Rhys, Jean (Vol. 76)
Jean Rhys 1890-1979
(Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams) West Indian-born English short-story writer, novelist, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism on Rhys's short fiction from 1991 through 2001. See also Jean Rhys Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 4, 6, 14, 19, 21, 124.
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. 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 situation.
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 17, 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 newborn 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 (1927). 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 (1939) as a dramatic monologue. Encouraged by the knowledge that her work had not been forgotten, Rhys produced Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), 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.
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. After a long period of literary inactivity, she produced Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), a collection comprised of stories written over several years as well as pieces that initially appeared in The Left Bank. These stories focus on the themes of gender and colonialism, which are motifs that recur in her novels and short fiction. For example, in “Let Them Call It Jazz,” Selina Davis, a young seamstress who has emigrated from Martinique to London, is the victim of vicious racial and gender discrimination. When she is arrested for breaking a window, she is sent to Holloway Prison. Instead of losing herself, her experiences give her the strength and confidence she needs to survive against the odds. As Rhys aged, her stories began to examine the effects of growing old; several pieces in Sleep It Off, Lady (1976) 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.
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 has subsequently been reprinted and studied extensively. 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 worldview, as well as themes of aging, race, and colonialism. Numerous autobiographical interpretations of her fiction have been written. 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.
The Left Bank and Other Stories 1927
Tigers Are Better-Looking 1968
Sleep It Off, Lady 1976
Jean Rhys: The Collected Short Stories 1987
Postures [also published as Quartet (novel) 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: Three Pieces (autobiographical sketches) 1975
Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (autobiography) 1979
The Letters of Jean Rhys (letters) 1984
Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels (collected novels) 1985
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SOURCE: Howells, Coral Ann. “‘There Is No Penny and No Slot’: Jean Rhys's Late Stories.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 124-46. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.
[In the following essay, Howells elucidates the defining characteristics of Rhys's late short fiction—particularly her central themes of gender and colonialism—through an examination of five of her stories.]
If I live I will call my next and last book There is no penny and no slot and if you pinch that title or variations I'll climb up to your window and give you nightmares. (This is a joke.)
(Letter to Selma Vaz Dias, 30 August, 1963)1
It seems fitting that as Rhys did not call her last book ‘There is no penny and no slot’ my last chapter dealing with her late stories should dare to adopt her title and the deconstructive perspective it implies. These stories individually and collectively refute traditional ideas of order as falsifications (her own word is ‘lies’), insisting instead on the unaccommodated remainders which will never fit into any system and which by their very existence call any system into question. It is the same dissident narrative voice which told those ‘other stories’ in her first collection back in the 1920s. However, there is a shift of emphasis here, for many of the stories in Rhys's last two collections adopt a decentred...
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SOURCE: O'Connor, Teresa F. “Jean Rhys, Paul Theroux, and the Imperial Road.” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 404-14.
[In the following essay, O'Connor delineates the connection between Paul Theroux's short stories “Zombies” and “The Imperial Ice House” and Rhys's unpublished story “The Imperial Road.”]
Toward the end of her life Jean Rhys offered many of the private papers and manuscripts still in her possession for sale through the booksellers Bertram Rota, Ltd. Their catalogue listed an unpublished story, “The Imperial Road,” with the notation: “Miss Rhys has stated that her publishers declined to include this story in Sleep It Off, Lady, considering it to be too anti-negro in tone” (7). The story was never published and its major components never appeared in any of Rhys's other work.1 Though I was familiar with the manuscript, two stories in Paul Theroux's collection World's End spurred my interest in a closer reading of Rhys's unpublished one.
World's End contains two consecutive and connected pieces: the first, “Zombies,” is clearly a portrait of the elderly Jean Rhys and refers to the reasons why “The Imperial Road” was not published. Theroux's second story, “The Imperial Ice House,” renders a variant of Rhys's “The Imperial Road,” thereby tendering a further subtextual comment on its...
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SOURCE: Tiffin, Helen. “Rite of Reply: The Shorter Fictions of Jean Rhys.” In Re-Siting Queen's English: Text and Tradition in Post-Colonial Literatures, edited by Gillian Whitlock and Helen Tiffin, pp. 67-78. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.
[In the following essay, Tiffin asserts that a few of Rhys's short stories—“Again the Antilles,” “The Day They Burned the Books,” and “Rapunzel, Rapunzel”—enact the recuperative strategies found in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea.]
The ascription of the genesis of Wide Sargasso Sea to Jean Rhys's desire to recuperate Rochester's mad Creole wife from Charlotte Brontë's “imprisonment” of her in Jane Eyre has increasingly become a critical commonplace, and discussions of the relationship between the two often begin at this point:
The mad wife in Jane Eyre always interested me. I was convinced that Charlotte Brontë must have had something against the West Indies, and I was angry about it. Otherwise why did she take a West Indian for that horrible lunatic, for that really dreadful creature? I hadn't really formulated the idea of vindicating the mad women in a novel, but when I was rediscovered I was encouraged to do so.
[Rhys 1968: 5]
Rhys's account is a little disingenuous, since it is clear from other sources that she had been thinking about...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Sue. “Modernity, Voice, and Window-Breaking: Jean Rhys's ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’.” In De-Scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality, edited by Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson, pp. 185-200. London: Routledge, 1994.
[In the following essay, Thomas utilizes Rhys's “Let Them Call It Jazz” to discuss the tension between the West Indian colonial milieu of her writing and the modernist European perspective and places the story within an historical and feminist context.]
Like Mary Lou Emery's, my project on Rhys negotiates the ‘tension between the two spaces or contexts of Rhys's writing—the West Indian colonial context and the modernist European—as it is inscribed in terms of sex/gender relations in her novels' (Emery 1990: xii). The translation of Rhys's fiction into an exclusively modernist European cultural and literary context—a characteristic move in Rhys criticism—exhibits the ‘logic of translation-as-violation’ discussed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1986) in ‘Imperialism and sexual difference’: such translations are inadequately informed by a sense of the ‘subject-constitution of the social and gendered agents in question’ (1986: 235), the author or her protagonists. The translation of Rhys's fiction into a West Indian or post-colonial context is an effort to read it ‘other-wise’, a term Molly Hite uses in her acute analysis of the refusal of...
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SOURCE: Gregg, Veronica Marie. “The 1840s to the 1900s: The Creole and the Postslavery West Indies.” In Jean Rhys's Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole, pp. 135-43. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Gregg offers thematic analyses of two of Rhys's West Indian stories: “Again the Antilles” and “Fishy Waters.”]
“AGAIN THE ANTILLES”
“Again the Antilles,” first published in 1927, is also grounded in the specific political and historical context of postslavery Dominica. The short story covers the period from the 1830s to the 1900s. Dominican politics and culture provide the locus of an imaginative exploration of the interconnectedness of imperial/colonial politics, history, narrative, and the acts of reading and writing. For purposes of clarity and comparison, I shall first cite in chronological order some of the specific historical events of the period as recorded in accounts by historian Joseph Borome and the present-day Dominican writer Lenox Honychurch.
Borome notes that, by the late 1830s (the immediate postslavery period), the mulattoes comprised the majority in the Legislative Assembly in Dominica: “Two political parties, conservative and liberal, developed rapidly, supported by two newspapers, the Colonist (white) and the Dominican (colored) respectively....
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SOURCE: Carr, Helen. “Writing in the Margins.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 21-6. Plymouth, England: Northcote House, 1996.
[In the following essay, Carr discusses Rhys as an autobiographical writer.]
Although I have criticized those autobiographical readings of Rhys's work which identify her literally with her heroines and reduce the scope of her work to an individual plight, an autobiographical writer is of course what she is. The stories which appeared in The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927) are mainly vignettes based on her experience in Paris, a couple go back to her Dominican childhood and ‘Vienne’ draws on an early period in her marriage to Jean Lenglet. The source of the plot of Quartet (1928) is her relationship with Ford Madox Ford while Lenglet was in prison for currency irregularities. The character of George Horsfield in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930) appears to be based on her second husband, Leslie Tilden Smith, and Julia's relationship with her sister Norah draws on Rhys's difficult relationship with her own sister Brenda. Voyage in the Dark (1934) is based on her affair with her first lover, Lancelot Grey Hugh Smith, and was first written as an autobiographical account some twenty-four years before it was published. The story of Sasha's marriage to Enno and the death of her baby son in Good Morning, Midnight (1939) draws once more on Rhys's marriage...
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SOURCE: Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander and David Malcolm. “Jean Rhys's Art of the Short Story.” In Jean Rhys: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 3-14. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Malcolm and Malcolm outline the defining characteristics of Rhys's short stories.]
NARRATORS AND NARRATION
One of the most striking aspects of narration in Rhys's short fiction is the variety of narrational devices that it employs. Rhys uses both female and nongendered narrators; the narrational tone ranges from the ironic (“Tout Montparnasse”) to the detached (“Kismet”) to the passionately engaged (“Let Them Call It Jazz” and “Temps Perdi”). She adopts subjective and objective points of view and deploys participant and nonparticipant narrators throughout her short fiction; she combines the techniques of narrated action with dialogue and free direct and indirect speech. Taken as a whole, her stories display a remarkable resourcefulness in narration.
In The Left Bank [The Left Bank and Other Stories], half the stories (eleven of twenty-two) are specifically narrated by women. In some, for example in “Vienne,” this is very obvious; in others, for example in “Illusion” and “Tea with an Artist,” the narrator's gender is almost casually indicated in dialogue (and is perhaps all the more important because of its...
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SOURCE: Sternlicht, Sanford. “The Left Bank and Other Stories.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 22-31. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.
[In the following essay, Sternlicht arranges the stories of The Left Bank and Other Stories into several classifications, which are based on the settings of the stories.]
Rhys's first book, The Left Bank and Other Stories, is a collection of stories, published with an extraordinary self-serving preface by Ford Madox Ford, an egregious act of gender imperialism more than 20 pages long, with only 5 about Rhys. There is no story in the collection titled “The Left Bank”; that is really the title of Ford's preface: “Rive Gauche.” Rhys's work is the 22 pieces that constitute the “Other.” Perhaps the book should have been called Other Stories. Indeed, much of the collection is not set on the Left Bank; that is, the XIIIth arrondissement of Paris, the boulevard du Montparnasse area, with its cafés and expatriate writers and artists such as Hemingway, Stein, and Picasso.
Ford seems to have tried to steer his disciple toward a more precise geography, but Rhys already had an ear for economy in writing and perhaps an unconscious understanding of the correctness of generalizing her experiences. In his preface Ford says he made an effort to “induce the author of The Left Bank [The Left Bank and Other Stories] to...
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SOURCE: Savory, Elaine. “Brief Encounters: Rhys and the Craft of the Short Story.” In Jean Rhys, pp. 152-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Savory traces Rhys's development as a short story writer and describes her revision process.]
I will post you the story tomorrow nearly three weeks too late … Its not right yet, too slow at the start too hurried at the end …
(Letter to Francis Wyndham, 6 March 1961)
I will finish Leaving School & Mr. Ramage A bit sentimental perhaps, and the West Indies as they were sound unreal, but I cant help that.
(Letter to Olwyn Hughes, 25 February 1966)
Yesterday I posted a letter to Diana explaining the corrections I'm anxious to make in ‘Fifi’ and ‘Vienne’. With ‘Fifi’ its just a matter of deleting a few paragraphs but ‘Vienne’ is more complicated.
The chapter headings must go of course and be replaced by spaces but I want some of the ‘chapters’ left out altogether. They are not good & only confuse what story there is.
(Letter to Olywyn Hughes, 7 March 1967)
Rhys's interest in and success with the short story form have been...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Sue. “An Antillean Voice.” In The Worldling of Jean Rhys, pp. 49-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Thomas places Rhys's Antillean narrative voice in The Left Bank and Other Stories within the context of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dominican travel writing and the judges the effect of gender, class, ethnic, and racial stereotypes on Rhys and the reception of her short stories.]
In the preface to The Left Bank and Other Stories (1927), Jean Rhys's first book of fiction, Ford Madox Ford praises “the singular instinct for form possessed by this young lady,” a quality “possessed by singularly few writers of English and by almost no English women writers” (25). He represents her origins as Antillean and her aesthetic tastes as French, rather than Anglo-Saxon, having been formed by “the almost exclusive reading of French writers of a recent, but not the most recent, date” (24-25). Ford measures the sketches against the “neatness of form” he admires in these French writers. His ambivalence about her “terrifying” Antillean “insight and … terrific … almost lurid!—passion for stating the case of the underdog” is apparent in his construction of her having “let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World—on its gaols, its studios, its salons, its cafés, its criminals, its midinettes—with a bias...
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SOURCE: Lonsdale, Thorunn. “Literary Foremother: Jean Rhys's ‘Sleep It Off, Lady’ and Two Jamaican Poems.” In Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph, pp. 145-54. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
[In the following essay, Lonsdale analyzes the reference to Rhys's “Sleep It Off, Lady” in Olive Senior's poem “Meditation on Red” and Lorna Goodison's poem “Lullaby for Jean Rhys.”]
Jean Rhys's influence as a literary foremother is acknowledged through intertextual links made by the Jamaican poets Olive Senior and Lorna Goodison in their poems “Meditation on Red” and “Lullaby for Jean Rhys” respectively. Senior and Goodison make reference to a specific, and hitherto critically neglected, short story by Rhys, “Sleep It Off, Lady,”1 one that has distinct autobiographical resonance. Furthermore, in making the association with a short story which gives its name to the title of the collection in which it appears, both poets simultaneously invoke the entire collection. Commenting on Rhys's last story-collection, published in 1976, Thomas Staley alludes to its autobiographical overtones:
The progression of the sixteen stories, moving from youth and adolescence to adulthood and, inevitably, to old age, from Dominica to London, Paris and, finally, to Devon, are recognisable to the reader as an echo of...
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