Questioning the Canon: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

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Questioning the Canon is a new feature in which I hope to bring to light lesser-known books about a certain issue, which can be read alongside or instead of infamous ‘classics’.

Questioning the Canon Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea

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The canon is defined as ‘a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which is effortfully pulling me through the endless terminology of my literature degree!

“Canon: a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study”

Essentially, you can think of the canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts. These songs are the most frequently listened to, but fans of obscure alternative groups have been questioning since the dawn of time – well, since the NOW CDs came out – whether they actually represent the best quality music. How often do you hear the phrase ‘that’s so mainstream’ used as a dismissal?

“You can think of the literary canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts!”

Recently the same phenomenon is taking place in literature. People are starting to discuss whether the authors we hold up as cultural icons – Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth – should be accompanied by previously marginalised writers. Our idea of what constitutes ‘great literature’ is becoming broader.

This can only be a good thing, as it means more diversity and social representation in what we read!

The Canon: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Date published: 1847

Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 1, 430, 817

Setting: England

Synopsis: Jane Eyre grows up as an orphan without a friend in the world, yet she maintains her resistance towards those who seek to oppress her. She manages to find work as a governess, but it is a lonely vocation and she cannot help wondering if the empty routine at Thornfield Hall is all that awaits her. That is, until the head of the house, Mr Rochester, returns and Jane is forced to reconcile duty with desire.

The Questioner: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Date published: 1966

Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 54, 115

Setting: West Indies

Synopsis: In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys images a prequel to Jane Eyre, centred on one of the novel’s marginal characters: Bertha Mason. Set in the sensuously beautiful islands of the West Indies, the story follows Bertha from her traumatic childhood to her ill-fated marriage. Who is Bertha Mason? What made her mad? And is there more to her story than Rochester reveals?

Questions Asked: Jane Eyre is often held up as a proto-feminist novel, and of course Bronte’s independent, quietly resolute heroine is an alluring character for modern female readers. Nevertheless, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys questions whether the other female characters are represented fairly, notably the mad Bertha Mason.

It is possible to interpret the descriptions of Bertha in Jane Eyre as racially stereotyped. By imagining her story, Rhys plunges readers into the dark history of colonial Britain and forces us to consider how far Rochester – and even Jane herself – are implicated in racial oppression.

Recommendation: Read both!

It is difficult to fully appreciate Wide Sargasso Sea without first having read Jane Eyre, so definitely read Charlotte Bronte’s novel first. However, Jean Rhys gives a fresh and sometimes shocking perspective on Jane Eyre that will make you consider this infamous novel much more deeply.

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Red Arrow Jane EyreRed Arrow

Red Arrow Wide Sargasso SeaRed Arrow

Cover images courtesy of Goodreads.

Have you read either of these novels? Have an under-rated book that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!

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8 thoughts on “Questioning the Canon: Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea”

  1. I have read both – I’m a Jane Eyre fan but I didn’t really like Wide Sargasso Sea. I appreciated the comments it was making about the original story, but as a story in itself was not enjoyable. I suppose we could see the imprisonment of Bertha as symbolic of colonialism, although she is white and descended from colonisers.
    I always recommend Villette (Bronte’s later novel) which is my favourite one of hers 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment! Jane Eyre is an utterly engrossing story – I loved Wide Sargasso Sea, but agree that it doesn’t have the same sort of epic feel as a novel that Jane Eyre does. It is shorter though, which I appreciated given I had to read them both in a short space of time!!! And thank you so much for the recommendation of Villette, I have added it to my Goodreads list 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Have you read any other Jean Rhys? I have read a couple but wouldn’t say she’s a favourite, although an interesting writing style. I love Villette, I always recommend it to people. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It sounds like Villette is a big favourite of yours, I definitely need to read it! No, I haven’t read anything else by Jean Rhys – do you have any suggestions? 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thank you! I will have a look at that one too – recommendations are always much appreciated
        📕 MP X 📖

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment Luccia! And yes, I followed your blog after seeing the Eyre Hall Trilogy, which sounds incredibly immersive. I love historical fiction, especially when it has a literary twist! It has gone straight onto my Goodreads to-be-read list
      📕MP📖 X

      Liked by 1 person

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