Although based in part on historical events and ambience, The Passion needs the extra qualifier “fantasy” because neither its form nor its characters conform to conventional notions of historical texts. For Jeanette Winterson, the novel as a genre has as much to do with poetry as with prose. Her words are spare and exact, and a rhythm is quickly established and consistently maintained through well-placed repetition of phrasing, even complete sentences. Be assured, however, that Winterson is a good storyteller; she simply does not conform to traditional practices, preferring instead an eclectic blend of history, fairy tale, and postmodernist technique.
The contents page of the novel serves as an introduction to her multileveled tale in the way of a microcosm in form and content. There are four sections, each of which includes a definite article in its title, thus assuming the shape of a poem, with anaphora, the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of lines, as the predominant rhetorical tool:
The EmperorThe Queen of SpadesThe Zero WinterThe Rock
The emperor of section 1 is Napoleon Bonaparte, but he is not the focus of the piece. The first-person narration is that of Henri, one of the emperor’s cooks, whose job consists of first wringing the necks of chickens, then serving them to suit Napoleon’s peculiar tasts. Henri’s attitudes toward Napoleon change from admiration, to love, and finally to disillusionment, as he follows the emperor from war to war—wars which ostensibly are designed to bring peace but instead produce horrors. The French people are reduced to producing boys to replenish the fallen troops or girls to give birth to boys who will do the same. Part 1 concludes on New Year’s Day, 1805, as twenty-year-old Henri reaches emotional exhaustion.
“The Queen of Spades” is also recounted in the first person, but the voice this time is that of Villanelle. While Henri is rather passive and excels in description, Villanelle is a woman of action and a hard-nosed philosopher who considers all subjects including death, sex, love, religion, freedom—and, most important, passion, a recurrent motif that apparently touches all others. The daughter of a Venetian boatman, Villanelle exhibits the legendary characteristics associated with her father’s profession: She has webbed feet and is able to walk on water. Her job in a gambling casino enables her to meet a variety of characters, the most important of whom are a well-to-do married woman with whom she has a passionate affair and a repulsive fat man whom she will eventually marry and then desert. Villanelle’s narration, too, ends on New Year’s Day, 1805.
The parallelism within time is not the only recourse used to combine the two narrations. Joining them also are repetitions of words and phrases, as each narrator independently forms a similar thought. One example unites love, war, and games: “You play, you win. You play, you lose. You play.” A second repetition becomes a signature of the book as a whole despite its occasional syntactical inversion: “Trust me. I’m telling you stories.” or “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that within sections 3 and 4, the two first-person narrations alternate. The prose comes together in yet another parallel, for within the story Henri and Villanelle meet in Russia and agree to escape together, along with Henri’s friend Patrick. Adventures and stories abound as they walk from Russia back to Venice.
This two-thousand-mile trek is but one example of the blending of fantasy and reality in Winterson’s novel. Having accepted the fact of Villanelle’s webbed feet and her other unusual supernatural ability, one is then ready for other magical feats. There is the ragged elderly woman living within the maze of canals who not only is a seer but also can smell the approach of a new year. Patrick’s miraculous eye enables him to preach from the pulpit while viewing two members of his congregation engaging in adulterous passion miles away. Spirits are commonplace; thus, it is no surprise that Henri is comforted in the madhouse by the presence of his mother and Patrick after both have died. Having literally lost her heart to her...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)