Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text

Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text

Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text

Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text

Synopsis

Is a woman's writing different from a man's? Many scholars -- and readers -- think so, even thought here has been little examination of the way women's novels enact the theories that women theorists have posited. In Jean Rhys and the Novel as Women's Text, Nancy Harrison makes an important contribution to the exchange of ideas on the writing practice of women and to the scholarship on Jean Rhys.

Harrison determines what the form of a well-made women's novel discloses about the conditions of women's communication and the literary production that emerges from them. Devoting the first part of her book to theory and general commentary on Rhys's approach to writing, she then offers perceptive readings of Voyage in the Dark, an early Rhys novel, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys's masterpiece written twenty-seven years later. She shows how Rhys uses the terms of a man's discourse, then introduces a woman's (or several women's) discourse as a compelling counterpoint that, in time, becomes prominent and gives each novel its thematic impact. In presenting a continuing dialogue with the dominant language and at the same time making explicit the place of a woman's own language, Rhys gives us a paradigm for a new and basically moral text.

Originally published in 1988.

Excerpt

Began this study with a basic assumption derived in part intuitively and confirmed often enough to arouse my further interest in verifying its general application: more often than not, women's novels in this century seemed to be more directly autobiographical than are men's novels. I wondered why this might be, and what effect it might have on a woman's writing practice itself (not simply on the content of the novel), and on another woman's reading response to that practice. My immediate background was in critical and rhetorical theory within the framework of feminist theory; my compelling interest, the practical effect of writing on both writer and reader. In particular I wanted to satisfy my curiosity as to how we respond to our "rhetorical situation" in our aesthetic practices. The "rhetorical situation," as Lloyd Bitzer defined it almost twenty years ago in an influential essay, is "a complex of persons, events, objects and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence." Bitzer seems to assume that a community of people tends to introduce rhetoric, "discourse," into a specific situation primarily to stabilize it; even more, to maintain the general cultural equilibrium implicit in the phrase "the status quo." This phrase predicates a maintenance of the dominant culture and its idiom through a reinvocation of its conventions and the terms in which it sees itself. In Bitzer's development of his definition of a situation that is perceived by the community as "real" and to which it responds to rid itself collectively of a "defect" or "obstacle," we see that the definition of the "rhetorical situation" for white Western European men becomes a description of one of the ways they maintain control over other groups within the society that their culture dominates. For women in such a society, the maintenance of "their" culture cannot be seen as a response to our "rhetorical situation," the exigencies of which are, as a matter of course, not the same. Our "situational context" (to use another phrase that connotes a configuration similar to Bitzer's, but with a difference allowing some expansion in our thinking) is of a different nature. Our rhetorical context, the situational . . .

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