How does Anna Morgan, in Voyage in the Dark by Rhys, reflect, complicate, or reconstruct gendered stereotypes as a postcolonial woman in London?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Upon arriving in England, Anna complicates the oversimplified view of women. The expectation is that women who enter England from other countries and fulfill its constructions of femininity will find happiness. However, Anna does not reflect this. Her first impressions of England show dissonance:  

It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known.  It was almost like being born again.  The colours were different, the smells different, the feelings things gave you right down inside yourself was different.  Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness, purple, grey.  But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy.  I didn't like England at first.  I couldn't get used the cold.

Anna complicates the gender stereotype in a couple of ways. One way is in how Anna finds England to be "the other." She enters England, seeing it as akin to "the wilderness." In traditional gender-based narratives, women outside of Colonial England are told that England is considered to be the "norm" while other cultures are perceived as "foreign" or "strange." Anna inverts this in finding England to be "bizarre".  

Anna's voice supplants a simplistic view of women's reality. For example, she speaks of a "curtain" that conceals her past, articulates being "different," and explores this on sensory and psychological levels. There is nothing definite in Anna's construction of reality, something that challenges the traditionally compartmentalized view of gender.

Rhys's use of Anna as the narrative force is another complication of the fixed view of gender. In a traditional stereotype, the narrator, usually a man, speaks about the woman. The male narrator goes inside the mind of a woman, a process where a certain amount of objectification takes place. However, Anna is the primary voice in Rhys's work.  Anna experiences marginalization and lives on the periphery.  However, in acting as the narrative agent, she repels objectification and standardization:  

It was funny, but that was what I thought about more than anything else- the smell of the streets and the smells of frangipani and lime juice and cinnamon and cloves, and sweets made of ginger and syrup, and incense after funerals or Corpus Christi processions, and the patients standing outside the surgery next door, and the smell of the sea breeze and the different smell of the land breeze.

Anna's narrative voice speaks from the margins. However, she does so with a first person point of view of dominance. She talks about a Caribbean world that England sees as inferior. Anna does not think about the supposed attributes of England. "More than anything else," she thinks about "the other" with a sense of wonder. British cultural narratives would decry the "incense after funerals" and "patients standing outside the door." However, Anna speaks about it with nostalgic beauty. She emphasizes her colonial identity because she is the narrative voice. Anna challenges the gender stereotype because she speaks from her own post- colonial perspective. Power has supplanted marginalization through a stylistic approach that complicates the standard view of women.

Anna's layers can be seen in the ambiguity of the novel's ending. Hester's advice to Anna about being a woman in England affirms the traditional stereotype. She tells her to "get used to it" and not to "look like a Dying Dick and Solemn Davy." Essentially, Hester tells Anna to put on a front, act as if all is well, and everything will be fine. Anna's entire experience challenges this, all the way until the ending. The Doctor who performs the abortion says “She’ll be all right” and that Anna will be “ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.” Anna challenges this in her stream of consciousness musings. The ending is one where Anna does not immediately affirm the social construction of gender. In fact, the associations made in the ending repudiate everything once taken for certainty. There is an ambiguity as to how Anna will start over again or even if she will "be all right." Anna does not know and neither do we. From Hester's words to the Doctor's, Anna has called into question the totality of the gender stereotype.

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Voyage in the Dark

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