Textual Entanglement: Jean Rhys’s Critical Discourse
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Textual Entanglement:
Jean Rhys’s Critical Discourse

Jean Rhys has led multiple lives in the literary critical world, so much so that Jean D’Costa sees fit to begin her entry on Rhys in Fifty Caribbean Writers with a warning about the oddly fissiparous nature of Rhys criticism, noting that several different critical constituencies “lay claim to Jean Rhys” as residing squarely in their field (390).1 Delia Konzett, too, has emphasized how the complex nature of Rhys’s work has “given rise to ambivalent assessments in her literary reception, which has difficulties in classifying her work” (64), while Pierrette Frickey maintains that Rhys’s own “double identity” as both West Indian and European causes a “polarization of criticism” into camps treating her in the preestablished terms of either a Caribbean or continental literary tradition (1). This last binary, broadly discernible as a divide between critics seeing Rhys either as a modernist (European) or a postcolonial (Caribbean) writer, is prominent and long abiding, and it frequently coalesces around the discussion of two of Rhys’s novels: Voyage in the Dark, her 1934 novel portraying the experiences of a young West Indian woman trying to survive on her own in England, and Wide Sargasso Sea, her 1966 novel depicting the early life story of the Bertha Rochester character from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. These two novels can be seen to employ themes and formal features that resonate importantly with readers sympathetic to both modernist and postcolonial approaches, making them ideal proving grounds for [End Page 568] this seemingly perennial controversy surrounding the proper critical categorization of Rhys.

Voyage in the Dark has traditionally attracted attention from scholars of modernism. The novel, episodic and fragmentary in its narration, employs a disjointed interior monologue to portray the thoughts of its protagonist, Anna Morgan. In addition to being published in the midst of what is now understood as the (late) modernist period, Voyage in the Dark appears to emblematize Virginia Woolf’s insistence that modern fiction acknowledge that “Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (287–88).2 More recently, likely as a result of its explicitly colonial themes, Voyage in the Dark has also been considered through a postcolonial lens by critics such as Emery, Carol Dell’Amico, Teresa O’Connor, and Urmila Seshagiri.3 On the other hand, Rhys’s 1966 novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, has become, in Peter Hulme’s words, “firmly established as an essential text for West Indian literature [and] for ‘third-world’ or post-colonial writing more generally” (10). The book’s intertextual retort to Brontë’s novel has been seen to represent a classic instance of writing back to the colonial center, a paradigmatic postcolonial gesture intended to highlight the self-serving blind spots and ideological dispositions of imperial cultural production. Nevertheless, Wide Sargasso Sea also shares a number of stylistic traits with Rhys’s more chronologically modernist works, employing a shifting, multiperspectival narration to portray its characters’ interior thoughts (and thus exposing their grounding in unreliable memories and misapprehensions) in order to address the narrative and ideological shortcomings of a Victorian fictional form. Thus, critics, including Carole Angier, Saikat Majumdar, and Thomas Staley, have often viewed Wide Sargasso Sea as explicitly modernist, while one scholar, Jane Neide Ashcom, has even made the case that the novel in fact has more of a kinship with high modernist fiction than Rhys’s earlier work (Aschom 7).4 In the context of the critical discord over the proper literary classification of this pair of novels, it seems important to note a fundamental resemblance between the two works: their shared thematic and formal interest in exploring the structuring effects of cultural, verbal, and written production. Both Voyage in the Dark and Wide Sargasso Sea focus intensely on books and textual representation and display a distinct self-consciousness about writing and interpretation. Ultimately, both suggest the pragmatic necessity of a careful and consistent hermeneutic of suspicion when approaching any system of signs, whether in life or on the page. Indeed, this concern with discursive construction...