'Haunted and Obeah': Gothic spaces and monstrous landscapes in Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark.

Author:Munroe, April
 
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Abstract: "'Haunted and Obeah': Gothic Spaces and Monstrous Landscapes in Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark" Born in Dominica to a Welsh father and a mother of Creole descent, Jean Rhys's identity as a white Creole expatriate endows her novels with a sense of profound alienation, especially from the landscape. Rhys's protagonists share a sense of belonging nowhere but between places: most are "kept women" or demimondaines, defined by their capacity to provide their lovers with "wifely" comforts but unable to enjoy the authority and ownership over domestic space granted to married women. Space is disorienting for these characters--city streets resemble labyrinths, while a claustrophobic bedroom reminds one character of the ever-narrowing cell in William Mudford's Gothic tale "The Iron Shroud." This distorted, subjective remapping extends to geographic space as well. Rhys frequently .employs a strategy of spatial superimposition and juxtaposition to bring the sharply contrasting landscapes of the West Indies and England into disorienting convergence, rejecting the binarized, imperialist thinking that casts the West Indies as Britain's opposite. Like Wide Sargasso Sea's reworking of Jane Eyre's Gothic elements, Rhys's early novels reimagine a British urban Gothic tradition by importing a "Caribbean Gothic" to an English landscape. The monsters of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker are recast as the zombis and soucriants of the obeah tradition, in whose monstrosity Rhys's heroines recognize the hybridity and abjection of their own divided identities. By using a London Gothic tradition as an allusive map for navigating the English landscape, Rhys's novels attempt to retrieve a marginalized colonial perspective by reimagining canonical space. It is by redrawing the map of the canon that Rhys's characters are able to voice their protest against imperial authority.

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A British colonial born in Dominica to a Welsh father and a mother of white Creole descent, Jean Rhys's identity as a Creole expatriate (belonging neither to the West Indies nor to Europe) imbues her novels with a sense of profound alienation and dispossession. It is perhaps appropriate then that scholarship has been dominated historically by two "Jean Rhyses": the postcolonial Rhys of her 1966 novel. Wide Sargasso Sea, and the modernist Rhys of her much earlier urban novels and short fiction. Yet even this doubled presence is ambivalent: while acknowledging Rhys as a significant modernist and postcolonial artist, critics agree that her presence in the various categories into which her writing is coopted--modernist, feminist, postcolonial, British, urban--has been, in essence, marginal. (1) In the context of urban modernism, for example, many have observed that her formal experimentation with narrative representations of subjectivity, interiority, and time resembles the innovations of other major writers of the city like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Dorothy Richardson. (2) But Rhys's Paris and London novels are not quite at home in even this modernist tradition of city writing. Mary Lou Emery notes that her narrative strategies of "fragmented perception" and "disjointed voices" are characteristic of modernist representations of "exile and the decentered self," but also that, in Rhys's work, such trademarks of modernist experimentation arise inevitably from the author's unique subject position ("Politics of Form" 418). This marginal subjectivity is reflected even more directly in the highly autobiographical nature of her protagonists: "Displaced from their native Caribbean, outsiders to women's traditional domestic world, and trespassers on masculine public territory, they walk the streets, not quite prostitutes, yet living on the edges of respectability, sanity, and dignity" (418). One could argue that liminality--"living on the edges"--is the defining characteristic of Rhys's fiction. Her characters inhabit the narrow and precarious space circumscribed by the phrase "neither/nor": neither "truly" British nor Caribbean, neither respectable women nor prostitutes, neither domesticated nor liberated. (3)

I want to suggest that this liminality deeply shapes Rhys's vision of geographies and spaces, a vision realized through the intensely personal and subjective mapping that her protagonists undertake in her urban novels. While this alone is not a new perspective on Rhys's representation of the city, (4) I argue that insufficient critical attention has been paid to her portrayal of London as a Gothic city, and that Rhys's liminal cartography is also a way of reading the hybrid spaces of empire via navigation of Britain's vast and mobile corpus of popular and literary texts. Similar ground (and much of it) has been covered regarding Wide Sargasso Sea's recuperation of Charlotte Bronte's vampiric "madwoman in the attic," (5) an emblematic but contentious moment in the postcolonial tradition of "writing back" to canon from the margins of the British Empire. But the role of intertextuality and allusion in Rhys's earlier novel Voyage in the Dark (1934) has received comparatively little examination despite the Gothic and Caribbean resonances it shares with her re-envisioning of Jane Eyre (1847). (6) Carol Dell 'Amico, for instance, declares Voyage in the Dark "a Frankensteinian text--a monstrous conjoining of narrative fragments, constitutively intertextual" (39) before making clear that Rhys's monster is stitched together from the cosmopolitan European texts which seemed to herald a century that would leave the romantic excesses of the Gothic far behind: Zola's Nana (1880), Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899), and Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915). (7) Those scholars who come nearest to addressing what I read in Voyage in the Dark as the novel's Gothicism restrict their analysis to a specifically Caribbean framework by examining the various references in Rhys's oeuvre to obeah, the Afro-Caribbean system of occult belief and ritualism practiced on her home island. (8) Several of these studies participate in the ongoing formulation of a "postcolonial Gothic," a critical enterprise which has drawn connections between European Gothic tropes and issues of hybridity, unhomeliness, and alterity underlying the postcolonial condition. (9) But these too have largely ignored Voyage in the Dark in favor of Wide Sargasso Sea.

This critical omission might appear puzzling--or, perhaps for the same reasons, not puzzling at all--considering that Voyage in the Dark rehearses so many of the motifs found in Wide Sargasso Sea. In fact, one might reasonably argue that Wide Sargasso Sea is as much an intertextual retelling of Voyage in the Dark as it is of Jane Eyre. Thus while Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert suggests that it is an affinity between "the vivid imagery and evocative environment of the Yorkshire moors" and "the lush and threatening Caribbean landscape" that has inspired West Indian writers to engage textually with the Brontes (248), I would point out that the motif which Rhys deploys repeatedly throughout Wide Sargasso Sea to signify the insuperable rift between Antoinette (Rhys's version of Bronte's Bertha Mason) and the unnamed Rochester figure is that of the utter and uncanny incommensurability of Caribbean and English landscapes--a conceit refashioned with very little alteration from Voyage in the Dark. This spatial conflict is not simply a metaphor for cultural or even marital misunderstanding; it arises from the anxious and violent operations of colonialism, operations which not only serve to carry out the administrative needs of empire but function also as a hermeneutics of imperial space. Empire is a text which reads and interprets itself as it is being written, and one of its aims is to be universally intelligible as a coherent and unified space when the heterogeneity of its actual spaces dictates that this can be achieved only with profound violence, if at all.

The argument at the foundation of this essay is that Rhys's intertextual representation of London as a Gothic city in hybrid form--both European and Caribbean, modern and archaic--is a conscious thematization of the violence and futility of this imperial hermeneutics. Like Wide Sargasso Sea, Voyage in the Dark attempts to retrieve a marginalized (albeit white) colonial perspective by deciphering and remapping the terrain of British literature. But it deliberately fails in this endeavor to read the cultural space of empire, stopping short of writing all the way back to any originary canonical text. In order to contextualize the allusive spaces of Rhys's London (and the abortive processes by which her characters attempt to read and navigate them), I begin with a brief discussion of her representation of physical books as metonyms for England before moving on to an examination of how the four urban novels of the twenties and thirties collectively develop a labyrinthine, oneiric image of London from a Victorian Gothic tradition while remaining distinctly modernist in expression. I conclude with an analysis of her intermeshing of Gothic tropes from both Caribbean and English traditions in Voyage in the Dark. Rhys reinvents a nineteenth-century London Gothic by transporting the "undead" figures of obeah folklore to an English cityscape: the iconographic monsters of Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker are recast in Voyage in the Dark as the zombis and soucriants of the West Indies, in whose monstrosity Anna Morgan, the novel's Creole heroine, recognizes the abjection of her own divided identity. This hybridity manifests in Anna's perceptions of imperial and colonial space, achieving its most terrifying incarnation at the novel's end when the spaces of imperial center and periphery collapse in on one another in monstrous confusion.

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