Rhys’ use of patois in ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ immediately
informs the English-speaking reader that this is not a text that they will be
able to skim over; it is going to require their careful attention as they must
derive meaning from the phonetics rather than the written words. The difference
in linguistic style helps characterise the narrator as an ‘other’, when
compared to English-speaking readers, and Rhys’ use of patois has the effect of
representing the ‘others’ in the British culture of the 1950s.
The context surrounding Rhys’ writing of this desolate short
story is essential to consider when discussing the significance of the use of
patois. The post-war migration that occurred in the 1950’s created deep racial
hostilities towards Afro-Caribbean citizens throughout Britain. Selina’s patois
is based on Rhys’ own recall of the Martinique accent and, whilst it has been
argued (by critics such as Veronica Gregg) that Rhys’ imagination is ‘profoundly
racialized, even racist’1,
others like Carr have countered this argument with the reminder that, for her
time, Rhys was ‘remarkably opposed to racism’ and that the author ‘resists …
the essentializing definitions that colonialism relied on’ 2.
This counter-argument becomes particularly relevant when coupling it with the
patois’ effect of coercing the reader into empathising with Selina more deeply.
Rhys achieves this feat by narrating through the limited perspective of Selina.
This limited perspective gives an insight only into Selina’s own motivations
and, despite her acting in ways that may have been viewed as unruly if told by
an omniscient narrator, the reader cannot help but accept the strong sense of
sympathy provoked by her narration.
In Kristin Czarnecki’s essay on Selina’s patois, she makes a
striking comment about Rhys who “never spoke above a whisper”, due to an accent
that caused so much grief throughout her life. With this fact in mind, Rhys’
creation of such a loud character like Selina, who speaks far above a whisper,
unashamed of her native accent, seems to represent, in some ways, the type of
person Rhys wished to be – someone who does not feel constrained by the
boundaries forced upon her by a prejudiced society. When Selina refers to the
speech of her neighbours, she repeats their British English rather than using
patois, and the significance of this is to emphasise the divide between herself
and every other person she comes into contact with. This has the effect of,
again, stressing the fact that she is an outsider, but also of portraying the
poignant tone of loneliness that can be felt throughout the piece.
Veronica Marie Gregg, Jean Rhys’s
Historical Imagination: Reading and Writing the Creole. (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina, 1995), p. 37.
Helen Carr, ‘”Intemperate and Unchaste”: Jean Rhys and Caribbean Creole
Identity.’, Women: A Cultural Review, 14:
1 (2003), p. 53.