Memory, Trauma, and Natural Disaster

May 2013

Jean Rhys’s “Heat” and Lafcardio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies

Memory is a treacherous thing. As Bessel van de Kolk and Onno van der Hart point out in their essay “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma,” “Almost all memories are malleable by constant reworking and recategorization.”1 Volcanic eruptions make a particular memory, one powerful enough to give rise to words to contain it on the page, because volcanoes are a dramatic sign of how we do not control our planet, a reminder that the core of the earth is molten fire and is as threatening in its extreme presence as our sun, which we often forget is also molten fire and not in existence for our exclusive benefit. But when we have no objects to trigger memory, it is easy to forget or to try to forget.

But writing, including memoir, fiction, and nonfiction—the explicit imaginative structuring and restructuring of memory—understands that it is exactly this reworking that provides a reader access to something that began as someone else’s inchoate experience. How to construct that access is, of course, key. Sometimes it is a physical object that has the power to recall an experience. Sometimes it is the place where something happened. Both can become touchstones by which a memory is communicated, though when we write that memory we destroy it forever outside of the words we put down on paper. As printed text it will have its own life.

Rhys’s work is centrally about memory, whether on the part of her protagonists and narrators or in her creative nonfiction and autobiography. Because she left behind several notebooks and many manuscripts, we can see her process of working on raw experience, the rough cut of memory, until it becomes a finished literary work. In her fiction and autobiographical writing, she often makes the instability of memory a central element, all the more evident because she shaped fiction and nonfiction alike to achieve the best textual shape. In Wide Sargasso Sea, a number of major characters are tormented by their memories, which are shaped by their particular demons (Antoinette, her unnamed husband, Daniel). Her autobiography, Smile Please, published posthumously in 1979, contains material that began as personal memory recorded in notebooks, but by the time she worked on it in old age, the boundary between memory and fiction was quite uncertain.2

Her short creative nonfiction piece “Heat,” first published in the New Yorker in 1976, is essentially about memory, with all of its faults and all of its vividness, the particularity of memory shaped by trauma in young life.3 Thirty thousand people died when Mont Pelée erupted in Martinique in 1902. Rhys was twelve and living in nearby Dominica (although given that she lied about her age, it is not surprising that she is vague in the piece about exactly how old she was).4 “Heat” is about how she learned of the eruption and about the objects that recalled the memory close to the end of her long life: the volcanic dust that fell in Roseau, Dominica, the night of the eruption, and two twisted candlesticks, brought back later from ruined St. Pierre by Rhys’s father, who probably did not realize that by hanging the damaged objects on the dining room wall at home, he ensured his daughter would remember fear and tragedy.

The candlesticks were probably from a church, and unlike the almost magical, almost fairy dust that came down from the sky, they were brutal reminders of the fate of flesh and blood engulfed in the fire that distorted metal, even metal consecrated to the service of God. The piece’s title, “Heat,” references this. But Rhys’s mother also plays a part, waking the young girl from sleep and taking her to a window to see a strange cloud that connotes the eruption happening in Martinique. Important here is Ernest Becker’s discussion of the way anxiety can be created in children by the realization that catastrophe can occur; Becker argues that for humans, the idea and fear of death is a “mainspring of . . . activity,”5 and “Heat” is, at one level, about a child’s realization that death and destruction can happen. She brings the objects that came to stand for the fear and awe of that night after the eruption—the ash and the candlesticks—together with her little sister’s grave, near to that of a man who died from the sulfurous fumes at the Boiling Lake, Dominica’s famous volcanic crater, another victim of the immense power of the earth’s forces. The power of the eruption brings death, and its nudge toward resistance of it, into the child’s imagination, for while she says “death was not then a taboo subject” (36), she also talks about the sensuous women of St. Pierre, affirming life and love before the devastation.

On a shelf in my own apartment is a narrow glass bottle, filled with a shiny grey dust. I gathered it, and put a paper label on the bottle: “April 1979, Barbados.” I had spent much of the night at a party at a private house. Parties in those days in Barbados for the young began late and ended in the early morning. It had been a clear, bright night when we left home, with the sea faintly shining. But when we came outside after the party to return home, it seemed as if it had snowed. Reaching down, I touched the strange substance. It was light but dense, slightly crunchy, pale grey. We had heard the Soufriere volcano in St. Vincent was active, but we never imagined dust had been thrown up into the atmosphere and carried the eighty or so miles to the east over the sea to fall down over Barbados. That eruption is contained in my little glass bottle, along with the memory of the strangeness of discovering it in the coming of dawn, and the nervousness and eventual awe that it inspired, for we wondered if worse effects were going to impose themselves on our experience and even threaten what we understood to be our place in the world, or even our very lives.

Rhys begins her piece, “Ash had fallen” (36), but also acknowledges that her memory is imperfect. She does not completely remember how it fell or for how long, only that it was deep, piled two feet high on the flat roof outside her bedroom. It frightened everyone in her family and community because they thought at first it was Dominica’s volcano (which she calls “The Boiling Lake”), not the one in Martinique. Rhys tells how friends of hers brought over large bottles containing the ash, labeled, and offered her one, but she refused in fear. Then that night, after her mother woke her, Rhys saw a black cloud so fearsome it remained in her memory for the rest of her life. It was not just its size and density, as it hung over Martinique, but that it was “flame-colored” (ibid.) on the edges: to see it so vividly it must have been a clear and bright night.

But other elements in the story are important in helping us understand how Rhys thought of St. Pierre, and they connect “Heat” to her portrayal of memory in other texts. Stories were told in Dominica of the wickedness of St. Pierre, and the suggestion was made that the city was punished by God for being wicked, embracing sexual licentiousness and theater and opera (also associated with loose behavior). Rhys makes her own position clear by referencing Lafacadio Hearn (1850–1904): “As I grew older I heard of a book by Lafcadio Hearn, who had written about Saint-Pierre as it used to be, about ’Ti Marie and the others, but I never found the book and stopped looking for it” (36–37).6 That Rhys never found the book seems unlikely; Hearn’s 1889 narrative, Two Years in the French West Indies, has many connections with Rhys’s own work and style of representing memory.7

Yet in “Heat” it is Hearn’s book that is lost, and what is “found” instead is Rhys’s version of the destruction of St. Pierre, which ends with a convict who was the sole survivor of the disaster and became a traveling showman, shopping his tale (see fig. 1). This seems to Rhys entirely untrue, and the piece ends, “But it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all” (37), an affirmation of her sense that memories collide and have the potential to be unreliable.8

 Savory 1

Figure 1. Poster advertizing the circus appearance of Ludger Sybaris, the disaster’s only survivor, 1902.

To fully understand Rhys’s piece we need to turn to Hearn’s text, written before the eruption that Rhys remembers.9 When Hearn lived in Martinique (1887–89), the latest eruption of Mont Pelée, in 1851, was a fairly distant memory. But he imagines it: “Less than forty years ago, it rained ashes over all the roofs of St. Pierre.”10 The year 1851 was also a time of earthquakes in Guadaloupe and Martinique. But it was the ash covering “roofs, trees, balconies, awnings, pavements” that was for Hearn the most impressive reminder of the hidden power of the earth, even though the Riviére Blanche “ran black into the sea like an outpouring of ink” (203; that the “white” river ran “black” is a powerful image). Ash is the vivid metonym for all of the upheaval, threat, and yet turbulent beauty of volcanic activity. Hearn’s account makes a selective narrative of memories of his own and of others in the place he came to love, and like Rhys he crafts memory as a central presence in his dramatic narrative, a source of reminder of the pleasures and agonies of people and their place, which he deeply interconnects. His account of Martinique insists on the importance of a kind of collective unconscious, for seeing St. Pierre for the first time suggests “an impression of seeing it all before, ever so long ago—you cannot tell where” (77).

Then, as it did later for Rhys, the passion and liveliness of St. Pierre clearly impressed Hearn. He thought it “delightful,” with “lemon-tinted streets” and “a dazzling azure brightness of day” (ibid.). They both could see the potential menace in a Caribbean landscape, which Rhys would so effectively represent in the ruined garden of Coulibri in Wide Sargasso Sea. Similarly, though Hearn describes the volcano as beautiful, with rich flora, “verdant violet-shaded” (ibid.), he also asks, anxiously, “Is the great volcano dead?” and answers—“Nobody knows” (202). It would be just over a decade later that the 1902 eruption occurs. In 1851, Hearn says, a local priest climbed up to the summit and placed a cross there, and to further deepen a sense of religious solemnity, thousands of snakes came down from the higher land to the lower plantations, where they were killed (203). Like Hearn, Rhys is interested in the connection people make between great natural disasters and the ways people either heed or ignore God: in “Heat” Rhys writes about the scandalous women in St. Pierre, and the bishop who took off his shoes and shook them over the city, casting it out of his protection. (Both writers deeply loved the Caribbean, with all of its complexities filtered through the complexities they had themselves.)

For both Hearn and Rhys, the importance of the Caribbean lies in the dramatic interaction between landscape and people, an interaction sometimes destroyed by natural disaster but often kept in kinetic relation, as illustrated when Hearn describes discovering small religious shrines or crucifixes in totally inaccessible and remote parts of the mountainsides of Martinique. On the one hand, Hearn sees this as an intrusion on nature, on “the grace of palms, the many-colored fire of liana blossoms,” but, on the other hand, he reminds himself that the shrines, the human interventions, have a “veiled poetry” (134). He admires the local Carnival (so key in Rhys’s memories in her autobiography Smile Please, as well as in Voyage in the Dark).11 Hearn details the ways ordinary people lived in Martinique, but also the suffering brought by smallpox arriving in the island. Like Rhys, his sense of place and memory does not flinch from pain and death, and connects place and people powerfully. Rhys’s representation of the Caribbean in her fiction rests on memories of place and time shared by her narrators, and even her Englishman in Wide Sargasso Sea sees the beauty and passion of both landscape and people, and of the way Caribbean people interact with their environment and understand both loveliness and pain, though he increasingly dislikes everything. This is very different from the account of Martinican Raphaël Confiant, who introduces Hearn’s text in the 2001 reprint and is necessarily more concerned with encouraging the reader to enter Hearn’s text than with conveying his own experience in detail. Confiant recalls looking at Mont Pelée on a clear bright night, reminded of the thirty thousand people who were killed in St. Pierre in 1902, but passes quickly over the disaster and instead describes the loveliness of the gray-pink sky around the summit of the volcano and Hearn’s deft way of describing how tropical night seems to rise from the ground to the sky and not “fall” (ix).

Rhys’s writing method was always about ruthlessly cutting what was not relevant to a particular piece, so the fact that in “Heat” she left in the reference to Hearn, while playfully denying she ever read him, means that it is only by accepting to enter Hearn’s world of memory that we can fully understand her own terse piece. Hearn demonstrates over and over again how Martinican people and their environment necessarily closely interact, in good times and in bad: the memory of the volcano’s past violence and the struggle of ordinary people to survive and thrive mean even the most beautiful, idyllic scenes have a shadow of struggle and trauma. Rhys’s memory of the dust and the candlesticks emphasizes the same. Kevin Newmark argues, with respect to poetry and trauma, “The language that we speak in order to understand the experience of trauma is also irretrievably marked by it.”12 Hearn (who at times sounds remarkably like the world-weary European that Rhys created as main narrator in Wide Sargasso Sea) writes at length of the relation between the human sensitivity of love of place and the danger in being open to the intensities of climate and environment in Martinique, a kind of mark of trauma within the beauty of a tropical island. The very economy with which Rhys presents the memory of the Mont Pelée eruption also demonstrates that mark. The accounts of both Rhys and Hearn have a power out of proportion to their length, precisely because they understand the importance of memory in a place with both beauty and a long history of trauma.


Elaine Savory has published widely on Caribbean and African literatures, especially poetry, drama, women’s writing, and literary history. She has written two books on Jean Rhys. Her present research interests include postcolonial ecocriticism and elegiac poetry, and she has recently completed essays on African and Caribbean women novelists and the poetry of Dionne Brand, Medbh McGuckian, and Christopher Okigbo. She teaches at The New School, in New York City.


1 Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart, “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma,” in Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 172.

2 Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea, ed., Judith L. Raiskin (1966; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), and Smile Please: An Unfinished Autobiography (New York: Penguin Classic, 1995).

3 Jean Rhys, “Heat,” New Yorker, 17 May 1976, 36–37; hereafter cited in the text. “Heat” may also be found in Rhys’s The Collected Short Stories (New York: Norton, 1987).

4 She claimed in old age that she had been born in 1894, not 1890. “Heat,” which first appeared three years before her death, is ambivalent about her age. In the essay she is woken by her mother and led to the window to see the cloud, and then presumably falls asleep and is carried back to bed.

5 Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), ix.

6 Rhys references Lafcardio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies (1903; repr., New York: Interlink, 2001).

7 Hearn is an interesting figure, half-Irish and half-Greek, raised in his father’s country of Ireland. He was a serious traveler, living in the United States, Martinique, and Japan, where he became a citizen. He wrote about all three of these countries, and indeed went to the West Indies to write for Harper’s.

8 Rhys’s account points out that the English print media were more interested in this convict than in any other aspect of the disaster.

9 Hearn and Rhys have a very similar response to the mountain and its effects, despite writing about different moments of volcanic activity.

10 Hearn, Two Years in the French West Indies, 202; hereafter cited in the text.

11 Jean Rhys, Voyage in the Dark (1934; repr., New York: Norton, 1994).

12 Kevin Newmark, “Traumatic Poetry: Charles Baudelaire and the Shock of Laughter,” in Caruth, Trauma, 254.


Related Articles