In Jean Rhys’ third published novel “Voyage in the Dark”, the conflict the author feels between her childhood growing up in the Caribbean island of Dominica and European adulthood comes to the forefront. The novel begins with eighteen year old Anna who makes a meagre living as an actress in London. In richly descriptive passages Rhys observes the marked differences between the colours, textures and smells of this city compared to her West Indies childhood. Flashes of her island life recur throughout the novel, but she doesn’t sentimentalize this experience. Instead, Rhys shows how this upbringing and move to England created a deeply conflicted sense of identity for Anna which has persisted and grown as she navigates life in the capital. She has a number of difficult affairs with men who she becomes financially and emotionally dependent upon while sinking further into a desultory existence. This novel shows with a rare and brutal honesty a young woman’s conflicted feelings about relationships, her national/racial identity and aimless place in society.
One of the most glaring things I found at the start of this novel were references to black people in the West Indies – Rhys uses the N word – which today is shocking to read, but I get the feeling that this was simply the common parlance of the time. However, at a couple of points she also makes concerning references to Jewish people – again, this feels more like an attitude of the time rather than there being anything explicitly anti-Semitic. I’m not trying to excuse or condone any dodgy references to race, but I’m just trying to place them in context and highlight the problematic nature of reading these things.
Race was clearly a highly politicised subject for Anna growing up in the Caribbean. In one scene her stepmother Hester expresses disgust that a member of Anna’s family lived openly with his mixed race children. Anna herself views black people as “better” than white people and even states “I wanted to be black. I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad.” Making any generalization about race is simplistic, but Anna’s statement shows part of the reason why she seems to have such low self-worth. She’s very aware of power imbalances between different races and she doesn’t want to inhabit her own skin. The person she recalls most fondly from her childhood is a black housekeeper named Francine who she was very close to, but who she’s lost contact with since moving to England. When meeting her stepmother Hester she’s belittled and caught between the arguments of family members about who should help support her. She’s made to feel she doesn’t belong anywhere.
Anna’s solution for taking care of herself is to partly rely on men. She and her friend Maudie go out to pick up gentlemen. An older well-to-do man named Walter takes her up for a time. Interestingly her initial reaction to many of the men she meets is disgust: “He kissed me again, and his mouth was hard… and I hated him.” Yet, soon after, she seems to try to convince herself to fall for him: “Soon he'll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He'll be different and so I'll be different. It'll be different. I thought, 'It'll be different, different. It must be different.” This repetition of “different” is like a desperate plea to change her own attitude and tragically it seems to work because when Walter finally tries to throw her off she acts heartbroken and lovesick. Whether she genuinely grew to love him or not can be debated. She follows similar patterns with several other men where her emotions careen between passion and disgust with an expectation that they’ll help financially support her. Anna makes the humorous observation that “Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.”
Over the course of the novel Anna strikes up a number of compelling female friendships. She has multiple friends she used to be in shows with who seem to be in a similar situation. They’re unable to make much of a career out of performing and try instead to foster financially convenient relationships with men. Her friend Laurie is one of the most accomplished at this, circulating through several amenable gentlemen. She shows financial savvy in claiming to always put half of whatever she’s given aside for a time when getting dates won’t be as easy. I found the dialogue of these women to be particularly delightful with their evocative terminology. Maudie advises her that “The more you swank the better. If you don't swank a bit nothing's any use.” And later Laurie uses the hard-hitting logic that “When you start thinking about things the answer's a lemon. A lemon, that's what the answer is.” These zippy bits of dialogue add to the sense that Anna and these other girls have a definite world-weariness. They’ve taken a self-reliant stance believing that they must trade upon a performed sense of femininity to get what they want and, once they’ve got the money/clothing/real estate that they want out of men, they don’t expect any genuine feelings to remain. By ushering in convenient acquaintances with men Anna comes to believe “it's true, isn't it? People are much cheaper than things.” An emotionally-volatile woman named Ethel who Anna rooms with later in the novel and who tries to set up a profitable business for herself becomes a figure of ridicule to Anna and her friend. It appears that such ambition is beyond them.
It’s interesting how essentially unlikeable Anna becomes in the novel, but how deeply I felt for her. She spends as much time as possible lounging in a bath or her bedroom and frequently feigns illnesses. Rhys has an unerring knack for writing about women whose desires in life have been so blunted by disappointment they can’t commit to any hopeful vision of the future. Just when I felt like shouting at Anna to pull herself up and try to accomplish something worthwhile it’s like Rhys answered me: “what happens if you don't hope any more, if your back's broken? What happens then?” Anna is a character who acts as if she’s physically debilitated. Her spirit is what is broken making it impossible for her to progress or grow.
Instead of finding hope, the novel takes increasingly dark turns and brings Anna close to death. In this distressed state the narrative becomes more hallucinatory. Her imagination is populated by Caribbean mythology. The image of a soucriant (a blood sucking hag in folklore) becomes particularly clear to Anna – both as a monster that wants to destroy her and the monster she believes she has become. It’s particularly skilful and emotional how Rhys writes about Anna in this state. Rhys deals with abortion in quite a vivid way in this novel and I can’t help but feel this must have come across as quite a taboo and shocking subject at the time of its publication in 1934.
It feels like the real tragedy about Anna (and many of the central characters in Rhys’ novels) is that she has no touchstone to lift her out of her own experience. In this novel a character named Vincent tries to coax Anna to read claiming “a good book... It makes you see what is real and what is just imaginary.” I think Rhys probably viewed this as a very simplistic way of reading. Her books don’t make a clear distinction between real/imaginary, but brilliantly show what is true for her characters’ experience by artistically showing us their psychological reality. Perhaps Anna (and Rhys when she was Anna’s age) believed that she was excluded from engaging meaningfully with literature because it didn’t reflect her experience. At one point she observes “There was a damned bust of Voltaire, stuck up on a shelf, sneering away. There are all sorts of sneers, of course, the high and the low.” In typical Rhys style, even inanimate objects have an emotional reaction to the central character who seemingly has an antagonistic relationship with everyone and everything in the world.
Given how heavily “Voyage in the Dark” refers back to Anna’s experience growing up in the West Indies, it’s especially interesting to compare this novel to Rhys’ most famous novel “Wide Sargasso Sea”. Here the struggle of cross-national identity reaches an entirely different kind of crisis point. The more I read of Rhys the more I become aware of particular subjects and ideas she returns to. Her style of writing has a special humour amidst all the overwhelming bleakness. Every book feels exquisitely crafted and exists independently on its own. This novel focuses on an individual whose expectations for life have been flattened before her adult life has even begun. The haunting question is where can she go from here?