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By Christina Tsiampaou and Zoi Tsipi

[presented at a student workshop in the context of the module “Modernist Fiction” taught at the English Department of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens]


In Jean Rhys’s “La Grosse Fifi” (1927), the hotel lends itself as a metaphor for life in the big city. The expansion of industry and the formation of enormous imperial cities, with inhabitants of different social and cultural backgrounds, provoked a sense of alienation and a “crisis of national identity” (Zimmerman 75). The inability “to locate and inhabit a secure space of belonging within the imperial cities” (Zimmerman 75) can be identified in Rhys’s portrayal of the characters in the short story. The “Rhys woman,” in particular, is described as “a down-and-out, aging, single woman flitting between London and Paris, overwhelmed by emotional problems and the consequences of failed sexual relationships” (Kalliney 417). Roseau emerges as a type of “Rhys woman” who, troubled by her relationships with men, finds herself inhabiting the hotel space:

“I am very unhappy,” remarked Roseau […].
“It’s naturally a man who makes you unhappy?”
“Yes,” said Roseau. […] “He is trying to – disembarrass himself of me.” (Rhys 175, 176)

But how does this space function for the “Rhys woman”? On the one hand, the story foregrounds the themes of homelessness and displacement as experienced by Roseau, who acknowledges the need to leave the hotel, but does not act on it because she “ha[s] nowhere else to belong” (Zimmerman 75): “I think I’ll go back to Paris – I’m getting tired of the Riviera, it’s too tidy” (Rhys 166). For Roseau, her stay in the hotel has deprived her of “any claims for authentic ownership” (Zimmerman 81): “’But I haven’t got a door,’ said Roseau […]. ‘No vestige of a door I haven’t—no door, no house, no friends, no money, no nothing’” (Rhys 176).

On the other hand, Roseau’s choice to “effectively tak[e] up residence in the hotel” and her dislike for pensions and their “tendency to be family run” highlight her desire for the “impersonality and anonymity” that even dismal hotels offer (Short 7):

“You know,” Mark told her seriously, “you really oughtn’t to stay here. It’s a dreadful place. […]”
“You don’t say!” mocked Roseau.
“I do say. There’s a room going at the pension.”
“Hate pensions.” (Rhys 165, 166)

The hotel in this context can be described as an “in-between space” (Zimmerman 79), in which the visitors can enjoy the comforts that the home offers, but without the emotional attachment. The fact that the hotel guests are not “tied” to their rooms, allows them to make use of the hotel as a space of escapism and forgetfulness. Roseau has been using the “hotel room” as “a key site for forgetting” (Zimmerman 86). However, her “involuntary memory is triggered” during a night at the hotel by “a smell, a sound, a sight, or space” (Zimmerman 86):

The hotel seemed sordid that night to Roseau, full of gentlemen in caps and loudly laughing females. There were large lumps of garlic in the food, the wine was sour […].
“Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think,” she prayed.
For two weeks she had desperately fought off thoughts. (Rhys 172)

And yet, despite the anonymity offered by the hotel, we observe that there is a constant invasion of privacy, in which “the check-in-desk […] served as a kind of policing unit”, not allowing the guests to maintain their privacy (Zimmerman 85): “The patronne looked sideways, half enviously; the patron chuckled […].” (Rhys 187, 178). Therefore, the hotel serves as a metaphor for “the marginalized subject” which is constantly “monitored by the hotel’s management […] within the space of the hotel lobby” as experienced by Fifi (Short 84): “’Have you any news of Monsieur Riviere?’ the patronne of the hotel would ask with a little cruel female smile.
‘Oh, yes, he is very well,’ Fifi would answer airly, knowing perfectly well that the patronne had already examined her letters carefully” (Rhys 182). Hotel policing is further highlighted by the lack of descriptions of the actual hotel spaces, indicating that it “functions solely as an entrance, exit, and […] a space of surveillance” (Short 73).

Indeed, throughout the story the descriptions of Fifi as something peculiar place her in the position of the “other”:
“Oh my Lord! What’s that?”
“That’s Fifi,” answered Roseau […].
“She’s – she’s terrific, isn’t she?”
“She’s a dear,” said Roseau unexpectedly. (Rhys 166, 167)

Later in the story, Rhys creates an uncanny moment when the lights go out and a ghostly housemaid enters Fifi’s private chamber:

The electric light went out. The thin, alert, fatigued-looking bonne brought candles. That long drab room looked ghostly in the flickering light -one had an oddly definite impression of something sinister and dangerous […]. Fifi looked sinister too with her vital hair and ruined throat. (Rhys 184)

It is Fifi’s “sinister” appearance that strikes us the most; in this moment she is “at once fearsome and familiar” (Zimmerman 76). This description of Fifi’s uncanniness places her in the position of the “other” and results in her then being “placed in the distinctly marginal spaces of the run-down hotel bedroom” (Short 146) of the dilapidated hotel. Being entirely in context within the hotel, she is rendered an object, merging with the surrounding space, almost like a piece of furniture.

However, the hotel also functions as a liberating space for the “other,” particularly in terms of gender and sexuality. The hotel space allows Fifi “to break free […] from the fixed identities of wife and homemaker” (Short 155): “’Who’s the gentleman?’ Mark asked […]. ‘Her son?’ ‘Her son?’ said Roseau. ‘Good Heavens, no! That’s her gigolo’” (Rhys 168). Similarly, Roseau is “relieved of the responsibility […] to clean, dust and arrange” (Short 154): “In that disordered room in the midst of her packing she cried bitterly, heartbroken.”  The two women, Fifi and Roseau, are also allowed to develop a momentary emotional bond in the ephemeral hotel rooms they inhabit. There, Fifi appears as a motherly figure for Roseau comforting her and discussing her troubled relationship with men: “[Fifi] bent down to kiss her. It seemed to Roseau the kindest, most understanding kiss she had ever had, and comforted she watched Fifi sit on the foot of the bed and wrap her flannel dressing-gown more closely round her. Mistily she imagined that she was a child again and that this was a large, protecting person, who would sit there until she slept” (Rhys 174, 175).

However, at the end of the story when Fifi is stabbed to death by her gigolo, Roseau immediately moves on. Rhys has depicted on the characters “the deliberate absence of anything special” (Lopoukhine 10), the sense that everything is temporal and once it reaches its end (death), nothing happens:

Suddenly Roseau began to cry.
“O poor Fifi! O poor Fifi!” […] “Oh well!” said Roseau.
She dried her eyes and went on with her packing. (Rhys 191)

The events that take place in this French hotel unveil the temporariness that the advent of the twentieth century has generated. Nonetheless, Roseau’s realization of Fifi’s death induces the sense of Fifi being finally free; her death “symbolizes liberation – allowing her to move on” (Zitzlsperger 471): “Till, in the yellow sunshine that streamed into the room, she imagined that she saw her friend’s gay and childlike soul, freed from its gross body, mocking her gently for her sentimental tears” (Rhys 191).

Fifi, who was encountered as “the other,” objectified, and eventually wasted, is finally free from the gender and sexual restrictions and stereotypes of society and symbolizes “a profound societal and generational change,” in the late 1930’s, an era of “challenging social boundaries” (Zitzlsperger 470).

Works Cited

Kalliney, Peter. “Jean Rhys: Left Bank Modernist as Postcolonial Intellectual.” The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, edited by Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough, Oxford UP, 2012, pp. 413–32.
Lopoukhine, Juliana. “Exceptionality and the Unexceptional in Jean Rhys’s Interwar Fiction.” Miranda, no. 23, OpenEdition, Oct. 2021,
Rhys, Jean. “La Grosse Fifi.” The Left Bank & Other Stories. with a Pref. by Ford Madox Ford. Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
Short, Emma. Mobility and the Hotel in Modern Literature: Passing Through. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Zimmerman, Emma. “‘Always the same stairs, always the same room’: The Uncanny Architecture of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38 no. 4, 2015, p. 74-92. Project MUSE,
Zitzlsperger, Ulrike. “Between Modernity and Nostalgia: The Meanings of Death in Hotels.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, vol. 55, no. 4, Oxford UP (OUP), Sept. 2019, pp. 466–78.

Christina Tsiampaou is a final-year undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She is an aspiring teacher of English. She is particularly interested in existentialist and dystopian literature.

Zoi Tsipi is a final-year undergraduate student of English Language and Literature at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. She is interested in cross-cultural literary works. Additionally, she is keen on child psychology and psychopathology.

Featured image above: Grand salon of the excelsior Regina hotel, ca 1900, Nice, France, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

The old town, Mentone, Riviera, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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