The range of Jean Rhys’s stories, as of her novels, is narrow. She focuses on the world of the lonely, the outcast, the vulnerable. Her central characters are all women who live in a world they cannot control, which regards them with indifference and cruelty. Communication is often found to be impossible, and the protagonists’ fragmented, tormented world is perpetually on the verge of falling apart. The dominant note is of isolation, dependency, and loss, with more than a smattering of self-pity.
The Left Bank, and Other Stories
Rhys’s first collection, The Left Bank, and Other Stories, consists of twenty-two stories, most of them short sketches, of life on the Parisian Left Bank. A few stories, “In the Rue de l’Arrivée,” “A Night,” and “Learning to Be a Mother,” end on an optimistic note, as does “Mannequin,” in which a young girl, at the end of her first day as a mannequin, feels a surge of happiness as she steps into the street and merges into the vibrant life of the city. She is one of the few heroines in Rhys’s fiction who discover a sense of belonging. The dominant mood of the collection, however, is one of helplessness and troubled uncertainty, and as such it sets the tone for Rhys’s later work. The stories focus on characters who inhabit the fringes of society: artists, exiles, misfits, deprived women. “Hunger,” for example, is a despairing, first-person monologue of an English woman who is down and out in Paris. She takes the reader, day by day, through her experience of five days without food.
“La Grosse Fifi”
“La Grosse Fifi” is a more ambitious story, one of a group at the end of the collection which is set outside Paris—in this case, on the French Riviera. Fifi is a huge, vulgar woman who keeps a gigolo half her age in a sleazy hotel. The other main character is a young woman named Roseau. The name, she explains, means reed, and her motto in life is “a reed shaken by the wind” (a motto which might adequately describe virtually all Rhys’s helpless and vulnerable heroines). Roseau can survive, she says, only as long as she does not think. Unhappy and lonely, without home, friends, or money, she is comforted one night by Fifi, who reveals herself to be infinitely kind and understanding. Fifi knows the foolishness of her own situation, yet she genuinely loves her man, however irregular and unhappy the relationship appears. When her lover abruptly leaves her, she faces the hostile world with dignity, still attracting men and still cheerfully defying the darker elements in her life. Roseau feels protected by her presence, which is so full of life that she cannot help but feel gladdened by it. The story reaches a climax when Roseau learns that Fifi has been stabbed to death in a quarrel with her lover.
Fifi’s almost tragic grandeur serves as a measure of Roseau’s inadequacy. She knows that she can never love with such full abandon or live so wholeheartedly. She decides to leave the hotel, and the story ends with her packing (a typical activity for the rootless Rhys heroine) while the yellow sunshine—yellow always carries negative connotations for Rhys—streams through the window.
Rhys wrote no more short stories until the early 1960’s, and then eight of them were published in Tigers Are Better-Looking. These stories are longer, more complex, and the characters more fully realized than those in The Left Bank, and Other Stories, but Rhys’s vision has become even more bleak and despairing. “The Lotus,” told with a taut economy and a ruthless fidelity to what Rhys saw as reality, is one of the bleakest. Lotus Heath is an eccentric middle-aged poet and novelist. Ronnie Miles invites her for drinks one evening, since they live in the same apartment building. His wife Christine dislikes Lotus, however, and her frequent cruel insults sabotage Ronnie’s attempts to be polite and sociable. When Ronnie helps Lotus down to her own small, ill-smelling apartment, her cheerful guise suddenly drops and she reveals her own despair and frustration. Later, Ronnie sees Lotus running naked and drunk (she is one of many Rhys heroines who drink too much) down the street, soon to be escorted away by two policemen. When one of the policemen inquires at the Miles’s apartment about Lotus, Ronnie denies that he knows much about her, and no one else in the building will admit to knowing her either. An ambulance takes her to the hospital. Christine, who found her own insults highly amusing, ignores the whole affair, lying in bed smiling, as if Lotus’s eclipse has somehow made her own star rise. The story ends when Ronnie, his kindness revealed as shallow and ineffectual, begins to make love to Christine—cruelty has its reward, and compassion is snuffed out without a trace. Nor can there be any escape or consolation through art, which is represented, however inadequately, by Lotus and mocked by Christine. In this story, the only arts which flourish are popular songs preserved on secondhand gramophone records.
“Till September Petronella”
The best-known story in the collection is probably “Till September Petronella.” It opens with the heroine and narrator, Petronella Grey, performing a typical action—packing. She...
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