Jean Rhys Rhys, Jean (Vol. 21) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

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

A. Alvarez (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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, or just went under, and the books went out of print. It was nearly 20 years before she was traced, after the B.B.C, broadcast a dramatized version of Good Morning, Midnight. She was living in Cornwall and had accumulated, in her two decades underground, the extraordinary stories which made up the collection Tigers Are Better-Looking. She was also writing, and compulsively rewriting, another novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was finally published in 1966. It is a masterpiece, but so in its different way is Good Morning, Midnight, which had sunk with remarkably little trace. This time, however, Miss Rhys got the recognition she had deserved for so long—though none too soon. She is now 79. . . .

To my mind, she 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.

Money, above all, is the permanent anxiety, the spring that moves the plots and people. When the heroines have it, they blow it recklessly on clothes and drink, knowing it won't last, anyway. Without it, they twist like cornered animals and humiliate themselves by begging from contemptuous family or ex-lovers, or by sleeping with men they don't want. When Mr. Mackenzie stops Julia Martin's allowance, blood money to end an affair, she has to face London again and her impoverished, acidly genteel uncle and sister. ("Norah herself was labelled for all to see. She was labelled 'Middle class, no money.'") She drifts into an affair with the not quite spontaneous, vaguely stunted Mr. Horsfield, then out of it again—Mr. Horsfield buys the ticket—back to the familiar demimonde of Paris, with no money, no future and no longer even sure of her looks.

In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha Jansen is older, already in her forties, and the plot is reversed. She has been holed up in London trying to drink herself to death when she is rescued by a friend and packed off to Paris to recuperate and buy herself clothes. But her Paris is haunted: her baby died there; her marriage broke up; affairs have torn her to shreds. There are bars she can't enter, hotels she daren't pass, and at every moment of inattention the past comes back at her in piercing detail. Her world is unstable and superstitious, as threatening and volatile as nitroglycerin. So she drifts, holding herself in, absurdly prone to tears, until she is picked up...

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Nancy J. Casey (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Tony Gould (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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A. C. Morrell (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Jean Rhys with Elizabeth Vreeland (interview date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Thomas F. Staley (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Peter Wolfe (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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James R. Lindroth (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Arnold E. Davidson (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Kathleen Chase (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Laura Neisen De Abruña (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Veronica Marie Gregg (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Lucy Wilson (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

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