“I used to live here once” by Jean Rhys
Short Short Stories Universal, p. 127-128
Jean Rhys (* 24. August 1890, † 14. Mai 1979) grew up in the Caribbean and moved to England at the age of 16. In 1923 she started to write and published her first stories. She became famous with her novel “Sargasso Sea”.
Now to the story:
Like all of you, we were spoilt for choice because of the enormous list of Short Storys we could work with. We have chosen Jean Rhys’s story because it is really well written, short and the punchline is not obvious at the first look (but when you have realized it you like the story even more than before – so: you could be curious ;)).
Summary and interpretation:
The story is told by a third person narrator, a woman, who is the main character in “I used to live here once”.
At the beginning of the story this woman is standing by a river, staring and remembering each stepping stone. After she has crossed the river she notices that the road is “much wider than it used to be”(p.127, l.10) because of the felled trees lying on the ground. The only thing she doesn’t remember while she is looking around is the sky with its glossy look (cf. ll.15-16).
In the next paragraph she comes to a house, the mock summer house, that is now painted white and she recognizes that the pine has disappeared, but that the clove is still there.
In front of the house two children are playing and the woman tries to start a conversation by saying “hello”(p.128, l.4), but the boy and the girl don’t react.
So the woman thinks that’s because of the fact that the Europeans who are born in the West Indies consider themselves as too good for communicating with her, a coloured woman. Then she tries it once more and adds: “I used to live here once”(l.10), but there isn’t any reaction again.
Finally she is quite near to them and wants to touch them. The boy turns around and looks straight into her eyes, but instead of recognizing the stranger he seems to look through her. He says to his sister that it has gone cold and the two run to the house(ll.12-17).
His behaviour is explained by the last sentence of the story: “That was the first time she knew” (l.19). So the happenings appear in a new light and context: The woman is dead, had been dead for some time without realizing her condition. That is the reason why nobody has paid attention to her and the reason why so many things have changed.
It’s obvious that this story deals most of the time with the memories of the woman. To make it clear the author uses the repetition of the words “remember” and “same”.
While the woman is looking at the landscape she is “remembering each one”(l.4) of the stepping stones in the river, the road that is now “much wider than it used to be”(l.10), the worn stone steps that lead up to the house and the house itself. Everything is “just as she remembered it”(l.25).
It also says that the woman is walking along the “same road”(p. 1217, l.13) with the “same unfinished look”(ll.19-20) like in earlier times.
But some things seem also strange to her, e.g. the sky with its “glassy look” (l.16) which she can’t “remember”(l.16) or the car that is standing in front of the house (cf p.128, l.2).
The repetition of the words “remember” and “same” shows the reader clearly that the woman must have lived in earlier times and is now recognizing the things that have changed and the things that are still the same. Espially the mention of the car underlines the fact that the woman died some time ago because for her it’s peculiar to see it.
By Maria Küffner and Katharina Siegert