Monday, May 30, 2011

Jean Rhys : Briefly on Feminism in Short Story

It is harrowing to think that Jean Rhys has only recently come into my life; her writing is like a glass of cold water, necessary and satisfying. I have only read two works by her, Quartet, 1929, a novel and Sleep It Off, Lady, 1976 a collection of short stories that were previously written. Her stories are loosely revised collections of her biography, which in a sentence or two; she was born with another name in Dominica in 1890 to Welsh and Creole-Scottish parents, she went to England for school, was taunted since she was from the islands, went to acting school, failed at that and went on to be a chorus girl. Throughout she had a litany of affairs, some with famous men, and wrote some amazing novels and short stories before her death in 1979.


Reading Quartet was like triggering a memory from a smell. It is the type of writing that makes you want to squish the book with excitement. The content is also distinctly focused. It is about a women whose husband goes to jail for money matters and then she lives with a married couple and is pulled into an affair with the husband which ensues to a series of exercises in manipulation and ennui. In Sleep It Off, Lady, Rhys continues to focus on women, on the various types and situations they face. I will now reflect on two of the stories in Sleep It Off, Lady and how they are unique examples of feminist writing without the reductive rhetoric of that oeuvre.


Most of the stories in this collection take place in Dominica or a place like it. The revelation of the constructions of power, whiteness, blackness, colonialism and climate are panned in a wide, crisp sweep without being burdened with explanation. There is one story that takes place in such a setting called Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose. It is about a young girl named Phoebe who is “twelve and a bit” who meets Captain Cardew, a much older man who is wintering in Jamaica with his wife. Captain Cardew is a pedophile. He insists on taking long walks with Phoebe and talks to her about his adventures in far off lands. The reader knows clearly his intention. The story is told from the perspective of Phoebe, which fortunately Rhys does not reduce because of her age. Rhys writes of Phoebe’s thoughts and feelings not as being naive but as a matter of fact and direct thought.


There is a point when the Captain grabs Phoebe’s “very small breast” and “Phoebe remains perfectly still. ‘He is making a great mistake, a great mistake,’” Finally he removes his hand and he proceeds the walk as if nothing happened and continues talking about other things. At this point Phoebe decides that she will not tell anyone what has happened, “It was not a thing you could possibly talk about. Also no one would believe exactly how it happened, and whether they believed her or not she would be blamed.” This is the point of the story that makes the gut twist because this is the familiar knowledge that women are trained to believe. The story goes on and the Captain continues to insist on walks and on these he indulges in another sick delight of talking nastily about sex in all its variations. Phoebe asks him to stop talking to her like that but he only concedes at intervals.


There is even a scene of recognition of this situation by the Captain’s wife, Edith, “ ‘Do you see how white my hair’s becoming? It’s all because of you.’ And when Phoebe answered truthfully that she didn’t notice any white hairs. ‘ What a really dreadful little liar you are!’” How strange it is that women insist on blaming other women, even when that other woman is a mere twelve year old. In the end the Captain’s infatuation catches public wind and the Captain and Edith leave the island but the rumors have been cast and Phoebe is now branded as being a wicked girl. Even within her own thoughts she blames herself for this, “That could only mean that he’s seen at once that she was not a good girl – who would object – but a wicked one – who would listen. He must know. He knew. It was so.” But even in this unfair plight it is strangely viewed as a release from the burdens of being a wife, a mother, a women as you were supposed to be. “Now she felt very wise very grown-up, she could forget these childish worries. She could hardly believe that only a few weeks ago, she like all the others, had secretly made lists of her trousseau, decided on the names of her three children, Jack. Marcus. And Rose.” This is the revelatory aspect of this story. Rhys shows the ugliness of men, but also makes it so that a woman can be freed from the obligation and expectation of self only after such a defining trauma. There is liberation in the position of the outcast. Phoebe was and will not be seen as a victim but in a twisted way this breeching of her purity is the only thing that can free her from the normalcy of a life, which in the tone that Rhys writes, seems to be a benefit.


The other story of focus is Kikimora. This is about a dinner party of three, Elsa - the wife, Baron Mumtael - the guest and Stephen- the husband. The Baron is a rude arrogant type and he focuses his genteel hostility onto Elsa who, out of decorum and manners, will walk the line but her seething dislike of him is transparent. Stephen is oblivious and neutral throughout. The Baron immediately puts her down as he enters her home calling the interior typical, and then proceeds to make his opinions quite known.


“charming. I’m so glad you’re not an American. I think American women are a menace, don’t you? The spoilt female is invariably a menace.”

“And what about the spoilt male?”

“Oh the spoilt male can be charming. No spoiling, no charm.”


They continue to talk and the degree of the Baron’s chauvinism increases as he remarks on a painting and he insists must have been painted by a woman as it was colorful. Elsa says it was not but he is reluctant to believe this. Finally Stephan joins them and the Baron only now engages conversation with him. At a certain point the cat, Kikimora, who is almost always well behaved, scratches the Baron. The Baron goes into dramatics insisting it must be cleaned immediately as she-cats are known to have dangerous scratches. Elsa corrects him, “He’s not a she-cat, he’s a he-cat.” This statement though does not sink in the Baron’s head as he keeps saying “ ‘One can’t be too careful with a she-cat,’ …And Elsa breathing deeply, would always answer, ‘He’s not a she-cat, he’s a he-cat.”’ Finally dinner is over, Elsa vents “What a horrible man!” Stephen is perplexed, of course. She cuddles Kikimora as a thankful ally and then she goes to her bedroom and removes the suite she was wearing during the dinner and proceeds to cut it up with scissors. Stephan hearing the noises called out: “ ‘What on earth are you doing?’ ‘I’m destroying my feminine charm,’ Elsa Said. ‘I thought I’d make a nice quick clean job of it.’” Ahh yes a tidy and symbolic action but women throughout the centuries have practiced this gesture in times of powerless distress. To cut the hair, to shred clothes, to destroy as an act of release and purging is an essential tool to deal with the psychological damage and neurosis that develops from being consistent with your station as a women. What is wonderful about this story is that it is clear the Baron offends Elsa but she does not remain wholly mute, turn to drink or self deprecate herself to make it easier for anyone. Of course she has to valiantly put up with it, this is necessary for all in social situations, but the act of doing this doesn’t lessen her obvious strength of character. The Baron is an ass with obvious women issues and even the cat knows this. The cat is a tool to express knowing, of righting the right, in the same premonitory way a baby’s wail can feel when handed to you. Elsa is a woman with obligations but she still remains a strong, you can be both as Rhys firmly evidences in this story.


This cursory summation of these stories is hopefully to act as a teaser. Everyone, male, female, and in between should read Rhys. Her ability to talk through the mouth and to see and think the way that a twelve year old, a gigolo, a mistress, a lonely women, a girl, or a gentleman is a gift. She is not disguising herself or her voice for suspended effect; her portrayals of the characters are revelations because she writes so damn well. The tone is like no other; the way thoughts linger and reveal psychology is unmatched. Also, the fact that she writes of women who are sometimes scattered, off, damaged, and floating is extraordinary because she can contain it and reveal this more powerfully because of her distinct writing prowess. There are no caricatures or spectacles of these types of females. These are females that we know or have been, these are collective inheritances and Rhys stories makes this okay somehow. Complexities are okay. It is not a burden or uncommon to be different or of not wanting to be regular. Rhys own adventurous and complex life is source material for her stories but there is, as with any enduring story, the universals. Hers focus is on being a woman; a person that persistently exists in this complicated and collaged life.