Written as a post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea follows the life of Antoinette Cosway from her tumultuous childhood in Jamaica following British emancipation to her marriage and subsequent descent into madness.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
Jane Eyre, published in 1897, is a novel written from the first-person perspective about a plain governess named Jane who falls in love with her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester.
Have students read this text before they begin Wide Sargasso Sea, both as a literary comparison and to spark discussion on Rhys’ decision to write a prequel to Jane Eyre. Pair “Excerpts from Jane Eyre” with Wide Sargasso Sea and ask students to compare the two texts, particularly the characters of Rochester and Antoinette Cosway/Bertha Mason — why did the author likely choose to tell Antoinette’s/Bertha’s story? How does she frame her story and what does Rhys focus on that Brontë did not? Alternatively, you may wish to introduce this text after students have completed Wide Sargasso Sea, in order to generate the above questions in the context of a post-reading discussion.
In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the importance of not allowing one story to construct your understanding of the world.
Have students read this text before beginning the novel as contemporary insight into the importance of storytelling and different perspectives. Pair “The Danger of a Single Story” with Wide Sargasso Sea and ask students to consider Rhys’s intent in writing Wide Sargasso Sea — consider the stories of marginalized groups that would have otherwise gone untold. Why is it important that marginalized groups tell their stories? How do different perspectives help us frame different stories?
Margaret Atwood (born 1939) is an award winning Canadian poet, novelist, and literary critic. In “Morning in the Burned House,” Atwood paints a dream-like picture through her use of symbolism and metaphor, describing a speaker who imagines her childhood as a burned house.
Introduce this text after reading Part 1 of the novel — after Antoinette’s house burns down — in order to analyze imagery through a comparative look at how fire is used in both texts. Pair “Morning in the Burned House” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 1 and ask students to discuss the use of fire and burning in the texts. What does fire represent, both as a symbol or motif, especially in reference to both narrators’ lives or childhoods? How is Antoinette’s fate tied to fire?
In “The Niger Expedition of 1841,” Mike Kubic discusses Britain's attempt to eradicate slavery by forming treaties with African chieftains along the Niger River.
Have students read this text after reading Part 1 of the novel, as historical insight into British imperialism and slavery within the empire. Pair “The Niger Expedition of 1841” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 1 and ask students to compare how slavery, as well as its abolition, affected nations in the 19th century that were deeply rooted in the institution of slavery.
This text provides an overview of arranged marriage today, including the cultural and historical trends that have influenced the practice.
Introduce this text after reading the first half of Part II of the novel, in order to provide sociological insight into the practice of arranged marriages. Pair “Would You Marry a Stranger?” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 2 and ask students to consider the arranged marriage between Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha: Could they learn to love each other? Is there marriage doomed to fail from the start? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.
Kate Chopin (1850-1904) was an American author and a forerunner of twentieth-century feminist writers. In this passage, a family makes a shocking discovery about a baby in this story about lineage and class in antebellum Louisiana.
Introduce this text after Rochester speaks with Daniel Cosway in Part 2 of the novel, in order to identify themes and draw thematic connections across the texts on race, lineage, prejudice, and reputation. Pair “Desiree’s Baby” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 2 and ask students to compare the prejudices that turn the husbands in both texts against their wives.
In these excerpts from Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, Edna Pontellier struggles with what is expected of her as a mother, a wife, and a woman.
Introduce this text after students have read the fourth section of Part 2 — when Antoinette goes to Christophine’s new house — in order to draw thematic connections between the two texts on the status and power of wives. Pair “Excerpts from The Awakening” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 2 and ask students to discuss how the women in both texts are treated by their husbands. How does each wife react to their treatment?
In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” Dunbar uses the experiences of a caged to bird to discuss the oppression of African Americans.
Introduce this poem after finishing Part 2 of the novel, in order to encourage students to draw thematic connections, across genre and form, on living in oppression. Pair “Sympathy” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 2 and ask students to consider the various elements of oppression depicted throughout both texts. How is oppression illustrated within both texts? How is Antoinette similar to the caged bird in Dunbar’s poem?
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a groundbreaking short story from 1892 told through journal entries that chronicles a woman’s struggle in dealing with male physicians who will not take her illness seriously.
Introduce this short story after students have completed Part 3 of the novel, in order to discuss comparisons on the portrayal and motif of madness within literature. Pair “The Yellow Wallpaper” with Wide Sargasso Sea: Part 3 and ask students to discuss how both texts depict mental illness — what factors drive both women to madness? What point do you feel the authors are making by having two women descend into madness?
In the interview “Behind Closed Doors: ‘Colorism’ in the Caribbean,” Michel Martin discusses colorism in the Dominican Republic with Frances Robles.
Have students read this text after they have finished the novel, in order to provide contemporary insight into racial relations in the Caribbean. Pair “Behind Closed Doors: ‘Colorism in the Caribbean” with Wide Sargasso Sea and ask students to evaluate how history has shaped the sociopolitical culture in the Caribbean. How has colorism been ignored over the years? What significant effects has colorism had in the Caribbean? Students should draw on evidence from both texts for their answers.