Dialogic Conflict and Speech Identity in Jean Rhys' Let Them Call it Jazz

By Grace E. Afsari-Mamagani
2012, Vol. 4 No. 08 | pg. 1/2 |

Confined to prison following her inability to pay a five-pound fine, Selina Davis situates herself outside a traditional system. She plays the role of “other” in interactions of race, class, and gender. Her narrative perspective drives Jean Rhys’ 1962 short story Let Them Call It Jazz, and that she “don’t want to read so much” underscores her displacement within the British hermeneutic hierarchy.

The books at her disposal, about murder and ghosts, speak to society’s understanding of crime, punishment, and the afterlife. But, for Selina, it is not “at all like those books tell you”: the stories offered within their pages do not apply to her, are not written in the language through which she understands herself. By presenting the narrative in the patois of the West Indian immigrant to Britain, Rhys produces both interior and exterior dialogic conflict. The narrator’s vernacular serves as one within a series of signifying systems, or, as Mikhail Bakhtin posited, speech genres.2

Playing with the notion of linguistic taxonomy, these genres are actualized within the framework of a modern city’s societal structure. Dialogic exchange and the tension between “utterance” and “word” enable the text to provide a window into the internal dynamics between characters, the external relationship between short story and the conditions of its surrounding modernism, and the relationship between author-narrator and reader.3

"One day a nice girl comes around with books and she give me two, but I don’t want to read so much. Beside one is about a murder, and the other is about a ghost and I don’t think it’s at all like those books tell you. " - Jean Rhys, Let Them Call it Jazz, 59.

Language, Bakhtin suggests in The Dialogic Imagination, defines worldview. “Language gives expression to forces working toward concrete verbal and ideological unification and centralization, which develop in vital connection with the processes of sociopolitical and cultural centralization,” making the removal of language from self-processing impossible.4

Those sharing a language create (or inherit) a system moving toward stability and agreement upon the relationship of signifiers to their signified concepts; dialect arises from specific “sociopolitical and cultural” conditions, enabling people to speak of themselves both internally and amongst others.

As a result, discrete language systems are “ideologically saturated,” utilizing preconceptions not necessarily present from system to system. These nuances occur also at the individual level. “The word is not a material thing but rather the eternally mobile, eternally fickle medium of dialogic interaction,” adopting a new meaning each time it is spoken.5

It is in this dialogic interaction that we see utterance, the emotional, performative component that can only be represented (rather than executed) in formal text. The relationship between “word” (the signifier used in written language) and utterance (a fusion of signifier and signified, with its attention to prosody) produces the dialogic conflict over the meaning of words.

As Rhys’ short story opens, we find the narrator being removed from her home, victimized by a white landlord and landlady interested solely in Selina’s money: “The man drunk already at that early hour, and he abuse me – all talk, he can’t frighten me. But his wife is a bad one – now she walk in my room and say she must have cash.”6 Immediately, the reader recognizes an “othered” narrative voice, distinct from the British society in which the character lives.

Selina’s patois introduces the rift between speech genres; Selina interprets the landlord as “all talk,” unable to frighten her because his words occupy the space of white, male, middle-class semiotic structure. Because “each character … interprets the world for him- or herself and expresses the interpretation through his or her own specific discourse,” Selina incorporates the words of those around her into her own dialect.7

Rather than providing quotation in this scene of eviction, Selina narrates, “she walk in my room and say she must have cash.” The narrator establishes her patois as an authoritative voice, without which she lacks the ability to process her surroundings. She maintains the agency necessary to affirm her own hermeneutic code, perhaps aware of the subjectivity inherent to perceiving and interpreting reality.8

Rhys, employing this narrative style, sets up the dialogic conflict that results from social value judgments, placing the voice and language of the female West Indian immigrant in opposition to that of native Englishmen. Moving into the flat offered her by Mr. Sims, Selina clashes with her neighbors, who are white and of higher economic status. She relates, “There’s no wall here and I can see the woman next door looking at me over the hedge. At first I say good morning, but she turn away her head, so afterwards I don’t speak.”9

The narrator’s “good morning” typifies Bakhtin’s notion of the “word,” a signifier understood by both Selina and her neighbor in textual form. Dialogic conflict between the two characters (and two thought processes) arises when the “word” is performed into “utterance.” The breakdown of the wall – both literal and figurative – between these two speech genres injects into the text a sense of social heteroglossia, “the Tower-of-Babel mixing of languages” that permits multiple interpretations of a single object or phrase.10 The meaning of “good morning” becomes dependent upon speaker; we can assume that Selina’s neighbor would not “turn away her head” to a character higher on the social and hermeneutic ladder.

Selina’s mode of expression continues to disturb her neighbors throughout the story, and they long to remove her. Both husband and wife exaggerate Selina’s behavior, reinterpreting “song” as “noise:”

“I pass her she says in very sweet quiet voice, ‘Must you stay? Can’t you go?’ I don’t answer. I walk out in the street to get rid of her… Then I start to sing, so she can understand I’m not afraid of her. The husband call out: ‘If you don’t stop that noise I’ll send for the police.’”11

Dialogue between Selina and the couple next door provides insight not only into the immigrant’s race and class, but also into her particular breed of femininity. The intonation employed by the wife in asking Selina to leave – indicative of Julia Kristeva’s idea of the semiotic – underscores her classical femininity. While the words she speaks can exist in a “‘virginal,’ still ‘unuttered’ nature,” presuming “nothing beyond the borders of [their] own context,” performance brings them to life and imbues them with meaning.12

She utilizes the “sweet quiet voice” deemed ladylike among the white and upper-class. Selina, on the other hand, cannot afford “quiet” womanhood, marginalized already in too many ways. She does not respond to the woman’s “soft sugar voice” because it lies outside her frame of reference, outside the speech genre with which she is comfortable. She resorts, instead, to song, a language structure drawn directly from her original cultural context and one that proclaims her strength in womanhood. As it moves into the British natives’ language system, Selina’s form of expression turns abruptly into “noise,” exposing the rift between signifier and signified among clashing cultural-linguistic systems.

Similarly, when police officers arrive at Selina’s home with the intention of arresting her, we come to understand the woman through both spoken and acted dialogue. “He showed me a paper and I look at it, but I don’t read it,” she informs us, revealing the meaningless of the text before her.13 The policeman’s notice – literally, the “word,” or Kristeva’s “symbolic” – bears no significance within the dialogic.

Selina’s disregard for the paper, much as for the books offered her later in prison, reminds us that the printed word assumes the dominance of the culture from which it comes, paying no mind to utterance or perspective; undercutting this form of communication, Rhys creates a world in which “there is no superior vantage point for anyone.”14 Selina soon becomes “suspicious of these quiet voices,” like those of her neighbors and the magistrate she faces in court, for only those firmly situated within the dominant discourse can afford to have quiet voices.15

Constructing a world of liars eager to “other” the black woman amongst them, Rhys destabilizes the legitimacy of what should be the most powerful speech genre. It is subverted by the power of song and emotional release; walking in the jail’s courtyard, Selina can hear a woman’s singing drifting from the punishment cells:

“But it don’t fall down and die in the courtyard; seems to me it could jump the gates of the jail easy and travel far, and nobody could stop it. I don’t hear the words – only the music.”16

For Selina, the song encapsulates a form of dialogue to which she can connect. It lies outside the hermeneutics of oppression, able to “jump the gates” of an institution established to punish and alienate. “I don’t hear the words” because they are unimportant, rooted in a system of discourse that is not her own.

The woman’s attachment to the Holloway song stems from a love for the emotional and passionate, both in stark contrast to the “quiet voices” that collectively oppress her. Rhys presents the Holloway song as a form of dialogue unexpected in (and in conflict with) the prison setting, where the prison also alludes to the confines of social and linguistic taxonomy.

Even when the song is taken from Selina, commercialized and changed by a man who hears her humming at a party, she comes to terms: “I say, ‘No, not like that,’ but everybody else say the way he do it is first class… ‘So let them call it jazz,’ I think, and let them play it wrong.”17 Though the tune sounds wrong to her, the others at the party interpret it as “first class” (a phrase which, in itself, marks a fundamental difference between the characters in the short story). She maintains a lexical distance, always tied to the speech genre produced by her black, female immigrant background. Let Them Call It Jazz, she proclaims, calling into question their ability to name, and allowing herself to ignore the signification that is ultimately arbitrary in nature.

This mode of signification, for Rhys, speaks not only for the society surrounding Selina Davis, but also for that into which Let Them Call It Jazz was released. Dominic Head’s assertion that dialogic conflict plays a noteworthy role in the modernist short story comes perhaps from the role of dialogic conflict in modernist society. The industrializing and post-industrial cityscape, calling migrants from both the rural lifestyle and less wealthy regions of the world, gave rise to the “melting pot” phenomenon: race, gender, and class differences came sharply into view as they began to interact in a heterogeneous setting.

As a “modernist short story,” Rhys’ work details a London environment that is increasingly polyphonic. The text, though short and digestible, provides “a portrayal of human beings, particularly one type of woman, functioning in an economic society, who are seen from a physiological and psychological point of view.”18

We, as readers, come to understand the characters in the short story via their relationships with one another and with us. The format familiarizes us with Selina’s characteristics via short bursts of dialogue and narrative voice, rather than the extensive characterizations or the authorial commentary that might appear in a novel.

Here, we find Selina within a context of linguistic institutions in flux and in disagreement. The modernist city – and narrative – places multiple speech genres in an enclosed space, enabling them to threaten one another and unsettle lingual hegemony. The use of the patois sheds light on the cultural influence on the utterance and its relation to race, gender, and class.

Kristin Czarnecki reminds us, “Not only is Selina of West Indian background, as are several Rhys heroines, but she is also mulatta, a Martiniquaise immigrant to London in the 1950s.”19 Her “otherness” is immediate and visible (her neighbors note that she is the first of Mr. Sims’ ‘girls’ to be nonwhite), and it is this fact, in conjunction with her refusal to relinquish her vernacular, that establishes a different sense of selfhood. Her struggle in the modernist city is one strictly related to dialogic conflict and adaptation.

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