Anne B. Simpson undertakes an unfashionable enterprise in her book: to read Jean Rhys's fictional works through the theoretical lens of psychoanalysis. Simpson's training in psychotherapy gives her qualifications that many literary critics lacked during the era of high theory, when the writings of Freud and Lacan appeared to hold the keys to interpreting everything from Shakespearean drama to liberation struggles in Europe's colonies. Simpson is acutely aware that psychoanalytic approaches to literary texts are now often regarded as naïve, involving dubious assumptions about the similarities between literary characters and human beings. Nonetheless, Simpson insists that "psychoanalysis as a body of thought still offers the most powerful theoretical paradigm to date for exploring the complexities of emotional life as these are expressed in literature as well as life" (12).
The most original and useful claim made in Territories of the Psyche is that Freudian notions of psychological development held initially by modernists in the interwar period and later by literary scholars led to the characterization of Rhys as a "marginal Modernist" (20). Freudian conceptions of psychology were notoriously based on male models, and the idea that human development might be understood in the light of the Oedipal drama was highly influential to European artists in the 1920s and 1930s. Rhys, in contrast, demonstrated a consistent preoccupation with mother-daughter dynamics from her first novel, Quartet (1928), to her fifth and last, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and experiences produced by such relationships did not correspond well with Freudian conceptions. The "masculinist rendition of the trauma suffered by modern individuals" portrayed by Freud and modernists influenced by him tended to occlude what Simpson calls the "more primitive experiences of alienation" that precede Oedipal tensions and arise from a child's all-consuming need to incorporate its mother (7). [End Page 208]
To appreciate the complexities of emotional experience that Rhys conveys requires drawing on alternative traditions of psychoanalysis that are not exclusively Freudian. For Simpson, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, and D. W. Winnicott provide the conceptual resources necessary for understanding why Rhys's female protagonists are so consistently obsessed with their earliest experiences with their mothers. The most widely familiar terms associated with these thinkers—good/bad breasts, masquerade, transitional objects—play a prominent role in Simpson's interpretation of Rhys's fiction, but the readings themselves have originality to them. Kleinian theories of infant development enable Simpson to argue in chapter two that the decision by Anna Morgan, protagonist of Voyage in the Dark, to have an abortion at the end of the novel repeats a pattern in which Anna herself feels abandoned by her mother. According to this argument, Anna rationalizes her sense of abandonment by envisioning herself as capable of such horrendous violence that no loved one can remain near her. The termination of her pregnancy serves to confirm this perception, and instills in her a sense that she too is dying (in the initial manuscript submitted to her publisher, Anna does in fact die from complications associated with her procedure).
Simpson's reading of Voyage in the Dark establishes the basic thematic concern with abandonment that she finds throughout Rhys's work, and chapters three through six develop this reading through a largely chronological analysis of Rhys's other novels and short stories. The analysis of After Leaving Mr. McKenzie in chapter three develops Simpson's earlier claim that Rhys's work represents a modernism that differs from traditional conceptions in its focus on maternal-infant relations and "in its injunctions that author and reader unite in cocreation of the text" (41). According to Simpson, Rhys culminates this life-long preoccupation in her final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Her last novel represents not only an aesthetic accomplishment but also a therapeutic one for its author: "In voicing her hatred, Rhys finds her love. She speaks, at last, with a sustained voice, of an original vision, to an audience of many" (137).
The psychoanalytic focus of Simpson's reading characterizes not only the act of writing but also the act of...