Jean Rhys Rhys, Jean (Vol. 4)

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Rhys, Jean (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Rhys, Jean 1894–

Jean Rhys was born in Dominica, West Indies, and has lived in England since 1910. She is a novelist and short story writer whose work has been called "among the most original and memorable of our time." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

After Leaving Mr. McKenzie, originally published in 1930 (one is tempted to say before its time), depicts with cool mordancy what it is like to try to cope as a woman, irremediably past a petted prime, in a world for the comfort of men….

Perhaps it is because she is a woman, a lady, that Miss Rhys eschews the strongest colors in depicting Julia Martin's "humiliation" after leaving Mr. McKenzie….

The very style of writing fights back against a smug dominant masculinity. Uncle Griffiths is pictured as a "large and powerful male," with subliminal suggestions of a gorilla, and is neatly brutalized as a man in whom selfishness and neurotic fear of penury are killing sensitivity and compassion…. By the same token, Horsfield, a hesitant potential successor to McKenzie in Julia's life, is shown enjoying an elegant, vegetable comfort in his "world of lowered voices, and of passions, like Japanese dwarf trees, suppressed for many generations." After Leaving Mr. McKenzie becomes a proleptic document for women's liberation, passionate without polemics, plain without immodesty, a cameo of helpless female dignity in a world where it does not amount to much to be a man.

Michael Cooke, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Summer, 1972, pp. 607-09.

To my mind, [Jean Rhys] is, quite simply, the best living English novelist. Although her range is narrow, sometimes to the point of obsession, there is no one else now writing who combines such emotional penetration and formal artistry or approaches her unemphatic, unblinking truthfulness. Even the narrowness works to her advantage. She knows every detail of the shabby world she creates, knows precisely how much to leave out—surprisingly much—and precisely how to modulate the utterly personal speaking voice which controls it all, at once casual and poignant, the voice of the loser who refuses, though neither she nor God knows why, to go down. Because of this voice, the first four novels read as a single, continuing work. They have the same heroine—although she goes by different names—the same background of seedy hotels and bedsitters for transients in Montparnasse and Bloomsbury, and they recount the single, persistent, disconnected disaster of a life in which only three things can be relied on: fear, loneliness and the lack of money….

[The] world Miss Rhys creates [seems] strangely unprecedented, glassy clear yet somehow distorted, as though she were looking up at things from the bottom of a deep pool. She makes you realize that almost every other novel, however apparently anarchic, is rooted finally in the respectable world. The authors come to their subjects from a position of strength and with certain intellectual presuppositions, however cunningly suppressed. She, in contrast, has a marvelous artistic intelligence—no detail is superfluous and her poise never falters as she walks her wicked emotional tightrope—yet is absolutely nonintellectual: no axe to grind, no ideas to tout….

"Wide Sargasso Sea" is her only novel to be set in the past and with a heroine not immediately identifiable with the author, except in her being, like all the others, one of those who are defeated as though by natural right….

It is a hallucinatory novel, as detailed, abrupt and undeniable as a dream, and with a...

(The entire section is 883 words.)