On “I Used to Live Here Once” by Jean Rhys

By Sylvia Watanabe

This brief narrative, perhaps no more than four hundred words in length, is
most often read as a ghost story. In it we follow the unnamed protagonist on
a journey of return to what may or may not have been her former home. With
her crossing of the river (a traditional symbol of transition) in the opening
scene, we enter a mirror world in which familiar places and things have been
made strange: the road widened but oddly unkempt trees and shelters van-
ished, the old house “added to and painted white.” The sky itself is described
as mirror-like, with a “glassy look that she didn’t remember.”

From the story’s onset, we see the dissociation in the central character,
which is a hallmark of every good ghost story, established through the un-
grounding of a memory and of what can be reliably known. Through the au-
thor’s strategic choice of the past progressive, the protagonist appears in the me-
dias res, as if out of nowhere, “standing by the river looking at the stepping
stones and remembering each one.” She is simply there; we do not know where
she has come from or how long she has been traveling. Here, and throughout
the following narrative, the specificity of detail, “the round unsteady stone,
the pointed one . . .” is deceptive. Rhys leads us to believe that the vivid detail
of memory is somehow telling us about this world, when in fact, it is telling
us more—through implication—about absences, about what the world is not.
Though “She” (the central character) is “remembering,” she has no history, no
place of origin, no name, no age. When she finally arrives at what we might
carelessly assume to be her former home, Rhys does not say that she ever lived
inside that house. Other clues are provided that she may have lived in the
ajoupa—a kind of rough wooden shelter about among the trees.

Not until the protagonist’s arrival at the old property, the the penultimate
paragraph, are we provided the details from which in this final scene of the two
children playing in the front yard (“Very fair children, as Europeans born in
the West Indies so often are: as if white blood is asserting itself against all
the odds”), we can also infer that the protagonist is likely of a different—quite
possibly mixed—race and class.

Here, the narrative begins to shift underfoot. The trail of indirection, laid
out through Rhys’s deliberate elisions, suggests another interpretation in which
the mirror world acquires a more menacing significance. As the protagonist
moves toward the children, “arms instinctively [held] out with the longing to
touch them,” they do not respond to her gesture. This may be because she is
literally dead and they do not see her; or, they may be merely pretending not
to see her, which would make her a very different sort of ghost, a deliberate

In this second reading, the journey into the mirror world signifies a shift
in the protagonist’s consciousness in which she becomes aware of herself as
racial other. To dispel her unease, she repeats the assurance that she is still in
the world she has always known—with the same river, stones, road, grass,
and trees. However, through her new awareness, she sees that this world func-
tions differently—that it is a world in which, quite arbitrarily, the visible can
be made invisible and presence magically erased, where there can be no owner-
ship of identity, of memory, of self.

Each time I teach “I Used to Live Here Once,” my students are surprised
that it does not easily yield up a reading. More often than not, they arrive at
the monocular view that it is a “simple” genre story—a view in which they
become increasingly invested as discussions progresses and they are beset by
the discomfiting awareness that there is nothing simple about why Rhys has

At this point, it would be dishonest of me not to confess that I, too, have
been guilty of such monocularism. The first time I taught the story, I walked
into the classroom, excited at the prospect of leading a discussion on Rhys’s
Masterful Use of Indirection in Narrating the Experience of Racial Otherness.
I asked one of my best students for his response to the text, counting on him to
be articulate and well-prepared. As indeed he was. He was the most forthcoming
with his opinion that, “This is a story about a dead woman who discovers she
is a ghost.” As he proceeded to regale the class with a carefully considered ar-
gument of how he knew this, and others chimed in with supporting details, I
was speechless with astonishment. Was I hearing correctly? Had I taught them
nothing? They were calling this a ghost story? How could they be so shallow?

When I recovered my senses enough to enter the fray, the workshop went
on to have one of the most heated and productive discussions that any of my
classes has ever had. My subsequent revisitings to Rhys’s story have continued
to be informed by the issues raised that day. Each time I go back, there is some-
thing new to discover. But I will never finish with being amazed at its exquisite
and deliberate crafting, on all levels, as a kind of trompe l’oeil, much like the
familiar image of the human profile that’s a vase that’s a human profile—each
reading inseparable from the other.

Sylvia Watanabe‘s story cycle, Talking to the Dead, was a finalist for the 1993 PEN/
Faulkner Award and a recipient of the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles award for
fiction. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the
Ohio Arts Council. Her stories and personal essays have been widely anthologized
and have been included in the O. Henry and Pushcart Prize collections. She teaches
at Oberlin College.

Originally published in NOR8

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