Jean Rhys World Literature Analysis
Of importance to an understanding and appreciation of the fiction of Jean Rhys is a recognition of the way in which her fiction reflects an attitude toward life often in opposition to traditional middle-class values. This attitude was shaped partly by her unusual cultural background but also by her life experiences. She is brutally honest and darkly humorous in her presentation of the isolated, abandoned world of her women characters, who passively ache for lost beauty and passion, but who always attempt to survive. Rhys presents those women from the perspective of a displaced person. Along with her general focus on the displaced person, her writings that reflect her West Indian heritage pursue themes of alienation and rejection endured by the white Creole woman in the Caribbean and her marginalization in England.
In Smile Please Rhys tells of her early fascination with books, stating that before she could read, she “imagined that God, this strange thing or person I heard about, was a book.” Her former editor, Diana Athill, in the foreword to Smile Please, says that Rhys wrote “because she had no choice.” Her early life in Dominica is also reflected in her perspective about marriage; she noted that a white girl’s goal in life was to marry in order to be happy. While noting that married women seemed less happy than unmarried ones, Rhys also noted that while marriages did not take place frequently among them, the blacks she knew seemed very happy. Another element of the black woman that appealed to Rhys was the warmth of native black women caretakers, in contrast with her own mother, whom she depicts as distant. These various influences appear throughout her writing.
The Rhys heroine appears in her first four novels (Quartet, After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark, and Good Morning, Midnight) and later in a more complex form in Wide Sargasso Sea, which has the added complication of focusing on a character created by nineteenth century British novelist Charlotte Brontë. Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is set in the 1830’s; Wide Sargasso Sea likewise is set in that time.
In Quartet, the reader sees the emergence of the Rhys heroine. Marya Zelli was a chorus girl in England (as Rhys was) and later, in 1926, is in Paris with a charming but irresponsible Pole she has married. After her husband is sent to prison, Marya is befriended by a couple, the Heidlers. He is a middle-aged picture dealer and his wife is a domineering Englishwoman. This couple assumes that Marya should become the husband’s mistress. Heidler is a cold, anglicized German who may be modeled on Ford Madox Ford. Marya is first revolted by Heidler and then falls in love with him, living in both fascination and fear at the ensuing triangle, which lasts until her husband comes out of prison. Marya ends up losing both men.
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie also begins in Paris about 1928. Julia Martin has been “pensioned off by a former lover” and leads a lonely life in a cheap hotel. When the former lover refuses to send any more money, she is left penniless and is old enough to be unsure of her attractiveness to men. She decides to go to London to look up other former lovers in the hope of getting money from them. The trip is not successful; she is met with annoyance and disapproval. After an affair with a young man goes awry, she returns to Paris to face an empty future.
Voyage in the Dark is told from a first-person point of view and has greater immediacy than the first two novels. The novel also incorporates more autobiographical material with its memories of the lush and tropical West Indian island, which Rhys uses as contrast to the coldness of England. The metaphorical pattern appears earlier in Smile Please, as Rhys records the effect of the change from warmth to coldness in her trip to England. The time frame of Voyage in the Dark is 1914, and the central character is Anna Morgan, who is nineteen and touring the provinces in the chorus of a pantomime, again suggested by Rhys’s personal experience. Again the woman is depicted as a victim, but a survivor. After an unsuccessful love affair with a young man, she is abandoned and becomes a prostitute. The novel concludes with Anna recovering from an abortion.
In Good Morning, Midnight, the reader encounters the heroine, Sasha Jansen, returning to Paris for a visit in 1937. Again using first person, Rhys presents Sasha as now over forty, distrusting of men, and drinking heavily. Sasha becomes involved with a young gigolo in a complicated relationship of mutual teasing. The novel ends with a scene of ironic tragedy, leaving the reader uneasy about whether the character will survive. Critics generally agree that this novel is Rhys’s darkest work, characterized by fear and violence.
Rhys herself at this time seemed to disappear from the literary scene. She lived a life somewhat akin to that of Sasha Jansen. Her books went out of print. Her next novel was not published until 1966. Having long been fascinated with Brontë’s madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason, Rhys wrote her Wide Sargasso Sea as a defense of the transplanted Creole woman locked away in England and looking for a voice to tell her side of the story. The setting is in the 1830’s, in both the West Indies and England. Again, Rhys establishes the polarity of climates to symbolize the polarity of temperaments in the passionate West Indian and the cold Englishman.
Rhys’s short stories fit into two chronological groups. One group, written in the 1920’s, were published in The Left Bank. The second group of stories, written in the 1960’s and 1970’s,...
(The entire section is 2364 words.)