‘I Used to Live Here Once’ by Jean Rhys: Short Story Analysis
‘I Used to Live Here Once’ is a haunting short story penned by West Indies born writer Jean Rhys. Rhys lived a bohemian lifestyle in London and Europe. She is remembered for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea. She always felt an outsider both in West Indies, her place of birth, and England, where she moved to gain an education. This sense of alienation can be seen in the short story ‘I Used to Live Here Once’ penned by Rhys. Here too, there is an element of separation, separateness, and alienation of the narrator. She is unable to contact or speak to two white European children, standing under a mango tree near a house in West Indies where the narrator claims she had lived.
The narrator claims that she was from the West Indies and felt like an outsider to the White Europeans in the Indies. This is not because the real Jean Rhys was not White but because, as we studied her biography, she was not considered a person from either nation – the West Indies or England. Her accent was always giving her away and made it difficult for her to fit ideally into either the colored block or the white European block. There was a great struggle there as we can see, and therefore, there is a certain depth in this haunting story that conveys to us that the writer felt she did not belong anywhere. Her roots were dead. Her relationships and lifestyle were in shambles, and, at that time, questioned by society. This makes us think that:
- The narrator could be just a woman of color of West Indies origin.
- She could have been a white European born in the West Indies with a prominent accent.
- She could have been any of the two above, along with being dead.
- The narrator could have been the same living breathing Jean Rhys as a person, not a ghost, and yet, she was overlooked and ignored by the children who looked past her.
The last point of view is the most frightening of all the other aspects. There is a possibility that this story, rather than being a simple ghost story, is a realistic story about how individuals like Jean Rhys were ignored or overlooked in the West Indies. People like Jean Rhys just did not fit in.
Other than that unique factor, the rest of the descriptions render the short story a tale of the supernatural. The symbolism of the rocks or stones could mean stepping stones to cross into the realm of the living from the non-living realm. Rhys remembered the steps from her childhood before she was uprooted from Dominica in the Caribbean Islands, to study in England. The blue sky’s glassy nature is the way ghosts or people from the paranormal realm see the world they have left behind. They see the world through a bubble and recognize those who have gone on to live and grow. It also acts as a rudimentary time machine or time portal. Through this bubble, Rhys sees the home of her childhood in the future where two white European children whom she did not recognize were residing.
You can taste the acerbity in Rhys’ tone when she mentions the ‘assertion of the children’s white blood’. She has felt left out in the past in such a circle of people. However, Rhys seems to be cheerful and calls out to them. They do not seem to hear her, or do they? When Rhys calls out the second time, the boy says despondently that he felt cold and that he and the girl should go back in. The apparent allusion is that when in the presence of a ghost, you feel cold. But there is that element of social ostracism present in the short story that we cannot ignore. This would have made a scarier story if Rhys was not a specter but a real person overlooked by children. It is left to conjecture, and that is the beautiful element in this story titled ‘I Used to Live Here Once’.
There is an intermingling of the paranormal and realism in this story, especially where racism is concerned. This is a short but concise story or narrative piece. Still, it is remarkably evocative, especially the last line, where Rhys mentions that she realized the issue after the children did not react to her. Did they not respond to her because she was a ghost or because of her race? We remember from her biography that Rhys always had a problem everywhere she went because of her accent. In this story, she tries to reach out to the children through her voice. However, they do not seem to notice her presence. Did they realize her parentage from her accent and therefore ignored her? Was she a ghost and only realized it when the children did not respond to her? This story leaves us with many questions, but they are intriguing questions all the same.
There are a few takeaway points which I want to mention here for your reference:
- An ‘Ajoupa’ in the Caribbean is a wooden-framed hut or shelter with a thatched roof sometimes with open sides. That is why Rhys calls it a ‘mock summer house,’ which was not present in her previous residence.
- The house painted white indicates the changing polarized or white supremacy views of the people residing in the house, unlike the cosmopolitan homelife and outlook of the previous owners.
- If this is a proper supernatural story, then the narrator was about to pass from earthly life. We realize this because she tries to cross carefully over the ‘stones’ without slipping into the waters, ‘the abyss’ rather.
- As a dying person, she remembers the remote past and the future, going beyond what time can dictate.
- The movement to clutch the boy alludes to the spirit-like body of those who roam in the nether world. They feel they have a frame with appropriate body parts. But they do not.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by Jean Rhys. I have her 1966 bestselling novel Wide Sargasso Sea in my possession, but I do not know where I have placed it. I am drowning in books, bookcases, and cupboards full of more books, books, books! To read about my life dedicated to reading and writing, you can check out my memoir on Amazon titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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