"As Soon as I Sober Up I Start Again": Alcohol and the Will in Jean Rhys's Pre-War Novels

By Nardin, Jane | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

"As Soon as I Sober Up I Start Again": Alcohol and the Will in Jean Rhys's Pre-War Novels


Nardin, Jane, Papers on Language & Literature


Jean Rhys's pre-war novels, Quartet (1928), After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), and Good Morning, Midnight (1938), thematize alcohol dependency and relate it to the questions of female agency and female desire with which they are centrally concerned. These texts take issue with the dominant early-twentieth-century view of alcoholism as a "volitional monomania" characterized by a failure of will. In doing so, they adumbrate ideas that do not appear in the alcoholism literatures of the social sciences and humanities until later in the century. Anticipating the claim of recent feminists that women's addictions can be seen as symptoms of patriarchal oppression or as protests against it, these novels suggest that women drinkers might choose addiction and refuse a recovery that would only return them to the predicament against which they were protesting in the first place. Because the heroines make these choices under duress, in situations where more attractive options are not available, Rhys's pre-war tales offer a proto-feminist alternative to what John Cowley's study The White Logic calls the modernist drunk narrative: the story of a sensitive, artistic male who heroically and freely chooses alcohol for its power both to affirm his cosmic despair and to render it bearable. (1) The bleak repetitiveness of female drinking in Rhys's pre-war novels is in constant tension with the forward movement of the romance plot their heroines fantasize. But alcoholic repetition usually triumphs, ironically undercutting not only the romance plot itself, but also the (masculine) modernist celebration of femininity as comfortingly and naturally cyclical. Despite its importance, the role of alcohol in Rhys's early novels rarely receives more than a passing mention from their critics.

JEAN RHYS AND THE GENDERING OF ALCOHOLISM

Born in 1890, Rhys had a drinking problem throughout her adult life. Indeed, she could hardly have avoided it. Like many female alcoholics, Rhys had a history of emotional and sexual abuse. She probably suffered from two mental disorders, depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, that are associated with alcohol dependency. (2) Her environment placed her at risk as well, for as a young woman Rhys moved in circles where liquor flowed freely. By the time the '20s roared in, she was drinking heavily, and as she aged, her drinking caused ever-more-significant difficulties. She flew into uncontrollable rages. Her second husband, Leslie Smith, began to appear with "black eyes and a scratched face" and confessed to his daughter that Rhys sometimes attacked him (Angier 62). She battered her third husband, Max Hamer, as well, and during the stressful years following their marriage, she was several times arrested for assault and disorderly conduct. But Rhys's relationship to alcohol was not completely negative. As George Wedge rightly notes in his essay "Alcohol as Symptom: The Life and Work of Jean Rhys," "[t]he self-medication of alcohol sometimes made her dark moods blacker, rendering writing impossible. At other times it provided a still center from which writing could proceed" (26).

Rhys's early novels (3) describe a social milieu that is soaked in liquor--according to Wedge, forty-two per cent of their pages contain at least one reference to alcohol (27). And alcoholism threatens all of their heroines. The representations of female drinkers in these four novels are all, to a significant degree, interrogations of or reactions against the view of alcoholism that prevailed in England during the period of Rhys's initial residence there, which began in 1907, when she arrived from the West Indies as a schoolgirl, and ended in 1919, when she left for the Continent, an experienced woman with a drinking problem.

In Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom, Mariana Valverde argues that the concept of "monomania" developed by nineteenth-century psychiatrists is the true ancestor of the modern view of alcoholism as a compulsion to drink (47).

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