Recently I gave a craft talk on setting at the Jefferson Parish Public Library. I pulled Sargasso down from the shelf because I thought I'd find some good use of setting in there. And I was right:
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered—then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and very strong. I never went near it.
For the uninitiated, Sargasso is Jean Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Antoinette-cum-Bertha, the madwoman in the attic. It's a slim little volume, scarcely 100 pages, but in that limited space Rhys manages to change and challenge our reading of Bronte's classic forever.
Like Jane Eyre, Sargasso begins with its heroine's lonely childhood:
I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think "It's better than people." Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin--once I saw a snake. All better than people.
Better. Better, better than people.
Wow! Doesn't that break your heart? Doesn't that pack a wallop?
The latter part of the book chronicles Antoinette's reluctant, dead-on-arrival marriage to an unnamed husband, i.e., Edward Rochester. Rochester enters this loveless marriage because, as a second son, he has no other way of acquiring money, but English primogeniture is only one of many forces that combine to doom them both. There's also the English legal system that deprives Antoinette of her property, the social isolation of European Creoles in Dominica, racial/gender/geographic stereotypes, and the plain old malice of petty, embittered people. A study in cruelty and misunderstanding, told in simple but powerful prose, Sargasso not only invites questions about colonization and gender politics; it also expands our understanding of and feelings for a character that Bronte (and don't get me wrong, I love her) threw under the bus.
When people say that literature helps create empathy, they're talking about books like Wide Sargasso Sea. Oh, my gosh, y'all. Just read it.