A Review of Good Morning, Midnight
Good Morning, Midnight is the last in the series of novels (as I see it) having, essentially, the same woman protagonist, who ages through Rhys’s four early works. These modern women cannot cope with the expectations of modernity. They live marginal lives in unhealthy surroundings, depending mostly on men for money and occasional luxury. As long as they keep their looks and dress fairly well they can go from one kind/unkind stranger to another, always afraid of utter poverty and having to rely on her own resources, which are few. In this final early novel, the woman, now Sasha Jansen, is fortyish, unattractive as a mistress and has come to Paris from London, having been given enough money by a woman friend to spend two weeks recovering her physical and mental health. In London, she had been living on a small stipend from an inheritance—enough to drink herself to death, she figures, while in a deep state of depression.
In Paris she settles into a routine of walking, window shopping and drinking. There is never a suggestion of leaving this Left Bank neighbourhood.
“I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.”
Not that she hasn’t been drinking with her meals—alcohol is never out of the picture.
Being vulnerable still to the approaches of men in the street, she meets some odd types whose purposes are unclear but who are even poorer than she—no buyers of sexual favours here. She finds it amusing to talk and drink with them, up to the point where they can’t afford more drinks and she (being a lady) isn’t allowed to pay. The Russian (if he is Russian) introduces her to a painter who interests her; she buys one of his paintings, then he disappears.
Sasha’s present time is interrupted by many sad memories, including the various bad jobs she attempted, marriage in Holland to the mysterious, penniless Enno, the birth and death of a baby that, had he lived, might have changed her life (Rhys shows here her ability to express profound emotion in a few words); Enno leaving her because he cannot bear his wife’s sadness; an attempt at suicide by drowning in the Seine.
After giving birth, she was wrapped in bandages to remove stretch marks:
“When she takes them off there is not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And five weeks afterwards there I am, with not one line, not one wrinkle, not one crease.
And there he is, lying with a ticket tied round his wrist because he died in a hospital. And there I am looking down at him, without one line, without one wrinkle, without one crease . . . .”
Following this harrowing memory we return to the present adventure of having her hair coloured “a very good blond cendré” and the dilemma of choosing a new hat—three hours in the same shop obsessively trying one after another, seeking perfection but finding only the acceptable one. These seeming trivialities are vitally important to Sasha—keeping up appearances gives her safety from hateful stares and sneers. With the money she has, she buys these superficial things to keep herself alive, yet she is always on the brink of deciding whether it’s worth the trouble to go on living.
In the meantime, she is plagued by the presence of a repulsive man who inhabits the hotel room next to hers. His ghastly, ghostly presence is reason enough to move to another hotel but Sasha cannot be bothered, or prefers to outface him, defeat his weird arrogance.
One of her followers is René, an attractive young man with a shady past and ambitions to be a gigolo. He believes Sasha to be rich because of the old fur coat she wears. A mutual attraction develops, though Sasha cannot trust him. René’s insistence on a sexual relationship becomes an emotional trial for Sasha, who can no longer trust her feelings for any person. Her damaged, indecisive mind fears desire for love and sex. That lack of ability to give or accept love drives René away and leads to the novel’s tragic end.
In Good Morning, Midnight the Rhys woman is worn out at last, the masks of her life slip away . . . educated, middle class youth; chorus girl; chic bohemian; wife; grieving mother; passive, needy sex worker (mistress, grue); near suicide; fashionable mannequin; proper shop woman, frequenter of cheap cafés . . . they have all rotted away and fallen, to reveal the unbearably human face. She has lost the mask of despising other human beings.
An ironic borrowing from James Joyce’s landmark of modernism Ulysses:
and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.
ends this final story of the modern woman and, while not giving away the ending entirely, Sasha comes to a crushing realisation—that this is the end of desire for anything better than the worst.
He doesn’t say anything. Thank God, he doesn’t say anything. I look straight into his eyes and despise another poor devil of a human being for the last time. For the last time . . . last time
. . . . Then I put my arms around him and pull him down on to the bed, saying:
“Yes–yes–yes . . .”
It seems impossible, after Good Morning, Midnight, that any further novels of these modern women could have been written. Wide Sargasso Sea takes us back to their origin in the West Indies from which they are taken across the ocean to England, where they are not wanted.