Jean Rhys

by chantalstrand

By Chantal Strand

Derek Walcott’s Jean Rhys examines a snapshot of British colonial life, focusing on a family in which there are several generations of women, each struggling with the conventions and expectations of the times. Through the application of sensory images, Walcott uses Jean Rhys to illustrate the effects of repression on women of all ages, and succeeds in expressing a fear as to the stillness and silence surrounding the past, present and future of a woman’s place within a man’s world. In choosing to name his poem after Jean Rhys, a Dominican novelist whose writing centered around wayward women and their struggles within structured societies, Walcott makes his purpose clear from the start.

The photograph Walcott describes in the first stanza depicts a time “from the distance of a century“, turned “tea brown” with age. The men, “bone collared gentlemen”, are described as having “spiked mustaches”, giving them a harsh, stiff quality. They are in control over “their jungle”, while “their wives” sit by idly. Walcott paints the women as being “embayed in the wickerwork armchairs”, posed by the ideals of the time. The wives are “beginning to groan sideways from the ax stroke”- they are feeling the weight of the expectations placed on them. Walcott reveals the scene is of the night, which is bathed in the light of a “sallow” moon, invoking the image of a yellow-gray tinge, that of sickness. The “pharmaceutical” moon symbolizes the subdued, smothered female, failing to find equality among the “gentlemen” of this world. The author is succinct in expressing his opinion of the scene- as the female is struggling in vain, she is overcome by the silent disease that is repression.

As Walcott continues to describe this sickness, he compares the woman to a child, a girl. Vulnerable, slight, he likens her face to “a feverish child’s, some malarial angel”, a sick spirit. He very effectively uses this juxtaposition to illustrate the contrast between what is considered to be an “ideal” woman and the effect of these ideals on a woman’s self. At the end of the second stanza the author begins to focus on sound, and he then draws the reader’s attention to the reality of a woman’s voice- one of silence. He implies that while a young girl may feel she has the right to “sigh” in frustration, this outcry is muffled as she is shown her place, giving way to “the white hush”. The forth stanza continues to express this idea, the young girl “expects a sound” from the Dominican jungles, but she is overwhelmed by “that fierce hush“. This stanza adequately provides an image to express the muted distress of the female which Walcott centers his poem around.

The last stanza of Jean Rhys ties together the images of stillness, fragility, and sickness which define a woman’s past, present, and possible future. The “old woman” represents the past, “when grace was common as malaria”. Poise and delicacy are both qualities which a “proper” lady must possess however, Walcott likens these standards once again to illness, a disease. The image of the aunts represents the women of the poem’s present, the women of the photograph, who are “like moths”- delicate, doomed “to fall into the brown oblivion of an album”, the brown of order and convention. They are “embroiderers of silence” and as the author continues to examine the future- “the child”- it is apparent that he has doubt as to whether this silence will be broken.

Walcott’s conclusion to Jean Rhys depicts the young girl staring “at the windless candle flame”, surrounded by a stillness, a state of unchanging. She is clutching “Jane Eyre”, the hope of an equal marriage, “foreseeing that her own wedding will be white paper”. Walcott expresses that these hopes will most likely be destroyed, fragile as paper. Both of Walcott’s own grandmothers were believed to be descendants of slaves, and Walcott incorporates this history and point of view, providing the poem with a more personal truth, making this tale of oppression even more hauntingly relevant.

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