Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Reception, Setting and Context


First published in 1966 Wide Sargasso Sea emerged after a break of thirty years since Rhys's other novels: Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. Theses tales of lost women striving for a sense of selfhood were initially received badly. However, after the war and during the climate of the swinging, liberated and politically anxious sixties her portraits of tragic and passionate personalities, and the extreme and rather bleak outlook on humanity was found more engaging and enraptured readers.


Rhys born on the Caribbean island of Dominica, drew on her own memories of the West Indies to create the environment of Wide Sargasso Sea as her own childhood visions inform the intoxicating and luxuriant despoiled Eden of Coulibri and the landscape forms an inextricable part of the novel's tensions and cultural conflicts. Beneath the beauty and verdant scenery is a more sinister sense of dilapidation and ruin reflecting the changes and shifts in the West Indian political situation, the troubles of identity and the damaging impact of finance. It provides a ripe and intoxicating stage for the playing out of racial and social insecurities.

The title itself further highlights the dangerous confusions to be faced in the course of the novel - the Sargasso Sea lies between Europe and the West Indies; situated suitably between the two dominant cultures which clash in the novel. It is a body of water associated with myth and superstition of shipwrecks and damage; thus overshadowing the novel with a sense of tragedy from the beginning. Its hybrid position allows a space where cultural identities, social and sexual roles are ensnarled and enmeshed.

Historical Background

Set in the mid nineteenth century, Wide Sargasso Sea opens amid the tensions of the 1833 Emancipation Act in the British West Indies. The novel charts this troubled period as Antoinette is caught between both cultures and past and present; she remembers "My father... Feeling safe" which is grimly contrasted to her present state ("a solitary life") and a ruined and wild garden where there had been an Edenic scene. After fifty years of bitter debate in Britain over the morality and profitability of slavery this act did not entirely abolish slavery but transformed slaves into apprenticed labourers for four to six years. This act then did not entirely satisfy those in chattels as the incubus of slavery persisted because of governmental fears that liberation might cause chaos and financial fears of the plantation owners who wished to protect the profits of their estates; material greed and robust capitalism triumphed over morality or notions of common humanity or spiritual and social equality. The Act however, did trigger shifts in financial situations and social attitude and the resentments of the black workers against the naïve and exploitative colonialists is vividly portrayed in the lethal fire at Antoinette's home where the explosiveness of the situation is poignantly symbolised.