LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
All rights reserved.
In my class at the University of Minnesota I also taught this book by Jean Rhys. I like her toughness. I like her lack of sentimentality. I hate her twenty-seven-year silence, and it hurts me that she published so little. Her work was lost once, and I see it fading now. To last, work must not only be in print, stay in print, but other writers must use it, be influenced by it, value it. If those other writers are women, their work will disappear too, you see.Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, first published in 1934, is a small, terrifying masterpiece. The same could be said of Quartet (1928), Leaving Mr MacKenzie (1931), Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). I have not been able to find The Left Bank, first published in 1927. The twenty-seven-year silence between Good Morning, Midnight and Wide Sargasso Sea suggests that writing small, terrifying masterpieces is not a rewarding activity for a woman.
Elegant, hard as nails, without a shred of sentimentality, Rhys writes, usually in the first person, of women as lost ingenues, lonely commodities floating from man to man; the man uses the woman and pays her off when he is tired of her; with each man, the woman's value lessens, she becomes more used, more tattered, more shopworn. These books are about how men use women: not how society punishes women for having sex but how men punish women with whom they want to have sex, with whom they have had sex. The feminist maxim, Every woman is one man away from welfare, is true but banal up against Rhys's portrait of the woman alone; there is no welfare; only poverty, homelessness, desperation, and the eventual and inevitable need to find another man.
In Voyage in the Dark, Victor is paying off Anna, the narrator, for his friend, Walter. He looks at a photograph of an actress, Anna's friend, Laurie. " 'She really is pretty. But hard--a bit hard,' as if he were talking to himself. 'They get like that. It's a pity.' " l His stone-cold arrogance is conveyed and so is the narrator's own lonely nonexistence: as if he were talking to himself. Her consciousness takes him in--his style, his meaning--and also makes real for the reader the fact that she does not exist for him. Rhys creates women who are perceived by men as pieces, bought on the market, but the woman herself says what life is like: describes the man and the transaction and her feelings before and during and after, her existence within the framework of his existence and simultaneously her existence outside the sphere of his imagination altogether: the woman who is the piece, yes, and who at the same time sees, feels, knows, who has bitter wit and sharp irony, who is caustic, who lives in what men dignify for themselves as an existential despair, who must survive in a world men make smaller than her intelligence. "I was thinking, 'I'm nineteen and I've got to go on living and living and living.' " 2 On the surface the woman is the pretty thing, the ingenue alone and on her way down, and under the surface she has the narrator's consciousness, an objective intelligence that notes every detail of meaning. It is a cold, hard intelligence. Women are judged in a man's world by the surface. Rhys plays the narrator's surface, what it means to men, against the narrator's consciousness. The men meet her body. They never meet her intelligence. They could not hypothesize it or imagine it or withstand it. They never know that she is seeing them; only that they are seeing her.
The arrogance of the men is level, civil, polite, mannered, disdainful but without physical aggression; these are rich johns, not violent rapists. They buy, they don't steal. They buy goods, not people, certainly not people like themselves. The disdain is what they feel for this lower life-form that exists for their pleasure:
Mr Jones said, "He knew you'd be either eighteen or twenty-two. You girls only have two ages. You're eighteen and so of course your friend's twenty- two. Of course." 3 The contempt is like some impermeable finish, glossy, polyurethane, a hard, glossy shell; no pores; nothing gets in or out. The narrator captures every nuance of this contempt. " 'Poor little Anna,' making his voice very kind. 'I'm so damned sorry you've been having a bad time.' Making his voice very kind, but the look in his eyes was like a high, smooth, unclimbable wall. No communication possible. You have to be three-quarters mad even to attempt it." 4
Anna is eighteen when the story opens. She is on the road in a vaudeville show. She is used to men picking her up. She has not had sex. Walter takes her to dinner. She discovers it is dinner in a suite of rooms with a bedroom. "He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard, and I remembered him smelling the glass of wine and I couldn't think of anything but that, and I hated him. 'Look here, let me go,' I said." 5 I remembered him smelling the glass of wine and I couldn't think of anything but that: in this one detail, the narrator is forcing us to remember that the man is a consumer, not a lover. Refusing him, she goes into the bedroom. She wants love, romance: "Soon he'll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He'll be different and so I'll be different. It'll be different. I thought, 'It'll be different, different. It must be different.' " 6 He doesn't come in; she lies on the bed, cold: "The fire was like a painted fire; no warmth came from it." 7 He waits for her to come out, takes her home, back to an empty, cold, rented room. She becomes ill, and writes him a note asking for help. He visits her, helps her, gives her money, pays the landlady to take care of her, finds other rooms for her for when she is well, and the romance begins. She is not bought for a night; instead, she has the long-term emotional and material security of an affair, being his until he is tired of her. She tells him she is not a virgin, but she is. After making love the first time, she thinks: " 'When I shut my eyes I'll be able to see this room all my life.' " 8 She doesn't look in the mirror to see if she has changed. "I thought that it had been just like the girls said, except that I hadn't known it would hurt so much." 9 She was infatuated. She wanted to be valued, loved. Instead, she had to get up in the middle of the night to sneak out of his bedroom and out of his house, a woman alone in the big night. "Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything." 10 She is happy and she is afraid; she knows her happiness will end. Warned by her friend, Maudie, older and also in vaudeville, she makes the tragic mistake. " 'Only, don't get soppy about him' [Maudie] said. 'That's fatal. The thing with men is to get everything you can out of them and not care a damn. You ask any girl in London--or any girl in the whole world if it comes to that [. . .]' " 11 When Walter is finished with her, she knows it: "I wanted to pretend it was like the night before, but it wasn't any use. Being afraid is cold like ice, and it's like when you can't breathe. 'Afraid of what?' I thought." 12 She sees Walter put money in her purse. She begins the inevitable descent; the first man over and done with; the others waiting; no money of her own; no home. She wanders through a world of men and rented rooms. Nothing assuages her grief: "Really all you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night--that's one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, 'He got sick of me,' and 'Never, not ever, never.' And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don't dream either. It's as if you were dead.'' 13 (Today we call this grief "depression." Women have it.)
But this is no story of a woman's broken heart. This is the story of a woman who is, in the eyes of the men who behold her, a tart, whether her heart is broken or not. "'I picked up a girl in London and she. . . . Last night I slept with a girl who. . . .' That was me. Not 'girl' perhaps. Some other word, perhaps. Never mind." 14
No one has written about a woman's desperation quite like this--the great loneliness, the great coldness, the great fear, in living in a world where, as one man observes, " 'a girl's clothes cost more than the girl inside them.' " 15 Eliot and Hardy have written vividly, unforgettably, about women in desperate downfalls, ostracized and punished by and because of a sexual double standard--I think of Hetty in Adam Bede and Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles; Hawthorne also did this in The Scarlet Letter. But Rhys simply gives us the woman as woman, the woman alone, her undiluted essence as a woman, how men see her and what she is for. There is a contemporary sense of alienation--distance and detachment from any social mosaic, except that the men and the money are the social mosaic. Society is simpler; exploitation is simpler; survival depends on being the thing men want to use, even as there is no hope at all for survival on those terms, just going on and on, the same but poorer and older. Anna observes the desperate masquerade of women to get from day to day:
The clothes of most of the women who passed were like caricatures of the clothes in the shop-windows, but when they stopped to look you saw that their eyes were fixed on the future. "If I could buy this, then of course I'd be quite different." Keep hope alive and you can do anything [ . . .] But what happens if you don't hope any more, if your back's broken? What happens then? 16
She paints a deep despair in women, each, for the sake of tomorrow, continually aware of her own worth on the market, thinking always of the dressed surface that does cost more than she costs.
Anna becomes pregnant from one of her casual encounters and Voyage in the Dark ends with a graphic, virtually unbearable description of an illegal abortion and Anna's subsequent near death from bleeding. The doctor can be called once there are complications, told she fell down the steps. " 'Oh, so you had a fall, did you?[. . .] You girls are too naive to live, aren't you?[. . .] She'll be all right [. . .] Ready to start all over again in no time, I've no doubt.' " 17
Anna is eighteen when the book begins, nineteen when it ends.
In Voyage in the Dark, Rhys uses race to underline Anna's total estrangement from what is taken to be middle-class reality. Anna has been raised in the West Indies, fifth-generation West Indian on her mother's side, as she brags to Walter. This boast and an accusation from her stepmother suggest that Anna's mother was black. But her status is white, the legitimate daughter of a white father who has many illegitimate black children. Being white estranges her from these undeniable relatives and from the black society in which she lives. She is alien. Her stepmother blames Anna's inability to marry up in England on her closeness with blacks in her childhood: "I tried to teach you to talk like a lady and behave like a lady and not like a nigger and of course I couldn't do it. Impossible to get you away from the servants. . . . Exactly like a nigger you talked--and still do." 18 Having sex with Walter, all she can think about is something she saw when she was a child, an old slave list, the mulatto slaves: "Maillotte Boyd, aged 18, mulatto, house servant." 19 She is eighteen, possibly mulatto; in the sex act, this other woman, like her, haunts her. But Anna knows she is an outsider to blacks, not accepted by the servants: "But I knew that of course she disliked me too because I was white; and that I would never be able to explain to her that I hated being white. Being white and getting like Hester [the stepmother] and all the things you get--old and sad and everything. I kept thinking, 'No. . . . No. . . .' And I knew that day that I'd started to grow old and nothing could stop it," 20 She hates London: "This is London -- hundreds of thousands of white people white people [. . .]" 21 She contrasts the white people with the dark houses, the dark streets; in literary terms, she makes the white skin stand out against the dark backdrop of the city. Anna is a total outsider, belonging nowhere. Voyage in the Dark exposes and condemns the colonial racism of the English; and it also uses Anna's outsider state-of-being to underscore the metaphysical exile of any woman alone, any woman as a woman per se, an exile from the world of men and the human worth they have, the money and power they have; an exile especially from the legitimacy that inheres simply in being male.
Now: in 1934 Jean Rhys published a book about women as sexual commodities; sophisticated and brilliant, it showed the loneliness, the despair, the fear, and by showing how men look at and value and use women, it showed how all women live their lives in relation to this particular bottom line, this fate, this being bought-and-sold. And in 1934, Jean Rhys published a book that described an illegal abortion, showed its often terminal horror, and also showed how it was simply part of what a woman was supposed to undergo, the same way she was supposed to be used and then abandoned, or poor, or homeless, or at the mercy of a male buyer. Jean Rhys is one of many "lost women" writers rediscovered and widely read in the 1970s because of the interest in women's writing generated by the current wave of feminism. People are happy to say she was a great writer without much meaning it and certainly without paying any serious attention to the substance of her work: to what she said. She wrote about the loneliness of being a woman, poor and homeless, better than anyone I know of. She wrote about what being used takes from you and how you never get it back. Women who should have been reading her read The Catcher in the Rye or Jean Genet instead because her books were gone. We had books by men on prostitution and street life: Genet's broke some new ground, but there is a long history of men writing on prostitution. In fact, at the beginning of Voyage in the Dark, Rhys makes a writerly joke about those books. Anna is reading Zola's Nana: "Maudie said, 'I know; it's about a tart. I think it's disgusting. I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way and another. Besides, all books are like that--just somebody stuffing you up.' " 22 Well, Voyage in the Dark, a book by a woman, doesn't just "stuff you up." It is, finally, a truthful book. It is, at the very least, a big part of the truth; and, I think, a lot closer to the whole truth than the women's movement that resurrected her work would like to think.
Sometimes I look around at my generation of women writers, the ones a little older and a little younger too, and I know we will be gone: disappeared the way Jean Rhys was disappeared. She was better than most of us are. She said more in the little she wrote--with her twenty-seven-year silence. Her narrative genius was just that: genius. We expect our mediocre little books to last forever, and don't even think they have to risk anything to do so. Yet, the fine books of our time by women go out of print continually; some are brought back, most are not. I wish I had grown up reading Jean Rhys. I did grow up reading D. H. Lawrence and Jean Genet and Henry Miller. But her truth wasn't allowed to live. To hell with their fights against censorship; she was obliterated. I couldn't learn from her work because it wasn't there. And I needed Jean Rhys a hell of a lot more than I needed the above-named bad boys: as a woman and as a writer. I don't know why we now, we women writers, think that our books are going to live. There is nothing to indicate that things in general have changed for women writers. I know the children of the future will have a lot of sexy literary trash from men; but I don't think they will have much by women that shows even as much as Jean Rhys showed in 1934. This disappearance of women writers costs us; this is a lot worse than having to reinvent the wheel. When a woman writer is "lost," the possibilities of the women after her are lost too; her true perceptions are driven out of existence and we are left with books by men that tell "a lot of lies one way and another." These are lies that keep women lost in all senses: the writers, the Annas. We have not done much to stop ourselves from being wiped out because we think that we are the exceptional generation, different from all the ones that came before: the lone generation to endure male dominance (we say we are fighting it) by writing about it. Our dead sisters, their books buried with them, try not to laugh.
"Voyage in the Dark: Hers and Ours," copyright © 1987 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
PREVIOUS ("Loving Books: Male/Female/Feminist")
NEXT ("A Feminist Looks at Saudi Arabia")