Teaching Rhys

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I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.

Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.

Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.

In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.

In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:

Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).

The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.

By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.

What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).

One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.

Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:

Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.

They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.

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Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:

She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:

The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.

Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?

Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:

 I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.

You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)

Some similar examples:

Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.

After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write

I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.

Or, finally, this description of depression:

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.

Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.

It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:

She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…

How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.

Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.

When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.

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19 thoughts on “Teaching Rhys

  1. “What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances?”
    This question gets to the heart of why I am having a difficult time with this book. And why I am not a fan of Stoner. Her passive, miserable tone is wearing on me. I’ll have to see how it plays out. I was looking forward to this but something’s not sitting right.
    Terrific post though, very interesting. Perhaps I’ll come back if I’m having trouble gathering my thoughts when I’m finished.

    • I hope you’ll give Rhys another chance, Joe. Anna might be passive–though honestly I’d dispute that too–but I really don’t think she’s miserable. That is, she is often desperately unhappy, which means she might be feeling miserable. But I don’t think she herself is miserable. Whenever I feel frustrated at Anna, I ask myself, what kind of expectations do I have of how people ought to behave and live that are making me feel this way. Anyway, do let me know if you persevere. If it helps, I think book even more interesting (though also more depressing) towards end.

      • I’m not giving up. Rhys is a writer I liked when I was younger, but 30 years on I find that there are things that don’t set well. I don’t think it’s a question of expectations about how people should behave, but I sometimes feel a that a degree of dimension is missing, especially in certain kinds of passive characters. It remains to be seen how the book holds up in the end.

      • I hope you write about this once you’ve finished. I’m always interested in what it’s like to return to books and I’m curious to hear more about what you liked then but don’t now.

  2. Such a fascinating post, Dorian – thanks so much for this. Molly sounds like a very special person – how wonderful to hear about your introduction to Rhys.

    Voyage in the Dark would probably make my desert island list too. It’s definitely my favourite so far although I’ve to read Good Morning, Midnight.

    You make some great points about the nature of Rhys’ heroines (well, that’s how I like to think of them!), the way they are at once powerless without being dim or unaware of their situation. To some extent, they are trapped by circumstances, imprisoned in a social system or environment that feels very alien.

    Are you familiar with her story Outside the Machine? I’ve just written something about it as part of a piece on the collection, Tigers Are Better-Looking? It contains one of the most striking portrayals of marginalisation I’ve come across in her work, almost as if the protagonist is considered unfit for purpose, unfit for life itself…

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I don’t know that story, and when I looked in my copy of Tigers today I didn’t see it. But I also have a collected stories from the library so I’ll read it there. Rhys underrated as a short-story writer.
      They’re trapped by a system that has no time for them–but they wouldn’t mind being part of the system. Not that they necessarily want to oppress others, but Anna, for one, is totally shrewd about how having money changes the way one feels, acts, talks–and the way others react to her. What I’m trying to say is that their alienation doesn’t lead them to fulminate against the system.

      • It’s the 5th story in my 1987 Penguin edition of Tigers. Maybe we have different editions? Either way, I’m sure you’ll find it in the Collected volume.

        Interesting point about her female characters not fulminating against the system. I do think they feel judged by the system (or by people who fit within/conform to the expected conventions of society). Would you agree? I guess I’m thinking of Julia’s interactions with her sister Norah and Uncle Griffiths in After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

        Oh, and thank you for giving us such a brilliant insight into your experiences of teaching Rhys – as Eva was saying on Twitter, it’s a real gift. Yes, we’re thrilled with the response to #ReadingRhys – it’s been great to see so much enthusiasm for exploring her work!

        PS I love that photo of your copy of Voyage – if only I could decipher all those notes!

      • Yes, you’re right, of course. I looked again and there it was. I’ll read it as soon as I have a minute.
        Yes, I think they feel judged. And tehy hate it. So they fulminate internally. But they aren’t storming the barricades to change the situation. They don’t have the means to do it, and I wonder if they’d want to even if they did. You know, the more I say this, the more I wonder if I’m just talking about Voyage. We probably do Rhys a disservice if we think all her books are the same.
        Thanks again for the kind words; glad to be able to share a little. I enjoyed the interview today; I think that guy gets Rhys. But I actually liked your contributions better. How come he’s not interviewing *you*?

  3. You (and Molly) make such excellent points about ‘victims who are fully aware of their victimization’. I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way nowadays and we think we are the perfect agents in our life who can change things, who reap what we sow, etc. But, like Richard Yates too in a way, Jean Rhys writes about people who who have tried to play by society’s rules and have been gravely disappointed. There is some untamed wildness within her women which refuses to quite submit, and yet they are severely hampered in their quest for freedom (even supposing that they could stomach it).

    • Thanks, Marina. Very good point about whether they could even stomach it. Unclear. And also agree about the untamed wildness, which for me best makes itself felt in the unusual style of these novels. But not sure if Anna tries to play by the rules of society. She’s almost too young to know how to do so. Or maybe it’s that the rules society has for her are so limiting that she can never ever be on a level playing-field.

  4. Thanks for this – it’s really enhanced my reading of Rhys. When I was reading Voyage I kept thinking, it’s in first person but not like other first person narratives.
    I point you in the direction of Kathleen Jamie’s poem Child with Pillar Box and Bin Bags which I think examines something Rhys does too – seemingly strange choices which occur because of the character’s relationship with choice:
    http://www.griffinpoetryprize.com/child-with-pillar-box-and-bin-bags/

    • Thanks, Grant. “Seemingly strange choices which occur because of the character’s relationship with choice”–what a perfect way to describe Rhys! Thanks for sharing this poem–I’m really terribly ignorant of contemporary poetry (and frankly most non-contemporary poetry too). De finitely resonates with Rhys, especially this idea that some parts of the world are friendly to the protagonist and others aren’t. I can imagine others judging the figure in the poem in the same way that people judge Rhys’s protagonists.

  5. A great post, Dorian. I tentatively wonder if the reason why Rhys’ aware, yet unable to change, women, becomes distasteful to a reader because it unleashes the terrifying ogre of powerlessness. I think others have also said something like this in our whole reading Rhys week. We are rather wedded to an onward and upward, you CAN succeed if you really try, view of the world. ‘Survivors against all odds’ stories reassure us that, we too, can. But not everyone does and not everyone can, however hard they might try. But Rhys also refuses to palely lie down in the path of the steam-roller. Instead, she waves, AS she drowns, but we, the reader, see the inevitability of the drowning, and it terrifies us – are we also drowning, no matter how hard we try to tread water? I think her women are realists, who knowingly pretend and play the game they will not win.

    • Thanks, LF. Yes, I think you’re right on all counts here. And I like the Smith reference: I don’t know if they knew each other but they do seem kindred spirits.
      I would suggest, though, that if the powerlessness of Rhys’s figures–or, rather, their inability to play along with the “onwards and upwards” point of view–makes them distasteful to us, then perhaps we should examine our own fear rather than taking it out on them.
      So great point about how these novels might generate self-reflection in their readers, no matter how uncomfortable.
      It’s been great to share Rhys with so many others!

      • Well, as someone who loves Rhys, and also thinks that ‘existential unease’ and sometimes, terror is a part of the human condition, however much we try to avoid it, I agree. And agree also that the fact that she generates that uncomfortable awareness is what makes her such a good read – and why the quality of her books and her characters stick in the memory. Someone – I think it might have been Eric, who co-hosted the week, used a MARVELLOUS word to describe her women -‘insolence’. They WILL NOT just lie down and be victims we can pity. Their is that ‘insolence’ that clear sightedness in the face of powerlessness

      • Yes, “insolence”is a great word. It reminds us these women aren’t just doormats, passive victims, but it also suggests limits to their resistance. Rhys didn’t have an easy life, as best I can tell. I like to think she’d be pleased to see so many people finding so much value in her work.

  6. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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