The Poetics of Labor in Jean Rhys's Global Modernism

By Emery, Mary Lou | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Poetics of Labor in Jean Rhys's Global Modernism


Emery, Mary Lou, Philological Quarterly


I'm very lazy you know. Like Christophine.--Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

In his inaugural speech of 10 April 1839 the newly appointed lieutenant governor deplored "the great indolence" of segments of the peasantry which illegally held "as if a matter of right their houses and ground though they refuse to contribute any labor for the estates in return:'

--Michel-Rolphe Trouillot, Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy, emphasis added

A CROSSROADS FIGURE, Jean Rhys appears in critical discussions of Caribbean, modernist, postcolonial and women's literature, yet, in each case, remains marginal to the field. This "mis-fit" speaks to the eccentricity of her fiction yet also to its power, located at the intersections of significant literary traditions, critical approaches, and historical transformations. Read in the contexts of the global South or plantation America, her work becomes again highly resonant, opening to view dynamic trans-Atlantic connections among writers we might call plantation modernists. (1) It is not simply that her best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, takes place on the declining estates of Dominica and Jamaica, but that even her most European or "continental" novels and short stories depict the legacies of the plantation. These narratives link the labor performed in the plantation system with that of early twentieth-century Europe, England, and the U.S. If we turn the critical lens from the more frequently discussed topics of race and gender to scenes of labor in Rhys's fiction, a global vision of modernity emerges, spanning the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. Portrayed through a distinctly Caribbean modernist style, the subjectivities of working women engage the twinned dynamics of freedom and dispossession, agency and commodification that have their beginnings in the plantation.

Viewing Rhys in this light places her among writers such as William Faulkner, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay--early twentieth-century modernists of the Americas who portrayed plantation and migrant labor through innovative fictional forms and styles. However, to focus on labor in Rhys's writing goes against prevailing characterizations of the author and her fiction. Critics and biographers have repeatedly described Rhys and her characters--often conflated as "the Rhys woman"--as lazy or indolent. Rhys and her characters, such as Antoinette from Wide Sargasso Sea, even describe themselves in such terms. (2) But descriptions (including ironic, mocking self-descriptions) of people or individuals as disinclined to work are not necessarily accurate and, in fact, run throughout colonial discourses describing slaves and servants who sometimes worked to the point of death. In the case of Rhys and her characters, we might argue the reverse of the prevailing descriptions, asserting that they do, indeed, work, especially if we consider the labor involved in dancing and singing in music hall chorus lines, acting in silent films, modeling and selling clothes in Parisian dress shops, posing in artists' studios, serving as tour guides, ghostwriting wealthy women's stories, translating European novels, and further, in the case of the author, actually writing five remarkable novels, four volumes of short stories, a memoir, and many letters. But I would like to take the question of laziness and labor in a slightly different direction.

Rather, I am interested in the way descriptions of indolence and laziness disguise the scenes of labor that actually appear everywhere in Rhys's writing. It's as if these scenes of toil and servitude are "hidden in plain sight." (3) They require display of the stereotypes they disprove, creating a complex interplay of ideological illusion and the actual labor of a plantation economy foundational to modernity. (4) Through this interplay, Rhys creates a poetics of labor out of the apparent indolence of the Caribbean.

In Rhys's fiction of the 1930s, scenes of labor often appear as memories threaded through narratives in which the past becomes powerfully present. …

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