Sleep It off, Lady

by Jean Rhys

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

“Sleep It off, Lady” is perhaps the best short story written by Rhys. By using third-person narrative, Rhys distances herself from both the victim and her tormenters. Miss Verney, an aging woman who drinks too much and complains too much, irritates others. This story, written in Rhys’s later years, embodies several themes familiar to Rhys’s readers: Old age is a crime; cruel neighbors can destroy a person who lives alone; a doctor is sympathetic but ultimately of little help.

Miss Verney, the protagonist, is in her seventies and alienated because she is old, she is a woman, and she is single. She has a major goal—to rid her property of an old ugly shed. The story takes on elements of the absurd and becomes surrealistic in its imagery: The shed itself is hideous and sagging. A huge rat, which the neighbors think is a figment of a mind foggy from too much alcohol, terrorizes Miss Verney. Neighbors and workmen refuse to listen to her, first when she tries to hire men to destroy the shed and later when she cries out for help.

The final and most devastating image is that of Miss Verney collapsed next to the dustbin, “with her legs stretched out, surrounded by torn paper and eggshells. Her skirt had ridden up and there was a slice of stale bread on her bare knee.” This image suggests that old people in society are thrown out with the garbage and left to be picked up and carted off.

The title of the story comes from Deena, a twelve-year-old neighbor girl. When Miss Verney collapses and appeals to her for help, Deena assumes that the old woman has been drinking and replies, “Sleep it off, lady!”

The doctor attributes her death to heart disease. The death is truly of heart disease but in a spiritual more than a physical sense. Rhys presents a character who is destroyed by the neighborhood in which she lives.

The last four stories in her short-story collection, Sleep It off, Lady, which treat the loneliness and degradation of old age, reveal that Rhys at age eighty had not lost her skill as a storyteller.

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