Commodification with the main protagonist, Sasha Janson. Sasha

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Commodification with the main protagonist, Sasha Janson. Sasha

Commodification
of women comes in many forms in the fiction of both Rhys and Mansfield. Women
are often presented as commodities in that, they are seen as just another thing
to be possessed, their bodies are objectified and their place in society is
within the domestic sphere. They are also frequently shown as unequal from
their male counter parts. Rhys and Mansfield, are both writers in a field that
at the time was dominated by men, and therefore could have experienced the
commodification and objectification that they write about.  In Jean Rhys’s novel Good Morning Midnight
there are clear signs of commodification of women, in particular with the main
protagonist, Sasha Janson. Sasha is shown on many occasions to obsess over her
appearance and is objectified by men. In Mansfield’s short stories there are
similar aspects of women being objectified, and presented as casualties of
commodification. Rhys and Mansfield both share similarities in their lives,
they were both colonial women writers, writing at a time that men would have
dominated in the field as women were seen as inferior to their male
counterparts. This sense of inferiority leads to women being presented in a
certain light, which will be looked at further. Both Rhys and Mansfield
illustrate their characters in a way that conveys them with the same inferior
stereotypes that they, the writers, themselves would have faced as well as the
stereotypes women of the time would have faced in terms of being commodified.
Examining the commodification of women in the fiction of both Rhys and
Mansfield is important as, it not only tells us about women’s place in society
when the stories were written but also allows us to explore the way in which it
has changed (if it has) since the writers wrote them.

 

In
Jean Rhys’s novel, Good Morning, Midnight,
the protagonist is clearly a woman who is seeking some sort of fulfilment in
her life, be that through material things like changing the colour of her hair
or seeking respite from her past. In her conversation with Mr. Blank, Sasha,
when asked about her previous jobs, says she was a “mannequin” (Rhys 2000: 18).
A Mannequin is put on show to be looked at, they are used to display the latest
fashions, and fill stores to advertise their latest stock. For Sasha to refer
to herself as a mannequin is significant as it suggests that she was aware of
the fact that her body was only seen and used as a commodity. As modern audiences
are used to having static, unmoving mannequins in their stores, the concept of
having a real-life person modelling the clothes seems somewhat degrading as,
the women are only being used to display the clothes. When people are looking at
mannequins they are not truly seeing the person only the clothes. A modern-day comparison
to this could be catwalk models or models in general. They become commodities as,
they like the products they sell, are disposable and ever changing. For Rhys to
write this into Sasha’s past is key as it shows how Sasha has become engraved
with this notion that she is a commodity, as she is used to being looked at but
not really seen. In Mansfield’s short story Miss
Brill, the protagonist Miss Brill is characterised as an older woman, who
seems to lack companionship. One of her prised possessions is her fur. The fur acts
as an object that mirrors Miss Brill’s life. It is old, as is Miss Brill. It is
taken out of its box for a day, the box mirroring Miss Brill’s “little dark
room— her room like a cupboard” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 601). This
parallel represents the commodification of Miss Brill as, by the end of the
story the two become one in the same as Mansfield writes “She unclasped the
necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the
lid on she thought she heard something crying.” (Mansfield 2007: kindle
location 601) with the thing crying obviously being Miss Brill and not the fur,
morph into one. Janka
Kascakova in her critique ‘Modernism vs. Modernity: Katherine Mansfield as
Critic’ explores the “mass consumerism and commodification of everything”
(Kascakova 2016). This notion of everything becoming a commodity is definitely
clear in the representation of the women in both Mansfield and Rhys’s fiction
as Sasha is turned into a commodity by working as a mannequin and Miss Bill her
fur. Mansfield in her short
stories presents women who are fixated on buying, and spending, they almost
become defined by the things that they own (especially true in the case of Miss
Brill), and by allowing this to happen make commodities of themselves as, they
are no longer individual people but things to the rest of society.

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In
Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss the
character of Bertha is presented as a naive housewife, who is, to begin with,
unaware of her husband, Harry’s affair and upon discovering it, remains
ignorant of the fact, the title of the story could allude to the idea that ignorance
is bliss, and this is the state that Bertha has forced herself into, in order
to carry on. Bertha is what could be seen as a woman who has found her place
within the domestic sphere, she is a wife, a mother, and a friendly hostess.
She has found her place and therefore is filled with “a feeling of
bliss–absolute bliss!” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 578) if she were to
confront her husband about the affair it could lead to the perfect world Bertha
has built being shattered. This links to the notion of women being commodities
as, Harry treats her as a thing that comes with the family lifestyle, and upon
becoming bored of this lifestyle finds a distraction in the form of Pearl
Fulton. Chantal Cornut-Gentille D’Arcy in her critique ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss: ‘the rare fiddle’ as emblem of
the political and sexual alienation of woman’ explores a semi Marxist reading
of the short story Bliss. She
mentions how “Bliss can be viewed as
a literary response which delicately attempted to present women’s oppression in
a different light” (D’Arcy 1999), this idea that Bertha is ‘oppressed’ is
important to consider as, though she has free will, she is trapped in her
relationship. She is also trapped within this role of being a good mother and a
wife as this is what is expected of her. D’Arcy also points out that the
characterisation of Bertha can be viewed as an “expression of the oppression of
middle-class housewives” (D’Arcy 1999). This sense of oppression that Bertha is
experiencing is made further clear when she has to convince herself she has a
good life, by reminding herself that she “was young.” “Harry and she were as
much in love as ever” “They didn’t have to worry about money. They had this… house
and garden” “there were books… music, and she had found a wonderful little
dressmaker” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 593) happiness to Bertha means
having an idyllic life filled with things that are expected to make her happy. Her
oppression comes in the sense that she is forced to believe that these things
will bring her joy and is in denial of the things, like the affair that will
take this away from her. It could be viewed that Bertha finds comfort surrounding
herself with commodities as she like the books and dressmaker are replaceable,
and actually inevitably have been replaced by a prettier version. She like the
things that she surrounds herself with is a commodity.

 

A
sense of commodification through oppression is also clear in Good Morning, Midnight as Sasha is shown
to be oppressed by the men around her. Men like her husband, someone who she
had relied upon and who inevitably left her leaving her in “pieces” (Rhys 2000:
119). There is also Rene, the gigolo. Judith Kegan Gardiner in her critique
‘Good Morning, Midnight; Good Night, Modernism’ discusses how Good Morning, Midnight is a “critique of
polarizations about sex, class, and moral value that oppress women and the
poor.” (Gardiner 1982). She also explores how “Rene is Sasha’s double” in that
they are both equal, but in a society, that commodifies women he is also “her
oppressor” (Gardiner 1982). He tells her what to do, objectifies her, and in
some way, manipulates her by telling lies about his past (Rhys 2000: 146). They
are equal in that they are both poor, lonely and neither really fit in with
society standards. He oppresses her when he tells her what to do like when he tells
her, “give me the money to pay for dinner now instead of in the restaurant?” (Rhys
2000: 130) to which she complies with. He also on several occasions also refers
to her as a “stupid woman… such a stupid woman” (Rhys 2000: 143) degrading her
and making her feel less than him.  Through
oppression there is a sense of ownership, she belongs to him and, this is when
he feels he can take advantage of her. Through this oppression he feels he has
some right over her, like she is a thing that he now has power over. It can be
viewed that Sasha is aware of the fact that the men in the novel are trying to
use her, especially clear when she is with Mr Blank and has the thought “Let’s
say that you have this mystical right to cut my legs off. But the right to
ridicule me afterwards because I am a cripple-no, that I think you haven’t got.
And that’s the right you hold most dearly, isn’t it? You must be able to
despise the people you exploit.” (Rhys 2000: 25) she definitely understands Mr
Blanks motives in regard to braking her will and character, and when she makes
the first move to leave takes power into her own hands. However, she in some
ways lets herself down by adding “Did I say all this? of course I didn’t.”
(Rhys 2000: 26) by not vocalising her inner thoughts and feelings she is
letting Mr Blank have superiority over. To Mr Blank she is a commodity, he uses
her, exploits her and, treats her as replaceable. By not voicing her thoughts
she feeds into his power and the hold he has over her.

 

The
idea that women are making commodities of themselves is also explored in
Patricia Moran’s essay ‘Shame,
subjectivity, and self-expression in Cora Sandel and Jean Rhys.’ As she
explains how Sasha’s makeover “by acquiring the appropriate “armour” of
clothing, hat, and hair colour, Sasha blends in, a strategy made apparent when
her “transformation act” is successful because “Nobody stares at me, which I
think is a good sign” (Moran 2015). Though Sasha may have turned herself into a
walking commodity due to her consumer habits we see that she does this to
escape social scrutiny. By looking like everyone else, she becomes just like
the others. She is no longer different but the same which acts as a shield to
protect her from judgment as, she is no longer stared at, she is now part of
the norm and no longer unique, acting in her favour as she is trying to avoid
drawing attention to herself. This sense of consumerism is also visible in
Mansfield’s Bliss as, Bertha has also
bought things that she thinks will impress the guests at her dinner party, in
regard to the fruit “the cluster of purple ones. These last she had bought to
tone in with the new dining-room carpet” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 584) the fact
that she brought the fruit to match the new carpet is significant as she is
openly telling us that she wants the guests to notice these things. This idea
of wanting to show ones’ best assets is not a new concept but does however, show
how we use things to make ourselves look better. Berths even admits that
matching the fruit to the carpet
“sounds rather far-fetched and absurd,” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 584)
but does so anyway. In a house full of commodities, it is understandable how
Bertha could find herself becoming one of these commodities as, as even things
like a bowl of fruit are used to show extravagance. The idea of using a
commodity as “armour” (Rhys 2000: 42) is also seen in Mansfield short story An Indiscreet Journey where the
protagonist wears an “age-old Burberry.” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 698) admitting
that the coat is significant as it was “The perfect and adequate disguise” as “Lions
have been faced in a Burberry. Ladies have been rescued from open boats in
mountainous seas wrapped in nothing else.” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 698)
to our protagonist the Burberry coat is armour it gives her courage to be able
to go on her journey because of what is symbolises. The Burberry coat is also
significant as it was historically worn by British soldiers who fought in the
trenches in the First World War. In the story, she is going to the French front
line to be with her French lover. By adorning this coat, she is taking on this
persona of being brave like the men who wore similar Burberry. She is becoming
a commodity as she gives into the notion that she needs this masculine coat to
appear brave and independent and becomes the “undisputed venerable traveller”
(Mansfield 2007: kindle location 698) that she sees herself as. This sense of
commodification of women due to consumerism is that is presented by Rhys and
Mansfield resonates heavily with modern day audience’s decades after the
stories where even written as it has become easier for women to buy things and
commodify themselves, in order to fit in with societal standards.

 

Considering
that Rhys and Mansfield both had failed pregnancies in their youth, it could be
suggested that, this is the reason why their characters also share this trait. In
1920 Rhys lost her first child, a son, who was only three weeks old, this is
mirrored in the life of Sasha who also experiences the loss of her son.
Mansfield also suffered from a failed pregnancy and unlike Rhys did not have
any other children before her death at the early age of thirty-four. Mansfield’s
protagonists in her short stories tend to be childless women with the exception
of a few, like Bliss but the child is
little mentioned. The commodification of women would have placed them within
the domestic sphere with one of their roles being to bare children. As the
women in the fiction of Rhys and Mansfield don’t have children they go against what
is expected of them and become part of what Erin M Kingsley describes as ‘the
other’ (Kingsley 2015). This otherness would have alienated them from the rest
of society as they lack this characteristic of being a mother which would have
been expected of them. Kingsley further goes on to mention that ‘Rhys bars
Sasha from achieving any empowerment through motherhood’ (Kingsley 2015) the
commodification of women would have meant that, women that have successfully
had children are seen as strong capable women, for Sasha to be unsuccessful
with bring up her child could suggest that she is weak and therefore, unable to
escape the pressures that would have been placed on her. In Mansfield’s short
story Revelations, a death of a child
also occurs. However, unlike Rhys it is not the protagonist that has lost the
child, but rather the main protagonist Monica’s hairdresser who has. Monica’s
reaction upon finding out about the little girl’s death is what is significant.
She begins to cry and runs off. In the taxi, she imagines “nothing but a tiny
wax doll with a feather of gold hair, lying meek, its tiny hands and feet
crossed.” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 601) here it can be seen that,
though Monica may not have a child of her own she is able to be sympathetic towards
this death. Her interpretation of what this little girl would have looked like
is also significant as she imagines the child as a perfect little doll topped
with golden hair. This may seem unnatural but shows how Monica’s lifestyle that
is filled with commodities has affected this. Another significant moment that
is telling of Monica’s characterisation by Mansfield is the last line “She
tapped against the window, but the driver did not hear; and, anyway, they were
at Princes’ already.” (Mansfield 2007: kindle location 601) Her ability to so
quickly brush off the sadness she supposedly felt suggest that her feelings
were not genuine. It changes the tone of the story as Monica is now presented
as a character that is selfish and using the death of the child as an outlet
for her pre-existing inner sadness. The fact that she is able to grasp onto the
news so quickly and uses it for her own reasons, shows how she is not only
selfish but able to take something and use it like she would any other
commodity.

 

Rhys and Mansfield share a lot of
commonalities in their fiction and in life. Jane Nardin in her essay ‘Victims
and Victimizers in the Fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys’ explains how
“both Mansfield’s and Rhys’s early published work deals with the things they
had witnessed as unprotected women rattling around Europe.” (Nardin 2014).  Meaning that a lot of the stories that
Mansfield and Rhys wrote reflected on the lives of the writers. The experiences
of commodification that the characters portray could have been experiences that
our authors faced. In Good Morning,
Midnight Sasha finds herself in a foreign country, childless, and
husbandless. This reflects Rhys’s life experiences as Rhys had an “affair, and
her marriage broke up. Her fictions muse endlessly on the feelings of disgrace
that plague the “unchaste” woman.” (Nardin 2014). The sense of commodification the
resides in Rhys’s fiction could come from the fact that “Rhys at eighteen was
seduced by a wealthy man whose kept mistress she became” (Nardin 2014). During
her time as his mistress she would have discovered a lot of the feelings and
emotions she projects into her characters. She would have felt most like a
commodity when she fell pregnant and the man ended their relationship, showing
that to him she was just a thing that he could use and then get rid of. Mansfield’s
fiction also mirrors a lot of what happened to her in her short life as, she
contracted gonorrhoea which lead to her writing “dozens of stories about illness
and death.” (Nardin 2014). It can be deduced that for this reason that, a lot
of the commodification that is alluded to in her stories would have been
experiences that encountered she in her real life or drew inspiration from.
Women were commodified also because they were thought to be less intelligent
then men and this would have affected the fictions of Rhys and Mansfield. Both women
write about the struggles of finding and keeping work. Mansfield in Pictures seems to dedicate an entire
story to the struggles that would have been faced. We see the day in the life
of Ada Moss, her struggles with finding a job and the countless rejections she
faces, we also see the lengths that she has to go to in order to pay rent. The
rejection that is portrayed could illustrate Mansfield’s own struggle with
finding work or in terms of getting her work published, would have found it difficult
given the fact that she was a woman and therefore seen as not as intelligent as
her male counter parts. An aspect that is often overlooked is the fact that
Miss Moss is not the only woman in the story that is trying to find work there
are several women who turn up for the auditions and like Miss Moss several that
will most likely be in the same position as her. Mansfield by presenting these
women as aspiring actresses draws on the fact that they are commodities as the
woman are interchangeable each as willing for a role as the next. This struggle
with work is also presented in Good
Morning, Midnight as Sasha finds it difficult to keep a job as she points
out with her third job she “got the sack from that in a week” (Rhys 2000: 26).
It would have been important for women to have jobs as it meant that they were
able to be independent, they would earn their own money and not have to be
ruled by a man. However especially in the case of Sasha when she has acquired
job she finds herself still being told what to do by men that are of higher
ranking than her. This could reflect on Rhys’s own experiences as there would have
been me in her field that where viewed a superior telling her what to do, and
treating her as a commodity, in a similar why to how Sasha was treated.

 

Exploring
the commodification of women in the fiction of Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight and
Mansfield’s short stories is important as it gives an idea of how the writers
would have been inspired by the real world when forming their characters, and
how their own experiences with being commodified and other life events assisted
in forming their characters. From the exploration of protagonists in the
stories it is clear that, it was easy for the women to be treated as
commodities because everything was becoming a commodity, mass consumerism meant
that there were a lot of different commodities available and the more a person
had, the better quality of life they would portray. However, from the stories
we learn that having a lot doesn’t mean having a good life, characters that had
all the things they desired were still sad and unfulfilled. Women became
commodities as, they gave into the societal pressures placed on them and, like
Sasha, Miss Brill and Bertha do not stand up for themselves as often as they
should when faced with adversity and powers that were trying to commodify them.
Rhys and Mansfield portrayal of how women became commodities, through
oppression, treating them as just things and through a need to consume, still
resonates with the women of today. Though women have taken a lot of power into
their own hands issues like men having more power than women in the work place,
like Rhys illustrates, are thing that still occur even decades after the stories
where written shows the value of these fictions as they not only show us what
occurred when they were written but allows to see how we have changed. The
fictions of Rhys and Mansfield allow us to see how women were treated as a
commodity from a modern-day perspective.

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