by Laura Oulanne
Eat. Drink. Walk. March. Back to the hotel. To the Hotel of Arrival, the Hotel of
Departure, the Hotel of the Future, the Hotel of Martinique and the Universe….
Back to the hotel without a name in the street without a name. (…) You go up the stairs. Always the same stairs, always the same room. The room says: “Quite like old times. Yes?…
No?… Yes.” (Good Morning, Midnight 1985, 433–34)
Hotels are common locations for Jean Rhys’s cosmopolitan characters, like Sasha Jansen of Good Morning, Midnight (1939), who narrates, in the extract above, her relationship to a particular, yet pronouncedly anonymous hotel in Paris. Hotel spaces, which here become so liminal they approach fantasy, are contrasted with more solid, domestic spaces. Marya Zelli of Quartet (1928) muses on her life in hotels: “It lacked the necessary background. A bedroom, balcony and cabinet de toilette in a cheap Montmartre hotel cannot possibly be called a solid background” (1985, 121). Intriguingly, Rhys’s fiction pairs anonymity, liminality and instability with sentiments of acute comfort, empathy, and surprising forms of connection, in which the materiality of the space plays a key role.
In my book Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction (Routledge, 2021), I write about things, spaces, and environments in Rhys’s short stories, especially the early ones published in The Left Bank (1927), along with the short fiction of Djuna Barnes and Katherine Mansfield. Rhys, like the other writers, plays with the gendered connotations of domesticity and its alternatives, such as the space of hotels. For all three, it seems that several oppressive, normative social structures are solidified in the concrete structures of dwellings, but the structures can also be rewritten and reimagined in the way the writers render these fictional spaces. Hotels, among them, appear as truly transitional spaces, “heterotopias” if you will, that can be both safe and free, open and containing. They are also alive, complicating the categorization of human and nonhuman bodies and inviting a reconsideration of the discourses of objectification and dehumanization often applied to the novels.
“La Grosse Fifi,” for instance, is a story set on the French Riviera, where Roseau, the focalizer, is staying in an unnamed hotel. She feels ambivalent about the hotel, which her English friends disapprove of as a “dreadful place” with a “vile reputation” for deeds of violence (1984, 165)—a hint at what is to come. They urge Roseau to move out, but she is reluctant to do so. While the public spaces of the hotel are not described, one single hotel guest is rendered in detail and treated almost as a piece of furniture: Fifi, a spectacularly dressed, large, ageing lady staying at the hotel with a young gigolo. For Roseau’s friends, Fifi is a “what” instead of a “who”: “Oh my Lord! What’s that?” they exclaim at her sight. Nevertheless, Roseau feels “unexpectedly” warmly toward her, while she participates in the objectifying discourse and at times sees Fifi as an abject part of the seedy hotel surroundings.
On the other hand, she seems to stay largely because of her attachment to this thingly woman. Roseau has a small breakdown and Fifi enters her room to comfort her, “[…] wonderfully garbed in a transparent night-gown of a vivid rose colour trimmed with yellow lace,” with a “dirty dressing-gown” thrown around her neck (173). She helps Roseau dress in a lace nightgown and hands her a pocket handkerchief; Roseau clutches the flannel sleeve of Fifi’s garment, begging her to stay. Things that are closest to the sense of touch come to the fore in the story, and these minimal containers seem to afford some security for the women within the anonymity of the hotel space. Fifi is portrayed as a thing, but the story harbors intense affective connections between humans and things. The reader is invited to imagine the embodied being of the characters by being shown them as things, as bodies that engage with and incorporate other things.
Fifi also offers relationship advice to Roseau, who has been abandoned by a man:
“Put him at the door with a coup de pied quelque part.”
“But I haven’t got a door,” said Roseau in English, beginning to laugh hysterically. No vestige of a door I haven’t—no door, no house, no friends, no money, no nothing.” (176)
Like Sasha and Marya, Roseau is faced with the very concrete problem of material instability, which complicates her emancipatory efforts to a tragi-comic effect. Yet in the absence of houses and doors, both safety and freedom seem to be found in the encounter between the women—even though this, too, proves to be transitory—and Roseau’s perception of the hotel and of Fifi keeps fluctuating between empathy, attachment, and dislike. This thin line between similarity and difference even manifests itself on the level of language: Roseau’s English seems equally affected by French as the half English, half French in which Fifi’s speech is rendered in the story.
The sinister forebodings are realized as a final row ends with the gigolo stabbing Fifi to death, after which Roseau finally leaves the hotel. The mobility, liminality, and lack of “solidity” associated with hotel dwelling is not depicted as the opposite of homeliness or belonging. Rather, hotel spaces, in spite of their impermanence and anonymity, become momentarily intimate for their dwellers. We are led to imagine the characters leaving traces of their experience in the immediate materiality of the spaces, and similarly leave the hotel to move on with traces of the space with them. Roseau has been moved; her physical sensations and emotions have been affected by the hotel and by Fifi, and her moving to the next hotel is not a pure beginning, but an experience colored by the earlier events and encounters.
Readers, too, have most likely been moved at least a tiny bit, perhaps to experience some embodied sensitivity to the elements that make up the positive connotations of domesticity even in a seedy hotel. Optimistically, there might even be a shift in the understanding of the norms placed on female bodies and conduct, and their transgression as it appears in Fifi’s character. The story seems to be asking whether readers can find some of the positive values associated with a home—defined by Iris Marion Young (2005, 151–53) as safety, individuation, privacy and preservation—in a fleeting moment of time and in a place that is so clearly not a home in its normative sense. Furthermore, there is no question of the agency of the female characters: even when objectified, they are not only experiencing bodies, but also active ones that use the material means and affective orientations available for the purposes of self-definition, survival, and pleasure.
Both safety and freedom are to be found in micro-spaces beyond the domestic space as well as beyond the public, commercial space: the Hotels of Arrival, Departure, Martinique and the Universe that the women in Rhys’s fiction inhabit on their travels toward a Hotel of the Future, perhaps. This is an exciting image of almost cosmic mobility that the stories mandate at least as strongly as those of alienation and victimization.
Oulanne, Laura. 2021. Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction: Lived Things. New York: Routledge.
Rhys, Jean. 1985. The Complete Novels. New York: W.W. Norton.
Rhys, Jean. 1927/1984. The Left Bank & Other Stories. Salem, NH: Ayer Company.
Young, Iris Marion 2005, “House and Home: Feminist Variations on a Theme.” In On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 123–54.
Laura Oulanne is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Helsinki and a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Helsinki and Justus Liebig University, Giessen. She is the author of Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction: Lived Things and has published on materiality, affectivity, and the mind in Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf.