At first, Jean Rhys’ 1934 novel Voyage in the Dark reads like a coming-of-age story. The protagonist Anna Morgan has been brought to England from her home in the Caribbean by her step-mother. She works as a chorus girl touring drab English towns which all look alike to her. Her innocence is soon eroded by the people she meets and the seedy which she inhabits.
But the novel also explores the wider theme of how people can be displaced by colonialism while challenging western notions of superiority. The cold, grey and often dangerous streets of Edwardian London contrast with the vivid descriptions of balmy evenings spent in the Caribbean, surrounded by colourful, sweet-smelling hibiscus.
Anna is deeply unsettled in London and observes life with detachment. She is constantly cold and prone to falling ill; what’s more, she is consumed by a crippling inertia that leads her to mutter the line: “I am nineteen and I’ve got to go on living and living and living.”
London is imagined as a cruel, materialist and godless place, without any kind of moral framework. Victorian values are seen only in the tutting of Anna’s disapproving landlady; instead we see flawed characters forced to go to great lengths to survive in this brutal world where there is no hope of redemption.
But while Anna may long to be back in the Caribbean there is also the suggestion that life there is far from perfect. In one disturbing part, the first person narrative is momentarily interrupted by a description of the Carib people who inhabited the islands before the arrival of African slaves and western settlers. The passage reads: “The Caribs indigenous to this island were a warlike tribe and their resistance to white domination . . . was fierce. They are now practically exterminated.”
The novel is written in a classic modernist style, where perception and experience are foregrounded. This passage, however, is written with a startling ‘objectivity’ which resembles a history or anthropology book of the time – and it is this narrative of western superiority that allowed colonialism to flourish for so long and proved to be so difficult to subvert.