Jean Rhys’ short story, “The Day They Burned the Books” illustrates conflicts based around several aspects of cultural identity including race, gender and nationality. With this in mind, feminist and critical race theory are obvious lenses through which the text can be studied. A feminist reading of the text, for example, is crucial for understanding Eddie’s mother, Mrs. Sawyer, whose motivation for burning the books is her rejection of British ideals of femininity. Eddie’s resistance to his mother burning the books involves pushing her aside, which can be read as his reinforcement of patriarchy.
The female narrator’s decision to help Mrs. Sawyer burn the books can be read as the narrator acting against the patriarchy, and by extension, Eddie. But the narrator does not explicitly side with Mrs. Sawyer. The narrator is not only sympathetic toward Eddie by salvaging one of the books (knowing this could get her in trouble if Mrs. Sawyer found out) but also by vocalizing her admiration toward Eddie, who has a complicated fascination with his own ancestry. The identity crises identified in the story cannot be summed up by focusing on just one aspect of cultural identity; they must be approached through intersectionality.
The story’s conflict has as much to do with generation as it does with gender, race, and nationality. Both the narrator and Eddie learn from a young age that because of their nationality and race respectively, they will never be fully accepted by any culture they live amongst in Dominica, despite their intersectionality. Eddie’s mixed-race parents are aware of this too, yet his father identifies himself as exclusively British.
The narrator sees through this flawed perception of self, taking on a cultural androgyny. Mr. Sawyer is an example of what happens if they can’t move past the insecurity of not feeling rooted in any culture. His insecurity manifests itself negatively, with him pulling his wife’s hair, calling her a “half-caste” (Rhys 237) and starting a book collection to feel more British. Both characters are seeking out some way to reconcile being left out of the multiple cultures from which they descend.
The narrator, aware that she’s partially French and Spanish, places these cultures above the British. She says this to upset the other British children who reject her for being a “horrid colonial,” (239) but she’s genuinely seeking out another culture she can identify with. The narrator never fully embraces her French ancestry, mentioning that taking one of the books during the burning “was the most important thing that ever happened” to her (242). The book, Fort Comme La Mort, turns out to be a disappointment though, seeming “dull” like the British books, However, it was too dark to read the book’s cover when she took it. So although she doesn’t intentionally take the book for its French title, she becomes immediately disinterested after noticing it.
Eddie is also experimenting with his cultural identity. He appears to be mimicking his father’s overcompensation by romanticizing the British. But unlike his father, Eddie does not blindly uphold British culture as infallible. He disagrees with his father’s love for daffodils and strawberries. Still, his father’s extensive library of British literature provides him the opportunity to connect with some kind of culture. His mother’s self-identity is more ambiguous, defined more by her gender than her race. She’s seen trying to take away part of Eddie’s heritage, but she never offers him a complete alternative to identifying as British.
Though she unintentionally leaves him with a copy of Kim (241), Kipling’s novel about a boy stuck between two cultures, the book is not in its complete form. It seems to be present for the sake of symbolism, since the protagonist’s fate in Kim is unknown. Both Kim and Eddie end up at a crossroad, unsure about whether they should pick a side or find middle ground.
The tragedy of the story is Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer’s inability to embrace their intersectionality. Eddie, however, straddles the line between repeating their mistake and moving past it. By not liking strawberries and daffodils, (238) Eddie shows that he’s capable of thinking for himself about what he does and does not identify with. But it’s his own intersectionality that makes him straddle this line more than the narrator.
Like Mrs. Sawyer, the narrator’s gender makes it more difficult for her to fit into British culture, no matter how white she appears to be. But as a male with white features, it’s still possible for Eddie to conform to Britain’s patriarchal ideals. Overall, the book burning is how Rhys demonstrates the importance of Caribbean authors having a separate literary tradition from their European colonizers. “The Day They Burned the Books” is her contribution to this effort, which began with the Beacon movement.