Identity, Place and Non-Belonging in Jean Rhys’s Fiction

  • Abstract:

    Place is considered as a distinguishable factor among Jean Rhys’s novels, most concretely represented by three countries: Dominica, England and France. In locating her outsider and outcast heroines in these places of interconnectedness, Rhys’s fiction responds to a time of crisis in the history of Empire, between the height of imperialism and the beginning of decolonization. With a much stigmatized white West Indian creole identity, her heroines are unacceptably white in Dominica, and unacceptably “black” in Europe. In Voyage in the Dark, Anna is stranded in a modernist London that was at once racially heterogeneous, cosmopolitan and xenophobic. The shift of Anna’s memory in temporal, geographical as well as psychic spaces between the colony and metropolis brings the history of imperialism to the foreground. Her transgressive and mobile identities (racial, sexual, national), are forever making her stranger in the metropolis, who fails to comply with a rigid social code of Englishness, gentility and purity. In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie and Good Morning, Midnight, both Marya and Sasha are Rhys heroines of ambiguous nationality, assuming roles of mannequins, models and kept woman, forever occupying the temporary and liminal spaces of the metropolis and trying to buy themselves an illusion of the identity of “respectable lady”. Rejected, unhoused, wandering in a state of limbo, their existence becomes mechanical and ghostly. It is this sense of having no identity and no place of belonging resulted from a very specific and traumatic colonial experience that best explains the pervasive tone of loss, melancholy, and paralysis of spirit underlying all of Rhys’s fiction.