The “Let Them Call It Jazz” Short Story by Jean Rhys
Songs have been used for different purposes, such as relating to contemporary life situations such as war, marriage, and economic downturns. Music calms the soul and relaxes the mind, taking someone away from the problem at hand. In addition, singing and listening to songs have therapeutic abilities, enabling individuals to change their perceptions of life in extremely tough situations. Let Them Call It Jazz by Jean Rhys is the story of a young naïve woman trapped in a post-colonial and racially-segregated nation. In Rhys’ story, Selina uses songs to navigate different life conditions that threaten to quiet her, forcing her to submit to racial segregation and manipulation. For Selina, singing is a vital element of life, which effectively shields her from unfriendly physical and social conditions. The songs, in Selina’s worldview, are the tools with which she attempts to gain stability in an environment characterized by intense gender and racial bias, giving her the power to tackle what she cannot accept.
A critical analysis of literary elements paves the way for a comprehensive evaluation of the underlying social issues addressed and aids in developing connections between characters. Every artistic device has a superficial implication and a deeper meaning. Understanding both sides calls for analytical skills that would enable one to decipher the author’s line of thought in the intended message. In Rhys’ story, the roles of Selina’s songs can be analyzed through two main critical lenses: the post-colonial lens and the psychoanalytic lens.
From a post-colonial standpoint, diasporic conditions have distinct differences from the home country, so stability in a new geographical location becomes challenging. In Rhys’ story, Selina is portrayed as a Caribbean-born woman who had relocated to England in the post-colonial era (Rhys 21). The story is set at a time when women had not gained a voice in a male-dominated society. Rhys shows how Selina was perceived as a lesser person, first from her race, then her gender. For example, Rhys records that when the police were called concerning her public singing, finding Selina to be a black woman made it easy for them to arrest her (Rhys 21). Society had been conditioned to segregate and abuse women (Naidu and Thorpe 30). This situation is exemplified when Selina meets the man who offers her a place to stay while imagining her to be a prostitute (Rhys 24). Her vulnerability and low economic status make her subject to homelessness and from everyone she meets in London. All these experiences are shaped by the post-colonial modernist perspectives through which society was shaped during Selina’s time stay in London.
A psychoanalytic approach to the story entails a comprehension of individual perceptions of self and their influence on Selina’s life. From the worldview of an economically disadvantaged woman trying to find her balance in a chaotic social environment. The concept of otherness springs from Selina’s perception that although she was made to feel inferior, she was unwilling to accept that as her reality. This is the story of a heroine, determined to show the world her true sense of self. Notwithstanding her seeming coldness and alienation from society and herself by the end of the text, Selina still appears to have a sense of self. Selina’s acceptance of her music being “Jazzed up,” and her own silence while in prison, are both signs of courage and non-conformity (Wright 115). In a society dedicated to burying her relevance, Selina opted for silence to preserve her strong sense of identity.
In any case, society’s depiction of women in society had little influence on Selina’s view of her place in the community. According to Taylor-Batty, Selina’s power as a woman comes “from Selina’s mastery of silence and speech and from her reluctance to portray her tale via an oppressive narrative lens” (498). Selina’s coldness and apparent reluctance to conform can be seen as a veil she adopts to protect herself. At the end of the narrative, when hearing the Holloway song “jazzed up,” Selina shows her dissatisfaction with the music. She comments, “‘So let them call it jazz,’ I think, and let them play it poorly” that won’t change anything about the song I heard” (32). Selina’s reference to the jazz music not affecting her own melody is a striking symbol for herself, indicating how the guise of compliance she presents to the world has no impact on her strong sense of self.
Singing for Comfort
Selina sang for comfort and to alleviate her isolation at first, but it is her performance of old favorites and her spontaneous songwriting that gets her into problems with her neighbors and the law. The story presents a loud, boisterous type of incivility in the character of the intoxicated, verbally abusive, singing Selina, in contrast to the silences concerning the unsavory specifics of her suffering. She was not a conventional character for twentieth-century Britain as an Afro-Caribbean lady. Therefore her very presence in this nation was about developing a transnational identity, uncommon at the time (Naidu and Thorpe 27). Selina loses her home and work as a result, and her neighbors constantly chastise her for drinking and singing (Rhys 27). People tend to reject those different from them, which appears to be the method used by most Londoners who come into touch with Selina. This factor increases her loneliness, leading her to seek solace in singing.
Singing for Survival
At the beginning of the story, Selina highlights the unfriendly environment presented by Londoners. She states that most Londoners were cold-hearted, implying that her life in the country would require survival skills (Rhys 21). One would expect that women would be more understanding of each other in the post-colonial era. However, the landlady’s act of kicking Selina out of the house for refusing to make advance rental payment demonstrates that Selina was entirely on her own (Wright 116). When she finally gets a chance to sing, Selina does it so well that she attracts the attention of neighbors who accuse her of disrupting their lives. Although she ends up in prison for her songs, she demonstrates that she was willing to use her talents for survival, notwithstanding the unfriendly environment in London. Singing becomes a representation of survival after a physical and psychological breakdown, followed by the hard privations of incarceration.
Finding shelter in London was challenging, following the cultural perspectives of Londoners and their disregard for other races. Selina comments that the man who offers her shelter speaks “like he knows what it is to live” as she does (21). This statement denotes the harsh environments in which no one seemed to understand the plight of immigrants in London. Rhys records that Selina spent most of her time drinking and dancing at her new home (25). Analyzing Selina’s past experience with the landlady who kicked her out and now a free home with drinks and music, it is evident that she sang to assure herself of her survival mechanisms. She seemed to celebrate the fact that she could now settle without paying rent and still have time to entertain herself. Although the man intended to use Selina as a prostitute, she was ready to use whatever means available to secure her future, and songs gave her the motivation she needed.
Singing for Escape
In the midst of intense discrimination from all sides, escaping reality seemed the logical move in Selina’s case. Rhys shows that living conditions in London were so challenging for immigrants that they would struggle to find meaningful employment, resorting to creative means for sustainability (22). Selina takes to singing as an escape from the continual stress of travelling and finding her place. She starts singing on the streets for money when she is out of employment and feels criticized by prejudiced neighbors, which she perceives as her escape (Rhys 27). Singing protects Selina on two distinct levels: on the financial level, it enables her to save income and judging from the spiritual plane, it allows her to express her feelings via creativity (Taylor-Batty 10). As a result, she intentionally turns to singing to ease her pain and overcome stress. Although nothing much improved in Selina’s physical environment, singing masked the reality, helping her to get through tough days.
Singing for Self-Confidence and Rejuvenation
Imprisonment made the situation worse for Selina since she constantly reflected on her journey finding it hard to accept the conditions in which she was confined by society. The only thought in her mind was escaping the pain, shame, and lack of identity that characterized her everyday life in London. Rhys records that when Selina heard an inmate hum a song while in prison, the asymmetry of a song in such a terrible situation served as a trigger for her recovery (29). It gave her renewed strength, igniting the fire within her to escape the inhuman conditions within and outside prison. She mentions that the Holloway music has the ability to “leap the jail gates easily and reach far, and nothing could stop it” (Rhys 30). Selina was thus ready to carve a transnational social identity as a result of this experience, implying that she could bear the rigors of her diasporic situation to some extent.
In conclusion, Let Them Call It Jazz by Jean Rhys is a highly relevant story depicting the vital roles of songs in the life of Selina, an Afro-Caribbean woman struggling to establish a decent life in London. Form post-colonial and psychoanalytic dimensions, living in London after the colonial rule was characterized by racial discrimination, calling for patience and resilience from the immigrants. Selina’s experiences in London were shaped by loneliness and a desire to escape the harsh realities of life. From the beginning, she gained developed the view that everyone in London was cold-hearted. From being kicked out of her home, being used considered a prostitute, the neighbors’ harsh judgments, and imprisonment, the situations seemed to get from bad to worse. Throughout her experiences, Selina found solace in songs, enabling her to deal with stressful conditions and alleviate her pain. The prison experience and her response to the Holloway song reveal that she found rejuvenation and salvation in songs.
Naidu, Sam, and Andrea Thorpe. “‘I Don’t Belong Nowhere Really’: The Figure of the London Migrant in Dan Jacobson’s ‘A Long Way From London’ And Jean Rhys’s ‘Let Them Call It Jazz.’” English Academy Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 26-37.
Rhys, Jean. Let Them Call It Jazz: And Other Stories. Penguin, 1995.
Taylor-Batty, Juliette. “‘Everything’s Been Done Before’: Jean Rhys, Translation, and the Politics of Originality”. Modernist Cultures, vol. 14, no. 4, 2019, pp. 498-521.
Wright, Pamela. “One Woman’s Song is Another’s: Sisterhood and Defying the Patriarchal Order in Jean Rhys’s ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’.” South Atlantic Review, vol. 86, no. 1, spring 2021, pp. 114-120. Web.