Jeanette Winterson Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jeanette Winterson’s novels are at the cusp of modernism,postmodernism, andMagical Realism. Her sheer verbal skills, so evident in her fiction, led to the novels’ initial popularity. The novels also were popular because they filled the desire in the mid-1980’s for a new lesbian narrative subgenre. In some ways, Winterson steered the postfeminist novel into uncharted territories, especially in terms of narrative. She made gender, along with plot, history, and even narrator, sources of uncertainty. The one certainty in her novels is the story of the truth of love. Other consistent themes include myth and the fairy tale.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an immediate popular success, is an autobiographical story of lesbian sexuality. The heroine, simply called Jeanette (and later Jess), relates her experiences with a narrow-minded religious sect. With this novel, Winterson joined a long line of writers who were liberated from narrow religious upbringings. (D. H. Lawrence is perhaps the most obvious and most acknowledged of these writers.)

Winterson inherited far more from her religious upbringing than she rejected. She admitted that her readings as a child, narrow and limited as they were, led to her love of words and her sense of style. She became an evangelist, not for religion but for the books themselves, much like the “religion of literature” that the poet Matthew Arnold sought to construct out of the ruins of his childhood faith. Winterson has said that literature, and specifically postmodernist literature, has to redefine the boundaries of truth in terms of love and do so beyond the norms of common sense. As in Lawrence, that love has to be defined in terms of sexuality and passion.

Winterson’s next two novels,The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, play with history, with The Passion set in the Napoleonic era. Her fourth novel, Written on the Body, is a more somber exploration of what became her typical plot structure, the love triangle of a married couple and a single woman, usually lesbian. Love is challenged by disease, as the heroine is diagnosed with cancer. Love and disease break down boundaries, demanding new ones be constructed. The novel has no plot line and the narrator is not clearly gendered. Art and Lies and Gut Symmetries are similarly constructed.

After publishing the novels The Power Book and Lighthousekeeping, Winterson turned to children’s science fiction. By invitation of a small Scottish press, she turned to pure myth in the novel Weight, which is a retelling of the story of Atlas and Hercules. A growing concern with ecological issues led to the novel The Stone Gods, set partly in space in the science fiction format and partly on Easter Island, which suffered desertification at the hands of humans.

Sexing the Cherry

Sexing the Cherry is an experiment in postmodern fiction, interweaving strands of history, myth, fairy tale, and Magical Realism. The main plot concerns an orphan named Jordan and his adoptive mother, a large Rabelaisian earth-mother type of woman who lives by the river Thames in London. The time is the seventeenth century, and London is in the throes of civil war. Winterson shows herself with this novel to be deeply reactionary in...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)