The Awakening of a Dipsomaniac

First impressions of Sacha Jansen (Sophia): self-destructive, lonely, likes rooms, a lot. Can I sympathize with her? Yes. Do I think she’s a likeable character? To a certain extent. Finally, would I want to be her friend? Probably not.  The first few questions that begin my post about Jean Rhys’ novel synthesize the succinct traits that make Jansen a pivotal, complex, and at first analysis, an extremist and an improbable model for the liberated “feminist” woman. (Note feminist in parenthesis because Jansen is not your typical man-hating feminist. Oh wait…) She is able to reverse the typical gaze of the male and become the beholder as well as reverse the male/female dialectic. Through her encounters with men and her acute self-awareness, she becomes the liberated “other.” “The other” which is a preoccupation that Jansen shares to the familiar feminist idea from Simone De Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe written and published in French in 1949, ten years after Good Morning, Midnight. Rhys is ahead of her time in creating a figure that ultimately has feminist characteristics. And it is this commonality with the later idea of Beauvoir’s that distinguishes Jansen as a “strong” female in society instead of fragility. She is fragmented but not entirely broken.

Who Holds the Gaze Now?

The beholder of the gaze is typically male and the gaze is usually a woman. Nineteenth and twentieth century paintings can attest to that presumption but as mentioned in prior classes with Emile Zola and his novel Au Bonheur des Dames, the beholder of the gaze started to change with Haussmanization and the development of the Magasins. Due to the rise of department stores women became the beholders, looking at one pretty thing after another. They gained through shopping economic power and therefore increased power in society. Though with Zola, the shift in gaze was women to objects, Rhys’ reversal of the gaze is Sacha Jansen to men. Early on in the novel when Sacha recalls working at the dress shop, she meets an Englishman, who holds a high position, named Mr. Blank. She describes him and thinks, “He arrives. Bowler-hat, majestic trousers, oh-my-God expression, ha-ha eyes—I know him at once.” (17) It is not just a physical gaze but also her interior narrative that accompanies her description. “Well let’s argue this out Mr. Blank. You who represent society, have the right to pay four hundred francs a month…lodge me in a small, dark room, to clothe me shabbily…Did I say all this? Of course I didn’t. I didn’t even think.” (26) Her humor is dry—both sad and funny at the same time. Her silent voice is however one of altercation. And her thoughts through a stream of consciousness narration add to her own awareness that she is in a position of subordination and repulsed by the idea. Jansen is in a position of limited mobility. (She is a woman who is aging, can’t keep a job, and lives on a day-to-day basis.) Though she isn’t vocal about her position, she takes the first step of reversing the gaze through her interior dialogue and perception of Mr. Blank. She therefore reverses the male/female dialectic. The male/female dialectic is based on the idea of dependence and that one is subjected to the other.  If she internally declares herself inferior to the man, Mr. Blank, she is in return refusing to let the man put her down. More succinctly, she puts herself down so man cannot.

In addition, Sacha reverses the dialectic to go so far as to hurt men. In Part Four, René, the gigolo, and Sacha are in her room. She looks at him and sees his wounds and thinks, “He looks sad. He says, speaking in a low voice and for the very first time with a very strong accent: ‘I have wounds,’ pronouncing wounds so oddly that I don’t understand what he means.” (145) Jansen observes his physical wounds. The scene in the room continues and René wants to make love to her. And at first, it seems she to reciprocate this action. They “struggle” on the bed a little. Laugh a little. And then she tells him to get out and to take her money because that’s what he wants. He leaves finally without saying anything. René is wounded again but mentally. There are many things I could’ve felt for Sacha at this scene but I felt that she holds a great amount of power in her limited position of being a woman. René’s happiness is in a sense dependent upon the whimsical moods of Jansen.

I referred earlier to the common preoccupation Simone de Beauvoir shared with Rhys in the sense the Rhys gave Jansen the ability to make choices. De Beauvoir’s idea of “the other” is first established through autonomy and alienation. Jansen can check both off. She is autonomous in her decisions and really wants to be around no one. Her freewill, though as neurotic and as strange as it can be, yes I’m referring to the cafés, is essential to her process of becoming “the other.”

Why is Sacha broken? Did she lose her glue?

Many discussions have evolved in regards to whether or not Sacha is a broken woman. It’s easy to think Sacha is weak. The Russians that she meets describe her as being “tristesse.” And in multiple situations, she tries, and tries hard to commit suicide. In one scene early on in the novel, she thinks, “it was then that I had the bright idea of drinking myself to death. Thirty-five pounds of the legacy had accumulated, it seemed. That ought to do the trick. I did try too. I’ve had enough of these streets that sweat a cold, yellow slime, of hostile people, of crying myself to sleep every night.” (37) Sacha’s best friends are Pernod and Whiskey. So perhaps on a surface level she is a little broken. However I wouldn’t call her a “broken woman” but a “fragmented woman.” The concept of fragmentation, as discussed by Linda Nochlin in The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, is that the general idea of a “utopian whole,” a concept associated pre-eighteenth century, no longer exists. The existence of the body whether in modern art or literature is seen through a “crop.” In regards to Sacha Jansen, she is essentially, a combination of “crops.” Honestly, who do you know that is completely happy? We see each other through crops. So for Jansen, the pieces, which make her theoretically stable and “happy,” are not all there. But she is not beyond hope. She holds key pieces that allow her for redemption and her awakening back to life. Therefore not “broken.” The image that I see clearly associating with her redemption is the open door. In the end of the novel, she runs after René and he refuses to acknowledge her. Sacha doesn’t kill herself. Instead she leaves her door open for her neighbor who wanted to sleep with her for a while. It’s not the guy we wanted to see Jansen with but Rhys ends the novel with the door open. There is our sliver of light that Jansen won’t end up as a dying dipsomaniac. Her fragmentation, reversal of the gaze, and the reversal of the male/female dialectic are the essence of modernity and the liberated woman.

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