I must say, this book was a very welcome change from Don Quixote. So welcome, that it only took two days to read. Of course, I admit it’s shorter – under 200 pages – but it’s also extremely captivating.
The story is supposed a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre. It’s all about Mr. Rochester and his first wife, before she becomes “the madwoman on the third floor.” Rhys takes liberty with the idea and fleshes out what was vague in Bronte. Honestly, I thought this was the worst thing about the book – I personally enjoyed it more when I wasn’t attaching it to Jane Eyre. There are plot discrepancies (the way the madwoman looks, her family tree, etc) that can’t just be explained away by the fact that most of the story comes out of Mr. Rochester’s mouth in Jane Eyre. Yes, he’s probably not all that reliable of a narrator when telling about the horror of his past, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a multi-year discrepancy in how long he lived with his mad wife in the West Indies, for example. Or why Jane describes her physique completely differently than she’s described in this book. But if I take this book and remove it from the context of being attached to another novel, I find this story engaging, powerful, and telling.
The book is separated into three parts. The first and last are narrated by Antoinette Cosway (who later becomes Bertha Mason, last name by her mother’s remarriage, first name because Rochester simply starts calling her by a different name when he finds out she might be going mad). The second is narrated, except for one section, by Rochester (that one section is Antoinette again). The narrative voice is vastly different between these two, and since the parts told by Antoinette start from the time she is a little girl and go until her death, the reader gets to see her gradual change in mental competency. There is a question of whether or not Antoinette’s madness is brought on by Rochester, or if she might have escaped insanity if her life had been good, but all the same, from the time she is little, we see the world through a convoluted and slightly creepy mindset. The story is told in mild stream-of-consciousness (though Rochester’s section is much more orderly, less like thought, and more apt to explain to the reader what’s going on), which of course makes it a little difficult to follow at times, but it’s nowhere near the quagmire that Faulkner puts together. And part of my difficulty, I think, has to do with the fact that I know nothing about the West Indies, culturally or historically, so that references to obeah (a type of religious witchcraft – think voodoo, without the same belief system) and various slang terms (like “white cockroach”), for example, threw me off.
At first, I didn’t think I liked this much. Very suddenly, though, Rhys throws in a startlingly vivid moment where Antoinette is terrified she’s going to find a dead man’s dried hand, chicken feathers, and a cock with his neck cut open, dripping blood, in her nurse’s bedroom. That’s the obeah, but I didn’t know that at first, so it took me by surprise. But after that moment, only 20 pages or so in, I really liked it. There were so many striking images, put forth by the author so extraordinarily, that it was like I was living right beside the narrator (either one). And while I never connected with Antoinette on a personal level, while I could with Rochester, I think that has more to do with my utter lack of experience with regards to West Indies atmosphere, culture, and landscape.
With many writers, my ignorance of this sort of thing is somehow compensated by with their writing. They make it so I can connect, so I can see where they are and can feel what they feel. On the surface, this makes it seem as if Rhys hasn’t done her job, that my lack of connection is a flaw in the book. I don’t think so, though. I think that she’s actually portrayed this world (which she is very familiar with, having lived there for a great part of her life) in a way that those with no experience are supposed to feel completely alien to it. We can see the beauty of it, but don’t understand it. Antoinette understands it, and therefore never explains it in her narrative. We simply ride along and try to figure it out, which leaves us a little bewildered. And then when we switch to Rochester, we feel his absolute non-understanding when it comes to this culture, because he feels the same way we do (the way I do at least, I don’t want to speak for others who might know more than me). It’s alien to him. And I think that that has a twofold benefit. First, it creates sympathy for a character who, by the end of his section, doesn’t really deserve much sympathy (I’ll discuss this in a minute), and second, it enables us to see how alien England is for Antoinette when she gets there, without ever having to say a word about it.
Regarding Rochester, through his whole section, he seems like a very sympathetic character. He’s duped into this marriage but thinks it’s a good thing overall until he starts hearing tales about madness in the family. After that, he’s wary and stays away from his wife, which destroys her. These are all very believable emotions, and I, for one, had no trouble in discrediting the things that, for instance, the obeah woman says to him about his cruelty and lack of worth. But right before they leave for England, there’s an incident with a crying little boy, who doesn’t have a name, and Rochester’s actions in that situation pull the mask off and reveal that indeed he isn’t the nicest person, but is vain enough to always think of himself in good terms. We learn that, though we may sympathize and relate to his character better, his words and thoughts aren’t necessarily true. And in a way, I think that Rhys has shown us with that little trick exactly where we are all blind.
That’s not to say I have all that much sympathy with Antoinette or any of the other people in the West Indies that we meet. I don’t. But I’m left feeling as if this is perhaps because I am too Western myself to fully understand, that this is some fault in me. It makes me question myself – am I really that arrogant that I don’t realize how blind I am? Maybe I am. This book has certainly opened up a new avenue of thought. I’m sure as I think on it more, and perhaps even do a little research on it, I’ll learn a ton of things I never even thought about in my quick combing-over. I, for instance, don’t know enough about British Imperialism to understand how this book relates to that, and I know this is supposed to be a political commentary.
I do recommend this book. It’s fairly short, and very engaging.