20th-century novelist Jean Rhys compels readers with her mesmerising narratives of exile, loneliness and distorting what it means to be a flâneur. As born and raised in Dominica with European ancestry, Rhys’ writing speaks closely to her own upbringing and the complexities of her identity, accounts of being isolated and witnessing isolation in others. The Mulatto woman who spoke ‘sometimes in French, sometimes in English’ is a famous example of isolated characters from Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight (1939), a critique of modernist pretension. Rhys writes of the woman: ‘she hadn’t been out, except after dark, for two years. When she said this I had an extraordinary sensation, as if I were looking down into a pit’. This distanced account, looking down into a pit, evidences Rhys’ interest with distances within human interactions, notably, to illuminate the realities of isolation, despair and their conflation with the process of casting someone as ‘other’ for their race and nationality.
Rhys’ deconstruction of identity and the loneliness this conceives are far from simple categorisations of modernist or postmodern writing. Rhys is a precarious modernist. She sees and articulates a lot more in the process of being cast as other, for race and gender together, than is seen in European modernism, especially.
Rhys delineates race and identity against the backdrop of urban spaces, hence the ascription of flâneurism across many of her protagonists. They wander and observe society, but in a less privileged sense than is usually implied (the flâneur as typically bourgeois men). Rhys’ stories try arduously to identify their narrator and characters to the point of exhaustion. They are often distinguished by their racial, gender identity or with no fixed identity at all, and for the latter, implying no fixed, permanent place. In this authorial decision to reveal, or refrain from revealing, individuality, Rhys distorts the notion of wandering and replaces its implied leisure with the act of survival, a forced and imposed form of exile: a reality familiar in the conflicts of the 21st century.
In her genius, there is devastation and constraint. Rhys’ stories are tireless efforts to provide a vision for the onlookers to those in exile and to voice those exiled. The quotes below are extracted from short stories and provide previews and thematic notations to better visualise Rhys coherency and distinction as a 20th-century writer, as her vision continues to haunt the present for its relevancy, of exile and identity crisis.
“Nobody talked in the street, nobody talked while we ate, or hardly at all. I know now that they were all frightened”
Community, fear, isolation, misrepresentation, falsity.
On Not Shooting Sitting Birds (1976)
“There is no control over memory. Quite soon you find yourself being vague about an event which seemed so important at the time that you thought you’d never forget it. Or unable to recall the face of someone whom you could have sworn was there forever. On the other hand, trivial and meaningless memories may stay with you for life.”
Memory, human connection, fabrication, identity, communication.
Mixing Cocktails (1927)
“I long to be like Other people! The extraordinary, ungetatable, oddly cruel Other people, with their way of wantonly hurting and then accusing you of being thin-skinned, sulky, vindictive or ridiculous. All because a hurt and puzzled little girl has retired into her shell.”
Loss of connection, caution, solace, inability to map identity.
The Day They Burned The Books (1972)
“He had pulled Mrs Sawyer’s hair. ‘Not a wig, you see,’ he bawled. Even then, if you can believe it, Mrs Saywer had laughed and tried to pretend that it was all part of the joke, this mysterious, obscure, sacred English joke.”
Conflict, race, cultural identity, colonialism, structuralism.
I Used To Live Here Once (1976)
“There were two children under the big mango tree, a boy and a little girl, and she waved to them and called ‘Hello’ but they didn’t answer her or turn their heads. Very fair children, as Europeans born in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all odds”
Race, memory, youth, invisibility.