Beginning Wide Sargasso Sea, you already know where it is headed. You are entering into the life of the woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. Bronte creates an unsympathetic madwoman, but through the tragic context she creates, Jean Rhys portrays a woman for whom it is impossible not to feel tremendous compassion. We live through Antoinette’s childhood in Jamaica and learn of her arranged marriage to Rochester. We watch that marriage begin in passion amid the beauty of Dominica, and then watch it unravel due to a combination of the circumstances of their marriage, the hostile intentions of others, and their own inabilities to trust one another enough to forge a connection immune to the interpersonal and cultural pressures surrounding them. Finally we get a glimpse of Antoinette’s imprisonment in England, subject to near-constant supervision, called by another name due to her husband’s superstition and insensitivity, and driven by dreams that lead to the ending we already know from Charlotte Brontë‘s novel.
The book captures the ambiance of the author's native Dominica and of Jamaica, and serves as a painful primer on the complex race and class politics operating in those islands in the mid 19th century. Jean Rhys is equally skillful at portraying the painful emotional experiences of the ill-fated couple, neither of whom enters the relationship unscathed after their childhoods. Suspicion is everywhere in this book, founded and unfounded, and the consequences both of ignoring it when it should be heeded and yielding to it when it is false are the basis of all the tragedy that unfolds throughout the novel.