Jean Rhys’ I Used to Live Here Once, is an unusually short story. However, it is also unusually memorable, which is always a sign of an effective piece of work. Through the use of point of view, symbolism, imagery, and other narrative techniques, Rhys explores a delicate theme in a subtle yet powerful way.
I Used to Live Here Once is a rather shadowy tale of a woman who appears to be a ghost calling on her childhood home. The narrator trails the woman on her walk from a near river and along an old road that leads to the house in which she spent her early years. On reaching the house, she sees two small white children playing in the garden and the woman attempts to inform them that she used to live in their house, but they do not acknowledge her.
The protagonist appears to be a ghost. The story begins by telling the reader how the stepping-stones next to the river are unsafe. She describes the setting as a “blue day” and that the sky looked “glassy” (Rhys, 1998), which could imply that, when alive, the woman had drowned in the river and that she had seen the sky through the water. The woman tries several times to engage with the children. They ignore her and then eventually go inside their house because they feel cold; this is a commonly reported experience by people who claim to have seen ghosts.
The narrator describes the children as having fair skin and that many European children born in the West Indies look that way, as if their “white blood is asserting itself against all odds”(Rhys, 1998). This line of the story demonstrates that the woman is probably of different race to the children. Therefore, it is feasible that the children used the cold as an excuse to leave, as they did not want to speak with the woman of a different race. As Jean Rhys grew up witnessing such discrimination and division, it is even more likely that this could be the truth of the story (Wilson, 1989). The overall theme of “I used to live here once,” is the significance of feeling associated with the outside world.
The story is littered with imagery and symbolism. A particularly prominent example is in the opening passage refers to crossing a river, and frequently death is spoken about as “crossing over.” Another example is in the description of “glassy sky.” The word glass conjures up notions of fragility and transparency, both of which could refer to the fragility of life and of moving between life and death.
The author’s decision to adopt a third person narrative with a limited omniscient point of view was important in the portrayal of the theme. Without the intimate feelings and memories of the protagonist, a great deal would have been lost. In fact, none of the other characters offer insight to the story, nor is there any substantial dialogue to enlighten readers of what is happening.
I Used to Live Here Once, is an effective, memorable, and arguably beautiful story. The author has chosen her words sparingly, often doubling words and phrases by using them both literally and symbolically. Whether the woman is a ghost or simply a different race than the children is a point of contention. However, in many ways the question is irrelevant as the theme remains the same.
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Rhys, Jean. (1998). I Used to Live Here Once. Telling Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York City: W. Norton & Co. 24-25.
Wilson, Lucy. (1989). European or Caribbean: Jean Rhys and the Language of Exile.
Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 10.03 68-72. JSTOR. EBSCO. Bracken Library. Ball State University. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3346446