Bertha Writes Back!

This half-term is all about ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’

In Jean Rhys’ novel, ‘Bertha’ Mason is humanised by being given a proper story full of rich detail which is lacking in the original. Jean Rhys said of Bertha ” She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her a life.”

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’  is a pretty radical, political, imagery laden text and this makes it complex, this, in addition to its postmodernist narrative can make it a challenge to teach.

I’ve decided to make my first lesson one that explores Jean Rhys and how her own life influenced the text and the significance of the setting.

But first I want to see what the students already know… A3 paper for pair work. 1min to write all they know about the text: then swap paper with another pair… what information can be added by the new pair…

“So between you and I …I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all” – This quotation from the text could reflect Rhys own life just as much as it does Antoinette’s.

Rhys was born in Dominica – a Creole – she left in 1907 at age 17.

One definition of Creole – Person born in the West Indies but of European heritage (usually slave owners and their children)

WSS – published in 1966 the novel is based on her own isolation and insecurity, growing up where the main social group is poor, black and Catholic. Impacted on her whole life – creating vulnerability and a sense of otherness. In the novel there is a distance caused by gender, race and social grouping. Feelings of bitterness and mistrust prevail.

Discussion on the significance of the sea being in the middle of the North Atlantic – the only sea without a shore instead it is surrounded by different tropical currents.

Relevance of Emancipation act – in 1834 the British government passed at act to reduce slavery. Slaves were made into ‘apprentices’ – only children under 6 were made free. Considered to be a political deception – created fraught relationships.

Definition of fatalism and how it’s evidenced in the opening pages of the text.

“They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks” –

Class discussion and feedback on the following points:

1.How does this quotation suggest fatalism and how does it set up some of the significant themes of the novel?

2.Explain the technique used in this quotation: “My Father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed – all belonged to the past” What effect does it have?

3.Why are the place names ‘Nelson’s Rest’ and ‘Spanish Town’ significant?

4. Choose 3 quotations from pages 5 and 6 and explain how they evidence the family’s degraded place in society.

5. What do you think the use of Creole dialect adds to the novel?
Examples of student ‘What do I know’ brainstorm.



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