One Woman's Song IS Another's: Sisterhood and Defying the Patriarchal Order in Jean Rhys's "Let Them Call It Jazz".

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Author: Pamela Wright
Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,858 words

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The image of the lone, powerless, displaced heroine in much of Jean Rhys's fiction seems to defy the idea of sisterhood--a solidarity or useful connection between women. Much of her fiction, including "Let Them Call It Jazz," has at its center a single woman who has seemingly insurmountable odds to overcome: racism, sexism, and alienation. However, for readers and critics to characterize--and therefore limit--Rhys's female characters in this manner is certainly to miss much of her subtle complexity and her thoughtful purpose in her portrayals of the female experience. Calling into question Rhys's feminism as Helen Carr does--arguing, "there is considerable uncertainty about whether Jean Rhys could be called a feminist writer"--risks imposing patriarchal demands on a homogenized "feminist writer" (11). In fact, Rhys's "unconventional" approach to the understanding of sisterhood in works such as "Let Them Call It Jazz" has earned her a place among the voices of other known and widely accepted feminist writers. Rhys's idiosyncratic position--as a West Indian in England--writing in "exile status," coupled with her experience as a woman, informs her understated, perhaps unappreciated, depiction of the bond between women, and through these relationships, her resounding critique of colonial power (Edmonson 147).

I. Defining Rhys: Feminist and Postcolonial

"Sisterhood is powerful." --Robin Morgan

Why is it so hard for some critics to count Rhys among the great twentieth-century feminist writers? Perhaps one reason for this debate over where to place her fiction lies with Rhys herself. She always demurred at the feminist label. As Carr points out in her biography, "Rhys herself [...] was always unwelcoming to what she suspiciously called 'Women's Lib,' which she felt simplified and distorted her life, and--yet again--patronized her" (11). To define Rhys is truly complicated; she was not only a white Caribbean female writer in a time when there really wasn't an established women's literary history coming from that tradition, but she was also writing while living away from the islands in the colonial cultural center. Belinda Edmondson explains,

Rhys was a white woman writing at a time when very few West Indian women were writing anything at all; her literary presence in England usefully complicates any alignment of Englishness with a black middle-class ethos and exile with masculinity. [...] Rhys does not derive the same 'benefits' from the Englishness as do her male counterparts due to her peculiar positioning as a white West Indian woman writer. (15)

Considering her living and working situation, one can understand why Rhys would feel that placing any sort of label on her would misrepresent the complexity of her life and her fiction. In her depiction of Black West Indian women, Rhys works through a lens of what W.E.B. Du Bois called "double consciousness," constantly aware that she is not just English, but neither is she Black West Indian. This is further problematized by gender. As a woman, "[t]here can be no invocation of the Victorian gentleman of letters to make her case as a West Indian; unlike the male writers, at the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503292