Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark as a Trans-Atlantic Tragic Mulatta Narrative

Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark as a Trans-Atlantic Tragic Mulatta Narrative

Sargasso: Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language, and Culture
Volume I (2009-2010)
pages 79-92

Ania Spyra, Assistant Professor of English
Butler University

“pretty useful mask that white one.”
—Jean Rhys, Voyage In the Dark

Images of masks and masking surface repeatedly in Jean Rhys’s 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark; they describe the faces and artificial smiles of English people that Anna Morgan, the narrator and main character, meets when she immigrates to London from the West Indies after her father dies, and they act as an image of a loss of identity. Most importantly, however, they refer to the white or “crude pink” masks worn by Blacks during the Caribbean carnival in Anna’s native Dominica, which resurface in her memory at the end of the novel when she hallucinates in a delirium after a mishandled abortion. The carnival masks always include a slit through which the tongue can emerge and taunt the outraged white onlookers. But Anna does not feel taunted; she asserts she “knew why the masks were laughing” (186). Such an assertion of an intimate knowledge in the usually timid Anna suggests that she holds a particular insight into this “Black skin, White masks” situation: that her pale face might only be a mask covering her own racial mixture, or, in the least, it suggests Anna’s own uncertainty about her genealogy.

My reading is complicated and aided by the original ending of the novel found and published six years after Rhys’ death by Nancy Hemond Brown. The entirety of part IV of the novel originally counted almost two and an half thousand words more than the ending readers of Rhys s published works know (Hemond 41). Since all interpretation of the novel depends on the specific contexts of Annas jumbled reminiscences and thoughts—what Mikhail Bakhtin would call framing—the original, longer text sometimes complicates and sometimes helps to disambiguate statements made in the novel, framing them to suggest different meanings. For example, it is Anna’s father, rather than herself, who pronounces the words about the usefulness of white masks I opened with. Being closer to the family history, the father can speak even more authoritatively about the issue of racial relations in the family. On the other hand, it is still Anna who asserts the knowledge of why the masks are laughing. This time, additional context refigures her statement, “I knew why were laughing they were laughing at the idea that anybody black would want to be white” (52), pointing once again to Annas racial confusion and the centrality of racial masquerade as a theme in the novel.

But what interests me most here is that when Rhys was asked to re-write the original ending because of how grim and potentially unpopular with readers it was, she consented but continued to affirm that the original version was rendered “meaningless” because it provided “the only possible ending” (Letters 25). While in the revised ending, Anna, after some hallucinations, is supposed to be “ready to start all over again in no time” (187), in the original version, she bleeds to death after an abortion. Additionally, it was Rhys’s initial intention to depict Annas death as replicating both her father’s and her mother’s premature deaths, since Anna remembers her mother’s servant, Meta, saying “she was too young to die” (Hemond 44). Why would Rhys see this vicious circle of tragic deaths as the most meaningful, or indeed the only possible, ending for Voyage in the Dark. My argument here is that the early and tragic death ot the protagonist, especially when following that of her mother and father, places the novel firmly in the tradition of the “tragic mulatta” narrative, which—transplanted to the British context—calls for a more complex understanding of transatlantic reverberations of the plantation economy and the racial hierarchies and categories it left in its wake. While I do not mean to replicate an assumption of Annas racial difference, I see the comparative context of the “tragic mulatto” narratives as productive in teasing out the critique ot racial ideologies ot the plantation system that Voyage in the Dark presents.

Although interracial characters inhabited literature since antiquity, the “tragic mulatto” trope derives more specifically from the context of sentimental antislavery narratives in the U.S. In Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, Werner Sollors traces the representational matrices of mixed race figures across several languages and genres starting with Greek myths and Biblical parables. He notes an increase in interracial themes since the late eighteenth century, but carefully distinguishes between the cliche representation of a mulatto’s tragic end—which he notices already in the various adaptations and rewritings of Joanna from John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of Five Years Expedition in Swiname (1796)—and the actual “tragic mulatto” trope. The essential difference lies for him in that the early interracial characters’ tragic plotlines follow from their status as slaves and thus property, while the tragic mulatto’s drama derives from their indeterminate race and being indentificd as non-white even though they lead lives of free white people (Sollors 207). Sollors’sdefinition of the “tragic mulatto” trope emphasizes that even if far away in time and space from the plantation, the characters who—like Rhys’s Anna—may also seem entirely white still have to deal with echoes of the racial ideologies of the plantation system. Many scholars of the Caribbean—Edouard Glissant, C.L.R. James, Sidney Mintz, Philip Curtin, and David Scott to mention a few—have postulated the plantation system as an essential template for understanding modernity. I turn to Glissant in particular here, because as his postulation of the concept of Relation that connects Africa, Europe and the Caribbean (that for him includes southern US as well) into a web ot filiations, he helps me theorize Rhys’ trans-Atlantic “tragic mulatta.” Because the Relation itself is difficult to define, Michael Dash translates it in a variety of idiomatic ways: creolization, cultural contact, cross-cultural relationships. Glissant writes, “Rhizomatic thought is the principle behind what I call the Poetics of Relation, in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other” (11). Opposed to a totalitarian rootcdncss, with its connotation ot unique origins, Glissant seeks for an alternative in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s rhizome with its “enmeshed root system, a network spreading either in the ground or in the air” (11) to assert an existence of connections and influences that grow out of the plantation system. The imagery of rhizomatic connections and tangled webs of influence help me theorize both the distant geographical contexts that Voyage in the Dark engages and its fragmented form. Relation, with its confluence of time and space, helps elucidate also what Rhys saw as her main intention in the novel—described in a letter to Evelyn Scott—to explore the idea that “the past exists side by side with the present, not behind it; that what was—is” (Letters 24)…

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