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”The Day They Burned The Books” by Jean Rhys

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Jean Rhys’ “The Day They Burned The Books” is a short story narrated by an anonymous young girl about Eddie and his family, including his abusive father and tortured mother. Eddie’s father, Mr. Sawyer, fancied his library and later on died of unknown cause. His wife decided to burn and sell all of the books in his library. It is obvious that feminist criticism and structuralism are well applied to the story. Feminism refers to the advocacy of equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social, and economic rights of the female sex whereas structuralism suggests the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation; they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of. (Peter Barry, 2009) How the two theoretical approaches work in the story and the comparison between the two will be discussed in depth as follows.

Rhys contructs an Écriture Féminine, a female language, and adopts it in the story. Écriture feminine is a transgressive, rule-transcending and intoxicated language in nature while the realm of the body is considered immune to social and gender-conditioning and proficient in issuing forth a pure essence of the feminine. (Peter Barry, 2009) Fragmented sentences that plait and abide by associations can be found throughout the story. When introducing Mr. Sawyer, she writes, “He was not a planter or a doctor or a lawyer or a banker”; and describing Mrs. Sawyer in the library, “Mrs. Sawyer’s mouth tight, her eyes pleased”. The style of language is not commonly used among male authors. Also, manifold voices are inserted in Rhys’s writing of the girl’s narration in the story. Dialogues between Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer, Eddie and the narrator are used throughout the writing to portray the characters’ personalities, inner thoughts and how the story goes on. Rhys’s own form of Écriture Féminine makes her capable of re-inventing and altering the male-oriented normative language.

Feminist criticism focuses on the representations of women in literature by females and males. (Peter Barry, 2009) In the story, Mrs. Sawyer is described to be constantly abused by her husband, while “she never answered him”. Being an educated, colored woman believed to be born and bred in the Dominican Republic, she was conceived to be inferior in society. The character of Mrs. Sawyer represents women’s submissiveness and inferiority through the stark contrast of the abusiveness and savagery of men (as how Mr. Sawyer is portrayed), by which Rhys suggests the idea that women had long been deprived and oppressed in an intolerable manner, especially the colored ones (this is indicated by the narrator’s white mother being superior enough to ignore Mrs. Sawyer).

Rhys also revalues women’s experience by depicting the mysterious sudden death of Mr. Sawyer. The book “Fort Comme La Mort” meaning “The Strength of the Dead” in French in the end of the story appears to be in association of the death of Mr. Sawyer. Mrs. Sawyer’s attempt to burn the book implies her involvement in the death of her husband. In this way, Rhys suggests women’s revenge, hatred, and wickedness contradictory to the socially defined characteristics of females.

In structuralism, Rhys adopts the five codes acknowledged by Roland Barthes in S/Z as well in her story. The first provides indications of actions (Peter Barry, 2009), termed “proairetic code”. In the story, different verbs are used to describe the actions of characters respectively, such as “she is still pulling all books out of the shelves and piling them into two heaps”. The second poses questions or enigmas providing narrative suspense (Peter Barry, 2009), termed “hermeneutic code”. The act Mrs. Sawyer picked up some of her hair Mr. Sawyer pulled out and put it in an envelope aroused the readers’ suspense of her purpose, which appears wicked and mysterious. The third contains reference out beyond the text to what is regarded as common knowledge, termed “cultural code”. (Peter Barry, 2009) Rhys remarks in the story Mr. Sawyer often treated his wife rudely and despised her in offensive wordings, such as “the nigger showing off”.

The way Mr. Sawyer, as an Englishman, treated his wife is contradictory to what we usually perceive how a husband should treat his wife. The fourth appears in the prose as for the iconography of certain characters, termed “semic code” or “connotative code”. (Peter Barry, 2009) The narrator describes Mildred, Mrs. Sawyer’s maid, as how a typical maid is generally perceived, such as bringing in coffee, and telling things concerning the Sawyer family to “other servants in the town”. The fifth comprises of contrasts and pairings associated with the most basic binary polarities, termed symbolic code. (Peter Barry, 2009) The most significant symbolic code in the story is the binary contrast between males (e.g. Mr. Sawyer) and females (e.g. Mrs. Sawyer), while another contrast is between abusiveness and submissiveness.

Comparing feminist criticism and structuralism applied to “The Day They Burned The Books”, I do personally reckon the former is more interesting. The author of the story, Jean Rhys, is a famous well-recognized feminist writer. She inputs different elements of feminism, namely, Écriture Féminine, psychoanalysis of both sexes and so forth representing in her own language, writing techniques and the minute content. In sharp contrast, structuralism is only shown in Rhys’s writing techniques, which appears to me to be narrow and less fascinating. The five codes as mentioned above are only suggested within the context, but do not transcend the meaning of the story.

Also, we can see Rhys’s efforts in representing feminism from the characters of the story while the twisted marriage between Mrs. Sawyer and Mr. Sawyer is the best symbol of the sexual oppression, in which I am greatly intrigued. The feminist approach in the story leads to my in-depth contemplation upon gender equality as well while structuralism appears to me to be merely application of techniques without any further functions. Hence, I find structuralism less interesting than feminist criticism in the story, with the latter being more comprehensive, influential and reflective.

Barry, P. (2009). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester University Press.

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