The Sargasso Sea as an Underlying Metaphor in Wide Sargasso Sea
Why did Jean Rhys name her novel about the Creole madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre after a mysterious body of water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? As there is no mention made of the Sargasso Sea in the novel itself, one might wonder why she chose to title her novel after it. In a 1958 letter to a friend and colleague, she describes her changing titles for the novel: “I have no title yet. ‘The First Mrs. Rochester’ is not right. Nor, of course is ‘Creole’. That has a different meaning now. I hope I’ll get one soon, for titles mean a lot to me. Almost half the battle. I thought of ‘Sargasso Sea’ or ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ but nobody knew what I meant” (Raiskin 136). Since titles and naming hold such significance for Rhys, we must assume that the Sargasso Sea is in some way a larger metaphor that encompasses the whole novel and that it holds meaning and implications that add value to our understanding of the novel.
First, one must beg the question, why does Rhys choose an allusion that nobody will understand? Rhys was fully aware that the title would not lend itself to easy interpretation. Why, then, did she stick with Wide Sargasso Sea instead of the more obvious ‘The First Mrs. Rochester’ or even ‘Creole’? Her seemingly unusual title choice is in actuality a carefully crafted selection that echoes her decision to write about the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre; it requires unpacking, just like Bronte’s Bertha. Like the lunatic in the attic, Rhys is asking the readers to not take her at surface value, but to question her reasons: “the reason why Mr. Rochester treats her so abominably and feels justified, the reason why he thinks she is mad and why of course she goes mad, even the reason why she tries to set everything on fire” (Raiskin 136-137). Readers of Jane Eyre were not given a basis for Bertha’s lunacy; she was given no consideration, which is why Rhys brings life to the character. Rhys questions Bertha’s motives – we must question hers as so why she chose the Sargasso Sea as her title.
The Sargasso Sea, situated between Caribbean and Europe, “is the only sea without a land boundary” (“What is the Sargasso Sea”). It is a veritable no-man's-land, a nebulous area that is “isolated” from the rest of the Atlantic, a “sea within a sea” (Webster). Likewise, Antoinette lies suspended between two worlds, two identities, without a claim to either, a nation unto herself. As she expresses herself, “It was a song about a white cockroach. That's me. That's what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I've heard English women call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” (Rhys 102). Her claim to the Caribbean is tenuous due to her whiteness, and her claim to England (and with it, whiteness) is dubious and constantly questioned...