Jean Rhys and Her Controllable Woman
After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1930)
Voyage in the Dark (1934)
Good Morning Midnight (1939)
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
When things are looking their worst for Sasha, the protagonist of Good Morning, Midnight (GMM), she takes refuge in a sort of shrine. It is a fitting room in the dress shop where she works. In the room, there is a dress hanging in a cupboard. Sasha believes it to be a dress possessed of supernatural qualities, and that if she owned it and wore it when she was feeling weak and afraid it would make her powerful and fearless; people would respect her for being chic, a woman of taste and means. It is made in the style she loves; the fabric is woven and embroidered with her favourite colours. It could have been made for her. “It is my dress,” she thinks. (360)
What she doesn’t realize is that such a powerful dress cannot be hers, because she is not a living woman, she is a zombi, the undead manifestation of Antoinette Cosway / Bertha Mason – Rochester, whose story will be told later in Wide Sargasso Sea (WSS).
In that final novel, Rochester comes upon a book called The Glittering Coronet of Isles where he reads a definition of a zombi:
A zombie is a dead person who seems to be alive or a living person who is dead. A zombie can also be the spirit of a place, usually malignant but sometimes to be propitiated with sacrifices or offerings of flowers and fruit. They cry out in the wind that is their voice, they rage in the sea that is their anger. (WSS 522)
A later definition provides some explanation for their cries of anger :
Zombi: Name of snake deity in voodoo; also name given to a person classified as “walking dead” and believed by voodooists to have been raised up by supernatural power to perform servile tasks. A Zombi’s mind has often been severely impaired to the point so that he or she can be manipulated into performing such tasks. (Mather and Nichols 329)
Jean Rhys has raised the character of Bertha Mason, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from the dead, to use her as her own fictional character. She puts this zombi to work as an undead woman in the early twentieth century (between the World Wars). The author makes the zombi woman character suffer through four novels, not knowing that she is a zombi until the realisation and hopeless acceptance of her zombi existence at the end of the fourth novel, Good Morning, Midnight. Then, when she has served her purpose as the fictional character as modern zombi, the creature is reinterred until she is returned to life in the fifth and final novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is presented simply as a monster who prevents the marriage of Rochester and Jane, until her timely death. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys gives her a history, a name (Antoinette Cosway), a vivid life, and a noble death; but before that novel is written we see her in the four early novels as the walking dead spirit of Antoinette.
In life she was a woman of the early nineteenth century whose self identity, and social worth had been subsumed in her family’s history. Rhys’s four modern zombi-women have the same memories of The West Indies as Antoinette, because they are her, in zombi form.
Despite their different names, they are the same character; she is Anna Morgan, a depressed chorus girl, homesick for the West Indies, in Voyage in the Dark (ViD), Marya Zelli, a young woman sapped of willpower and self-identity in Quartet (Q) , Julia Martin, an older, destitute, ghastly spectre, who haunts the family from whom she has become estranged in After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie (ALMM) , and finally, Sasha Jansen, an aging, alcoholic, prostitute zombi who comes to understand what she is, in Good Morning, Midnight.
What is it like to become a zombi?
It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known. It was almost like being born again. The colours were different, the feeling things gave you right down inside yourself was different. Not just the difference between heat, cold; light, darkness; purple grey. But a difference in the way I was frightened and the way I was happy . . . . Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a d r e a m at other times England was the real thing and out there was the dream, but I could never fit them together. (ViD 3)
Even the walking dead must have a sense of style if they want happiness and respect in their social milieu. In the five novels of Jean Rhys, which I will consider as an interconnected narrative, each of the protagonists of the four early novels exists with a belief in the supernatural — in charms, luck—and their sense of superiority in taste —their sense of chic—to bring them success, irresponsible happiness, and luxury. But, at the same time, they are always reminded of the futility of their desires. In Voyage in the Dark, Anna’s step-mother, Hester, has a brooch of jumbie beads set in gold that she will give as a wedding present to someone more deserving than Anna —“the rector’s daughter.” She thinks the beads signify luck.
‘The niggers say that jumbie-beads are lucky, don’t they?’
‘Yes, they do,’ I said. ‘They always say that.’
But , in fact, their seeds are poisonous and, in Obeah and other belief systems of the West Indies, they are related to evil spirits, death, zombis—many things—but not luck. This seems to be an example of Rhys’s sly, sometimes cruel humour.
About clothes, it’s awful. Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are poorly dressed. And you think, ‘all right, I’ll do anything for clothes. But it isn’t always going to be like this, is it? It isn’t possible. Something must happen to make it different.’
And then, the illusion of willpower evaporates.
And then I thought, ‘Yes, that’s all right. I’m poor and my clothes are cheap and perhaps it will always be like this. And that’s all right too.’ It was the first time in my life I’d thought that.’ ( ViD 15)
These women try to dress in the latest fashions of Paris and London. They despise the standards of “bourgeois respectability,” while, at the same time, wanting the luxuries that must be paid for by men with middle-class incomes. They want to be chic and to live only for pleasure. To be chic, apparently, is to be not merely fashionable , but open minded , free with money (if you have it), and willing to flout the law.
In Quartet, Marya meets Stephan Zelli, a fence for stolen art objects whom she will marry. He dresses in a chic style until he goes to prison, which has him in a “gray chemise” of the kind that Antoinette wears later in Wide Sargasso Sea in the convent school and in Thornfield’s attic.
I owe for the dress I have on,’ Marya informed him, for she was determined
to make things perfectly clear.
He told her that they would go next day and pay for it.
‘How much do you owe?’
‘It’s not worth that,’ he remarked calmly when she told him. ‘Not that it is
ugly, but it has no chic [my italics], I expect your dressmaker cheats you.’
Marya was annoyed but impressed.
‘You know—you’ll be happy with me,’ he continued in a persuasive voice.
And Marya answered that she dared say she would. (Q 128)
Determination falls to persuasion in an instant. The narrative switches to third person and Marya’s voice is silenced.
Again, in Quartet, the manipulative Heidlers keep Marya (not against her will – she has none) for Mr. Heidler’s sexual use.
Mrs. Heidler “dominating the situation,” announces, “We must get Mado [Marya’s pet name] another hat, H.J. . . . She must be chic . . . She must do us credit.” (169)
In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia knows who to go to for money in an emergency—a man possessed of chic.
“He was chic [Rhys’s italics], too. He had lent her a good deal of money, first and last. And she had always said: ‘this money I have borrowed. I will pay you back one day.’
And then he would reply ‘Of course you will. Don’t you worry about that.’
‘And after all this time he had answered almost at once. That was chic [Rhys’s italics].’” (296)
Chic is a kind of magic, a charm, that these protagonists feel is necessary for their survival. Magic, of course, is the basis of their undead existence. In each of the five novels there is one belief that the woman protagonist clings to—the idea of the dress as sacred object, magic talisman, the possession of which will change her life utterly and for the better. “Time has no meaning. But something you can touch and hold like my red dress, that has meaning.” (WSS 571)
Like Cinderella, and Jane Eyre, she needs magic to make her life right, but no fairy godmother, or novel, can save her—she is dead already. Her sense of beauty is based on memories of her tropical childhood home. The colours she prefers echo the black shadows of the jungle and the vivid “flamboyant” colours of tropical flowers and birds. They are also the colours of black women) in clothing of brilliantly coloured cottons and silks. Anna, in Voyage in the Dark thinks, “Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad.” (19) She knows it is only by appearing to be strong that people will think she is. In Sasha’s memories of younger days in Good Morning, Midnight, when the man who owns the shop where she works confuses and humiliates her, she runs to a hiding place, her shrine.
In this fitting room, there is a dress in one of the cupboards which has been worn a lot by the mannequins and is going to be sold off for four hundred francs. The saleswoman has promised to keep it for me. I have tried it on; I have seen myself in it . It is a black dress with wide sleeves embroidered in vivid colours – red , green, blue , purple . It is my dress. If I had been wearing it I should never have stammered or been stupid . . . If I could get it everything would be different . . . I’ll get the money I’ll get it. (GMM 359-60, 362)
Anna, in Voyage in the Dark, visits another shrine of couture, in a dress shop with “a sliding cupboard with the doors pushed back so that you could see the rows of dresses on hangers. The dresses, all colours, hanging there, waiting.” She thinks, as she tries on an expensive dress, “This is a beginning. Out of this warm room that smells of fur I’ll go to all the lovely places I’ve ever dreamt of. This is the beginning [Rhys’s italics]. (ViD 16)
After an evening with the man who paid for the dress, she “crawls” upstairs to her rented room at three o’clock in the morning, like Cinderella having stayed too late at the ball; obviously , she is not wearing the magic dress yet. “She was sure she could get him to marry her if she could smarten herself up a bit.”(ViD 98)
Like Cinderella, she is former rich girl (“the old estate – my mother’s family’s place,”(ViD 32) has an unloving stepmother and vulgar (if not ugly) sisters, in the form of her fellow chorus girls. The prince (Mr. Jeffries) is, unfortunately, not like the one in the fairy tale. He does not want to marry Anna no matter how chic her clothes are, and he is not the sort of man to be taken in by magic tricks. As for a fairy godmother, that is Jean Rhys, and she will not provide a happy ending.
Julia, in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, goes to Mr. James, the above mentioned “chic” man and, before getting around to asking for money (a substance of temporary magic) , she thinks of her unlucky previous marriage to another man.
It was just my luck, wasn’t it, that when we needed it most we should have lost everything? When you’ve just had a baby, and it dies for the simple reason that you haven’t enough money to keep it alive. (297)
Even money, in this case, would not be magic enough for a zombi to have a healthy baby.
But, what better place than Paris for being a devotee of couture? In the early novels, she stays contentedly or despairingly in lodgings, hotel rooms, or rooms in other people’s houses, but her preoccupation is either with buying dresses and being seen in cafés wearing them or hoping not to be seen drinking and wearing shabby clothes in the same cafés. Where she gets the money to dress and drink is unimportant to her. It would not be chic, of course, to care and, being a zombi, she cannot be expected to have a real job with a future; she is, after all, at the mercy of her author.
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Paris is foreseen in the significance of fashion, culture and history. Christophine, the housemaid who is a practitioner of Obeah and voodoo magic, dresses in the style of Martinique, where she and Antoinette’s mother, Annette, were born. St. Pierre, in Martinique , is known as the Paris of the West Indies. Annette Cosway, when she marries the wealthy Mr. Mason, can afford to wear an elegant evening gown à la Joséphine. (WSS 504) That style was named for the Empress Josephine, who was born in St.Pierre. When Antoinette last sees her mother, it is in the house where she is kept after she “goes mad.” She is wearing “an evening dress cut very low” à la Joséphine. The nuns at Antoinette’s convent school wear white habits with black veils.(488) The symbol of France is a “lady with black hair in a white dress.” (White dresses or robes figure prominently a number of times in the five novels. The two mentioned here represent cold purity but in Good Morning, Midnight they are seen on dream or spectre-like figures. The “grey chemise” is worn by colourless prisoners . . . Antoinette in the convent school and at Thornfield and Stephan Zelli in prison.)
Antoinette, in England, has her red dress but she is prevented from wearing it. She is clothed in a grey chemise. Grey is the colour of England. She can take her dress out of its press and delight in its colour. It makes her think of fire.
Antoinette viciously bites her visiting half brother, Richard, because he cannot help her with the magic of the law “‘I cannot interfere legally between yourself and your husband.” ‘It was when he said “legally” that you flew at him.’” (570) The law is not chic.
Julia, in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, inherits a gold ring from her mother, who has died without recognizing her. Her sister, Norah, warns her not to sell it, since such a sentimental object is sacred, and Julia vows that she would never do such a thing. Later, in Good Morning Midnight, she seems still to be wearing it and tells a potential thief that he wouldn’t get much money for it.
She believes in the magic of colour in nature. Her dress is the colour of fire and sunset, the colour of flamboyant flowers. “If you are buried under a flamboyant tree,”[Antoinette] said, “your soul is lifted up when it flowers” (WSS 572). She dies in the heat and colour of flames. Burning Thornfield is a flamboyant gesture, but it leaves her soul a prey to a sorcerer novelist who would have it be a zombi to perform fictional tasks.
The modern zombi-woman, being a zombi, has no personal power to rely on so she must have faith in magic—the magic of money and of chic. But a zombi must serve its master, until the master’s purpose is done. In the mean time, the zombi can keep repeating this mantra: “Happy, petted, charming —magic words.”(Q 127 )
The four zombi-women gaze obsessively at their faces in mirrors , as if trying to find in their make-up-masked features the key to their identity, but never do we see them gazing at their unclothed bodies or bare faces.
In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, Julia has run out of money and, being without friends in Paris, she turns desperately to her family in London. There is only her dying, unconscious mother, her sister, Norah, and an uncle, who disapproves of her.
Norah is the opposite of Julia. Although poor and having been trapped in the role of her mother’s caregiver for some years, she has not lost her self-identity. She can see an independent future for herself and, in a way that is impossible for Julia, she is free to observe and admire her own naked body.
Then she had got up and looked at herself in the glass. She had let her nightgown slip down off her shoulders, and had a look at herself. She was tall and straight and slim and young—well, fairly young. She had taken up a strand of her hair and put her face against it and thought how she liked the smell and the feel of it. She had laughed at herself in the glass and her teeth were white and sound and even. (293)
Julia is like a ghost haunting her family: “I must look ghastly” (305), “Julia, with her hateful blackened eyelids.” (292) “She walked in— pale as a ghost.”(249)
She uses her body as a sexual object, of course, to get money for clothes, but there is never enough to buy the one sacred, magic dress. In their bodily manifestation, the zombis are mannequins for displaying fashionable clothes. They only see their bodies through clothes:
The fat Miss Cohen went into the back room. I held my arms up and the thin one put on the dress as if I were a doll. The skirt was long and tight so that when I moved in it I saw the shape of my thighs. (ViD 16)
In After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, she feels at first “complete in herself, detached, independent of the rest of humanity” (242) because she has money, in the form of a small weekly stipend from Mr. Mackenzie. When the money stops, she can only think of “new clothes with a passion, with voluptuousness. She imagine[s] the feeling of a new dress on her body and the scent of it, and her hands emerging from long black sleeves.” ( ALMM 244)
In Good Morning Midnight, Sasha is pregnant and gives birth to a sickly baby, who dies in the maternity hospital. We learn nothing about how her body experiences childbirth and, after she has been wrapped tightly in bandages for a week to remove stretch marks, there is no sign of the event; indeed, her body is cleaned and pressed like a laundered dress.
And there I lie in these damned bandages for a week. And there he lies, swathed up too, like a little mummy. And never crying.
But now I like taking him in my arms and looking at him.
When I complain about the bandages [the midwife] says : ‘I promise you that when you take them off you’ll be just as you were before. And it is true. When she takes them off there is not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And five weeks afterwards there I am, with not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And there he is, lying with a ticket tied round his wrist because he died in a hospital. And there I am looking down at him, without one line, without one wrinkle, without one crease . (GMM 381)
Rhys makes the zombi perform the task of showing what happens when a woman who is dead inside tries to use her body to keep another person alive—she simply does not have the power.
Even in Wide Sargasso Sea, the living Antoinette is identified mainly by her clothes. As a young girl, she goes swimming with her friend, Tia, daughter of a black servant. Tia steals Antoinette’s dress (“starched, ironed, clean” , 470) so that the white girl must wear the black girl’s ragged dress. On returning home, her mother’s beautifully dressed friends laugh at her. “All that evening my mother didn’t speak to me or look at me and I thought, ‘She is ashamed of me, what Tia said is true. Tia had said that the Cosway family were not “real white people” with gold money. After that, Annette Cosway marries again and to a “real” white man with lots of money. Then, there are lots of new dresses. (470-72)
At Thornfield, Antoinette s red dress represents her self-identity. When Richard Mason comes to assure himself that “Bertha,” as Rochester calls her, is alive and being cared for, she thinks he doesn’t recognize her because she is not wearing the red dress. She thinks, “If I had been wearing my red dress, Richard would have known me.”( 572 ) In the convent school , when she is a girl, as well as at Thornfield, Antoinette wears a gray chemise, like a shroud. Her stepfather sends her a pretty dress, but she is not allowed to wear it. (492) The nuns tell their students to think of their deaths.
One knew about Heaven and the attributes of the blessed, of which the least is transcendent beauty. The very least. I could hardly wait for all this ecstasy and once I prayed for a long time to be dead. Then remembered that this was a sin. Sister Marie Augustine says thoughts are not sins, if they are driven away at once. You say Lord save me, I perish. I find it very comforting to know exactly what must be done. (491)
The zombi-woman is left without the determination to escape that she had in life. She is in a state of deep depression, passivity, resentment, despair, as all zombies are. And in a foreign place. All of the women either come to England from a tropical British colony or their parents do. They take their chances in London and Paris. They begin with a romantic, sentimentalized idea of England: “England, rosy pink in the geography book map . . . Cool green leaves in the short cool summer . . . chandeliers and dancing . . . swans and roses and snow. (WSS 525) I had read about England ever since I could read—smaller meaner everything is never mind (ViD 9).
An ideal West Indian setting is remembered with painful longing by Anna Morgan on the first page of Voyage in the Dark and contrasted with her cold lodgings in an English town, ironically called Southsea.
In Quartet, Marya Zelli is at one point being kept in the Hotel des Palmiers, in Cannes. She is extremely depressed and emotionally unstable. After making herself sick with Pernod and veronal, her mind takes her to a place that Anna or Antoinette might dream of: “The croaking of frogs . . . Dark trees growing close together with thick creepers which hung down from the branches like snakes. Virgin forest. Intact. Never been touched. ” She does not have the power to escape from her passive, slave-like existence but is aware of a happier past life.
The five novels, in the order in which they were published, begin their collective narrative sequence in medias res, with Quartet and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, in which Marya and Julia are characters who present a mystery: Why do they behave the way they do? Voyage in the Dark was published third, though it was begun before the others. Much of its text is given to memories of Anna’s West Indian island home. Many of the same images are echoed in Wide Sargasso Sea. At first, the gray weather and dreariness of English towns makes her homesick for the bright colours and spicy, fruity smells of a Caribbean marketplace .
Being ill and feverish due to pregnancy, and then from the effects of an abortion, Anna’s thoughts run on dizzying memories of her childhood which will become scenes from Antoinette’s life. She thinks of the “blue mountains” and how they were said to be “haunted and obeah”(that is, ruled by the fetish cult of Obeah.
Obeah zombis soucriants—flying in the dark frightened of the dark frightened of soucriants that fly in through the window and suck your blood—they fan you to sleep with their wings and then they suck your blood – you know them in the day-time – they look like people but their eyes are red and staring and they’re soucriants at night—looking in the glass and thinking sometimes my eyes look like a soucriant’s eyes . . .( Q 100)
Two women in Voyage in the Dark could be said to represent the two aspects of Christophine, the wise servant in Wide Sargasso Sea with her powers of good and bad magic. They are Francine, the “good” servant who cared for Anna in her childhood fevers (18), and “Mrs. Robinson” the London abortionist, who is said to be “awfully clever.”(109) The sinister male doctor who treats Anna when she nearly dies from the effects of the abortion has a face like a white mask: she remembers the street masquerades in the West Indies and dancers in zombi masks.(113)
By going back to her first writing, Rhys was able to provide some clues to her zombi-woman’s behaviour through Anna’s memory. There she discovers the “real” life of Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason, who will become Antoinette, in Wide Sargasso Sea. But first, she must make the zombi see herself for what she is.
In Good Morning , Midnight, Sasha realizes that her belief in magic, chic, beauty and charm, as methods by which she can become happy, is an illusion. As a zombi, she can only appear to live in the form of a woman who cannot be happy with human beings because she is unable to give or receive love. Now, her author/sorcerer can bring her back to the life that was ignored by Brontë.
Voyage in the Dark ends with Anna’s equilibrium restored after the near-fatal effects of an abortion and “Ready to start all over again in no time, I’ve no doubt,” as the doctor says (115).
Anna is a working zombi again, who must complete her term of suffering as Sasha, in Good Morning Midnight , before she can “start all over again” as Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. She thinks her zombi thoughts:
When their voices stopped the ray of light came in again under the door like the last thrust of remembering before everything is blotted out. I lay and watched it and thought about starting all over again. And about being new and fresh. And about mornings and misty days, when anything might happen. And about starting all over again, all over again …. (115)
The final, shocking scene of Good Morning, Midnight, which also ends the sequence of the four early novels, seems far too cruel a degradation for Sasha, who has only come to Paris from London for two weeks of rest and a change of view. But, the cruelty is given another layer by Rhys, the zombie master. A layer of mockery, with a literary parody of the famous ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the last lines of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:
and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
In Rhys’s hands, this becomes a confrontation with the zombi-like man next door in his white dressing gown and Sasha’s recognition of the reality of her existence, of what she is.
He stands there, looking down at me. Not sure of himself, his mean eyes flickering. He doesn’t say anything. Thank God, he doesn’t say anything. I look straight into his eyes and despise another poor devil of a human being for the last time. For the last time . . . . Then I put my arms round him and pull him down on to the bed, saying: ‘Yes—yes—yes . . . .’
It is cruel to bring a dead person back to life, only to keep them dead in life—forever—but that is what Rhys does, as a writer of fiction. The next novel tells us the story of the woman’s origin in the distant past, as she was created by Charlotte Brontë. Rhys unearths the Bertha Mason of Jane Eyre, and uses her zombi anger to destroy the myth of the “madwoman in the attic” and to explain the anger and fear of the woman in her first four novels.
A discussion of slavery in Wide Sargasso Sea by Bidisha on the British Library site widens our view of Rhys’s understanding of the slave and slavemaster relationship. http://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/an-introduction-to-wide-sargasso-sea