The Madwoman in the Attic: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a “prequel” to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a young woman, from a “Creole” family of declining fortune, who’s made to marry Mr. Rochester, taken to England, renamed Bertha, and, on being driven insane, locked in Rochester’s mansion attic. A mere gothic archetype in Jane Eyre, a dangerous madwoman with no voice of her own, the Antoinette Cosway of Wide Sargasso Sea is intelligent, sensual, and perceptive. Her narration reveals what Jane Eyre arguably obscures: racial violence, colonial exploitation, and the patriarchal power relations that, over the course of her disastrous marriage, drive Antoinette to insanity. What can Rhys’s rewriting of a classic teach us: about Empire, race, and slavery—and about Jane Eyre and the legacy of classic European literature itself?
In this course, we will read Rhys’s novel, a landmark of feminist and postcolonial fiction, as an entry to thinking about larger questions surrounding the colonial history of the West Indies, literary intertexuality, canon-building, and the novel as a genre. How does Rhys’s rewriting both draw on and challenge Jane Eyre and its cultural legacy? What part does horror play in postcolonial intertextuality and critique? As we read, we’ll explore important questions of racialization, subalternity, and the representation of “third-world” women, in both Wide Sargasso Sea and classic Western fiction. And, we will ask: How does Rhys’s novel help us rethink feminist critique and the paradigmatic “mad woman in the attic”? How do “decolonizing fictions” challenge racialized identities and Eurocentric structures of subjectivity and the linearity of time? How might we re-read Jane Eyre—critically and recuperatively—in light of Antoinette’s narrative and testimonial?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 15 — October 06, 2021