Jean Rhys Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Jean Rhys wrote five novels: Postures (1928), which was published in the United States in 1929 under the title Quartet; After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1929); Voyage in the Dark (1934); Good Morning, Midnight (1939), which was dramatized for radio by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1958; and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which many consider to be her masterpiece. She also wrote Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (1979). Her letters were published in 1984.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

During the first decade of her writing career, Jean Rhys achieved only limited success. Although her books were well received by critics, they attracted only a small readership. After years of neglect, however, interest in her work increased dramatically following the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; her novel won the W. H. Smith literary award and the Award for Writers from the Arts Council of Great Britain. Throughout the 1970’s, her reputation grew, and she holds a secure place in the first rank of twentieth century novelists. Her work is notable for its unsparing exploration of a particular character type: the dispossessed, dependent, exploited single woman, struggling to survive in a society in which she has no roots, no money, no power, and often, no hope.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although Jean Rhys (rees) is now remembered primarily for her novels, her first published book was a collection of short stories, The Left Bank, and Other Stories (1927). As Ford Madox Ford points out in the preface to the collection, Rhys’s heroines are geographically, psychologically, and emotionally of “the Left Bank,” not only of Paris—although Rhys captured the Paris of the 1920’s as well as anyone—but also of all of the cities of the world. They are underdogs, alone, betrayed, on the edge of poverty; they are women in a man’s world.

In addition to The Left Bank, Rhys published two other collections of stories: Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968) and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976). In 1987, The Collected Short Stories brought together her work in this genre. At her death, she left an essentially completed first section of an autobiography with Diana Athill, who had edited Wide Sargasso Sea and Sleep It Off, Lady. Athill published this section and a less complete second section as Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography in 1979. A collection of Rhys’s letters was published in 1984.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

When Wide Sargasso Sea, her last novel, was published, Jean Rhys was described in The New York Times as the greatest living novelist. Such praise is overstated, but Rhys’s fiction, long overlooked by academic critics, began in the late twentieth century to undergo a revival, spurred by feminist studies. Rhys played a noteworthy role in the French Left Bank literary scene in the 1920’s, and between 1927 and 1939, she published four substantial novels and a number of jewel-like short stories. Although she owes her current reputation in large measure to the rising interest in female writers and feminist themes, her work belongs more properly with the masters of literary impressionism: Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. She began to publish her writing under the encouragement of her intimate friend Ford Madox Ford, and she continued to write in spite of falling out of favor with his circle. As prizes and honors came to her in her old age after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, it must have given her grim satisfaction to realize that she had attained entirely by her own efforts a position as a writer at least equal to that of her erstwhile friends.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Examine Jean Rhys’s use of climate for metaphor in Voyage in the Dark.

Does Rhys’s reworking of material from Jane Eyre (1847) for Wide Sargasso Sea contribute in any way to our understanding of Charlotte Brontë’s novel?

Explain how Rhys uses depictions of household places to depict Antoinette’s madness.

Is Smile Please an important source for understanding Rhys’s fiction?

What does Rhys have to say about interracial friendships, especially among young women?


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys. New York: Viking, 1985. A biography of Rhys that treats her fiction as essentially autobiographical. Far from being seen as a feminist, Rhys is presented as an intensely lonely individualist and solipsist without a program or external loyalties. Her lifelong attempt to understand herself was governed by a tragic and pessimistic view of human nature and the world.

Angier, Carole. Jean Rhys: Life and Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. This monumental work of Rhys scholarship combines detailed biographical study with sections devoted to interpretations of the fiction. Unfortunately, chapters specifically examining the short stories were deleted due to length considerations. The book contains voluminous notes and an extensive bibliography.

Bender, Todd, ed. Literary Impressionism in Jean Rhys, Ford Maddox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and Charlotte Brontë. New York: Garland, 1997. Looks at Ford as a fulcrum between the literary impressionism of Conrad and Rhys as writers who “rewrote” nineteenth century novels in a twentieth century sensibility.

Davidson, Arnold E. Jean Rhys. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Drawing heavily on a number of critical sources, Davidson supports a feminist interpretation of the texts and provides a useful approach to the major works, including the stories.

Emery, Mary Lou. “Refiguring the Postcolonial Imagination: Tropes of Visuality in Writing by Rhys, Kincaid, and Cliff.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 16 (Fall, 1997): 259-280. Emery uses one of Rhys’s novels to illustrate a dialectical relationship of the European means of visualization and image-making in postcolonial literatures. Discusses Rhys’s use of the rhetorical device of ekphrasis, the use of language to create a spatial image.

Frickey, Pierette, ed. Critical Perspectives on...

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