“The Lotus” was first published in Art and Literature in 1967 and later published in the collection Tigers Are Better Looking in 1968. Although according to Jean Rhys’s letters most of the stories in the collection were ready in 1945, their publication was possible only because of Rhys’s literary resurrection after the publication of her novel Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966. Like many other stories in the collection, “The Lotus” is set in London. The third-person narrative follows the point of view of Ronnie Miles and focuses on his downstairs neighbour, Lotus Heath, a middle-aged woman writer. Ronnie invites Lotus over for a drink, despite the disapproval of his wife, Christine, who believes Lotus to be “a tart.” Lotus tells the couple about her work, ignoring Christine’s sarcastic comments about her writing and her insinuations that she is drinking too much. When Ronnie accompanies Lotus back to her small basement flat, he sees photographs of her as a young woman. The striking beauty of these photographs evokes the older woman’s growing sense of loss. In the intimacy of this small but crowded space, Lotus tells Ronnie about the pain of her loneliness and marginalization in London: “I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough, I can tell you. The things they say. The things people say!” Back in his flat, some minutes later, Ronnie notices a strange noise coming from the street: Lotus is running naked up the street until she is, finally, caught by two policemen. One of the policemen tries to find out if the Mileses or any of their neighbors know Lotus, suggesting that her behavior was probably triggered by “something more than drink.” Ronnie, however, claims not to know anything about his neighbor. He goes back to his bedroom, where his wife Christine is lying in bed, peaceful and happy as a little child, ignoring “the whole sordid affair.” The desire that Christine’s uncontaminated happiness provokes in Ronnie further intensifies the isolation and the grotesque marginalization of Lotus Heath.
Early reviewers, writing in 1968, saw Tigers Are Better Looking as confirming Rhys’s interest in the lives of underdogs and read the bleak ending of “The Lotus” as a critique of the hypocrisy of English manners. Others read the story as autobiographical, highlighting possible links between the two middle-aged women writers, Lotus Heath and Jean Rhys. For many feminist and postcolonial critics it is the “naked” portrait of social discrimination, exclusion, and alienation that makes story so powerful. Even though Lotus’s ethnicity is not clearly conveyed in this story, critics have tended to read “The Lotus” alongside other short stories by Rhys whose figures are outsiders, in terms of class, race, or gender. The name Lotus evokes that sense of displacement, evoking the transplant of an exotic flower to the urban London scene. The lotus flower is native to eastern Asia but is widely cultivated outside Asia for its large pink or white flowers. While these colors emphasize the energy, exuberance, and creativity of Rhys’s character, they also suggest her potential alienation and marginality. Lotus’s naked body as she runs alone in the streets of London is, in this sense, a striking image of dispossession and loss. The erasure of Lotus’s identity is prefigured through several references to death, such as Christine’s sarcastic comments on Lotus’s age: “Most people go on living long after they ought to be dead, don’t they?” Similarly, at the end of the story, when Ronnie is talking with the policeman, he impulsively asks, “Is she dying?” The narrative, framed, woven, and constructed through male perspective, also emphasizes the silencing of Lotus. The dislocation of the typically modernist epiphany—the last paragraphs of the story focus not on Lotus but on Christine—confirms again the deletion of Lotus’s subjectivity from the white male narrative. This obliteration is particularly poignant because Lotus, the woman exiled from the narrative, is herself a writer.
Rhys, Jean. Collected Short Stories. London: Norton, 1992.
Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story
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