Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Jacqui over at JacquiWine’s Journal is hosting the event “Jean Rhys Reading Week.”  Please visit Jacqui’s site for a listing of the many great reviews of Jean Rhys’s books.  I am a little late in posting my Jean Rhys review, but better late than never.

My Review:
good-morning-midnightThe title itself intrigued me when I was trying to decide which Rhys book to read for this event.  The oxymoron “Good Morning, Midnight” comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Good Morning—Midnight—
I’m coming Home—
Day—got tired of Me—
How could I—of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place—
I liked to stay—
But Morn—didn’t want me—now—
So—Goodnight—Day!

I can look—can’t I—
When the East is Red?
The Hills—have a way—then—
That puts the Heart—abroad—

You—are not so fair—Midnight—
I chose—Day—
But—please take a little Girl—
He turned away!

The tone of this poem, like the book, is one of loneliness and melancholy.  The narrator of the story, named Sasha, has come to Paris and is living in a depressing hotel and we get the feeling that she is just marking time.  She struggles to get out of bed in the morning and forces herself to fill the day with mundane tasks.  She often repeats the line, “Eat, drink, walk, sleep.”  She lives on a fixed income from a small inheritance so she has borrowed some money from a friend back in England in order to take this trip to Paris.   The narrative is a disjointed account of her time in this city as she wanders from place to place and meets various men.

But this isn’t the first time that Sasha has spent time in Paris.  She recounts another period of her time, when she was much younger, when she lived n Paris.  She was always worried about money and as a single woman who had to make her own way in life, she had a series of depressing jobs that she is unable to keep for very long.  She worked as a tour guide, a saleswoman in a shop, and even an English tutor.  As the narrative moves forward, her memories of her previous visit reach farther and farther back.  We eventually learn that it is because of a man  she met in her youth that she landed in Paris in the first place.  When he essentially abandons her, she if forced to make her own way in this foreign city.

Even though she is older during her current visit, Sasha does not seemnto have learned many lessons from her previous mistakes.  She drinks too much, is still worried about money, and has encounters with questionable men.  But the reflective nature of her narrative and her constant tendency to burst into tears leads us to believe that she recognizes her shortcomings and knows her life has not worked out the way she wanted.  She meets a Russian man who is kind to her and understands that she is lonely.  She visits a friend with him, an artist, and she buys one of his paintings for 600 francs.  The purchase made me cringe because she was trying to support this artist but was, once again, spending money unnecessarily.

This book is loosely autobiographical which fact I find lends even more sadness to the narrative.  Rhys, like Emily Dickinson, fought bravely against her depression and used her writing as an outlet for her emotional turmoil.  The one element that is distinctly missing in Rhys’s writing is self-pity; she knows what she has done to get to this point in her life and the only choice she has is to move forward.   I am so glad that Jacqui come up with the idea of a Rhys event or I might not have discovered her wonderful British classics.

About the Author:
rhysJean Rhys, originally Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, was a Caribbean novelist who wrote in the mid 20th century. Her first four novels were published during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 that she emerged as a significant literary figure. A “prequel” to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea won a prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967.

Rhys was born in Dominica (a formerly British island in the Caribbean) to a Welsh father and Scottish mother. She moved to England at the age of sixteen, where she worked unsuccessfully as a chorus girl. In the 1920s, she relocated to Europe, traveling as a Bohemian artist and taking up residence sporadically in Paris. During this period, Rhys lived in near poverty, while familiarising herself with modern art and literature, and acquiring the alcoholism that would persist through the rest of her life. Her experience of a patriarchal society and feelings of displacement during this period would form some of the most important themes in her work.

reading-rhys

21 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics

21 responses to “Review: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

  1. Jonathan

    This is another one to add to my TBR list. I’ve been converted to Rhys’s work this week as well. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve yet to read this Rhys, but it’s probably going to be the one I pick up next. She’s so good on the woman outsider, and it’s intriguing how a writer like Hamsun, writing about a starving man, becomes a classic, whereas Rhys is neglected for years!

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  3. Sasha’s tears are to do with self-recognition but also with letting the mask slip–the cool, socially approved mask. Drink makes it harder to maintain, yet it makes her feel “sane.” Justifying alcoholism doesn’t fool anyone.
    I’ve got a review on my blog http://www.newedition.ca

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  4. So glad you enjoyed this novel, Melissa. Like Karen, I haven’t actually read this one yet as it seems to represent a natural end point in the sequence of her early works. If you are interested in trying another of her novels at some point, I can recommend Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, both of which cover similar territory – in fact the central protagonists of these earlier novels could be viewed as younger versions of Sasha.

    Many thanks for the mention and link, very kind.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Of all the Rhys books I’ve read about this week, this is the one that appeals the most. Great review Melissa.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read Wide Sargasso Sea many years ago but I hadn’t realised there was so much more to Jean Rhys until this week – thanks for the review.

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  7. Thanks for giving the context of the Dickinson poem. I’ve only ever read Wide Sargasso Sea so need to increase my familiarity with Rhys. Would this be a good one for me to start with?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I won a copy of this one, so have it still to read, I enjoyed Voyage in the Dark, particularly due tot he references to her life in Dominica and the effect of her being a kind of invisible exile, she comes from somewhere so completely different, but that aspect of her is silenced and repressed when she comes to live in England. I’m a little reluctant to overindulge the melancholic works,but like the courageousness that she must have had to take on Wide Sagasso Sea, giving voice to Bertha and her past.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. buriedinprint

    I just finished reading this (rereading, technically, but it was more than ten years ago, and I hardly remembered any details, only the mood, and not as much of it as I thought) last night. What a journey. And, as you say, it’s even more powerful when you realize how much of it was inspired by her own experiences. Enjoyed reading your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you will review it too! I look forward to seeing what you thought of it.

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      • buriedinprint

        I will, eventually, but I’ve yet to type out all the sad quotes. Somehow reading was sad enough, but going back through some of the saddest passages is a task I continue to successfully evade (and I didn’t take notes on my first reading either)!

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  10. It seems that Rhys is someone who chronicles depression in a very systematic way. Of course, she is not alone in this, but her stories sometimes seem like unrelenting case studies of symptoms (sleep disturbance, fatigue in the morning–“eat, drink, walk, sleep”, repeated crying episodes, oppressive mood, feeling of disconnection) in a dark time when the sufferer has no remedy (except drink) and no hope of relief. Whatever her character’s difficult circumstances, disabling mood is the takeaway.

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  11. Pingback: #ReadingRhys – a round-up and a few closing thoughts | JacquiWine's Journal

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