Jean Rhys


"I must write. If I stop writing my life will have been an abject failure. It is that already to other people. But it could not be an abject failure to myself. I will not have earned death." Jean Rhys, 1954

Jean Rhys is the author of many short stories and novels, of which perhaps Wide Sargasso Sea is best known. Rhys is known as a modernist writer, writing throughout the twentieth century, and is often paralleled with Joseph Conrad and T.S. Eliot. Like the modernist authors, Rhys' writing often centres around themes of "isolation, absence of society or community, the sense of things falling apart, dependence and loss" (Carr, 15). She uses poetic language, irony, and a concern for subjectivity and language to develop her themes of anxiety and loss (16). She often uses, like other modernist writers, a cosmopolitan, indeed metropolitan setting for her writing. Wherever the setting, she seems to keep to consistent patterns of imagery; in Wide Sargasso Sea she contrasts the lush tropical sensuality with the cold English calculation (Gardiner, 125). Like Sylvia Plath, she uses her life experiences; the pain, the rawness and the wounds as the material from which she writes her fiction (Carr, 3). In fact, many of her heroines have been made up of fragments of her own self. Many critics ask then why her heroines do nothing to get out of their situations? Walter Allen describes Antoinette, the heroine in Wide Sargasso Sea by saying, "she is a young woman...who is hopelessly and helplessly at sea in her relations with men, a passive victim doomed to destruction" (Carr, 4). Much debate has centred on the idea of helpless victims in Rhys's writing. Indeed, Rhys allows Antoinette to rise above her situation by seeking final revenge on Rochester and gaining back her independence, her sanity and her life. Rhys has recently gained popularity in the field of feminist literature. In the seventies, when she was still alive, feminism, or "woman's lib" as it was called, centred on sexual oppression, which excluded Jean Rhys' literature. What the feminists of the seventies did not realize, is that Rhys was years ahead of them. While they centred solely on sexual oppression, Rhys questioned economic, racial, class, colonial and sexual oppression (Carr, 11-12). It has only been through the eighties that she has become more widely recognized as a valuable feminist writer has. Not only has she been recognized as a feminist writer, but recently, V.S. Naipaul suggested that she should be reread in terms of colonial origins (Carr, 15). In fact, until her publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, her Caribbean origins went largely unmentioned. The publication of Wide Sargasso Sea coincided with the recognition of West Indies' literature being recognized as a valuable addition to worldly literature. With Naipaul's suggestion, she has been largely included into the world of postcolonial literature, and her novels are reread through the theories. Rhys has a powerful connection to the language debate in postcolonial literature. Indeed, her novels use languages other than English. Carr mentions in her book on Jean Rhys, that "Rhys unpicks and mocks language by which the powerful keep control" (81). Rhys is able to get past the clichés of the English language, and rejects much of the language of the empire, colonialism, class, bourgeois and morality by construction a new language. Her novels especially contain language that is largely fragmented, that weaves and follows associations and "circles back for certain events and phrases" (Carr, 85). Rhys also uses multiple voices in her writing; inner dialogue, indirect speech, letters and dreams. She also uses echoes of conversations, songs, poetry, quotes from books, letters and prayers (Carr, 86). By using this type of narrative voice, she is able to re-invent, resist and transform language through her rejection of what already exits. Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the crazy first wife of Rochester from Jane Eyre. Rhys was haunted by the figure of the first Mrs. Rochester, this mad wife in Jane Eyre, whom we know only by Rochester's biased and racist descriptions of her. She is defined for us purely as a foreigner, a victim, entirely defined by and in the power of another, a man, her white English husband Rochester (James, 61). Rhys wanted to change this, to give Mrs. Rochester a voice. Wide Sargasso Sea breaks away from the nineteenth century tradition by taking the viewpoint of the other woman and by centring the narrative on this woman about whom we know little. Many would think that Rhys had a daunting task, considering what was already written by Charlotte Bronte. However, Rhys takes Jane Eyre, does not worry about what has been said, but centres on what has not been said, or what has been told falsely (Gardiner, 125). Anyone who has read Jane Eyre knows what the ending of Wide Sargasso Sea will be, thus we are more caught up in the pain and isolation which Antoinette feels, knowing what will be her demise. Rhys is actually able to take the outcast from Jane Eyre into a heroine by centring her novel on crazy Antoinette. Rhys has made a valuable contribution to post colonial literature. Especially in Wide Sargasso Sea, she shows that "the other" can become central and essential part of literature. By taking what has been written, ignoring the existing guidelines and structures, and creating her own rules of language and format, she has been able to make what could be a victim, into a powerful character. Obviously, despite her self-deprecating comments about herself and her life, Rhys is not a failure, and earned a well-deserved death.

Links and Evaluations

The Chrysler Corporation now stands equally with the other giants. Technical Service Bulletins Chrysler and Technical Service Bulletins Chrysler Truck Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs): Chrysler publishes TSBs to help dealers diagnose & repair problems on vehicles. Daimler Chrysler FUEL REQUIREMENTS (DIESEL ENGINES) THIS BULLETIN SUPERSEDES Chrysler TECHNICAL SERVICE BULLETIN 14-007-06

Assumptions & Biases in Research

In my research of Jean Rhys, I found that many critics assumed that she was writing about heroines very similar to her own personal makeup. This is definitely true, according to Rhys, but the critics could then not separate her writing from her life. Carr comments that this contributed to the myth of "feminine distress", that her heroines then took on all attributes of Rhys. This assumption obscured much of the complexity and significance of Rhys's writing, because readers and critics then try to make parallels to events in Rhys's life with those in her writing. This becomes particularly problematic when Rhys is trying to make a statement about, for example, victimisation. There is irony in the fire in Wide Sargasso Sea that Antoinette sets in taking control and ending her life in England which parallels the fire in Coulis that robs Antoinette of her house, her lifestyle and her baby brother. However, those critics which focus on parallels to Rhys' life would miss that. Critics in the early part of Rhys's career assumed that she was "non-intellectual" because they thought that she did not make many allusions to other texts. However, it turned out that it was English critics spreading these rumours, and that she made plenty of allusions to French texts, with which the English critics were unfamiliar. When I came to do research on Rhys, I did not know that she was of Caribbean origins. I assumed that she was widely read and knowledgeable about West Indies' culture and patois. Although she may still be very well read and knowledgeable about the West Indies, it is to her advantage to have lived there when she was young. I also assumed that there would be little on her in the library, as there is little useful information on the internet, yet there were four or five useful texts from which I learned a great deal about Rhys, and her last novel.

Bibliographical Information

Carr, Helen. Jean Rhys. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers, 1996.

Gardiner, Judith K. Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

James, Selma. The Ladies and the Mammies: Jane Austen and Jean Rhys. Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1983.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: Penguin Books, 1966.

Staley, Thomas F. Jean Rhys: A Critical Study. London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1979.

Bryony Atkinson