“Wide Sargasso Sea” and Second Wave Feminism

In Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, the author illuminates the story of an unheard voice of the classic novel Jane Eyre: Bertha Rochester, Mr. Rochester’s insane wife. Instead of showing her as a monster in the attic, Rhys changes Bertha’s name to Antoinette and gives her a new identity and story. In this novel, Rhys draws parallels between the rights of women in the 1800s (when the book takes place) and the second wave feminism movement in the 1960s and 70s (when the book was written). This comparison between the two time periods is consistent throughout the novel and influences not only the tone of the book but the way the reader reads the novel.

For contextualization, in the 1960s and 70s, the second wave feminism movement gained speed to fight for more rights for women, which culminated in Title IX being passed in 1972. Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966 during a time where novels challenging the normalities of the time were common (for example, Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is credited for sparking the second wave feminist movement in 1963). Even though many improvements towards women’s rights needed to be made in this era, in the 1800s, most countries did not even give women the right to vote. This lack of rights for women is consistent in both time periods, which opened a window for Jean Rhus to write a unique novel that comments not only on the time period of the book but the time period the book was written.

In the novel Wide Sargasso Sea, the relationship between men and women is constantly seen as problematic and unfair, especially as in regards to the women’s forced dependency on men. For example, Antoinette’s mother’s life depended on the men with whom she was married. She needed Antoinette’s step father for a better life (instead of devastating poverty). However, Antoinette’s mother was unhappy for the majority of the marriage, and she ended up going insane (or being pushed to insanity) and dying tragically. When reflecting on her mother’s relationship, Antoinette seems destined to follow a similar path. Antoinette, once she marries Rochester, is unable to leave him or choose her own life. Her marriage ends unhappily as well, with a similar insanity to her mother’s being pushed on her until it was true. This shows how women were unable to escape their prescribed destinies, no matter how hard they fought. In both time periods, women’s independence was taken away, and they were stuck in a generational dependency on men through no fault of their own.

Overall, Wide Sargasso Sea reflects the progressive opinions of the time it was written through an unheard story from Jane Eyre. By depicting forced generational dependency of women during the 1800s via Antoinette and her mother, Rhys urges for the readers to recognize the similarities between then and during her time. She also pushes for the readers to alter the future in a way that they cannot change the past (even though they can try and reframe the story as best as they can).

Works Cited

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Norton Critical Editions, 1999.

Burkett, Elinor. “Women’s Movement.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2 Aug. 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/womens-movement.