Books · Gender

Woman Underground

Good Morning, MidnightGood Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this right after reading
The Abandoned Baobab
, and I found the structure and even the mood strikingly similar. Although Rhys’ protagonist is a white woman and does not share Ken’s experience as a colonized subject, Rhys herself originated from Dominica which had been under British rule (Dominica is one of the most magical places I have ever been to. I went on a tour there on my 24th birthday, which fell by mad luck on the day off at the end of my training week when I worked at sea). Like Ken in Baobab, Sasha views her mental anguish as a function of her social position and context, including gender and class. Thus, while the novel is entirely steeped in Sasha’s fraught consciousness, it moves the reader into the mode of sociopolitical critique.

Thanks to Michele’s contribution to this discussion of the book, I read this wonderful paper by Gina Maria Tomasulo Out of the Deep Dark River which compares Good Morning, Midnight to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground:

“Like Dostoevsky, Rhys uses the topos of the underground to represent her protagonist’s retreat from hostile society into a private, subjective realm. However, while Dostoevsky ontologises his subject’s alienation, likening it to a ‘disease’ of ‘hyperconsciousness’, Rhys locates her protagonist’s alienation in the social and material circumstances of her life”

“Rhys’ representation of the Underground as a fluid space of memory challenges Dostoevsky’s view of the subject as split from his body, from his language and from the world of others”

As Tomasulo points out, in contrast to Dostoevsky’s underground man who withholds his servant’s wages and strikes his driver, Sasha is enabled by her experience of poverty & victimisation to empathise with others worse or as badly off, such as the mixed-race woman she meets in the hallway of her building, the elderly woman shopping for a hat with her daughter, and the waitress she observes in a café. Sasha bears witness to the suffering of the generous and compassionate Frenchwoman Lise and the two become loving friends, while The Underground Man behaves sadistically towards a similar, kind woman, Liza, rearticulating the framing of sex workers as fallen women in need of moral rescue. Rhys’ figure of Lise, with whom Sasha has a loving, non-hierarchical bond, is seen by Tomasulo as an ‘ironic commentary’ on Liza.

The sex worker Sasha meets, Rene, is another mirror to Liza. Sasha’s relationship with him is particularly ambivalent, since while she empathises with him as a victim, she also fears his sexuality and machismo. When he mistreats her, her revenge is to withdraw her sympathy from him (her witnessing, in Tomasulo’s framing) since she can no longer identify with him.

Sasha also has a fairly positive association with two Russian men and with an artist friend of theirs, a Jewish man whom she and one of the friends visit. Since she identifies with the artist and feels some relief and return of feeling in the presence of his work, she is moved to buy one of his paintings, as seems to be expected (but certainly not demanded) of her. In discussion of the book, some readers said they did not understand why she bought the painting, but I strongly identified with this action – I have been well conditioned by late consumer capitalism to express my thoughts and feelings, including emotional gratitude, by buying things.

Tomasulo states that Sasha has come to Paris ‘to drink herself to death’ and she certainly drinks as much as she can, arranging her life methodically as though in single-minded pursuit of passing the time, yet more than anything else, she reminisces. Tomasulo argues that for her the underground is ‘a fluid space of memory’ where, by remembering through her body (pulling the past over her head like a blanket) she begins to undo her alienation from others. It’s possible to imagine an end of this process of working through the past, a recovery of sorts, but Sasha doesn’t worry herself with hope, she lives beyond hope, in the freedom of the depths.

Tomasulo also points out that the underground man identifies with and even glories in his own ‘repulsive’ image, while Sasha is continually aware of and oppressed by a material and psychological need to present herself as psychologically well and socially acceptable, (for example she is devastated when a fellow patron refers to her as ‘la vielle’ (old woman) while depression constantly moves her to somehow ‘violate social decorum’, so that she gets thrown out of a place, loses a job or the respect or sympathy of someone she is with. This difference reflects gendered expectations of public conduct and social competence, and the relative intolerance of ‘eccentric’ or mad behaviour for women. She watches herself anxiously, fusses over her appearance, recovers her spirits after a visit to the hairdresser. Rhys roots such feminine consolation firmly in gendered oppression, but not in order to ridicule them, adding insult to injury

So actually, this is a novel of love honoured and relived in memory, warm compassion, and the reawakening of sensation amidst despair. It is a novel of redemptive reconnection that sutures the grave wounds inflicted by an atomising ‘civilisation’, that even follows Hito Steyerl‘s urging to ’embrace alienation’ and the freedom that follows from it (‘we are this pile of scrap’) and shows how we can bear witness to and even heal each other’s trauma.

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