Critical Essay on: Jean Rhys: Let Them Call It Jazz

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Let Them Call It Jazz

Let Them Call It Jazz was written by Jean Rhys consisting of three short stories that describe lonely women suffering from various types of depression: The Insect World, Outside the Machine, and Let Them Call It Jazz.

First, Let Them Call It Jazz is a short story which has been narrated using the eyes of Selina Davis who is the protagonist. Selina had arrived in London with the hope of a better life (Rhys, 1972). Her naive and provincial personality is placed in a new world where the expectations and the inner-self are put to test. Consequently, Selina is forced to modify her attitude as she sought to survive as a 'normal' English citizen. Nonetheless, in the process of transformation, she is cornered and isolated. The forces of the society lead to her self-alienation which can be easily identified in various places and scenarios. For instance, because of her foreign accent and dark skin, neighbours became suspicious and accused her of being a troublemaker, prostitute, and a disturbance. She is eventually jailed and would find solace from a song sung by a young woman in that prison.

Outside the Machine

The second story, Outside the Machine, is about Inez Best, a woman who hates other women. She is admitted in hospital suffering from depression and surrounded by the same people she hates. She finds herself disliking the women more as she hears their chatters. Later, it came to her senses that when she left the hospital she had nowhere to go and hence the need to stay longer. She thinks being in the hospital is an escape from reality as she does not do anything else apart from eating, sleeping, and reading books. Inez would later encounter another patient, Murphy who was going to attempt suicide. Inez is questioned by other women on what had happened and they thought Murphy deserves hanging. However, they are not aware Inez connected to her well because at one time she contemplated suicide also.

The Insect World

The final short story on this book is The Insect World which revolves around Audrey who stays with her best friend Monica and both are employed by the government. Audrey loves reading and this made her avoid confronting her personal identity. The author lets the audience follow Audrey in different places. At this particular time she was reading Nothing So Blue, a book detailing insects such as jiggers. In the story, she is first envious about Roberta who is her friend. Later when she arrives home they argue with Monica but later fall asleep (Rhys 195). Monica wakes her when she is screaming about Jiggers.

Depiction of Depression in the Short Stories

In all these three stories, the author depicts the various types of depression which women suffer and the methods they either choose to handle it or ignore. The approach to writing that Rhys took in these short stories is excellent and showcases her extraordinary talents. Within a 23 page book, she was able to highlight many dissimilar important issues. Specifically, some of the issues she speaks about include sexism, racism, social class, identity, and economic status. In addition, Rhys has been able to develop her characters to length where she provides their background without disrupting the flow of the book's plot. The tone that she uses is haunting and sombre. The literature can be said to be of lasting value as the characters are true to life. In this book, Rhys is more concerned about the truth. For instance, the story about Selina provides a strong statement of how the female gender defied against Britain's social exclusion and racial prejudice. Selina said, "Don't talk to me about London. Plenty people there have heart like stone" (Rhys 1972, p. 47).

The Value of the Book

While the length of the book cannot be considered an advantage, it offers extensive materials for analysis, reading, and interpretation. The language the author adopted is easy to understand because of the simplicity in word choice. The vocabulary can be said to be thematically relevant with translations available at the bottom pages. However, Rhys sticks to the present tense even in places where she expressed past events and in other cases she is forced to invent new words. The author choice of language helps to emphasize what the characters are going through, for example, the depiction of the problems immigrants face (Wilson 1989, p. 68-72). Reading through these stories, one gets the idea that Rhys wants readers to take over from the perspective of the protagonist and develop an understanding of the various ways of thinking and living, values of foreign nations, depression issues, and possible cultural conflicts. Rhys's personal experience has largely been reflected in all these three short stories. It is clear that Rhys does not only speak for the society which surrounds these three women, but also for that where the book was released. Rhys' short story provides an in-depth depiction of a London environment which had become highly polyphonic. While the text can be considered short and digestible, it portrays human beings, specifically women, as functioning in a society where they are seen in a psychological and physiological viewpoint. Rhys has made it possible for her audience to understand the characters in the short stories through how they relate with one another. For instance, in The Insect World, the reader understands Audrey through her friends Monica and Roberta. The author strategically placed these two in places where the audience can easily get to understand the real character of Audrey.

A Common Theme

A common theme adopted in the three stories in the book is the inability to accept one's reality. The main characters are often depicted to immerse their life into things which prohibit them from facing who they really are. It is true to say that Rhys's writing style is top notch. At glance her style is casual, but when considered closely it is devastatingly exact. She has the ability to execute a number of powerful effects while her prose remains unchanged, contemporary, where the reader hears her voice speaking directly to the ears and 'your' reality becomes hers. Because of her gloomy subject matter, if Rhys's short stories were not extraordinary, the audience would find it difficult to read. For example, in this book, she largely focused on categorization of loneliness. Her women characters often go under as they find themselves imprisoned in their isolation and they hardly find someone to visit them. Thus, Rhys's works reflect the truth in the physical world where people are uncaring (Power 2014). Nevertheless, her works suffer from elements of repetitions as her characters are always in a gamut of desolation and distress with little or no hope of escaping.


Power, C. (2014). A brief survey of the short story: Jean Rhys. The Guardian. Accessed 16th Jan 2018.

Rhys, J. (1972). "Let Them Call It Jazz." Tigers are Better-Looking. London: Penguin Books.  

Rhys, J. (1995). Let them call it jazz and other stories. London: Penguin Books.  

Wilson, L. (1989). European or Caribbean: Jean Rhys and the Language of Exile. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 68-72.

August 21, 2023



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