Spoiler alert throughout:
Rhys retells the classic Jane Eyre, from the point of view of ‘the madwoman in the attic’, the first wife of our hero Rochester. He will not be such a hero to us by the end of the tale.
Rhys shows us how, piece by careful piece, ‘our hero’ completely disempowers his first wife, using every single method which his culture permits him to use: he removes her economic independence (her inheritance is signed over to her husband), he dismisses the Caribbean culture in which she was partially raised and which is her solace, he endangers and ruins the only mother figure in her life, her black nurse. He changes her name. Her black nurse calls this last the darkest sort of voodoo, identity theft. As an ex-slave, she knows of which she speaks. Rhys is careful to show us that, within the mores of his own society, this man’s behaviour is never anything less than ‘respectable’. Rhys invites us to see him otherwise and at the time in which she wrote the novel (although not so much, perhaps, by the time, a good twenty years later, when it was finally published) Rhys’ story was radical, and quite undermining to the dominant culture’s view of itself. Rhys brings a sympathetic understanding to the farthest reaches of the attic in The Great House and it’s her greatest accomplishment that by the end of the story we are with ‘the madwoman in the attic’. Stalking the corridors and setting the curtains alight.