Wide Sargasso Sea: hot chocolate on a stick

I love food and I love to read. As a result, each month, I combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


When I was in the seventh grade (that's around age 12-13, for you non-US readers), a friend of mine and I read Jane Eyre around the same time. She enjoyed some of it; I disliked it. But we could agree on one thing: the super-dramatic, gothic twist to Rochester's life story--the fact that he had locked away a crazy pyromaniac wife named Bertha who liked to creep around the house at night--that was awesome. We both wished Bronte had given more attention to Bertha. Bertha was the most--strike that, the ONLY interesting character in the book, and there was only one good passage that actually described her.

That friend and I grew apart, but a couple years later she told me she'd read a book called Wide Sargasso Sea, which was the story Bertha's life before Rochester. She (my friend) recommended it; she’d found it depressing, but good, and really liked revisiting the story of that character we had obsessed and laughed over as preteens. I never got around to it, and since I'm perverse in my book selection, the more I heard the novel praised over time, the more I figured I wouldn't like it. After all, everyone praises Jane Eyre, and even after all the time I spent studying literature in college and grad school, I still don't like that--why would I like its prequel?

But then I found a falling-apart copy of the book in a "free" pile on my street. I thought, "okay, it's a small book, and I don't have to pay for it, so it will be neither a waste of time nor money." I read it.

Guys. I hated it.
Author Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966, more than 100 years after Jane Eyre. Its main character is Antoinette, a young white girl living in Jamaica with her mother and disabled little brother. Racial tensions are high: Antoinette's family is too poor to fit in with the other white people, who are all wealthy, and the badly-treated black people in Jamaica neither trust nor like any of the whites, so Antoinette and her family become increasingly poor, ashamed, isolated, and helpless. The mother, who's already a little crazy, goes crazier when rebelling former slaves light her house on fire and the little brother dies; Antoinette's stepfather has the mother committed and sends Antoinette to a convent. Fast forward to when Antoinette is old enough to marry; Antoinette's stepfamily basically bribes a young British guy to marry her. They love each other intensely for about a week, when Rochester (her husband) realizes they don't know, trust, or like each other. So he starts to hate Antoinette, who in turn starts to hate him, then she basically goes a little crazy because her life is so terrible and losing the one person she (thinks she) loves is the last straw. Rochester takes her back to England, where we get a creepy little epilogue telling us how/why she's so creepy in Jane Eyre.

Sorry, I'm being flip because of how much I disliked the book. The book does hint at the racial, sexual, mental-health and economic issues at play in 1830s Jamaica, but really, it only hints at these things. Mostly the book doesn't cover anything in depth except all of the ways in which Antoinette's life sucks.

When I taught first-year composition classes during my MA program, I would deal with particularly difficult-to-read student essays by playing what pedagogical theorist Peter Elbow calls "the believing game." That is, read the paper with the assumption that the author knows what s/he is doing, and s/he did the things I don't like on purpose, to prove a point or to somehow further his/her argument. So here's me trying to play the believing game with Wide Sargasso Sea: Rhys is attempting to give dignity to a stock character not only in Jane Eyre but in gothic fiction. She turns Bertha Antoinetta Mason, the dark, crazy wife in the attic, into Antoinette, a shy, reflective, friendless, troubled young woman limited by resources and societal conventions. While she does become the crazy wife in the attic, she gets there because the role of a woman in 1830s Jamaica and Britain do not allow her enough of a chance to express herself or her desires.

A decent attempt, but I don’t think Rhys developed those themes enough for me; the novel didn’t seem to make Antoinette’s life story “the plight of woman” but “the plight of one really, really unlucky person.” And why does it have to connect to Jane Eyre? Rhys’s Antoinette does not have to be Bronte’s Bertha; in fact, I think Rhys trying to tie the two tales together is what bothered me the most. A few details in Wide Sargasso Sea contradict points of Jane Eyre. The name "Antoinette" alone! I get using her middle name, because not many people nowadays would take a main-character "Bertha" seriously, but still, in Jane Eyre, the middle name is Antoinetta. Rhys also changed Mason from Bertha's family name to her step-family name, and changed the way in which Rochester met/married his wife, making his story a lie in Jane Eyre. In fact, Wide Sargasso Sea makes Rochester out to be a bitter, mean, greedy alcoholic. While I didn't like Jane Eyre enough to defend Rochester's character too much, Rhys is basically retconning him to be a big, bad liar, casting his role in Jane Eyre as one that is much more manipulative and sinister, and it doesn’t work for me. Why couldn't Rhys have written a feminist novel about white women's limited roles in 19th-century Jamaica using characters who didn't already exist in someone else's story? By the time I got to the final part of the book, set during the action of Jane Eyre, it felt like I was reading messily-researched fan fiction. It's like if 100 years from now, some fan of Twilight deciding to write a prequel about the life story of that red-headed female vampire who keeps trying to kill Bella, only with a few details changed because THAT WAY IT'S EVEN SADDER AND HAS MORE LOVE STORY IN IT. It felt like writing from a fan-girl who felt like she had SO MUCH TO CONTRIBUTE.

But back to “the believing game.” Maybe part of my annoyance of it is that the novel is set in Jamaica and I'm in the Northeast during a harsh winter! There were good parts to the book. Like... the hot chocolate! Actually, nope, even the parts with the hot chocolate were depressing, because Antoinette drinks it at her mother's funeral and then right before she finds out she's supposed to marry a man she doesn't know. But the people around her know that to comfort her, a mug of hot chocolate was the way to go.

So! If a friend of yours is depressed, whether it's because of the never-ending winter or because s/he is engaged to a stranger who might eventually lock him/her in an attic, consider giving him/her hot chocolate! It's a warming and delicious way to show you care, and that you are not likely to lock him/her in an attic yourself, because people who do that only drink rum.
What is this, you ask? This is, in my opinion, the coolest way to give someone hot chocolate: on a stick!

I saw the recipe for Hot Chocolate on a Stick on the Giver's Log website, and thought it was a great homemade gift idea. (As you know from my post-holiday entry, I love edible gift-giving.) None of those namby-pamby dry mixes; this stuff is real chocolate, gently melted and mixed with cocoa powder and powdered sugar to create the perfect thing to stir into a warm glass of soymilk. I actually imagine it would work okay in water, too, but I haven't tried it. Anyway, you can see the recipe at that Giver's Log link; I didn't change anything. I do want to say that I don't find chocolate as finicky as that author does, so don’t be intimidated by her very detailed instructions. I used half baking chocolate and half chocolate chips for my meltable chocolate, and I used these cute silicone ice cube trays from IKEA as molds:
My sticks are not as pretty as the ones at the Giver's Log; I used some coffee stirrers from a cafe, a few wooden chopsticks, and a couple plastic spoons. Once the chocolate hardened, the silicone made it really easy to remove from the mold, but I imagine a basic ice cube tray would also be pretty easy. If it gives you some trouble, simply dip the base in a bowl of warm water, which should soften (but not melt) the chocolate enough to get it out.
The advantage to the cross shape, in my opinion, is that it dissolves faster, but also that you can do cute things with them, like line them up or hunch them together.
As you can maybe tell from how much one little book annoyed me, the long, cold, snowy, icy winter is beginning to get to me. At Desdemona’s recommendation, I started taking vitamin D during these darker months to stave off SAD, but of course I still miss the sun. So while I'm waiting for warmer weather, I'll keep consuming copious amounts of chocolate, drinkable and otherwise--and I'll read some better books. Those of you who read Wide Sargasso Sea and enjoyed it, what am I missing? Those of you who liked Jane Eyre, what makes you prefer that novel to, say, something from Dickens?

Before I go, I wanted to share with you one denizen of the Boston/Cambridge area who doesn't care what time of year it is: our lime tree!
It flowered this winter! I actually took these picture a couple weeks ago; in place of the flowers, it has now started to grow a little lime. It did this once before, back when I first met the boyfriend, and we’re psyched that it's doing it again.
I'm a little worried the cats might be psyched about it, too.


anna said... Best Blogger Tips

great review! as someone who moderately enjoyed WSS, i would say i had a slightly different read than you. i didn't think it was really about white women in jamaica so much as stereotypes of women everywhere as emotional and crazy. in jane eyre, bertha was a crazy lady and we kind of accepted that. would we buy a crazy man in the attic? i doubt it. the stereotype of the crazy old woman is iconic.

i imagine the author of WSS reading jane eyre and being upset about the way that the success of the character was in playing off this harmful and widespread stereotype about women. so she decided to write bertha's story in a sympathetic way, to give some context to "crazy women" who are dismissed so easily by society. first stop, new name - replace the unattractive name (bertha) with a youthful one (antoinette). then she wrote the story of the hard life women live, their limited options - and it could have been anywhere really - to lead up to her "craziness" which became much more understandable in context.

i think the point of making rochester (is that his name? the husband?) nasty was to say that not only are people complex but history is written by the victors, so to speak. so of course the story of rochester (jane eyre) portrays him as a hero. but what if the story were written from the women's POV? maybe the man is not so perfect after all.

anyway, it's been awhile, so i'm not sure if this is really what WSS was about but i think that's what i thought about when reading it!

Ginny said... Best Blogger Tips

I actually liked Jane Eyre but this book sounds really bad. Ah well at least you got it for free.

I now want a little lime tree! :)

crissy said... Best Blogger Tips

I actually liked Jane Eyre too . nice sharing.

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Sarah P said... Best Blogger Tips

@anna-Thanks for your comment! It's good to hear someone else's perspective on the book! That's similar to what I was thinking when I was playing "the believing game" with myself over the book. Personally, it doesn't work for me because we have examples of other women in the book who do okay (the black women, the rich white women, the nuns, Antoinette's fellow students at the convent), so Antoinette and her mother stand out too much as exceptions, so I had trouble connecting their problems to larger feminist issues. I do agree that Rochester is not perfect! I am always surprised when people think of him as a romantic hero in Jane Eyre. The dude locked his wife in an attic!!!

@Ginny and crissy-It seems to me that most people do like Jane Eyre. I was definitely one of the few people in my grad program who didn't! I guess I'm just biased against the early gothic novel genre.