Jean Rhys uses narrative techniques and stylistic devices that are reminiscent of photography. When we read Rhys through a photographic lens, her novels highlight the photographic self-fashioning enacted by types of women, like Rhys, who traditionally fit outside the idealized domestic sphere (e.g., working girls: chorus girls, amateur prostitutes and mannequins—even writers) and on whom Rhys focuses her novels. Rhys’s characters behave as if they are producing photograph-like portraits of themselves, and achieve a kind of temporary stability when they consume, produce and disseminate these images.
Keywords: Jean Rhys / photography / gender / visual culture / technology
“Smile please,” the man said. “Not quite so serious.”
He’d dodged out from behind the dark cloth. He had a yellow black face and pimples on his chin.
I looked down at my white dress, the one I had got for my birthday, and my legs and the white socks coming half way up my legs, and the black shiny shoes with the strap over the instep. […].
“Keep still,” my mother said. […].
“You must keep still.”
—Jean Rhys, Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (19)
Jean Rhys begins her posthumously published autobiography Smile Please (1979) with this memory of sitting for a photograph as a young child, which she initially wrote for the ending of her 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark (372; original version).1 The description of the photograph provides an image of an ideal life: A well-dressed and neat child (down to the shiny shoes), who, one imagines, received corresponding love and affection. Rhys points out that she was at first satisfied with the resulting image and the place of pride it seemed to occupy in her childhood home: “The chosen photograph in a silver frame stood on a small table under the sitting-room jalousies of our house […]. It pleased me that it was by itself, not lost among the other photographs in the room” (Smile Please 19). But, perhaps inevitably, the image only comes to cause Rhys a kind of crisis as she begins to see it as a reminder of her shortcomings. For example, she recalls her mother reminding her to “keep still” for the photographer when, instead of cooperating, her arm had “shot up of its own accord.” And, as an adolescent, Rhys notices the photograph again: “I looked at the photograph with dismay that I wasn’t like it any longer. I remembered the dress she was wearing, so much prettier than anything I had now.” The Rhys in the narrative is “I” but she calls the subject in the photograph “she.” By contrast, Rhys locates the “I” in the person who stares at her from a “long looking glass” (Smile Please 20). This reflection shows "a thin girl, tall for my age. My straight hair was pulled severely from my face tied with a black ribbon. I was fair with pale skin and huge staring eyes of no particular color […]. I was wearing an ugly brown Holland dress, the convent uniform, and from my head to my black stockings, which fell untidily round my ankles, I hated myself" (20). Rhys reveals in this memory that from an early age she felt she could not live up to the expectations of her own, younger image. She has become “thin,” “severe,” colorless and untidy. Her disappointment in meeting the perfection of the earlier photograph causes her to declare, “I hated myself.”
These memories demonstrate how a photograph can appear to be what Susan Sontag calls “miniatures of reality” (4). W. J. T. Mitchell also explains along similar lines that the camera “seems to come equipped with a historical, documentary claim built into its mechanism: this actually happened, and it looked this way, at this time” (180). Rhys’s reference to this photograph in her memoir emphasizes the role of the camera as a universal recording device. It also precipitates the accompanying memory, without which we would only see this image of the well-dressed, well-cared-for and well-behaved girl. It must be noted, further, that Rhys never produced this photograph, nor has it appeared in her archives; in fact, it might not exist outside these texts. Thus, if we see the girl in the photograph as momentarily creating an image of an ideal childhood, we must also see what Rhys claims to see in the mirror as a similar visually-based product accessed through her prose. Significantly, both the memory of the photograph and the memory of Rhys’s image in the mirror are described in the muted tones that characterize early photography, from the “eyes of no particular color” to the black stockings. Even the “real” experience is recorded and repeated in the various versions Rhys completed.
The memory of this photograph and her later experience viewing it serves as a metaphor for a mimetic visual culture that, I argue, underscores Rhys’s work. Carolin Duttlinger describes this type of portrait in her discussion of Franz Kafka: “It relied on a highly codified iconography of bourgeois subjecthood” and was employed “as a tool of self-definition and self-fashioning” (7). Rhys is not merely responding to her portrait in particular, but to a larger cultural moment that emphasized the value of these images in self-definition, in creating an “iconography” of a certain kind of subjecthood. In this first photograph of her autobiography, Rhys is unavoidably objectified. As a child, she could not participate in the production or dissemination of the photograph. But as an adult writing an autobiographical novel, and later her autobiography, photography becomes the medium through which she is able to pursue an identity that is a counterpoint to the representation of the bourgeois family the original photograph from her childhood was meant to project.
This article will demonstrate that Rhys uses narrative techniques and stylistic devices that are reminiscent of photography itself. When we read Rhys through this photographic lens, her novels perform the self-fashioning enacted by types of women, like Rhys, who traditionally fit outside the idealized domestic sphere (e.g., working girls: chorus girls, amateur prostitutes and mannequins—even writers) and on whom Rhys focuses her novels.2 The internal dialogue of Rhys's characters, which focuses on self-defeat and despair, has made feminist approaches challenging. As Anne Cunningham points out, “Working to redeem these failed characters [eludes] conventional liberal frameworks” (391). But the pattern of repetition Rhys engages defies the predictable value assessments on which these frameworks rely, even those that focus on subjecthood or resistance. Such assessments emphasize a commodity system that inevitably trades on the objectification of women. However with photography as a model—particularly work by women photographers and, as I will discuss, Eugène Atget—women in Rhys’s novels may no longer function as mere commodities for others to buy and sell, but may actually be transformed into consumers of their own metaphorical photographic images. This photographic consumption enables them then to participate in the process of production. Thus, the commodity system in which they participate places equal value on their production and consumption and, most importantly, requires the interaction between the two: one must consume to produce, and, likewise, production is a result of consumption.
Rhys’s characters behave as if they are essentially producing photograph-like images of themselves, and that such images—as products external from the body—will enable them to control their images, if not their lives. This approach extends Liz Conor’s concept of “appearing” as she articulates it in The Spectacular Modern Women. Conor explains, “Performance […] became a means to produce oneself as the ideal modern feminine subject” (12; emphasis added). Conor builds on Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity and points out that in Butler’s work, “appearing disrupts the foundational dichotomy of subject and object” (8). However, my focus on photographic technique extends Conor’s idea to consider the role of women as producers, rather than as performers. This focus undermines the subject and object divide, and collapses the distinction between spectacle and spectator. As both spectacle and spectator, women can repeatedly consume and produce new images. At the same time, while women alter their signifiers to produce these new representations, previous photographic types still remain in cultural circulation. As a result, the production of new images are limited to what is already recognizable to them and others. Because they cannot produce new images of women that do not already appear on the visual scene, their social mobility is restricted by the images of women available to them via popular culture. In other words, Rhys’s characters evidence a new relationship between consumer and producer, but they achieve only temporary stability when they consume, produce and disseminate these images.
Voyage in the Dark and Photographic Technique
The two novels I will discuss—Voyage in the Dark and Quartet—are Rhys’s most self-consciously autobiographical works of fiction, and perhaps not coincidentally, make the most specific references to photography.3 Rhys suggests in a 1934 letter that Voyage in the Dark has “something to do with time being an illusion” (24). She tries to explain further that “the past exists—side by side with the present,” an explanation that also brings to mind the process of going through a stack of undated photographic prints; the novel begins and ends with the same stream of consciousness style, making the past and present appear as if they are, indeed, side by side. Voyage in the Dark tells the story of Anna Morgan and the events leading up to a life-threatening illegal abortion: she comes to England from her West Indies birthplace with her stepmother after her father’s death and joins the chorus of a traveling show, which she leaves after meeting a man who soon after breaks up with her. She attempts to support herself and eventually becomes a prostitute. Repeatedly abandoned—by her father’s death, her stepmother, and her lover—Anna begins to court the pleasure of predictable repetition as a means to escape her poverty and unhappiness.
Rhys alludes to the important role photography will play in Anna’s life in the beginning of the novel with the metaphor of a dropped curtain. She writes in the opening lines, “It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known” (Voyage in the Dark 7). The curtain is literally a reference to the curtain drop at the end of a play, but I also interpret it as an allusion to the curtain with which photographers shielded themselves when taking photographs, something Rhys explicitly cites in Smile Please when she notices the man who “dodged from behind the dark cloth” as her photograph is being taken (19). In early photography, the curtain regulated the amount of light to which an image was exposed. It also kept the photographer hidden from the subject. In Voyage in the Dark, the curtain signals Rhys’s acknowledgement of her control of the story, her role hidden behind the scenes. Anna is victimized by her circumstances and suffers a great deal, but Rhys is the photographer who sheds as much or as little light as she sees fit while in the process of revealing Anna’s consciousness.
Photography, more than painting, and before film or audio recording, offered women a means to communicate their identity. The comparatively low cost and small size of cameras meant that a woman could promote her aesthetic as well as ideological agenda (such as signifying bourgeois status, accessing publicity, or representing authority) without the same monetary investment that traditional painted portraits would require. Furthermore, there existed, at first, the perception that one could control one’s photographic image, more so than when one had to rely on a portrait artist. The presence of the subject was literally required for the photograph to be taken, unlike painted portraits that could be done from memory or an earlier sketch, and sittings customarily were the result of what Laura Doan describes as “careful negotiations between the photographer and the sitters who activated and animated the creative process” (167). This process was far from the manipulation of a traditional artist. As John Berger explains, prior to the mass access to photography, the usually male artist’s process of producing a woman’s image went something like this: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure” (51). With the widespread adoption of photography, women became integral to producing images—choosing representations that could be manipulated for their own pleasure or advantage.
The relationship between the artist and subject also would change in part due to women’s entry into the photographic field. In the 1860s, Julia Margaret Cameron became one of the first acknowledged experts of photographic portraiture and in 1868 “photograph-mounting” was considered by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine an acceptable profession for women (“Women’s” 548). In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Catharine Weed Barnes and Imogen Cunningham, both published photographers, would advocate photography as a profession for women. Recognizing this accomplishment behind the camera, women writers began to strategically pursue photographic portraiture to promote their careers by the 1920s.4 These photographs enabled women to disconnect from the patriarchal system that relied on painting to signify social or professional status. But instead of producing stable images that would enforce gender stereotypes (as paintings did), or even simply subverting such images, photographs of women writers offered various, sometimes contradicting, identities. Virginia Woolf posing in her mother’s Victorian dress for Vogue in 1924, for example, offers a different persona than the thoughtful intellectual captured by Gisele Freund in 1939 just prior to Woolf’s death.4
Significantly, the 1920s also introduced photographic abstraction to the mainstream media, and artists such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp used photographs to point out the limitations and possibilities of the medium that, their work suggested, complicated the process of capturing reality and enabled new ways of looking. Instead of promoting a likeness, abstract photographs demonstrated that what we see is shaped by how we see—whether through the camera or after the fact in the printed photograph. A 1922 Vanity Fair photo spread featured Man Ray’s rayographs—artworks that were the result of objects’ direct contact with photographic paper—and Vanity Fair would continue to extend the boundaries of artistic possibility for photography through the 1920s and 1930s.5 Women, too, were recognized for transforming the camera into a device for creating art: Germaine Krull, arguably the most successful woman abstract photographer of her time, began publishing her work in Parisian fashion magazines in 1928, and quickly followed this work with photo-books in 1929 and 1930. Abstraction complicates, to say the least, the idea that modernist artists were consumed with “real, authentic culture” as Andreas Huyssen famously argues (47). Rather, these photographic techniques enabled the disruption of the “real” in favor of interpretation.
Such disruption of authenticity helps to explain the temporal simultaneity of Voyage in the Dark. The first title of the novel, Two Tunes, was a reference to Rhys’s effort to subvert linear conventions of time, what she called “Past and Present” (Letters 24). Past and present merge so that they cohere and repeat. For example, after Anna sickens with flu and convalesces in England, she briefly experiences being home again in the West Indies with her childhood caretaker, Francine. Anna thinks, “It got dark, but I couldn’t get up to light the gas […]. Like that time at home when I had fever and it was afternoon and the jalousies were down and yellow light came in through the slats” (Voyage in the Dark 31). “Like that time” becomes that time when Rhys makes the later experience a repetition of the earlier one: “Then Francine came in […]. She changed the bandage round my head.” The present moment merges with the past and they become “always” as in Anna’s comment to herself, “Of course you’ve always known, always remembered. […]. Always—how long is always?” (Voyage in the Dark 37). These times occurring simultaneously are photographic—similar to the memory that Rhys had of her photograph as a child and her realization that it was no longer like her. This photographic time—“it looked this way, at this time”—gives Anna the ability to perform in different realities. Of course, it limits Anna’s ability to move forward, but there are no photographs of the future. Anna says to herself, “If it could go back and be just as it was before it happened and then happen differently” (Voyage in the Dark 23). For Anna, the past does not appear as authentic, unchangeable experience; rather, the past is yet another recorded artifact, and therefore possibly more variable than her perilous future.
Anna also moves backward in her mind because of the repetitive experience of the present. In fact, Anna does not even locate what part of her life in England is original and what part is the copy. She thinks, “Sometimes it was as if I were back there and as if England were a dream. At other times, England was the real thing and out there was the dream” (Voyage in the Dark 8). The bleakness and chill help to distinguish her adopted country from the West Indies, but there is little of the sensory-filled language she uses to describe her birthplace. Instead, “The towns we went to always looked so exactly alike. You were perpetually moving to another place which was perpetually the same. There was always a little grey street leading to the stage-door of the theater and another little grey street where your lodgings were” (8). The colors again allude to the aesthetic qualities of early photography—“grey stone…grey-brown…grey green”—and intimate arbitrary, ambiguous locations that could easily be captured on black and white film (8). But Anna does not place herself in this description. Instead, she uses the pronoun “you.” This choice distances Anna from the experience and also further emphasizes the sameness: this is something we all have seen.
This type of sameness is evident in photographs by Atget. Although Atget was not well known during Rhys’s lifetime, she finished writing Voyage in the Dark while living in Paris in the 1920s, a few years after Atget photographed the city. Among Atget’s most recognizable works are the photographs of Parisian storefronts riddled with repetition: innumerable look-alike wooden wig mannequins lined up in a shop window, for example, or multiple corsets, hung in rows, indistinguishable from one another (see below).
To the contemporary French, these storefronts might not have been noteworthy. But as Walter Benjamin points out in “Little History of Photography,” Atget intentionally “looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift” (518). In this way, through his photographic frame, Atget changed the ordinary into the extraordinary. These once-commonplace shop windows also serve to illustrate Anna’s goal: she is trying to avoid being one of the “forgotten” and “cast-adrift” and ironically, in order to do so, she is forced to produce a projection that is ordinary, not herself, but like an identical form in a corset.
Anna, in other words, is not manipulated by sameness, but actively seeks it. She cannot hide her colonial difference—her nickname is “Hottentot” and fellow chorus girl Maudie points out Anna’s discomfort with the English climate: “She is always cold” (Voyage in the Dark 13). As a result, she works to underplay this difference and her feelings of being other by producing an alternative, sexually available body that would be familiar to the audience of men with whom she and Maudie are speaking. After Maudie points out Anna’s colonial roots, Anna quickly enacts her role as chorus girl. Walter Jeffries, who becomes her first lover, asks Anna her age and when Anna says she is eighteen, she asks, “Did you think I was older?” (Voyage in the Dark 13). His friend Jones responds, “You girls only have two ages. You’re eighteen and so of course your friend’s twenty-two. Of course” (Voyage in the Dark 13). The men have already decided that they are the familiar “you girls” and Jones’s repetition of the phrase “of course” emphasizes his expectation that they will cooperate with his perception of their ordinariness.7 Maudie, too, participates in this process of repetition and responds, “You’re one of those clever people, aren’t you?” Their entire exchange sounds rehearsed.8
Anna’s image of the sexually available chorus girl is extremely convincing to this audience, and she begins to function as a photograph, so that others use her to create their own desired identities. The first time Anna encounters Jeffries she takes a liking to him because she believes he acts differently from the other men. Anna realizes that Jeffries only sees her as a sexual prospect after he takes her to dinner and she has to resist his advances. Jeffries stops his attempts and “[looked] at me with his eyes narrow and close together, as if he hated me” (Voyage in the Dark 23). Worse for Anna, he looks through her as if “I wasn’t there; and then he turned away and looked at himself in the glass” (Voyage in the Dark 23). Jeffries is looking to Anna to serve as a reflection of his likeness, becomes disappointed that she does not fully acknowledge the image she created, and instead turns to the mirror to locate his own satisfactory appearance. Anna mimics Jeffries’s behavior, looking at her own image in the mirror, but, since she believes she is only looking at an image, she feels that “it was as if I were looking at somebody else” (Voyage in the Dark 23).
Anna thinks not of these contrasting images but of clothes, which could serve as another means to make her appear as the sexual object Jeffries desires. Anna thinks, “About clothes, it’s awful. Everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell. People laugh at girls who are badly dressed” (Voyage in the Dark 25). In fact, when Jeffries and Anna first meet, he accompanies her in pursuit of silk stockings and offers to pay for them. This commercial exchange eventually sets the tone for their relationship, which becomes another commercial exchange. After their initial failed sexual encounter, Jeffries sends her money to buy more stockings and other clothes, and he writes, “Don’t look anxious when you are buying them, please” (Voyage in the Dark 26). With this offer to purchase her clothes, he buys her participation in the exchange of money for sex. He also attempts to buy Anna’s agreement to look like a girl who sells sex. Anna goes shopping for those clothes for which she was so desperate and, predictably, after buying shoes, underclothes and silk stockings, she feels disoriented. She remarks, “The streets looked different that day, just as a reflection in the looking-glass is different from the real thing” (Voyage in the Dark 29). Here, Anna is acknowledging that producing herself as spectacle changes her role as spectator. As spectacle, she is different from “the real thing,” but as a spectator, she experiences how her presence alters the visual scene.
By the end of the novel, Anna has lost sight of why she was producing these series of images in the first place. For example, while working as a manicurist, she is introduced to a man named Carl ostensibly to do his nails. But when he confesses, “Oh, don’t worry about the manicure […] I only wanted to talk to you,” she becomes who he wants her to be (Voyage in the Dark 153). Rhys writes, “When he touched me I knew that he was quite sure I would. I thought, ‘All right then, I will’” (Voyage in the Dark 154). Since Carl is “quite sure” that Anna will, one way or another, be forced to yield to his sexual desire, Anna does not contradict him. Anna, initially so reflective, hardly notices this transformation. She is “surprised at myself in a way and in another way I wasn’t surprised” (154). She claims that this is how it is on days that are “foggy.” But since her original shopping trip with Jeffries’s money, which made the streets look different, every day is foggy as she begins to separate her lived body from the images she has produced. As she creates and disseminates subsequent images, she attempts to shift back and forth from consumption to production, but the final image becomes fixed and unchangeable.
In other words, Anna is unable to continue to mediate her surroundings through images. She becomes stuck, like film in a camera that cannot advance to the next frame. Anna dies (in Rhys’s manuscript), or almost dies (in the published version), after an illegal abortion. When she is visited by the doctor, he comments, “You girls are too naïve to live, aren’t you?” (Voyage in the Dark 187). Mary Lou Emery comments that this is an ironic statement referring to “the early humanitarian/religious and later feminist view of prostitutes as victims—naïve girls, seduced and abandoned” (97). Anna is a victim, a victim of her uncaring family, limited job opportunities, and the society that attempts to control women through their sexuality. But Anna has transformed herself by producing images available for consumption. She does not refute the doctor’s claim because she is too ill, of course, but also because she has by now learned to separate from the lived body. In the unpublished version of the novel, the last line ends with “everything is blotted out and blackness comes” (388–89; original version). In the published version, Anna thinks of “starting all over again […] being new and fresh […]. And about starting all over again, all over again” (Voyage in the Dark 188). Although Rhys was resistant to the change in the ending, the published version emphasizes the potential in image production. The repetition of the “all over again” indicates that even if Anna could start all over again, if she does survive as the published version suggests, she likely will return to the same life, the same final result.
Production of the Other Woman in Quartet
Published in 1928—six years before Voyage in the Dark—Quartet was drafted after Rhys had already completed a version of the later novel. The two novels, written so close together, offer a complex account of the influence of photography on Rhys’s narrative techniques. While Anna in Voyage in the Dark produces images to make herself appear sexually available to men, Marya initially takes part in image production in an effort to locate community and connection to other women. Marya finds herself alone and without financial resources after her husband, Stephen, is jailed for trafficking stolen artworks. She moves in with a wealthy English couple, Lois and Hugh Heidler, whom she meets through a mutual friend. Soon enough, Marya becomes Heidler’s mistress with the knowledge and permission of Lois, who anticipates correctly that “he’ll get tired of [Marya] as soon as she gives in” (Quartet 81). By the end of the novel, Heidler sends Marya away to Cannes to “get well,” though in reality it is to avoid her until she can come to terms with the end of their affair. She returns to Paris upon hearing from her husband, to whom she confesses. Stephen first threatens to kill Heidler but eventually focuses his anger on Marya: with one push, she hits her head on the side of a table and Stephen leaves her in what may be her final portrait, “crumpled up and…still” (Quartet 185).
The photographic techniques that Marya uses again require an audience to recognize her identity. Stephen serves as this kind of audience for Marya. She tells him, “I love you,” and he responds, “C’est Vrai? [...]. I’ll see that” (Quartet 45; emphasis added). To Stephen, Marya’s love has to be seen to be believed. This omnipresent eye dispensing judgment is illustrated further, on a grander scale, at the end of the novel when Marya comes across some photo enlargements in the office of a business acquaintance of Stephen’s. Upon first viewing the images, Marya recalls saying to Stephen that she “didn’t know that anybody ever wanted their photographs enlarged these days” (Quartet 172). By this time, photo enlargements had fallen out of fashion as cameras became smaller, cheaper and produced larger images. Yet, the fact that the form these photographs take is outmoded does not diminish their threat—even when Marya least expects them, they are around to keep an eye on her. She becomes terrified when “left alone in that sinister, dusty-smelling room with the enlarged photographs of young men in their Sunday-best smirking down at her” (Quartet 185). Marya’s concern is primarily with being left alone, however, and this language emphasizes her subjective perception of the men “smirking.” She is, in fact, the most omnipresent eye in the novel and more in charge of the photographic-inspired images then she admits.
Marya is resistant to admitting her role in the production of a mistress-image so Lois and Heidler can confirm their roles, however ironic, as wife and husband. She says to Lois, “I don’t think I’d ever plan anything out carefully […]. If I went to the devil it would be because I wanted to or because it’s a good drug, or because I don’t give a damn for my idiotic body of a woman anyway” (Quartet 53). Yet the other characters emphasize their commitment to producing their façade of happiness and stability. For example, Lois is most concerned that her despair over her marriage is not “given away; she doesn’t want anyone to know” (Quartet 89). Heidler also insists that the three of them must continue the illusion that Marya is just a friend to whom they are offering assistance. According to him, they must always consider posterity, as if he is anticipating the photographic record that will reconstruct lived experience: “Everybody had for everybody’s sake to keep up appearances. It was everybody’s duty, it was in fact what they were there for” (Quartet 113). This projection Heidler wants to keep up echoes the idealized bourgeois family Rhys’s childhood photograph was meant to communicate. But he insists they never step out of the frame; they must constantly be aware that they are almost always about to be photographed.
Ironically, Marya’s contention that she is not part of the Heidler’s production, enables her to produce herself as “other”—what Emery describes, as “other in the most concrete way—the ‘other woman’” (109). Marya is so entranced with this image, however, that she forgets that the ultimate goal is to perpetuate it for her own advantage. Her denial causes her to produce an empty form, what she calls an “idiotic body of a woman” (53). Here, Atget’s photograph that I use to demonstrate Anna Morgan’s difficulty with self-possession can also be used to help explain Marya’s increasing preoccupation with denying her own agency. In Marya’s case, she most identifies with Atget’s subject, the anonymous corseted mannequin, rather than the collectively ordinary storefronts. When Lois discusses dressing her—“We must get Mado another hat…She must be chic…She must do us credit”—Marya points out, “She might have been discussing the dressing of a doll” (Quartet 85). In fact, a living mannequin is one of the jobs Lois suggests to Marya as a way to support herself while Stephen is incarcerated. Live mannequins became the norm in Rhys’s contemporary Paris and elsewhere, serving as physical manifestations of photographic reproductions of different types of girls (and inspired by photographic repetition) but, at the time, less expensive then the wooden mannequins we have come to associate with the word.9 Though Marya “failed—to imagine herself as a mannequin,” she finds comfort in allowing others to dress her, or to fill out her image of herself as the other woman (Quartet 85).
Thus despite her denial, these headless female forms from Atget’s photographs most closely resembles what Marya idealizes, which is an individual woman who consumes (clothes) and produces (the dressed body) in order to appear as part of a seamless community of lookalikes. In the novel, Rhys describes a parade of girls that gleefully embrace this sameness: “The Spring came early […] the chestnuts flowered and the girls walking along with linked arms began to discuss their new robes endlessly” (Quartet 67). And in the short story “Mannequin,” Rhys creates another character named Anna who works as one of these mannequins and becomes exhausted by it; she wants “just to dress and rush away anywhere” (25). Upon leaving the store, however, Anna forgets her misery and begins to relish the idea that she is finally one of them, delighting in “the feeling that now she really belonged” (25). The last image is of a Parisian street brimming with identical mannequins “as gay and beautiful as a bed of flowers” (26). Being part of this modern, mobile scene of sameness—such as what Atget photographed—brings Anna a feeling of connection and fulfillment.
Marya echoes the frustration this story’s Anna initially expresses, while also demonstrating how seductive the feeling of inclusion through sameness can be. Marya first complains of the “endless repetition” she experiences in her relationship with Heidler as she increasingly becomes aware of her role as other woman who is, indeed, just photographic copy of the many women with whom he has already conducted affairs: he “was forcing her to be nothing but the little woman who lived […] for the express purpose of being made love to” (Quartet 118). But she also imagines herself as part of a community of these women, and finds, if not relief, release: "She began to imagine all the women who had lain where she was lying. Laughing. Or crying if they were drunk enough. She felt giddy and curiously light, as if she were floating bodiless in the scented dimness" (Quartet 119). She fantasizes that a connection to women will provide her with the pleasant sensation of being separated from her body, in other words, as if she is the spectator of a photographic image of herself. But this small success is interrupted by the reality that, though being the other woman might eliminate her immediate feelings of emotional injury, as the other woman she will suffer intense loneliness. She points out that news of her affair follows her in the streets: “Everybody cuts me dead all along the Boulevard Montparnasse” and that she is a “butt for Lois and her friends” (Quartet 120, 121). Marya comes to lose the ability to function as the other woman, and, like Anna at the end of Voyage in the Dark, cannot produce an alternative image of herself. Unlike Anna, however, it is unclear if she will be able to repeat this cycle.
Marya begins to act resigned, and even relieved, by the predictability of her immobility. Rhys writes, “She never reacted now. She was a thing. Quite dead. Not a kick left in her” (Quartet 123). Here, rather than the image of twentieth-century Paris that Atget captures, her image resembles a model posing for a nineteenth-century photographer: She is “sitting…silent, her hands cold and a little fixed smile on her face” (Quartet 123–24). Such an outdated image cannot help her to mediate her own identity or even the identities of other characters in the novel. It is the Heidlers, reflections of one another, who get copied again and again: Marya notices that they are “like the same chord repeated in a lower key, sitting with [their] hands clasped in exactly the same posture” (Quartet 97). This ability to serve as respective copies ensures their longevity, while Marya’s single image appears more like a rare photograph, mechanically produced but also a unique throwback, such as the photo enlargements of the “sinister” men she sees just before Stephen pushes her.
Marya is not alone in her final, still and unproductive image. Rhys’s characters are often in a state of physical decline: from the effects of aging and alcohol (Good Morning, Midnight ), a botched abortion (Voyage in the Dark) or violence (Quartet). They suffer from the effects of limited educational and professional opportunities for women. But the inability of these bodies to thrive is also a side-effect of a culture that struggles to recognize the potentially valuable connection between production and consumption, for women in particular. An apt approach to Rhys’s characters—and many of the women that populate interwar novels—might be the model of representational technologies such as the camera, which shows the ways the image can entrap, and the limited possibilities for its control.
1 Bonnie Kime Scott reprints the full version of the original ending in The Gender of Modernism.
2 Critics and scholars routinely associate Rhys with this concept of type, though in a way that undermines her work. Helen Nebeker explains, “Awareness of her biographical emphasis has often led critics to either dismiss Rhys’s writing with veiled condescension or to praise it effusively as they assess only superficially her literary contribution” (ii).
3 In addition to the original ending of Voyage in the Dark reappearing in Rhys’s autobiography, the description of the West Indies echoes Rhys’s upbringing. Quartet is loosely based on Rhys’s relationship to Ford Madox Ford (Savory 40).
4 See Doan 165.
5 See North 242.
6 See Jane Garrity for additional insight into Woolf’s complicated relationship to these media appearances, which she both sought out and disavowed (185–87).
7 Even the chorus girls have troubling distinguishing one from another. Fellow chorus girl Laurie claims that Anna is “a lot better than most of the other old cows” but cannot remember Anna’s name (Voyage in the Dark 2).
8 Maudie often does not even bother to explain herself, assuming that Anna knows exactly what she is saying because it has all been said before. When she and Anna part, she tells Anna to “take care of yourself and if you can’t be good be careful. Etcetera and so on” (Voyage in the Dark 49).
9 Rhys lists a few of these types in her story “Mannequin”: “the gamine, the traditional blonde enfant…the femme fatale…the garconne” (23).
Benjamin, Walter. “Little History of Photography.” Selected Writings: Vol. 2 1931-1934. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge: Belknap, 1999. 507-530.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: Penguin, 1972.
Conor, Liz. The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004.
Cunningham, Anne. "'Get on or Get Out': Failure and Negative Femininity in Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark." MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 59.2 (2013): 373-394.
Doan, Laura. Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.
Duttlinger, Carolin. Kafka and Photography. New York: Oxford UP, 2007.
Emery, Mary Lou. Jean Rhys at World’s End: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.
Garrity, Jane. “Virginia Woolf, Intellectual Harlotry, and 1920s British Vogue.” Virginia Woolf in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Technology, Mass Culture, and the Arts. Ed. Pamela L. Caughie. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. 185-211.
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Rhys, Jean. Quartet. New York: New York: Norton, 1997.
---. Jean Rhys: Letters 1931-1966. New York: Penguin, 1995.
---. Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography. New York: Penguin, 1995.
---. “Mannequin.” The Collected Short Stories. New York: Norton, 1992.
---. Voyage in the Dark. New York: Norton, 1994.
---. “Voyage in the Dark: Part IV (Original Version).” The Gender of Modernism: A Critical Anthology, Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. 381-389.
Savory, Elaine. Jean Rhys. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.
“Women's Work and Wages.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine. September 1868: 546-553.