Jean Rhys's Political Attitudes

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Given that, as John Updike put it, Rhys's fiction is "amazing" in its "illusionless portrait of a drifting heroine" (206; my emphasis), what are we to make of the novelist's own political and racial attitudes? According to Lucy Wilson,

Not long before she died, Rhys told novelist David Plante that as a child living in the small West Indian island of Dominica, she had been called "socialist Gwen" because she had taken the side of the blacks and the workers against the white ruling class. She pleaded with Plante to "tell the truth" in the face of all the lies: "You must tell the truth about them . . . . You must tell the truth against all their lies." . . . In a dialogue with herself, Rhys describes her writing as "dangerous" because of the madness that others perceive in her. [73]

Do the novels, particularly Wide Sargasso sea, convey these political themes, or is Rhys's emphasis on her own political independence not something that appears in the novels themselves? Her illusionless sympathy with Caribbean blacks clearly appears throughout Wide Sargasso sea, despite the way most of them reject Antoinette, who, like Rhys herself, wished she had been born black rather than white. Since her novels set in the UK and Europe have similarly weak heroines, what political attitudes can one derive from the drifting, and eventually insane, heroine? and to what extent does the novel present Antoinette and her mother as either politically representative or politically symbolic?

Does whatever political meanings the novel may have derive entirely from the various forms of victimization Antoinette suffers, or do other characters, such as Christophine, convey positive political themes?

To what extent does the novel's derivation from Jane Eyre -- and relation to it -- shape its political meanings?


Updike, John. "Dark Smile, Devilish Saints." Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Ed. Pierette M. Frickey. Washington, D. C.: Three Continents Press, 1990. 206-209.

Wilson, Lucy. "'Women Must Have Spunks': Jean Rhys's West Indian Outcasts." Critical Perspectives on Jean Rhys. Ed. Pierette M. Frickey. Washington, D. C.: Three Continents Press, 1990. 67-74.

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Last modified 7 January 2004