Gateway Book: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

As I face down a busy day and a working weekend that promises to be anything but reading friendly, I’m sharing a quick, fun post on a gateway book, a book that introduced me to a literary niche I didn’t know about but now really enjoy. Discussing our differing opinions on the subject of Christina’s post (which I can’t wait for you to read tomorrow) brought up the subject of perspective. One of my superpowers as a writer and human is a natural inclination to seek out new perspectives and ways to look at things. This discussion reminded me of a book I’d read, a gateway book that introduce me to a literary niche I now really enjoy–and yo might, as well. WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, so if you’re wanting to be surprised by that literary classic, you might want to wait to read this one.

My cover doesn’t look like this one, but I like it!

When I was in college, I read Wide Sargasso Sea for one of my many (many) English classes. SPOILER ALERT: It’s the story of the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s “crazy” wife. In this book, Jean Rhys shifts the perspective of the reader from seeing “the mad woman” (who Rhys names Antoinette) the way Bronte’s characters see her. Here, we learn how Antoinette grew up, when she met Rochester, how they came to be married, and what really drove her “mad.”

I have to admit I’ve never read Jane Eyre. Even before I read Wide Sargasso Sea, it never sat well with me that people were so swept up in JE that they completely overlooked or forgave Rochester for having a whole woman locked away in the attic, a woman he was married to, while falling in love with another. Nothing about any of that said romance to me. I’m the person who would read something like that and go “wait, what? Pause. I need to know how we got here.” That aspect of the story always turned me off. I never imagined someone else wanted to give this woman an identity and a voice, let alone that they’d written a book that did exactly that.

I’ve always loved art that helps you see something you’ve always seen in a new way. Everyone is the main character in their own story. The best stories manage to help the reader see the story from several different points of view. The moment I read Wide Sargasso Sea, I realized there were books that flipped the stories we’re all familiar with on their head simply by shifting the perspective from who’s on the main stage in the original to a different character. The Wind Done Gone has been on my list for a long time, though I haven’t gotten around to it yet. The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard is also on this list. The literary parodies of Gone with the Wind and Hamlet, respectively, these two are perfect examples of how telling a classic tale from a lesser known viewpoint completely changes the story.

I haven’t had the opportunity to read many of these stories since I graduated college, but I’d love to find more.

Are you a fan of classic stories told from a different perspective? What are some of your favorite books in this literary niche?