Rhys, Jean (Vol. 21)
Rhys, Jean 1890-1979
(Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams) West Indian-born English short story writer, novelist, and autobiographer.
Rhys's works combine personal experience with emotional and psychological insight to examine the nature of relations between the sexes. Her novels and short stories typically focus on complex, intelligent, sensitive women who are dominated and victimized by men and society. Alone and alienated, these women are unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes, achieve emotional and financial independence, or gain control of their lives. Although Rhys was called "the best living English novelist" by Alfred Alvarez in 1974, she spent most of her career writing in relative obscurity. Her early works, dating from 1927, were largely ignored or forgotten until her novel Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966; the critical and popular success of this work occasioned new interest in her entire output. Rhys's early work has subsequently been reprinted and studied extensively. Critics have praised her spare, understated prose, realistic characterizations, dreamlike imagery, and ironic, often embittered tone in her stories, which depict the plights of her characters while evoking sympathy for their situations.
Rhys's biography is central to any interpretation of her work, as her writings are, by her own admission, largely autobiographical. She was born in Roseau, Dominica, in the Lesser Antilles, where as a young girl she received religious training in a convent. Many of Rhys's stories are infused with her childhood memories of the island. At the age of seventeen she emigrated to England, briefly attending school in Cambridge before pursuing a failed career as a chorus girl. In 1919 she married journalist Jean Lenglet and lived throughout continental Europe. Rhys moved to Paris in the early 1920s with her husband and their new-born daughter. While in Paris Rhys worked at various jobs, pursued occasional writing opportunities, and in 1924, through a literary connection, met author and editor Ford Madox Ford. When Lenglet was jailed in 1925 for dubious business practices, Rhys was taken in by Ford, who published her earliest writings in his Transatlantic Review and sponsored publication of her first collection of short fiction, The Left Bank and Other Stories. Four novels followed, but World War II interrupted Rhys's career and she fell into obscurity. Many of her readers assumed she had died. She was "rediscovered" in 1949 by actress Selma Vaz Dias, who sought her permission to adapt her novel Good Morning, Midnight as a dramatic monologue. Encouraged by the knowledge that her work had not been forgotten, Rhys produced Wide Sargasso Sea, the novel considered her masterwork, and two more short story collections. Rhys was awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, and the Council of Great Britain Award for Writers. She died in England in 1979, leaving her autobiography incomplete.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Rhys's stories consistently explore feminine consciousness and illustrate the complexities of relationships between women and men. The lives Rhys portrays are bleak, with desperation at their cores. The women are lonely outsiders, financially and emotionally at the mercy of callous men. The central characters in all Rhys's fiction appear to be versions of Rhys herself, with little attempt at disguise, and the plots seem lifted directly from her own often chaotic life. Her Bohemian existence in Paris during the 1920s, for example, provided the material for The Left Bank, a collection that contains thinly veiled allegories of the author's own alienation, weaknesses, and failed relationships. As Rhys aged, her stories began to examine the effects of growing old; several pieces in Sleep It Off, Lady treat the loneliness and isolation that may accompany aging. The central women in "Rapunzel, Rapunzel," and the title story in the collection, for instance, are humiliated by the other characters simply because they are elderly. Thomas Staley has observed a progression through the stories in this collection in which life is traced "from youth and adolescence to adulthood and, inevitably, to old age."
Rhys's work has been uniformly praised for its economically lucid prose, its realism, its vivid imagery, and for Rhys's stylistic mastery of her material. Critics have also paid close attention to the repression of her female protagonists, their curious inability to rescue themselves, and the author's consistently pessimistic world view, as well as themes of aging, race, and colonialism. Although Rhys's stories commonly focus on women's issues, many commentators have noted that the concerns they express affect all of society, men as well as women. As Staley has remarked, Rhys's work "explores with compassion and a rare intelligence the panic and emptiness of modern life."
The Left Bank and Other Stories 1927
Tigers Are Better-Looking 1968
Sleep It Off, Lady 1976
Jean Rhys: The Collected Short Stories 1987
Other Major Works
Postures (novel) [also published as Quartet] 1928
After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (novel) 1931
Voyage in the Dark (novel) 1934
Good Morning, Midnight (novel) 1939
Wide Sargasso Sea (novel) 1966
My Day (autobiographical sketches) 1975
Smile Please (unfinished autobiography) 1979
The Letters of Jean Rhys (correspondence) 1984
Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels (collected novels) 1985
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SOURCE: "The Best Living English Novelist," in The New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1974, pp. 6-7.
[In the following appreciative survey of Rhys's works, Alvarez maintains that the "purity of Miss Rhys's style and her ability to be at once deadly serious and offhand make her books peculiarly timeless. " ]
When Jean Rhys published her first book, a collection of short stories called The Left Bank, in 1927, it came with an enthusiastic preface by Ford Madox Ford. He was presumably rather less enthusiastic about her first novel, Quartet, which appeared the next year. It is the story of a young woman, left penniless when her husband is sent to prison, who drifts into an affair with an older man, egged on by his crushingly understanding and emancipated wife. Writing of The Left Bank, Ford had praised his protegée's "passion for stating the case of the underdog." It turned out that the underdog heroine had an uncanny eye for the hypocrisies and secret brutality of those on top and an equal gift for expressing, without dramatics, the pain and confusion of her own condition. Ford himself was the model for the novel's unspeakable Mr. Heidler.
Three more novels followed in the 1930's: After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie in 1930, Voyage in the Dark in 1934, and Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. Then silence. Like one of her heroines, Miss Rhys went to earth,...
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SOURCE: "The 'Liberated' Woman in Jean Rhys's Later Fiction," in Revista/Review Interamericana, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1974, pp. 264-72.
[In the essay below, Casey explores the development of strong female characters in Rhys's later short fiction. ]
Jean Rhys is best-known for her Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel that places her among West Indian writers for its concern with the alienation of the Creole after the Emancipation of 1833. Yet Wide Sargasso Sea is also significant in its rejection of the traditional belief in the superiority of men even in the most apparently equal male-female relationships that marks her works before World War Two. Within the same year as the publication of this novel, two scarcely known short stories—"I Spy a Stranger" and "Temps Perdi"—appeared that strike down even more fiercely at female submission to male dominance.
Critics tend to agree that the strength of Jean Rhys's early work is its harshly realistic portrayal of women too weak to move with a fast, cruel, masculine world. E. W. Mellown, Jr., in one of the few lengthy studies of Miss Rhys's fiction, discusses the four early novels as a body of work dealing with a woman at the mercy of her sexual desires [in Contemporary Literature, XIII, Autumn, 1972]. He points out that from the youthful Anna Morgan (Voyage in the Dark) to the aging Sasha Jansen (Good Morning, Midnight),...
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SOURCE: "In a Dark Wood," in New Society, Vol. 38, No. 734, October 28, 1976, p. 209.
[In the following review, Gould admires the stories in Sleep It Off, Lady, observing that each "has something to say and says it with utter simplicity and stark economy. "]
"It's as if I'm twins," says a young woman in one of the stories in Jean Rhys's new collection. And the author elaborates: "Only one of the twins accepted. The other felt lost, betrayed, forsaken, a wanderer in a very dark wood. The other told her that all she accepted so meekly was quite mad, potty."
This passage contains the essence of Jean Rhys's vision. The universe lours, the sky is the "colour of no hope," people are simultaneously smug and dangerous to know, nothing is quite what it seems—yet what can you do but accept? Did not Christ say, "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth"?
Sleep It Off, Lady is all we have come to expect from this remarkable writer, now in her eighties. None of the stories is more than a few pages long, but each one has something to say and says it with utter simplicity and stark economy. Their uniqueness lies in the peculiar blend of innocence and experience which is Jean Rhys's hallmark.
In the story, "Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose," is the twelve year old girl an innocent victim? She goes out for walks with the old sea-captain, who...
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SOURCE: "The World of Jean Rhys's Short Stories," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 18, No. 1, April, 1979, pp. 235-44.
[In the following essay, Morrell examines Rhys's world view as presented in four short stories that span her career. ]
Jean Rhys's world, as seen in her three volumes of short stories, is a unified one. In every story a central consciousness, whether narrator, implied narrator, or protagonist, perceives and responds to reality in essentially the same terms. Rhys has said of her work: "I start to write about something that has happened or is happening to me, but somehow or other things start changing." One might argue that thus is all fiction forged. But in Rhys's work, the autobiographical beginnings are responsible for this central consciousness which we may take to be Rhys's own; the other things that "start changing" are her patternings of experience into a coherent world-view. Rhys is not at all interested in creating individual characters. She does create again and again a society of types acting out the attitudes and assumptions which keep that society intact. Her stories have the strong cumulative effect of a sorrowful, scornful anatomy of essential evil.
I will examine the four stories "In a Café," "Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose," "Till September Petronella," and "I Used to Live Here Once." These range from the beginning to the most recent part of...
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SOURCE: An interview in The Paris Review, No. 76, 1979, pp. 219-37.
[In the following interview, which was conducted shortly before her death, Rhys discusses her life and writing career].
[Rhys]: We moved here [to Devon] because I wanted a place of my own. We bought it—my late husband and I—sight unseen because anything was better than rooms. That's all we'd been in. A room is, after all, a place where you hide from the wolves. That's all any room is. It was difficult here at first. The gales came through the crevices. The mice were everywhere. A frog in the bathroom. Then when I first came here, I was accused of being a witch. A neighbor told the whole village that I practised black magic. I got very cross, but gradually it all died down.
[Vreeland]: What a shock it must have been when you first arrived from the West Indies.
Of course, I hated the cold. England was terribly cold when I first came there. There was no central heating. There were fires, but they were always blocked by people trying to get warm. And I'd never get into the sacred circle. I was always outside, shivering. They had told me when I left Dominica that I would not feel the cold for the first year—that my blood would still be warm from the tropic sun. Quite wrong!
Where did you go to school?
It was at Cambridge, the town, not the University....
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SOURCE: "The Later Writing," in Jean Rhys: A Critical Study, University of Texas Press, 1979, pp. 121-31.
[In the following excerpt, Staley examines the depiction of feminine consciousness in Rhys's later short fiction.]
Wide Sargasso Sea was both a critical and popular success and its publication had spectacular and far-reaching, if belated, effects on Rhys's literary career. For the first time—after over forty years—her work came to the attention of a substantial number of readers. On the basis of their success with Wide Sargasso Sea, her publisher brought back into print virtually all of her earlier work, and the steady sales encouraged Penguin to publish her work in paperback. By the early seventies all of her work was available in both hardcover and paperback. Her critical reputation from the middle sixties through the seventies has grown steadily. Critics have pointed primarily to her strong originality and her remarkable insight into the feminine psyche, and lying beneath most of the praise, is the collective recognition that Rhys simply writes like nobody else; her talent and intelligence encompass dimensions not found elsewhere in the modern English novel. The increasing interest in her work is to some extent a result of the growing attention that has been paid to women artists and of the recognition of women generally, but this development accounts only in part for her...
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SOURCE: "The Short Fiction," in Jean Rhys, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 32-66.
[In the following excerpt, Wolfe discusses the similarities between Rhys's short fiction of the 1960s and her later work.]
That Jean Rhys's uncollected fiction and the stories in the recently published collection Sleep It Off, Lady resemble her collected work of the 1960s shows clearly in the subjects, characters, and techniques of "I Spy a Stranger." This story, which came out in Art and Literature [Vol. 8, Spring 1966] returns to the British pastime of picking on underdogs; in "A Solid House," Jean Rhys called this practice "witch-hunting." The object of the witch-hunt in "Stranger" hasn't a chance; as a middle-aged intellectual spinster with a background in foreign travel, she is a natural victim of her neighbors' war hysteria. The harshness of her fellow boarders outdoes that described in both ["The Lotus"] and "House." The most embattled, "Stranger" could also be the best of the three tales. Its people react to the war more believably than those in "House," and the nonappearance of its main character calls forth a bolder technique than does "Lotus." The whole story consists of two women gossiping. One, Marion Hudson, takes charge of the conversation; her sister, Mrs. Trant, exists to break up the recitation by asking the right questions.
Mrs. Hudson is complaining about the hubbub caused in...
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SOURCE: "Arrangements in Silver and Grey: The Whistlerian Moment in the Short Fiction of Jean Rhys," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1984, pp. 128-34.
[In the following essay, Lindroth studies the symbolic use of color in Rhys's short stories.]
The ultra-refined aestheticism of Whistler's Peacock Room or his "Arrangements" provides a key to Jean Rhys's short fiction since, like Whistler's compositions, those of Rhys display a world of exquisitely modulated light. Her language of color, like Whistler's, is narrow, achieving its effects as much by the withholding of hues and tones as by their inclusion. Her scale, like that of the painter, is often small, revealing form and meaning through subtle color notation rather than through bold, dramatic strokes; moreover, even when choosing the larger design, Rhys, like Whistler, tends to project harsh psychological realities into spaces from which everything has been excluded except delicate arrangements of color: silver and grey, yellow and black, green and gold.
Two such color arrangements, offering good examples of this Whistlerian technique in the way they dominate the story's background and final moment, can be found in the title story of Tigers Are Better-Looking, a collection first published in 1968. The unfinished comparative, the device of the title ["Tigers Are Better-Looking"], is a trope for Rhys's...
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SOURCE: "From The Left Bank to Sleep It Off, Lady: Other Visions of Disordered Life," in Jean Rhys, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1985, pp. 113-33.
[In the following excerpt, Davidson discusses the importance of Rhys 's short fiction within her overall body of work.]
Jean Rhys, it will be remembered, wrote short stories as well as novels. Her first book was The Left Bank and Other Stories. Her last creative works were two collections of short fiction, Tigers Are Better-Looking and Sleep It Off, Lady. These three volumes bracket her five novels, but they also parallel them, for both the first stories and the final ones evince, as I will subsequently demonstrate, Rhys's characteristic craft and control and are surprisingly effective in capturing, often in very short compass, the same idiosyncratic view of life that informs her longer fictions. The Left Bank is therefore (and despite some weaknesses in the stories—which are hardly surprising in a writer's first work) more than just a promise of better things to come, and neither are the last two volumes a reworking of old material on a smaller scale and a sign of diminishing artistic power. All of Rhys's stories can stand alone. But they stand more firmly in conjunction with the novels and, taken with the novels, they both fill out and more fully specify this author's vision of her world.
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SOURCE: A review of The Collected Short Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 497.
[Here, Chase praises Rhys for her ability to "bring to keen life the spiritual and physical atmosphere of the locales and eras she is writing about. "]
Jean Rhys's stories fall into three groups: those written in the twenties, those from the sixties, and those written or completed when Rhys was an octogenarian. Some are slight, some less than two pages. Others are rather puzzling, but all are offbeat and highly original—in short, completely sui generis. They are "sad . . . told in a voice of great charm," states Diana Athill [in her introduction to Jean Rhys: The Collected Short Stories],> but they are not all sad. Some are wryly ironic, whereas others are lighthearted. A great many of them are set in Paris, others in London, still others in Dominica in the West Indies, where Rhys was born. (Her parents were British, and when she was sixteen she went to London to live; after her first marriage she left for the Continent).
Spare and bare (with exceptions) as the stories are, they manage, uncannily, to bring to keen life the spiritual and physical atmosphere of the locales and era she is writing about, whether it be backstage with mannequins or chorus girls, inside a prison or hospital, in a Bloomsbury bedroom or sitting room, or in a Viennese café (in...
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SOURCE: "Jean Rhys's Feminism: Theory Against Practice," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 28, No. 2, Autumn, 1988, pp. 326-36.
[In the following excerpt, De Abruña argues that Rhys's views, as demonstrated in her fiction, were anti-feminist.]
Despite recent attempts by feminist critics to read all of her fiction as a portrait of oppressed women, Jean Rhys's "heroines" are unco-operatively anti-feminist. They dislike and fear other women, while hoping for love and security from men who, they anticipate, will finally reject them. Her women—Anna, Marya, Julia, Sasha, and Antoinette—expect, often fatalistically, that these relationships will fail; and their predictions become self-fulfilling prophecies that legitimize their fears and preserve them from responsibility. The only exception to this is Wide Sargasso Sea (and, to a lesser extent, Voyage in the Dark). . . .
Critics have considered Rhys a spokesperson for society's oppressed, a satirist of sexism, and a champion of all those persecuted by a mechanistic and conformist, cold northern European environment. Louis James [in Jean Rhys, 1978], for example, praises Rhys's sensitivity to prejudice:
Although Jean Rhys is not a self-consciously political writer, few novelists have made a more effective exposure of sexist exploitation. Few, if any, have revealed so...
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SOURCE: "Jean Rhys on Herself as a Writer," in Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference, edited by Selwyn R. Cudjoe, Calaloux Publications, 1990, pp. 109-15.
[In the following excerpt, Gregg compiles letters and autobiographical sources in which Rhys comments on the craft of writing.]
Writing gave shape and meaning to Jean Rhys's life: "Until I started to write, and concentrated on writing, it was a life in which I didn't quite know what was going to happen" [interview with Mary Cantwell, Mademoiselle, October 1974]. Rhys brought unswerving commitment and a relentless capacity for hard work to her writing. In an interview in her later years [with Thomas Staley, in Jean Rhys: A Critical Study, 1979], she referred to her reclusive lifestyle: "I don't see how you can write without shutting everything else out."
In conversations with David Plante Rhys emphasized the sacrifices demanded of her craft:
You have to be selfish to be a writer . . . monstrously selfish [in Paris Review 76, 1979].
Nothing ever justifies what you have to do to write, to go on writing. But you do, you must, go on.
Trust only yourself and your writing. You will write something marvellous if you trust yourself and don't give up. . . . People think they can sit down and write novels....
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SOURCE: "European or Caribbean: Jean Rhys and the Language of Exile," in Literature and Exile, edited by David Bevan, Rodopi, 1990, pp. 77-89.
[In the following excerpt, Wilson explores the impact of Rhys's exile on her work.]
The question of identity in Jean Rhys' life and fiction is inextricably bound to the condition of exile that shaped her perceptions and those of her characters. Rhys was truly a woman without a country. England, where she lived for most of her adult life, was a cold, unreceptive place for the writer. Recognition came too late to compensate for a lifetime of loneliness and financial difficulty. The question of Rhys' West Indian roots is even more problematic. The daughter of a Welsh father and a white Creole mother, Rhys felt exiled even before she moved to England because she was cut off from the black community in Dominica. Thus Rhys suffered from what Amon Saba Saakana describes as "the mental condition of double alienation" [in The Colonial Legacy in Caribbean Literature, 1987]. Doubly dispossessed, Jean Rhys differs from black West Indian exiles who, as George Lamming points out [in The Pleasures of Exile, 1960], "could never have felt the experience of being in a minority".
Jean Rhys is both Prospero and Caliban, a descendant of white colonisers but also, as a woman, colonised and excluded by the patriarch's language. "Carib Indian and...
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Mellown, Elgin W. Jean Rhys: A Descriptive and Annotated Bibliography of Works and Criticism. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984, 218 p.
Exhaustive reference work with citations through the early 1980s; includes a useful introduction.
Angiers, Carole. Jean Rhys. London: André Deutsch, 1990, 762 p.
A thorough biography that explores Rhys's life in relation to her work.
Auchincloss, Eve. Review of Sleep It Off, Lady in The Washington Post Book World (7 November 1976): G1-G2.
Praises "urgent creative intelligence," which Rhys uses to "transmute observation and experience into utterly original works of art."
Borinsky, Alicia. "Jean Rhys: Poses of a Woman as Guest," in The Female Body in Western Culture, edited by Susan Rubin Suleiman, pp. 288-302. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Examines the ways in which Rhys's female characters are defined by their surroundings.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. "The Grave,' On Not Shooting Sitting Birds,' and the Female Esthetic." Studies in Short Fiction 20, No. 4 (Fall 1983): 265-70.
Analyzes female creativity as evidenced in short stories by Katherine Anne Porter and Rhys.
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