Returning and Remembering: A Review of Good Morning, Midnight
By Mariam Pari
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927. Oil on canvas, 71.4cm x91.4cm, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines. Digital photograph accessed 03 November 2023 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Automat-edward-hopper-1927.jpg.
“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.”
Good Morning Midnight is a semiautobiographical novel written in 1939 by Jean Rhys and is thematically sequential to her earlier novels Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), and Voyage in the Dark (1934). It follows the heroine Sasha’s inward monologue as she aimlessly wanders through the streets of Paris after moving from London.
Hopelessness permeates the narrative as Sasha is haunted by memories that she is constantly trying to escape by drinking herself into oblivion. Confronted with the losses from her past, her presence in Paris is a constant reminder of what came before. Although being in the city again inflicts suffering, it also brings her comfort as she blankets herself in the destitute atmosphere of the cheap hotel rooms that she inhabits.
The title is derived from the poem by Emily Dickinson and encapsulates the same themes of inner struggle and faith. The corroding sadness and alienation that clings to Sasha’s ankles as she drags her feet through Paris means that moving on from the heartache of the past is a near impossible task. Sasha has been abandoned by her lover and is in a permanent state of intoxication as she finds herself in an unescapable downward spiral, the internal monologue leading the reader into the depths of her tangible sadness. The emotions projected through Rhys’ writing are palpable because of how encompassing the stream of consciousness narrative is.
Instability is a recurrent theme in Good Morning Midnight. She is financially unstable and always has just enough money to survive, often borrowing off past lovers. This existence on the cusp of life highlights her liminal state as she subsists within a cycle of returning and remembering. Her self-destructive nature means she is both instigator and victim of her pain. Feeling too jaded even for self-pity, she resides in a constant state of bitter resignation.
Her move to London, encouraged by a worried friend, was supposed to be a change of scenery, however adrift in the city, she falls into the same cyclical patterns. This reflects the last paragraph of Voyage in the Dark which ponders on the idea of eternal return and experiencing her shattered life ‘all over again.’ In her mind, she is doomed from the start.
When the novel was first published, it was not received well as it was deemed too depressing a storyline. This was the seeming end of her literary career as she disappeared into obscurity for almost ten years. It was not until Selma Vaz Dias adapted the novel 1949 for theatrical presentation that Rhys was able to be tracked down through a newspaper advertisement. Dia’s adaptation of Good Morning, Midnight was performed on BBC radio in 1957. Although Rhys owed her reawakening and return to the public eye to Dias, she said that this literary fame had ‘come too late.’
Rhys’ ability to construct the absorbing and deeply affecting world of the novel, which is primarily plotless, is a testament to her greatness as a writer. The shifting of perspectives from the past to the present as well as the dark humor tainted with hopelessness creates a haunting piece of work which lingered in my mind long after I had finished reading it.
“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!”
Excerpt from ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Emily Dickinson (1862), https://www.brinkerhoffpoetry.org/poems/good-morning-midnight.