Voyage in the Dark

by Jean Rhys

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

Voyage in the Dark, Rhys’s third major novel of her early period, reflects a more experienced style than was evident in the two earlier novels. It remained Rhys’s favorite work. The unprotected female protagonist and her situation are familiar, but stylistically the novel reflects fully developed strategies: flashbacks to Dominica, floating memories and dreams that disrupt the text, distortions in syntax, and a concluding section that is akin to stream of consciousness.

The experiences of Anna Morgan, the heroine, are very similar to the experiences of Rhys when she came to England as a young woman. The work is fiction, but it is highly autobiographical. The first-person narration is appropriate to Rhys’s content, which includes recollections and memories of a childhood in the West Indies and Anna’s reaction to the English climate. Early in the novel, Anna says: “I didn’t like England at first. I couldn’t get used to the cold.”

The use of climate for metaphor is prevalent in Voyage in the Dark, suggesting that Anna’s entire set of experiences in England are a voyage in the cold and dark. Anna’s nostalgia for the West Indies includes memories of her desire to be black, to be part of the culture she was drawn to, and of Francine, a black caretaker of Anna’s childhood who was warm and cheerful. Descriptions of Catholic religious services also reflect for Anna the Caribbean and for Rhys her spiritual experiences in the Catholic convent in Dominica.

The bare outline of the plot—young woman falling victim to older man, becoming pregnant, drifting into prostitution, and having an abortion—suggests a sordid and sad life that early critics tended to judge on moral rather than literary grounds. Rhys’s understated style and economy of language present instead a rather gallant young woman who will go on.

The concluding section of the novel, following Anna’s abortion paid for by an earlier lover, is the most interesting stylistically. Reacting to pain and alcohol, Anna narrates a kind of delirious monologue in which time and place tend to become lost.

After the abortion Anna hears the doctor saying, “She’ll be all right” and “Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt.” These last lines provide ambiguity because the reader does not know whether Anna will survive as a prostitute or will be able to start a new life. The original conclusion of the novel depicted the death of Anna after the abortion, but Rhys’s publishers convinced her to change the ending. Rhys was never happy with the change, as she confided in a letter in 1934.

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