That’s settled. I can start on the Pernod. Now the feeling of the room is different. They all know what I am. I’m a woman come in here to get drunk. That happens sometimes. They have a drink, these women, and then they have another and then they start crying silently. And then they go into the lavabo and then they come out–powdered, but with hollow eyes–and, head down, slink into the street.
–From Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
I felt isolated in my misery. I became lonely, so I drank a bit, and then a bit more, and then I became lonelier, because no one likes being around a drunk. I lost and I drank and I drank and I lost. I liked my job, but I didn’t have a glittering career, and even if I had, let’s be honest: women are still only valued for two things–their looks and their role as mothers. I’m not beautiful, and I can’t have kids, so what does that make me? Worthless.
–From The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
There is a particularly virulent self-hatred that gnaws at these two women alcoholics. Rhys’ Sasha Jensen wanders around Paris in a shroud of loneliness. At first I thought this book was Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London but told from a female point of view. However, I don’t remember this level of self-reproach in Orwell’s book. As I remember it, there is a certain relish of the bedbugs and the pawnshops, whereas in Rhys’ book every seedy detail of her cheap hotel room seems like proof of her unforgivable inferiority.
As for Hawkins’ Rachel, she is also banished from the rest of society and, like Sasha, she is unable to be a mother. In fact, Rachel blames her infertility for driving her to drink, and Sasha’s most painful memories concern her dead newborn. It is as if these anonymous women were unable to create that most important bond–that between mother and child–and instead they have no purpose or warmth in their lives.
Is Rachel right when it comes to her comment about women needing to be attractive or maternal in order to have any value in society? Have things changed between the publication of Rhys’ novella in 1939 and that of Hawkins’ thriller in 2015?
There is a rabid misogyny in both books–a loathing of women who have no seeming right to self-esteem. I enjoyed both books because their main characters go against the grain and screw up over and over again, embarrassing themselves to no end. In fact, there is a certain pleasure in failing without apology.