Themes and Meanings

Inez Best is an embodiment of the typical Jean Rhys heroine who first appeared in Quartet (1928) and who is the central character of her first four novels, although her name and minor details of her life vary from volume to volume. The typical Rhys heroine lives a passive, aimless existence, at the mercy of the whims of strangers, and often in a foreign country. Any effort to save herself seems beyond her energies. These heroines may reflect Rhys’s own experiences during the 1920’s, when, married to a Dutch poet, she led a rootless, wandering life on the Continent, mainly in Paris and Vienna.

The theme of the outsider who is alienated from society is neatly captured in the title, “Outside the Machine.” As each character appears in the story, she is immediately identified as either belonging to the “machine,” that is, society, or as being an outsider. The doctor, the nurses, the “respectable” English women, the dancer, all belong to the machine. Madame Tavernier also seems to belong to the machine, but through her attributes of compassion and kindness she can respond to those outside.

Mrs. Murphy, the suicidal girl, is clearly “outside the machine,” and it is with her that Inez identifies most closely—so closely, in fact, that when Mrs. Murphy attempts suicide, there is a clear suggestion that Inez will attempt suicide as well. It is significant that Inez is saved from her predicament of having no money or home by the sudden generosity of Madame Tavernier. This incident illustrates the terrible dependence on the whims of others that is typically suffered by Rhys’s heroines.

Although Inez receives enough money to solve her problem temporarily, there is no suggestion that she will ever gain control over her own life. Rhys does not offer much hope for her heroine.