the novella was inspired by Charlotte Brontë's famous nineteenth-century novel Jane Eyre (1847). In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine accepts a position as a governess at a remote country estate by the name of Thornfield Hall. She falls in love with her employer, the much-older Mr. Rochester, and eventually agrees to marry him. On the day of their nuptials, however, it comes out that Rochester is already married and is hiding his insane wife Bertha in the attic of his mansion. (This explains the evil laughter that Jane frequently hears emanating from the third story, as well as several strange incidents that befall the inhabitants of the house.) Jane, traumatized by the revelation of Rochester's shady past and horrified by his suggestion that she live as his mistress, flees from Thornfield, which the madwoman later burns to the ground. Bertha dies in the blaze and Rochester is temporarily blinded but regains his vision soon after his reunion with and marriage to Jane. The two, presumably, go on to live happily ever after.
Wide Sargasso Sea positions itself as a prequel to the events described in Brontë's tale and offers a much more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the Creole madwoman Bertha, whom Rhys bestows with the more becoming moniker of "Antoinette." The title of the novella refers to the elongated portion of the Atlantic Ocean that separates England and the West Indies. The work traces Antoinette's life from her early childhood years in Jamaica to her disastrous marriage to an unnamed Englishman who imprisons her in the attic of his ancestral home. The text is full of ominous foreshadowing, mostly related to Antoinette's ultimate descent into madness and her final violent assertion of agency - setting fire to the house where she is captive.
It should be noted that Rhys made two significant changes to the details of Jane Eyre as established by Brontë more than one hundred years earlier. First, she changed the time frame of the narrative, pushing Antoinette's childhood ahead by several decades. In Brontë's novel, which takes place between 1798 and 1808, Bertha Mason is an already a grown woman, but in Rhys's work Antoinette Cosway is still an adolescent when the story begins in 1834, one year after Emancipation. This modification enabled Rhys to emphasize the racial tensions as well as the antagonism of the natives toward the colonizer: the revised time frame places Rhys's story as an end-of-empire text, while Brontë's novel takes place at the height of British imperialism. Additionally, Rhys revised the lineage of the madwoman as outlined in Jane Eyre, making it so that Antoinette/Bertha is not related by blood to Richard Mason; instead, she is his stepsister. As critic Judith L. Raiskin points out, this enables Rhys to introduce "Antoinette's larger 'colored' family" to the tale and thus, again, to address racial issues in a more direct manner.