Time and Repetition in Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight
By Joanne Norris
At the time that Jean Rhys was writing Good Morning, Midnight, expressing the complexities and sadness of the female experience was an uncommon subject. When the novel came out in 1939, it was deemed too depressing. Even as a modern reader, it feels shocking to be privy to these emotions; to the emotions that many of us have gone through, but may try to hide. The familiarity of her writing and the intimate nature of it make it hard to disassociate yourself from the story, even if you haven’t gone through a similar experience. We have been so conditioned to put up these masks of social acceptability, that even 80 years later we are still living in a society where such stark discussion of female mental health issues feels progressive. This is not solely a female issue, of course; men and non-binary people are still bound by the structures that can make expressions of emotion feel like a weakness, and it is telling that Jean Rhys’ novel feels so current even now. While this is an area which undoubtedly still needs work, great leaps have been made in the understanding of mental health, and as a result the conversation is growing. In this way, Jean Rhys was ahead of her time; already perceiving the need to talk and understand the reality of mental health.
One of the key themes that shapes Jean Rhys’ study of loneliness and depression is the interaction between time and repetition; concepts that manifest in both her physical and emotional life. These influences play a significant part in the way that Sasha’s traumas have affected her, and subsequently the way that she deals with them. We learn that there are a number of events in Sasha’s past that have shaped her stability in the present, for instance the loss of a child and numerous romantic disappointments. As the novel progresses, we begin to understand that Sasha struggles to be present. Her narration moves between the past and the present, as Sasha attempts to implement routines that help her get through the day, all the while struggling with the trauma of her past. This preoccupation with time and is mirrored in the inspiration for the novel’s title – Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Good morning, Midnight’;
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 good night, Day!
Sasha often feels unwanted by ‘Day.’ She speaks of not fitting in, but how it is not for want of trying. Just as the narrator of Dickinson’s poem asks, ‘How could I of him?,’ Sasha pleads:
“Please, please, monsieur et madame, mister, missus and miss, I am trying so hard to be like you. I know I don’t succeed, but look how hard I try.”
This sense of not belonging uproots her ability to stay fixed in the present, and so she must greet her own Midnight again – the past.
Sasha’s attempts to stick firmly to her routines give the reader a sense of just how uncomfortable she feels existing in the present. They structure her life in a way that makes her feel like she appears ‘normal’ to the rest of society, ticking off daily milestones and tasks that get her through the day:
“What about the programme for the afternoon? That’s the thing – to have a plan and stick to it. First one thing and then another, and it’ll all be over before you know where you are.”
Sasha isn’t looking for a routine to give her purpose. Her aim is simply to get through the hours. She seems to have given up hope of the future, speaking no further in advance than the occasional ‘tomorrow.’ These routines act as a mask (another theme which comes up often in the novel), allowing her to exist and interact with the world without giving any suggestion of her real state of mind.
However, repetition becomes a double-edged sword for Sasha. On one hand, it allows her to exist in a routine that keeps her unnoticed by society, but it also keeps her trapped in a cycle of unhappiness that she cannot escape from. Often the effects are visible. Sasha cries in public numerous times throughout the novel; an uncontrollable response to the reality of her situation that destabilises her attempts to remain invisible. These ‘programmes’ that she lives by keep her from loneliness, and allow her to disassociate herself from the world – assisted by the consumption of alcohol that always features in her plans. Drinking is another way to forget the past, at the same time as not having to engage with the present: “And when I have had a couple of drinks I shan’t know whether it’s yesterday, today or tomorrow.”
What these routines really do is highlight the issue of time. Time functions as another source of routine, although one that cannot be controlled as easily. Often, we find Sasha stuck between different time periods, switching constantly between the past and the present as we learn more about her history and her internal struggle to process her traumas. These time shifts are indicated by Rhys’ use of ellipses throughout the novel. Using ellipses in fiction can often denote a softness; an ease with which the reader experiences the story through the sentences. What is interesting about Rhys’ use of ellipses is that you don’t get the same sense of flow. Her ellipses come after a full stop, creating a break in the sentence structure before going on to Sasha’s next train of thought. The result of this is that the journey we go on with Sasha is not smooth. Her jumps in narrative unsettle the rhythm, and reinforce the sense that Sasha’s mental state is at the mercy of these often unwelcome remembrances. The overall effect is one of the things that makes Rhys’ writing so well-formed and intimate. Her ability to capture the internal monologue is part of what makes Good Morning, Midnight feel so undeniably raw and real.
The structural elements that Rhys repeats within the novel reveal a conflict at the heart of the narrative. The repetition of a daily routine helps Sasha to navigate her life in the present, yet there is a constant friction with the darker side of repetition, and the difficulty in escaping the routines imposed by time and experience:
“But I don’t believe things change much really; you only think they do. It seems to me that things repeat themselves over and over again.”
You can see the conflict clearly here: Sasha laments the fact that she is stuck in a cycle of the same things happening again and again, and yet she forces herself into these routines that do just that. It shows again just how much she has been shaped by the past, and how much it still holds her. Despite its pain, it is a pain she knows, and can hide within:
“What do I care about anything when I can lie on the bed and pull the past over me like a blanket? Back, back, back. …”
Sasha repeats the phrase ‘back back back’ only another page later, emphasising again that there is a part of her that cannot let go.
This idea of seeking comfort by staying in bed brings forth another theme: her preoccupation with rooms. The rooms that she lives in become another way that routines and structures are imposed – both physically and emotionally. Physically, it gives Sasha somewhere to hide:
“I’ll lie in bed all day, pull the curtains and shut the damned world out.”
But it also acts as a mask to stop the world looking in, just as the routines do. This is why the type of room becomes so important to Sasha, and why she places so much hope in finding the right place. It’s her way of feeling like she belongs:
“I shall exist on a different plane at once if I can get this room, if only for a couple of nights. It will be an omen. Who says you can’t escape from your fate? I’ll escape from mine, into room number 219. Just try me, just give me a chance.”
This feeling that the room will be the thing that saves her echoes her insistence that new clothes and a new hair colour will change everything – it’s another physical reminder to other people that she is sane and respectable. When considering a new hair colour, Sasha “hang[s] on to that thought as you hang on to something when you are drowning,” and pins all her hopes for a better life on tomorrow: “Tomorrow I’ll be pretty again, tomorrow I’ll be happy again, tomorrow, tomorrow. …”
As discussed previously, there are numerous moments throughout the novel which indicate the sense that Sasha’s routines cannot be the comfort she seeks. Even her rooms no longer ‘hide [her] from the wolves outside:’
“This damned room – it’s saturated with the past. … It’s all the rooms I’ve ever slept in, all the streets I’ve ever walked in. Now the whole thing moves in an ordered, undulating procession past my eyes. Rooms, streets, streets, rooms. …”
Rhys’ language use here is heavy with meaning. The word ‘saturated’ gives a sense of how overwhelming Sasha’s world is becoming. Her sense of being trapped is escalating, exacerbated by the long sentences and repetition. The sentence structure is as ‘undulating’ as the images that torment her, so that we are as dizzied by the sight as Sasha is.
Good Morning, Midnight does not offer the reader much sense of hope. We are so firmly entrenched within Sasha’s consciousness that it is hard to see outside of her experience. We drown alongside her as she struggles to stay afloat of all her routines – those self-imposed and not. The past has a powerful pull. At the beginning of the novel, we hear the following:
“Saved, rescued, fished-up, half-drowned, out of the deep, dark river, dry clothes, hair shampooed and set…”
This quotation is the first thing that you see when you open the Penguin Pocket Classics edition that is part of the Books That Matter box this month. The text is bold, filling the page and impossible to ignore – almost uncomfortably so. Ostensibly, the language reads as hopeful; Sasha has been saved. Despite the apparent hopefulness, there is something dark here – a weight that is illustrated by the very boldness of the font. By the end of the novel, Sasha repeats the phrase, but this time corrects herself:
“Saved, rescued, but not quite so good as new. …”
The hope of being saved and coming out the other side a complete self, shampooed hair and all, is faltering. Sasha’s language is quietly heartbreaking – her ‘not quite so good as new’ is emblematic of her attempts to stay hopeful, and not betray her real feelings in her words. Sasha’s reticence and reluctance to speak more emotionally brings us back to a comment that is made by a woman talking to Sasha in a bar at the beginning of the novel, who says: ‘I understand. All the same. … Sometimes I’m just as unhappy as you are. But that’s not to say that I let everybody see it.’ This is likely to resonate with anyone who has encountered this response before, and as a result has felt the need to alter their behaviour for fear of being seen as weak.
We leave Sasha and finish Good Morning, Midnight as she allows the man next door who has previously unsettled her come into her bed. What makes this scene so poignantly sad is not just that she seems to have given up, but that the words and the repetition she uses here on paper convey a positive consent:
“Then I put my arms round him and pull him down on to the bed, saying: ‘Yes – yes – yes. …’”
What may sound like an invitation is just another mask; another way that Sasha’s repetitions conceal her true feeling, and ultimately fail her.
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