The city as labyrinth

Every time the door of the café swung open to admit a customer she saw the crimson lights of the tobacco shop opposite and the crimson reflection of the asphalt and she began to picture the endless labyrinth of the Paris streets, glistening hardly, crowded with hurrying people. But now she thought of them without fear, rather with a strange excitement.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

Marya walks the streets of Paris, the flâneuse, exploring its side streets and turnings, she enjoys its deviations and trying to walk to the limits of the city. After Stephan’s arrest, when Marya finds herself suddenly alone, the city streets that had seemed so appealing suddenly becomes endless, labyrinthine.

In this passage I find a movement, an echo of the passage in Good Morning Midnight from where I took my title, from where this quest began. This seems like a moment to pause, and to think about labyrinths, a recurring symbol in her fiction, and a figure that seems appropriate to Jean Rhys. In this passage I have somehow wound my way back to the start of my project. Here Rhys reveals a similar feeling about the city, and a particular moment of being alone in the city, and of letting go of fear and finding the life of the streets.

The Boulevard Arago, like everything else, seemed unreal, fantastic, but also extraordinarily familiar, and she was trying to account for this mysterious impression of familiarity.

Jean Rhys, Quartet

The labyrinth, as a symbol and idea, recurs in Rhys’s work: in the spaces of her cities, and in her idea of time as circular. The labyrinth of streets follows her from Paris to London and back to Paris again. For Walter Benjamin, the concept of the labyrinth was closely related to the urban cultural figure of the flâneur. Imagining the urban landscape as a labyrinth provides one of the clues for understanding the modern experience of the city, of disorientation and dissociation. As a symbolic figure, the labyrinth is suggestive of navigation and orientation, and the idea of being lost or feeling lost. In Voyage in the Dark, the character of Walter says to Anna: ‘Some people are born knowing their way about, others never learn.’


1. A structure consisting of a complex network of tunnels, paths etc., deliberately designed or constructed so that it is difficult to find one’s way through; a maze.

2. A complex network or bewildering arrangement of objects or physical features, esp. of streets or buildings; a place in which it is easy to get lost.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED online)

Labyrinths are usually circular forms with a winding path from the edge of the structure to the centre and back. A labyrinth is ‘sometimes distinguished from a maze as consisting of one convoluted path to the centre and back, rather than containing a number of dead ends’ (OED online). Rebecca Solnit writes that ‘the maze offers the confusion of free will without a clear destination, the labyrinth an inflexible route to salvation.’ To be inside a labyrinth is therefore to be inside a structured path rather than to be wholly lost, although it is not always possible to see the pattern or the overall shape and design.

The labyrinth can feel confining, imprisoning, to be enclosed within something, within a structure; but it can also offer the feeling that anything’s around the corner, an idea that recurs in Rhys’s fiction. Self-awareness, the knowledge that they are confined within a labyrinth and a path which is not of their own choosing, is the downfall of Rhys protagonists. They know they are stuck, yet are somehow unable to free themselves and to change their fate: they keep on walking through the labyrinth. They experience a sense of predestination within the illusion of free will, of having walked this way before.

These streets near her boarding house on Notting Hill seemed strangely empty, like the streets of a grey dream – a labyrinth of streets, all exactly alike.

She would think: ‘Surely I passed down here several minutes ago.’ Then she would see the name Chepstow Crescent or Pembridge Villas, and reassure herself. ‘That’s all right; I’m not walking in a circle.’

Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie

In After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Julia walks the streets near her boarding house with an increasing sense of unreality. The sense of unreality that comes from walking within an invented form, a tangle of signs and symbols, and all the time knowing that it isn’t real. The labyrinth is part of the circle of time, of finding herself back at the place she started, of living within an illusion, a figure of the imagination. The streets are not really a labyrinth, and at the same time when I look at a map, they appear circular, so that walking around and the names of the streets create a sense of repetition, like being caught in a recurring dream. The connections between the labyrinth and the world of dreams make them important symbols for literature. The unconscious mind can be represented as a labyrinth, of dark corridors and hidden places.

Stories have this comfort to them: they have a beginning and an end. They find a way out of the labyrinth.

Charlotte Higgins, Myths, monsters and the maze: how writers fell in love with the labyrinth

Literature, with its infinite places and possibilities, and books themselves can be conceived of as labyrinths in which we follow the path of the author’s imagination. In the case of Jean Rhys, her books deny this sense of progress with their non-linear forms and idea of time as circular; so that to read Rhys is to exist in the labyrinth and not to find a way out.

Rebecca Solnit writes that ‘the labyrinth offers us the possibility of being real creatures in symbolic space’. It crosses the boundaries between the real and the represented, like ‘a symbolic journey or map, but it is a map we can really walk on, blurring the difference between map and world.’

Like the stations of the cross, the labyrinth and maze offer up stories we can walk into to inhabit bodily, stories we trace with our feet as well as our eyes. There is a resemblance not only between these symbolically invested structures but between every path and every story.

Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent. Roads are a record of those who have gone before, and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there.

Rebecca Solnit, ‘Labyrinths and Cadillacs’, in Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Every detail of Jean [Rhys’s] description is like this – not outer but inner, not object but emotion. 

Carole Angier, Jean Rhys: Life and Work

I keep wondering what draws me to Rhys’s places when they are places that are gone or that never really existed. Going to the places could be like entering the state of mind she writes about, somehow bringing me closer to it. Is there something in the idea of the labyrinth, as though the pattern of the words on the page I follow is like the pattern of the streets on a map? That somehow going around in circles and getting lost in Rhys’s labyrinth might be the best way to reach the state of mind she is trying to portray?

Memory like the mind and time, is unimaginable without physical dimensions; to imagine it as a physical place is to make it into a landscape in which its contents are located, and what has location can be approached […] if memory is imagined as a real space.

Rebecca Solnit, ‘Labyrinths and Cadillacs’, in Wanderlust: A History of Walking

One thought on “The city as labyrinth

  1. Pingback: The studio in the Avenue de l’Observatoire | And The Street Walks In

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s