Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Femininity and Failure in Jean Rhys's Autobiographical Fiction: A Psychoanalytic Reading

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Femininity and Failure in Jean Rhys's Autobiographical Fiction: A Psychoanalytic Reading

Article excerpt

The purpose of this exploration of Quartet and Voyage in the Dark is to consider the texts' relationship to feminist literary criticism. Do the texts merely reflect misogyny in culture, or do they question it? In the case of the latter, how does Rhys's form or craft more so than the content itself reveal a political agenda? Note that the question being posed is not whether the author intended for her texts to be read as "feminist"; we know from interviews that she did not identify as a feminist but did not want the reception of her work to be limited to her autobiography (Nebeker vii and Savory 19). Authorial intent is less important to these considerations of gender than is the question of whether or not Rhys is a reliable narrator, and how she positions her protagonists to be read. What might this say about how we as readers interpret what she conveys about her own life in relation to worlds that are always constructed as corrupt in her writing? The three broad trajectories of criticism on the literature of Jean Rhys include gender, Caribbean, and Modernist. Claims that all the Rhys heroine-protagonists are the same woman at varying life stages and sexual development, and also that the value of her craft is diminished by the autobiographical dimensions of her novels, will be evaluated. One major consideration of this study is how to evaluate the endings of Voyage in the Dark and Quartet. For example, what does it mean to kill the self in autobiography, if in fact one chooses to interpret Marya as dead?

Quartet, according to Helen Nebeker in Jean Rhys: Woman in Passage, was largely dismissed by critics in 1928 as "sentimentally autobiographical, melodramatic, [and] aesthetically unconvincing" (Nebeker 1). For example, Elgin Mellown and others "reduce the female protagonists of her novels to a single character, a portrait of Rhys herself' (ii). In effect, some criticism paints Rhys's novels as a "stereotyped portrait of 'woman fallen into prostitution because she is the victim of her own unassuageable desires" (1). Instead, the conflation of Anna's and Marya's identities into one blameworthy victim can be read as a creation of critics' "subjective responses," responses which will be colored by the critics' worldviews, specifically his or her evaluation of female freedom and sexuality. This subjective response is what Michel Foucault calls the "author function." Although there are always signs of the author in the text, (Foucault argues we cannot escape from this, or kill the author as it were), it is also wrong to expect the author to unify contradicting textual elements; although that is what we do as readers. Conflating all Rhys's protagonists into one protagonist and then further conflating the protagonist with Rhys herself ignores that "all discourses endowed with the author function possess this plurality of self' (Foucault 7). The writing "I" is not the same "I" as is in the text, and "does not refer purely and simply to a real individual, since it can give rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subject-positions" (7). Therefore, Rhys as the author is no more a "fictitious narrator" than she is "the real writer," for the "author function is carried out and operates in the scission itself, in this division and this distance" (7).

According to Helen Nebeker, Rhys confronts readers with an "inescapable issue: if a woman's nature is such that, like Laurie and Anna herself, she really 'likes it,' 'why shouldn't she [as Anna says] be a tart, it's just as good as anything else, as far as I can see'" (Nebeker 71 and Rhys, Voyage 127). Essentially, in choosing to be "a tart," one realizes that it is only a different cage for a woman; prostitutes are paid to perform the roles that most women do for free in marriage and monogamous relationships, however emotionally or sexually unsatisfying. Early on in Voyage in the Dark, Anna is reading a book called Nana about a woman who climbs the ladder of success by using her sexuality "against" men. …

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