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"I Used to Live Here Once" by Jean Rhys : A Theme Analyzation

Myranda Grecinger is a graduate student in interdisciplinary studies at Liberty University studying American History & Executive Leadership.

By Myranda Grecinger

In the short story “I Used to Live Here Once “(Rhys, 1976), the underlying theme is about one woman’s spiritual journey after life. Theme is defined by Webster’s dictionary online as “a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in literary or artistic work.” [Webster’s]. The theme in this story is not immediately evident, but is hinted at subtly throughout the story and confirmed only in the final passage. Each element of literature listed in our text “Journey into literature “ including Symbolism, Character, Setting, Tone, point of view and Plot (Clugston , 2010) are all necessary components that guide the reader toward this final unified conclusion and leaves him or her with a sense of closure that is backed by a solid theme that has gradually built and developed as he or she progressed through the story.

The story begins in a serine, country setting with a woman crossing a river, Webster’s dictionary online states that a setting is “the environment in which something is set or the state of the environment in which a situation exists and the set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event” [Webster’s]. In the beginning of the story we read “She was standing by the river looking at the stepping stones and remembering each one.” This statement tells us where she is and that she has been there before, by starting the story this way the author has given us not only the setting, but also a hint of the tone. Webster’s dictionary online tells us that the tone is “the quality of something (an act or a piece of writing) that reveals the attitudes and presuppositions of the author toward the material and/or readers” [Webster’s]. So it is a very important piece of the puzzle that will ultimately lead to the defining moment revealing the theme.

As the plot unfolds we begin to get the picture that the woman is on some sort of journey. She is taking a trip down what seems to be a familiar path, yet along the way the author points out some notable differences. We are slowly being lead on a journey right along with the main character in the story and can come to conclusion that it has been a long time since she was here last. Statements such as “The road was much wider than it used to be” and “The only thing was that the sky had a glassy look that she didn't remember.” as well as “The screw pine was gone” (Rhys, 1976), give us important clues as to the changes that have taken place in her absence as well as the fact that we may be reading about something other than a physical journey or an average trip down memory lane.

This story is stalked full of great examples of symbolism, and without them I do not believe that the theme could have been conveyed so clearly in the end or that the overall tone would have carried as well. The first passage in the story tells about a point of crossing over a river, often in literature as well as general conversation death is referred to as “crossing over”, so that is a great use of imagery on the part of the author. The author also focuses a lot on the “glassy sky” “(Rhys, 1976) devoting two sentences to it, so we know that this is something that really stood out, however, glass often causes one to think of fragility as well as reflection, which are also both thing that we may think of when considering the transition from life to death. The final symbols in the story come in the very last passages, we are first told that the woman is calling out to some children in the yard who seem foreign to her and they ignore her and then take no notice even when she is close enough to touch them. Then we are told that the children are suddenly cold. Often when discussing the possibility of paranormal activity people refer to a chill or coldness in the area that the phenomenon is occurring, and that is not to mention the correlation between cold and death its’ self. It is at this point in the story when the character has a moment of truth and clarity and the author sums up the experience and gives us the theme by stating “That was the first time she knew.” (Rhys, 1976)

The authors decision to tell the story from a limited omniscient point of view “when the thoughts and feelings of only one of the characters are related through the narrator” (Clugston, 2010) was very important to the reader in understanding the theme. Without the intimate thoughts and memories of the woman we would never been able to understand what all of the symbolism meant or even been given the final moment of clarity that brings it all together. Had the author chosen an omniscient point of view, meaning she describes everything going on with every character, I believe we would have been so overloaded that we may have missed some valuable points and I do not think that anything that could have been added from the other characters would have carried much relevance towards the theme. On the other hand, first person point of view would have narrowed the reader’s sights and may not have given as much of an impact for the final revelation.

This story gently led the reader down a winding path of spiritual discovery. The plot flowed along smoothly and the symbolism only intensified the reader’s reaction towards the main character. The setting helped create the tone and prepare the reader for what may lay ahead and in the end the theme clearly stood out. The journey from beginning to end leads the reader and the character to one major conclusion, she is dead.

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Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into literature. [Rhys, Jean. I Used to Live Here Once] San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. https://content.ashford.edu/books

© 2011 Myranda Grecinger


Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on December 02, 2013:

That is correct, Noah, which is precisely why I told another poster that the article "may not meet your school's requirements as an academic resource." Ashford as well as some other schools have very strict guidelines for what they consider to be quality reference material. There are some useful references used in all of my articles that do qualify, however, so you are welcome to use my articles for ideas and further reading.

Noah Vox on December 01, 2013:

Ashford students should only use scholarly sources in their papers. This is not a scholarly source.

Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on November 17, 2012:

Just try using a few of the different resources in the library, I usually use jstor, ebrary and proquest. try using a variety of key words related to your thesis as well as searching the author's last name or the title as a key word, by doing that sometimes you will find articles, journals and reviews that may be useful.

Linette Russell on November 17, 2012:

I too am a Ashford Student I am currently taking Eng125 and working on my outline for my final paper I am having problems using Ashford library for my resources.What key words did you use to get your references.Your essay is awesome excellent for an undergrad student I can see why they questioned your work.

Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on August 13, 2012:

You are welcome to use my article as long as you cite it properly as a resource although it may not meet your school's requirments as an academic resource.

Gabriel Caldwell on August 12, 2012:

Are you still a student at Ashford? I am currently a student at Ashford and is in ENG125 and love the way you have detail the theme of this short sotry. I want to use it as a resouce for my assignment. I will cite and give the credit where it is do. Great job!

Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on July 17, 2012:

You are welcome to use my work as long as you cite it. Thanks for reading and thanks for asking permission to use it

Janie on July 16, 2012:

Thank you for clearing up this story. I hope to be able to use your work on my essay. Is that ok?

Thanks again.

Brooks on July 04, 2012:

Great article I did paraphrase your work in my paper. I cited thanks in advance and keep up the good work. You are a great writer!

steph on June 03, 2012:

I hope you do not mind me using you as one of my sources in my paper I really like how you laid it out there. I will cite and reference. I hope this is ok!

Myranda Grecinger (author) from Rochester, MN on May 24, 2012:

No problem, Taylor, thanks for the heads up

Taylor on May 24, 2012:

Need to use your article for a school paper, will cite properly. Thanks

Yes!!! on September 09, 2011:

wow what an interesting perspective and so many facts i never knew thanks for upload.