Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Edition: Voyage in the Dark (Norton Paperback Fiction)
Voyage in the Dark was Jean Rhys's third published novel, appearing in 1934 (but set in 1914, unlike her previous two novels which reflected contemporaneous times). The novel features portions from an earlier unpublished novel, Triple Sec. Rhys's original ending was to have Anna die, but her publisher thought this was too dark.

The novel is narrated in four parts first-person by eighteen-year-old Anna Morgan, who spent her childhood on the island of Dominica in the West Indies. She now lives in England as a touring actress with uncertain work opportunities. She begins with an account of her difficulty settling in England, where she always felt cold, and the towns seemed always alike, drab, and dark. At the opening of the novel, she lives with Maudie, an actress of twenty-eight years old. One day, she and Maudie meet two men on the street who work in "the city," signaling that they are pretty well-off. Anna becomes involved with one of them, Walter Jeffries. She becomes fairly attached to him even though she sees him only intermittently. He gives her money with which she is able to buy new clothes, and also takes care of her when she is sick. Anna is disappointed that she won't spend her birthday with him, because her birthday falls on a Sunday when he won't be around. Instead, she goes out with Maudie, who advises that Anna get as much money out of him as possible.

Walter introduces her to his cousin, Vincent, who connects her with a singing instructor. Patronizingly, Walter tells Anna that she should "get on" and that he would like to help her. One night, when drunk, Anna tells Walter of Dominica--of her father, a list of slaves which she had once seen, their church services--but he isn't too interested. Anna's stepmother Hester visits London, and shows Anna a letter from her uncle back in Dominica berating Hester for not sharing her deceased father's wealth with her. Hester doesn't respect Anna's uncle because he drinks, and because he has fathered many illegitimate children with natives. She reveals too that she feel she has done right by Anna. Anna tells Hester that she does not need her help and can do on her own, thinking she can depend on walter. Hester brings back many home memories to Anna; she thinks especially fondly of a native caretaker, Francine, whom she remembers eating mangoes and telling her stories. Soon, Walter decides to take Anna to the countryside with Vincent and his girl, Germaine. The trip is cut short because Germaine argues with Vincent. Anna is silent for much of the conversations, and the three of them often talk about her as if she is not there, infantilizing her. In one moment of anger, Anna smashes a cigarette but on Walter's hand, but she is sorry for it afterwards.

Walter eventually tires of Anna and drops her, charging Vincent with writing her an impersonal and patronizing letter telling her that he is "sure she is a nice girl" and that she should, simply move on. Walter has promised, however, to take care of her financially should it be necessary. Crushed, Anna sort of floats from one thing to another. She first runs into a woman named Ethel Matthews, a masseuse, who offers her to share rooms with her and to earn her keep as a manicurist. Anna also runs into Laurie, another of her actress friends, who introduces her to two men, Carl and Joe. Carl eventually pursues her, and they sleep together, but it turns out that Carl has a wife and must leave. Anna then spends one night with an unnamed man with a bandaged wrist, by whom she accidentally gets pregnant. Meanwhile, Ethel has decided to drop Anna because she has not really been a good business partner; Ethel writes a letter to Laurie telling her that Anna owes her money. Laurie takes care of Anna and suggest that she write to Walter to get money for an abortion. Walter sends Vincent over, who gives her the money but also asks for the letters that Walter has sent her back. Anna is sickly during her pregnancy and eventually gets a abortion; the whole ordeal occurs in a sort of haze for Anna, amidst more nightmarish memories of the Caribbean such as of being frightened of zombies and soucriants (devil women).

Rhys's Voyage in the Dark bears some similarities to Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (Rhys had a brief affair with Ford Madox Ford in 1924) in that it features a first-person narrator writing in such a way as to suggest an absence of artifice or pre-meditated structure. Both narrators write as if their words flow freely from them with very little sense of constructing a coherent story.

The form of Rhys's novel is significantly more radical, however. While the narrator of The Good Soldier gives a reason for the fragmented nature of his account--he is writing because of a retrospective psychological need to do so in order to deal with the trauma of his botched relationships--it isn't clear how or why Anna is writing her fragmented first-person account. Presumably, the account is also retrospective (in past tense), but it really feels more like she is speaking of what happens to her pretty much as it happens to her. The associations that she makes between her surroundings and what happens to her and her childhood experiences in Dominica give the narration a sense that somehow she is able to communicate to us what feelings and associations she had in the moment of her experiences. There is a strange tension, then, between the apparent lack of artifice in Anna's account, and the necessity of this being a crafted retrospective account in order for it to make sense as to when she would have the opportunity of writing. After all, Anna seems to passively allow things to happen to her and different people to come into her life, and the assertive act of writing hardly seems in keeping with the passive affect which her simple diction, flash-backs, associations, and stream of consciousness writing calls up.

And what are we to make of Anna's inclusions of letters--from Vincent, her uncle, and Ethel? It seems the first-person narrator is doing some kind of scrapbooking, which also seems pretty inconsistent with the Anna who describes finding the greatest relief in sleep. Finally, just to add one more complication to the notion of the narrative as a telling-as-it-happens first-person account: how would Anna have narrated her own death in Rhys's original version?

Perhaps these difficulties suggest a need to suspend disbelief, to recognize that it is not important that Anna probably couldn't have written this account. What simply accepting that we're able to enter into her first-person consciousness as things happen to her does is to allow us access to the impressions of an individual normally evacuated of all agency in telling her own story: the young, emigrant, working class chorus girl. This is partly Rhys's unusual recovery of her own autobiographical past (as she was from Dominica, and worked as a chorus girl for a time), not as a retrospectively constructed, reflective account which is the most "usual" type of memoir, but as a re-imagining of what that life was like as it was being lived.

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