Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, one of the Windward Islands in the Caribbean, in 1890. The daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother, Rhys grew up in the final days of England's colonial heyday, a time that witnessed the waning of an aristocratic and exploitative Creole culture. Her parents' heritage situated Rhys between two competing ideologies—one that sought to exoticize Caribbean life and one that incorporated the racial pluralism of West Indian values. Rhys was further influenced by the black servants who raised her and introduced her to the language, customs, and religious beliefs of the native Caribbeans.
While Wide Sargasso Sea reflects the distinct sensibilities of a West Indian writer, it also bears the stamp of European modernism. At sixteen, Rhys left her home in Dominica and moved to England, aligning herself more closely with her father's Welsh heritage. A feeling of displacement that characterizes both Rhys's own life and the lives of her characters left her unable to root herself to her ancestors' home.
Throughout the 1920s, Rhys traveled in Europe as a bohemian artist, living sporadically in Paris, where she became familiar with the innovative works of modern artists and writers. This period of wandering placed Rhys on the outskirts of conventional society. Thus marginalized, she began to question the codes and traditions of the male-dominated urban environment. Plagued by poverty, illness, and alcoholism, she felt firsthand the psychological and physical toll of being a single woman in a patriarchal culture—a theme she explores in much of her writing.
Rhys's first four novels—Postures or Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning Midnight (1939)—mirror her own life, with heroines who lead drifting, alienated lives as stigmatized outsiders. While these early novels met with some success, they never went far in establishing Rhys as a leading European modernist.
With some reluctance, Rhys settled down in England, a country for which she felt little fondness. She more or less disappeared from the literary scene until the 1960s, when her work was rescued from obscurity. The 1966 publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, twenty-seven years after the appearance of her last novel, reflects the culmination of her earlier heroine sketches, while shifting focus away from an industrial European context and back to a nineteenth-century Caribbean landscape.
When Rhys read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre as a young girl, she began to imagine the Caribbean upbringing of the character Rochester's infamous Creole wife, Bertha Mason. Years later, Rhys recalled, "I thought I'd try to write her a life." The result is one of literature's most famous prequels, a novel that seeks to humanize the racially pejorative characterization of a West Indian madwoman. An aesthetic experiment in modernist techniques and a powerful example of feminist rewriting, Wide Sargasso Sea gives voice to a marginalized character and transforms her original tragic demise into a kind of triumphant heroism.
As a West Indian writer, Rhys seeks to uncover an alternate truth, exposing the limits of a literary canon that assumes a shared white heritage in its audience. She writes this conflict into the very dialogue of her novel, creating, in the characterization of Mr. Mason, an unflattering picture of patriarchal entitlement. When Annette describes her sister's marital problems—specifically her husband's tyrannical behavior—Mr. Mason responds coldly "That's her story. I don't believe it"; he effectively silences the Creole woman's voice. Rhys aims to restore this voice with her text. She intended Wide Sargasso Sea to stand on its own, apart from Brontë's novel, as a challenge to the canon.
If Rhys's novel breaks thematic conventions by foregrounding the story of Antoinette / Bertha, it also innovates stylistically, adopting narrative, temporal, and aesthetic schemes that reflect a cultural and racial pluralism. Entrenched in the literary concerns of the mid-twentieth century, Wide Sargasso Sea features a web of symbols and images that underlies its dream- like plot and informs its feverish snatches of dialogue. Delving into the psyche of her principal characters, Rhys examines their fragmented identities and unconscious fears, focusing on an inner world that mirrors the impressions of an evocative physical landscape. The tripartite structure of the novel, with its shifts in narrative voice and jumps through time and space, affords the book a complex, porous surface that differs markedly from the linear progression found in its nineteenth-century counterpart. Championed by postcolonial, feminist, and modernist critics alike, Wide Sargasso Sea struggles against dominant traditions and espouses the cause of the under-represented.
Wide Sargasso Sea has generated heated debate among these literary critics, resisting easy categorization within the context of twentieth-century fiction. As a postcolonial work, the novel indicts England's exploitative colonial empire, aligning its sympathies with the plight of the black Caribbeans. However, Rhys's narrator—a white Creole—remains a step removed from racial oppression, and struggles primarily against the dictates of patriarchy. For this reason, the character is a touchstone for feminist theorists. That Wide Sargasso Sea is a rewriting of Jane Eyre—a text long upheld as a triumph of feminist liberalism—complicates the feminist debate. Rhys's text also invites psychoanalytic readings, through its experimentation with narrative and exploration of the unconscious. In its formal techniques and thematic sources, Rhys's novel incorporates modern and postmodern devices of fragmentation, while drawing, at times, on Romantic notions of sublimity, passion, and the supernatural.