‘The Lotus’ by Jean Rhys

Rhys, Jean 1967

The Lotus by Jean Rhys, 1967

The magic trick:

Pushing and pulling the reader’s sympathies and blames back and forth from the first sentence to the last

“The Lotus” reminds me of the Antonya Nelson story, “Chapter Two,” with its crazy, naked neighbor. The interesting thing about “The Lotus” is the shifting sympathy-blame dynamic inspired in the reader.

It’s never quite all or nothing, either. You start the story sympathizing with Ronnie and Christine. Oh, they have to humor this drunk, old woman. But maybe they’re a little too patronizing. Hmm. Then again maybe there is actually some truth in some of the seemingly nonsensical things she is saying.

Then perhaps you start considering Lotus. How did she wind up in such a state? That poor woman. Wait, now am I being just as patronizing as I just criticized Ronnie and Christine for being? And what about Chrstine? She’s not patronizing; she’s awful. Why is she like this? Why is she so unhappy and so immature?

And so on and so forth. This back and forth process continues like a tennis match in the reader’s mind all the way up through the very last sentence. Of course, in the end, we wind up pretty much hating the entire apartment building. And that’s quite a trick on Rhys’s part.

The selection:

‘Oh, don’t be silly, she didn’t mean to insult you,’ Ronnie argued. ‘She’s tight – that’s what’s the matter with her. I think she’s damned comic. She’s the funniest old relic of the past I’ve struck for a long time.’

Christine went on as if she had not heard him. ‘This hellish, filthy slum and my hellish life in it! And now you must produce this creature, who stinks of whisky and all the rest better left unsaid, to talk to me. To talk to me! There are limits, as you said yourself, there are limits… Seduced on a haystack, my God!… She oughtn’t to be touched with a barge-pole.’

‘I say, look out,’ Ronnie said. ‘She’s coming back. She’ll hear you.’

‘Let her hear me,’ said Christine.

She went on to the landing and stood there. When she saw the top of Lotus’ head she said in a clear, high voice, ‘I really can’t stay any longer in the same room as that woman. The mixture of whisky and mustiness is too awful.’

She went into the bedroom, sat down on the bed and began to laugh. Soon she was laughing so heartily that she had to put the back of her hand over her mouth to stop the noise.

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