The Cérébrale

Through Sophia Jansen, Jean Rhys questions the value of a broken woman. Would it be possible for her to ever recover, to ever again occupy a valid space in society? Sophia Jansen’s name is only expressed once or twice in the narrative, and even this surname isn’t hers — it’s the last relic of her failed marriage. It seems that Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight questions the legitimacy of Sophia’s independent existence. Is it really possible that Sophia, husbandless, could ever regain any sort of valid identity? A failed woman, she is left with unseen scars — a surname that does not belong to her, and still worse, the ghost of a child who died not long after his birth. These “failures” have stripped her of any valid claim to society and she is left, thus, to her own devices in the landscape of Paris.

Sophia is no flâneur: she uses Paris, the external world, as a distracter from the overwhelming darkness of her own mind. The reader experiences Sophia’s Paris as a series of rooms and mirrors, nighttime cafés and their lavabos. She clings to the details of these places as though their physicality could lend themselves to Sophia herself – as though objects and details could pull her out of her own mind and ground her solidly to earth. She describes herself as “a bit of an automaton, but sane surely — dry, cold and sane” (10). What is sanity to Sophia Jansen but basic, physical sensation? In repetition and routine, and in sometimes obsessive awareness of her physical surroundings, Sophia finds respite from her complex emotional history. In fact, one of the only moments in the narrative where she feels completely divorced from her misery comes at the artist Serge’s apartment while she stands amongst his paintings. “It is astonishing how vivid they are in this dim light…” Sophia marvels, “the miracle has happened. I am happy” (83). Surrounded by these works of art, Sophia finds herself in en entirely different realm. The paintings serve as physical objects to pull her out of her own thoughts, but they are also gates into Serge’s consciousness. The only place that Sophia is free enough to be happy is a place where she exists as is a detached sort of ghost, entirely removed from herself; a place where she is nothing but a set of eyes. This is tragic — Rhys seems to be telling us that Sophia has been too wounded by her past to ever be able to recover a sense of her own identity.

Despite her thirst for visual details, Sophia has a difficult time incorporating into the world that surrounds her. Her encounters with men throughout the novel reveal this detachment from reality. One man she meets, having bought her drinks and complained the night away about his troubles with women, carelessly deserts her after she mentions her own difficulties. But this rejection doesn’t faze Sophia, who understands herself to be “plunged in a dream where all the faces are masks and only the trees are alive and you can almost see the strings that are pulling the puppets. Close-up of human nature” (75). While the objects of the world might be substantial, Sophia has absolutely no faith in the people that inhabit the world. In fact, there is even a hint of disgust in her sentiment. People are inanimate, distant creatures by nature. But perhaps this notion is a defensive mechanism — if people are only lifeless components of a dry dreamscape, then Sophia is invulnerable. They cannot hurt her.

And yet, she finds herself constantly and inexplicably compelled to seek comfort in a world she mistrusts, above all in men. She strikes up an acquaintanceship with gigolo who mistakes her for a potential client. However, despite his repeated declarations of loyalty and innocent intentions, he ends up raping Sophia. What’s worse, she can’t decide if this is a distraction from her misery or a new addition to it. “Who is this crying?” she asks herself at the close of the novel after René the gigolo has left her, “the same one who laughed on the landing, kissed him and was happy. This is me, this is myself, who is crying. The other – how do I know who the other is? She isn’t me (154).” Sophia might say that she never wanted René, but she was nonetheless glad to see him, she still urges him back and pulls him down to her in the last line of the novel. He has taken advantage of her, he has hurt her, and yet she still wants to extract some sort of comfort from the experience. She absolutely hates him, but if it means not being alone with herself, she will let him have her. Indeed, earlier that evening, she’d thought of her biggest fear in life as the moment when “you are walking along a road peacefully. You trip. You fall into blackness. That’s the past – or perhaps the future. And you know that there is not past, no future, there is only this blackness, changing faintly, slowly but always the same (144).” If anything should bound Sophia to reality, if anything should keep Sophia out of this overwhelming darkness, it is any sort of physical sensation. If that sensation is the quivering instability of drunkenness, so be it; if that sensation is a fit of rage or earth-shattering sobbing, so be it; if that sensation is sex — even forced — so be it. Sophia has given up on (or maybe has been robbed of) self-respect and adherence to the conventions of society.

Still, Sophia is not entirely helpless. As we observed in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, money is a significant component in the life of the expat. Indeed, money features prominently in Rhys’s novel. Sophia is continuously converting among francs, pounds, and dollars. She is very aware of her financial situation and is constantly in need of supplementing her income. Although Sophia is constantly borrowing money, it almost serves as her only means of control. She persuades a former lover to lend her money in Brussels and managed to use the money to eat and get to Paris; the money she reluctantly borrows from her family she uses to dye her hair, buy new clothes, and buy herself (and René) a good meal. After René’s aggression with her, Sophia immediately forfeits her money to him, almost as a means of asserting control over the situation, convincing herself that his attack was merely an exchange between gigolo and client.

Good Morning, Midnight is a complex tale of one woman’s struggle to maintain her sanity. Rhys has given her few tools: objects, alcohol, a few francs. This isn’t much and it’s hard to believe that Sophia Jansen could ever recover a real sense of identity or ever find true respite from her haunting past.

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