Jean Rhys: Biography, Novels & Short Stories

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

In this lesson, we'll explore the life and work of Jean Rhys. In addition to looking at both her novels and short stories, we'll consider the artistic and historical context in which she wrote.

Introduction

Unique art is often a product of unique experiences, and Jean Rhys offers a terrific example of this. Born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890 in Dominica, a British colonial island in the Caribbean, Rhys moved to England at 16. This introduced her to the first of many unusual experiences that often involved being an outsider. For example, she became a nude model and underwent three different marriages; in her first marriage, she was wedded to a man who was a spy, journalist, and songwriter, and she was also with a man who spent a large part of their marriage in jail. In another strange series of events, Rhys disappeared completely from society for a long period of time and was even thought to be dead.

Rhys was born and raised in Dominica before moving to England.
Dominica

Rhys's unusual life as a nomadic and indefinable person, however, developed her into a writer with a definitively unusual perspective towards life and culture. Many critics, moreover, have pointed to the colonial aspects of Rhys's work as important and insightful. Indeed, much of Rhys's work features the perspective of people who fail to fit into social norms and who struggle to find an identity that is understood by dominant society. The value of this perspective was noticed by another writer named Ford Madox Ford, who, in addition to having an intimate relationship with Rhys, helped her develop as a writer. Despite producing a series of impressive novels and short story collections, Rhys didn't become a particularly recognized author until later in her life. Rhys died in 1979, leaving behind an uncompleted autobiography.

Context

Much of Rhys's earlier work is classified as modernist, while some of her later work is classified as postmodernist. Modernist art roughly began around the beginning of the 20th century and was responding to changes to life and thought that were experienced during this time. Perhaps most importantly, science and philosophy challenged traditional understanding of how people perceive and interpret the world around them. For example, scientific theories such as Darwinism and Freudianism forced people to reexamine what they thought about life, meaning, and thought. Responding to this new context, many modernist artists believed that it was necessary to create art that reflected the complicated reality of the world in which they lived.

These experiences caused the modernist movement, which is defined by its use of innovative and often abstract art to complicate the viewer or reader's perspective. By the mid-20th century, however, some postmodern artists took the complication of reality a step further; many postmodern artists demonstrated that the hope of restoring meaning to chaos that is found in modern literature is unfounded. Instead, postmodern literature is often associated with the abandonment of the attempt to make real sense of the world.

Rhys often employs what is called stream-of-conscious narration. This style of narration involves entering in and out of the minds of various characters and depicting complicated, often subconscious thoughts as they actually happen rather than in a logical order. Moreover, much of Rhys's work features anxiety resulting from being isolated from society and the psychology process of experiencing one perspective towards the world falling apart, themes that are deeply connected both with modernism and postmodernism.

Work

Rhys's ability to develop as a writer may be largely attributed to her relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, which began in 1924. Ford helped Rhys write short stories, and her first work was The Left Bank and Other Stories, a collection of short stories that she wrote under the pseudonym Jean Rhys. She then published two novels, Postures (1928) (the title of which was later changed to Quartets) and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931).

Voyage in the Dark (1934) illustrates Rhys's further evolution as a writer. As the title suggests, the work centers on the isolation and anxiety of its protagonist, Anne Morgan. The novel parallels much of Rhys's own life, including Morgan's move from the Caribbean to England, a relationship with an older man who supports her, and a botched illegal abortion that threatens her life.

Rhys wrote her masterpiece as a prequel to another great piece of English literature.
Jane Eyre

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