Jeanette Winterson

Start Free Trial

Andrea Stuart (review date 18 September 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646

SOURCE: Stuart, Andrea. “Terms of Endearment.” New Statesman & Society 5, no. 220 (18 September 1992): 37–38.

[In the following review, Stuart comments on some strengths and weaknesses of Written on the Body.]

The language of love: how do you breathe life into it? How do you make it new after centuries of systematic literary abuse, top 20 toons, and the gauzy clichés of Hollywood? That is the challenge Jeanette Winterson has set herself in her latest novel, Written on the Body. “Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to one another is still the thing we long to hear?”

Presented exclusively from the perspective of the genderless narrator (a conceit really, since she is so obviously a woman enamoured of women), it is the story of the word-painter's love for Louise as it unfolds amid the memories and debris of past relationships. But Louise, the cherished “body” of the title, is ill. And so it is the shadow of death, the gravitas of disease, that dynamises and rescues love from the banality of late 20th-century life. It is love in the time of Aids (except that here the life-threatening illness is lymphatic leukaemia) where love and death cohabit like some tragic Derby and Joan, doomed but inseparable.

Just as disease disrupts the body of her beloved, so the author ruptures her story with an erudite middle section on the corpus and its responses to infection. These breaks in the narrative are a favourite technique of Winterson's, which she uses so effectively in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion to mark change and to build suspense. At its worst, though, it can seem like showing off: a sort of off-puttingly clever literary grandstanding à la Martin Amis.

However, in Written on the Body, Winterson steals the opportunity offered by digression to write some of the most riveting, soaring prose in the novel. Even if it fails to create tension, the shower of details on T-cells, blood and tissue, reinforces the lover's obsession with the object of her desire and outrage at the invasion of her territory, even when the interloper is as formidable a rival as death. “You were intimate with every muscle, privy to the eyelids moving in sleep. This is the body where your name is written, passing into the hands of strangers.”

Written on the Body has glimmers of the humour that made Oranges so popular. There is the lover whose tongue comes out in a rash after an encounter with our lesbian Lothario liberally doused in “some erotic body oil, authentic pina colada flavour.” And the creaky institution of marriage comes in for its share of scorn: “How long is it you've been married? And you don't ask him to put his head between your legs because you think he might find it distasteful.”

Then there is Winterson's characteristic willingness to take risks; the decision, for example, to present Written on the Body exclusively from the perspective of the narrator, with all its attendant dangers of seeming preachy and narcissistic, could have gone horribly wrong. With characteristic cheek, she just about gets away with it; and the solipsism of Winterson's storyteller fits in almost entirely with her depiction of the self-referential world of love.

What is irresistible about Winterson, always, is her ambition. And Written on the Body, with its grandiloquent themes of love and loss, is certainly a novel in search of greatness. But can she, like John Donne, remove the quotation marks from the words “I love you”? Finally, the answer is no. At the novel's...

(This entire section contains 646 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

end, a taste of “so what?” lingers in the mouth. Like the lover's writhings and whispers, the author's striving on the page may echo our collective craving for a new language of love. But in the end, it is the depth of our desire, not the thing itself, that Winterson manages to capture.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094

Jeanette Winterson 1959-

English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Winterson's career through 2001.

An inventive postmodern author whose fiction explores the nature and varieties of erotic love, Winterson is widely regarded as one of Britain's most talented and provocative contemporary writers. Her award-winning novels, including Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), The Passion (1987), and Sexing the Cherry (1989), are often playful and humorous, but nevertheless serious reconsiderations of gender and sexual identity—particularly what it means to be lesbian—as well as to the relativity of existence, desire, and time. These imaginative narratives, which incorporate biblical themes and elements of myth and fairy tale, often feature cross-dressing, promiscuous, and sexually ambiguous characters. Winterson's use of the line “Trust me, I'm telling you stories” as a refrain and leitmotif in The Passion has taken on emblematic meaning for her fiction in general. Steeped in literary classics and impassioned by the ideas and work of the Modernist writers from the early twentieth century, Winterson writes fiction that attempts to pick up where the Modernists left off, creating new space for literary fiction and its readers.

Biographical Information

Born in Manchester, England, Winterson was adopted as an infant by Pentecostal Evangelists John and Constance Brownrigg Winterson and raised as an only child in Accrington, Lancashire. From a very young age Winterson was trained by her mother as a missionary and preacher and was initiated in the ways of faith healing. Winterson's father supported the family by working in a local television factory. A zealous evangelist, Winterson's mother kept tight reigns on her daughter's education, restricting her experience of literature to the Bible and oral retellings of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre. However, Winterson's mother changed the ending of the novel in her oral version, choosing instead that the lead character Jane should marry St. John Rivers and become a missionary. During her teenage years, Winterson discovered the wider worlds of literature and history in the public library, becoming a fervent and devoted reader. It was also during this period that Winterson realized her sexual attraction towards women, pursuing an affair with one of the young women she converted to the Pentecostal faith. The discovery of this relationship by her mother and the church community led to public denouncement and exorcism by the church. Refusing to relinquish what she believed was genuine love, the sixteen-year-old Winterson left both the church and her home to pursue life on her own terms. While continuing her education at Accrington College of Further Education, Winterson supported herself with various jobs as an ice cream truck driver, a make-up artist in a funeral parlor, and a domestic in a mental hospital. In 1978 Winterson began her undergraduate studies in English at St. Catherine College, Oxford. After receiving her master's degree in English in 1982, Winterson held a series of jobs while making several unsuccessful attempts to break into advertising or publishing. During a 1985 interview with Philippa Brewster for an editorial position at Pandora Press, Winterson recounted the details of her eccentric early life. Impressed not only by her facility with language but also her ability to spin tales, Brewster encouraged Winterson to write down her stories, which became the material for the critically acclaimed and popular Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The tremendous success of Oranges, which won the 1985 Whitbread Award for a first novel, established Winterson as one of Britain's most promising young literary talents. Though her second novel, Boating for Beginners (1985), a comic revision of the Bible's Book of Genesis, was less successful, her next two novels garnered major awards: the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Passion and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for Sexing the Cherry. Winterson also won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for her screenplay adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which aired in 1990 as a three-part BBC television miniseries. Winterson's next work of fiction, Written on the Body (1992), elicited considerable controversy for making public her real-life affair with her literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of author Julian Barnes. Winterson's choice of her own book as Book of the Year in 1992, along with her self-nomination as the greatest living writer in the English language that year, offended many in the literary community. An avid book collector of mostly first editions of Modernist masterpieces, Winterson has remained a virtual literary loner. She counted the late writer Kathy Acker among her very few close literary friends. She retains a close relationship with author Ruth Rendell, whose country cottage Winterson borrowed while writing some of her early novels. Following her break with Kavanagh after the publication of Written on the Body, Winterson established her own corporation, Great Moments, which acts as her literary agent and negotiates her book contracts. Since the early 1990s, Winterson has divided her time between her homes in London and the country, which she shares with her partner.

Major Works

Leaning heavily on the Modernist tradition for inspiration and direction, Winterson blends history, autobiography, myth, fable, fantasy, and fairy tale to create fiction designed to revive and reclaim language, challenge stereotypes about gender and lesbianism, and explore the intricate relationship between fact and fiction. Winterson characteristically plays with narrative forms and storytelling. She uses metafictional techniques, comedy, and magic realism to create a fictional space intended to disrupt reader expectation and to convey genuine feeling and the revelatory power of the imagination. While Winterson's novels have progressively de-emphasized plot and character, they examine the nature of love, time, art, sexuality, self-discovery, and the evocative power of language and storytelling. Her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, examines the meaning of love and lesbian sexual identity, and stands out as Winterson's most structurally conventional and overtly autobiographical story. The narrator, Jeanette, relates the story of her cloistered childhood and adolescence as the adopted daughter of working-class Pentecostal Evangelists, who raise her to become a preacher and missionary. However, she leaves home and the church in her mid-teens when her mother, a woman driven by the narrow views of her religious fanaticism, exposes Jeanette's physical and emotional love for another young woman. An “authorial” voice interrupts the narrative on a number of occasions to directly address the reader, as when another voice presents two fairy tales that comment on the main story. Winterson made a more definitive turn away from novelistic convention in The Passion, a narrative that blends history and myth with fairy tale to present the story of Henri, an army cook during the Napoleonic Wars, and Villanelle, a web-footed Venetian androgyne who attracts the passions of both sexes. The novel recounts the intertwined destinies of Henri and Villanelle on their journeys through France, Russia, and Venice, probing the boundaries between passion and obsession and fantasy and reality, while examining the nature of sexual identity. Sexing the Cherry, a story that also mixes history and myth, includes numerous narrative disruptions and continued experimental shifts, alternating between seventeenth- and late-twentieth-century London and the timeless realm of fairy tale. The principal narrators of Sexing the Cherry are a seventeenth-century giantess called Dog-Woman and her foundling son, Jordan, who operate well outside the bounds of realism. Dog-Woman's huge stature and Jordan's ability to travel through time and space let Winterson question gender and sexual identity, the limits and subjectivity of history, and the artificiality of narrative. A largely plotless narrative, Written on the Body explores the subject of gender and sexual identity, while tackling the problem of conveying a love story without falling prey to cliché. The first-person narrator is an unnamed and ungendered Don Juan figure, who recounts various hetero- and homosexual conquests and describes an affair with a married woman named Louise, with whom the narrator has fallen obsessively in love. After Louise succumbs to cancer, the narrator struggles to preserve the memory and reality of their love. Winterson refined the significance of character in her next two novels, Art and Lies (1994) and Gut Symmetries (1997). Art and Lies is a metafictional work involving three characters—Handel, Picasso, and Sappho—as they travel by high-speed rail to London. Each character presents a dramatic monologue interspersed with authorial comments that addresses sexuality, music, philosophy, and art. This work emphasizes the ability and responsibility of art to move beyond the circumscribed and the known in order to open up more inclusive, far-reaching human possibilities. An even more abstract book of ideas, Gut Symmetries also employs three narrators—Stella and Jove, a married couple, and Alice, a physicist and colleague of Jove's. Both Stella and Jove fall in love with and have an affair with Alice. In this work, Winterson returned to an exploration of desire as part of the larger scheme of life and the universe, employing references to alchemy and contemporary quantum physics (“Gut” is an acronym for “Grand Unified Theories”). In the essay collection Art Objects (1995), Winterson paid tribute to her Modernist forebears—Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, among others—and delineated her own views on art, contemporary life, culture, writing, and her work. The themes of this collection echo those developed in her fiction, notably the transformative power of literature, its autonomy from the life of the artist, and its capacity to move human beings to ecstasy. One essay suggests that Winterson herself is the reincarnation of “Shakespeare's sister,” as envisioned by Woolf in A Room of One's Own.The PowerBook (2000), examines passion, identity, and existence, employing the indeterminate, ephemeral setting of cyberspace as a foil for familiar and increasingly esoteric themes. Presented through the perspective of a young female writer called Ali who falls in love with a married woman, this loosely connected series of metaphysical mediations, e-mail communications, literary and historical fragments, and flights of fantasy explores the boundaries and possibilities of language and love. Winterson has also served as editor for Passion Fruit (1986), an anthology of lesbian short fiction, and authored Fit for the Future (1986), a nonfiction fitness guide for women. The World and Other Places (1998) consists of short stories and prose pieces previously published in magazines ranging from Elle to the New Yorker.

Critical Reception

Critical response to Winterson's work has been deeply divided. Few contemporary writers have polarized critics in the popular press to the extent that Winterson has. While most reviewers agree that Winterson's early work, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, displays extraordinary talent, virtuosity, and humor, her detractors assert that her subsequent work has not lived up to her initial promise and often reflects self-absorption, gimmickry, and sentimentality. Some critics note that Winterson tends to resort to rhetorical posturing and high-minded allusions as a shortcut to profundity and intensity, rather than rigorously plumbing the imaginative depths of character, idea, and circumstance. Furthermore, negative perceptions of Winterson's overbearing hubris has heightened hostility toward Winterson's works. Prone to blatant self-promotion of her work, she has been tagged as arrogant and self-aggrandizing by many in Britain's literary establishment. Nevertheless, positive response to Winterson's work continues to focus on her agile imagination, facile use of language, and gift for evoking emotion. These critics appreciate Winterson's effort to push the boundaries of narrative and her attempt to recreate more fully the elusive sensation of inner consciousness. Winterson has been variously compared to Jonathan Swift for her biting satire, to Gabriel García Márquez for her magic realism, to Italo Calvino for her metafictional experimentation and adaptation of myth and fairy tale, and to Monty Python for her comic abilities. Scholars have focused on the purely literary qualities in Winterson's work, noting the endurance of such themes as the nature of love, time, and art, along with the persistent search for self and the perennial presence of outsiders, strangers, and other characters who have been marginalized by society. Reviewers have often commended Winterson's ability to cut across cultural barriers with such widely popular works as Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; they also have cited her ability to continually challenge literary and social conventions in all of her works. Feminist critics have paid particular attention to postmodern elements of Winterson's work, arguing that her lesbian fiction re-envisions what is “normal,” and validates lesbian life and experience. Winterson's androgynous approach to characterization has prompted many scholars to credit Winterson with successfully deconstructing patriarchal stereotypes and binary sexual oppositions that relegate women and lesbians to “otherness” and cultural subjugation. Such critics praise Winterson's tireless experimentation, her commitment to revitalizing language and discovering new possibilities for fiction, and her steadfast belief in the transformative power of literary art.

A. N. Wilson (review date 19 September 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

SOURCE: Wilson, A. N. “The Narrator that Dare Not Speak Her Name.” Spectator 269 (19 September 1992): 34.

[In the following negative review, Wilson criticizes Written on the Body, calling the novel “profoundly embarrassing.”]

What a disappointment! Jeannette Winterson is one of the most original and incisive writers at work in England today. Her best book, for my tastes, is Boating for Beginners, a book of which Bulgakov himself might have been proud, and which is wise and hilarious by turns. Her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is justly famous, and The Passion is an extraordinarily inventive, clever, well-written book. Sexing the Cherry, her last novel, was well up to standard, though for some reason I did not enjoy it quite as much as I enjoyed The Passion.

The point is, we are dealing here with a really good, and presumably well-disciplined, writer. How could she have allowed herself to write, let alone to have published, this profoundly embarrassing and tenth-rate work [Written on the Body]? I see that she has changed publishers. What were her publishers, new or old, playing at? This is a story which might have a certain low appeal in the Gay-Lesbian section of your local bookshop, but it is very, very bad.

Beautiful, flame-headed Louise, an art historian, Australian in origin, married to Jewish Doctor Elgin, falls in love with the irresistible little narrator, unnamed. The blurb says that the gender of the narrator is undeclared. Consider, then, the passage, in which the boastful narrator tells of a former girlfriend who worked in the botanical gardens in Oxford and can only achieve an orgasm between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. Unnamed, genderless, visits the girl in the hot-houses until, after a row, the girl locks the narrator out in the cold. ‘It was snowing and I was wearing only my Mickey Mouse one-piece.’ Or consider another of the narrator's former girlfriends, Inge, a man-hater, who persuades the genderless friend to

go into the urinals wearing one of Inge's stockings over my head … to warn the row of guys they were in danger of having their balls blown off unless they left at once.

I know that there are a lot of funny men about, but I do not think there are many who wear Mickey Mouse one-pieces, or who would feel it necessary to disguise themselves with stockings when entering a Gents.

So this is not a genderless narrator but a strutting, self-advertising dyke who wants to show off about an affair she has had with the flame-headed ‘Louise.’ The unnamed one leaves her girlfriend, Jacqueline (a zoo-keeper), and she and Louise have five months of bliss. Then Louise's husband, the doctor, comes round and says that Louise is suffering from leukaemia and that she needs constant medical attention. End of idyll. The unnamed narrator entirely accepts Elgin's view that Louise will die unless she returns to her husband. Unnamed goes off to Yorkshire, where she works as a barmaid in a ghastly sounding pub and has a bit of a fling with a fat girl called Gail Right who likes Tammy Wynette tapes. It is left to Gail to point out to Unnamed that if she was really besottedly in love with Louise it is rather surprising she hasn't been to see her in her darkest hours of illness and need. Unnamed returns to London, has a punch-up with Elgin, who has divorced Louise and is living with another woman; and in the final sequence (fantasy or reality? Who, by this stage, can tell or care?) Unnamed and Louise are reunited.

I admire Jeannette Winterson too much to quote bits. The smut is so sentimentally handled. The jokes fail to come off. The routine anti-Semitism about Elgin's family is squirm-making. (His parents, called Esau and Sarah, live in Stamford Hill, wave their arms about and exclaim, ‘My boy, my boy!’) The writing has lost all its crispness. It is also creakingly obvious when the author is simply ‘writing out’ a painful experience of her own, and when she is inventing a farfetched plot to cover her tracks. It would have been better to deliver the story unvarnished as in Olivia by Olivia or Vita Sackville-West's famous account of a similar marital crisis. None of the characters lives; even the perky little narrator seems like a stereotype lesbian, and all the other figures are at best two-dimensional. This is not ‘Written on the Body,’ it is ‘Written on Cardboard.’ If only she had shown it to some fellow-writer who was brave enough to tell her the truth. At the beginning of the book is an acknowledgment of thanks to Ruth Rendell, ‘whose hospitality gave me the space to work.’ Couldn't Ruth have suggested that Jeannette just pop this torrid novella into the Aga? It can't have taken long to write. But no matter. The episode will pass and Jeannette Winterson will go on to write other brilliant books. She is still only 33 years old.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91

Boating for Beginners (novel) 1985

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (novel) 1985

Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well (nonfiction) 1986

Passion Fruit: Romantic Fiction with a Twist [editor] (short stories) 1986

The Passion (novel) 1987

Sexing the Cherry (novel) 1989

Written on the Body (novel) 1992

Art and Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd (novel) 1994

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (essays) 1995

Gut Symmetries (novel) 1997

The World and Other Places (short stories and essays) 1998

*The PowerBook (novel) 2000

*This work has also been published as The.PowerBook.

John Sutherland (review date 24 September 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 922

SOURCE: Sutherland, John. “On the Salieri Express.” London Review of Books 14, no. 18 (24 September 1992): 18–20.

[In the following excerpt, Sutherland finds flaws in what he sees as the “formulaic plot” and thinly-veiled sentimentality of Written on the Body.]

When Roy Campbell's wife was seduced by the voracious Vita Sackville-West the poet went to his friend C. S. Lewis expecting sympathy. Lewis's reaction on being told of the episode was fascinated silence followed by the brutal exclamation: ‘Fancy being cuckolded by a woman!’ Campbell's male pride never recovered. Sixty years later the idea still seems odd to me. Written on the Body takes the most familiar of fiction's triangles—husband, wife, seducer—but in this case the seducer of the wife is a woman. Despite an overpoweringly confessional manner (the novel is written as the seducer's intimate journal), she never discloses her name. One says ‘her’ name, but neither is the narrator's gender clearly specified. The fact that he/she apparently sits down to urinate, and late in the novel is described as wearing a lime-green body stocking and a coronet of artificial crocuses, strongly suggests womanhood. So does Winterson's general avoidance of male characters. Whoever or whatever she is, she concedes nothing to conventional femininity. In one of her lighter moments she brags about former conquests with a bravado reminiscent of Bill Naughton's Cockney Casanova, Alfie. This is funny, but unexpected. Unexpected, too, is the scene where the narrator does a Mike Hammer on the weedy, thoroughly unmanned Jewish physician husband:

‘Elgin, you're a doctor, aren't you? Then you'll recall that a doctor can guess the size of someone's heart by the size of their fist. Here's mine.’ I saw Elgin's look of complete astonishment as my fists, locked together in unholy prayer, came up in a line of offering under his jaw. Impact. Head snapped back, sick crunch like a meat grinder. Elgin at my feet in foetus position bleeding. He's making noises like a pig at the trough … As I propped his crushed face a tooth dropped out. Gold. I put his glasses on the hall table and walked slowly down the steps towards the car.

Put such passages on a Practical Criticism paper and not one examinee in a thousand would guess that the narrator is a woman. Like aggressive cross-dressing, the appropriation of traditional male rhetorics is unsettling, at least to SWM/SWF readers, and, one supposes, calculatedly so. What Jeanette Winterson claims in Written on the Body is a new right, a new equality with men—the right of woman-on-woman adultery. More important, Winterson wants that right and no one (particularly not men) to snigger. The lesbian Scarlet Letter is to be worn with the pride of an active service medal.

At one point the narrator reminisces on the subject of what she has done in the sexual way and what it should be called:

We went home to my flat and you brought nothing from your other life but the clothes you stood up in. Elgin had insisted that you take nothing until the divorce settlement had been agreed. You asked him to divorce you for Adultery and he had insisted it was to be Unreasonable Behaviour. ‘It will help him to save face,’ you said. ‘Adultery is for cuckolds. Unreasonable Behaviour is for martyrs. A mad wife is better than a bad wife. What will he tell his friends?’

I'm no lawyer, but I don't think friends come into it. The law, as it stands, does not admit the concept of adultery between women. Probably because—like the law of rape—it is tied into strict definitions of penile penetration. No penis, no adultery. It doesn't help that for all the considerable explicitness of Written on the Body it never clearly describes the mechanics of the lovers' love-making. We never know whether it is orally, prosthetically or digitally penetrative; whether one partner takes an exclusively active, the other a passive role; whether it is confined to ecstatic fondling, kissing, smelling and tasting of each others' private parts. It is clearly not reticence on the part of Winterson, but something on the lines of Fats Waller's ‘if you have to ask you'll never know.’

Written on the Body comes to publication accompanied by notoriety that has nothing to do with its merits as a novel. Its main strength is the highly-coloured rhapsody in which the narrator expresses her love, interspersing it with broad comic streaks. The effect is Shakespearian (the Sonnets are frequently alluded to, so are the Song of Solomon and Casanovas' memoirs). Like Woolf's Orlando, Winterson's novel contains a wealth of fine writing. But again like Woolf's novel, it is tempting to see it as nothing more than a soggy valentine to the author's beloved; less a novel than a love letter. Another weakness in Written on the Body is its impoverished and formulaic plot. Girl meets married girl, girl falls in love with married girl, girl leaves her current girl (big rows), married girl contracts cancer (but, as in Love Story, the kind that lets you stay beautiful), girl gives up married girl (great suffering), married girl becomes divorced girl, girls united, girls happy ever after (or at least for as long as the remission lasts). Winterson's talents are probably better used in works like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with a strong story-line and a densely re-created social setting, or in highly-wrought literary exercises like Sexing the Cherry. This latest novel gives the impression of having been written too much from the heart.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 549


Andersen, Marguerite. Review of Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson. Herizons 11, no. 4 (fall 1997): 39.

Andersen offers a positive assessment of Gut Symmetries.

Anshaw, Carol. “Power Outage.” The Advocate (21 November 2000): 110.

Anshaw evaluates the weaknesses of The PowerBook.

Boddy, Kasia. “Love, Again.” Times Literary Supplement (1 September 2000): 9.

Boddy offers a negative assessment of The PowerBook, but notes that “there is something touching in the very failure of the project.”

Dieckman, Katherine. “An Ego As Big as the Ritz.” Voice Literary Supplement (11 April 1995): 10.

Dieckman criticizes Winterson's prose in Art and Lies.

Emck, Katy. “On the High Seas of Romance.” Times Literary Supplement (3 January 1997): 21.

Emck examines the combination of fairy-tale, romantic quest, and metaphysical motifs in Gut Symmetries.

Farwell, Marilyn R. “The Postmodern Lesbian Text: Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry and Written on the Body.” In Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives, pp. 168–94. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Farwell explores Winterson's juxtaposition of conventional and postmodern narrative techniques in Sexing the Body and Written on the Body.

Grealy, Lucy. “Hexing the Cherry.” Village Voice (22 April 1997): 55.

Grealy commends Winterson's rich, erotic language in Gut Symmetries, but finds shortcomings in the novel's authorial monologues and “ludicrous” conclusion.

Grice, Helena, and Tim Woods, eds. “I'm Telling You Stories”: Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998, 136 p.

Grice and Woods present a collection of critical essays offering analysis of Winterson's fiction from multiple theoretical perspectives.

Hampl, Bill. “High Seas of Cyberspace.” Gay and Lesbian Review 8, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 44–45.

Hampl examines the strengths of The PowerBook.

Hinds, Hilary. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: Reaching Audiences Other Lesbian Texts Cannot Reach.” In New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings, edited by Sally Munt, pp. 153–72. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Hinds examines the critical and popular acclaim of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and its television adaptation, discussing the book's success as a crossover literary work that offers an important view of lesbian experience for mainstream audiences.

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Deep in the Forest of Aeros.” Times Literary Supplement (26 June 1998): 26.

Oates offers a mixed assessment of The World and Other Places.

Peck, Dale. “The Furies.” Village Voice (20 February 1996): 53.

Peck offers a negative assessment of Art Objects.

Sage, Lorna. “Finders Keepers.” Times Literary Supplement (17 June 1994): 22.

Sage offers a mixed assessment of Art and Lies, describing the novel as “safely good, but not great.”

Swanson, Diana L. “Playing in Jeanette Winterson's ‘The Poetics of Sex’: Rescuing Words for Lesbians.” LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory 7, no. 4 (1997): 325–37.

Swanson discusses the significance of play—linguistic, metaphorical, and structural—in “The Poetics of Sex.”

Vaux, Anna. “Body Language.” Times Literary Supplement (4 September 1992): 20.

Vaux examines the weaknesses of Written on the Body, arguing that there is “something unpleasant at the centre of the book.”

Wilbee, Kaiberley. Review of The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson. Herizons 13, no. 3 (fall 1999): 33–34.

Wilbee offers a negative assessment of The World and Other Places.

Additional coverage of Winterson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 136; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 58; Contemporary Novelists; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 207; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Feminist Writers; Gay and Lesbian Literature, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; and 20th-Century Romance & Historical Writers.

Pamela Petro (review date February 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1680

SOURCE: Petro, Pamela. “A British Original.” Atlantic Monthly 271, no. 2 (February 1993): 112–15.

[In the following review, Petro praises Winterson's prose in Written on the Body, comparing it to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry, and The Passion.]

The narrator of Jeanette Winterson's new novel, Written on the Body, once had a girlfriend “who thought it rude to wear shorts in front of public monuments.” The same narrator also had a boyfriend named Bruno who found Jesus under a wardrobe. Considering some of Jeanette Winterson's earlier creations, from a beautiful Venetian croupier with webbed feet to an evangelical child preacher with lesbian inclinations—not to forget the seventeenth-century giantess known as the Dog-Woman—her new narrator runs with pretty tame company. This is not to say that Written on the Body is a tame novel. Winterson has always been a sorceress with language; her slim books are packed with the stuff of speech and reflection in pure, concentrated form, undiluted with extraneous modifiers and unbothered by pleasantries like transitions. It takes courage to write with clear, unequivocal beauty, as if one's story laid bare the universal truths of fairy tales, and Jeanette Winterson has been much rewarded for her valor (perhaps this is the courage of youth, since she is only thirty-four years old). With the exception of Boating for Beginners (1985), a coming-of-age tale set amid Noah's preparations for the flood, which is no longer listed among her works, each of her previous publications has attracted an impressive kite-tail of awards and comments, including Gore Vidal's oft-quoted declaration that Winterson is “the most interesting young writer I have read in twenty years.” Written on the Body is the best evidence yet to support Vidal's claim.

Winterson's earlier novels include Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1987), which she adapted for BBC television, The Passion (1988), and Sexing the Cherry (1990). In a written interview she claimed bluntly that “the story is nothing, the language is everything.” And indeed it is the exceptional quality of her prose, coupled with a subversively erotic appreciation of the elasticity of gender, that links these highly idiosyncratic books—though readers might be apt to disagree with her about their plots, which reveal a quirky, compassionate, and erudite imagination at play. Although the sheer poetic drive of Winterson's writing can sometimes overwhelm her narrative, muscling the reader out of the story into admiration for how well she tells it, the language of Written on the Body cleaves like a lover to its tale. Much of the book is addressed in absentia to Louise, the narrator's true, lost love, binding voice and story in a relationship as mutual and intense as that between the characters.

What is written on the body in question is memories of a smorgasbord-style love life. The narrator, whose name and sex are never stated, is a recovering romantic getting over a quest for the “never-sleep non-stop mighty orgasm.” Like a randy picaresque artist, he or she often punctuates the central story with recollections of former lovers, nine women and three men in all. There is Inge, the Dutch “anarcha-feminist” who insisted on communicating by carrier pigeon; Bathsheba, the married dentist; a woman who refused to make love on beds; and Crazy Frank, the six-foot son of midgets.

Having done with all this, the narrator settles down with Jacqueline, a nice girl who works with disturbed animals at the zoo. But their menage proves a bit too safe, and is easily disrupted when Louise comes along. Louise is the sun at whom the narrator has looked long and without protection—less a character than a dazzling afterimage with red hair and an Australian accent. When the narrator first meets her, Louise is married to Elgin, a dull if brilliant oncologist from whom the narrator eventually learns that Louise has leukemia. Believing that it is the only way to save Louise's life, the narrator secretly exiles herself or himself to the north of England, in hopes that Louise will decide to stay with the man who might make her well.

After the narrator's departure Louise's actual death becomes a moot point; to save his or her own sanity, as well as retain the reader's interest, the narrator must translate Louise from the realm of flesh and blood into that of language and memory (it's no coincidence that the narrator works as a translator of Russian novels). Winterson accomplishes this in a disarmingly literal way, interrupting the narrative with an onslaught of visceral memories that are prompted by a medical manual. The narrator explains:

If I could not put Louise out of my mind I would drown myself in her. Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognise her even when her body had long since fallen away.

In hardcover the figurative remembering of Louise takes about twenty-five pages. It marks the text like a loving headstone, asking the reader to pause in respect before moving on with the narrator's life in exile, at a fancy Yorkshire wine bar called A Touch of Southern Comfort.

The sudden shifting of narrative gears is one of Jeanette Winterson's trademarks. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the comic and harrowing upbringing of the young narrator is suspended from time to time by short fairy tales (of Winterson's invention) that serve as allegories for her passage into adulthood. This technique gets its most baroque and ambitious treatment in Sexing the Cherry. The novel is a veritable postmodern melting pot of narrative voices and modes, related by the gigantic Dog-Woman, a Royalist avenger in the slums of seventeenth-century London, and her adopted son, Jordan, whose own stories are interspersed with those of fairy-tale figures like the Twelve Dancing Princesses.

Sexing the Cherry plays games with time and—like all of Winterson's work—sexuality. Jordan is a naturalist and a traveler who experiences time as if it were curved like the earth, on a quest for a woman “whose face was a sea voyage I had not the courage to attempt.” His mother raises dogs and murders Puritans. Threaded through their historical world are incidents of magic realism: Jordan ascends above London with a team of cleaners who scrub conversations from the sky to prevent London from being smothered by language. He surreptitiously takes home a sonnet in a wooden box as a souvenir.

Although each passage is thoroughly imagined and exquisitely written—startling, in fact, in its originality—Sexing the Cherry seems an imperfect juggling act: it lacks the integration that Written on the Body achieves through driven, single-minded narration. And pervasive humor. Winterson's newest novel is also her funniest since Oranges, with which it also shares an intimate knowledge of the undertaking business.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit tells the story of another foundling, named Jeanette (although she bestowed her own name upon the heroine, Winterson claims the story isn't autobiographical), who is raised to become an evangelical missionary by her adoptive mother, a formidable follower of a fundamentalist Christian sect in northern England. As a child Jeanette suffers endless indignities at the hands of a heathen world. In sewing class she is asked to make a sampler.

“What about suffer little children?” suggested Mrs. Virtue.

I knew this wouldn't do for Elsie. She liked the prophets.

“No,” I said firmly … “I was thinking of the summer is ended and we are not yet saved.”

Mrs. Virtue was a diplomatic woman but she had her blind spots. When it came to listing all the samplers, she wrote the others out in full, and next to mine put “Text.”

As Jeanette grows older, she begins to realize that Unnatural Passions are not chemicals put in candy but feelings like those she experiences for other women. Needless to say, this wrecks the plans for her ministry, and it occasions not only a spectacular (unsuccessful) exorcism but also her eventual liberation. Undercurrents of sexual ambiguity turn up throughout Jeanette Winterson's writing. Jordan tries his hand at cross-dressing in Sexing the Cherry, but it is Villanelle, the web-footed heroine of The Passion, who is Winterson's foremost magician of gender.

Villanelle works in a Venetian casino, where sexuality is the stuff of wagers and craft: “I dressed as a boy because that's what the visitors liked to see. It was part of the game. …” She falls in love with a beautiful female patron but gambles her freedom and loses, winding up in Russia in the Zero Winter of 1812, where she meets Henri, a cook in Napoleon's army, who co-narrates the book. The Passion is a fascinating mixture of historical verisimilitude—evoked with a few deft strokes rather than with the usual baggage of dates and details—and magic realism. Villanelle's heart, for example, is literally stolen by her lover; a gold chain is preserved inside an icicle throughout the Venetian summer. The combination works because it is filtered through language at once serious and stately, carving out a unique literary niche somewhere between fiction and myth.

Gambling is not a vice, it is an expression of our humanness.

We gamble. Some do it at the gaming table, some do not.

You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.

Written on the Body lacks the romantic high seriousness of The Passion. Winterson has toned down her penchant for magic realism and has turned her feminist fairy stories into shaggy-dog tales of domestic life. These temper the narrator's passion for Louise with wry humor, making the story all the stronger for it. The issue of gender has been refined as well—right out of the text, in fact. The non-issue of the narrator's sex quietly asks the unsettling question What does it matter? and then lets the story go on its lovely way. Notwithstanding her protests, Jeanette Winterson has once again proved to be a storyteller of compelling interest and exceptional grace.

Richard Eder (review date 21 February 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Doña Juana in Love.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (21 February 1993): 3.

[In the following review, Eder finds fault with overwritten passages and divergent tonalities in Written on the Body.]

“Don Juan falls seriously in love” is a short way to sum up Jeanette Winterson's novel of quick changes and askew effects. [Written on the Body] plays in two registers: a series of wry, near-absurdist seductions, and a lush story of passion in a tragic setting. Each register feeds occasionally into the other. A fierceness once in a while comes through the irony; a note of self-mockery is heard in the passion. Mostly, though, they are so far apart that the readers' attention flutters about for a perch. Cello weeps and fife skirls. Each is arresting—particularly the fife—but a connecting inner line is missing.

Winterson's narrator is her Don Juan or, rather, her Doña Juana. As we read of the affairs with Inge, Bathsheba, Jacqueline and others, and of the final grand passion for Louise, we are never told specifically that the narrator is a woman. Winterson makes a point of not telling us. And she makes an equal point, through detail after subverting detail, of leaving us in no doubt at all. It is like the Argentine card game truco, whose rules require cheating. We are cut off from our assumptions and groomed to enter Winterson's unsettling polymorphous world.

The narrator's voice divides registers right from the start. We hear her lavish Swinburnian recollection of Louise: “We lay on our bed in the rented room and I fed you plums the color of bruises. Nature is fecund but fickle.” Recalling country expeditions and nude swimming, it is all perfume: “We were happy to be like colts, flagrant like rabbits, dove-innocent in our pursuit of pleasure.”

Then, telling of the time before Louise, the voice turns sardonic, world-weary and often very funny. Careless about her looks—she is no beauty, it seems, and favors baggy shorts—the narrator has Don Juan's sexual confidence. After the Spaniard got through windows and past fathers and duennas, there was no question but that the lady would succumb. The narrator is equally certain that her desire legislates. She is equally in a perpetual erotic whirl, and equally contemptuous of husbands and conventions.

She recalls some of her conquests. There was the woman who insisted on outdoors loving “with 2,000 midges as guests.” Doctors were required to remove splinters and brambles, and after they broke up, “it was pleasant to walk in the country again without seeing every bush and shrub as a possible assailant.”

There was Inge, the tender anarchist, who refused to attack the Eiffel Tower—too many lovers patronize it—but conscripted the narrator to help blow up public urinals. While Inge arranged the explosives, the narrator entered with a pistol, proclaimed the place to be a patriarchal institution, and announced to the astonished patrons: “My girlfriend has just wired up the Semtex and would you mind finishing off.”

She settles down briefly with Jacqueline, a homebody who works at the zoo, gentling “small furry animals that wouldn't be nice to visitors.” Too much erotic dissipation leads “to the Jacquelines of this world,” the narrator reflects, but after too much domesticity, “the Jacquelines of this world lead to—”

Louise: tall, creamy, flame-haired and passionate. She is married to Elgin, a poor orthodox Jew who has worked his way up to become a rich and famous cancer specialist. Preferring computer games to conversation, he doesn't much mind the narrator's visits until one night when the lovemaking keeps shifting the bed in the room above. Next morning, pale and pinched, he complains that he has had no sleep. “Lives depend on my work and because of you I shall not be at my best today. You might think of yourself as a murderer.” “I might but I shan't,” says Louise as he storms out.

So much for the high Firbankean fifing. The tone drops three octaves. Elgin, the book's only real male presence, is a monster. After Louise and the narrator have been living together for five months, he informs the narrator that his wife has leukemia, though as yet without symptoms. She will die within eight years unless he takes her immediately to his clinic in Switzerland for the latest in experimental therapies. Knowing that Louise will never agree, the narrator forces her hand by running off to live in a hovel on the Yorkshire moors and work in a wine bar.

Before long, moved by her own suffering and the advice of the old lesbian who runs the bar, the narrator changes her mind. Louise has left the clinic and disappeared; the narrator searches hospitals, talks to lawyers, interrogates Louise's mother and grandmother, and has a comically bloody encounter with the repulsive Elgin. The ending is ambiguous; possibly, though only provisionally, happy.

It is an affirmation, though, of the kind of freedom that Winterson devised in such previous novels as The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. It is the freedom to take whatever form one wishes, and to cast off all prescriptions: social, moral, existential, sexual and—in the writing—aesthetic and literary.

Winterson has previously made her flights through various forms of historical and ahistorical fantasy. Here she uses old-fashioned melodrama, frequently spiked. As in her previous work, a sardonic humor and an ironic sense of the absurd serve as anchor and launch pad.

But Written on the Body is less successful. The anchoring slips and the pad is overgrown. Occasionally, the narrator's anguish and longing find words that make them bite. More often, though, both the anguish and the ecstasy carry great tasseled swatches of prose that end up veiling narrator, lover, passions—and all the little points of irony that pierce them—in one undifferentiated mass of purple.

Gabriele Annan (review date 4 March 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2336

SOURCE: Annan, Gabriele. “Devil in the Flesh.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 5 (4 March 1993): 22–23.

[In the following review, Annan praises Winterson's literary talents, but finds the self-pitying and “preachy” authorial persona of Written on the Body unappealing.]

Written on the Body is the fifth novel by the British writer Jeanette Winterson. She published her first in 1985 when she was twenty-six. It was autobiographical and in some ways a more cheerful replay of The Way of All Flesh, with a mother and daughter instead of a father and son at loggerheads in a sectarian family. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit won a prize and became a successful television play. And no wonder, because the story Winterson had to tell was piquant and extraordinary, and so was her manner of telling it.

The heroine of Oranges—called Jeanette—grows up in a lower-middle-class family in an industrial town in Lancashire. They belong to a revivalist church around which the whole household revolves. Everyone accepts that Jeanette has been chosen by the Lord to be a missionary. As a schoolgirl she is already in demand not only as a guitarist to accompany the robust hymns of the faithful, but also as a gospel teacher and preacher. So it comes as a shock to the congregation when they discover her having an affair with a recent convert called Melanie. Apart from the pastor most of the influential elders seem to be women, and they aren't as hard on Jeanette as one might expect. Of course the devil who has got into her has to be exorcised, but after that ordeal is over the congregation is happy to have her back.

The exorcism doesn't work, though, and Jeanette is in trouble again, with Melanie and then with Katy too. Her mother throws her out. Jeanette rents a cheap room and finds two jobs to help pay for it; one is driving an ice-cream van, the other laying out corpses and washing the hearse for a local undertaker. A competent girl, she can also be left to organize and serve the funeral lunches. When she finishes school she takes a full-time residential job in a mental hospital. Not her ideal choice, but “a room of my own, at least.” She gets another job, moves to another town, and tries going home on a visit. Her mother has gone into electronic evangelism and is far too busy to be angry anymore: she demonstrates her brand-new electronic organ to Jeanette, then bustles back to her transmitter: “This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light.” The novel ends here. The real Winterson, the blurb tells us, went to Oxford to study English. Then she moved to London and became a full-time writer.

Not many writers have the luck to have such an entertaining adolescence. Or one that pitches them into the hot topic of sexual politics from such an eccentric springboard. The problems come into focus for Winterson when her mother says of a male homosexual: “Should have been a woman that one.” She realizes,

This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further away from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it. My mother has always given me problems because she is enlightened and reactionary at the same time. She didn't believe in Determinism and Neglect, she believed that you made people and yourself what you wanted. Anyone could be saved and anyone could fall to the Devil, it was their choice. While some of our church forgave me on the admittedly dubious grounds that I couldn't help it (they had read Havelock Ellis and knew about Inversion), my mother saw it as a wilful act on my part to sell my soul. At first, for me, it had been an accident. That accident had forced me to think more carefully about my own instincts and others' attitudes. After the exorcism I had tried to replace my world with another just like it, but I couldn't. I loved God and I loved the church, but I began to see that as more and more complicated.

The passage announces promising future preoccupations: sexual determination and personal freedom, and how to reconcile them.

There is also a propaganda element. “Oranges is a threatening novel,” she wrote in her introduction to the English paperback edition. “It exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham: it illustrates by example that what the church calls love is actually psychosis and it dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people's. Worse, it does these things with such humour and lightness that those disposed not to agree find that they do.”

Of her subsequent novels, two, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, are magic realist historical fantasies. The first is partly set in Venice during the Napoleonic Wars; the second in seventeenth-century London. Fairy tale characters and events are mixed up with historical ones and ultra-pungent descriptions of the daily life of the time. Even in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit there were Arthurian insets, featuring sorcerers and the Holy Grail. But they are few and far between, and mostly the novel is a straightforward account of growing up homosexual.

The process has been described by David Bergman in Gaiety Transfigured: “Jewish children, for example, from infancy are brought up with a looming sense of their religious identity just as black children from birth develop a sense of racial identity, or baby girls soon find what it means to be female. But gay children—who have a keen sense of being different—often have nothing and no one to show them what the difference consists of, or how one might integrate that difference into a way of life.” The bit in italics (mine) has built-in possibilities for tragedy, of course: but for comedy too, and those have not been much exploited. Winterson has the oddball vision and guts to make the most of them. Her first novel is very funny, laid-back sometimes, more often cheekily aggressive. She bounced into the limelight squawking like a literary Donald Duck with Byronic leanings. Byron is one of Winterson's heroes, she says.

This character is Byronically provocative, addicted to risk, driven by reckless perfectionism; and Byronically amorous too: a Don Juan with a roll call of past mistresses: Judith, Inge, Catherine, Bathsheba, Estelle, Jacqueline—the last still current though on the way out when the novel begins. It could be read as a sequel to Oranges, though not an immediate one: the narrator now seems to be about Winterson's present age. When it appeared in London last year, the literary people read it as a roman à clef and joyfully identified the nameless narrator and his/her great new love, who is called Louise in the novel. The his/her ambiguity is a gimmick that works until the turning point of the story, with a scatter of teasing, misleading clues: the narrator dresses unisex in a “business suit” or “baggy shorts which in such weather look like a recruitment campaign for the Boy Scouts. But I'm not a Boy Scout and never was. I envy them: they know exactly what makes a Good Deed.” But once the lovers are separated, the narrator wears a body stocking and comes out: “I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same.”

The story is a traditional tale of adultery, renunciation, and reunion, but it hinges awkwardly on an unlikely piece of blackmail. Louise leaves her horrible husband and moves in with the narrator without telling her that she has leukemia. The horrible husband happens to be a distinguished cancer specialist. He alone can get Louise admitted to a Swiss cancer clinic, the only place in the world where she might be cured. But he won't do it unless the narrator renounces her. Nobly (and against Louise's wishes) she makes the sacrifice and disappears without leaving an address. Up to this point the story is almost excessively classic, an amalgam of Anna Karenina and La Dame aux camélias as told by the hero of Le Diable au corps. What follows is more adventurous, a series of meditations upon physical love: “The recognition of another person that is deeper than consciousness, lodged in the body more than held in the mind.” Each meditation dwells on a different system of the body—cells, bones, cavities—and is preceded by a quotation from a manual of anatomy. The meditations are intense, poetic, metaphysical, and sexy. They explore new areas of desire and worship and sometimes come out in Biblical rhythms, echoing, in particular, the Song of Solomon.

After the meditations, we find the narrator living in a tumble-down cottage in the North and working in a downmarket but aspiring wine bar with opportunities for comedy. The fat, middle-aged proprietress falls in love with her and pursues her with clumsy persistence. Still, she may be the novel's true heroine: when she finds her suit is hopeless, she persuades the narrator that she should never have left Louise. The narrator rushes to London to find her, but the horrible husband has left his wife and all traces have gone cold. The narrator returns to her northern hovel to find fat Gail from the wine bar in possession and full of wisdom, “It's as if Louise never existed,” says the narrator. “… Did I invent her?” “No, but you tried to,” says Gail. “She wasn't yours for the making.” At that point Louise walks in, thinner but not bald, and the last paragraph pulls out all the stops:

This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hands and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it's getting late. I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields.

This apocalyptic high—and the earlier anatomical meditations too—remind one of Ingeborg Bachmann (the narrator is a professional translator, so she may know the Austrian writer's work). Like Bachmann, Jeanette Winterson is given to making huge pronouncements, though hers are more exclusively concerned with personal relations and sexual behavior than with world affairs—except for occasional laments about the environment. Her concern for that goes with a Romantic brand of conservatism, distaste for technology, and a Samuel Palmer-like vision of the English landscape: “The sky is clear and hard, not a cloud, only stars and a drunken moon swinging on her back. There's a line of ash trees by the picket fence that takes you out of man-made things into the deep country where the land's not good for anything but sheep. I can hear the sheep munching invisibly over tussocks of grass thick as a pelt.”

The echoes of other writers in Winterson's work may well be only in the reviewer's mind. The way she uses words is peculiar to her alone. She employs, she says (again in the introduction to the paperback Oranges), “a very large vocabulary and a beguilingly straightforward syntax.” Her writing is like a wall of dry stones: each word a specially chosen rock, unique in color and shape, with no cement to hold them all together, no boring structural expedients or emplacements. The effect is stimulating, punchy, and, as she says, beguiling. She is a writer whose appeal rests very much on her tone of voice—which does not mean she has only one. She is a wonderfully funny mimic of speech, and a resourceful creator of new idioms. In Sexing the Cherry, for instance, the heroine is a giantess living in the Thames-side mud. She speaks a vernacular—invented of course—which one can accept as seventeenth-century colloquial. It is casual but poetic, with echoes (not overdone) of the Authorized Version, and it underpins the character's appeal:

I was offered a job in a whorehouse but I turned it down on account of my frailty of heart. Surely such to-ing and fro-ing as must go on night and day weakens the heart and inclines it to love? Not directly, you understand, but indirectly, for lust without romantic matter must be wearisome after a time. I asked a girl at the Spitalfields house about it and she told me she hates her lovers-by-the-hour but still longs for someone to come in a coach and feed her on mince-pies.

But although one must assume that Written on the Body is a continuation of Oranges, the narrator's voice and personality have changed—as they do in real life. The “humour and lightness” she herself found in her first novel (she is not a modest person: last year she nominated Written on the Body as best book of the year, and the most underrated as well) are less in evidence. The new persona is more plaintive and given to self-pity, more sententious and preachy. Winterson's inbred missionary fervor is employed to put across the gospel of sexual freedom, but there is not much forgiveness. Louise's husband gets metaphorically kicked in the balls, whereas Jeanette in Oranges takes her bossy mother in her stride with appealing forbearance. All this may be irrelevant to the literary merit of the new novel, but it makes it harder to like, which is a pity, because Winterson has a lot of talent.

Valerie Miner (review date May 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 940

SOURCE: Miner, Valerie. “At Her Wit's End.” Women's Review of Books 10, no. 8 (May 1993): 21.

[In the following review, Miner offers a negative assessment of Written on the Body.]

Written on the Body is a short, dense novel fueled by intellectual ego and graced with wit. Jeanette Winterson's fourth book (following Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,The Passion and Sexing the Cherry) is an ambitious melding of meditation and high drama. Initially her characterization of the narrator promises a subversive portrayal of androgynous passion; ultimately, however, the romance is disappointingly conventional. Written on the Body is less a provocative vision of love than a hectic cerebration about obsession.

The first-person narrator, unidentified by name or gender, is a randy translator of Russian whose avocation is leaping from one London mattress to the next. Louise, a married woman, enters the scene and seduces the protagonist away from her/his current floozy, Jilly, a sweet but overly earnest zoologist. (Louise's marital status is relevant because the socially constructed, if materially invisible, narrator is aroused by bourgeois taboos against adultery.) Complications arise in the form of Louise's secret leukemia and villainous husband Elgin. To save Louise's life, our hero decides to disappear. The rationale for this disappearance is convoluted, not quite credible, and wholly consistent with the rules of standard melodrama.

While Written on the Body lacks subtle character shading and emotional authenticity, it does succeed—delightfully—as picaresque entertainment. Winterson's great strength here is her humor—fey, ironic, slapstick by turns. At one point, the narrator is so fixated on Louise that s/he handcuffs him/herself to a library seat.

I gave the key to the gentleman in the knitted waistcoat and asked him to let me free at five o'clock. I told him I had a deadline, that if I didn't finish my translation a Soviet writer might fail to find asylum in Great Britain. … my left hand was swelling up, I don't think it was getting enough blood being strapped to the chair leg. There was no sign of the gentleman. I signalled to a guard and whispered my problem. He returned with a fellow guard and together they picked up my chair and carried me sedan style down the British Library Reading Room. It is a tribute to the scholarly temperament that nobody looked up.

In the supervisor's office, I tried to explain.

“You a Communist?” he said.

“No I'm a floating voter.”

He had me cut loose and charged me for Wilful Damage To Reading Room Chair.

(pp. 94–95)

Winterson's language is keen, inventive, She nimbly juggles a number of popular stylistic techniques in this fragmented, chapterless, multi-tensed novel. Her verbally acrobatic narrator interrupts the story to muse on Louise's body, to converse directly with Louise, to address the reader. Her/his encyclopedic mind spins out thoughts on the structure of the human eye and observations about chronobiology.

Interest in the clock is growing because as we live more and more artificially, we'd like to con nature into altering her patterns for us. Night-workers and frequent fliers are absolutely the victims of their stubborn circadian clocks. Hormones are deep in the picture, so are social factors and environmental ones. Emerging from this melée, bit by bit, is light. The amount of light to which we are exposed crucially affects our clock. Light, Sun like a disc-saw through the body …

(p. 80)

Gradually, though, the protagonist grows drunk on overripe confidence and a little sloppy. The clever cleverness is self-defeating as s/he caricatures people who are fat, Jewish, anarchist, Australian. Against the backdrop of this cartoon gallery, the adulatory portrait of Louise becomes more suspect. Sometimes the humor is just corny. “You will think I have been constantly in and out of married women's lumber-rooms. I have had a head for heights it's true, but no stomach for the depths. Strange then to have plumbed so many.”

The plot of the cutting-edge soap opera wears thin, thinner. Androgyne meets girl. Androgyne dumps girl. Androgyne meets more girls and dumps them. Androgyne falls in love (whatever that means) with luscious lover. Lover gets sick. Androgyne behaves heroically. Will the two reunite? Will the lover die?

Pardon me, but who cares?

The narrator is such a shallow, sophomoric egoist that it's hard to keep reading. At first the concealment of his/her sex forecasts interesting theoretical questions about essentialism, but Winterson doesn't carry these identity questions beyond the gimmick. Gender is just one unknown about this strangely disembodied, decontextualized character. And who is Louise? Why should you care about her? What has she done or said to engage? All you know is that she is beautiful and frail, the cancer bestowing an automatic, if cheap, dignity. Louise and her lover are less psychologically and morally complex characters than stick figures with active mucous membranes.

The book itself is a device—beyond the s/he puzzle, the formulaic plot, the contrived people, even the pretty, abstruse meditations on anatomy—serving as a burlesque stage for a virtuoso vaudevillian. Clearly Jeanette Winterson is a writer of considerable artistic talent. And she has a canny, commercial eye for hot topics. However, she might learn a little about self-mockery from Fay Weldon, about intricate intellectual plotting from Iris Murdoch, about satiric timing from Michael Frayn. Here the narrator's self-conscious intellectualizing makes you feel as if you just had breakfast, lunch and dinner with André.

The momentum is there: words spit, dance. But ideas stall and language backs up as relentless conceit reduces the narrator to a tattoo artist. Written on the Body is not so much about sex or understanding or communion as about annexation.

Aurelie Jane Sheehan (review date fall 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

SOURCE: Sheehan, Aurelie Jane. Review of Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 3 (fall 1993): 208–09.

[In the following positive review, Sheehan compliments Written on the Body, calling it “a joy even in its most serious moments.”]

What do you call a woman who sleeps around? Men get to be Casanovas, they're never sluts. The perceived difference could be will vs. submissiveness: either you are in control and seducing the populace—or being used. This definition suggests that a man putting notches in his belt Saturday night after The Literary Event is clear about his motives, while the gal swinging off a lamppost with her bra strap showing is not. Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body debunks this formula with a female narrator who has had a lot of fun in greenhouses, canoes, and (other people's) conjugal beds, and is neither calculating nor clueless about her sexual desires—though they have just skidded to a glum halt in a passionless relationship (she “had lately learned that another way of writing FALL IN LOVE is WALK THE PLANK”). Like an old pirate telling his life story for the last time, the narrator spins a hundred tales of sexual adventure. The occasion for reminiscence isn't death, but a redhead.

“The wise old hands … don't imagine that to choose sensibly is to set a time-bomb under yourself,” the narrator muses—and an explosion does occur when Louise comes on the scene, a married woman who looks good even while eating bread. (“I watched her break and butter each piece, soak it slowly in her bowl, let it float, grow heavy and fat, sink under the deep red weight and then be resurrected to the glorious pleasure of her teeth.”) The smitten observer is never named and no gender-betraying pronoun or nomenclature is used in the book. For the first few pages I considered the possibility that the narrator might be male or female. I did not ricochet between genders for long. “Her legs. She never shaved them enough to keep them absolutely smooth. There was a residual roughness that I liked, the very beginning of the hairs growing back.” A man could think this of his lover. …

As funny and sexy as it is, Written on the Body ultimately addresses the ethical dimensions of love. Ruminations and reminiscences accumulate but are no preparation for an agonizing choice facing the narrator. This book is a joy even in its most serious moments. Winterson's generous metaphors often extend the play between the physical and spiritual; that dalliance is thrilling here. “You tap a message on to my skin, tap meaning into my body,” the narrator croons. The body makes quite a love letter.

Julie Burchill (review date 25 June 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1895

SOURCE: Burchill, Julie. “My Enemy Has Written a Bad Book.” Spectator 272 (25 June 1994): 26–27.

[In the following negative review, Burchill criticizes Art and Lies and Winterson's writing style in general.]

It is always best to show your hand where our old friend Mr Green Eye is concerned. Envy is not an epic thing, unlike its kissing cousin jealousy. It is mean and niggly and net-curtainy, but better to lay it on the table for all to see than leave it lying around where someone might slip on it and then announce to the assembled company, ‘Well, look what we've got here!’

For a few mood-indigo evenings in the Eighties I envied Jeanette Winterson. I didn't mind her doing her novels; they were fair enough. Girls just want to have fun, after all, and one of the strange ways in which modern girls amuse themselves is by writing novels, often of the Sapphic sort. I didn't even mind that much when Gore Vidal stopped writing letters to The Spectator about how brill I was and started instead to drivel on everywhere about what a girl genius old Jeanette was. ‘Jeanette’: it's an ineffably common name, isn't it, even worse than ‘Julie.’ At least we've got Julie Christie, who's pukka, and Julie Delpy, who's hot, and there was a Julie in Strindberg and another in War and Peace and one of Lord Mountbatten's ancestors ran off with a Countess Julie Something. I bet he never had an ancestor who ran off with a Countess Jeanette. It's a really trashy name; the only other person I can think of who's lumbered with it is that woman who impersonates the Queen—which says it all, really.

But I did mind a great deal, I'm afraid, when Winterson's autobiographical tale of teenage tribadism in the Potteries, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was adapted by the BBC and won a good many awards. It might be more accurate to say that I was confused rather than angry about this regrettable chain of events, and displayed not a little dumb brute incomprehension—‘But … but … but … I'm the only provincial, working-class girl born in 1959 to make it big as a writer!’ This was my turf, my party trick, what made me tick; where did this broad think she was coming from—apart from the Potteries, that is?

Well, I didn't exactly lie in bed weeping ‘Why not me, God? Why not me?’ But I did slouch around muttering, ‘Thanks, God. Thanks a bundle!’ Avoiding all mention of [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit] (no mean feat) became a second career for me. No wonder I didn't have as much time as usual to devote to my Important Novel, a sensitive story of a girl born in 1959 growing up in the Potteries—sorry, provinces.

But what do you know? God does hear the prayers of the little man—and of the little hack, too. Who the gods wish to destroy they first make a mini-series for. There are two Wintersons, see; before and after BAFTA. Before, she was a bit pretentious but basically OK; after BAFTA she went nuts. Talk about thinking she was God's gift: to women, demonstrating a quite stunningly ‘sexist’ attitude to her domesticated ‘partner’ ‘Peggy,’ but even worse, to writing. (We are none of us God's gift to writing—writing is God's gift to us.) Habitually, Jeanette began to choose her own books in the year's end round-ups (very incorrect behaviour; any fool knows you're meant to pick your friends' and lovers' latest) and to talk of herself in terms usually reserved for the doolally leaders of small American religious cults. All across fashionable London, bets were placed on exactly when Jeanette would lead Peggy and her agent Pat Kavanagh to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid with her as the only reasonable response to a world that bought Joanna Trollope books by the million.

And then she wrote Written on the Body. Whoah! Thank you, Jesus, because Written on the Body was The Great Bad Novel of the Nineties. Although the decade is not even half way through, it seems unlikely that any other fiction will come near [Written on the Body]'s sloppiness, self-adoration and sheer silliness. Its writing about sex, especially, seemed like an Auberon Waugh parody of sweaty, solemn Sapphics, making a real meal of pigging out on political correctness while at the same time being the only sexual sub-group able to get away with the I-screwed-her-senseless school of scribbling while still getting into feminist bookshops. In it, the nameless hero/ine (let's call her Jeanette) screws senseless a beautiful married broad called Louise whose husband is so boring that she's dying of cancer; nevertheless, a good rogering from Jeanette soon sees her all right! But typical of these married bints, Louise can't make up her tiny mindsome what she wants—women! So Jeanette goes off and rogers all these other bints rotten, even if some of them are a bit doggy, ho ho. Winterson pillories anything less than physical perfection with a real shuddering disgust that could teach Amis Minor a thing or two. But finally Louise makes up her mind, and stops dying, and lives till a ripe old age to be shagged silly by the nameless hero/ine (Jeanette).

Naturally, no one but a hardcore legion of kamikaze, kick-boxing lesbians had any time for this one. Myself, I loved it, because with its publication my envy finally came to an end. Within the space of two years, in fact, I had come full circle—from berating God ‘Why not me?’ to blessing Him each morning, in the style of the Hebrews, ‘Dear God, thank you for not making me Jeanette Winterson.’

Well, it's two years on from Written on the Body and Jeanette's got to show the form again that once won her the Whitbread. So here's Art and Lies, and here's the blurb:

Art and Lies is a rich book, bawdy and beautiful, shocking because of its beauty, an antidote against the numbness of modern life. Art and Lies is a dangerous book, banked with ideas forced out of the words themselves, not words for things, but words that are loving things with the power to move.

Whew! Come, Jeanette—you have delighted us long enough! Anyone else's blurb could be blamed on their publisher, but not Jeanette's, because we all know that Jeanette controls every aspect of her product. Let's look at this blurb, which by itself is appallingly ill-sorted and smug: a) Beauty doesn't shock people. Ugliness does. b) Modern life's dead nasty, eh? Myself, I suspect the historical perspective of women, especially feminists and/or lesbians, who criticise la vie moderne. If it wasn't for modern life, Jeanette and I would be in service, or dead in childbirth at 22. We certainly wouldn't be sitting around living the life of Riley and writing books. c) It's a dangerous book, is it? Let's see your fatwah, then! It always strikes me as a bit obscene to use the word ‘dangerous’ about books when there are people like bomb disposal experts and firemen around.

Enough of the lies—let's get on to the art. The book is a three-hander, told by Handel, Picasso and Sappho—I know this sounds like the start of a dirty limerick. It's a novel without a story, too, which I always think is a bad idea. There is a certain sort of writer who believes that a novel without a story is a purer form of prose than one with; all the better to let the words sing as loudly as they like, without some usher coming along to hush them up and push them into line. But read Lolita again, if you really think this. Any sensitive and smart 14-year-old can link a daisy chain of beautiful words together; the skill comes in making them into the shape of a story without crushing the juice out of them. And if you are being judged on your epigrams alone, they'd better be a damn sight finer than, ‘A feather had been used as a bookmark or perhaps the book had been used as a feather store.’

Perhaps you have a problem conceiving of a three-sided conversation between Handel, Picasso and Sappho. If that's your only worry, don't give it another thought. Because underneath—like in the ‘Lovable’ bra ad—they're all Jeanette, just like in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body. Thus we have Handel (a doctor) moaning:

It is so easy to be a brute and yet it has become rather fashionable. Is that the consequence of leaving your body to science? Of assuming that another pill, another car, another pocket-sized home-movie station, a DNA transfer or the complete freedom of choice that 500 TV channels must bring, will make everything all right? The doctor's surgery is full of men and women who do not know why they are unhappy.

It's always nice to see old friends again, and anyone familiar with Jeanette's journalism will feel the thrill of nostalgia as they contemplate this highly original worldview.

Later on. Dr Handel's getting quite het up about the media: ‘Reportage is violence. Violence to the spirit.’ And ignorance is bliss, no doubt. After being lectured by Handel, it's a relief to pass on to Picasso; no doubt this dirty old goat's got a twinkle in his eye, eh? Well, no; Picasso here is a girl, whose family oppose her painting. Nevertheless, she sleeps each night ‘under a cloak of Klimt.’ Try saying that when you've had a few.

Not even as Sappho does Winterson speak in any voice but her own hectoring one: ‘My advice? Don't swallow it. Spit the little hopefuls down the sink and let them wriggle up the drain. When did he last go down on you?’ Elsewhere there's more of the squirmy, wormy embarrassingly overwritten sex that made Written on the Body such a joy forever; but it's strangely unorgasmic, with hours of power-play and foreplay, like teenagers scared to take the plunge.

I'll come down from my lamppost now for a few minutes and explain that I don't actually enjoy being a Philistine; well, I do—but not to the complete exclusion of everything else. I would give up a day's Philistine fun just for five minutes of being bowled over flat by something beautiful—and I do know beautiful writing when I see it, which is, sadly, not often on my own computer screen. But I love it more than most things on earth.

That's why I can't stand Winterson. This is not beautiful writing, despite its frantic claims to the title. It is not Shena Mackay, or Ian Sinclair, or Helen Simpson or even Candia McWilliam. It is a garish, artificial, bejewelled mechanical nightingale of a prose style, always straining for special effects, fancying itself stupid, literally.

Just as certain modern paintings do not want to be paintings but rather statements, so certain modern novels want to be paintings, or pieces of music, or sculptures; anything but a book, one of those lowly things they sell in airports. This is one of them. It might be an idea if Miss Winterson got out her brushes and set to, painting her masterpiece as soon as possible. Because the signs are, right now, that she certainly isn't ever going to write one.

James Wood (review date 7 July 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1890

SOURCE: Wood, James. “Beware of Shallowness.” London Review of Books 16, no. 13 (7 July 1994): 9.

[In the following review, Wood offers a negative assessment of Art and Lies, highlighting the changes in Winterson's prose style since the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.]

Each new book by Jeanette Winterson is said to be poorer than its predecessor; she is like a bibliographer's definition of nostalgia. As her novels become more ghostly, so they give off a stronger vapour of self-promotion. Her last, Written on the Body, announced on its cover that it had ‘fused mathematical exactness and poetic intensity and made language new.’ Her latest also bears a Winterson-accented description on its jacket: ‘Art & Lies is a rich book, bawdy and beautiful, shocking because of its beauty … a dangerous book, banked with ideas forced out of the words themselves, not words for things, but words that are living things with the power to move.’

One of Winterson's models is Virginia Woolf, and Art & Lies is also a Woolfian engine of self-advertisement whereby the text is both the novel and the explanation for the novel. It is militant with excuses; like a pianola, it plays itself again and again. Each of the book's three monologists, Handel, Picasso and Sappho, do their bit of window-washing for the novel, in that odd mixture of aphorism and chant now familiar to Winterson's readers. Handel reminds us that ‘language is artifice. Art is not supposed to be natural.’ ‘You see, I have to beware of shallowness,’ Sappho warns, ‘a cliché of response.’ There are complaints about critics, and the neglect of genius. Picasso, who is a young woman artist, reminds herself that ‘talent and application could pitch her in the Royal Academy, genius was certain to bar her from it.’ Sappho is the sternest lecturer. Winterson uses her to mediate on language, in swoony paragraphs. She promises us ‘the word that does not bring peace but a sword.’ Later, we are told about ‘the word that is spirit, the word that is breath, the word that hangs the world on its hook,’ and later still: ‘the whirling word. The word carried quietly away at my side, the word spun out, vigorous, precise … the words for their own sake, revealing now themselves. Words beyond information. Words done with plot.’

This is repetitive, but the novel is incantatory; it is built on identical mounds. The three narrators are travelling—though in an obscure manner—on a train which is bathed in light and moving towards the sea. Passages about light recur in the novel, in homage, one suspects, to the descriptions of the rising and setting sun which appear throughout The Waves. At regular intervals we come back to the light. ‘Long waves of light that atomised the solid seats and rigid tables … the train was hosed in light.’ The Modernist novel, which is what Winterson rather old-fashionedly is doing, has never really solved the problem of what to do with dishevelled sequence and isolated rhapsody. Narrative is pressure: packed into their tight formations, the ranks hold each other up; soloists are apt to droop. Dickens finishes David Copperfield uncharacteristically: ‘O Agnes, O my soul, so may thy face be by me when I close my life indeed; so may I, when realities are melting from me, like the shadows which I now dismiss, still find thee near me, pointing upward!’ It is intensely moving, but its power is communal; each word is swollen with connection and preparation, the vast preparation of the novel itself. Winterson's rhapsodies are frequent but friendless. Even in relatively non-sequential ‘poetic’ novels, like The Waves or The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, what binds the lyricism is the concentrated probing of the narrative: it is a hoop of focus. Winterson's uncontrollable lyricism does not seem to have this cognitive hunger, this drive to know: rather the language appears to want to please itself—‘not words for things, but words that are living things.’

Winterson's language is now routinely praised as ‘beautiful’ and ‘dazzling.’ Is it? Though there are occasional delights, much of it is smeary and imprecise. She appears to have little sense of how to pluck detail or the concrete from an image. The following passage is characteristic. The train has arrived at the sea, and Winterson's light lingers on the water:

The light lay on the sea. A taut white film of light, full stretched, horizon to beach wave. The light gauzed over the green sea, pale wings atomising the water, butterfly light on the spread of the sea. The light fluttered, its scalloped margins shading the rocks that made a breakwater for the fishing boats. The light rested on the bruised prows.

The light had salt in it. Cleansing light that polished the sand and pumiced its fragments to diamonds. The light abrased the smooth concrete columns of the harbour and gave them back the rough dignity of the sea. The unman-made sea and the scouring light.

One might, on reading this, be cheered up to recall that Chekhov's ideal description was a sentence he discovered in a schoolboy's exercise-book: ‘The sea was large.’ Winterson's prose entirely lacks metaphorical power. At the beginning of The Waves, Woolf likens the sea's movements to ‘a sleeper whose breath comes and goes unconsciously. Gradually the dark bar on the horizon became clear as if the sediment in an old wine-bottle had sunk and left the glass green.’ Woolf's prose is mobile, darting from likeness to likeness. Winterson, by contrast, finds her image and then secures it in a long chain of associated images. Thus, her first paragraph sees light as filmy and gauzy, and merely extends that image (film-gauzed-butterfly-fluttered); her second stretches the idea of light as penetrative or astringent (salt-cleansing-polished-pumiced-abrased-scouring). Lacking the domestic tug of simile, it floats into abstraction. Yet it is not striking even as abstraction. Compare it with a genuinely strange abstract sea-description, such as Wallace Stevens's ‘the ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea’; or with this exquisite sentence from The Waves: ‘Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence.’ Winterson's prose has none of that strangeness. Her verbs are not bad, but ordinary.

Reading Winterson's earlier work carefully, one sees that this kind of eyeless prose—‘not words for things’—has never been one of her strengths. Very occasionally, she produces a verb or adjective of the right glittering excessiveness, as at the end of Art & Lies when Handel recalls, as a boy, being masturbated by a cardinal: ‘he vexed me to orgasm.’ And one enjoys the dare of the verb ‘dare’ in this sentence from Written on the Body: ‘I paddled through the shallows of the river where the little fishes dare their belly at the sun.’ But in general, Winterson's sliding rhapsodies are dull and evasive, while her ordinary descriptions, her ‘words for things,’ are excellent, as in ‘behind the blind the frantic shadow of a bee,’ in her new book.

Winterson is a considerable stylist, but I wonder if she can any longer recognise her strengths. Why is Oranges still her best book? In the 1991 Introduction to the Vintage paperback, Winterson informs us that ‘Oranges was unlike any other novel … it offers a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one, it employs a very large vocabulary and a beguilingly straightforward syntax.’ Actually, its lexicon is simple enough, and its narrative is an ordinary linear story broken up by the odd lecture or fairy-tale. It is triumphantly like many other comic novels, and its proximity to a great comic tradition is stylistic—a perfect manipulation of voice. Its heroine and narrator, the young Jeanette, tells us about the strangest world—lower-middle-class Evangelical Christianity—in a tone of half-innocent, half-knowing bewilderment. Pushed through this stylistic funnel, Christianity is registered as a kind of ridiculous child's-play.

Early in the book, Jeanette writes a school essay on ‘What I Did In My Holidays.’ Compressed, it runs like this:

This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp. It was very hot, and Auntie Betty, whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die. But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily. When Auntie Betty got better we all went in the bus to Llandudno to testify on the beach. I played the tambourine, and Elsie Norris brought her accordion, but a boy threw some sand, and since then she's had no F sharp. We're going to have a jumble sale in the autumn to try and pay for it.

It's marvellous piece of comic writing, the childish confusion perfectly checked by the childish revelation.

Jeanette's mother in Oranges is a lively comic figure, because Winterson's style presents her to us without judgment or foreclosure. Jeanette's childish glibness of delivery—‘My mother stopped, overcome with emotion. I begged her to finish the story, proffering the Royal Scots’—is a delicious comic surrender to the incomprehensibility of the Evangelical world: that is the triumph of the style. Her later books are too often merely glib. In Written on the Body, we encounter Crazy Frank: ‘I had a boyfriend once called Crazy Frank. He had been brought up by midgets although he himself was over six feet tall. He loved his adoptive parents and used to carry them one on each shoulder.’

No real current flows under the forced exoticism of this kind of writing, nor under the stories of princesses, forests and giantesses in Sexing the Cherry. In Art & Lies, whenever Winterson's monologists talk about themselves, they shrivel into stereotype or grotesquerie. Handel announces: ‘I like to look at women. That is one of the reasons why I became a doctor.’ One can still hear the Winterson melody in that simple, scraping sentence; but it functions as a perversion of the earlier style, for what once revealed a world in its absurdity now closes it down flippantly.

Winterson's oeuvre since the balance and pitch of Oranges has been a collapse into statement. All of the subsequent books hide within them, like the victim of an accident who is now nothing but metal plates and rods, inflexible rules and steely aphorisms. How did the comic stylist of Oranges come to be satisfied by an art stiff with: ‘Bridges join but they also separate’ (The Passion); ‘Pleasure and danger. Pleasure on the edge of danger is sweet. It's the gambler's sense of losing that makes the winning an act of love’ (ditto); ‘It's the clichés that cause the trouble. A precise emotion seeks a precise expression’ (Written on the Body); ‘There is no system that has not another system concealed within it’ (Art & Lies).

This is sad, for Winterson and for her readers. She deserves our admiration for her Modernist striving, and her restlessness with the novel-form. This alone makes her a rare presence. But the loss is considerable. A poised and mobile comic style has liquefied; in her attempt to produce intransitive prose, she has exchanged narrow and determined talents for a wide and natureless vacancy. To look back at the fire of her first book through the smoke of its successors is to risk being turned into a pillar of salt. Abandoned and isolate, it flames reproachfully; and in the wind you can hear it cry: ‘words for things, words for things.’

Laurel Bollinger (essay date fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8261

SOURCE: Bollinger, Laurel. “Models for Female Loyalty: The Biblical Ruth in Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13, no. 2 (fall 1994): 363–80.

[In the following essay, Bollinger examines the theme of female loyalty in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with respect to the novel's appropriation of the Biblical Book of Ruth as both a model for a female bildungsroman and a parody of the Judeo-Christian tradition.]

Literary models of development, from simple fairy tales such as Snow White to complex bildungsromans such as Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, generally posit physical and/or emotional separation from home and family as a necessary step in the process of maturation. For conventional stories of male development (the paradigmatic Bildungsroman as established by Goethe), such models play out the dynamics of the oedipal phase; the male infant recognizes physiological differences between himself and a female primary caregiver and learns to define his gender and identity in terms of that opposition. Leaving home simply repeats this process for the adolescent. However, as psychologists from Sigmund Freud to Carol Gilligan have been telling us, the process is not so simple for the female child. Not only does the female infant experience less physiological difference, but connection to home and family generally remain much more important to the girl during and after adolescence. In an effort to stay connected to their families, adolescent girls frequently resort to what Gilligan terms the “voice” option, meaning that, instead of leaving, they speak out to express their dissatisfaction with the family while still preserving the relationship.1 In other words, girls narrate their concerns precisely so that those concerns will not destroy the familial relationship.

Traditional stories of maturation, with their emphasis on an “exit” solution, cannot speak to the need for connection within female development, nor can they provide a literary model for its occurrence in fiction. Yet, as critics often warn, many alternative models for female development instead advocate passivity and patience, encouraging Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel merely to await her rescuing prince and thus not to seek agency or maturity on her own.2 More significantly, such models often posit the relationship between women—particularly mother and daughter—as one of competition, not companionship. While obviously such paradigms are limiting for all who wish to write of female maturation, the tendency to pit women against women is particularly problematic for writers seeking to construct narratives of development about lesbians or to include strong mother-daughter ties.

Few literary models exist, then, for maturation narratives such as Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the coming-of-age story of a young woman who grapples with her lesbianism while seeking to maintain a relationship with a mother who cannot accept her daughter's sexual orientation. Winterson's novel complicates the maturation narrative of the protagonist, Jeanette, by insisting that she also come to grips with her role in a Pentecostal evangelical church that inspires her to public ministry yet rejects her words because she is a woman and a lesbian. The central relationship in the text is between Jeanette and her mother, whose commitment to evangelism leaves her uninvolved with Jeanette's development and intolerant of her daughter's sexuality. Despite their differences, however, Jeanette does not reject her mother, but continues the relationship even after her mother has forced her to leave their home. Her return suggests that, for this text, maturity consists in the continuation, not the elimination, of mother-daughter relations.

Because few models exist for texts that place so high a value on mother-daughter relations, Winterson relies on parody to produce a literary paradigm that can account both for her own lived experience and for the maturation story in her novel (with its strong autobiographical component). While she uses a wide range of texts for this parody, her principal source is the Biblical Book of Ruth, which she revises with an eye toward both its thematic and its theological significance. The Book of Ruth centers on the relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi and contains perhaps the most profound expression of female loyalty in the Bible. As such, it offers a model for Winterson's maturation narrative that emphasizes the importance of female loyalty to female development. The Ruth text enables Winterson to address the two major conflicts in Jeanette's life: her sexual orientation and her connection to her mother.


Winterson's parody interlaces Biblical materials with her fiction, using the history of the Israelites to explore Jeanette's experiences of maturation. Given the thematics of the novel, Winterson's choice of the Bible seems especially appropriate; besides being a relevant cultural document, it is a personal one as well since both Winterson and Jeanette were raised by Pentecostal evangelists. In this text, then, to parody the Bible is to place both personal and cultural history under scrutiny.

In blending Biblical references with Jeanette's story, Winterson deliberately challenges the distinction between fact and fiction as well as between the novel she is writing and the Biblical texts she uses for her parody. These Biblical texts are already problematic; not quite history and not quite storytelling, their position on any kind of fact-fiction continuum changes with the point of view of the observer. In the self-reflexive chapter “Deuteronomy,” Winterson suggests that the distinction between fact and fiction arises from self-delusion; history and story are not in opposition but are, like “knots” in a game of “cat's cradle,” so hopelessly tangled that we must learn to take pleasure in the blend.3 She plays out this concern through a narrative technique that juxtaposes autobiographical units with relatively strong truth claims (at least at the level of plausibility) next to fairy-tale units whose truth claims rest on psychological verity alone. This juxtaposition mirrors the actual narrative structure of her Biblical source texts, which contain materials purporting to be myth, poetry, or history in an often indecipherable blur.

Winterson's most explicit use of the Bible occurs in the chapter titles: the first eight books of the Bible, in order, from Genesis to Ruth. Although the parody she constructs of the Bible is complex as a whole, her overt references to most of these Biblical books are reductionistic, in that she relies upon only the most general and conventional sense of each text. For example, Winterson's “Genesis” chapter describes Jeanette's origins but makes limited use of Genesis itself, a book that includes the Creation and Fall, the Noah story, the tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, Lot and his wife—in other words, a wide range of stories loosely connected through chronology and historical significance to the ancient Hebrew people. Winterson suppresses the disorder of the original text to parody conventional images of origin. In the “Genesis” chapter, the Biblical allusions are predominantly to the New Testament origin narrative rather than to the one contained in the Hebrew Bible: Jeanette describes her mother's desire for a virgin birth and her resultant decision to adopt a child, the star that guided her mother to the orphanage where Jeanette was found, and the lack of Magi at her cradle. Winterson thus contrasts her story with the predominantly male image of creation found in both Biblical texts by removing any significant male figures from her birth narrative. Rather than concentrating on the creative power of an omnipotent Father, the text reproduces the conventionally passive Joseph-figure in Jeanette's adoptive father; he has no real role in Jeanette's childhood and appears primarily as a victim of his wife's evangelism. The power of creation rests with Jeanette's mother.

Each of the other chapters contains similarly concrete references to the Biblical text for which it is named. In “Exodus,” Jeanette first leaves her family home to go to school, where she laments her inability to interpret “the pillar of cloud” she, like the escaping Israelites, has to guide her in the daytime—in this case, the ground rules of the world outside her church, a world filled with teachers and fellow students who are uncomfortable with Jeanette's interest in hell and damnation. The chapters “Leviticus” and “Numbers” play off the position of their Biblical source texts as constituting “The Law,” and Winterson uses them to explore Jeanette's domination by her mother and the church, including Jeanette's initiation into her mother's brand of evangelizing. In addition, “Leviticus” devotes seven of its fourteen pages to a story about a prince seeking perfection, an aim that alludes to the Biblical text's “Holiness Code,” the series of laws intended to make the Hebrew people perfect in the eyes of God. The Biblical source text demands animal sacrifices from those who fail to attain perfection; similarly, Winterson's Prince makes sacrifices, but only to silence those who suggest that he has gotten the definition wrong, that perfection is not flawlessness but symmetry. “Numbers,” whose Biblical text recounts the wandering of the Israelites in the desert, shows Jeanette's “wandering” from the strictures of her church because of her growing resentment of her mother and “wandering” from heterosexuality through her love affair with Melanie. “Deuteronomy,” subtitled “The Last Book of the Law,” mirrors its Biblical text in being a non-narrative chapter devoted to establishing rules for human behavior. Like its Biblical namesake, this chapter includes dietary prescriptions: “If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches” (p. 95). However, Winterson uses the rule to suggest the necessity of confirming facts for oneself; she terms secondhand information “refined food” that contains insufficient “roughage” to prevent intellectual “constipation” (p. 95). The dietary law serves as a metaphor for intellectual integrity. In “Joshua,” Winterson mentions the prophet Joshua at the battle of Jericho and asserts, “That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet” (p. 112), to describe the pain she experiences at her growing estrangement from her mother as the two women do public battle over Jeanette's lesbianism. “Judges” refers to the congregation's decision that Jeanette has usurped a male prerogative in her public ministry and that this has led to her sexual orientation. They forbid her to preach and exile her from her home when she refuses to renounce her lesbianism. In contrast to the predominantly male “Judges” in the Bible, the people to whom Jeanette must answer are primarily the powerful, articulate women of her congregation, some of whom are themselves lesbians, but who nonetheless refuse to condone Jeanette's very visible sexual orientation. In each case, the Biblical source text provides the chapter with a single donnée, as Henry James might have put it: one major idea that serves as the point of departure for Winterson's parody.


Winterson's use of the final Biblical text in the novel, the Ruth story, differs sharply from her approach to the earlier source texts. Instead of being limited purely to the “Ruth” chapter, the Ruth material defines the nature of the novel as a whole by indicating the larger issues of mother/daughter relations and female loyalty that face Jeanette. If, as I am suggesting, the whole novel is in some respects a parodic retelling of the Ruth story, then the interaction between the two versions reveals the points of tension between Jeanette and the Biblical tradition: Jeanette's refusal of the tradition and her self-fashioning through it.

Winterson signals the more significant role the Book of Ruth will serve by her different treatment of the text itself. In contrast to the previous chapters, there is no explicit reference to the Biblical source in “Ruth.” Moreover, there is an obvious departure in form: while in the earlier chapters Winterson responded to the miscellany of her source texts by assuming an artificial unity, in the “Ruth” chapter she fractures material that was originally undivided. Unlike the earlier Biblical books, the Book of Ruth is not a compilation of diverse stories, but one narrative unit presented in four major scenes. In the “Ruth” chapter, however, Winterson interposes two stories unrelated to the autobiographical narrative, stories that comprise almost one-third of the chapter. While fairy-tale segments occur elsewhere in the novel, as a rule only one external story line appears per chapter, often divided into several sections of fewer than two pages in length. In “Ruth,” however, two separate tales disrupt the narrative: a Perceval story, a continuation from the previous chapter; and a highly allegorical, fairy-tale version of the novel as a whole, the Winnet Stonejar story, presented in its entirety in this chapter and, at roughly ten pages, the longest single external sequence in the novel.4 By breaking apart the narrative element of the Ruth source-material, Winterson need not respond to the full story; instead she can focus on the thematic element that proves most useful for her novel: Ruth's exploration of female loyalty.

The Ruth material offers both counterpoint and parallel to the theme of female loyalty as presented in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In the Book of Ruth, Naomi, her husband, and their two sons leave Judah to avoid a famine. They settle in Moab, where the sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. The men soon die, leaving the three women childless widows in a society where a woman's primary, if not only, source of protection lay in her male relatives. Naomi resolves to return to Bethlehem and urges her daughters-in-law to return to their mothers to seek husbands among their own people. Orpah, although unwilling, obeys her mother-in-law, but Ruth refuses, uttering the justly famous lines, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me” (Ruth 1:16–17).5 Naomi makes no reply, but the two women return together to Bethlehem. Once there, Ruth undertakes their support by gleaning behind the barley threshers, where she catches the eye of Boaz, a wealthy man who instructs his threshers to leave her extra grain. When Ruth tells Naomi about this encounter, Naomi announces that Boaz is one of her kinsmen-redeemers under the levirate, the practice through which the closest kinsman of a dead man married his childless widow, enabling the woman to produce children who would carry on the family name and inherit the family property. At the end of the harvest, Naomi tells Ruth to approach Boaz in the darkness, to uncover him, and to put her head at his feet, after which “he will tell thee what thou shalt do” (Ruth 3:4).6 Ruth does as her mother-in-law suggests, but rather than waiting for Boaz to take the initiative, she demands that he fulfill his responsibility to her under the law. Boaz praises her for seeking him out as a kinsman despite his advancing years, and he agrees to marry her, provided an unnamed nearer kinsman (whose responsibility the marriage would more properly be) refuses to do so. Boaz confronts this kinsman before the village elders about a plot of land Naomi is selling, and when it is revealed that the person who purchases it will also have to marry Ruth, the kinsman refuses.7 Boaz, himself a childless widower, marries Ruth. When the couple's son is born, a chorus of the women of Bethlehem rejoice, for under the law this boy will function as Naomi's son and inherit accordingly.

While clearly this is a complex text, and one that I will try to unpack more fully below, perhaps its most radical element lies in its treatment of female loyalty, an issue obviously of concern for Winterson's novel. In the Ruth text, Ruth's determination to choose Naomi does not represent an explicitly lesbian decision; however, it does represent one of the unusual instances where the Bible depicts profound female solidarity. This has such a threatening potential that at least one Biblical scholar argues that Ruth follows Naomi solely to demonstrate her love for her dead husband and seeks out Boaz only to provide her dead husband with named heirs.8 By contrast, Phyllis Trible claims the Ruth text as the site of the most astonishing female loyalty in the Bible because “not only has Ruth broken with family, country, and faith, but she has also reversed sexual allegiance. … One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends upon men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel.”9 Ruth's decision to stay with her mother-in-law rather than to seek a husband violates the basis of her culture or, as Claude Lévi-Strauss would argue, of culture in general as founded on the exchange of women. Ruth's dedication to Naomi represents a radical revaluing of connection between women.

Because the Book of Ruth does not conform to expected cultural patterns, a certain amount of interpretive maneuvering has been necessary to account for its inclusion in the Biblical canon. Much as the early Church Fathers reclaimed the sensuality of the Song of Songs through strictly spiritual exegesis, Ruth was read as justifying the spread of Christianity among the gentiles. Not only could the text be cited as the story of the first significant conversion, but since Ruth's son Obed fathers Jesse who fathers King David, the patristic tradition held that the lineage of Jesus Christ contained the blood of Ruth the (gentile) Moabite. While contemporary readers tend not to be troubled by the issue of conversion, the affection between Ruth and Naomi has continued to demand reclamation. Ruth 1:16–17 is often quoted in wedding ceremonies, thus recovering its exceptional female loyalty for an explicitly heterosexual context. This very use, however, underscores the potential sexuality of the original utterance.

Winterson patterns Jeanette's quest for love after the relation between Naomi and Ruth, and in so doing echoes both traditional interpretive gestures. Jeanette's major love affairs, with both Melanie and Katy, occur because of Jeanette's evangelizing—her lovers are converts she has won to the Pentecostal church. At one level this indicates Jeanette's efforts at self-justification: her relation with the women centers on teaching them matters of doctrine. Like the Church Fathers with the Song of Songs, Jeanette prefers the sexual to be safely concealed within the spiritual. At the same time, Jeanette seeks the faithfulness expressed in the Ruth story: Ruth the convert showed complete devotion to the woman who led her into faith; perhaps Jeanette could find such loyalty in a woman she brings to faith. And while the liturgical use of the Book of Ruth reserves the text's potential sexuality for heterosexual application, Jeanette, by modeling her own relationships after Ruth, reappropriates this sexuality while reasserting the primacy of loyalty between women.

Jeanette expresses perhaps the most poignant plea for devotion, as strong as Ruth's for Naomi, in the “Ruth” chapter itself. Remarking that no human affection has matched her youthful ideal of a relationship with God, she cries out for a lover who will never betray her:

I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death. … Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original, written on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have [for love].

(p. 170)

In language pieced together from the most powerful statements of love in the Bible,10 Jeanette envisions the perfect lover, one who would mirror the faithfulness Ruth offered to Naomi in her cry of devotion. Because Jeanette finds such romantic love all but unattainable, her quest leads her back to the Ruth text more directly: she too concentrates on her relation to a maternal figure. At the conclusion of the novel, she chooses to return to her mother despite their conflicts. Jeanette's action thus reproduces the theology of the Ruth text; she opts to express to her mother the same hesed Ruth showed Naomi.

Hesed an important concept in the Bible and particularly in Ruth, is difficult to translate; the concept includes loyalty, duty, mercy, goodness, and kindness, but none of these words captures the force of the Hebrew. As Katharine Sakenfeld explains it, hesed is “always requested and carried out within the heart of some publicly identifiable relationship.”11 She goes on to note that hesed presupposes at least four factors: (1) the person who requests hesed cannot solve his or her own problem; (2) the action requested is of profound significance, for the asker's descendants, homeland, or personal survival; (3) only the person asked can actually fulfill the need; and finally, (4) the person asked is absolutely free to refuse the request.12 As such, hesed is loyalty established by covenant, whether through family ties or, in its best-known expression between David and Jonathan, through friendship and love. As Edward Campbell puts it, “hesed is more than the loyalty which one expects if he [or she] stands in covenant with another person—it is that extra which both establishes and sustains covenant. It is more than ordinary human loyalty; it imitates the divine initiative which comes without being deserved.”13

This concept emerges in the Book of Ruth in a way that offers insight into Jeanette's decision in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.Hesed proves to be the dominant description of the relationship between Naomi and Ruth rather than 'āhēb, the Hebrew for “love,” which appears only once in the final lines of the book. Naomi uses the idea of hesed in an extraordinary manner when she asks her daughters-in-law to leave her and then wishes them well, as Trible explains:

Strikingly, the basis upon which Naomi invokes Yahweh's hesed is the gracious hospitality of her daughters-in-law: “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have [already] dealt with the dead and with me” (RSV). At the heart of Naomi's poem, both in structure and in meaning, these female foreigners become models for Yahweh. They show the deity a more excellent way.14

Ruth's loyalty to Naomi, and by extension perhaps female loyalty in general, becomes the noblest action possible, worthy of imitation even by God. Although Winterson may not have had the Hebrew word itself in mind, repercussions of the remark are clear even in the English: perfect loyalty between women sets the standard for divine mercy.

While this model of perfection may cripple Jeanette's ability to form romantic attachments, it does enable her to return to her mother to continue their relationship. This, after all, is an act of hesed founded on the model of the Ruth text. Naomi herself did not receive the hesed of God; she was left in a strange land without husband or sons and thus without means of support or defense. Ruth, also without husband or sons, chooses to sacrifice her country and possibly her own access to male kin or progeny out of hesed for Naomi. In herself electing to practice hesed, Jeanette too expresses what she has not received; her mother has, in her words, “betrayed” her, which she defines as “promising to be on your side, and then being on someone else's” (p. 171), by rejecting Jeanette's role in public ministry. Jeanette, who constantly repeats her need for someone who will not betray her, chooses first not to betray; she does not desert her mother. Like Ruth, she chooses female loyalty.


Winterson's use of this Biblical material emerges in part from the folkloric genre of the Ruth text. As Jack Sasson points out, Ruth conforms to the pattern established by Vladimir Propp's structural analysis of the Russian folktale: the story opens with a lack (both of food and of male children), includes a repetition by threes (Naomi's three requests of Ruth to return to her mother), a donor (Boaz), a false hero (the unnamed kinsman), and so on.15 In addition, the story begins with a conventional, almost fairy-tale opening, which Campbell translates as “Once, in the days when the Judges were judging, there came. …”16 Campbell finds the syntax unusual because of its double story openers, and suggests that the opening, as well as the story itself, works to assert “plausibility” rather than “historicity”17—again much like a conventional folktale. The Book of Ruth fails in one respect to satisfy the general definition of a folktale: it seems unlikely that it ever had a period of oral transmission in anything resembling its current form. Despite some controversy, most scholars agree that it was composed by one individual, who may or may not have been committing to prose form what was originally a verse narrative.18 In this, Ruth should be viewed as a kunstmärchen, an artistic fairy tale like many of the Grimm's Brothers' märchen, tales often obtained from oral narratives but then formulated and reworked into highly artistic constructs.19 More importantly for our purposes, the Ruth text seems to perform a similar psychosocial task to that undertaken by the fairy tale, in that it pays particular attention to issues of psychological development and socialization. This psychosocial element constitutes the most significant component of Winterson's use of the Ruth material.

Like the fairy tales Snow White or Cinderella, the Book of Ruth contains a story of female maturation that explores the traditional roles expected of young women. In her essay “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” Karen Rowe notes,

Fairy tales … respond to the need for both detachment from childish symbioses and a subsequent embracement of adult independence. Yet, this evolution dooms female protagonists (and readers) to pursue adult potentials in one way only: the heroine dreamily anticipates conformity to those predestined roles of wife and mother.20

Given this interpretation of the fairy tale's maturation theme, the Book of Ruth offers an atypical blend of the radical and the conservative. Although Ruth eventually conforms to traditional female roles, she does not passively await a husband; instead she demands her rights under the kinship law and, remarkably, receives praise for this assertiveness. More importantly, Ruth's progression into adulthood does not demand that she make a choice between “symbiosis” with a maternal figure and the “independence” signaled by marriage; even after she weds Boaz, Ruth's ties to Naomi remain so close that Ruth's son is Naomi's as well. In this story, unlike Snow White or Cinderella, women need not be in competition, and female loyalty can extend beyond the marriage ceremony.

Although the Ruth story offers a powerful model of female bonding, it still visualizes (heterosexual) marriage and motherhood as requisite for female fulfillment. This element becomes the principal point of difference in Winterson's revision of the Ruth text. By focusing her attention primarily on the first chapter of Ruth, Winterson concentrates on the relation between Ruth and Naomi without requiring that her heroine follow any conventional path to marriage, or even to fulfillment purely through a romantic association, be this with man or woman. At the same time, as in the Ruth text, Winterson suggests that maturity must incorporate mother-daughter ties; Jeanette does not abandon relations with her mother, despite her mother's rejection of Jeanette's sexuality.

Yet although both protagonists pursue connections to a maternal figure, neither Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit nor Ruth actually explores the relation of a daughter to her biological mother. In both cases, the daughters are one step removed: Ruth relates to her mother-in-law, Jeanette to her foster mother. In this, the two texts again reveal their similarities to the psychological mechanisms of fairy tales. As Rowe explains it, in narratives of female maturation, examining the actual maternal figure may be too threatening to risk. Folktales and fairy tales frequently split the mother figure into the fairy godmother (or sometimes the perfect-but-now-dead mother) and the wicked stepmother or witch, enabling a reader to probe elements of the relationship without confronting the full complexity of her emotions. By creating a negative maternal figure, the fairy tale permits an adolescent girl to examine her mounting resentment of her own mother without contesting her continued longing for the “good” mother of her childhood and her dreams.21 Her arrival at mature subjectivity demands that the girl both detach from and identify with her mother, and the fairy-tale fragmentation of the maternal figure facilitates both developmental tasks. Like a fairy tale, both Ruth and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit divide the maternal role into multiple figures, with the split occurring primarily at the level of the “absent” and the “present,” subordinating “good” and “evil.” The biological mothers of the two protagonists are conspicuously absent from both tales. Ruth's mother never enters the story except to function as a reference to place: Ruth is instructed to go back to her “mother's house” in Moab (Ruth 1:8). Her refusal positions Naomi as the maternal figure to be interrogated. In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette is not permitted to see her “real” or birth mother and so must come to grips with the foster mother who raised her.

The two stories use these different configurations of the mother-daughter relationship to construct the possibility of continued female loyalty within the maturation narrative. Although Ruth probably entered Naomi's household in early adolescence, the fact that Naomi is not really Ruth's mother makes it unnecessary for Ruth to undergo the painful division/connection struggle with her. In addition, because Naomi is actually Ruth's mother-in-law and because Ruth has already fulfilled the cultural expectations of marriage, the Biblical tradition can pronounce Ruth a heroine for her decision to remain with a maternal figure at all costs. Were Naomi actually Ruth's mother, this choice might well be taken to represent a condition of psychological immaturity or be censured in some other manner as a threat to the exogamic tradition.

In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the position of the mother figure as a foster mother makes Jeanette better able to experience her resentment, but also seems to facilitate her ability to forgive her mother. After all, as a foster child, she was specially “chosen” by her mother to a degree impossible for a birth mother, and the “Genesis” chapter explores the influence this has on Jeanette's imagination. Her foster mother decided to find a particular child to raise:

My mother, out walking … dreamed a dream and sustained it in daylight. She would get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the Lord:

                    a missionary child,
                    a servant of God,
                    a blessing.

(p. 10)

Jeanette's image of herself as specially chosen dominates her self-definition during her childhood; her mother chose her to be a missionary, and so she expected to be a missionary. She believes herself selected by both God and her mother for service to God. After Jeanette has experienced the darker side of both her mother and her church, she acknowledges that her relationship to her mother is not wholly satisfactory, but it is not one that she can escape: “Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own; she had tied a thread around my button, to tug when she pleased” (p. 176).

Readers tend to react with surprise that Jeanette returns to her mother at the end of the story;22 conventional stories of female maturation require that the daughter leave the mother in order to experience independence and adulthood, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit does not conform to this pattern. Even the title, which at first seems to be a rejection of the mother's frequent assertions that “oranges are the only fruit” (emphasis mine), turns out to entail an acceptance of the mother: during “the town's first mission for coloured people,” Jeanette's mother feeds them all pineapple as a gesture to their difference, announcing, “After all … oranges are not the only fruit” (p. 172).23 Here again the Ruth text is relevant because it offers a response to the mother that does not demand rejection but also does not preclude independent action. In returning to her mother at the conclusion of the novel, Jeanette acknowledges that relationships continue even after one goes away (the thread is still tied around the button); she chooses to continue the relationship with her mother in person rather than only through memories and resentments.24 Indeed, by positioning this return at the conclusion of this bildungsroman, Winterson suggests that maturation consists in the return to, not the flight from, familial or maternal ties. Just as her mother had initially selected her, now Jeanette deliberately selects her mother, like Ruth, who freely selected Naomi.

In depicting such mother-daughter loyalty, Winterson's source-text Ruth goes beyond the conventional fairy-tale configuration. Fairy tales are widely recognized as important contributors to the socialization process of children, particularly in the manner in which they concretize the child's internal concerns through their psychologically resonant plots. Bruno Bettelheim suggests that, among other things, fairy tales enable the child to participate in the Freudian family romance by offering stories that help “manage the contradictory feelings which would otherwise overwhelm him at this stage of his barely beginning ability to integrate contradictory emotions.”25 Bettelheim's assumption of the male gender of the child here not only partakes in the Freudian view, but also conforms to the masculinist biases of many fairy tales, where the boy's progression to king is presented far more often than any comparable rise to authority/subjectivity on the part of the girl.26 In contrast, the Book of Ruth, with its emphasis on Ruth's assertion of her rights within a narrative based on loyalty, hints at the possibility of what Marianne Hirsch terms the “feminist family romance.” She describes this as a “psychoanalytic re-vision of Freudian paradigms, which highlight[s] mother-daughter bonding as a basis for a vision of gender difference and female specificity.”27 The feminist family romance represents the woman not as the object of a male child's desire, but as herself a subject, capable of relating her own story. The daughterly text under this paradigm, Hirsch remarks, often positions itself at an uncomfortable distance from the maternal perspective, which is still silent and silenced under the weight of the daughter's emerging subjectivity. Only in postmodern literature, Hirsch suggests, do texts begin to imagine the inclusion of the maternal as a position capable of its own subjectivity.28

Unsurprisingly, the Book of Ruth does not emerge as an example of a fully realized feminist family romance; the text falls into silence when the daughter herself becomes a mother. Likewise, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in its revision of Ruth, does not grant the mother full subjectivity (and Jeanette never envisions herself entering the maternal role). At the same time, in suggesting the necessity for mother-daughter bonding, Winterson's novel moves toward a space where subjectivity can be constructed out of female connection rather than exclusively through separation and silencing.


Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit parodies Biblical narratives, enabling Winterson to construct a maturation narrative that need not reject female/familial loyalty and that can address lesbian maturation. As Linda Hutcheon reminds us, postmodern parody, no longer strictly a comic genre, enables parodists to repeat material we define as (capital L) Literature with ironic difference in order both to explore and to confront their position within the tradition—a possibility particularly valuable for members of oppressed or marginalized social groups.29 For example, modern feminist revisions of fairy tales reveal the masculinist biases of the original stories, while reclaiming their folkloric structure and language to offer more egalitarian messages.30 In parodying the Bible, essentially the master text of Western civilization, Winterson explores her position as a woman and a lesbian within the Judeo-Christian (male and heterosexual) tradition.

The Bible is not the only text that Winterson employs; she parodies fairy-tale language and motifs (primarily in her repeated departures from overtly autobiographical sections), as well as more conventional literary sources such as Grail-quest narratives, Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, and Christina Rossetti's “Goblin Market.” Her Biblical allusions, however, structure the novel and provide what I have argued is its paradigmatic text, the story of Ruth. In Ruth, Winterson finds a text that speaks of female and familial loyalty, but does so in ways that are not immediately useful for Winterson as a lesbian. By parodying the text, Winterson can take what does work for her narrative purposes—female loyalty—without falling into the conventional heterosexual assumptions her source text makes.

The Bible offers Winterson not only a thematic for her narrative, but also a paradigm to subvert and reappropriate through parody. Her fusion of the Bible with her novel illuminates the contrast between the original Biblical text's masculinist perspective and Jeanette's experiences in a church largely organized and managed by women, while highlighting Jeanette's position outside the text and the congregation as a lesbian. Winterson describes the difficulty that this type of juxtaposition creates, and in so doing offers an analysis of the parody she employs: “What constitutes a problem is not the thing, or the environment where we find the thing, but the conjunction of the two; something unexpected in a usual place (our favourite aunt in our favourite poker parlour) or something usual in an unexpected place (our favourite poker in our favourite aunt)” (p. 45). In this text, the “problem” is not the discussion of the coming of age of a lesbian woman, regardless of her religious background, nor the use of the Bible as the defining text for a novel, but the positioning of the two together. As Hutcheon notes in her discussion of parody, “the Greek prefix para can mean both ‘counter’ or ‘against’ AND ‘near’ or ‘beside.’”31 Winterson's use of Biblical imagery blends the two definitions of para: the contrast between the Biblical material and the character's lived experience places Jeanette against the tradition that she narrates, but the occurrence of this narration within chapters named for Biblical books reiterates the significance the Bible has had for her within that contrast. The presence of Biblical material, then, constitutes not so much a mockery, which has often been associated with parody, as it does a pastiche, an unsatirical blend of history and story with the problematic realms of autobiography, fairy tale, and Biblical narratives—genres that typify the “cat's cradle” (p. 93) approach Winterson describes.

While Winterson relies heavily on the Bible and particularly on the Ruth story to construct Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, she maintains an appropriately postmodern ambivalence toward most of the Biblical canon and, with it, literary and cultural traditions as well. Jeanette seems to give voice to this ambivalence when she imagines what might have happened had she been able to remain with her mother and within the tradition:

I could have been a priest instead of a prophet. The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power. … The words work. They do what they're supposed to do; comfort and discipline. The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning.

(p. 161)

Winterson's novel is the work of the prophet; she explodes the tradition by revealing where the book's words are no longer words of power for her. Because of her gender and sexuality, Winterson finds no place in the text already constructed for her, and her use of the first seven Biblical books explores her distance from that text.

In Ruth she finds an echo of what she seeks—loyalty between women that itself becomes part of a mature subjectivity. Unlike Ruth, Jeanette leaves her primary mother figure, but in keeping with the loyalty the Book of Ruth explores, Jeanette returns to continue the relationship. In this, Winterson creates a feminist family romance, where the development of female subjectivity and self-empowerment demands the continuation of the mother-daughter relationship, not its rejection. She offers female loyalty as an important site for female development, not a limited and limiting role between masculine attachments. She thus exposes what in Ruth parallels Jeanette's experience while rejecting Ruth's ultimate advocacy of traditional female options. However, her parody does not seek to destroy the original text—she does not render Ruth useless for or threatening to a modern reader. Her revision reclaims the original text as a literary model of maturation by embracing the opportunity it suggests for female loyalty and mother-daughter bonding. In her parody of this work, she fragments the originally tightly constructed tale, as if in the fracture in the tradition thus created she could finally make room for herself. In so doing, she suggests that for the writing of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Ruth too can be a “fruitful” text.


  1. This “voice” contrasts to the “exit” option more often utilized by boys—that is, simply leaving the family (either physically or emotionally) when they feel overly confined by it. While both options are available to and used by both genders, Gilligan's research reveals that girls employ the “voice” option more readily than they do the “exit” option, while the reverse is true for boys. See Carol Gilligan, “Exit-Voice Dilemmas in Adolescent Development,” in Mapping the Moral Domain: A Contribution of Women's Thinking to Psychological Theory and Education, ed. Gilligan, Janie Victoria Ward, and Jill McClean Taylor, with Betty Bardige (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 141–58.

  2. For more on alternate literary models for female development narratives, see the invaluable collection The Voyage In: Fictions in Female Development, ed. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, Elizabeth Langland (Hanover, New Hampshire: Published for Dartmouth College by The University Press of New England, 1983). In that collection, see particularly Karen E. Rowe, “‘Fairy-born and human-bred’: Jane Eyre's Education in Romance,” pp. 69–89, and Ellen Cronan Rose, “Through the Looking Glass: When Women Tell Fairy Tales,” pp. 209–27, for sustained treatment of the fairy tale as a literary model for narratives of development.

  3. Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987), pp. 93–95. Further citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  4. The Winnet Stonejar sequence repeats the novel's plot by reframing it in a more traditional model; instead of emphasizing the connection between mother and daughter, this narrative focuses on the daughter's relation to her (adoptive) father, a sorcerer who persuades her that she has no mother and teaches her his magic but expels her for her sexual interest in another man. In this story, Winterson seems to play with (among other things) the notion of departure as necessary for maturity since in contrast to the novel as a whole, the protagonist of this version does not and cannot return home.

  5. All citations of the Bible will refer to the King James Version, unless otherwise indicated.

  6. Jack M. Sasson, in Ruth: A New Translation with a Philological Commentary and a Formalist-Folkloric Interpretation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 70, points out that in Hebrew the word for foot used here, regel …, often appears in the Hebrew Bible as a euphemism for “testicles,” or more generally, “sexual organs.” Although he goes on to insist that nothing sexual could possibly have been intended here, the bulk of the philological evidence suggests otherwise.

  7. Under Gō'ēl, the nearest able kinsman would be obligated to purchase or redeem land sold by a widow so that the property would remain within the family. This practice is essentially parallel to the levirate, although concerned with land rather than offspring. In most circumstances, the same kinsman would be required to perform both obligations.

  8. Nelson Glueck, Hesed in the Bible, trans. Alfred Gottschalk, ed. Elias Epstein (Cincinnati: The Hebrew Union College Press, 1967), pp. 40–41.

  9. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, ed. Walter Brueggemann and John R. Donahue (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 173. I do not agree with Trible here that Ruth has abandoned family because obviously her choice to follow her mother-in-law represents a strong allegiance to family. It is certainly true that she rejects her biological family in favor of the ties she established through marriage. I would point out, however, that Hebrew wedding customs suggest that the bride may have been a young teenager upon entering her husband's family; thus Naomi would have functioned as a mother through much of Ruth's adolescence. This point will be explored more fully below.

  10. Besides the obvious reference to Ruth in Jeanette's insistence on unending love, the line “Love as strong as death” comes from the Song of Songs 8:6, and the lines about crossing seas and suffering sunstroke echo the journey of the lovers in that book. The end of that sentence, “and give away all that I have,” suggests Jesus's command to the rich to sell their possessions and give everything to the poor for love of God, an injunction found in several of the Gospels. The stone tablets allude to the Ten Commandments, also written on stone. My point here, however, is less to unpack all of the Biblical references in this passage than to stress that Jeanette's image of love is utterly dependent on a Biblical model, which she derives from a variety of source texts.

  11. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, “Loyalty and Love: The Language of Human Interconnections in the Hebrew Bible,” Michigan Quarterly Review, 22, No. 3 (1983), 197.

  12. Sakenfeld, pp. 197–98.

  13. Edward F. Campbell, Ruth: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, in Anchor Bible, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 81.

  14. Trible, p. 169, her emphasis.

  15. Sasson, pp. 200–15.

  16. Campbell, p. 49.

  17. Campbell, pp. 49, 59.

  18. Jacob M. Myers, The Linguistic and Literary Form of the Book of Ruth (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1955), pp. 42, 64; Sasson, p. 214.

  19. Heinz Rölleke, “New Results of Research on Grimm's Fairy Tales,” in The Brothers Grimm and Folktale, ed. James M. McGlathery (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 107–08.

  20. Rowe, “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” in Don't Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, ed. Jack Zipes (New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 214.

  21. See Rowe, “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” p. 213, and also Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1989), pp. 68–69.

  22. A session of Winterson in one of my graduate seminars at Princeton University (Professor Brenda R. Silver, “Modern Post Modern,” English 566, 8 December 1989) illustrated such an assumption. The members of the class, almost all women, expressed anger and dismay that Jeanette chose to return to her mother once she had made the decision to leave; their expectations included the termination of the mother-daughter relationship as a necessary step in self-actualization.

  23. Jeanette's acceptance of this phrase as the title of her narrative might implicate her in her mother's racist assumptions, thus undermining some of the positive connotations I have associated with her maturation. I would suggest that the title instead aligns the Otherness of Jeanette's sexual preferences with racial Otherness, neither of which lies within her mother's powers of understanding or control. It is interesting too to note that this phrase represents the one instance in the novel of Jeanette's mother acknowledging that she may be mistaken or may not completely understand—in other words, the one moment in the text where the mother too seems to grow, thus paving the way for a similar growth of understanding toward Jeanette (understanding, admittedly, does not fully occur within the confines of the novel, but her permitting Jeanette to return home implies a willingness to come to an understanding of her daughter). Although critics such as Rebecca O'Rourke, in “Fingers in the Fruit Basket: A Feminist Reading of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, ed. Susan Sellers (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), have often criticized Winterson for her rather harsh treatment of her family, this moment, at least, does not portray the mother as one-dimensional.

  24. The phrase “tied a thread around my button” originates in the Winnet Stonejar sequence, in which the protagonist does not return to her family. Winterson's repetition of the phrase in Jeanette's portion of the narrative emphasizes that return is only one option in the continuation of the relationship, but one that Jeanette freely chooses.

  25. Bettelheim, p. 69.

  26. The princess becoming queen cannot be seen as a comparable event in most fairy tales because this still locates the girl child in a subordinate role, with husband replacing father as the occupant of the subjective position. Her becoming queen occurs only as an accident of her connection to the male subject.

  27. Marianne Hirsch, The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 15.

  28. See Hirsch, chapter 4.

  29. See Linda Hutcheon's chapter on parody in A Poetics of Post-Modernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York: Routledge, 1988), and “The Politics of Postmodernism: Parody and History,” Cultural Critique, 5 (Winter 1986–87), 179–207. In the latter, Hutcheon advocates a redefinition of parody as “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signaling of difference at the very heart of similarity” (p. 185), a process that she sees as enabling parodists to use intertexuality for political statements.

  30. See, for example, Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (1979; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1987); Rapunzel's Revenge: Fairytales for Feminists (Dublin: Attic Press, 1985); and Zipes, ed., Don't Bet on the Prince. Rapunzel's Revenge contains parodic rewritings of familiar fairy tales; for example, Snow White arranges a labor union and contemplates a corporate merger with the mine owner, Mr. Prince, while Cinderella, who dreams of managing a fast-food restaurant chain, rejects the overtures of the prince in order to reorganize the palace on an economically stable basis as a catering service. This collection tends to offer humorous revisions, although the Zipes anthology contains several parodic, nonhumorous tales.

  31. Hutcheon, “The Politics of Postmodernism,” pp. 185–86.

I would like to acknowledge the assistance I received on earlier versions of this essay from Brenda Silver and Lee Talley, as well as the careful reading and advice from Lee Mitchell, whose comments have been, as always, invaluable.

Laura Doan (essay date 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7087

SOURCE: Doan, Laura. “Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern.” In The Lesbian Postmodern, edited by Laura Doan, pp. 137–55. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Doan examines the intersection and compatibility of Winterson's lesbian feminist politics and postmodern literary techniques in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion, and Sexing the Cherry.]

In Jeanette Winterson's witty and exuberant autobiographical first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) the protagonist Jeanette, an adolescent who decrees confidently that heterosexuality is beastly, confusing, and utterly unappealing, ponders why her passionate involvement with members of her own sex causes so much disruption in her family and church: “It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except this one; romantic love for another woman was a sin” (127). The problem, as Jeanette sees it, stems not from her exquisite longings for women, but from others' inability to recognize and acknowledge the loveliness of sexual love shared between women. Jeanette's strength and the strength of this coming-of-age/coming-out novel, emerges from a profound and unshakeable conviction that her lesbianism is right and that any attempt to condemn or despise her—a celebrant of the most natural of passions—constitutes perversion. Winterson totally redefines normal and renders heterosexuality as unintelligible for Jeanette.

Three novels later the women of Jeanette Winterson's imagination still discover ecstasy with one another rather than with the male companion a conventional telos demands. None of the twelve dancing princesses in Sexing the Cherry (1989) finds ultimate happiness with a prince. When the prince isn't homosexual himself and when princely husbands aren't murdered in a surprising and grotesque manner, the princesses explore, in richly poetic imagery, a startling array of unconventional liaisons, from “salty bliss” with a mermaid to a happy lesbian arrangement in Rapunzel's tower (happy, that is, until an insensitive and intrusive prince arrives on the scene). As with Oranges, where the reconceptualization of the normal makes lesbian existence possible by, in effect, reversing the dominant culture's definition of natural and unnatural, in her more recent work Winterson stalls any potential charge of transgression, or label of transgressor, by appropriating the very terms that legitimize heterosexual union—thus one princess comments that “the man I had married was a woman” (Sexing the Cherry, 54)—and positing merely an innocent switch of the acceptable terms and conditions of that contract. Eschewing realism, Winterson constructs her narrative by exploiting the techniques of postmodern historiographic metafiction (such as intertextuality, parody, pastiche, self-reflexivity, fragmentation, the rewriting of history, and frame breaks) as well as its ideology (questioning “grand narratives,” problematizing closure, valorizing instability, suspecting coherence, and so forth) in order to challenge and subvert patriarchal and heterosexist discourses and, ultimately, to facilitate a forceful and positive radical oppositional critique.

Winterson's attempt to insert lesbian desire and thereby profoundly upset and unsettle heterosexual hegemony is clearly political, so political in fact that reviewer Rosellen Brown laments that Winterson's “stories feel like pretexts” for her “vengeful hostility to men and marriage, her fascination with androgyny, and her compensatory vision of women as the stronger, more sane, and even physically dominating sex” (“Fertile Imagination,” 10). Brown's reading may be less than acute in drawing out the subtleties of Winterson's complex handling of issues relating to sexual politics and gender construction, but she nevertheless discerns that Winterson pursues her own peculiar vision of a lesbian feminist political agenda. Noticeably absent from Brown is an attentiveness to Winterson as a practicing postmodernist. Reviewer Michael Gorra, on the other hand, seems less interested in Winterson's sexual politics than in her investment in the postmodern, even proffering what might be regarded as the highest compliment paid to a metafictional writer: the materials of her fiction, he maintains, “seem the clichés of postmodernism” (“Gender Games,” 24). A conflation of two such diverse critiques might logically suggest that Winterson pursues her political agenda through a postmodern writing practice, though few critics of postmodern literary representation would credit its producers with much more than the capacity to wreak playful havoc in the social and cultural order.

Critics such as Linda Hutcheon insist with some urgency that the feminist writer (and presumably also the lesbian feminist writer) who effectively plunders postmodern writing strategies for her own political ends, ends up herself in an ambivalent and problematic space. Hutcheon presents her case on the dangers of a convergence between feminism and postmodernism vis-à-vis representation most forcefully in The Politics of Postmodernism. She contends that metafictional writing practices—and, by extension, Winterson's delightful and rapturous style—are by definition superbly qualified to pose challenging questions to patriarchal discourses and consequently execute the first critical step toward disruption, but they are also superbly disqualified from going any further. The tactics so prevalent in metafiction (all supremely evident in Winterson's work) offer endless possibilities for the feminist writer to foreground provocative questions that, according to Hutcheon, “reveal art as the place where values, norms, beliefs, actions are produced; [the postmodern] deconstructs the processes of signification. But it never escapes its double encoding: it is always aware of the mutual interdependence of the dominant and the contestatory” (Politics of Postmodernism, 157). For Hutcheon, the problem is quite simply that feminism is political whereas postmodernism is not, or, more accurately, postmodernism is “politically ambivalent, doubly encoded as both complicity and critique” (168). Above all, she argues, “postmodernism has not theorized agency; it has no strategies of resistance that would correspond to the feminist ones” (168, emphasis mine). The distinction is critical, of course, because according to this view feminist writers can make good use of various metafictional strategies (which can challenge and destabilize patriarchal discourses through questioning, ambivalence, contradiction, parody and paradox, and through its fetishizing of difference), but feminist use of such techniques constitutes only the first step, as Hutcheon puts it, in a “move towards change (a move that is not, in itself, part of the postmodern)” (149). Hutcheon concludes her book with the unequivocal assertion that “there is … no way in which the feminist and the postmodern—as cultural enterprises—can be conflated” (167).

The relationship between feminism and postmodernism is uneasy and highly problematic (as is the case with postmodernism and any sort of oppositional politics). Many postmodern theorists have been largely uninterested in questions pertaining to gender and some feminist theorists regard postmodern theory with wariness at best and distrust and hostility at worst; as Christine Di Stefano argues,

[The] postmodernist project … would make any semblance of a feminist politics impossible. To the extent that feminist politics is bound up with a specific constituency or subject, namely, women, the postmodernist prohibition against subject-centered inquiry and theory undermines the legitimacy of a broad-based organized movement dedicated to articulating and implementing the goals of such a constituency.

(“Dilemmas,” 76)

For Di Stefano and others, feminism as a social movement with a transformative political agenda is basically at odds and fundamentally incompatible with postmodern theory. Wendy Brown's elaboration on “feminist anxieties” toward postmodernity casts the theoretical net of objections still further:

Postmodernity unnerves feminist theory not merely because it deprives us of uncomplicated subject standing, as Di Stefano suggests, or of settled ground for knowledge and norms, as Hartsock argues, or of “centered selves” and “emancipatory knowledge” as Benhabib avers. Postmodernity unsettles feminism because it deprives us of the moral force that the subject, truth, and normativity coproduce in modernity.

(“Feminist Hesitations,” 78)

Yet feminist neglect of, or indifference toward, the postmodern is equally dangerous, for in embracing all ideological discourses and therefore none, it can undermine the feminist project.

Feminism and its critique of patriarchal hegemony, it would seem, has been very good for postmodernism by focusing its attention on sexual difference and the body, but postmodernism is inherently limited in what it might offer feminists who have “distinct, unambiguous political agendas of resistance” (Hutcheon, Politics of Postmodernism, 142). Winterson does not compromise her political agenda by choosing to negotiate a postmodern terrain and to delve into a cache of metafictional techniques, but for Hutcheon and others, Winterson does compromise her postmodernist stance, which, while itself political, can never be politically committed. Such a predicament raises two important, interrelated questions: what are the limits and possibilities of the intervention of lesbian feminist representation in the postmodern cultural domain and what might postmodernism offer the lesbian feminist writer? In other words, must we rule out completely the possibility of a lesbian postmodern that in turn envisions a politicization of the postmodern cultural domain by collapsing binaries and boundaries, demanding the reconfiguration of gender constructions and deregulating heteronormativity through the genesis of pluralistic sexual identities? That is, in effect, an oppositional lesbian feminist representation that undermines controlling repressive hegemonies through reconceptualizing the sexing of the postmodern?

In a 1990 interview Jeanette Winterson ascribed political efficacy to narrativity; the invention of stories is a political act and she's “hoping all the time that it will challenge people, both into looking more closely at these things they thought were cut and dried and also, perhaps, into inventing their own stories” (Marvel, “Winterson,” 168). The following year, in a conversation with Helen Barr, Winterson explained that both the novel and her screenplay for the BBC television version of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit “look at the way that the Church is offered up as a sacrament of love when really it is an exercise in power. They look at the hypocrisy of family life and they suggest very strongly that heterosexuality is not the only way to live and, indeed, might not always be the best way to live” (Barr, “Face to Face,” 30). In both texts, the protagonist's rebellion against such inextricably connected and powerful institutions as church, family life, and heterosexuality entails coming to terms with larger ideological struggles, the wrestling with epistemological questions, and the deconstruction of patriarchal and heterosexual hegemony. This difficult process of growing up and eventual “coming out” constitutes a quest modestly equated to that of Perceval and the Holy Grail (a “miniseries” interpolated sporadically within the larger narrative); such a journey allows the protagonist, Jeanette, new adventures and alternative visions.

The novel opens with a description of a lower middle-class family in a working-class area of northern England where Winterson, writing in the first person, introduces Jeanette's parents and immediately switches the ordinary gender division of labor, relegating the passive role of watching the proceedings to Jeanette's nearly absent father and assigning the vastly more active, indeed interventionist, role to the mother, who imposes a philosophy of life of frightening clarity:

My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. … She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.

Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms)
                              Next Door
                              Sex (in its many forms)
Friends were: God
                              Our Dog
                              Auntie Madge
                              The Novels of Charlotte Brontë
                              Slug pellets
                              and me, at first.

(Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, 3)

It is no accident that only Jeanette fails to fall neatly into one of the two lists that, from macrocosm to microcosm, embody the significant separation of all things into two discrete categories, defining the positive and strong against the negative and weak, from evil to sinful, sinful to perverse, perversities to pests. This maternal version of the “natural order” is one permeated with oppositions reminiscent of Genesis, the title of the novel's first section: light/dark, good/evil, believer/heathen, order/disorder, lost/found, saved/fallen. Jeanette learns at an early age that such oppositions provide the faithful and vigilant with the strategies and weapons necessary to wage battle; thus slug pellets destroy slugs and the dog attacks Next Door. The devil and sex are singled out as especially pernicious for either can appear in “many forms” (3). While God promises to be a powerful force for the righteous, a monolithic construct available to repel the devil's onslaught, nothing in this scheme offers protection from what is most dangerous and wicked: sex, which is only feebly and inadequately countered in the list by familial support (Auntie Madge, a character who appears rarely) and Brontë novels that valorize romance and passion.

Plucking her daughter from an orphanage (adoption distances Jeanette from her biological or “natural” parents and instead positions her artificially as the offspring of a union outside of the requisite marital consummation), Jeanette's mother proceeds to inculcate in her child a worldview based on her rather eccentric interpretation of God's word. Jeanette's adoption is the first stage of a more elaborate scheme on the part of her mother, a Pentecostal Evangelical Christian, who has promised God that she would “get a child, train it, build it, [and] dedicate it to the Lord: a missionary child, a servant of God, a blessing” (10) (the gender-neutral “it” is more than convenient). Her mother even adjusts the ending of Jane Eyre—the only “non-Bible” literature she reads to her young daughter—so that, in conformity with the grand design, the narrative culminates in a celibate marriage akin to that of Jeanette's parents. Years later, “literate and curious,” Jeanette is deeply disappointed to discover her mother's fabrication, a betrayal and a lie: Jane, in fact, does not marry St. John Rivers to become a missionary in India (74). Sex, even in marriage, must be avoided at all costs, and her mother warns her never to “let anyone touch [her] Down There” (88)—with any luck, Jeanette would emerge from childhood and enter adulthood with the requisite purity, sanctity, devotion, and perfection to serve God and the church and to fulfill her mother's ambitious and ostensibly natural/divine plan.

Yet, ironically, this very education, preparation, and experience as a child (and later teenage) preacher, are precisely what compel Jeanette to challenge and turn topsy-turvy the so-called natural plan. Even Jeanette's very willingness to fulfill the vocation chosen for her by her mother works to overturn those intentions. The church grants Jeanette power—and lots of it; she not only survives in the religious institution but positively flourishes. As Jeanette puts it: “If you want to talk in terms of power I had enough to keep Mussolini happy” (124). In the view of the church fathers, Jeanette's masculine access to the religious domain—the privilege to preach to the congregation and thereby influence its members—is what allows her to usurp masculine power in the sexual domain. According to their logic, at once perceptive and blind, Jeanette's “unnatural passions” stem, as Jeanette explains, from “allowing women power in the church. … [in taking] on a man's world in other ways I had flouted God's law and tried to do it sexually. … So there I was, my success in the pulpit being the reason for my downfall. The devil had attacked me at my weakest point: my inability to realise the limitations of my sex” (134). In this passage Winterson launches a sophisticated attack on the church and its masculine hegemony. Inevitably, the church must strip away Jeanette's power by rescinding masculine privilege, a punishment that will leave her defenseless and without resources or community.

Such an emphatically dogmatic education (maternal and ecclesiastical) provides, in a most surprising way, an unusual interpretive framework for Jeanette to negotiate the predicament of her own lesbianism, manifested by an intense love for Melanie. To Jeanette, her relationship with Melanie is unquestionably natural and right precisely because “everything in the natural world was a symbol of the Great Struggle between good and evil” (16, emphasis mine). Trapped in a binary schema that offers an extremely limited number of options rather than an array of subtle distinctions, Jeanette reaches what seems a sensible conclusion: if her love is not evil, it must be good. Jeanette experiences neither guilt nor self-doubt—let alone second thoughts. Her lovers attend her church, listen to her preach—they pray together before going home to make love. By embracing a credo (“To the pure all things are pure”) that assures her of the rightness of her love, she reconciles her private involvement with women and her public position in the church. She perceives no discrepancy, moral or otherwise, between her sexual preference (natural and essential) and the prescriptions of the church (cultural and social) because she believes, like Winterson, that love shouldn't be “gender-bound.” As Winterson herself explains, “It's probably one of the few things in life that rises above all those kinds of oppositions—black and white, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual” (Marvel, “Winterson,” 165). Winterson's claim on behalf of the transcendence of love—rendering whichever way one is born inconsequential—seems to sidestep neatly the question of whether such categories of oppositions are themselves natural or cultural. The claim undoes itself, however, for asserting that anything can “rise above” such oppositions is an act of cultural intervention, revealing those oppositions as cultural fictions; “constructs,” as theorist Judith Butler puts it, “socially instituted and socially regulated fantasies … not natural categories, but political ones (categories that prove that recourse to the ‘natural’ in such contexts is always political)” (Gender Trouble, 126). In Oranges, Jeanette may view her lesbianism as—essentially—natural (she was just born that way), but at the same time she recognizes that whoever holds the power to categorize can establish a claim for the label “natural.”

Jeanette's potential as a successful, full-fledged missionary is, quite obviously, jeopardized by her confusion about, and ultimate rejection of, the missionary position once she concludes at an early age that heterosexuality, distasteful and uninteresting, is made possible only through conspiracy and coercion. When Pastor Spratt announces to the entire congregation that Jeanette and her lover “have fallen under Satan's spell,” asking “Do you deny you love this woman with a love reserved for man and wife,” Jeanette answers “No, yes, I mean of course I love her” (105). The seemingly confused short response contains a good deal more than a simple denial or affirmation: Jeanette denies not her love for another woman, but the suggestion that it is a love “reserved for man and wife.” Thus she simultaneously refuses patriarchal insistence to read her relationship as a pale imitation of heterosexuality and affirms that it is something other than, perhaps even more. She may be misunderstood by the pastor, her mother, and others, but the misunderstanding is their flaw, their problem. However, because she is caught up in the binary logic of her mother's (and the church's) version of the natural order, Jeanette never fully comprehends the political threat embedded in her actions; she can challenge those who question her right to love Melanie, but she cannot break out of the binarism—she is, after all, her mother's daughter.

After Jeanette eventually comes to realize that there is no space for her in the church, she has a final confrontation with Pastor Spratt during which she reveals an innate confidence in the rightness of her passion for women and dismisses as arbitrary and unfounded the rejection of her choice according to God's law. When Spratt asks, “Have you no shame?” she replies “Not really” (157). Shame, Salman Rushdie writes, is “a short word, but one containing encyclopedias of nuance” (Shame, 39); one must recognize the cultural imperative before shame can operate effectively. Thus, for Jeanette (and Winterson), lesbianism cannot be regulated, contained, or controlled by heterosexual hegemony because the lesbian, in refusing to acknowledge its power, nullifies and renders it impotent. The simple transposition of the binary in Oranges (lesbianism = natural and therefore good; heterosexuality = unnatural, perhaps evil) paves the way for more complex strategies with which Winterson will neutralize heteropatriarchal authority and begin to map an alternative social order, one that positions the lesbian at the center.

In Winterson's view, the homosexual is not an imitation of a heterosexual; the lesbian is not an inferior version of a man. When Jeanette's mother, in referring to her daughter, mutters “with disgust,” “aping men,” the narrator responds “Now if I was aping men she'd have every reason to be disgusted. As far as I was concerned men were something you had around the place, not particularly interesting, but quite harmless. I had never shown the slightest feeling for them, and apart from my never wearing a skirt, saw nothing else in common between us” (127). Later, after two gay men enter the church holding hands and Jeanette's mother comments “Should have been a woman that one,” the narrator observes: “This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further away from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it” (128). Homosexuals, male or female, with sexual politics or without, are not simply and unproblematically one gender trapped in the wrong (opposite) body. But what they are, even if they are separate, remains unclear, unspecified, as yet to be explored.

The representation of the lesbian in Oranges seems politically radical in the subversive affirmation of lesbian sexuality against a repressive and suspect heterosexual regime. That Winterson recognizes the relationship between sexuality and power is evident in Jeanette's eventual understanding that the rejection of heterosexuality calls for a concomitant rejection of authority, especially in the church and family, the two institutions most responsible for upholding heterosexual hegemony. However, the continued reliance on the terms of heterosexuality—indeed, the lesbian's inability to exist without it—is troubling because the lesbian is still positioned within binary logic itself. When Jeanette challenges the church's authority to label her love for Melanie as “unnatural,” she shouts “To the pure all things are pure … It's you not us” (105). This social perception reveals that Jeanette is still her mother's daughter, absorbing, though modifying, the simple and restrictive binary terms (“you and us”) of the struggle.

Winterson clearly presents lesbianism as the only viable and intelligible alternative for Jeanette; yet, on a fundamental level, Winterson remains (albeit unwittingly) in the realm of parody, of imitation, in the unproblematic reversal of binary terms—a strategy that privileges the status of the lesbian over that of the heterosexual but doesn't facilitate an ongoing critique of compulsory heterosexuality or patriarchal control. Winterson's own representation of the lesbian, now homosexist/heterophobic, continues to operate within the same cultural—and binary—opposition: natural and unnatural. Such a position is similar to the dependence that Butler discerns in Monique Wittig. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Butler argues that “Wittig's radical disjunction between straight and gay replicates the kind of disjunctive binarism that she herself characterizes as the divisive philosophical gesture of the straight mind” (121). Butler asserts that “the radical disjunction posited by Wittig between heterosexuality and homosexuality is simply not true, that there are structures of psychic homosexuality within heterosexual relations, and structures of psychic heterosexuality within gay and lesbian sexuality and relationships” (121). While lesbianism, for Wittig, is “a full-scale refusal of heterosexuality,” Butler continues, “even that refusal constitutes an engagement and, ultimately, a radical dependence on the very terms that lesbianism purports to transcend” (124). Winterson's lesbian subject, though imbued with a voice and granted a threatening masculine power, still cannot transcend the condition of binarism, a predicament that interferes with the complete overthrow of heterosexual hegemony. In Oranges binaries are revealed at every turn, though never erased or eliminated. For the lesbian writer, the task, the political agenda if you will, is to displace and explode the binary.

Winterson's playful handling of the fruit metaphor, most frequently associated with female sexuality, holds the greatest promise in terms of displacing binarism in this early novel. Yet the orange (with a rough, thick, seemingly impenetrable exterior that contains a soft, delicately segmented inner fruit, at once sweet and tart) operates most simply as a metaphor for the self/world or self/other dichotomy (still other binaries, in other words), representing the separation between the inner and outer, unlike fruits with thin skins that allow easy access, such as apples or grapes. Fruit can also emblematize the disguise, deception, and disparity between the inner and outer: who would guess what hidden and juicy delights might be found inside a pineapple, for instance? It is only when the reader encounters the orange not in a natural state but as marmalade, a fruit conserve that calls for the slicing and combining of the outer and inner sections and for the removal of the seeds before cooking it, that the metaphor of fruit acquires more complexity. Marmalade embodies the orange's essence and, at the same time, no longer resembles an orange per se. Thus the opening epigraph, a literary device predictably announcing the theme to follow, collapses inner and outer. The epigraph, taken from Mrs. Beeton's cookbook, describes the process of making marmalade and states that “when thick rinds are used the top must be thoroughly skimmed, or a scum will form marring the final appearance.” The thick rinds, evoking as they do the image of a thick skin, bring with them the danger of “scum” rising to the surface: an image that can only be seen as a kind of self-contained morality tale. But as Jeanette herself admits, while gazing at some oranges in a moment of crisis, “They were pretty, but not much help. I was going to need more than an icon to get me through this one” (132). Winterson's use of the fruit metaphor is more, much more, than an icon; it is her first tentative mechanism for imagining the fruition of a postmodern lesbian existence—though Winterson's somewhat evasive answer to interviewer Helen Barr's question “Why fruit?” would seem to suggest otherwise. Winterson replied that she's motivated by the extraordinary tactile nature of the world, “The things we can see, touch, smell, taste and hear delight me. … This is the awe and wonder of the natural world, which, largely now, we just close our eyes to” (“Face to Face,” 32; emphasis mine). It is precisely the reproduction of that natural world—the scientific truth that from seeds comes new life—that Winterson's literary representations work to overturn and refute, in a word, to (re)conceive.

In The Passion (1987) Winterson shifts from the fruit metaphor to cross-dressing, a cultural performance that illustrates how perceptions of external “appearance” and internal “essence” interrelate in a problematic state of flux. Villanelle, the protagonist, dresses “as a woman in the afternoon and a young man in the evenings,” because “that's what the visitors liked to see. It was part of the game, trying to decide which sex was hidden behind the tight breeches and extravagant face-paste” (62, 54). Cross-dressing thus maneuvers the dresser into a position of power, not only the power of knowledge and the ability to control perception but also, and more important, the power and freedom to choose and to play with choice. For Villanelle, this choice takes the form of whether or not she should declare herself as a woman when she meets and falls in love with a masked woman (a disguise that only partially obscures identity, though highlights seductiveness) at a Venetian gaming table one evening. Venice, the city of disguises, is a postmodern city par excellence in its mutability and is thus the ideal domain for Villanelle, now accoutered with a moustache and a man's shirt to hide her breasts. As with fruit, cross-dressing emphasizes the demarcation between various possible essences (hidden, secretive, delicious, and juicy) and appearances (which may or may not be a true indication of what resides beneath the surface). While debating on whether or not to reveal that she is in fact a woman, Villanelle herself ponders how clothes are an unreliable and arbitrary source of information where sexuality is concerned: “What was myself? Was this breeches and boots self any less real than my garters?” (66). By raising this question, Winterson moves beyond the inner/outer trope to invest cross-dressing with what Butler claims for drag, namely, that it “fully subverts the distinction between inner and outer psychic space and effectively mocks both the expressive model of gender and the notion of a true gender identity” (Gender Trouble, 137).

For Villanelle, this gender mocking is doubly inscribed both in her choice of dress and in the fact that her body bears the marks of both sexes, at least as far as Venetian culture is concerned. Villanelle, though not a hermaphrodite, possesses the Venetian bodily equivalent through her webbed feet, a prerequisite for male gondoliers; “there never was a girl,” we learn, “whose feet were webbed in the entire history of the boatmen” (51). Just as Jeanette in Oranges usurps masculine power through her “success in the pulpit” (134), Villanelle enters the male domain because of a genetic inheritance. The oddity of webbed feet can remain hidden for years beneath boots, but there's no mistaking the implications: the search for clear-cut distinctions where gender is concerned is futile. In fact, the midwife who attempts to make a clear cut between the male and female is repelled each time she attempts to insert the knife between Villanelle's toes; the knife springs “from the skin leaving no mark” (52). Such cultural insertions, Winterson suggests, constitute a violation of nature—an apparent turnaround from Oranges. In the first novel cultural authority over a socially constructed nature is available for the taking (not “is a lesbian natural?” but “who is asking?”), whereas in The Passion it is the body or, more specifically, the double gender encoding of Villanelle's body that invites cultural confusion and unintelligibility (social [re]construction cannot alter a genetic identity). The relationship between nature and social construction is not a simple reversal from one novel to the next, though. What the reader discovers in the natural upset Winterson inscribes on Villanelle's female body (marking the masculine by the slightest tissue of skin strategically situated between the toes) or in Villanelle's probing interrogation of the “self” and the “real” is not a quest for a unified and coherent essentialized self but a consistent willingness to explore multiple and fragmented fictions of identity, that is, to engage in endless speculation. Ultimately, the essential question has far less to do with the nature of nature, for Winterson the novelist recognizes that, as Diana Fuss explains, “when [essentialism is] put into practice by the dispossessed themselves … [it] can be powerfully displacing and disruptive” (Essentially Speaking, 32).

In Sexing the Cherry Winterson launches her most successful incursion to overturn the “natural” and collapse such distinctions as nature/culture or inner/outer, for what is imagined is nothing less than a wholly new genesis of gender. The writer returns to the fruit metaphor by inserting a visual series of fruit icons at the head of individual sections to announce different narrators and by aligning each character with a fruit against conventional expectations. Thus for the passages set in Restoration London, a pineapple heralds the voice of Jordan and a banana icon precedes his mother, Dog-Woman. In the contemporary sections, the pineapple split into two halves signals the voice of Nicholas Jordan, while the banana, now peeled and sliced in two, alerts the reader to a woman unnamed. This alignment might strike some readers as odd in light of our cultural immersion in Freudian symbolism—pineapple/male (Jordan) and banana/female (Dog-Woman)—but the reversal is intentional and important for it gestures toward Winterson's continued exploration of the ideology of gender, one only hinted at in Winterson's reference to “shades of meanings” in Oranges and one that confuses and fuses cultural expectations of constructions of masculinity and femininity.

Envisioning a social order that would permit the breakdown of oppositions, Winterson, in a frame break, tells the story of a princess and her woman lover. This feminist revision of a fairy tale enables Winterson to call appearances into question and, through the disruption of normative gender relations, reveal them as artificial and arbitrary constructions. In a highly erotic description of lesbian desire, one princess confides:

I never wanted anyone but her. I wanted to run my finger from the cleft in her chin down the slope of her breasts and across the level plains of her stomach to where I knew she would be wet. I wanted to turn her over and ski the flats of my hands down the slope of her back. I wanted to pioneer the secret passage of her arse. … We kissed often, our mouths filling up with tongue and teeth and spit and blood when I bit her lower lip, and with my hands I held her against my hip bone. We made love often, especially in the afternoons with the blinds half pulled and the cold flag floor against our bodies. For eighteen years we lived alone in a windy castle and saw no one but each other.

(Sexing the Cherry, 54)

Eventually the hatred and fear of heterosexual society invade, but before the lover can be taken away to be burned, the princess herself “saves” her from the mob and kills her “with a single blow to the head” (54). What I find most fascinating about this passage is the wording of the confession upon discovery: “Then someone found us and then it was too late. The man I had married was a woman” (54, emphasis mine). This reference to marriage, that privileged heterosexual institution, is curious even if the two women seem to have successfully fabricated a different sort of marriage through their isolation from society. The fact that their union ultimately culminates in death and destruction suggests that Winterson, in examining one possible solution—the possibility of parody or imitation as an effective way to undermine normative gender ideology—argues against it.

Winterson reaches a similar conclusion, it would seem, with gender blurring. Early in the narrative we learn that Jordan, a foundling scooped out of the river Thames by the enormous Dog-Woman, occasionally assumes female garb; he explains: “I have met a number of people who, anxious to be free of the burdens of their gender, have dressed themselves men as women and women as men” (31). Since cross-dressing works here as a liberatory strategy that relieves the “burden” of gender, which registers now as a weight, Jordan gains power and control over his body and the way in which he is perceived in the social order. Such a strategy is exceedingly advantageous for it permits a plethora of insights hitherto unavailable. He notices, for instance, that “women have a private language. A language not dependent on the constructions of men but structured by signs and expressions, that uses ordinary words as code-words meaning something other. In my petticoats I was a traveller in a foreign country” (31). As Butler points out, and as Winterson is well aware, cross-dressing, as well as drag and butch/femme, can effectively parody the “notion of an original or primary gender identity” (Gender Trouble, 137). But Winterson also realizes that cross-dressing—cultural perversion as cultural subversion—is only a temporary strategy to facilitate a break from imposed restrictions; it cannot enact permanent authentic social change.

What sort of radical transformative political strategy might unleash a more profound and complete disruption that would collapse restrictive gender boundaries and force the reconceptualization of alternative constructions? The task for Winterson is to create in fiction what Butler argues is “the more insidious and effective strategy”; that is, “a thoroughgoing appropriation and redeployment of the categories of identity themselves, not merely to contest ‘sex,’ but to articulate the convergence of multiple sexual discourses at the site of ‘identity’ in order to render that category, in whatever form, permanently problematic” (Gender Trouble, 128). This is, I would argue, precisely what Winterson attempts to inscribe in Sexing the Cherry through the practice of grafting, a replication process “whereby a plant, perhaps tender or uncertain, is fused into a hardier member of its strain, and so the two take advantage of each other and produce a third kind, without seed or parent” (78). This astonishing procedure, though simple enough to explain and understand, incurs both the wrath of churchmen (who declare it, like homosexuality, “unnatural” [78]) and the frustration of Jordan's mother (who asserts that “such things” have “no gender” and are “a confusion to themselves” [79]). Despite the disapproving objections of the perplexed, Jordan himself solemnly proclaims, in a phrase with scriptural resonances: “But the cherry grew, and we have sexed it and it is female” (79). With this statement, Winterson imagines that gender is socially constructed and enforced rather than inherent and, above all, that the hybrid—a third sex, a fusion of diverse strains, without seed and the strongest—illuminates the ways in which the dominant culture opts out of creatively and freely exploring boundless gender options and instead becomes mired in weary boundaries and binaries. Cultural authority (manifested here in the wariness of church fathers), it would seem, is quite correct in its suspicions because hybridization inevitably poses a dangerous challenge to the comfortable dualisms (nature/culture, natural/artificial, female/male) upon which patriarchal hegemony—and the hybrid itself—is based. The transnatural practice of grafting does not circumvent, eliminate, or destroy the original (gendered) biological matter that produces a hybrid, and as a result the process that makes an “other” ultimately registers the inceptive binarism as excess, as redundancy. The hybrid presupposes a biological precursor (as opposed to spontaneous regeneration), but cultural (in this case, scientific) intervention bears the responsibility for the act of creation. By becoming “something else” in a complex interplay of independence from and dependence on its biological precursors, the hybrid denatures dominant oppositional paradigms that set one against the other and subsequently accommodates more options. The fact that Jordan—himself adopted (like Jeanette and Winterson herself) and thus in a sense created without seed—chooses to experiment on the cherry, an emblem of virginity and a euphemism for the hymen, anticipates a solution well beyond the fruit metaphor or the superficial “peel” of cross-dressing; it is a solution that anticipates a different order to supplant the old. By imagining nascency emerging from virginity created and sustained outside binaries, outside of the seed, Winterson nips the old order in the bud before it even begins; a liberatory displacement that brims with new gender configurations and enacts a plausible “convergence of multiple sexual discourses,” to borrow Butler's terms (Gender Trouble, 128).

Winterson recuperates the process of grafting, not as an artificial, scientific reproductive mechanism, but as sexual reproduction outside of (beyond) a heterosexual model and, in turn, spawning a third sex relatively free of binarisms. In effect, the introduction of the hybrid sets off a new chain of reproductive technologies whose progeny would further increase biological possibilities with each subsequent generation. The dizzying and chaotic recombinations generated by hybridization might seem an elusive and highly impractical solution on which to base an oppositional politics. After all, the notion of hybrid resonates with doing violence to “nature,” which results (as any dictionary definition will remind us) in the scientific equivalent of freaks, mongrels, half-breeds and cross-breeds. Yet the concept of hybridization posits, however improbable, an alternative starting-point, working with different terms and conditions. Grafting can hardly constitute a grand strategy for lesbian feminists to undermine repressive hegemonies—but it can call certain conceptual underpinnings into question and thereby break down restrictive parameters of the unimaginable. Butler characterizes her own study as an attempt “to locate the political in the very signifying practices that establish, regulate and deregulate identity”; such an endeavor, she continues, “can only be accomplished through the introduction of a set of questions that extend the very notion of the political” (Gender Trouble, 147). In blasting away apparent cultural certainties, Winterson's grafting strategy disables hierarchical dualities and posits what is inconceivable to “extend the very notion of the political.”

Winterson's project then, encapsulated in the act of grafting the cherry, envisions the contours and logic of a lesbian postmodern that collapses binarisms and creates a space not just for lesbians but for productive, dynamic, and fluid gender pluralities and sexual positionings. Such a project at the same time demonstrates clearly what lesbian theory and cultural practices might offer postmodernism. What Butler pioneers theoretically, Winterson enacts in her metafictional writing practices: a sexual politics of heterogeneity and a vision of hybridized gender constructions outside an either/or proposition, at once political and postmodern. Fiction, for Winterson, is the site to interrogate, trouble, subvert, and tamper with gender, identity, and sexuality; her fiction is a serious invitation to readers to imagine the emancipation of “normal” and “natural” from the exclusive and totalizing domain of patriarchal and heterosexual authority. The emergence of new paradigms throughout Winterson's work reverses, relativizes, and problematizes notions of normal and natural in order to “naturalize” cultural oddities, monstrosities, abnormalities, and conformities—from Jeanette's love of women, to Villanelle's masculine webbed feet, to Dog-Woman's enormous stature, or to Jordan's sartorial intuition and biological experimentation. The postmodern constructions of such innovative paradigms mobilize and animate a feminist political strategy of resistance, forcing and enforcing new mappings of the social and cultural order through feminist revision, reconsideration, and reconceptualization. Transformative feminist agendas, such a reading of Winterson's inventive literary representation suggests, need not be at odds with postmodernism. To be sure, the art of grafting—and the recombinations it engenders—is fraught with dangers precisely because it is threatening and profoundly destabilizing, just as the “intellectual and political incoherency of relativism” challenges “the feminist critique of patriarchy” (Felski, “Feminism,” 36). But lesbian feminists must “sex” the postmodern, explore its powerful, unsettling, and rich multiplicity of potentialities, expand the political, and blur the repressive regime of heterosexual hegemony. Because lesbian feminist writers like Jeanette Winterson are already working in the postmodern realm, and because a lesbian postmodern is already shattering hierarchies and binaries, lesbian feminist critics and theorists have everything to gain from acknowledging the potential of a political postmodern.

Works Cited

Barr, Helen. “Face to Face: A Conversation between Jeanette Winterson and Helen Barr.” English Review 2 (1991): 30–33.

Brown, Rosellen. “Fertile Imagination.” Women's Review of Books 7 (1990): 9–10.

Brown, Wendy. “Feminist Hesitations, Postmodern Exposure.” differences 3(1) (1991): 63–84.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Di Stefano, Christine. “Dilemmas of Difference: Feminism, Modernity, and Postmodernism.” In Linda J. Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism, pp. 63–82. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Felski, Rita. “Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Critique of Modernity.” Cultural Critique 13 (1989): 33–56.

Fuss, Diana. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Gerrard, Nicci. “The Prophet.” New Statesman and Society (September 1, 1989): 13.

Gorra, Michael. “Gender Games in Restoration London.” New York Times Book Review (April 29, 1990): 24.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Marvel, Mark. “Winterson: Trust Me. I'm Telling You Stories.” Interview 20 (1990): 165–68.

Rushdie, Salman. Shame. London: Picador, 1984.

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Pandora, 1988.

———. The Passion. London: Penguin, 1988.

———. Sexing the Cherry. London: Vintage, 1990.

Michelle Field (essay date 20 March 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1968

SOURCE: Field, Michelle. “Jeanette Winterson: ‘I Fear Insincerity.’” Publishers Weekly 242, no. 12 (20 March 1995): 38–39.

[In the following essay, Field provides an overview of Winterson's life and literary career, incorporating Winterson's comments on her writings and artistic concerns.]

Opinion is sharply divided about Jeanette Winterson, far more than any other British writer. She has been subject to so many misleading caricatures that one does not expect her to have all the childlike charm of a Joan of Arc—though one is prepared to withstand another likeness to St. Joan: her forceful belief in herself.

Because Winterson gives few interviews, many profiles of her are written entirely on rumor. Winterson says that because she lives in a world of half-true stories about her, she has become a master of half-truths herself. “People make up so many things about me that I don't think they should have it all their own way. Two can play that game. Now I make up things when I talk to journalists.” PW confesses that it makes us very nervous, and she laughs. “I don't think that's a bad thing—that the press feels nervous.”

In fact, what really makes one nervous is Winterson's virtuosity. She is wildly overqualified for the British bestseller lists where she sits so securely; her new novel, Art & Lies, is just out from Knopf in the U.S. Perhaps some of the antipathy to Winterson exists because most journalists feel intellectually outranked by her. It may also be because she feels the same way, and she reminds you of your ranking.

Winterson feels that modesty is an overrated virtue and refuses to play down her success. Curled like a brown mouse in an armchair in the London office of Random House, Winterson says what she finds surprising is that “some readers … feel as violently affectionate [toward me] as others feel violently angry. I suppose it is better than a lukewarm response. However I think focusing on the writer is pointless, even unhelpful. I will die and the books, if they have any value, will last.”

Winterson's fan club began just 10 years ago, with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a novel which struck a chord with young women trying to liberate themselves from oppressive parents and small-minded towns. The book was written after Winterson applied for an editorial job with the then-new feminist publishing house, Pandora. “It was quite clear they weren't going to give me a job,” Winterson says. Publisher Philippa Brewster “said I was too wild; she knew I'd leave after six months. We laughed, and I was telling her stories—apocryphal stories and true stories—and I told her I was putting them together in this book. She said, ‘If you can write it the way you tell it, I'll buy it.’ Six weeks later, having written like mad, I slammed her half a book.” A few years later, Pandora was bought by HarperCollins, and Winterson, who strongly objects to Rupert Murdoch, ceased publishing there.


As a writer, Winterson had not published in little magazines or reviewed other people's books. After a childhood in a Pentecostal family in a Lancashire mill town (she was adopted and has never traced her genetic parents) and what she calls a “liberation” at Oxford University (1978–1981), Winterson just walked onto the bestseller list as though it were the next room.

Oranges (1985) became an excellent TV miniseries in 1990 and now sells over 100,000 copies a year in the U.K.; sales of the Grove paperback edition continue to grow steadily here and it is increasingly being used in English courses, according to publisher Morgan Entrekin; there are eight foreign-language translations. It was followed by the only book Winterson does not boast about, Boating for Beginners (1986), and then by The Passion (1987), the novel which Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon, cites as a modern classic. It is a chilly fairy tale about chivalry, featuring a page of the Emperor Napoleon, who loves a web-looted lesbian called Villanelle. “I have noticed,” Winterson laughs, “that many middle-aged and elderly men adore The Passion. But I think The Passion, like Wuthering Heights, shouldn't be the favorite book of anyone past 30.”

Her next books were Sexing the Cherry (1989) and Written on the Body (1992). The latter was notorious for “outing” the affair she had with her literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, who is the wife of the novelist Julian Barnes, and it was at that point, says Winterson, that the London literary scene became hostile. Her new novel, Art and Lies, a sequence of monologues by characters named Handel, Picasso and Sappho, takes place in the year 2000.

All these books were handled by her agent, Suzanne Gluck of ICM in New York. (When she discovered Oranges, Gluck was so new to agenting that Winterson was her first client.) Gluck sold Oranges to Gary Fisketjon, then at Atlantic Monthly Press; when Fisketjon moved to Knopf in 1990, Winterson moved with him. Winterson says that Gluck and Fisketjon are the two fixed poles in her writing life.

In Britain, Winterson naturally fell out with Kavanagh after Written on the Body appeared, and then she set up her own corporation called Great Moments. “I don't like to leave my affairs to somebody else. It may have something to do with being a working-class girl. I grew up with people who were making their own money, putting their bread on the table.” Great Moments uses ICM as the American subagent.

One need not be skeptical about this approach, since Winterson is a wizard at contract law. “I would have gone into the law if I hadn't been a writer. I go through everything, and I use an intellectual property lawyer in London who is very sharp. I am particularly proud of my contracts. There is a confidentiality clause in all of them because the publishers are scared that somebody else might demand contracts like mine. Publishing is not a gentleman's game anymore, and it worries me that so many writers are using agents who are not legally trained and who draw up contracts which are simple-minded, to put it politely.”


Ten years of writing a novel every alternate year has made Winterson rich enough to buy a romantic estate in Gloustershire [sic]. She lives there with her partner of five years, Australian-born Margaret Reynolds, who teaches at Birmingham University and has edited the Penguin Book of Lesbian Short Stories.

Before they moved from London at the end of last year, Winterson had set a pattern of retreating to the cottage on Ruth Rendell's country estate for two or three months at a time, to write. It seems a strange literary partnership because their fiction is so dissimilar. “Yes, but we're very fierce about one another. And Ruth takes a few knocks as well; so we can talk about this side of our lives.

“I don't have very many friends, mind you—I don't think you can be a good friend to many people because to a friend you must say ‘all my time is yours.’ Apart from Ruth, my only writer friend is Kathy Acker. People say I live in this very closed, cut-off way, but I think it is the only genuine way. I fear insincerity and I want to know that my word is good when I give it.”

Obviously, words are important to Winterson, none more so than the words she chooses and shapes into a text. Her reflections on the craft of writing are soon to be published in the U.K. in her first nonfiction book, Art Objects. And she is feeling a rush of inspiration which has already put a new and very different novel in gestation. “I believe that as soon as you can do something you have to give up doing it. So you are always tying a different limb behind your back.”

Some would say that her greatest accomplishment as a writer has been fitting music to prose style. Art and Lies ends with several pages of musical score from Der Rosenkavalier. “I don't listen to music while I write—but around it, yes. Obviously, throughout Art and Lies I was playing Der Rosenkavalier. I grew up in a very musical household. My mother was an extremely good pianist, and I was taught to read music when I was young, as if it were another, very important language.”

Winterson was also brought up on the sonorous language of the King James Bible and the cadences of northern English speech. When she relaxes she still speaks with a Lancashire lilt. She is acutely conscious of prose rhythms. “If a sentence jars on my ear, I count it out syllabically and can see what's wrong. As I am typing away I am reading it out loud to myself as I go along. Sometimes you can cheat the eye with skimming, but you can't cheat the ear.”

She does not use a word processor but types on a bank of electric typewriters. “I have four and it is rather like a Rolling Stones concert by the time I have finished a novel because I've smashed them up. Not on purpose: I have just knackered the machine. I am paranoid about one going bust, but with a bank of them I can move from one to another as they start whining and complaining.”

Winterson makes a distinction between her novels and the kind of fiction which has been taken over by film and TV. “I am interested in finding a relationship between poetic density and narrative possibility—to bring them together and create something which is different. If the novel is going to survive, it will not be as an annex to television or the movies. It has to be something in its own right.”

She has written just one original film, Great Moments in Aviation, which has been released in France, Germany and Spain, but remarks that film is a medium that continues to interest her. “The problem is maintaining one's integrity within the industry, because the sums of money are so huge. This I find hard to bear: I won't compromise for the checkbook.” She has refused all offers to make films of her novels, apart from Oranges, over which she had complete control.

Her lesbianism was a great drawing card 10 years ago, when she published Oranges, but it seems less relevant now. “Reviewers miss the fact that the base of my audience is very, very broad. The letters which I get, which are many, are from unlikely sources—not very often from little London dykes. Or even little San Francisco dykes. They are from a much broader cross section of the community.”

Some critics say that what makes Winterson's fiction so wayward—or so highly original—is her reclusiveness, which amounts to a disdain for ordinary people and casual conversation. She cut herself off entirely from her parents when she left home for Oxford, declining even to attend her mother's funeral five years ago. She has made a principle of detachment. “What I have tried to do is make my words independent, separate spaces. Reading my books is not about escape but about locating yourself as more than you are.”

Beginning with Sexing the Cherry, Winterson has unshackled herself from plots in order to emulate mythic patterns. “I think you must get more and more and more ambitious. Writers do run out; with hindsight we know that ‘writing lives’ are concentrated in a relatively short span, and it doesn't matter to me whether mine ends next year or in 20 years.” She assures us she will recognize the moment. “And I will be glad because then I'll have done my work in the world. Then perhaps I'll retire and breed bulls, like Shakespeare, who, after all, wrote nothing for 12 years after he finished The Tempest.

Rikki Ducornet (review date 23 April 1995)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978

SOURCE: Ducornet, Rikki. “Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 April 1995): 1, 9.

[In the following negative review, Ducornet criticizes Art and Lies, faulting the novel's “excess and pedantry.”]

Art and Lies opens with light, a generative thread that precipitates the sprawling world of matter: A train, wheels, overcoats, windows, brooches and a man. Homeless, loveless, self-hating, remorseful—he is a shadowman too self-absorbed to notice the light that burns his clothes and illuminates his face, the light pouring down his shoulders with biblical zeal. And the book opens with a ringing bell that over time will transform to a diving bell or sounding bell—as we enter a deep water in which the soul of man is to be revealed, tested and saved: “It's not too late.”

Winterson's take on genesis, an act of necromancy, of aesthetic will, opens what promises to be a lovely, astonishing novel of ideas, somewhat in the manner of Angela Carter's extraordinary The War of Dreams—a book, or so it seems, that has animated this one. Both novels, Winterson's and Carter's, propose a parallel planet truffled with mutable nightmare cities: ceremonial, political, invisible (Calvino continues to inspirit Winterson too), lethal, erotic and so on. Both authors propose slices of life (as well as bodies; Winterson's primary narrator, Handel, is a surgeon. Breasts tumble from his knife like apples) or cinematic collage, a light show that reveals the cruelty and sweetness of things; above all the ungraspable nature of a universe in which objects and people are arbitrarily named and language reduced to Babel: “This is what she wanted; to shift the seeming solid world, to hang over it as the noon hangs over it, casting it according to the hour.” A world “unmoored from its proper harbour.”

If the world is a boat, a play of light and water, it is also a book that asks the essential question: “How do I live?” (Or, in other words: How do I love?) Winterson promises a book of glass, a window on the world, a revelatory medium: This book is a plate of glass—a metaphor that brings to mind the cabalistic window of colored glass that engenders the veil-dance of illusion: “… the light snags in rough cut stones …” Next she gives us a very palpable book “glazed yellow by time” that contains the promise of mysteries and keys: a map, a number, an unopened letter. Like the letter it contains, the book has not been fully cut, bringing once again the cabala to mind and the idea that an unexamined dream is like an unopened letter. This mystical carrot is wagged more energetically when Borges' library of Babel is conjured:

To begin with, the shelves had been built around wide channels that easily allowed for a ladder, but, as the library expanded, the shelves contracted, until the ladders themselves splintered under the pressure of so much knowledge. Their rungs were driven into the sides of the shelves with such ferocity that all the end-books were speared in place for nine hundred years.

What was to be done? There were scribes and scholars, philosophers and kings, travelers and potentates, none of whom could now take down a book beyond the twentieth shelf. It soon became true that the only books of any interest were to be found above shelf twenty-one.

Evoking Calvino next: “The boys built themselves eyries among the books.” Quoting Pliny, tipping her hat to 18th-Century erotica and dipping in and out of the Bible too, literary nodes and manners begin to pile up like plunder—“The book did not pause but continued its unsigned journey before and back”—and a book that has opened with motion and light and a clear ringing becomes within a few pages gravity bound with the author's good intentions—one must always be wary of good intentions. Just as do children, books suffer from pedantry, and Art and Lies, wanting to cover all the issues of our age, from ecological devastation, rampant corruption, dysfunctional families, homophobia, abortion, incest and more begins to preach. So that although the book's structure is mutable and porous, it manages to be both opaque and tedious, and this from a writer of great capacity whose custom it is to juggle with fire.

Art and Lies keeps to a peculiar territory somewhere between platitude and flashiness. Far too often it tells us things we know, dressed in mannered—even fusty—clothes, not the cosmic drag one might hope for. (Think of Carter's acrobats of desire. Severo Sarduy's transvestite universe of Cobra, pervious and buoyant.) When it is not inflated, the writing is often frivolous and strident, so that the cast of characters, if ruled by the moon, offer an uninspired lunacy: They are made to stand on soapboxes vaporing.

A curious paradox is therefore sustained throughout Art and Lies, and clearly unintentionally. In the name of liberty and fearless experiment, the novel is straitjacketed by Issues that Matter—when it is not pushed over the top into silliness. I am thinking here of an impossibly foolish moment when, with his tongue, our surgeon-narrator precipitates a baby and an orgasm simultaneously.

Italo Calvino has argued that the book reveals its moral territory as it is written. In other words, books have a habit of informing the author what they are about, not the other way around. Says Calvino in “The Uses of Literature”: “Literature is not a school.”

In a rare moment near the end of Art and Lies (“There's no such thing as autobiography, there's only art and lies!”), Winterson retrieves the golden thread of her book's beginning, that thread of light “speeding”; “the word spinning a thread through time.” How I wish that this thread reverberated throughout, forming a network of associations, assuring a journey inspirited by the author's passionate heart and agile imagination, blessedly unencumbered by excess and pedantry.

Kelleher Jewett (review date 12 February 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1192

SOURCE: Jewett, Kelleher. “A Room of One's Own Books.” Nation 262, no. 6 (12 February 1996): 30–31.

[In the following mixed review, Jewett discusses the autobiographical qualities of Art Objects.]

Jeanette Winterson has attracted more than her share of media attention, less for her five novels than for her working-class childhood in a Lancashire mill town and her years as one of England's hottest young writers and London's most celebrated literary lesbian. Winterson seems to have decided the time has come to give the public what it wants: her autobiography, complete with details about her lineage and her love affairs. This autobiography comes not as “fiction masquerading as a memoir” (as she describes her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) but in ten essays on art, love, connection, language and literature.

Art Objects doesn't look like autobiography, to be sure, but that is part of the game. Winterson is like a magician who tells you exactly where to look while she performs her trick; if you pay attention, you'll see precisely what she's doing and enjoy it that much more. For Winterson the best autobiography is a “Trojan Horse” that allows the writer “to smuggle into [readers'] homes what they would normally kill at the gate.” She delights in the final paragraph of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and reveals her own intentions when she cites it: “About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do? I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.” Just as Stein and Woolf made fiction out of memoir, so Winterson wants to make the critical essay into autobiography. Like Stein, she waits until the end to explain herself, but if you read these essays closely, you won't be surprised by the opening of the last of them: “To talk about my own work is difficult. If I must talk about it at all I would rather come at it sideways, through the work of writers I admire, through broader ideas about poetry and fiction and their place in the world.” Because her “whole self is bound up in [her] work with words,” when Winterson writes about writing, she tells the reader the real story of her life; in these essays she shows us where she came from, what she believes, what she loves. The essays are always about her, about what makes her write and why she writes how and what she does. The title of the most explicitly autobiographical of the essays, “Art & Life,” seems redundant.

Winterson is in love with books. The woman who grew up in a house where reading anything other than the Bible or the Army and Navy Stores catalogue was suspect now buys first editions with money she makes from her own books. First editions connect her to the people who wrote them and to the writing that has shaped hers. In the most engaging essay in Art Objects she describes some of her treasures: a copy of the Autobiography signed by both Gertrude and Alice. Signed copies of “Ash Wednesday” and A Room of One's Own. A volume of Roger Fry's woodcuts, printed by the Woolfs and hand-stitched by Virginia. A copy of Lawrence's Pansies, found in an out-of-the-way bookshop and kept because she can't decide which Lawrence would dislike more: “to have mouldered so respectably in genteel Bath, or to have been rescued, cheap, by one of those ego-bound women” (i.e., lesbians) for whom he had such contempt. These are a writer's family heirlooms. This “living library” connects Winterson to her true “lineage”: the Modernist writers who transformed English and American literature in the first decades of the twentieth century.

In love with books and consumed by language. If you've read the novels, you know Winterson's writing resonates with the cadences and language of the Bible, the fruits of that evangelical childhood that left her body “tattooed with Bible stories”; but her ideas about art and language are straight out of the twentieth century, courtesy of the Imagists, of Pound and Eliot, Stein and Woolf. The spirit of Eliot presides over this collection; her ideas about “lineage” grow out of his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and echoes of his poetry flash through her prose like the sound of laughter in the apple tree. Modernism was a “poet's revolution,” and, like the Modernists, Winterson rejects the distinction between poetry and the novel. Everything they valued—“imagination, invention, density of language, wit, intensity, great delicacy … play, pose and experiment”—can be found in her novels. Readers and critics who reject Modernist writing because it is too difficult, obscure or dry will be surprised by Winterson's arguments here. Art for her is a matter of love, ecstasy and rapture, and it is the intensity of feeling in the writing of Eliot and Woolf that moves her most. Anyone curious about Winterson as lover should read her on Woolf. Two of the ten essays are devoted to Woolf, and she dismisses critics who are more interested in analyzing the writer than reading the work. Writing about Orlando and The Waves, Winterson celebrates the terrifying “nearness” of Woolf's prose, reveling in the exactitude that allowed Woolf to find “a language for shells, bones and silence.”

Winterson sees herself as the fulfillment of Woolf's vision in A Room of One's Own, of the rebirth of “the dead poet who was Shakespeare's sister”: “Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born.” “That is where I am in history,” concludes Winterson. You certainly can't accuse her of false modesty. She aligns herself with some of the heaviest hitters of this century, and sets out to boldly go where no one has gone before: “I do not write novels. The novel form is finished.” (The statement makes me think of politicians who get elected to public office by promising they will do away with government and make themselves obsolete.)

You don't have to prepare for a world without novels to get along with these essays. You will have to put up with a certain amount of lecturing; Winterson can sound like a teacher telling eighth graders why they shouldn't listen to rock music while doing their homework. It's odd that someone whose novels can be so much fun to read (Oranges makes me laugh out loud, and I've had people sidle away from me on the bus as though I were a crazy person about to start singing or screaming) can make reading sound like such a chore. Art Objects is not always easy or pleasurable, but just when you grow weary of hearing her tell you what language is supposed to do, she just does it: “Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield.”

Merle Rubin (review date 26 February 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “The True Nature of Art and the Audience It Needs.” Christian Science Monitor (26 February 1996): 17.

[In the following positive review, Rubin evaluates the strengths of Art Objects.]

At a time when so many voices have been raised to proclaim or lament the impending death of art in a world that seems increasingly hostile—or at best indifferent—to its power, Jeanette Winterson's Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery is a resounding declaration of faith in the living spirit of what Shelley called “Poetry” (meaning all of the creative arts).

In these 10 essays, Winterson, the author of five ambitious novels, follows in the path of Shelley's “Defence of Poetry” by offering her own eloquent and timely vindication of art in an age of trivialization. Her argument is based on the premise that art is autonomous, offering what can be found nowhere else, and certainly not to be confused with leisure-time diversion, therapeutic self-expression, or politically correct sermonizing.

Convinced that art offers “a separate reality,” Winterson deplores the kind of writing that is little more than poorly disguised autobiography: “The bad writer believes that sincerity of feeling will be enough, and pins her faith on the power of experience. The true writer knows that feeling must give way to form. It is through the form … that the most powerful emotions are let loose over the greatest number of people. Art must resist autobiography if it hopes to cross boundaries of class, culture … and … sexuality.”

Winterson sees no artistic value in the current tendency to view art as a means of expressing, addressing, or empowering a particular community. “Literature is not a lecture delivered to a special interest group, it is a force that unites its audience,” she declares.

She also mistrusts the current appetite for literary biography at the expense of literature. The artists' greatest gifts, Winterson reminds us, are their works of art, not the details of the lives they happened to lead. Read Hamlet, she would urge us, and not a biography of Shakespeare: The one is a fully achieved distillation of an exceptional imagination; the other is not.

These essays show a keen awareness of living in an age of exploitation, where our very dreams are invaded by the cheap “shadows … of real music, real paintings, real words” served up as jingles and images of the commercial media. “This bombardment … deadens our sensibilities and makes us fear what is not instant, approachable, consumable,” she warns. Real art takes effort—on the part of both creator and audience.

Illustrating her argument with vivid portraits of art's power, Winterson opens with a memorable anecdote about her own experience of strolling by a gallery that contained “a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on.” By taking the time and making the effort to truly see a painting, she discovers a new world—just as she did years before as a child sneaking home forbidden library books to read by flashlight.

One needn't share all of Winterson's literary preferences—her high regard for T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, her lower opinion of George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Anita Brookner—to appreciate the passion of her argument. She has a gift for reformulating what used to be called “eternal verities” in terms that are contemporary yet classic: “We value sensitive machines. We spend billions … to make them more sensitive,” she laments. “We don't value sensitive human beings and we spend no money on their priority.”

Are we, indeed, facing a future in which “machines become more delicate and human beings coarser?” Winterson believes we can find salvation in art: a form of rapture founded on complexity of perception and precision of expression. Neither a status symbol for snobs nor sensationalist fodder for the masses, real art is at once elitist and democratic: elitist in demanding great effort from artist and audience; democratic in being available to anyone willing to take the time and trouble to experience it.

Victoria Redel (review date 31 March 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294

SOURCE: Redel, Victoria. “We Want to Be Moved.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 March 1996): 11.

[In the following review, Redel highlights the main themes of Art Objects.]

It was a sign of lonely maturation for me as a reader when I came to understand that the writers I most loved, whose poems or stories I read talismanically over and over, whose language helped me construct the truths by which I lived, were often people I would not want to spend five minutes chatting with, let alone engaging in any conversation of social or personal substance.

First this made me sad.

Then it made me brazen.

I had learned that I could love the work and not the writer, I could love her language but not her life or, even, her ideas. I could love the triumph of one writer's book and the difficult failures of his next book. In essence, I had learned not just to read but to be a reader.

But, despite my maturation, wasn't there in me still a desire to feel cozy, to feel camaraderie with a writer whose work I admired?

And I have admired the work of Jeanette Winterson. The Passion, her second novel, is a terrific book. It is a book of remarkable invention and mystery, a book of surprising and gorgeous language. Her other books are less great, fall apart more quickly, adore themselves a bit too much. And yet, I don't care. I don't care that Written on the Body flattens out at what should be the height of its thrill. I don't care that Winterson preaches too much and sometimes too obviously and seems to think herself better than everyone else on the block. I know that whatever the disappointments of one book, I will read her next book. Why this exhibition of patience? Because Winterson is trying hard, as few writers I read today do, to invent herself authentically with mind and heart on the page.

So it was with excitement and fear that I dove into Winterson's first book of essays, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. The book approaches many of the themes that Winterson has been exploring in her novels and ultimately does so more successfully than she has in her most recent fiction. Art Objects is a book to be admired for its effort to speak exorbitantly, urgently and sometimes beautifully about art and about our individual and collective need for serious art. It can absolutely be argued (no doubt it will) that the book is all one note; however, the note is a vital and important one.

The essays in the collection are closely connected, taking as their linked concern the need for us to need art. And, Winterson fiercely points out, not the development of a consumer's taste for art of the past with its “cozy patina of tradition,” but a willingness for us to need the difficult, the bafflingly new that does not necessarily “convince ourselves about ourselves.”

In the title essay “Art Objects,” Winterson asks, “When was the last time you looked at anything solely and concentratedly, and for its own sake? Ordinary life passes in a near blur.” By turns, these essays argue, reason, implore, invite, beg, demand and cajole the public into slowing down, looking, learning to look, being willing to be uncomfortable with something that initially feels raw or rough or even bad. There is a payoff, Winterson claims, for our willingness to work hard. It is a major payoff and not one that easy, fast-food art can yield. It is nothing less than the sublime that Winterson claims true art can give us in the face of our daily insignificance.

It is Winterson's argument that all of us—despite our fear of reckoning with a painting or novel that is different and difficult and inventive—are really desirous of the experience of being moved deeply. Yet Winterson certainly knows how few people want to stick around and struggle with a novel when there is the faster thrill of television. While Winterson yells at her readers to do their reading, she maintains that great art—even if mostly unread—“puts down its roots in the deepest hiding places of our nature and that its action is akin to the action of certain delving plants, comfrey for instance, whose roots can penetrate far into the subsoil and unlock nutrients that would otherwise lie out of reach of shallower bedded plants.”

Art Objects is important not only as a plea to the public to read serious literature and to read it seriously, but it is a terrific book of instruction about writing. I am not speaking of instruction of the writing exercise variety, but a book that teaches that a “writer will have to make her words into a true equivalent of her heart.” Winterson has much that is useful to say about syntax and style, but most particularly about language, which she claims should be like Virginia Woolf's words—“cells of energy.”

The book is, in fact, jampacked with enough good lines to fill the notebooks of people wanting to write. This for example: “It seems to me the intersection between a writer's life and a writer's work is irrelevant to the reader. … The question put to the writer. ‘How much of this is based on your own experience?’ is meaningless. All or nothing may be the answer. The fiction, the poem, is not a version of the facts, it is an entirely different way of seeing.”

This way of seeing is a central concern in the book, and Winterson is at her best as she takes on the question of art as an imitation of life—particularly the public's urge to read everything on the page as fact, as autobiography, as a mirror of the writer's life. She looks at Wordsworth, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and herself as four writers whose work is often read as biographical truth when, Winterson claims, all four are up to a very different—and more significant—adventure. Winterson is terrific in these sections, showing how “a writer is a raider and whatever has been made possible in the past must be gathered up by her, melted down and reformed.” Of Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Winterson comments, “She made no attempt to clothe herself in a thin veil of fiction, she became the fiction.” In contrast, Winterson adamantly wants to separate the art object from the biographical facts of the artist.

It is the reforming of everyday facts into language, that makes, according to Winterson, the ecstasy of art. This notion is applied across the board for Winterson (no exceptions made for sexual orientation or social difference). No one gets to call their social complaint art unless they take the dangerous road of making art. This is not a popular belief. It will score Winterson no brownie points with any side of the social agenda when she reprimands readers and reviewers for looking at work too entirely as documentary—sociological or otherwise.

Art for Winterson lives in another realm, it lives in “the language of rapture.” Anyone who dares to glory in what the sculptor Richard Serra calls the important “uselessness” of art can easily be pegged as reactionary. I think this is too reductive, too facile and, most important, a wrong way to read Winterson. To situate, as she does, the merit of art into its position as visionary makes me love Winterson and makes me continue to want to go with her onward through her next success or interesting failure. At the end of The Passion, Winterson says, “I'm telling you stories. Trust me.”

Whatever her antics, whatever her social behavior and misbehavior, this is a writer whose words I trust.

Christy L. Burns (essay date summer 1996)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11087

SOURCE: Burns, Christy L. “Fantastic Language: Jeanette Winterson's Recovery of the Postmodern World.” Contemporary Literature 37, no. 2 (summer 1996): 278–306.

[In the following essay, Burns examines Winterson's effort to revitalize postmodern language and social imagination through the use of fantasy, metafictional disruptions, and eroticized prose that link sexual desire and passion to the power of words.]

Jeanette Winterson's novels have always been fantastic, toying with the conventions of fantasy and stretching the limits of the short verbal refrain. Not until recently, however, have her use of fantasy and her liturgical style been explicitly fused into a kind of fantastic language. In Art and Lies, Winterson adopts the voice of Sappho to articulate her concern for the flattened state of language: “Delicate words exhausted through overuse. Bawdy words made temperate by repetition. Enchanting and enchanted words wand broken. … That is the legacy of the dead” (65). Winterson not only attempts to recover the words of the dead—as the history of literature brought into the present—but more importantly she works to overcome the “death” of language. Fantasy is no longer a vision that fills up the imagination; it is the inspiration that arises in and through the sensuous and erotic aspects of language.

In a review of The Passion in 1988, David Lodge adeptly fingered a key element of Winterson's distinction—her return to a Romantic poetics. As Lodge notes, the Romantic tradition “deals with the unfamiliar, transgresses known limits, and transports the reader into new imaginative territory. There is a certain stylistic price to be paid for this adventurousness, and a certain danger to be faced” (26). Writers who indulge in the risks of imagination may doubtless also press their language to fantastic limits; Winterson's style often teeters on the verge of excess, and, as Lodge warned, her lack of self-irony can sometimes be mistaken for bathos and pretension. Indeed, quite recently her own blithe comment that she liked one of her own books best has triggered a backlash against the audacity of her strong, assertive prose, so that reviews of her latest novel, Art and Lies, find Winterson “either too clever or too perverse for words” (Pritchard) and “debased by self-worship” (Kemp) and suggest that she gives off “a vapour of self-promotion” (Wood). Having taken her risks, Winterson is now purportedly “writing for a fall” (Kemp). There is, however, a certain gender-encoded chastisement (where is that decorous tone expected of the progeny of self-abased Virginia Woolf?), strengthened by the occasional antifeminist, or even antilesbian, sideswipe. William Pritchard claims that in all of Winterson's books “there is a general contempt for hearth and home, the family, for ‘our broken society’ and especially for men,” while Peter Kemp accuses her of a “propensity for scrawling the graffiti of gender-spite across her pages.” James Wood, however, resists making such gestures, turning instead to consider Winterson's language experiments. Winterson's verbal refrains operate much like her Romantic use of fantasy, so that repeated phrases work like musical motifs, associatively accruing different levels of meaning across the text. Thus gambling is not merely a card game in The Passion, but also a metaphor for how one deals with the chanciness of love and desire. In Art and Lies, likewise, love is discussed in a parallel to language and cultural forms of relating. Wood, however, interprets this accretive process as a dulling return to sameness, finding only “identical mounds” of meaning and complaining that her language “appears to want to please itself—‘not words for things, but words that are living things.’” Indeed. Winterson's sensate and erotic words are both pleasurably self-directed but always and only at the moment of being spoken (or read). For Sappho, speaking another's words is sex, and the pleasure is always wrought in and through the exchange. It is through an emphasis on pleasure that Winterson revitalizes postmodern language, so that words are living things—it is only a link Wood fails to observe, much as Winterson's other critics lose sight of her broader interest in the relations between literature and society.

Long before Winterson published Art and Lies, her extraordinary interest in revitalizing “dead” postmodern language and refurbishing an exhausted culture's imagination stood out as characteristic of her prose. Those punchy short sentences, those flights of fancy taken off from characters speaking in the most practical of tones, received high praise from a number of critics.1 Winterson garnered international attention for her pithy wit and punctuated style in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, winning the 1985 Whitbread Award for best first novel and being invited to write a script for the BBC production. During the intervening ten years, Winterson has brought out five other short novels: Boating for Beginners,The Passion,Sexing the Cherry,Written on the Body, and Art and Lies.2 The first three of these novels playfully invert social expectations for women, linking the present to some fantastically reconstructed moment in the past (the time of Noah and the ark, Napoleonic France, seventeenth-century England). With Written on the Body, however, Winterson's humor, which initially charmed many of her more mainstream readers, was transmuted into eroticism. It is through this eroticism (language that “appears to want to please itself”) that Winterson works to revitalize postmodern language. In Written on the Body, she heightens her readers' awareness of the “body” of the word—its sensate properties—through repetition of sounds and an elaborate incorporation of rhythm. Winterson heightens language's tonally metonymic effects (puns, rhythm, lyricism) while shifting desire away from the referential form of metonymic displacement encouraged in advertising and the media. She has likewise moved more directly into discourses on love and passion and their relation to art. With the publication of Art and Lies, however, Winterson makes an explicit turn toward more direct reflection on the use of art for social reconstruction. This directness has been misunderstood as Winterson's self-celebration, whereas in fact it is her attempt to reclaim the importance of literature—and so celebrate that art—as a source of cultural connection. In order to counteract postmodern displacements of desire, Winterson has used a liturgical form of a “villanelle” that repeats phrases in a variety of contexts in The Passion, just as she mimics a “waltz” that accelerates its pace and rhythm in Art and Lies. With these gestures, she presses repetition toward an accretion of memory and provides a series of focal points for the evocation of desire. Winterson thus seems to be responding to the purported schism that social critics like Jean Baudrillard have remarked between the social imaginary and the reality of late capitalism, and she couches this address through an elaborate development of the relations between fantasy, language, and desire. I would like to here examine the links between Winterson's more generally accepted experiments with fantasy and her recent, more radical fusion of fantasy with language. I will be suggesting that Art and Lies needs to be read in light of Winterson's turn toward the difficult task of reviving the social imaginary, which has been disrupted by postmodern media and consumerism.

In Art and Lies, literature becomes a force of social mediation, counteracting the thinning of passions, the flattening of words, and the various forms of alienation that critics find in postmodern society. Set in the London of 2000, the novel is an alternating exploration of the thoughts of three characters, loosely associated with their historical namesakes Handel, Sappho, and Picasso. Soon after the novel begins, Handel, a middle-aged doctor, describes the saturation of clichéd emotions and violent interventions that has provoked his own withdrawal from passion:

in the dreary Hobbes world, where religion is superstition and the only possible actions are actions of self-interest, love is dead. …

Of course we have romance. Everyone can see how useful romance is. Even the newspapers like romance. They should; they have helped to create it, it is their daily doses of world malaise that poison the heart and mind to such a degree that a strong antidote is required to save what humanness is left in us. I am not a machine, there is only so much and no more that I can absorb of the misery of my kind, when my tears are exhausted a dullness takes their place, and out of that dullness a terrible callousness, so that I look on suffering and feel it not.


Handel's world is that of a disconnected, media-absorbed populace that, confronted as it is by a doubled and divided field of representation, ceases to respond thoughtfully and only scatters itself along a chain of unrelentingly trivial displacements. While advertising facilitates this fragmentation, the media in his world alternately assaults the public with images of suffering and deprivation, then offers up sitcom clichés as the only model of sentimental response. Leery of becoming automatic kitsch, Handel's contemporaries are caught between maudlin reaction and emotional withdrawal. Thus Handel falls into dispassionate disinterest and desensitized self-absorption. He disparages the way in which so many are passionately engaged by the international disasters broadcast on the evening news but then “step over and push aside” the underclasses of their own city:

“Terrible” you said at Somalia, Bosnia, Ethiopia, Russia, China, the Indian earthquake, the American floods, and then you watched a quiz show or a film because there's nothing you can do, nothing you can do, and the fear and unease that such powerlessness brings, trails in its wash, a dead arrogance for the beggar on the bridge that you pass every day. Hasn't he got legs and a cardboard box to sleep in?

And still we long to feel.


It is this renewal of feeling that Winterson has pursued since Oranges, and here she most explicitly takes up the project of revitalizing language and the imaginary in a disconnective society.

While Winterson invests her work in reconnecting these three characters who are adrift in the London of 2000, her chief concern in Art and Lies is with the impact of postmodern banality on language—the medium not only of her art but of social communication. The crisis in representation and words, brought on by a passive response to media manipulation of desires, was an early concern of the Frankfurt school and most forcibly returns in Jean Baudrillard's critique of the simulacra, where he argues that signifiers have been severed from their referents and are now loosely moving forward by virtue of metonymy. According to Baudrillard, images are now “infinitely multiplying themselves according to an irresistible epidemic process” until society arrives at “the paradox that these images describe the equal impossibility of the real and of the imaginary” (Evil Demon 28). This “waning of affect” results in a loss of depth in feeling and rapid displacements of the focuses of desire, and, as Celeste Olalquiaga has noted, technology and advertising facilitate this depthlessness: “Characterized by proliferation and consumptiveness, these ready-made images are easily interchangeable. Like all commodities, they are discardable identities. Mobile and perishable, their traits wane after a few uses” (4).3

Displacement is arguably the crucial problem for postmodern art, burdened as it is with the task of mediating its audience's desires and keeping them from repeated distraction. As defined by Jacques Lacan in his reading of Freud, displacement is a “veering off of signification” that allows illicit desire to change face, substitute focuses, and pass over toward some other means of satisfaction. Displacement effects this exchange by virtue of its metonymic association, which is linked to desire since desire arises always in response to some lack or gap in meaning, a gap that can be bridged by the metonymic association. Metonymy provokes a leap across two arbitrarily juxtaposed objects, thereby allowing desire to shift laterally from one object to its associative kin in order to find an attainable focus and achieve at least temporary satiation.4 While metonymy can provide brief assuagement of blocked desires, however, it can also intensify the very desire it serves, propelling displaced desires forward at an increasingly rapid rate. This occurs when representations of extremes—such as moralism, violent/passive scenarios, abrupt shifts between wealth and poverty or public and personal scenes—are used to call forth an intensity of desires, brought on by the broadening gap between points of a binary system.5 Advertising's rhetoric of extremes can therefore take displaced desires, focus them, and enhance their drive through binarisms, pressing the subject forever forward in the need to assimilate opposites and bridge the gap, which reflects as well a rift within one's own consciousness. Winterson's counteractive strategy is a complex critique of extremes accompanied by a use of oppositional reversals in her humor.

In Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson's use of extremes sets the terms for both her comedy and her critique of the severe moralisms under which she was raised. A narrator, suggestively named Jeanette, describes her upbringing in a strict Pentecostal family, her struggle to break from her mother's harsh strictures, and her move into lesbian sexuality. Lodge has identified this as “comic realism” (25); it is in effect a kind of fantastic autobiography that compresses all the details of daily life into caricature. This positing of extremes is first wrought through the protagonist's mother, who herself views the world through stark moral oppositions.6 The novel thus opens ironically:

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn't matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.

Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms)
                              Next Door
                              Sex (in its many forms)
Friends were: God
                              Our dog
                              Auntie Madge
                              The Novels of Charlotte Brontë
                              Slug pellets
and me, at first.


As the narrator lists who were the enemies and who the friends, it becomes apparent that the process of polarization must in some portion be broken down for Jeanette to form an acceptable self-identification. Polarization will of course survive to some extent, but as an inversion that translates into the tone of the novel itself. In this manner, Winterson's writing often takes up this tone of comic melodrama, and such humor seems to be one of her ways of challenging and complicating the harsh moral distinctions that are a given in her world. Fantasy likewise emerges as Winterson's preferred form of mediation between extremes. Toward the end of Oranges, the narrator comments, “Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own” (176). In the novels that follow, Winterson in fact chooses to use fantasy, allowing her characters just such an alternative vision.

Sexing the Cherry takes fantasy and spins it toward an ontologically constructive end, as a young woman finds strength through her fantasy of an alter ego, a fearless, gigantic woman who lives oblivious to social conformism in the seventeenth century. The contemporary woman arrives only at the story's end, after we have made a long and humorous acquaintance with the alter ego. The young woman imagines she is “huge, raw, a giant” (138) and that she can change world affairs by the force of her strength. In “real” life she overeats and is heavy, until she leaves her family to fight for environmental justice. She then recalls the past self as a constructive fantasy:

When the weight had gone I found out something strange: that the weight persisted in my mind. I had an alter ego who was huge and powerful, a woman whose only morality was her own and whose loyalties were fierce and few. She was my patron saint, the one I called on when I felt myself dwindling away through cracks in the floor or slowly fading in the street. Whenever I called on her I felt my muscles swell and laughter fill up my throat. Of course it was only a fantasy, at least at the beginning.


Fantasy is not a dilettante's pasttime for Winterson; it is the source of belief and often the bread of survival. In Boating for Beginners, Winterson writes that “when the heart revolts it wants outrageous things that cannot possibly be factual” (66). Those who ask for outrageous things in Boating certainly get them, but the two main sources of mythmaking—Noah and Bunny Mix—are far from celebrated, enmeshed in deceit and comical vanity as they are. Three independent-minded women participate in a counternarrative, a fantasy of social resistance that threatens to disrupt Noah's mock-biblical story of the flood. In such a manner, Winterson often encodes an interruption of dominant cultural fantasy within her own fantastic fiction, providing a treatment of fantasy as a social imaginary that does not offer a singular metadiscourse.

One of the problems implicit in fantasy writing is its potential tilt away from the real and into escapism, a result Baudrillard invokes when he identifies a schism between the real and the social imaginary: It was Lacan who earlier argued against any reliance on the imaginary (dreams or fantasies), fearing that excessive indulgence might dissociate the subject from reality.7 In the current critical work on fantasy, theoreticians split their positions between those favoring its subjective use and those leery of its more dangerously seductive effects. Ihab Hassan has argued that the use of the imagination allows us to form ourselves through the teleological effects of fantasy (52), a point that seems to support Winterson's move toward fantasy as a source of social strength. Peter Bürger, however, criticizes the use of fantasy as a social ameliorative, since that form of art, when it approaches autonomy, siphons off the need to take action:

In bourgeois society, art has a contradictory role: it projects the image of a better order and to that extent protests against the bad order that prevails. But by realizing the image of a better order in fiction, which is semblance (Schein) only, it relieves the existing society of the pressure of those forces that make for change. They are assigned to confinement in an ideal sphere.


Bürger's comments mark the tension between art's cathartic and teleological potentials, a tension that Winterson mediates by alternating seductive prose and metafictive interruptions. Moreover, Winterson's fantasy is not simple escapism—the passive play of imaginary engagements that leave characters like Benna Carpenter at the close of Lorrie Moore's Anagrams isolated within self-dialogue. Rather, fantasy is never so easily fixed. It can help subalterns form a positive identity in the face of negative or constrictive social stereotypes, and yet it can also lead one away from any socially (or individually) constructive use as it begins to muffle reality too extremely, removing the subject to a dreamy and passive state. One might distinguish between utopian fantasies that can devolve into passive escapism and active fantasies of resistance against social normalization; there is, however, no simple binarism that defines fantasy, and it is only a dangerous slide from one position to the other. Winterson's frequent preference for magical realism, as a form of fantasy that is inscripted into a realistic narrative, works to bind her source of the imaginary into the real.8 Moreover, Winterson is careful to critique excesses of the imaginary, setting it often between the poles of social or personal integration and its elision of control.

Winterson's third novel most explicitly plays on the tension within fantasy, casting it in terms of controlling desire and one's relation to the world. In The Passion, elements of magical realism proliferate. A priest sports a left eye that can pursue the sight of a woman at incredible distances; one character is born with webbed feet and the ability to walk on water; hearts are stolen, eaten, and woven into tapestries. The novel is narrated alternately by two characters: Henri, who leaves his home to follow his first passion, Napoleon; and Villanelle, an androgynous woman who cross-dresses and attracts the passions of both sexes. Originally a card dealer in a casino, Villanelle reflects often on chance and risk, and the novel as a whole weaves together concerns about control, chanciness, the thin line between passion and obsession as it plays on our ability to accept fantastic reality while resisting the fall into madness. Winterson addresses herself to the fear of finding oneself powerless in the torn position between reality and fantasy, as the narrator Villanelle overcomes a momentary pause in an instant of suspended disbelief. Villanelle uncovers her mysteriously webbed feet, an attribute commonly rumored to allow male boatmen to walk the Venetian waterways, and she hesitates before trying her own luck on the waters of the canal:

Could I walk on the water?

Could I?

I faltered on the slippery steps leading into the dark. It was November, after all. I might die if I fell in. I tried balancing my foot on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness.

Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?

I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who'd walked across the canal like it was solid.

I'm telling you stories. Trust me.


In this passage, Winterson presses the risks of believing in cultural myths while she also implies that a faltering in such forms of belief must lead to “drowning” as well.9 Desire seems to lead Villanelle forward into belief here, and Winterson's metafictive turn to the reader likewise suggests that suspending disbelief or trusting the “lies” in her story will have a powerful effect on the reader. At another point in the novel, however, Winterson is precautionary about overattachment to highly personalized beliefs; if reading or engaging in fantasies can empower, self-written and enclosed fantasy is offered up as a potential lure into madness by the novel's end.

Out of love for Villanelle, Henri has murdered her husband and cut out his heart. Collapsed in shock, he refuses to defend himself in the legal battle; nor will he permit Villanelle to see him in his prison, once it is clear that she will never consent to be his wife. Her refusal of social conventions, coupled with his realization of her more tempered affections, exceeds his own tightly drawn response to social norms and need for returned affection. Henri falls into obsession when Villanelle refuses to conform to his control. His obsession with her ironically includes his refusal to see her or read her letters, a repressive resistance to any disruptive reality in his fantastic world. Commenting on his repeated rebuffs of her attempts to visit him in the madhouse at San Servelo, Villanelle reflects that “from my letters that are returned I know I have lost him. Perhaps he has lost himself” (150). Whether one finds oneself through fantasy or loses oneself in madness becomes the closing question of The Passion. Madness seems less defined as the alternative world to reality; rather, it seems to be the desire to withdraw from interaction with others. Now Henri only plays with the memory of others that he keeps inside himself. He remarks:

I keep getting letters from Villanelle. I send them back to her unopened and I never reply. Not because I don't think about her, not because I don't look for her from my window every day. I have to send her away because she hurts me too much.

There was a time, some years ago I think, when she tried to make me leave this place, though not to be with her. She was asking me to be alone again, just when I felt safe. I don't ever want to be alone again and I don't want to see any more of the world.

The cities of the interior are vast and do not lie on any map.


By choosing the “cities of the interior,” Henri chooses the mind and echoes the “pleasures of the mind” that readers might well praise. His isolation is alleviated by fantasy's twin—the process of writing and reading his own novel. Henri writes so that he “will always have something to read” (159). This kind of self-enclosed writing is ambivalently taken up, as the novel plays repeatedly on the necessity of controlling one's encounter with desire, a rather paradoxical problem since desire is necessarily that which exceeds rationalization and consciousness which bring control. The end of The Passion splinters into two possible readings: either the loss of control leads to madness and obsession and Henri is imprisoned within his own desires, or he has taken control of his fantasy and so saved himself from worse events. His counterpoint, Villanelle, resists obsession by turning away from a noncommittal lover—the woman who nearly weaves her heart into a tapestry—so that she remains free in the outside world. Henri makes a forceful turn toward his obsession and is isolated—by choice—on a rock that only ironically represents reality.

To complicate matters further, Henri defines his love for Villanelle in distinct opposition to fantasy:

I am still in love with her. Not a day breaks but that I think of her, and when the dogwood turns red in winter I stretch out my hands and imagine her hair.

I am in love with her; not a fantasy or a myth or a creature of my own making.

Her. A person who is not me. I invented Bonaparte as much as he invented himself.

My passion for her, even though she could never return it, showed me the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love.

The one is about you, the other about someone else.


This encounter with the other heightens the necessity that fantasy will run up against reality often or that reading will break against its immediate contexts, suggesting that Winterson is suspicious of full isolation within the fantastic world. If fantasy is for Winterson a necessary part of the process of stepping out over the water—a form of agency posited on belief—it also requires an encounter with the real, a point of interaction between the real and the imaginary such that signification, fiction, and art are not cut off from the contexts they address. In her earlier work, Winterson defines fantasy in opposition to literalism or harsh realism. In Boating for Beginners, she ardently defends the poetry of myth:

Myths hook and bind the mind because at the same time they set the mind free: they explain the universe while allowing the universe to go on being unexplained; and we seem to need this even now, in our twentieth-century grandeur. The Bible writers didn't care that they were bunching together sequences some of which were historical, some preposterous, and some downright manipulative. Faithful recording was not their business; faith was. They set it out in order to create a certain effect, and did it so well that we're still arguing about it. Every believer is an anarchist at heart.


Winterson goes on to criticize believers who are too literal in their claims, but here she focuses on the “faith” derived from the more fantastic elements of literature, which “binds” the mind without limiting it to only the purest facts. If Winterson, then, cautions against obsessive self-enclosure in fantasy, she also warns against taking too tight a hold on the real. Like many British postmodern authors, Winterson is dissatisfied with mere realism, and she, like Angela Carter, would graft new possibilities onto the received social order.10

If, then, Winterson's most fantastic novels—Boating for Beginners,Sexing the Cherry, and The Passion—have led her toward a critical reconsideration of the indulgence of fantasy, rather than abandoning fantasy, she incorporates it more completely into her critique of contemporary desensitization and alienation, directing attention toward its application to the reader's own “real” political and social context. Winterson achieves this by disrupting the reader's escape from reality, persistently haunting her characters' voices with references to reading, writing, and the impact of art. Metafictive motifs like “I'm telling you stories, trust me” (from The Passion) run through many of Winterson's works, and Art and Lies engages even more explicitly in this form of direct address that disrupts suspended disbelief.

Winterson may well hope to reclaim art from the harsh ironies that had seemed the only avenue left to American postmoderns like Don DeLillo and Kathy Acker.11 In White Noise—a novel centrally canonized as postmodern commentary—DeLillo details the disjunction of relations in contemporary society, portraying the troubled consumer culture in a humorous and hyperreal narrative about catastrophe and death anxiety. The frustration of meaning, both in terms of beliefs and language, blocks DeLillo's postmoderns, just as his work “hyperrealistically” portrays—but never actively resists—such social dissolution. DeLillo and other “harsh” or hyperrealist parodists, like J. G. Ballard, Kathy Acker, and Tama Janowitz, create the postmodern novel as a humorously provocative picture of the faults and failings of contemporary culture. Moving away from the modernists' nostalgia for the past, these postmoderns are explicitly invested in the present, with little address given to the future in any changeable form.

In Art and Lies, Sappho invokes the imaginary as a “truth,” implying that harsh realism insists on a lie. “I do not ask for comforts. I do not pretend. I do not ask for comforts but do not tell me lies. Why should I live with the new brutalism of the universe if it is not true? Why should I accept that there is either what is material or nothing?” (144). “Brutal” realism is a lie, for Winterson, since it represses the need for fantastic imaginings and passion. Art, and for Winterson especially literature, provides the link between both the real and the imaginary through its medium: the Word.

After The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, Winterson focuses on language and desire as she begins to work on expanding the impact of “the Word” in postmodernism. For Winterson reminds her readers that words are not simple windows into thoughts but are themselves embodied through the alphabetic visual effects, through sound and rhythm, and through the sensate experiences of speaking and hearing. These embodied effects have a subtle but powerful impact on the significations we give to words. Winterson comments explicitly on this aspect of textuality in Art and Lies whenever Sappho's voice takes over the story. For Sappho, the word and sex are one in their mutual linkage of imagination to embodiment. Thus she writes:

The word and the kiss are one.

Is language sex? Say my name and you say sex.

Say my name and you say white sand under a white sky white trammel of my thighs.


Language and sex are brought together through an eroticization of speaking, synecdochically focusing on the mouth of the speaker and playing on the sensate properties of language—the rhythm, sound, and effect of mouthing such words linked together by overlapping consonants. Winterson uses that which exceeds rational meaning—sensation—as she also uses fantasy and the imagination to mediate the rupture between a given and often harsh reality. She presses toward an erotic use of language that moves her writing away from cold and rational sense, taking it toward sensate meanings that mix reference with desire and seduce readers toward change rather than commanding or instructing them. Winterson effects this “union of language and lust” with an allegory of transubstantiation (74).12 Sappho writes of sex with Sophia as if she were penetrated and impregnated by words ripening (74). This eroticism rises in response to a despair of “dead language” in the postmodern world:

That which is only living can only die.

The spirit has gone out of the world. I fear the dead bodies settling around me, the corpses of humanity, fly-blown and ragged. I fear the executive zombies, the shop zombies, the Church zombies, the writerly zombies, all mouthing platitudes, the language of the dead, all mistaking hobbies for passions, the folly of the dead.


Winterson tries to reclaim both the flattened word and the desensitized body, and she effects this through erotic revival. “Mouth to mouth resuscitation between the poet and the word” is Sappho's apparent goal. “Kiss me with the hollow of your mouth, the excavation where the words are dug, the words sanded under time. Kiss me with the hollow of your mouth and I shall speak in tongues” (65).

Winterson's revival of the dead begins one book before Art and Lies, with her fantastic reconstruction of the body of a dead (or dying) lover whom the narrator has lost. In Written on the Body, Winterson develops the relationship between the body and language most extensively, as a nameless narrator attempts to recover Louise, her/his lover, by calling up parts of her body in clinical form, suffusing them and reconfiguring them with erotic language and imaginings. The novel's biggest claim on audiences has been the mystery surrounding the narrator's sex. Nameless and carefully degendered, she/he tells the story of finding, loving, and then losing Louise.13 The story of the narrator's frantic attempts to find Louise is interrupted, midway through the novel, by a series of prose pieces that seem to be the narrator's attempt to reclaim Louise's body against the thought of its physical absence and inevitable decay.14 This midsection is split up into four parts: “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body”; “The Skin”; “The Skeleton”; and “The Special Senses.” Each part contains one or more passages that opens with a quotation from a medical textbook and is followed by the narrator's own resistance to the callousness of that language and her/his attempt to fantasize Louise's presence into being.

Winterson's invocation of Louise's body is playful and erotic and seems to answer to the narrator's desire to reconstruct a memory of the lost lover. She/he begins with the cells that are rebelling within Louise's system, remarking how “the white T-cells have turned bandit” as they “are swarming into the bloodstream, overturning the quiet order of spleen and intestine” (115). After describing the body's war upon itself, she/he turns to an erotic scrutiny of Louise's mouth, seen through eye and felt through tongue: “The lining of your mouth I know through tongue and spit. Its ridges, valleys, the corrugated roof, the fortress of teeth” (117). Louise is now the body to be invaded not with disease but with desire. The narrator builds an erotics of intimacy, claiming to “embalm you in my memory” (119) and so keep Louise from death; Louise is, at one point, a “necrophiliac obsession” (123). What begins as an attempt to recall the body, however, threatens to be death to literature, for as the narrator soon comments:

I'm living on my memories like a cheap has-been. I've been sitting in this chair by the fire, my hand on the cat, talking aloud, fool-ramblings. There's a doctor's text-book fallen open on the floor. To me it's a book of spells. Skin, it says. Skin.

You were milk-white and fresh to drink.


The fantasy is broken briefly, and we get a picture of the narrator alone and obsessed, hauntingly like Henri on his rock, a model of literary fantasy as only a fragile and temporary source of relief. Still, the scene tells more. Just as she/he once engaged competitively with Louise's husband—a doctor who studies bodies through a scientific lens—the narrator now battles with the language of science in an attempt to reclaim the body, and language, for romance and memory.

The word “skin” invokes an array of fantasies for the narrator, in contrast to the pure technical description offered in Winterson's headings: the skin is composed of two main parts: the dermis and the epidermis (123). Winterson's narrator remembers instead the context of their earlier sexual experiences, the feel of the skin and its smell. Words evoke meaning but remain ultimately unsatisfying. Trying to recapture Louise's face, the narrator thinks of death tearing it down:

Your face gores me. I am run through. Into the holes I pack splinters of hope but hope does not heal me. Should I pad my eyes with forgetfulness, eyes grown thin through looking? Frontal bone, palatine bones, nasal bones, lacrimal bones, cheek bones, maxilla, vomer, inferior conchae, mandible.

Those are my shields, those are my blankets, those words don't remind me of your face.


To invoke the face's presence is simultaneously to call up its absence, and so the hard distance of scientific words may shield the narrator and give comfort but then leave the image incomplete. In response to this, the last part of the middle section calls up the “special senses” of the smell, taste, and sight of Louise, overlapping metaphors of such senses and eroticizing the memory. Louise's scent is yeast and partridge, then sandalwood and hops; her taste is that of an olive playfully turned over in her lover's mouth. The passage ends with the image of the narrator running toward a sunset “thinking I can jump off the side of the world into the fiery furnace and be burned up in you. I would like to wrap my body in the blazing streaks of bloodshot sky” (138). She/he calls on Louise to return and “restore my sight” (139) or hand her/him the visual reality that she/he lacks—the actual sight of her/his lover.

As Winterson presses on the limits of language, she hits upon its necessary mediation, the recognition that words call up visions distinctly different from those they actually present, letter-by-letter, on the page. From the ways in which words can be sensuous and metaphors pungent, eroticism develops. The body is not a literal, scientific object in the middle section; it is only real through imagination, as it is metaphorically recalled and erotically invoked. In this section also, Winterson pays tribute to Monique Wittig's erotic work Le Corps Lesbien, where one lover explores the inner places of her lover's body in a prose marked by split pronouns (j/e, translated as I) that signify the narrator's torn desire for and identification with her love. The book reads like an extended and intensive version of Winterson's own prose section, as it presses on the link between the body and language.15 In the book's introduction, Wittig describes her work as a merging of passion and the word:

The body of the text subsumes all the words of the female body. Le Corps Lesbien attempts to achieve the affirmation of its reality. … To recite one's own body, to recite the body of the other, is to recite the words of which the book is made up. The fascination for writing the never previously written and the fascination for the unattained body proceed from the same desire. The desire to bring the real body violently to life in the words of the book (everything that is written exists), the desire to do violence by writing to the language which I [j/e] can enter only by force.


While Winterson employs some mention of violence, Wittig's is more pronouncedly an erotics of violation, an earthy encounter with every detail of the lover's body, more violent and intense than Winterson's playful and affectionate exploration. Note the vehemence and explicitness of Wittig's prose:

If some woman should speak your name I feel as if m/y ears were about to fall heavily to the ground, I feel m/y blood warming in m/y arteries, I perceive at a glance the networks it irrigates, a cry fit to make m/e burst issues from the depth of m/y lungs. … I invoke your help m/y incomparable Sappho, give m/e by thousands the fingers that allay the wounds, give m/e the lips the tongue the saliva which draw one into the slow sweet poisoned country from which one cannot return.


I discover that your skin can be lifted layer by layer, I pull, it lifts off, it coils above your knees, I pull starting at the labia, it slides the length of the belly, fine to extreme transparency, I pull starting at the loins, the skin uncovers the round muscles and trapezii of the back, it peels off up to the nape of the neck, I arrive under your hair, m/y fingers traverse its thickness, I touch your skull, I grasp it with all m/y fingers, I press it, I gather the skin over the whole of the cranial vault, I tear off the skin brutally beneath the hair, I reveal the beauty of the shining bone traversed by blood-vessels.


I feel your hairs touching m/y buttocks at the height of your clitoris, you climb on m/e, you rip off m/y skin with the claws of your four paws, a great sweat comes over m/e hot then soon cold, a white foam spreads the length of your black chops, I turn around, I clutch at your coat, I take your head between m/y hands.


Wittig's grasp on the reality of her lover's body is far more vehement and violent than Winterson's, and in this she stays closer to the earthiness of matter and goes less into the realm of the Romantic-fantastic, which is the “fiery furnace” in Winterson's writing. Wittig dives under the skin and grasps the skull; she seizes on the carnality of the body in eager consumption. Like Winterson, however, she is striving to reclaim language about the body from medical science; Wittig's work is in fact translated by “an eminent practicing anatomist and surgeon” so as to accommodate her integration of technical and poetic words.

Wittig's writing, like Winterson's, works to inspire desire by use of pace, parallel structure, and associative series. Both writers drive at their topics with short, wrenching phrases, and both map language over the body. Yet Wittig seems more inclined to return to the body as body, whereas Winterson would mix it carefully with a larger Romantic vision. This effects a kind of transubstantiation of body into word that Winterson comments on in Art and Lies: “The Word terrifies. The seducing word, the insinuating word. … I cannot eat my words but I do. I eat the substance, bread, and I take it into me, word and substance, substance and word, daily communion, blessed” (54–55). Repeatedly Sappho invokes the power of the word as transubstantiation—it even lifts up Sappho's body as she jumps off the cliff (73). Here, it is likened to ingestion, invoking the model of transubstantiation, resonating most often as a metaphor for reading. Winterson sees her medium as alternately threatening and seductive; rather than opposing language and comprehension, however, she weds them. Words fill one up with substance and give “the spirit” or imaginary back to the world. While Handel lies slumped unconscious on the train, Picasso picks up his book, looks at it and at him. She pictures him as Louise was pictured in Written on the Body, as a medically precise and still fantastic body. “His body … was more of bone than of flesh. He was anatomical, an object lesson on the rough bench of the human frame. She thought of him at the autopsy; the neat fibrous squares being cut away from the simple skeleton. The teeming symbiosis of muscle and nerve, tissue and fluid, hung in complex on that obvious rack” (81). After such a distancing observation, however, Picasso is moved by Handel's appearance, his vulnerability, and she pictures herself offering him fruit, the fruit of desire but also of knowledge. She fantasizes that they stand in a garden looking at the tree, and she says “Eat it and you eat the light it gives, a lantern in the gut of Man to read himself thereby” (81). What one ingests in reading gives back vision, and it also gives back, as it alternately derives from, desire. Sappho, reflecting on the power of words and kisses to burn, scald, and transform, writes, “My mouth on yours forms words I do not know. … When you kissed me, my heart was in my mouth, you tore it out to read it, haruspex you” (66). As a haruspex, Sappho's lover can read the future by her “entrails” or passions. Winterson here works the metaphor of reading as a highly interactive and self-revealing process. Books do not simply inform or delight; they tear out our innards and hand us a mirror to the future.

If in Written on the Body Winterson infuses desire into her language, she also comes up against the limits of fantasy and art. What she achieves is the inspiration of desire but not its satisfaction. The book ends in a crisis of the irreconcilable desire that calls up the real—as body—but attains only pure and isolate fantasy. After giving up the search for Louise, the narrator returns to a small town where she/he had been living, only to have a vision of Louise's return. The story then closes on the unstable invocation of fantasy, ending with a full, if futile, denial of the import of reality:

From the kitchen door Louise's face. Paler, thinner, but her hair still mane-wide and the colour of blood. I put out my hand and felt her fingers, she took my fingers and put them to her mouth. The scar under the lip burned me. Am I stark mad? She's warm.


The story twists back to imply that fiction might be as satisfying as reality, and it seems to conclude this way in part as a response to the narrator's comment, to a friend, that “It's as if Louise never existed, like a character in a book. Did I invent her?” (189). Like Henri, the narrator gets the response, “No, but you tried to. … She wasn't yours for the making.” The book finally ends, however, with Louise's fantastic appearance at the kitchen door, followed by a reflection on the power of fantasy:

This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantlepiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room. Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it's getting late. I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields.


It is as if Winterson pushes fantasy to the extreme implications of its use and here refuses to turn back from the madness it invokes, “madness” defined by Lacan as the total release of the Real. One is shocked to remember that fiction is no more than fantasy, however, be it historical or more radically imagined, and it functions only as a focal point of our desires, being perhaps useful but not ultimately able to call up the object of desire.

In Art and Lies, fantasy is more drastically altered, and the question of what “the real” is emerges. Gone is the ironic resistance to immersion in fantasy, for fantasy now is art, and other possibilities for fantasy are swept aside. The book bears a frontispiece that Winterson takes from A. C. Bradley's Oxford lectures in 1901: “The nature of a work of art is to be not part, nor yet a copy of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but a world in itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality.” To open with this quotation is strangely ironic in one sense, since Winterson persistently disrupts her story's autonomy with metafictive references that break the reader out of the story's spell. Moreover, Art and Lies is more metafictive than story, the traditional narrative line having been so far erased. And yet to read it is to be immersed in Winterson's world, which is not the real world “as we commonly understand that phrase,” as a collection of concrete objects and institutions that resist our will. Rather, Winterson's fantasy attaches to the “real” of emotions or passions that need be drawn back into focus through motif, lyrical address, and fantastic disruptions of the static, deadening acceptance of “reality” as status quo. Certainly, these staler fantasies are resisted, as when Picasso, in Art and Lies, criticizes her mother's excessive sentimentality about her childhood, identifying her as “the stoked-up conspiracy to lie. The fantasy furnace, where truth was chopped into little pieces, and burned and burned and burned” (43). Surviving the sexual abuse of her brother, Picasso abandons this “lying” form of fantasy—a negative version of the furnace now—and finds renewed focus in the letters of Sappho, where fantasy becomes not lies but forward-looking passion. Winterson's desire to invoke alternate worlds is therefore caught up in her need for application and an argument for “real” efficacy of writing.

At the book's close, Sappho, Picasso, and Handel—as contemporary Londoners—are drawn together by an experience that both reaches back historically and connects them contemporaneously through the act of reading a small book. The book is a multiplicity of effects as well as a conglomerate of literature, philosophy, and theology. It contains the remnants of the Great Library of Alexandria dating from 642, including some bits of the Odyssey, Greek philosophy, the Gospel of St. John, and eighteenth-century pornography (the bawdy tale of Doll Sneerpiece's love for the indifferent Ruggierio), and the erotic works of Sappho (which Doll reads). Art's fantasies in the book are defined not as some “other world” in a totalizing sense; rather, they are implicitly connected to the reality of our desires. Desire is what is real, in Winterson, more so than historical events or material objects. In this, she counters Lacan's suspicion of the imaginary, when he senses that one might get lost in rapturous attachment to the fictions one paints for oneself. Fantasy, in Winterson's works, is not an experience that leaves a reader content, but one that fuels desire, denies catharsis, and propels readers back out into their contexts. If Lacan posits desire as that which arises in response to the absence of its object, then one must always have an incommensurate relation between the imaginary and the real to some degree. Winterson's apparent priority is to reinvigorate passion, and she seems to value this above the artist's traditionally mimetic project. Her fantasy connects to our context without necessarily reproducing “the real” in its material sense. What is “real” for Winterson and most salient to context and art is desire as emotion, that which must always face the gap between fantasy and reality and so forever throw itself into the place of possibility. A literature of such futuricity is not to be found, for Winterson, in a literature of realism. If in Lacan the first object of desire is to be recognized by the other, in Winterson's political writing, the desire of fantasy is to be realized in the real—the real of passion, politics, and societal interrelations. Sappho asks, “What are the unreal things but the passions that once burned one like a fire? What are the incredible things but the things that one has faithfully believed? What are the improbable things but the things that one has done oneself?” (205). The book gives back these fantasies and hope, according to its conclusion, suffused with light and music, as the three characters get off the train, both literally leaving their conveyance and symbolically moving away from a “tracked” sensibility of desensitization and displaced desires.

As David Lodge warned, Romantic authors gamble high, work intuitively, and tend either to be extremely successful or to painfully miss le mot juste. Certainly Winterson takes stylistic and imaginative risks, but in the context of the split between harsh or hyperreal fiction and radical fantasy (cyberpunk and utopian feminism), she is able to offer an alternative use of fantasy and eroticism that both addresses the postmodern crisis of narrative and offers a new turn in seductive and socially conscious art. While it would hardly be within reason to suggest that Winterson solves the larger problem of metonymic displacement, I think one can readily see that her critical reconsideration of the imagination and fantasy in her earlier works puts her in a position to rework that form of imaginary in her later attempts to reattach language to sexual desire and love in a far-ranging interpretation of art's effects. In this, she begins what might be a movement of remobilization in the face of Jameson's “waning of affect.” Marshaling a series of short, punchy phrases, her writing takes up old clichés and reinvigorates them through juxtaposition, humor, and lyrical repetition. Like advertisements, small phrases repeatedly resurface but then turn us back to deeper desires rather than pressing on toward yet one more facile displacement. Association binds, in Winterson's writing, rather than splitting desires apart, and repeated phrases like “I'm telling you stories, trust me” produce a kind of accretive, associative weight. Her use of pithy, short statements, variously repeated through the course of a novel, thus takes hold of an advertising-consciousness and presses it back toward the dangerously sentimental focuses of desire eschewed in much of contemporary literature.

Fantasy is at best an unstable term in Winterson's writing, but she often uses it (and art) to bridge the gap between harsh reality and a more hopeful construction of the social imaginary. This social imaginary includes the constant possibility of resistance and alternative realizations of identity, in that fantasy can offer far more potentialities than reality. If the fixity of reality is the hallmark of a static status quo, Winterson's use of fantasy and eroticism pulls away from such fixations to open up a space for alternative life styles (alternatives to family, to heterosexuality, to society, to postmodern media). And the point where concrete reality meets fiction-as-fantasy occurs precisely at the moment of reading. In The Passion, Henri allegorizes his love for Villanelle as an act of reading through her mediative responses, saying that his love “means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read” (159). Books become the mediation of subjectivity and inspiration, functioning as some “other” that both provides the fantasy and invokes the need for dialectic in the instability of its own words. In Art and Lies, Winterson writes of the Book, as any book:

The Book; fabulous, unlikely, beyond wealth, a talisman against time, an inventing and a remembrance.

The Book. The handwritten word. The printed word. The word illuminated. The beacon word. The word carved in stone and set above the sea. The warning word in flashes that appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared, cutting the air with a bright sword. The word that divided nation against nation. The word that knits up the soul. The word spinning a thread through time. The word in red and gold. The Word in human form, Divine.



  1. Lodge's is certainly the most in-depth review of Winterson's work within the mainstream press. Gore Vidal, cited by Lodge and on Winterson's dust jackets, has identified her as “the most interesting young writer I have read in twenty years.” Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit received praise both within the press and in academic journals (see, for example, Hilary Hinds's article). Muriel Spark gave The Passion a favorable review in Vanity Fair. Ellen Pall praised that novel in the New York Times Book Review. In the Village Voice, Carol Anshaw admired Winterson's outlandishness and her imagination in Written on the Body and other works. And finally, Elizabeth Hand wrote a highly positive review of Art and Lies in Book World.

  2. The Passion and Sexing the Cherry also won distinguished awards. The Passion won the 1987 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and Sexing the Cherry brought Winterson the 1989 E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

  3. “Waning of affect” is Fredric Jameson's term, in “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”

  4. Lacan, “Agency of the Letter,” Ecrits 160. Lacan describes this as “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier” (154). It is this infinitely reconfigured form of displacement that Jean Baudrillard views with suspicion, when he analyzes hyperreal representations and events that “function as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs, and no longer to their ‘real’ goal at all.” These images go on indefinitely, “no longer having any particular contents or aims, but indefinitely refracted by each other” (Simulations 41).

  5. I am claiming that aggressivity and intensity emerge from binarisms as a result of the repression inherent in moralisms, which must insist on an extreme split and so deny any mediation between extremes or degrees of difference in between. See Lacan's essay “Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis,” Ecrits 8–29.

  6. Likewise, in Winterson's next novel, Boating for Beginners, the protagonist's mother is an amalgam of will and ideals, so strong she can hold up her house by belief alone. She is both admirable and overwhelming, and Winterson takes and continues her critical reworking of strong women, transforming the binarism into a positive source of fantasy in Sexing the Cherry.

  7. If the subject fails to account for reality, according to Lacan, aggressivity will leap forth as a result of the force of repressing such interruption. In Lacan's work, the imaginary is roughly equivalent to fantasy, as the subject's creative endeavor to collect itself in an image (imago) called forth by the Other. Lacan disparages this state as that which gives rise to aggressivity, since it relies on the repression of the multiple forces in consciousness. It occurs in the early part of infancy that Lacan calls the mirror stage, where the imago helps it “establish a relation between the organism and its reality—or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt” (Ecrits 4). In this stage, the subject is caught up in “the lure of spatial identification” which takes it from dreams of the fragmented body to a fantasy of its totality and, finally, “to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development” (4). As the mirror stage comes to an end, the subject identifies with the imago and experiences “primordial jealousy,” and so begins a “dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations” (5).

    Lacan criticizes philosophies of radical individualism, like Sartre's, since they freeze the I prior to the social dialectic, isolating the subject within a fantasy narrative that fails to interact with the Other. This can give rise to a neurosis that has a characteristic inertia. See “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Ecrits.

  8. Amaryll Chanady gives a good résumé of the history of fantasy's various definitions and its relation to magical realism. She points out that magical realism has undergone a range of uses, beginning with German art and pictorial application and concluding with this interaction between the real and the fantastic.

  9. Religious myths, particularly those from Winterson's own Pentecostal background, proliferate in these novels, as here Villanelle's step parallels that of Christ. Biblical references and Winterson's treatment of religion have been the focus of some of the sparse criticism on her work. Laurel Bollinger, for example, reads Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a parodic reworking of the story of Ruth. On a very different note, Vanity Fair published an article on Winterson in February 1995, lambasting the confidence of her style as egocentric and tracing her “vision of herself as one of the chosen” back to her religion (Rocco).

  10. Richard Todd argues that British postmodern fiction is distinctive in its intense drive to stage confrontations between realism and historiography or realism and the literary tradition. Winterson's writing most often sets up the former opposition, as in Boating for Beginners,Sexing the Cherry, and The Passion. And although Todd wrote before Winterson gained the attention of postmodern critics, she fits his scheme in her rampant use of metafictive asides to the reader. See Todd 118 and passim.

  11. See Acker's fiction, which has been characterized as “punk writing.” Acker writes in clear prose, using simple terms to drive home her points. But there any slight similarity with Winterson ends. Acker's works tear away any veil of Romantic reconstruction, insisting on a brutal realism. In her essay “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution,” Acker describes and interprets the realism of Goya and Caravaggio. Her prose echoes the harsh humor of her fiction. Looking at Caravaggio's “The Gypsy Fortuneteller,” for example, she writes: “Gypsies're the scum of the earth. No one in her right mind would have anything to do with them. They're (were?) just lower sexual animals of course they're all women and all women being sexual animals're witches. How can these beautiful young aristocratic boy's eyes, his very intellect, his soul, and her scum-being be one total world? Because the intellectual sphere mirrors and connects to the animal sphere: sexuality is this totality: the looks of these two people, which is my look as I look at them, is a certain definition of sexual desire” (38–39). Acker interprets realism not as mere mirror or as judgmental presentation; rather, she focuses on the way in which these paintings communicate to the reader, affect her, seducing or excluding her by virtue of their gaze. And so, for Acker, realism connects the audience to the work in a sexual (and that is also a political) realm.

  12. This is a long-standing motif, taken from St. Augustine's writings, invoked by writers like James Joyce in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses and in Finnegans Wake and also by Jacques Lacan in his writing on the Word in the Discours de Rome (see Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis). For a powerful analysis of the overlap of desires in transubstantiation, see Werner Hamacher's work on Hegel's “Der Geist des Christentums,” a portion of which is translated and published in “The Reader's Supper: A Piece of Hegel.”

  13. Winterson wrote the novel from the perspective of a lover who remains mysteriously unsexed. Lucretia Stewart reports that many readers, who seemed to have preferred a more “realistic” form of reference, were exasperated by their inability to identify the sex of the narrator. Winterson is fond of playing on androgyny, and in Art and Lies she comments on Handel as pleasantly androgynous (he is arguably the castrato to whom the small book is addressed).

  14. When Louise's husband issues an ultimatum, the two lovers are drawn apart. Suffering from leukemia, Louise wishes to leave her husband despite his insistence that he, as a well-established cancer specialist, would be best able to cure or at least delay her illness. If Louise does not bend to this plea, however, the narrator does. The husband contacts the narrator and offers to expend all his resources for Louise only if she and the narrator cease to pursue their liaison. Against Louise's wishes, the narrator leaves, an action she/he later regrets. The narrator returns to find Louise gone, the husband in a new affair, and all trace of her/his lover lost.

  15. Lacan comments on the embodiment of words and their power in a similar vein: “The Word is in fact a gift of Language, and Language is not immaterial. It is a subtle body, but body it is. Words are trapped in all the corporeal images which captivate the subject; they can make the hysteric pregnant, be identified with the object of penis-neid, represent the flood of urine of urethral ambition, or the retained faeces of avaricious jouissance” (Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis 64).

Works Cited

Acker, Kathy. “Realism for the Cause of Future Revolution.” Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York and Boston: New Museum of Contemporary Art-Godine, 1984. 31–42.

Anshaw, Carol. “Into the Mystic: Jeanette Winterson's Fable Manners.” Village Voice 12 June 1990: S16, S17.

Baudrillard, Jean. “After the Orgy.” The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Trans. James Benedict. London: New Left, 1993. 3–13.

———. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney, Austral.: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987.

———. Simulations. Trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Bollinger, Laurel. “Models of Female Loyalty: The Biblical Ruth in Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13 (1994): 363–80.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Chanady, Amaryll Beatrice. Magical Realism and the Fantastic: Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy. New York: Garland, 1985.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1984.

Hamacher, Werner. “The Reader's Supper: A Piece of Hegel.” Diacritics 11.2 (1981): 52–67.

Hand, Elizabeth. Review of Art and Lies.Book World 19 Mar. 1995: 2.

Hassan, Ihab. Paracriticisms: Seven Speculations of the Times. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1975.

Hinds, Hilary. “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: Reaching Audiences Other Lesbian Texts Cannot Read.” New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Reachings. Ed. Sally Munt. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 153–72.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53–92.

Kemp, Peter. “Writing for a Fall.” Rev. of Art and Lies.Sunday Times Books [London] 26 June 1994: 71a.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

———. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1968.

Lodge, David. “Outrageous Things: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson.” New York Review of Books 29 Sept. 1988: 25–26.

Moore, Lorrie. Anagrams. New York: Viking-Penguin, 1987.

Olalquiaga, Celeste. Megalopolis: Contemporary Cultural Sensibilities. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Pall, Ellen. Rev. of The Passion.New York Times Book Review 7 Aug. 1988: 20.

Pritchard, William H. Rev. of Art and Lies.New York Times Book Review 26 Mar. 1995: 14–15.

Rocco, Fiametta. “Winterson's Discontent.” Vanity Fair Feb. 1995: 112–15, 148–49.

Spark, Muriel. “A Winterson Tale.” Rev. of The Passion.Vanity Fair May 1988: 54–58.

Stewart, Lucretia. “No, No Jeanette.” Harper's Bazaar Feb. 1993: 74–76.

Todd, Richard. “Confrontation within Convention: On the Character of British Postmodernist Fiction.” Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas. Ed. Theo D'Haen and Hans Bertens. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988. 115–26.

Winterson, Jeanette. Art and Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd. London: Jonathan Cape-Random, 1994.

———. Boating for Beginners. London: Methuen, 1985.

———. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 1985. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1987.

———. The Passion. New York: Random, 1987.

———. Sexing the Cherry. New York: Random, 1989.

———. Written on the Body. New York: Random, 1992.

Wittig, Monique. The Lesbian Body. Trans. David Le Vay. Boston: Beacon, 1975.

Wood, James. “Beware of Shallowness.” Rev. of Art and Lies.London Review of Books July 1994: 9.

Jeanette Winterson and Audrey Bilger (interview date winter 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14925

SOURCE: Winterson, Jeanette, and Audrey Bilger. “Jeanette Winterson: The Art of Fiction CL.” Paris Review 39, no. 145 (winter 1997): 69–112.

[In the following interview, Winterson discusses her approach to fiction, her aesthetic concerns and artistic development, and her preoccupation with religious, gender, and sexual issues.]

“I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was special,” writes Jeanette Winterson at the beginning of her fictionalized autobiography, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. And, indeed, the facts of her life have supported that view. Born in Manchester in 1959, Winterson was adopted by Pentecostal evangelist Constance Brownrigg and her husband, John William Winterson, a factory worker. From her earliest years she was groomed by her mother and church to be a missionary, and her first forays into the world of letters were the sermons she began preaching at the age of eight. Her awareness of herself as different from others was heightened when she attended Accrington Girls' Grammar School, a place that her mother dubbed the “breeding ground” because it put young Jeanette in contact with the ordinary girls of the industrial Midlands, who were more interested in embroidering platitudes on samplers than in saving souls at tent meetings.

At fifteen, Winterson had a love affair with a woman that was discovered and condemned by her church, leading to her expulsion from the community and to her leaving home to support herself. Working variously as an ice-cream van driver, a funeral parlor make-up artist and a domestic worker in a mental institution, she studied at Accrington College of Further Education and then went on to obtain her B.A. in English from St. Catherine's College at Oxford in 1981.

Between 1981 and 1987, Winterson worked at the Roundhouse Theatre in London and then in publishing. During that time she wrote her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a semi-autobiographical account of coming of age as a lesbian and a writer, interwoven with elements of the mythical and the fantastic. Oranges earned her the Whitbread Award for a first novel, and in 1990, when Winterson adapted it for television, the series won a number of international awards, including BAFTA Best Drama and the Prix Italia. In 1985, she also published Boating for Beginners, a light revisionist romp through the Book of Genesis that she now categorizes as a “comic book.”

In 1987, with the publication of The Passion, Winterson began to support herself as a full-time writer. The Passion, an intricate tale, loosely set in the Napoleonic era, garnered the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. The reiterated phrase of Henri, one of the two narrators, crystallizes Winterson's vision of the indissolubility of fact and fiction: “I'm telling you stories. Trust me.”

Sexing the Cherry (1989), with its time-transcending characters and fairy-tale magic, won the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Written on the Body (1992) challenged readers' traditional assumptions about gender and identity by refusing to categorize the narrator as male or female.

Winterson's experimentalism as a novelist has continued in Art and Lies (1994) and, most recently, in Gut Symmetries (1997). In 1995, she published Art Objects, a collection of essays—part art criticism, part manifesto—in which she applauds risk-taking as a measure of greatness: “The riskiness of Art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of creating a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking.” According to Winterson, “The rebellion of art is a daily rebellion against the state of living death routinely called real life.”

This interview took place on a brisk autumn London day in an editor's office at Granta. Over the course of several hours, Winterson responded to questions with unflagging intensity and polish. Her speaking presence conveys the kind of quiet magnetism that would no doubt have led to spectacular conversions had she pursued a missionary path.

[Bilger:] Why did you leave London?

[Winterson:] I didn't want to live there anymore. It became untenable for me in all sorts of ways. After having two very bad experiences with the press, both with Written on the Body and Art and Lies, I just didn't want to be in the fishbowl. I thought, I want to get away from here because it's not going to do me or my work any good to stay. So I went and hid myself in the woods.

But that doesn't mean that I don't have a very powerful relationship with this city. I have just bought myself a mad, derelict, fallen-down Georgian house in one of the older parts of London, because I need to return here, and, like Dickens, I love to walk the streets in the night and see what is happening, see what's going on. So in me there is that tension between needing the space and peace and also wanting to be where humanity is concentrated at its worst and its best.

What happened with the press to make you feel so exposed in London? Did it have to do with reviewers?

I don't read reviews. I stopped reading them after Sexing the Cherry because I thought there was really no point. I don't have to sit down and listen to these ravings or even these praises, because there are very few people actually reviewing now whose authority I respect or who I think have got anything to say. I take the Ezra Pound view that you shouldn't take any notice at all of anybody who has not written a significant work themselves. Then, what they have got to say is worthwhile whether you like it or not. If they haven't, it isn't. So that's my view. And I stick with it. But at the time I got fed up with being continually thrashed to bits and having my personal life exposed in ways that were vicious and designed to destroy. I thought, I don't have to stand here any longer, I can go. Which I did. That made me feel a lot better.

Do you see yourself as a recluse now?

Well, I always was, which is a bit bizarre living in London, because I never go anywhere except silently, secretly, by myself. I like to go up and down anonymously. I don't like to be known or recognized, and so living in London was a little bit absurd. I wanted it for the culture. My house was very conspicuous, and there was at one time a lot of envy: who is she and why should she have it? And there was a notorious made-up interview where someone pretended they had been in my house, and in fact they had just been looking through the window. I can't live with that! So I decided that I didn't want to be looked at any longer.

Now I have my little house hidden away in the woods, and a little house here, which I am rebuilding, and I shall come and go secretly between the two and that will suit me very well.

It's not surprising that you want to retain some contact with London since cities play such an important role in your works.

I am interested in the tension between the built environment and the natural environment and how the two can coexist, given that they have to coexist, and how at the moment our dreams of bliss are a kind of invented Arcadia. Everyone wants to escape to the hills and leave behind the swarming cities, which are disease and crime. Clearly, this is just as crazy as everyone wanting to leave the hills and rush to the cities to get jobs. It's as though people are always uneasy in the place where they are and think that the extreme alternative will provide the solutions. But we know that there aren't any. I like to focus on the nightmare city so people don't become too used to it, too happy to live with it.

Do you take part at all in a community of writers?

I am more on my own. Obviously I know writers. Kathy Acker is a very close friend. But I'm not clubbable, you see. I don't like literary parties and literary gatherings and literary identities. I'd hate to join anything, however loosely. Remember, I come at it from the outside in every sense because, whatever people say, working-class women don't get on in this job. If they do, where are they? People come at me with a very middle-class consciousness. They look at me and they think, Well she went to Oxford, she has obviously done all right. So they put me in their own pigeon holes. But they can't understand what it means to come from a house with no books and no bathroom and your father a factory worker, not being in school much because you're traveling around in a gospel tent. No encouragement and no education, because it's not important, especially not for girls, and having to choose to leave home in order to carry on. And not getting any money to go to university with, and having to work all the way through. I mean, people do that now, but they didn't when I was there. So, there was nothing anticipated about me or for me. What I did was unusual. That's why, I think, from the start I felt on the outside, and to a large extent, I have remained so. I wouldn't change that because I think my temperament and my character are pretty solitary; I view with suspicion any insider activities. I suppose I am a bit of an anarchist at heart.

In spite of your emphasis on your own working-class roots, your books are not particularly marked by class.

No, they're not. I'm not interested in it. I know it exists, and I know what I am, and I know that to some extent that never changes. I think if you're British you view the class system perhaps rather differently than if you are not. Because you have always known it. It's not that it isn't a problem, it's not that it isn't something that I want to deal with, but it is not something that is useful to me in my fiction. It's why I use an archetype. My characters all have something of the hero archetype about them in that they are largely stripped of context. But they offer a kind of operatic salvation, for themselves and for the reader in that through their lives one's own struggles can be experienced without being overly definitive, without pinning them down too much, which I wouldn't want to do. And obviously I have been able to escape that by setting something in an imagined past or in an imagined present, tinkering with place and time so that the reader can't quite say, Oh yes, I know where this is, I can identify here. I want them rather to identify with a being, with a state of consciousness, with a particular kind of imaginative value rather than some sort of TV character.

From the outset of your career, you've had trouble with readers trying to pin things down on a more concrete level. After the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit you were caught in a backlash of people trying to delve into your personal life, to assess the extent of its autobiographical content in spite of comments within the work itself about the impossibility of separating fiction from fact.

Oh, I'll never escape from that, will I? I think I spent the best part of ten years saying, “This is not autobiography in the way that you understand it. It is simply a way of using raw material … because one always uses raw material from one's own life.” There is as much of me in Sexing the Cherry as there is in Oranges. It is simply the way that I disguise and translate the direct experience and, I hope, make it rather more permanent than it would be otherwise. Writers always put themselves into their work, constantly. But you can't just untangle it and take it back to its source. It's not simple. In Art and Lies, I say something about how you can't reconstruct the bunch of grapes from the bottle of wine. They are not the same in the last analysis nor would one want them to be. So I do try to keep these strict definitions … because I know that the whole push at the moment of saying that this is about a writer's life is a way of minimizing the work and trying to make it controllable, handleable. It is to say, “Well, this isn't really art, whatever art is,” (not that they have any idea) “but it is about experience.” I get rather tired of that. What matters is what writers do with the experience, whatever the experience is. Now whether it took place in my imagination or in my psyche or whether it took place in my physical body, do we really have to split hairs like that?

Since there are autobiographical elements in Oranges that involve other people, there were, no doubt, readers who did care about whether or not you were making things up. What did your mother think of the book?

She did read it. That was the last letter I got from her. She wrote rather bitterly that it was the only time she had ever had to order a book in a false name—that was clearly the big problem. Of course, she was deeply angry. Interestingly, she was angry for the right reasons. She kept saying, “But this isn't true, it didn't happen like that.” I'd say, “No, that's right, you should become a reviewer for the national press.” Autobiography reverses the positions because normally it's parents who tell children the stories, not children who tell the story to their parents.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit does celebrate the triumph of the protagonist over the narrow-mindedness of her community. Her ability to imagine a way out is a decisive factor in her success. To what extent has the imagination helped you to overcome obstacles in your life?

It has been a bridge for me away from a particular background, but I suppose the preliminary to that was education, because I put all my faith in that. I thought, If I can get out of here, get myself to Oxford, get myself educated, things will be better. Which is very much a Jude the Obscure dream. And it's equivocal, of course. You do it and then you realize that it wasn't at all what you thought.

It was actually books that started to make those pockets of freedom, which I hadn't otherwise experienced. I do see them as talismans, as sacred objects. I see them as something that will protect me, I suppose, that will save me from things that I feel are threatening. I still think that; it doesn't change. It doesn't change, having money, being successful. So from the very first, if I was hurt in some way, then I would take a book—which was very difficult for me to buy when I was little—and I would go up into the hills, and that is how I would assuage my hurt. That is still the case, for me. Whatever has happened to me, if it is difficult for me to deal with, or if I cannot deal with it at all, then I'll take a book, probably something like Four Quartets, and go out on my own—I would much rather do that than talk to anyone—and read it, and it becomes a salve, an ointment in a very real way. To me, the words are things, living things. For me they work far more potently than any other method and, I dare say, that will go on until I die.

When did you start to write?

I always wrote sermons, but I'm not sure that really counts. I didn't write any fiction or anything that you would call creative writing (to use a term I loathe beyond measure) until I sat down to write Oranges. That was a journey for me, an investigation. One whose results were unpredictable. I didn't know that I was writing a book that would be published, I just knew that I was following a particular line of energy, which had to be followed, and at the end of it, there really was a book, which was something of a surprise to me.

Did writing sermons as a child and having direct contact with an immediate audience affect your later fiction-writing?

Writing sermons is very good discipline because you have a limited amount of time and a chosen subject, and you have to convince your audience. And if you fail, you fail: I mean, you can see you've failed by looking out at them. So it teaches you a particular economy of style. It not only teaches you tricks of the trade, of ordinary rhetoric and how to use language for a very specific purpose to make sure that you are saying exactly what you want to say, but also to use images and symbols. One of the good things, I think, about the Christian faith is that it draws on such a wealth of images and symbols, which even the least church-minded of us still recognizes. We are two thousand years of Western Christianity. That's in our body and our blood, which is partly why the symbolism of the East, although it expresses the same truths just as well, doesn't work for us quite as it ought to. You have to have your own symbols and myths to express your collective past. That's why I am a bit dubious about ransacking the East, as we're so fond of doing at the moment, because there is something rather desperate and also rather faddish in it, as though we feel that we've made redundant all our own pictures and metaphors, which is simply not true. They still have that depth charge; I think it is a question of writers using them.

You have said that you see yourself as an evangelist for the word.

Yes, I suppose once an evangelist, always an evangelist. We have to be careful of the word evangelical. I think it can have positive value, but for most people it means something that is intrusive and low-minded and bigoted. Not that I have a particular doctrine, something narrow and confined that I want to get across, but what one has to be careful of, of course, is not becoming too dogmatic or too soapboxy in the approach. I do have a very vigorous attitude to life and I want to change things. That is my character. I don't know whether I was drawn into those kinds of church processes because I have this kind of character or whether those processes formed my character. Who knows? But I like energy. I like to see people who are committed to something and are prepared to go out and say, “Look, this really matters to me and maybe it would matter to you; maybe it would make a difference.” For me it's art, particularly words, particularly language. I suppose if I pursue it with the same kind of enthusiasm with which I once stood up and spoke for God, people will have to forgive me …

At the end of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the narrator tells us that she could have been a priest, but she is going to be a prophet instead. This change in vocation seems to be connected to her evolution into a writer. Do you see the connection between your own upbringing and your writing as being one of translating the evangelical spirit into art?

What I really want to do is to persuade people to experience for themselves what I believe to be present in art, which is this extraordinary releasing power. I suppose where the great divide comes between true evangelicals and what I do is that I want to hand the process entirely over to the individual and say, “There's no book, there are no rules. You must find it for yourself.” But I hope it will be invigorating, and I hope it will be empowering.

One continuing legacy from your training as a missionary is a close relation to the Bible. Do you see the Bible as a foundational text?

It is for us in the West, yes. I sometimes wonder about the younger generation, but I still feel that everyone knows a few Bible stories and knows about the central Christian myth of miraculous birth, the life, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection. I think you could ask anyone and they would have some idea what you were saying. And therefore from that you can construct a kind of central archetype around which our ideas are formed. The stories all say the same thing. Every country has a hero narrative, which always begins with the strange and miraculous birth of a child who is threatened, and then the person grows to adulthood and does extraordinary deeds and then is usually killed by their enemies, but nevertheless has an effect on consciousness that is profound. Those stories are everywhere. Just as when you look at the human body and there are certain overriding physical characteristics that we all share, whether here or in deepest Africa, so in the unconscious, in the subconscious, there are elements of myth which remain the same across peoples.

In Oranges you engaged in revising the Bible or revising aspects of the Bible, but in Gut Symmetries you appear to accept the Bible as part of a larger tradition. Has your view of the Bible changed?

I don't think my journey is an untypical one in that if you have been immersed in something, there will come a point when you have to rebel against it. It was necessary for me to leave behind my entire early background—physically, emotionally and intellectually … to have nothing to do with it. Oranges was a way of cleansing myself from all that, of saying, “No, this is what I am. Not this other thing, this made thing. Now I am going to make myself, I'll be self-invented.” Over the years—since I wrote Oranges eleven years ago—I have continued to think long and deeply about those issues that I suppose I have thought about since I was a very small child. Now I feel comfortable again to use the Bible as one source book amongst many others, but as a very important one. It is something that I know so very well that it would be ridiculous for me to try to do without it. And there's no point. I don't accept the God myth of the church. I think it's hogwash. But that doesn't mean that I don't accept the essential mystery of the Scriptures and of the religious faith.

But you don't feel the need to fight against it at this point?

Absolutely not. It's of much more use to me as an ally. But that's only because of this relationship whereby it was everything, then it had to be nothing, and now I have come back to a point where it is as though a friend walks beside you, neither in front nor behind.

Does the Bible have, then, the status of other texts that inhabit your work and your life?

Yes, very much so. I like to know a lot of stories and myths. That is extremely important to me. It helps me think about things, it helps me piece things together. It makes a bridge. I think it's one of the ways human beings have always understood their environment and the challenges that environment has posed.

In your earlier works you play around with myths and fairy tales, revising them and making new ones. Is this a way of offering up new plots for people to think about?

Yes. A lot of people knew these stories somewhere, or a version of them. It's a question of coaxing these stories back into conscious memory from where they have been lost. I think I have spoken before about the writer, the artist being a kind of dredging net going down into the rich silt of the mind, of the spirit, to bring up things that are normally out of reach or not accessible to consciousness. It's the duty of the writer—and indeed of all artists—to think long and deeply and to be able to drill down into those substrata so that these contents are released. Also, I think that as you drill down there is a release in all of the senses because great pressures build up in people and they don't know why. Quite often something very simple, a way of elucidating it, a way of telling the story, can release that and relieve it and make them feel, Yes, that's what is happening to me, or, This is how I feel. Then immediately one is taken off that horrible little rock of chaos where one is entirely alone and brought back into the community.

In your writing, you forge ties with the people who are your friends in the realm of letters—Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, William Blake and others—by alluding to them, quoting them, playing around with their words in your text. Do you see that as a tribute or as the inevitable result of your life as a reader?

I think it's both. I have a very good memory. Being brought up without books, it was perhaps more urgently necessary to memorize things than it is for most people. I'd also been brought up to memorize large chunks of the Bible. So I know just stacks and stacks of stuff by heart, which I continually mutter to myself as I go about my business. I shall probably turn into some frightful old woman who mutters all the time. I think I am already. It's lifeline to me; it's a kind of rosary, isn't it, these chants of mine? They're full of sacred text, and so naturally they occur in my work. It's simply that they do, in so much as I think about them while I'm writing, and I think, Yes, that fits. It then suggests an allusion, which the reader can gather or not, according to what they bring to the book. The more I can stuff in it, the more layers there are in my work, the more there is for people to mine.

You've written, “I cannot do my own work without known work.” Do you have any sort of program for yourself, certain texts that you immerse yourself in, in order to write, or is it less structured than that for you?

It's both. Obviously I'm rather a great troller of secondhand bookshops. Fortunately, I live near Oxford, a very good place to search for secondhand books. I like fishing about, seeing what I can find. Which has always seemed to me part of the sinister side of the computer revolution. Because there will be no more fishing. A terrible way of confiscating knowledge, these computer indexes. That really worries me. I like to crawl around secondhand bookshops, and indeed libraries, and just see what's there. So there's that part of it that is haphazard. Except, strangely enough, when I am about to write a book, I always find exactly what I want as if by chance. But it isn't chance, it's one of those synchronicities. Otherwise, I'll choose something that I want to read, and I'll read it a lot. A couple of winters ago I wanted to read all of Shakespeare again. So I thought, Right, that's what I'll do from October to March and it will be something I do every day. At the moment, I'm on the last eight volumes of the collected works of Jung, because I did the other nine last winter.

Book collecting is something that you have said you did even when you didn't have the resources for it. Are you able to indulge in this passion more freely now?

Yes. I did an interview for CBC on the radio, and the chap interviewing me asked me what was the most I'd ever spent on a first edition. I said that I never spent more than three thousand pounds, and he nearly fainted. He said, “Well, that is like six thousand Canadian dollars!” That really horrified him. “Why would anybody in their right mind … ?” And I said, “Look, people spend that on a holiday to Barbados. People spend that on a fancy piece of hi-fi equipment or a new computer. God help us, people spend that on a dress.” I could go to Donna Karan in Knightsbridge and I could spend that. Nobody would find that particularly surprising. But they do find it surprising when I say that I've spent that on a book. But, to me, it's not. It's lovely to be able to do that. It's a great thrill, and I don't think I shall ever tire of it … to be able to buy things that come up in catalogs which then go into my own little sanctuary.

In Art and Lies you deal with the book as artifact, as a kind of bearer of history in and of itself. Is that one of your fascinations—books as having passed through various hands and times?

Yes. I love that. I love to think about the secret life of the book and where it's been and who's had it. The associations there are very compelling. Also, the period I collect, which is modernism, 1900 to 1940, is a nostalgic period because it's probably the last great period of the book as we shall know it, in so much as books were still being very well produced, often on rag paper with extremely interesting people doing the covers, some making beautiful things. But now that only happens in a way that is extremely self-conscious—specialist private press editions that are aimed at the collector. They're not aimed at me, I don't want to collect anything that is made for collecting. What a world we are! That you have things that you can collect like that!

A great friend of mine, who was one of the most important collectors in Britain, died recently. His collection has now been broken up, as he wished: “These books must now go back into the market to become part of someone else's collection.” So, rather than left to the Bodleian—and we are talking about millions of pounds worth of books—it's the most wonderful thing that they have gone back. There is a kind of rightness to that, isn't there? It's rather like Excalibur being dragged back into the lake. I think I'll do that too, so they will appear again. Which is rather nice, so one only has them for a time.

How do you see your own books as artifacts? Do you take an active part in designing their appearance?

I think the time I like best, in a lazy kind of way, is in between finishing the book and publishing it, because you've done all the work that you can, and you know that it's gone to a good home. I like getting on with the nuts and bolts of the book after that. How are we going to make it look beautiful? How are we going to sell it, and how can we use it as an image tool? Those things interest me. I am not the kind of writer who simply puts the final post off and then says I don't want to know anything else about what happens. I used to be in publishing, and that side of life is still one that I like to be involved with and work closely with.

I would hate to see books and publishing become shabby second cousins to the rest of the media. There is a bit of a danger that books and publishers and perhaps even writers will take the view that it doesn't matter what our product looks like because we'll have readers anyway. It's a very defensive attitude: No, we mustn't go out and make new readers; people who buy CDs or videos or go to movies don't normally read. There's an attitude that says if you don't like reading, if you don't love books, you never will, so we don't have to care about that. I care about that very much. I think you have to build bridges and help people simply to open the book and start reading it. Because as soon as they do that you are fifty percent there.

You've written elsewhere about the need for people to raise themselves to the level of art, rather than art bringing itself down to the level of people.

That's definitely what I feel. But I feel you can help people, perhaps people who are a bit nervous of books. The word still has power even in the multimedia age, and people who are not used to the word can be a bit scared by it, especially if they haven't had a particular kind of education; they feel that books are somehow not for them because they didn't grow up with them. You have to help them to feel that a book is not going to explode in their face, and that's where packaging and image and really clever publishing can help. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing to be ashamed of.

For whom do you write?

I don't ever think of it. I simply do the work that I need to do without imagining an audience at all. I am always surprised when I do meet readers or when I do public appearances, where I see people from all walks of life, a great cross section, a great variety. One of my personal aims has been to try to bring the word back to people who are dispossessed of it. So when people come along and say, “I don't normally read, but somebody gave me one of your books and now I have read all of them,” that, for me, is a great victory. Because, of course, they won't stop with my books; they'll read other people's too.

So you hope in some way to transform people's lives through your writing?

Very much so, yes. It's not that I set out with that in mind. I never sit down and think that now I want to write something with a high moral tone or with a particular seriousness or a relevancy to today's gender issues. I never think like that. It's rather more a smuggling, a kind of contraband, wanting to get something across frontiers, places where it's not normally allowed.

I think people are often quite unaware of their inner selves, their other selves, their imaginative selves, the selves that aren't on show in the world. It's something you grow out of from childhood onwards, losing possession of yourself, really. I think literature is one of the best ways back into that. You are hypnotized as soon as you get into a book that particularly works for you, whether it's fiction or a poem. You find that your defenses drop, and as soon as that happens, an imaginative reality can take over because you are no longer censoring your own perceptions, your own awareness of the world. Most of us spend a lot of time censoring everything that we see and hear. Does it fit with our world picture? And if it doesn't, how can we shut it out, how can we ignore it, how can we challenge it? We are continually threatened in life, it's true. But once you are alone with a book, and it's also true with a picture or with music, all those defenses drop and you can enter into a quite different space where you will learn to feel differently about yourself.

There was a time when you were writing and working to support yourself, and now the writing supports you. How have things been different for you since you've been writing full time?

It has been a long time; I have been doing it since 1987. When I sold The Passion here, I decided that I would just live on the money. My needs are fairly simple. Of course, one just spends as much money as one has. Very peculiar that! You never actually have any money. You think, If I had this much money ten years ago, I would have thought I was amazingly rich, but I still manage to spend it all and not have any left. At the moment, speaking purely financially, I get a good price in the marketplace. I am published in a lot of countries, so I do well. But I don't imagine and I can't expect that will always be the case. A writer's life is very much a high-wire act, especially with huge changes of market forces now—whether there are going to be any books at all and what it will be like in twenty years. So I think that's why it's very important simply to care about the work and to do the best work you can, and not to worry about the market or the audience or any of those considerations.

Do you have more freedom now than you did before in terms of editors and publishers accepting your experimental style?

Well, if my books didn't sell, I wouldn't be published. That's for sure. I have always had a very personal relationship with the people who publish me. Frances Coady, now at Granta, published me at Random House. I have had to move quite a bit, but I think that is because my own career coincided with the strange phenomenon in the eighties when publishing houses kept being bought and sold. So I have had to move around, much more than is usual. That's been a bit strange. But I think I can pretty much do what I want now. I do it anyway, you know, and I'm not bothered. If they won't pay me, they won't pay me. I'm still doing it.

You have alluded to a dislike for the computer age, and you also mentioned that you have a fondness for your typewriter. Does this mean that you don't use a word processor?

Yes. It does mean that. I don't. I love my typewriter. It's electric, of course, but it's one of those wonderful old-fashioned models that never, never break down. It'll just go on forever. I have written everything on it since The Passion. It's a friend of mine. I know all its little ways, and I wouldn't want anything else.

I like the physicality of the piece of paper. I like cutting up my bits of paper if I want to change it around. I am very messy in that respect. My original manuscript of Gut Symmetries has all the corners cut off because I had to repaginate it. I thought, What is the quickest way of doing it? So I just cut all the corners off and then photocopied it and redid the photocopies, so mine has got these stupid triangles. But I like that. It's my manuscript. I can do what I want with it. I don't care what it looks like, as opposed to that kind of self-publishing, where people hand in these amazing word-processed things and you just think, Well, that looks very nice, but …

Do you compose at the typewriter?

Yes, straight on the typewriter. I don't like doing it any other way. I don't even like doing it with pen and paper. I will if I have to. But I tend not to at all.

How do your books come to you? Do you think first of a character?

Well, every book has been different. Each touching-off point tends to come as a surprise and is unlooked for. I have a pact with myself about my work: I simply go to my study every day and wait. I read, I write things, but when I'm not writing a book, I don't necessarily expect anything to happen. But I still go there. It seems to create the necessary psychic space and also the necessary tension out of which something will be formed. With Gut Symmetries it took an awfully long time. The book collapsed on me three times. I had to throw away three drafts well into two thirds, because I hadn't quite got to the point where I could actually write it. You really have to have faith then—and it is a question of faith—and you do have to believe, because there is no other way. There is nothing objective about this. It is faith and it is belief. There is nothing to say that because you have covered pages in the past that you will cover them in the future. Or that they will be any good. There are no guarantees. But I had some idea of the characters, and I knew what I wanted to deal with in terms of physics and what that might say. It was a question of finding a structure that would be in fact simple enough to hold some very complex material and direct enough to get across things that are very elusive. I needed to set up a contrast, so that the form and the material could be best presented without either getting tangled in the other. That was in fact extraordinarily difficult to do.

Once you had the structure, did the book come quickly, or was it still an uphill climb?

When it's written, of course, it could never have been written any other way. You just think, What was all the fuss about? Yes, it was difficult. It's like stoking a fire. To start with you must tend it very carefully; it won't burn anything you throw on it. By the time it's a big blaze you can chuck old tires and sofas on it and it will burn. But to start with, that will just put it out. I kept putting out my fire by throwing on too much unwieldy, unsuitable material before it was blazing; then I would have to start the whole thing painfully again with little twigs and bits of paper, and nurse it and make it go until I got to that point where I thought, Right, I'll just chuck the lot on there and it will be incandescent.

In your own works, do you see philosophy as driving the plots, or are philosophy and plot so interconnected that it's hard to separate them?

It's really to do with thinking. Sometimes I look at my work, and I think, Oh God, my characters don't do anything except think! But that is what I do. I have to think about things constantly, ceaselessly. So that leads to abstract speculation, but always I hope to pull it through some very concrete experiences. I like to think that my work is tangible, something that you can touch, taste, smell, feel. I wouldn't want to become so lost in philosophizing or abstractions that it didn't have any relevance anymore, which again is why I try to use stories in particular ways to concretize the image … to express it in terms such that people will feel it is alive with color rather than an abstract thought. I myself don't really need things concretized, but that's the way I want to pass things on. I love abstract paintings, and I find pictures of things rather distressing. That's not because I despise them, or that they are less than the sort of stuff I like; it's simply what feeds you, what works for you in a particular way. I like to look at harmonies of color or sound or language in a way quite separate from their meaning, that is, their superficial meaning.

This goes along with your dislike of realism?

I dislike it simply because the narrative function of the novel has been overtaken and done much better now by television and cinema. For instance, when photography was invented, a great many painters thought that they would be out of a job, and a great many of them were. But not painters like Picasso, who rejoiced in photography and took a lot of pictures himself, who thought that this would lead to a new freedom for painters because they would no longer have to represent what was there. Instead, they could paint much more subjectively and, as he thought, more honestly. They would no longer be bound to the narrative of fact. Now I can't see why for us as writers it shouldn't be the same thing. If television and cinema can mop up that need for narrative drive, for life as it is lived, for a picture of the everyday, then great! Let it. Because it is a function and people need it, that should free up words into something far more poetic, something about the inner life, the imaginative life …

You have criticized contemporary writing for being too focused on narrative, and you even say that you don't write “novels.” Do you believe that the novel as a genre is dead?

Yes, I do think so, because novel is a historical word from a historical period. The novel is a nineteenth-century construct, and I don't see what place it has now on the borders of the twenty-first. I prefer to talk about fiction because, to me, the novel means something very specific, and comes out of a particular nineteenth-century sensibility. I love those books and wouldn't want to be without them; I wouldn't want anybody not to read them. I shall have my little goddaughter on Dickens as soon as I ever can. But it's this business of reproduction furniture. You cannot keep producing the things that have been successful in the past or that have expressed the human condition in the past. You have to move forward; you have to make it new for every couple of generations, because otherwise it is not a living thing anymore. Books shouldn't be printed television, they should be something in their own right.

You express a kind of self-consciousness about the novel as a genre, which hearkens back to the eighteenth century, a period in which novelists were very self-conscious about the newness of the form.

Yes. In fact, the eighteenth century is a century of which I am particularly fond. I have a Georgian house, I like things eighteenth century. I like that sense of liberty and anarchy along with mathematical preciseness and civility and ridiculously artificial manners. I like the self-consciousness of the century, which I feel disappears in the nineteenth century into a kind of debased moralizing, where self-consciousness becomes self-righteousness. You can see it in the art, you can see it in the social constructs. I think of the apotheosis of the novel as a nineteenth-century phenomenon, and something which was not present in that particular form in the eighteenth century or again by the early twentieth. It seems to me to be something that belongs to a particular period, and should be understood in its period. I wouldn't call Orlando a novel—and neither did Virginia Woolf—and I don't mean that's because she called it a biography. I mean it simply isn't. It in no way resembles a nineteenth-century product; it's closer, if anything, to an eighteenth-century piece. So it's really about trying to use words precisely so that we know what we are talking about, rather than saying that I hate novels. I don't. But I want to know what it is we're writing now, and I don't see that they are novels. Or they shouldn't be.

If moving beyond the concept of the novel allows you greater scope for creating a more authentic form, how do you proceed to do this? Does the form of a work develop organically or is it something that you impose on the work from outside?

I think the two things come together. Just as if you were painting a picture, you would want to use particular colors depending on your subject matter, depending on what emotional intensity you wanted to express. So it is with the written work—the form must somehow be created organically from within, not so much the content, but the mood that you want to create.

I suppose sometimes you're really lucky and you hit something that works together beautifully, and then other times you have literally to make it up as you go along. You say, “What can I try now? Will this work, will that work? Can anybody help me?” And that's when you go back desperately to your private ancestors to see how they've solved a particular problem. There is a whole technical side about what you need to know in order to write well—which is continually overlooked, though never overlooked when people talk about pictures and music. Unless you are absolutely and thoroughly soaked in English language and literature (if you are writing in English), you will never know what you need to know. The funny thing about creative-writing courses is that they busily rush around teaching people how to express their banalities without teaching them how to source the things that they need to discover. If you go and study music or painting, you learn about the past. You learn where to look, you learn what to look at, how to look things up. You need creative-reading courses not creative-writing courses. Then people would have something that they could actually use in a positive way instead of rushing in thinking, How can I express myself?

In Art and Lies, you write, “It is right to question standards but wrong to assume that there aren't any.” Where do the standards come from?

You have to choose the best of the past—and the standards are very high in the English language—and ask yourself, “Where do I figure in this, do I come anywhere near it?” If not, you may as well stop. If you really think that you are nowhere compared with the people you admire—and that has to be a very ruthless and honest self-examination and not simply flattery—then really you should stop. It's only by thoroughly knowing those other writers and daring to challenge them, even, that you would ever write. So there's always this paradox of respect and challenge, of recognizing that work exists that you should always be striving towards, which you have to look up to, which is fantastic and which probably you will never reach. It is almost a balance—either you have got it or you haven't. I don't know how you really teach it to people who want to write, because there is always too much of the one or the other, too much reverence or too much audacity: either “I know I can do it all” or “I'm so timid, I'm just going to copy.”

Would you say that some people experiment by simply disregarding standards without fully understanding them?

Yes. You can't know what to challenge unless you know what you are up against. You have to know the rules, and then you can break them. But if you don't know them, then you are working in a kind of formless chaos, which is not to say that you might not accidentally produce something interesting. It will certainly mean that you can't repeat the trick, and it will mean that you yourself are utterly unshored from what it is you are trying to do. It makes you a kind of pinball in a great pinball machine. You fire around the game, and maybe you will hit something and maybe you won't.

So you agree with what T. S. Eliot says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about an artist's relation to the past being one of altering tradition even as he or she absorbs and enters into it?

Yes, oh yes. I think Eliot was also right to be very wary about people who want to express their personality. It is important, first of all, to be sure that you do have something to express, but also to show a care for language that suggests that it comes first, before you, before your personality, before your own ambitions. There is always that level of humility. Whenever we talk about writing, we start to talk about paradoxes. We've talked about respect and challenge. Now we are talking about chutzpah and humility. The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant. Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them.

How would you describe your own relation to language?

I like to use lots of different words, and the accusation has always been leveled against me: why do you use these strange words? The answer is because they're there. If you have a very refined and subtle instrument such as the English language, which has been in use for many hundreds of years, it will do almost anything you want it to do. But it is also an old language, so you need continually to be refreshing it, revitalizing it and putting it together in surprising ways, which it will allow you to do if you will take the time. That's part of my challenge: to make sure that the language I'm using is fresh and revived and isn't in any sense a clichéd language or one that doesn't demand any thought from me. I try hard to get not only the right word but a word that's got buried in it lots of other associations.

And sometimes you offer up etymologies for words, such as invent or metaphor, in order to recover their lost meanings?

Yes. Again, to take those words back through the history of the word and history of the individual using it so that we can see how its meanings have accreted over time, and therefore how it might be able to freeze up. Because there are small words with so much in them, and to loosen one out and put it back into common consciousness, I think, is a good idea. Because then when people see the word somewhere else, maybe it will have more meaning for them.

Does your attempt to do this rely more upon poetry or prose? Does poetry lift language higher somehow than prose can, away from the realm of everyday speech?

I think it depends who is using it. In the past, poetry has had that function of crystallizing and expanding the possibilities of language because of its preciseness. But I don't think that has to be the case. It is possible, and we have seen it many a time, for prose to work on the same levels that poetry does. Not all the way through, because you can't sustain that kind of intensity. The pieces have to be slacker. I don't mean that they should be thoughtless, but while parts of them are intense and fused and hard in every sense, others should allow the readers some space so that their own minds can relax a little bit. You have to be in control to bring in the densities of poetry and understand, too, that you need places—passing places, pausing places—where you and the reader can sit down for awhile.

Do you see literature as making demands on readers to take some sort of responsibility for their own lives? Does your work challenge readers to see themselves in new ways?

Yes, I do think so, at least I hope so. It would be a failure if someone were to come at my books and not be able to take away something like that about their own lives. I want my books to make them think, How could I do it differently? How could I have made more sense of it? But not everything works for every person. Some things that move me very much would leave other people cold. Which is why you need so much variety in art and why you need a lot of it as well. We can never have enough. The idea that there is a limit and you can't have any more or you don't need any more, which people cite from time to time, “We've got enough now, surely. That will be all right.” Some people hate, say, Kathy Acker's work, really hate it. And yet, a lot of kids really love her stuff; it means something to them, it means something particular. It helps them to understand who they are in a very formless society. Which is great.

I get very tired of people endlessly slagging off work by writers when they don't know what's happening out there. If anything, the writers have a better idea than any critics or single readers because they at least get more feedback from a wide variety of people; they know whether or not things are getting across. There is something absurd about books being praised or dismissed by one person reading it in their front room and then writing up what they think in a newspaper. In a way, nothing could be more ridiculous, because while a book has to be a one-to-one relationship, it's also going to be a relationship with thousands of people, each of whom will have a different experience. One reason why I don't worry too much about reviews is because in the end the book has to survive on its own terms and on its own merits. There is a lot of patronizing reviewer criticism that suggests people want to read things that are easy or about themselves in a very obvious way. That has not been my understanding or experience at all. It always makes me laugh when I do a public reading. For instance, I usually do one at the National Theatre when I publish, and it's always sold out. There are always about 1,400 people there; they all turn up and pay their three quid. Now, what do they do it for, if they are not getting anything out of it? No reviewer—because they are so high and mighty—would ever go to an event like that. So, they don't see the people who come in off the street and want to know about books. It's the same with pictures, it's the same with music. I think reviewing is very isolated from the string of people who are actually going out and paying to experience this and wanting it in their lives.

You mentioned in Art Objects that students are demanding your works in their classes. Why do you think your themes appeal to young readers?

I think it is really to do with the kinds of characters that I use to get at particular situations. I have talked about the hero motif. That is something that is true for every young person: they have to be the hero in their own lives. They have to kill a certain number of monsters, usually escape from a wicked overbearing parent, leave home and go into the big wide world to seek their fortune. So, the hero motif is very powerful. It's in their own lives, and it's something that they can readily identify with when they see it reflected back to them in a way that tries to get across both the dangers, the perils, as well as the great pleasures of that sort of individuation.

But growing up isn't necessarily to do with young people; it is to do with anybody who simply hasn't done it. There are a lot of much older people who refuse to be the hero in their own lives, who put it off—a lot of women, for whom that was not seen to be appropriate, which is very sad. You always see young girls, full of life, launching themselves on the world, and then so quickly getting smacked down in the way that young men are not smacked down. Obviously, women are beginning to find that they really won't put up with that. They want to see what it is they can achieve for themselves. So, I think that's a large part of the appeal of my work. Because all my characters are on a quest. They're all looking for something that they don't have, and then, of course, they find that it is within themselves. But not until the end of the book.

All of your works involve a love plot. And yet, things don't usually work out for your characters; you seldom allow them to have a kind of a perfect bliss in love.

Well, I don't do happy endings, do I? They always end ambiguously by the water. I do not think that the endings are depressing, but I don't think that they are contrived in human terms either. Things are continually beginning again; they're never really resolved, you know. They are only resolved temporarily. We live in a society that peddles solutions, whether it's solutions to those extra pounds you're carrying, or to your thinning hair, or to your loss of appetite, loss of love. We are always looking for solutions, but actually what we are engaged in is a process throughout life during which you never get it right. You have to keep being open, you have to keep moving forward. You have to keep finding out who you are and how you are changing, and only that makes life tolerable.

You are often concerned with journeys in your books, the space traveled—physically and metaphysically—between two points. You repeatedly circle around the idea that travel can take place on different levels. Do you see travel as a metaphor for narrative? What do journeys represent to you?

Well, I am a bit obsessed with them. I have noticed this. I have also noticed how most of my books end at the sea or by a river, always some water at the end. Once you start recognizing your own obsessions, you know you're getting old. I suppose I am fascinated by journeys because—and my partner complains about this enormously because she loves to travel—I loathe travel. I will do anything not to travel. She says, “Let's go to this place,” and so we get all the books, and I read about it and then I make up stories and describe it all. Finally she says, “You don't want to go now because you've been, haven't you?” Unfortunately, this is true.

I wrote The Passion before I had been to Venice. I just imagined it. I hadn't been to New York for seven years when I wrote Gut Symmetries, but it didn't make any difference. I do travel in my head. It's the old joke about the magic carpet or the broomstick. That's how poor people used to make journeys, because they couldn't afford to make them literally. Certainly when I was a kid, it was one of the games we used to play. We invented places we would go, describing them to each other because none of us could ever afford to go anywhere. I didn't go to London until I was twenty-one.

It may be that because it gave me all that pleasure when I was a child it continues to give me pleasure now. But it now works on a different level. It's something more profound to me, because it's one of those good metaphors, isn't it, the idea of the journey? Everyone understands it straightaway. They also understand that you are talking about an inner journey and an outer journey at the same time. It's quite a simple trope for conveying some very complex information. That is what I try to do—to choose something that is simple and yet works as an enormously powerful conductor. That is what the journeys in the books are really about, trying to get somebody away from victim status.

One might say that your writing is characterized by a kind of excess. Have you gotten different responses to that aspect of your work?

If you want something to be clear straightaway then it's probably better not to read my books. Read somebody else's. I don't really feel that I should be held accountable for writing the kinds of books that I want to write just because some reader I can't imagine or will never know doesn't want to read them. It seems a bit unfair. You can't win in the art stakes, because there is always somebody who is cross with you. So that's why it is better not to care and instead think, Well, I must really do my work, hope that it reaches people and leave the rest to chance. That's often mistaken for arrogance, but it isn't. You have to believe that you are good, because if you think you are rubbish, why are you doing this stuff anyway? And what are you doing chucking it out there for people to buy? I think that would be the true arrogance—if you thought your stuff was rubbish and still got people to pay good money to read it.

Have you been accused of being arrogant?

Yes, largely because I do insist on doing my own work in my own way. I suppose it is a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, but then people are at liberty to leave it. That's their choice. I can't second-guess those choices. You can't tie yourself up in knots trying to please all of the people, and you can't make a kind of computer-generated product that is just meant to target an interest group. I suppose that is what, to some extent, the publishers would like, because that's where the money is. But writers don't work like that and can't. If it is arrogant to wish to do the best that you can in your own way, then, sure, I'm arrogant.

You frequently represent gender as a plot that we're handed. Do you see gender as something flexible and fluid?

Obviously society doesn't see gender as unimportant; it sees it as extremely important indeed. And thereby many injustices are caused. I see it as less important as I get older. I no longer care whether somebody's male or female. I just don't care. Which is strange, because I used to care very much, especially because my emotional and sexual affinities are with women. That was obviously a very specific choice and, again, there is this business of having to define something clearly and really know what it is that you feel before you can relax. I defined myself very clearly as somebody who preferred the company of women and wanted to arrange my life as such. It's not that I'm not that person anymore, because my partner is a woman, and I hope we will stay together because we are very happy. But I have many more male friends, say, than I used to, and I feel much more relaxed about the whole issue—it's changed. But that doesn't mean I don't know exactly what's going on out there.

Characters in your novels often cross-dress or play around with gender. Villanelle does this in The Passion. Jordan in Sexing the Cherry dresses as a woman, and is able to gain access to women's ways of talking when men aren't around. Do you see gender as a kind of performance?

I think I do. If we can do a hop and a skip out of the nineteenth century and land ourselves back, we find that it very much is so: the eighteenth century is a century where there is much more flexibility. Men could wear makeup, for instance. Byron wore makeup, and nobody thought anything about it. He was the last man to wear makeup like that. The eighteenth-century dandy is not a figure who exists in the nineteenth century until you get to Oscar Wilde, and you know what everyone thought of him.

In opera in the eighteenth century, the composer—say Handel or Mozart—would simply write for a particular voice. He wouldn't think, Is this a man or a woman? He liked that voice and would write a part. So when the person got on stage, sometimes they'd have to be a man and sometimes a woman. This does not happen in the nineteenth century. You don't see it again until Strauss's Rosenkavalier in 1911, which is extraordinary. It does tell us so much about the nineteenth-century sensibility about gender, a huge fear of anything crossing over. Men are men and women are women. But it is a distortion. Take the plays of Shakespeare, for example. You are meant to believe that a man is falling in love with another man. You're not meant to see it as pantomime. You are meant to see and feel that element of risk and fear and danger and trespass. In As You Like It when Rosalind cross-dresses, you're meant to believe that she becomes a boy. You should not see through the disguise, anymore than the people around her can see through the disguise. I am quite glad now, because in present productions of Shakespeare that ambiguity, that tease is really coming back … that people are meant to have their own affections and feelings dislocated from their normal seat into something a bit more threatening.

Do you see yourself as taking part in a tradition of women's writing explicitly, or is that something that you eschew in favor of a broader sense of tradition?

It's both. I feel that the broad tradition is mine; it has to be because I claim it. It's an inheritance, which is given to you, but you have to be worthy of it; you have to win it to make it your own, then you have to use it. It's rather like the parable of the talents in the Bible. The great lord gives out the various bags of money to his servants and says, “What are you going to do with it?” and then goes off. Some invest it, and one person buries it in the ground. We are given this enormous literary heritage—certainly you are as a writer—but then you have to make it work for you. You have to use it. If you just bury it in the ground, it's dead. So for me it is vital constantly to use the broadest tradition and to get as much from it as I can. But at the same time, within that, I recognize that strand in women's writing of which I am directly a part and which speaks to me in a very personal way. It has to, because I am part of that struggle.

As well as being a writer neither male nor female, I am a writer who is a woman. I am very conscious of that. I am conscious that the voice does get stronger all the time, the voice of the woman writing. Which is why I feel I have to continue, and do a bit more and take the bat on a little bit further, if possible. Otherwise, I am letting down the past as well as the future. You're insulting those women who did it absolutely to the best they could, making huge sacrifices at the time. There is a passage at the end of A Room of One's Own where Virginia Woolf says we have to work for women writers so that they will appear. My work is to do that work.

Do you feel a pressure from your audience to be a spokesperson for women, for lesbians?

Oh, yes! But it would be a very bad thing indeed if I were to do that. The best I can do is the best I can do, which is my work. I have no objection to all of this stuff being pumped out; there really is a place for it. But I don't want to do it. I don't want to be a political writer, or a writer whose concern is sexual politics.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own faults Charlotte Brontë for allowing politics to come into Jane Eyre. Specifically, she points to the passage in which Jane is reflecting on the limitations of her life as a woman and raging against the boxes into which she has been put. Woolf sees Brontë's introduction of this anger into the text as an artistic flaw. What is your view of the relation between political engagement and artistic creativity?

I think Virginia Woolf was speaking quite rightly from her own anxieties, something that she personally was very worried about, but I don't think that she was right. It may be better to try to speak honestly even if that anger, to some extent, flaws part of the work than to try to suppress and possibly dampen down your own rocket fuel in the process. I think it's better to take the risk. You can edit it out later if you want to, and if you can't—because it would be sort of an amputation, or a surgery that would damage the rest—then leave it in, and let the passages speak for themselves. And let people say, “Well, this passage doesn't work.” I mean, it annoys me in D. H. Lawrence when he starts his working-class rant. I have written about that. I know I do it as well. But it probably doesn't matter, because no work is perfect. We can't endlessly be worrying about how to write a perfect work. We can only do the best we can. So it may not be worth wasting energy on.

A large body of people want to read your work strictly as lesbian literature. Is that a problem for you?

No, it's not. There is nothing I can do about it, so it can't be a problem for me. That's another one of the obsessions we're in at the moment. We will pass through it, and if the book lasts, then it will cease to be a problem. I have to take the long view and really not mind. Because it's only a slightly more extreme version of anybody reading the text in a way that they like … that it has become a group rather than an individual identity with the book.

Do you think that lesbian relationships in your fiction come across as superior to heterosexual relationships?

Yes, probably. But they don't in Gut Symmetries, no. And we don't really know what's going on in Written on the Body do we?

The single most discussed aspect of Written on the Body is that we don't know what the gender of the narrator is. Did you intend for Written on the Body to be completely ambiguous in terms of gender?

Well, no, I just couldn't be bothered. I didn't want to pin it down. I thought, There is no need to do so, so I won't do so. If I put in a gender then it weights my story in a way that I don't want it to be weighted. So I didn't. I didn't expect that a huge furor would arise. I must say that took me totally by surprise.

What do you think of the fact that some reviewers of Written on the Body praise your understanding of the male psyche based on their reading of the narrator as a man?

That's a bit weird. But that's all right. It's an open text. To some extent when you read a book that you care about, you do build it again as your own text. That's inevitable. We all do that. You set up a very jealous and personal relationship with it, and then it can only be your text, and the last thing you want to be told is that there is another way of reading it.

What is your view of heterosexuality now? Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit presents heterosexuality as something that can only oppress women; however, at the end of Gut Symmetries, it is not really clear who will end up with whom, or whether any of them will end up with any of the others. That is, you don't seem to be promoting the same-sex relationship at the expense of the heterosexual one.

I didn't want to have a clear winner in this book; it is more complex than that. I think men can really get in the way when you are trying to sort your life out and get on with it. Because they just take up so much space. I'm not under any illusions that I could have been where I am now in literary terms if I had been heterosexual. I really believe I would not be. Because—and this has gotten me into huge trouble before, but I suppose I may as well get into trouble again—I can't find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children. Where is she? I am no fool, I mean I looked at this at the time. I don't think people's sexuality is really that fixed. I had various boys at various times as well as various girls. There was a part of me which instinctively knew that in order to be able to pursue my life, which was going to be hard enough anyway, I would be much better off, either on my own or with a woman. A man would simply get in the way, and I would have to use up energy that I didn't have to spare. I do believe that to be the case. It probably wouldn't be the case now, say, if I changed to a new partner, because I am sufficiently established. But I do think that when you are young and you are trying to make your way in the world it really is an issue.

Women who have tried to push it aside as an issue say things like, “Well, I won't even think about having children until I am forty.” Then of course they are completely knackered. It seems to me difficult enough to have children when you have got all the energy of being twenty-one. Some of the people I know who had children quite late, pushing forty, are exhausted. They are not the women they were twenty years ago, and they can't manage not to have any sleep for two years. So by pushing the problem into the future you don't solve it. The issue of how women are going to live with men and bring up children and perhaps do the work they want to do has in no way been honestly addressed. It is simply being made into a problem that you have when you're forty instead of when you are twenty.

In your last few books, you have taken up the topic of disease. It comes up in Written on the Body and then again in Art and Lies in which Handel is a surgeon, and you allude to it in Gut Symmetries, as well. How do you see disease functioning as a metaphor, and does it connect to other ideas that you have about the body in general?

It's one of those useful metaphors that everyone understands. People are rather terrified by the idea of a degenerative disease, whether it's cancer or AIDS, which will hijack the entire healthy organism and ruin it. Even the dimmest people can see that this is not only to do with their own bodies but a kind of metaphor for the state crumbling away. So it's one that writers can easily use for their own purposes. I used it because I wanted to exploit that fear, to make people really sit up and take notice and try to fit the inner body onto the outer body, as it were. To say, “What is it that is really going on with you? What do you know about your body and your psyche, your sanity?” It goes back to the idea of people continually being at the mercy of things that they don't recognize because they refuse to recognize them. As we know, cancer and AIDS in their early stages are virtually undetectable unless you're lucky. By then the damage is done. I feel very strongly that people—because they shut so much out—are prey to destructive forces that take them over, gut them as human beings, leave them as non-functioning shells, and by the time they discover this it is too late. So that's why some of the stuff in Written on the Body and Art and Lies is not necessarily for the squeamish. I wanted people to recoil and to have to think about it.

You often present forgiveness as an important gateway to healing. That's something that Picasso in Art and Lies must learn to do. She thinks about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family and feels that she has to forgive herself for being complicit in her own suffering. Could you discuss your view of forgiveness?

Well, there are only three possible endings—aren't there?—to any story: revenge, tragedy or forgiveness. That's it. All stories end like that. There aren't any that don't. I suppose it depends temperamentally on which ones you want to choose. I have noticed that for me forgiveness is important. I have had quite a rackety life. I knew that my parents would never forgive me for what I had done but there came a point where I had to forgive them. That, was a choice I made, knowing that it could not be reciprocated, and perhaps not even wanting it to be anymore. It wasn't reconciliation, it was about forgiveness … Simply for me to try to look at them honestly and recognize what they were and not judge them and not be angry with them anymore. So, for me, finding in myself that kind of compassion was partly to do with Oranges, which is in many ways a very loving portrait of a monster.

In a sense, that's where autobiography does come in: my relationship with my mother was operatic; it was Wagnerian and tempestuous. She was this huge, huge creature, physically and emotionally demanding, and I am quite small physically. So immediately there was this contrast and this tension … This great thing constantly bearing down on this very small thing, along with the manipulations and the brutalities. I am wondering what one does with all that—and this comes up in Art and Lies—in that you can't spend the rest of your life saying, “Look how I've been treated; I am a terrible victim.” This is Picasso's great saying, too. “I will find something else, I will put that behind me.” It is only possible if you can forgive and let the bitterness go. I have found that most resolutely in my own life, which is why I am actually happy now. That was the first lesson to me—of learning to forgive other people, and I have had to do it quite a lot since. I don't mean that's because I'm a saint, but I mean you have to choose. In the end it is better to say, “I can't change them, but I can forgive them and I can change myself.”

Is it a way of changing the stories that one tells about oneself?

Very much so, yes. The way you depict your own life is important. For some people, it's either revenge—they're always looking for someone else to blame and to get back at—or it's tragedy because the whole thing is such a bloody mess and they'll never get out of it. But the moment that you can forgive, you take back the power and the healing waters flow. I know that personally, and I find it in literature. It's the end of the Shakespearean comedies where, in the fifth act, everyone comes together and sees each other for what they are. You get it in As You Like It, where at the end of the play the characters return from the Forest of Arden, all rather sobered by their experience. None of them are what they thought they were or perhaps even what they would like to be, but there is a great deal of acceptance, and then, of course, the play's joyous ending. Even in the tragedies you find this. What else is there at the end of The Winter's Tale when Hermione steps down from the statue, and she and Leontes find in each other a reconciliation and forgiveness of all that is past? What was stonelike, her mirroring his stolid heart, is suddenly fluid and warm again.

There is also a potential for a new beginning there, a clearing of the way for the future. You have written that “to continue to do new work is to continue a development of style that allows the writer to surprise herself.” How have you surprised yourself lately and do you have ideas of what you will be doing in the near future?

Well, Gut Symmetries was a very different book from Art and Lies, and yet it concerns all the things that have always concerned me. It's obviously my book. It couldn't be anybody else's book. It's important to be able to construct for yourself a new book that you didn't expect and something that moves away from what you have done immediately before. I have tried to do this. But I can't be sure that I will be able to go on doing it. No one can know that. In the short stories I am writing now, there is a kind of straightforward happiness and ease, which I always get when I have finished a book … an extra run of energy, which can turn into other things. That's a very nice time. So I am enjoying that. But I know perfectly well that the real work will begin in about a year when I'll have to start another piece of fiction, and I have absolutely no idea … That's a lie. I have a very tiny idea, which is not really an idea at all, which is something very deep in the water, which has a light, but not a very bright light. But I'll get it. So it's there, but it's going to take a long time to come up, and it will be about a year. It may be hell, it may be like Gut Symmetries, to get started on it. It may feel like utter defeat rather than something new.

There was very much, after I left London, after Art and Lies, a period of retreat and breakdown. Not in a sense of nervous or mental breakdown, but a breakdown of what I had become at that point because it was no longer of any use to me. In a sense, I was having to remake myself in order to be able to write Gut Symmetries. That process will have to continue. If I stop, if I stop remaking myself, I won't be able to do any good work anymore. So the challenge is to continue to do it, to continue to keep sane. Also, to remember what I'm here for, no matter how many voices tell me I am really here for other things or really here for nothing at all.

There is a fairy story about the prince and the black stones. On top of a crystal mountain is a princess, i.e. the thing of highest worth, the thing desired. The prince, the hero, the questing self, wants to get to the princess, the thing of highest worth. He starts to climb the mountain, which is crystal and therefore extremely slippery, difficult. On the way, he does all right for a bit. Then these black stones in his path start to speak and they say, “You are a fool. Why are you going up this mountain? You will never get to the top. In any case when you get to the top it won't be worth it, there is nothing there,” or, “You're going to die of thirst, you're going to die of hunger.” This continues all the way up; he becomes more and more depressed, and he thinks, I will never, never get to the top. Then, of course, eventually the hero does get to the top and frees the princess. He looks back and realizes that the black stones were the souls of all the people who had failed before and therefore didn't want anyone else to succeed, because the only thing that justified them was their own failure. That's a useful story if you are a writer, because the way is full of black stones. All you know is that there is this thing of highest value, of great worth, that you want to keep trying to achieve. Every time, up the slippery rock, with no sense of being able to get there, you simply have to stuff your ears and keep climbing.

David Sexton (review date 4 January 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1350

SOURCE: Sexton, David. “A Serious Case of Solipsism.” Spectator 278 (4 January 1997): 27, 30.

[In the following negative review, Sexton argues that the imagery and syntax of Gut Symmetries alienates its core audience.]

Plainly, Granta Books was right to purchase an established name to spearhead its re-launch as an independent publisher. That Jeanette Winterson was the ideal recruit for the role is less obvious.

Although she still enjoys considerable fame, she has used it primarily in the last few years to make herself a figure of derision: naming herself as the greatest living writer in a poll, choosing her own work as her book of the year, proclaiming herself the only true heir to Virginia Woolf, and, famously, door-stepping journalists who have had the cheek to offer criticism of such vanity.

If these aberrations were, for some reason, genuinely necessary to keeping her confidence up and her talent intact, they would not matter in the end. Unfortunately, Winterson's writing has itself become steadily more impaired by her self-regard and insularity too. Her last book, a collection of essays called Art Objects, appeared to be nothing less (or more) than a primer in the cult of her own genius. Her previous novel, Art & Lies, was memorably described by Nicci Gerrard as ‘bobbing on its way into solipsistic, meaningless stratosphere.’ She has never produced another book as enchanting as her relatively artless and strongly autobiographical debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit of 1985.

That at least one person at Granta is aware of these facts is painfully evident from the wish-list that masquerades as a press release:

This novel marks a return to very accessible storytelling, a plot, big ideas about time and science, and some wonderful characters reminiscent of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

Dream on. Gut Symmetries is extraordinarily difficult to get through; based on yet another romantic triangle in which two women end up happily as a couple, while the beastly man who has brought them together is sent to hell; full of tiresomely amateurish explanations of the ‘new physics’ which are then pressed into service as distressingly overbearing metaphors; and, once again, showing no sign of serious interest in any human being who is not a projection of Winterson's own self.

Yet, strangely enough, this is not a negligible book. It is a work of high literary ambition, rather than of diverted journalism. If it fails to perform the humdrum functions of a novel adequately, it nonetheless has many brilliantly sophisticated sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps it can best be appreciated as a disguised self-portrait, a carefully prepared presentation of a hyperaesthetic sensibility, loosely structured around a myth rather than a plot—something like The Unquiet Grave.

Alice, an English astrophysicist in her thirties, meets Jove, an American scientist in his sixties, when they are both guest lecturers on the QE2.

Alice, born at sea, is associated with water, alluvial, a bit fishy even. Jove is working on spacy things, ‘grand unified theories,’ the GUTs of the title—although Winterson punningly works in a lot of stuff about starry digestive systems too.

The expanding universe opening in your gut. Are your 23 feet of intestines loaded with stars?

Tricky question.

Alice and Jove begin an affair. But Jove has a wife called Stella (yes, stellar, I'm afraid, and she has a diamond in her bottom to prove it). Stella discovers Jove and Alice's affair and arranges to meet Alice for a drink at the Algonquin to have it out. Wouldn't you know it? They take to each other so much that they go off to bed together.

While Winterson writes deplorably about heterosexual sex (‘my father speared my mother on his manhood’), she can celebrate lesbianism with almost persuasive fervour. On waking with Stella, Alice investigates her bathroom and rhapsodises:

Here were the secrets of irresistible skin and salt smells of pearl and oyster. Lemon, brine, seaweed, sandalwood, musk, bitter rock-rose, frankincense and myrrh. Not here the floral notes of the high-octave female. I admire the soprano singer but not the soprano speaker.

It's mannered, autocratic and proclamatory but not entirely bad for all that—and there are many similarly fancy little riffs scattered through the book.

Alice, Jove and Stella next plan a yachting holiday in the Med as a threesome. Just before it is due to start, Alice is called back to England where her father is dying.

So Jove and Stella go off yachting on their own. Near Capri, there's a storm. They drift, lost at sea, getting peckish. Jove, claiming to believe Stella is already dead, cuts some bits off her bottom and eats them. Typical male hoggishness, Wintersonians will agree.

Jove, though, argues that he had no choice and anyway he was entitled, as a husband.

I did it with dignity, hungry though I was. I did it so that it would not have disgusted either of us. She was my wife. I was her husband. We were one flesh. With my body I thee worship. In sickness and in health. For better or worse. Till death us do part. Till death us do part. I parted the flesh from the bone and ate it.

However, happening to cruise by on the QE2 again (helping her mother to get over the bereavement), Alice discovers the yacht—and lo! Stella is not dead, just filleted a little. ‘Her buttock and hip had been chopped away.’ On the plus side, that secret diamond has been brought miraculously to light.

Jove is declared insane and, after a little plastic surgery, things look pretty promising for Stella and Alice, the starfish combination, or to put it another way, the stella maris.

With a boosterish sermon from Alice/Jeanette, we reach the end:

Space and time cannot be separated. History and futurity are now. What you remember. What you invent. The universe curving in your gut. Put out your hand. Kiss me … Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough.

Winterson has spun a closely woven web of imagery here—at the expense of plausibility. It's a thorough piece of work in its way, not easily matched in the novels of her contemporaries. Nor, since she shuns linear narrative and plainly expository sentences, is it easy to unravel.

But was it worth doing? Rather than opening up the reader's response to the novel, these ‘signs, shadows, wonders’ remain Winterson's private conceit, enclosed, repellent.

Nor perhaps, if a writer allows herself a completely free hand in arranging her effects without any regard for realism, is it so difficult to make such stuff fit together just as neatly as you want.

Winterson has indulged herself hugely. Every character, every scene here is a marvel. Yet simply naming marvels doesn't make them happen. That's why magical realism quickly becomes so dull and then so annoying. None of the spirits called from the vasty deep ever arrive.

Too many sentences congratulate themselves on their own remarkability too. A grandmother is described as

bunioned, bulbous, hair in bulrush rolls, butt-headed, butter-hearted and tenacious as a buckaroo.

To some, this may pass for good writing, being highly worked, ostentatiously full of imagery. But it bullies the reader, insisting on the writer's control, satisfying vanity rather than evoking response. Gut Symmetries is almost completely uninvolving, not just in terms of story and character, but even at the level of the phrase.

Perhaps Winterson secretly knows such armouring doesn't serve her well? Towards the end Alice makes this interesting confession:

My feelings dismay me. I so rarely control them. They are their own kingdom, too primitive to be a republic, and when they want to they send their armies to batter me. My total self should include feeling but I do not know how to make a treaty with that warrior state. When I was growing up I rebelled against feeling and now my feelings rebel against me.

This, at last, is touching, as well as lapidary. But as for the rest of the novel—no, no, Jeanette.

Amanda Craig (review date 10 January 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 445

SOURCE: Craig, Amanda. “Passion & Physics.” New Statesman 126, no. 4316 (10 January 1997): 47.

[In the following excerpt, Craig offers a mixed assessment of Gut Symmetries.]

Anyone who reads fiction knows there is a male canon and a female one. Perhaps the present-day preference for Amis or Atwood is simply a matter of temperament, or perhaps it goes back to Richardson and Fielding and the masculine assertion for sense over sensibility. Yet the true reader, like the true writer, is concerned with more than gender; and to hide behind it is to render us something less than human.

Jeanette Winterson and A. L. Kennedy are two of the leading writers of the new generation. Both are female and have won many prizes. One has gone from wild popularity as an outspoken lesbian to a chorus of (largely male) disapprobation; the other received the accolade of being a 1996 Booker judge, and benefits from the current exaltation of Scottish writing. A. L. Kennedy has been compared to Winterson, and both, as it happens, have written about passion and physics in their present books.

Gut Symmetries describes a love-triangle between Alice, Jove and Stella. In between charting the progress of the affair from its flirtatious beginning to a gruesome climax on a yacht near Capri, each protagonist recounts the circumstance of his or her origin. There are distinct similarities to Candia McWilliam's Debatable Lands, which include enjoyable meditations on emigration and a welcome return to the stylised comedy that made Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit a success. If the narrative voices are virtually indistinguishable, the author has clearly benefited from writing screenplays; the dialogue is in sprightly contrast to the monologues.

Winterson's attempts to link physics to passion read like The Song of Solomon as recounted by the cast of Star Trek. If this is not a novel of ideas, it isn't for want of trying. The title itself is a pun on intestines and the Grand Unified Theories of modern physics—thus perfectly encapsulating both Winterson's self-consciousness and her lack of it.

When she writes simply, and about the observed world, she is marvellous—“wind-mad plants,” “gargoyled with grief,” “sun like a disc saw” are memorable metaphors. It is depressing to see such a talent repeatedly go off-beam out of an appetite for intellectual posturing; there are benefits to writing from within the ghetto, but unacceptable penalties also. When Alice tells us “some people dream in colour, I feel in colour, strong tones that I hue down for the comfort of the pastelly inclined,” she seems to be speaking for the author. Mature writing, like mature feeling, is not, however, a matter of choosing between violent colours or girlish pastels.

Robert Alter (review date 7 April 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888

SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “Sexing the Jewry.” New Republic (7 April 1997): 36–38.

[In the following review, Alter faults the stereotypical characterizations and the accuracy of the scientific information in Gut Symmetries.]

[Gut Symmetries] is the sixth novel by Jeanette Winterson, a young British writer who has frequently been celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as the bright new light of English fiction. She has happily embraced this judgment: on at least two occasions, when asked to choose the best work of fiction to have appeared in England during the previous year, she confessed that she could think of nothing that equaled the richness of her own most recent book.

But one should not hold a writer's self-promotion against her. (In the words of Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”) Jeanette Winterson is a writer who has a genuine passion about the revelatory experience of art—as attested by her recent volume of essays, Art Objects—a genuine passion about language and a serious reflectiveness about the complex moral circuitries of carnal passion. Occasionally, all of this coalesces in a moment of illumination, as when Alice, one of the three protagonist narrators of Gut Symmetries, comments on the narcissistic gratification of becoming the lover of her male lover's wife: “Desiring her I felt my own desirability. It was an act of power but not power over her. I was my own conquest.” There are also fleeting passages that are poetically evocative, like this glimpse of New York in the penultimate paragraph of the novel: “The city is a scintilla, light to light, quartz and neon of the Brooklyn Bridge and the incandescence of the stars.” An energy of satiric observation enlivens her writing and can generate shrewd comedy—when, that is, it is undistorted by tendentiousness, as in her relentless war against what I suppose we must now call heterosexual marriage.

Winterson's hostility to marriage is a symptom of her recurrent inclination to skew reality in the interest of some preconceived ideas. In Winterson's novels, married women, in contradistinction to women in same-sex couples, consistently find themselves trapped in a living hell, and it always seems to be the fault of the man, who is variously callous, cruel, careeristic, indifferent and sexually unfaithful. The husband in Gut Symmetries literally eats his wife alive, which makes him the perfect realization of a metaphor implicit in her earlier fiction. Of course, there are such one-sided marital disasters; but reason suggests that lesbian couples, given the intractable stuff of human nature, have their own pathologies. In any case, observation (not to speak of introspection) would indicate that most soured relationships are the fault in varying degree of both parties. If there is a principal culprit, it could as easily be the woman as the man. What is proffered as a vision of the human world, in Winterson's novels, is sometimes no more than a special pleading about it.

There are, as I have intimated, local virtues in Winterson's writing, but the problem is that they never quite cohere into a compelling artistic whole. Gut Symmetries, which is not one of her most successful books, offers an instructive object-lesson as to why this should be so. Let me say first that, despite the plot of triangular desire (which includes an episode of cannibalism and a brink-of-death experience), this is not really a novel about eroticism, illicit or otherwise, and it is by no means a sensationalistic book. Winterson's real concern is with desire as an element of something much bigger—a visionary perception of the human condition, of the small but precious purchase that our transient intensities of living have in the infinite expanses of the starry spaces. Thus the novel's last sentence: “Whatever it is that pulls the pin, that hurls you past the boundaries of your own life into a brief and total beauty, even for a moment, it is enough.”

The earnest vagueness of that concluding statement is a symptom of the underlying deficiency of Winterson's work. She aspires to profundity, but the metaphysical concepts that she invokes are scarcely more than metaphorical conceits. Her language too often visibly strains to be rich and mysterious, and her characters suffer from a lack of specific gravity as realized individuals, which makes them unpersuasive as vehicles for her philosophic or visionary alms.

Both Alice and Jove, the man with whom she takes up at the beginning of the novel, are theoretical physicists, and there are repeated lucubrations on quantum mechanics, relativity, black holes, string theory and the like. The title itself is meant to be a resonant pun, referring at once to the symmetries of visceral experience among the three sexual partners and to an acronym current among physicists, Grand Unified Theories. But, at least as far as this layman can make out, the concepts of theoretical physics are treated as no more than loose and fanciful analogies for the preoccupations of a very literary person. Since, for example, in quantum experiments “particles can hold positions contradictory and simultaneous,” the narrator can grandly conclude that “in a quantum universe, heaven and hell are simply [sic] parallel possibilities.” In similar fashion, precise correspondences are proposed (Winterson is not the first to do so) between the highly paradoxical view of reality of the kabbalah and the paradoxes of modern physics.

I am not competent to judge the accuracy of the scientific ideas invoked, though a few obvious errors make me wonder about the rest. The Greeks did not seriously think the world was flat (the scientists of Alexandria worked out a measurement for the Earth's circumference accurate within a few hundred miles), and it is not true that Newton's theories “remained triumphant and unchallenged” until the publication of Einstein's two epochal papers in 1905 (decades earlier Riemann had conceived curved space and Maxwell's equations had anticipated electromagnetic waves). As to language, though Winterson can on occasion write very well, there is altogether too much flexing of stylistic muscle, often producing grotesque effects. Hyperbole predominates: “He crying in salt waterfalls, she scattering her tears like gunshot.” “I was gargoyled with grief. A stretched taunted thing. A water-spout of misery.” And this of a character who thinks she is about to die: “I seem to be tumbling over myself, ready to tunnel out of the womb of the world, my hands and feet bouncing off its warm wall.”

The excess of that last clause is the watermark of Winterson's overwrought style. She tries to impart to the characters a terrific intensity lacking in their inner lives through the sheer energy of metaphoric invention. Or, to state this in terms of her relation to her medium rather than her characters, she exerts a certain violence of figuration in order to affirm her originality. She does this in order to stay two steps ahead of the spectre of literary cliché, which in fact holds a hidden attraction for her, as in this shop-worn romantic image of despair: “Where was I in the night where two dogs howled at the moon and a ruined tower reflected down at me?” or in the threadbare lyricism of sentences such as “the world is still sleeping in its coverlet of stars.” To the extrusion of the poetic effect through hyperbole, one must add the little explosions of alliteration that punctuate the narrative, in which, as if in a Nabokovian language gone mad, the sheer repetition of an initial consonant is meant to signify vigor, imagination and wit: “Yes, look at her, bunioned, bulbous, hair in bulrush rolls, buttheaded, butter-hearted and tenacious as a buckaroo.”

The ultimate problem with these gestures of style and these conjurings of concepts is that the characters themselves have a cartoonish flatness—it is Winterson's most postmodern trait—that makes it hard to accept them as agencies in which the great issues of time and eternity and the poetic fire of Olympus are engaged. Concomitantly, literary allusion, which is the essential lexicon of the language of literature, dwindles here to the flat mention of antecedent works. Robinson Crusoe,Moby-Dick, Whitman and Homer are adduced, but with no resonance of imaginative relationship, intertextuality itself having lost its bite. The link of the characters with cultural, historical and geographical realities is as tenuous as their correspondence to literary analogues and as thin as the realization of their inner lives.

A case in point is the peculiar Jewishness of Stella, who is Jove's wife and becomes Alice's lover. Her mother is a German Christian, her father an Austrian Jew, antiquarian bookdealer and student of the kabbalah. The kabbalistic connection, on which Winterson has done some homework, is important to her for furthering the metaphysical concerns of the novel. But, in order to make Stella's father a kabbalist, the novelist must also represent him as an Orthodox Jew, donning prayer shawl and tefillin for his daily morning worship and consorting with ultra-Orthodox diamond merchants. The problem is that Winterson has not really bothered to find out anything about how Orthodox Jews behave. They don't marry German shiksas and continue to observe their orthodoxy punctiliously. They never pray, as the father here is said to do, at high Reform congregations such as “the Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue.” (And they would never use that incorrect definite article.) They never use “Abel” as a first name. And where a people, or a place, or an individual personage, is not imagined in the density of its particular existence, gaping holes are left, and through them the ever-lurking cliché comes flying into the world of the novel, as in this Jewish credo of Stella's:

I come from a people to whom the invisible world is everyday present. A people for whom there is no death though death has followed them across history and continents. I come from a people who hope against hope, whose melancholy is the outer garment of their mirth. In their celebrations and in their mournings, the spirit is the same.

The empty sentimentality and the facile mystification of these lines hardly require comment. What strikes me is how neatly they complement the hostile stereotypes in Winterson's fiction. (The Jewish physician-husband in Written on the Body is a compound of these stereotypes.) That is, if you denigrate whole classes of human beings and human relationships, there is likely to be a compensatory reflex, in which you raise certain classes of people or kinds of relationships up, and attribute to them an intrinsic and unique aura or spiritual power. (In her acknowledgments to Gut Symmetries, Winterson thanks her “Jewish friends who taught me their love and mystery.”) And it is not really so surprising that the same group may be alternately the subject of hostility and sentimentality.

Jeanette Winterson does not always writes such hackneyed stuff; but her worst writing is a symptom of why she is not better than she is. She has a flare for language, and there are moments of genuine feeling in her work. They are perhaps most strikingly evident in the story of a love wrenchingly lost at the end of Written on the Body, a novel that appeared in 1992. But she is too prone to reach for the shortcut to profundity and intensity. Too often she prefers rhetorical gesture and conceptual name-dropping to the arduous, deeply interesting business of imagining character, idea and circumstance.

Audrey Bilger (review date 13 April 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420

SOURCE: Bilger, Audrey. “Only Connect.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 April 1997): 14.

[In the following review, Bilger offers a positive assessment of Gut Symmetries, praising the novel's “beautiful symmetries.”]

Gut Symmetries; the title sticks in one's throat, the clipped percussion of the first word clashing with the sibilant wave of its partner. When I first heard the title of Jeanette Winterson's new novel over the phone last fall, I thought I had a bad connection. Unlike Winterson's other titles, which range from the elevated (Art and Lies,Art Objects) to the playful (Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,Boating for Beginners) to the visceral (Sexing the Cherry,Written on the Body), this title poses a challenge. The word gut, its physicality, its vulgarity, the fact that as a verb it means “to disembowel” has a disturbing effect when coupled with a word that indicates balance and order. Before I even laid hands on the book, I was drawn into its conundrum.

I found no easy answers. One of the book's three narrators calls the story a “journey through the thinking gut,” and again I came up against a question mark. “Gut feelings” I could follow, but “gut thinking” is a fork in the road, two paths that lead in seemingly opposite directions.

My confusion about where to go made me realize that I was on Winterson's territory. She deliberately unsettles her readers. In her 1995 manifesto Art Objects, Winterson writes: “What I am seeking to do in my work is to make a form that answers to 21st century needs. A form that is not ‘a poem’ as we usually understand the term, and not ‘a novel’ as the term is defined by its own genesis. I do not write novels. The novel form is finished.” This ambition to transcend generic and temporal boundaries has given rise to the experimental virtuosity of her work.

If Winterson's goal is to take her readers beyond traditional boundaries, her books provide abundant supplies for the journey. They are capacious portmanteaus, full of allusions and overflowing with odds and ends that may or may not prove useful, such as references to William Blake, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and Italo Calvino, among others, and a musical score at the conclusion of Art and Lies (1994). Gut Symmetries is lined with theories of alchemy and quantum physics, embroidered with signs of the Zodiac and cards from the Tarot deck. History, science and mysticism jangle around inside, along with birth, death, love and cannibalism.

Winterson's call for a new form of fiction takes shape in the book's prologue with a theory that combines Paracelsus and hyperspace before breaking the work down into its basic building blocks: “Here follows a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The Ship of Fools, A Jew, a diamond, A dream a working-class boy, a baby, a river, the subatomic joke of unstable matter.” Lest we take this summary as a reason to relax and just “enjoy the book,” we are next treated to a series of definitions that mystify rather than clarify. For example, “Working-Class Boy” is “Drive disc of Capitalism. Girl or boy. An unexploded dream.” Once we process—if we can indeed process—the idea that a “boy” can be a girl, we are ready to cross boundaries freely and play along with the book's metaphysics.

Gut Symmetries, like Winterson's other works, is a negotiation between states of confusion and moments of clarity. The central plot is relatively easy to follow despite its unconventional twists: Girl (Alice) meets boy (Jove), girl meets boy's wife (Stella), and a three-way love triangle ensues. In the telling, however, the storyline falls prey to the intricacies of an unstable universe. Early on, Alice comments, “I know I am a fool, trying to make connections out of scraps but how else is there to proceed? … I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear.” The story shifts, depending upon whose perspective we're hearing, and as we proceed, we are asked to question our own role as readers in making sense of, and thereby creating, the tale.

Like most Winterson characters, the cast of Gut Symmetries spends a great deal of time thinking—about themselves about loving and the possibility of connection, about making sense out of the incoherence of existence. Alice and Stella, the two main narrators—one a scientist, the other a poet—come at thinking from two completely different standpoints. Whereas Alice filters her emotions and is afraid of “feeling unthinkingly,” Stella feels fiercely and thinks in prose-poetry.

For instance, Stella responds to learning about Jove's infidelity by raging through their living space, dismembering their shared possessions and throwing his things out the window as experiments in gravity. When the trio arranges to meet for monthly confrontations, Stella and Jove shout and break things. Alice stoically offers refreshments.

Readers of Winterson's previous works might expect a preference for the women over the man, the lesbian over the two heterosexual sides of the triangle. And the two women certainly do come across as more sympathetic characters than Jove (also a scientist, who refers to his erection as “the physics of God” and whose name implies male domination). However, by stressing the interconnectedness of the three lives and their individual responsibility for the roles they play, the book allows no easy opposition of female versus male, gay versus straight. Jove may indeed be a patriarchal male, but Stella comes to see her part in giving him power over her. There are no victims in this novel. To the degree that Alice, Jove and Stella unmoor themselves from conventional perceptions of reality, they are able to find some satisfaction within the apparent chaos of their lives.

One arena of new perspective in Gut Symmetries is 20th century science. GUTs, the grand unified theories of quantum physics (Jove's field of study), are the backdrop for the book's views of an “expanding universe opening in your gut.” Science and fiction are as interrelated as everything else in Winterson's world view: “Now, more than ever, crossing into the 21st century, our place in the universe and the place of the universe in us, is proving to be one of active relationship. This is more than a scientist's credo. The separateness of our lives is a sham. Physics, mathematics, music, painting, my politics, my love for you, my work, the star-dust of my body, the spirit that impels it, clocks diurnal, time perpetual, the roll, rough, tender, swamping, liberating, breathing, moving, thinking nature, human nature and the cosmos are patterned together.”

This kind of symmetry is daunting—viewed from a high enough level, the universe coheres, but what good is that from the perspective of mere mortals? Or, as Alice points out, “in a police cell, the Earth is still flat.” The most simple scientific truths might have no relevance in our day-to-day lives.

But then there is art. Art can offer order within disorder, an aesthetic solution to the puzzle of existence. In Winterson's universe, art provides the best possible compass for finding one's way around. For the author, creativity is a survival skill. If this sounds surprisingly apolitical for the late 20th century (what about material realities? what about structures of oppression?), that's because Winterson wants to take us onto a higher plane, where issues of class, gender and sexuality will no longer circumscribe individual destiny. A utopian vision, perhaps, but one that can be at least partly realized through literature.

This novel invites us to take an active part in finding its beautiful symmetries. Alice, our primary guide into its looking-glass landscapes, likes to say “walk with me.” Storytelling becomes a hand held out across the space-time continuum, a link to perspectives not our own, a voyage we cannot make alone.

In accepting the invitation, I found that Gut Symmetries kept me on my toes, not the most comfortable way to walk, but one that made me aware of the steps I took. A kind of walking meditation, the book asks us to think our way toward insights that only our guts can know and to feel our way toward mysteries that lie beyond our analytical minds. The path is, of course, not straight and it leads in multiple directions simultaneously, but in a Winterson book, you learn by going. Even if you don't follow every turn and angle, the journey is well worth the walk.

B. Ruby Rich (essay date 24 June 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965

SOURCE: Rich, B. Ruby. “In Profile: Jeanette Winterson.” Advocate (24 June 1997): 105–06.

[In the following essay, Rich provides an overview of Winterson's literary career, incorporating Winterson's comments on her own celebrity and public identity as a lesbian writer.]

Jeanette Winterson published her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in 1985 at age 26. It made her an instant literary celebrity—and a lesbian hero too, after the BBC filmed her autobiographical tale. She is an adopted daughter of Pentecostals, and she fights God and Mum as her lust for other women surfaces.

Six novels and a book of essays later, Winterson is recognized by the British literary establishment as one of the foremost writers of her generation. Her latest book, Gut Symmetries, proves once again that she is a grand master of literary style, with a knack for coaxing readers through intricate philosophical inquiries or historical details only to flatten them with an erotic sucker punch a few lines later. Yet for all her virtuosity, Winterson is still an outsider to the British press, which seems fixated on her lesbian life as paraded in a long series of real or imagined affairs reported in the tabloid newspapers.

Speaking from the home deep in the British countryside that she shares with her partner of eight years (Peggy Reynolds, the university professor to whom her last four books are dedicated), Winterson gamely tries to make sense of her notoriety. “In the U.K. these days, everything is trivialized,” she begins. “Who you sleep with, how much money you make. It's a poisonous atmosphere. And lesbians have such a fascination for people! All they can do is think about what you do in bed. England was puritanical for so long. Then suddenly everything could be talked about. Now the English are like kids who start talking dirty and go on for years while you wait for them to grow up. For those of us who are gay or lesbian, it's not the only thing we think about day or night.”

During her April U.S. book tour, Winterson enjoyed the mix of gay, straight, and literary audiences. They came, she says, “for the right reason”—the writing. “It's fine here in The Advocate to be talking about myself as a lesbian,” she notes. “But to be constantly forced back to this in the mainstream press is not good for me, because it diminishes the work. That's why I say that I'm not a lesbian writer but a writer who is a lesbian.”

Winterson is quick to add that she thinks “gay writing is certainly valid,” that “it's important to have those books out there making a visible space.” But she thinks of gay writing as “genre fiction” and therefore “not something I want to do.” Still, she's pleased to have a lesbian readership, emphasizing that her view of sex is just more complex: “I don't think any of us who think about ourselves and the world can have uncomplicated sex. The idea of looking for something simple and straightforward is a fantasy that just can't happen. I think all of us have experienced the liberation that sex brings, but essentially it makes you ask more questions, not answer them. Sexuality is always complicated, never open or easy.”

Winterson draws a clear line between her writing and her life off the page. “I do feel a responsibility as an individual who is a lesbian with a public profile,” she says. A charter member of England's Stonewall group, she feels it's essential to “live the kind of life that other gay people can respect and identify with.” And she's angry that, despite her relationship with Reynolds, the press goes right on claiming that Winterson is having affairs with famous married women. “It denies the dignity of what my partner and I have,” she says. “I suppose the view that I've settled down and made a success of something doesn't suit my image as the bad girl of English letters.”

And what a bad girl! Winterson refers sardonically but affectionately to her “early buccaneering self.” It was that youthful self who in 1988 posed for a naked portrait the British papers still love to run next to serious reviews of her books. Much as she regrets that use of the photo, though, she doesn't regret posing for it. And she's glad she lived adventurously after leaving home at 15. “I think it's important to have a lot of sex when you're young,” she says. “Otherwise it explodes in middle age and ruins your life.”

Some of Winterson's “buccaneering” came back to haunt her in January when the London Times Magazine reported that she'd once worked as a lesbian prostitute—and had even bartered her services for Le Creuset cookware. Asked to clear up this mystery, Winterson describes a reality that's less commercial but just as enticing.

It seems she arrived in London as a penniless but appealing teenager and hung out at the legendary Gateways bar, a fixture of the '50s dyke scene that was filled with respectable ladies looking for sweet young things to fill their nights away from their husbands. “Of course they'd pet me and buy me things,” she exclaims. “But for heaven's sake, I wasn't trolling up and down the streets for saucepans!”

Today, older and wiser and proud of her relationship, Winterson is planning her next novel and preparing to adapt her earlier novel The Passion for film. For a hermetic writer with a reputation for being difficult, she is charming and witty and wonderful company. By the end of the conversation, she's even come up with a solution to the burden of her celebrity. “There is a great comfort in knowing that someday I'll be dead,” she says. “And then the work will have to answer for itself.”

Christopher Paddock (review date fall 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

SOURCE: Paddock, Christopher. Review of Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 3 (fall 1997): 225–26.

[In the following positive review, Paddock evaluates the strengths of Gut Symmetries.]

Winterson's latest novel compares favorably with her previous work, particularly her brilliant Sexing the Cherry.Gut Symmetries is an alchemical blend of multiple narrators, fairy-tale allusions, and quantum physics theory. Winterson displays the same well-crafted, seraphic prose that has established her as one of Britain's most intriguing and prodigious younger authors.

Gut Symmetries revolves around Alice, a young British physicist who has become the defining corner of a bizarre love triangle. She finds herself involved with a distinguished peer, Jove, whose pragmatic theories are the “future” of physics. His assured demeanor provides a point of reference for the uncertain Alice: “I could not define myself in relation to the shifting poles of certainty that seemed so reliable. What was the true nature of the world? What was the true nature of myself in it?” Jove's wife Stella has grown intolerant of his affairs and arranges to confront Alice. Their meeting turns erotic and they become involved in a meaningful relationship of their own. Caught in the middle and yet on both sides of a marital feud, Alice struggles to find solid ground in a newly decentered reality.

Winterson's use of structure and language is self-reflexive. Each chapter provides a shift between the perspective of characters, and perspectives shift with the dynamic nature of their three-way relationship. Seemingly uncontextualized sentences early in the novel reflect the physical and spiritual theories of an uncertain Alice. As the novel progresses, these sentences reappear and eventually become contextualized in symmetrical GUTs: the Grand Unified Theories needed to cope with a transmogrifying existence.

Gut Symmetries proves Winterson's dynamic sense of language. It is a solid addition to an already stellar body of work.

Judith Seaboyer (essay date fall 1997)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10903

SOURCE: Seaboyer, Judith. “Second Death in Venice: Romanticism and the Compulsion to Repeat in Jeanette Winterson's The Passion.Contemporary Literature 38, no. 3 (fall 1997): 483–509.

[In the following essay, Seaboyer examines the variety of linguistic and intertextual repetitions that structure The Passion, arguing that the novel's setting during the Napoleonic Wars and its thematic focus on death and mutilation exemplify the relationship between the psychoanalytic death drive and the rise of modern European nationalism.]

It is a given that Venice was a central topos for the nineteenth-century Anglo-American imagination, fascinating not only because of the Romantic attraction to “beauty in decay” and the frisson accompanying the possibility that all that faded loveliness might yet slip back beneath the waters from which it had so improbably arisen, but also because of the ambiguity and paradox that inform its geographical as well as its cultural heritage. After a hiatus that has lasted since the early years of this century, Venice has once again become a key symbolic landscape for literature in English: Jeanette Winterson is one of a number of writers who in the last fifteen years have discovered a means of articulating late-twentieth-century concerns not from the vantage point of the abstract metropolis of modernity, or the edge city of postmodernity, but from within the contained symbolic landscape of the medieval city–Renaissance urbs that is Venice.1 For Winterson, the psychic lack that Venice promises to fill continues to be linked to Romantic desire and loss—indeed, she reinforces the link by setting The Passion in Venice during the period of High Romanticism and by linking the narrative to the rise and fall of Napoleon, who was of central importance to both Byron and Shelley. Her soldier protagonist is a type of Romantic quester, a figure for Harold Bloom's Promethean hero “who stands finally, quite alone, upon a tower that is only himself” (Ringers 19).

As we approach the millennium, Venice is more than ever a theater for narratives of death, fragmentation, and decay, but at the same time, as concepts of reality, truth, and meaning are thrown into question by the idea of difference, the idea of Venice has come to serve a wider purpose than it did for the Romantics. For Winterson, Venice is a site within which the neat binary oppositions of true/false, pious/sinful, mind/body, masculine/feminine, Thanatos/Eros collapse into a mixture that is at once confusing and stimulating. This city has long served the Anglo-American imagination as a metaphor for the past as lost object of desire; in this avatar, it is an architectural fable that exists outside the crumbling reality. Gorgeous and glittering, dark and mysterious, it is the city we know before we ever visit it, through literature and painting and, increasingly, through the writings of art historians, geographers, and architects. Despite its physical vulnerability and social instability, and despite worries about Disneyfication, contemporary urban planners venerate it as “a shrine to livability” (Garreau 10). In its perfect, perfected stasis, it is a foil for the recent phenomenon of the “edge city,” which has come to be seen as symptomatic of an ahistorical modern world that has denied all contact with the past and community. In contrast to the illegible confusion of the new cities, Venice is a museum that offers a meaningful, if illusory, story of the past of Western culture.

Venice as museum is important to The Passion, but the nexus is the city of shifting meanings and border crossings that lies behind the mask. The first city that floats, visible, on the surface, is a site of Imaginary wholeness defined and contained by the surrounding moat of the Adriatic. It is a glittering, sun-warmed, tangible, legible space within which a series of myths and power relations have been precisely articulated, an ideology codified, through town planning and artistic embellishment.2 The second city is just as much “Venice” as the first and is essential to its existence, but it is its resistant other. The waters that define the first city penetrate its porous body, which, in its unmappable illegibility, recalls the ancient myth of the labyrinth, a fluid space of transformation and danger that has traditionally stood for the psychic inward journey, and increasingly for textuality itself. Distinguished by death and decay, it is a figure for Kristevan abjection: all border. Together the Venetian Renaissance urbs and mythic/psychic labyrinth form a fantastic meta-city, a precisely articulated grammar that is a reflective ground for the reconstructive readings of the nature of gender and of human violence that Winterson undertakes.

Death is inscribed in The Passion by means of intertextual and linguistic repetition, and that inscription is emphasized by the city's overdetermined topographical structure. Venice is a figure for two privileged and inextricably linked psychoanalytic tropes: death and the body of the woman. For as long as cities have existed, they have been symbolically figured as feminine; Venice's seductive, decorative beauty, its historical reputation for duplicity, and its topography, at once contained and enclosed by water and penetrated by it, has rendered it an ideal vehicle for the historical and cultural burden of ambivalence that inheres in the female body and is mirrored in theories of urbanism. Winterson emphasizes this ambiguity by setting her narrative in a space that is at once productive—the nurturing space of culture—and destructive—the primordial abyss Barbara Creed has termed the engulfing “monstrous-feminine.” Together, her two protagonists enter a doubled labyrinth that is a site of birth, rebirth, and reunion and a wasteland of exile, fragmentation, and death. Villanelle, a Venetian gambler sold to Napoleon's army as a whore, is reborn in that she returns to her family and her old life and slips easily back and forth between the surface city and the changeful space of the labyrinth that both mirror her own beautiful, amphibious body. Her stolen heart is discovered and returned to its rightful place, and she gives birth to a child. Henri, a French deserter from Napoleon's army, has a very different experience of the city. In a ritual cleansing, he shaves off his “ruffian's beard” and casts it into the canal outside his window (112), and for a moment he thinks he has escaped his past—in Venice, “[s]uch things are possible” (125). But he remains an exile unable to navigate the labyrinth and is swallowed up into madness and despair.

The Passion is set in Napoleonic France and Venice in the first years of the nineteenth century. It sidesteps the contentious first phase of the French Revolution and the overthrow of Louis XVI to begin with the institution of the Empire in 1804, an event many historians consider to signal the end of the first Revolutionary period. The choice of this historiographic ground of empire and expansionist warfare over that of revolution is not arbitrary; rather, it is constitutive of a text whose political focus, while manifestly gender and sexuality rather than politics in the national sense, addresses contemporary as well as historical sources of war and violence by informing a historical narrative with the psychoanalytic one of the death drive.3 The narrative operates at the level of the individual, but its implications are broader. The novel is set within the zone of the Romantic dreaming into existence of the modern nation-state, and while a concept so fraught with historical complexity cannot be traced to any kind of simple root cause, it has become a modern excuse for the compulsively repetitive European “tradition of senseless nationalist warfare.”4 This essay considers some implications of nationalism for a text which, structured as it is around an interplay of linguistic and intertextual repetitions that focus on death and mutilation, and whose narrative journey ends within the confined space of a dying city, is an exemplum of the death drive.

The narrative begins at Boulogne, “the springboard of Empire” (8), where Napoleon's troops are preparing to run the British Navy's blockade and invade England. Fifteen years have passed since the storming of the Bastille, and five since Napoleon's coup d'état and the rise of the first modern military dictatorship. The modern European nation-state has achieved its savage birth. The historical locus is the Napoleonic Wars, but it is significant for the narrative as a whole that, far from embodying revolutionary fervor or sans-culottes blood lust, Winterson's French people are phlegmatic, even melancholic. Writing in retrospect and struggling to make sense of the horror of the past, her soldier narrator describes his compatriots as “a lukewarm people” who “long to feel” yet are afraid to do so. “Not much touches us, but we long to be touched. We lie awake at night willing the darkness to part and show us a vision. Our children frighten us in their intimacy, but we make sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like us” (7). Such repressed desire is available to be channeled into the blind patriotism that diverts energy away from post-Revolution reconstruction toward offensive imperial warfare: “If we had the courage to love we would not so value these acts of war” (154). Armed conflict is exposed as a form of erotic displacement. The unconscious desire for death masquerades as love, as the psychic drive, which has no pregiven object, is all too easily redirected from the pursuit of sexual love, children, and community onto nationalism and patria, Napoleon and empire: “He was in love with himself and France joined in. It was a romance. Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life” (13). The characterizing of the French as a passionless people is of course an oversimplification. Winterson's Venetians, with just as little basis in historical reality, seem not to be susceptible to ideas of nationalism because they are not afraid to feel, and so passion is not displaced. Venice's defeat by Napoleon brought to an end a thousand years of independence, and while it is clear that the French are scorned, they are ignored rather than hated (53); there is no suggestion of resistance, no suggestion that blood must be spilled to restore lost national virtue. Instead of joining in the destruction that is the conspicuous effect of French nationalism, Venetians have simply “abandoned [themselves] to pleasure,” and Venice has become “an enchanted island for the mad, the rich, the bored, the perverted” (52). There is suffering and sullen rage, though that indeed is repressed, exiled to the depths of the labyrinth from where it must one day resurface, but for the period of this narrative, life in the surface city proceeds in the pleasurable, frivolous, and somewhat sinister manner that had in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made Venice notorious as the revel of the earth.

Early in the novel a little girl asks Henri as he leaves home to join Napoleon's army, “Will you kill people?” Filled with “innocent” patriotism, he assures her that he won't kill anybody—“just the enemy.” The child then asks, “What is enemy?” (8, 79).5 This is the crux. Winterson problematizes the notion of human violence and its expression in a nationalism that relies on a fictionalized narrative for which people are prepared to kill, by revealing the complex nature of the elusive notion of “enemy” and the danger of locating evil “out there,” as though it were the sole attribute and the sole responsibility of the Other. Where to situate human violence is a question that has exercised psychoanalysis since its beginnings. There is of course no question that the social and political injustice that exists “out there” leads to violence. But The Passion, immersed in the historical reality of the destruction wrought by war, looks at the extent to which the violence “out there” is mirrored and complicated by a destructiveness that is an effect of the vicissitudes of psychic life and asks—rhetorically—does violence inhabit only the body of the enemy Other whom the soldier sets out to confront in the name of Napoleon and France, or is his monster also himself, an inevitable effect of his construction as a human subject?

The Passion describes two separate but interlinked journeys through the bloody wasteland that is Napoleon's Europe and into the Venetian labyrinth, undertaken by Henri and Villanelle. The text itself is a quest narrative that operates at a number of different levels, at once a journey through space and time and a journey “along the blood” (68); a romance trial by landscape that inexorably leads to the monster at the heart of the labyrinth; a Romantic voyage intérieur whose unrecognized goal proves equally monstrous; and a journey through a Daedalian work of art that, for all that Winterson denies Joyce a place in her (Harold) Bloomian list of precursors, is Joycean both in its references and in its textual complexity.6

By means of a series of textual mirrorings and repetitions, The Passion, itself a textual labyrinth, journeys through the labyrinth that is Venice and a labyrinth of other texts that extends through time and space. Some of these texts, from the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Book of Isaiah, and the Old English lament The Wanderer to Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets, were also responses to war, as was Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle.The Passion, like the death drive, resolves upon biological death and the return to stasis that it implies, but death is doubled because a discontinuity is introduced into the narrative that is suggestive of what Jacques Lacan called the “second death.”

In a text whose trajectory takes it through eight years of war, and which ends in mutilation and murder, these layers of repetition uncannily inscribe on its surface and in its deeper structure what Freud posited is the subject's inarticulable longing for death. The text—or at least that portion of it related in Henri's voice—is on one level hystericized, the poetically encoded symptom that Henri constructs to maintain a fiction of coherence in the face of disintegration. “Hysterics,” as Joseph Breuer famously said, “suffer mainly from reminiscences” (Breuer and Freud 7), and reminiscence is embedded and re-embedded in Henri's narrative, which is a mixture of elegiac memoir and melancholic spiritual autobiography, a remembrance of things past. In Henri, there is much of the exiled “earth walker” of The Wanderer, who, in the course of recounting his story in a silence broken only by the sounds of sea birds, communes with the ghosts of lost warrior companions who drift in and out of a winter landscape that reflects the landscape of his mind.7 By means of such intertextual repetition, Winterson further emphasizes the role of repeating in keeping the trauma at bay. Unsuccessfully repressed, the event that cannot be bound, Freud suggested, “returns” to express itself as a symptom on the body, as the psyche attempts to bind the original event.

As I have suggested, the message of the death drive that occupies the heart of the labyrinth of psychoanalytic concepts is writ large in the labyrinthine construction of Venice as well as in its disintegration and constant struggle against encroaching, polluted water. But something productive as well as elegiac takes place in The Passion, and it occurs at the level of the “second death.” Lacan's point of departure is Freud's hypothetical and essentially biological thesis that the satisfaction the organism seeks “beyond the pleasure principle” is stasis and sameness over difference and change.8 Freud proposed that human desire, which so often seems driven not toward pleasure but rather toward the compulsive repetition of things that are painful, is linked to fantasies of wholeness that can be traced back to a lost and longed for dream of pregendered completeness before the child is forced, with the oedipal stage, to forsake the bliss of oneness with its mother and take up a fixed, gendered position.9 He concluded that the inarticulable, unconscious desire for completeness goes back even further, beyond preoedipal bliss to the state of total stasis before birth. Beyond Eros, the desire for sexual union and life, Freud posited, lies a contradictory and unrecognized desire for death, a return to the body of the mother, and to the mother earth, whence we came. In the course of the oedipalization of the subject, the body of the woman, the longed for and forever lost maternal body, comes to stand (like Venice) at once for Eros and life and for Thanatos and death. For Freud, then, the desire is for the death of the organism, although it finds expression in the psychic register.

Lacan develops this aspect of Freud's theory by means of linguistic concepts that link psychic development to the entry into language and the loss and subsequent alienation this imposes on the subject. The “second death” does drive the subject toward “an earlier state of things,” but far from a desire for stasis, its aim is the breakdown of Imaginary coherence. In Lacan's narrative, the desire of the alienated subject constituted by exclusion in the mirror stage is not to regain oneness with another but to return to the originary, inchoate part of itself that is lost—the fragmented body always just out of reach in the chaos of the Real. The misrecognized Freudian goal beyond the pleasure principle, the stasis that accompanies the end of the biological organism, is the death-in-life Henri chooses on the prison island of San Servolo, and The Passion is in many respects an apotropaic gesture against the void, but the “second death” also operates from within the text.10 Henri's record of his experiences is a heroic act of bearing witness that refuses the desire for wholeness at the same time as it struggles to construct it, forcing open gaps through which the excluded Real floods back. Contact with the Real plunges Henri into the imprisonment of madness, but the text he writes is an expression of the transformative force that operates both in the human psyche and in literature.

The oscillation between life and death that focuses on the body of the woman in the psychoanalytic narrative is realized in Venice, which in turn provides a shifting backdrop for this narrative, in which nothing is stable. Death-driven repetition is coupled with a constant refusal of the fixed position that the subject takes up in order to enter the Symbolic order; gender, as central to the psychoanalytic narrative as the death drive itself, is an oscillatory thing, reflecting the structure of the amphibious body of the city. This mixture is further reinforced as borders between one position and another are constantly breached, and structuring binaries such as good and evil, true and false, culture and nature, city and country are destabilized. In one of a series of mirrorings, Henri discovers that the “monsters and devils” the French army has been sent to kill in Russia are no different from the people he has grown up among, like Henri's family “a hearth people,” whose need for the Czar as “a little father” is “a mirror of [the] longing” that drew him to follow Napoleon (81). Henri's village, in its pastoral simplicity, contains kindness and cruelty, joy and despair, in much the same measure as does the Serene Republic of Venice, the epitome of urban sophistication and artifice.

Repetition and instability are interwoven at structural as well as linguistic levels. The Passion is a prose novel, but it is self-consciously structured according to musical and poetic forms: mixture is inscribed on the body of the text itself.11 It is lyrical, and most of the texts repetitively woven into it are themselves poetic: the Book of Isaiah, The Wanderer, the poetry of Hardy, Auden, and Eliot, and the poetic prose of Joyce haunt Winterson's writing about war and death and exile and waste, and references to Romantic poetry, particularly to Shelley's Julian and Maddalo, reinforce the post-Romantic sensibility of the whole. For example, Henri in his Romantic imprisonment in the “dark tower” on San Servolo sings—to quote M. H. Abrams quoting Shelley—“to cheer [his] own solitude with sweet sounds” (326). He says, “I go on writing so that I will always have something to read” (159), and yet, like its Romantic predecessors, his “poetic text” addresses wider issues, and this “bearing witness” is directed to an outside audience. Because repetition is so strongly foregrounded, isolated phrases such as a Wordsworthian “along the blood” (68) and a Coleridgean “frost at midnight” (100) resonate as they might not otherwise with the Romanticism of the whole.

Winterson's interest in musical form is more overt in Art and Lies, also set in part in Venice, with its references to Der Rosenkavalier and “Handel,” but The Passion is much influenced by T. S. Eliot, including Four Quartets, and, like that poem, the novel recalls a musical structure.12 Its four sections could suggest a composition for two voices in imitative counterpoint—a fugue, perhaps. The voices are very different, but each turns upon the themes of passion, love, and loss. The opening theme is presented in a first movement by Henri. It is taken up and repeated in a different key, in a second movement, by Villanelle. In the third movement and in the closing coda, the voices interweave. Themes, phrases, and leitmotifs introduced and repeated in one movement by one voice are taken up and modulated in another movement by the other. It is a kind of dialogue, but it also suggests the way in which the repressed returns—and is returned to—again and again, in an unheimlich recapitulation.

To stay with formal repetition, the lyrics of this “fugue” recall the highly stylized, highly repetitive poetic form of the villanelle for which Winterson names her Venetian hero. The Renaissance villanelle—and it may be significant that like The Passion it has its roots in both France and Italy—sang of pastoral pleasures. But in the twentieth century, perhaps since Freud taught us to think about repetition in terms of the darkness that inhabits such pleasure, the music has gone, and poets have adopted the form to speak of death and loss: think of Dylan Thomas's elegy to his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night”; William Empson's “Missing Dates,” which tells of human failure and despair; and Elizabeth Bishop's deceptively lighthearted cataloging in “One Art” of a lifetime of loss and grief. Auden's villanelle “But I Can't,” with its echoes of war and deserts and the roses of redemption of the Isaiah poet, is a strong presence in The Passion.

The form has just two rhymes, and the whole of the first and third lines are each repeated three and perhaps four times in the course of its six three-line stanzas. In the style of the modernist villanelle, The Passion sings of loss, death, and the impossibility of love, with several epigrammatic and somewhat gnomic lines echoing uncannily back and forth between Henri's and Villanelle's narratives: “Will you kill people, Henri?” (8, 79); “The cities of the interior are vast and do not lie on any map” (114, 150, 152); “You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play” (66, 73, 133), and what you hazard is “the valuable, fabulous thing” (90, 94, 104, 120, 150, 151). Many of the repetitions chime not just with each other but with other texts. The stones of the churches in Boulogne and in Venice “cry out,” echoing Luke 19:40 (43, 63). With the monotonous rhythm of Eliot's “Hollow Men,” Villanelle defines passion in terms of the unstable no-place it inhabits: “Somewhere between God and the Devil,” “In between freezing and melting. In between love and despair. In between fear and sex, passion is” (55, 62, 68, 76).13 And not quite echoing Auden's reflection that “[p]erhaps the roses really want to grow,” she, for whom love is always subject to chance, says the heart is mocked in believing “roses bloom because we want them to” (76). This brings us back to Auden's source in Isaiah—a text as epigrammatic and repetitive as Winterson's own. Henri, who like the Isaiah poet is engaged in the transformation of trauma into poetry, the metaphorical transformation of wilderness into a garden, ends by telling us that he will transform his rocky island, now “a barbed tangle of thorns” (155), into “[a] forest of red roses” (160).

The last repeated line of Henri's narrative is the focus of the whole: “I'm telling you stories. Trust me.” This admonition is repeated throughout the novel (5, 13, 40, 69, 160), and Winterson repeats it herself in Art Objects, warning her readers, and perhaps specifically warning off any uppity literary critics, to “[b]eware of writers bearing gifts,” because “we can be taken in by someone who offers truth with a wink and says ‘I'm telling you stories. Trust me’” (189, 71). She notes: “I know how to get a crowd round when I unpack my bag, and if one person buys The Dog Woman, and another, a pair of webbed feet, and another, a talking orange called Jeanette, and you, a forest of red roses on a salt-rock, then I am glad of my wares” (189).

The Passion gathers a heterogeneous mixture of stories within two intertwined narratives, and this together with an expressed bias toward literary sleight of hand results in a narrative ground that from the reader's perspective is unstable. Henri's journal of his experience of the Napoleonic Wars, obsessively reworked, rewritten, and reread over a period of twenty years, is at once a bildungsroman and an elegy of exile. Villanelle's is an oral account, perhaps as retold/reimagined by Henri. From story to story, history is juxtaposed with tales of goblins and of humans who have animal-like or superhuman attributes, gothic horror is interlaced with musings on love and war, and the whole narrative is repetitively illustrated with metaphorical references from biblical and classical mythology. We assume Henri's voice to be ironic when, on recounting a tale of an Irish priest's boots reduced to “the size of a thumbnail by the little people,” he advises,” ‘Trust me, I'm telling you stories’” (39–40). But Villanelle uses the same words after telling a fantastic story of web-footed Venetian boatmen who walk on water, and, in a twist that undermines our readerly position as interpreters of irony, this story proves to be “true.”14 What are we to make of it? Perhaps what we are to trust is not the tale but the constructive and reconstructive act of telling, the creative force of narrative.

Winterson's emphasis on the power of telling and her palimpsestic repetition of earlier texts bring me back to Joyce, who took storytelling and its political potential seriously. The labyrinthine form of The Passion, together with its conflation of human and animal forms and use of biblical and classical mythology and Celtic folklore, is strongly suggestive of Joyce's labyrinthine, arabesque fictions. Many of the similarities with A Portrait might be attributed to a shared intimate knowledge of the Bible that expresses itself in a tendency to “[think] in types and tropes constantly,” as Robert Scholes has said of Joyce (475–76), or even to the common theme of a young man's alienation and exile. But of all the images from A Portrait that are reflected in the unstable mirror of The Passion, Winterson's own bird girl, with her tellingly poetic name, is the most striking.

Stephen Dedalus's epiphany turns on his semimystical, eroticized vision of a girl standing in shallow water at a beach on Dublin Bay:

She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where the white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark plumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.


Stephen retreats to ponder his epiphanic experience and writes—what else?—the villanelle that is embedded in A Portrait.

Villanelle is in a sense Henri's muse, as the girl on Dublin Bay is Stephen's. Henri recalls, “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope” (109); “It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly she explains me to myself” (159). But Winterson gives an ironic twist to Stephen's vision as object of the male gaze. Like his metamorphosing creature, Villanelle bears strong similarities to a water bird, but instead of the comforting, softly feminine, birdlike plumage of Stephen's vision, she has webbed feet. Unlike Stephen's girl, Villanelle doesn't simply look part bird; like some mythical creature—like the Sphinx, or the Minotaur at the dark heart of the labyrinth—she is a mixture of human and animal, and the instability of such abject mixture reinforces the mutability of her gendered identity. Laura Doan, in a discussion of “the double gender encoding of Villanelle's body,” maintains that “the masculine [is marked] by the slightest tissue of skin strategically situated between the toes” (149). Villanelle's description of her feet at birth supports this reading (51–52), but Henri describes something far less discreet: “they are not what I'd usually call feet. She unfolds them like a fan and folds them in on themselves in the same way” (135–36). These are not just slightly odd human feet; Villanelle's feet are those of a water bird. They are marvelous in themselves but—as Doan notes—they are the more remarkable since, as Villanelle explains, such feet are considered to be a specifically masculine characteristic possessed only by Venetian boatmen. Contradicting the Lacanian framework within which one either “is” or “has” the phallus, Villanelle apparently identifies with both feminine and masculine subject positions; as with the city that is her mirror, this double identification is written on the body. She cannot swim, and Henri doesn't see her wading as Stephen does the girl on Dublin Bay, and the image of his playful struggle to piggyback her across the Piazza San Marco during acqua alta subverts Stephen's description of his poised and silent vision. Henri stumbles; Villanelle's remarkable feet trail in the water because she's tall and he's tiny; he is exhausted by the time they reach dry ground, and in a manner most unbecoming a muse, she teases him for his weakness. Desire and gendered subjectivity are further complicated because there can be no object of the gaze in this scenario, since there is no viewer: their bodies together make a suitably Joycean (and “lupine,” since there is much of Orlando in Villanelle) composite “man-womanly” bird. The “fixed and phantasmatic affair” that is sexual identity under the paternal law (Butler 66) is upset, rendered as shifting and ambiguous as Venice itself.

All this repetition brings my discussion to the trauma—the experience that cannot be bound—which is central to repetition. The event that shapes Henri's narrative occurs with the first real violence he witnesses on joining the army, and it coincides with what was to have been his first sexual experience. At a brothel near the encampment at Boulogne, Henri witnesses an army cook's sickening brutalization of a whore. The cook later loses his job, and Henri takes over. Henri doesn't see or hear of his predecessor for eight years, but in a return of the repressed, he turns up at the end of Henri's journey in a recognition scene that recalls the original trauma.

Henri leaves home to join Napoleon, discovering in him and, by analogy, in French nationalism a passion he has longed to feel all his life. He dreams of being a drummer but is put to work wringing the necks of the chickens Napoleon crams into his mouth and swallows whole, much as he is consuming France and will later consume Europe.15 Against the background of the rest of the text, Napoleon's indiscriminate greed becomes a nice analogy for a death-driven desire to engulf national difference into the oneness of empire, as though to resolve disconcerting European mixture into reassuring sameness. Henri graduates from throttling to cooking Napoleon's birds, accompanies him to Paris for his coronation, and eventually makes the fateful journey to Moscow. There he deserts, his deathly passion for his emperor over but not resolved.

Villanelle's journey begins in Venice. She cross-dresses, and it is while she is dressed as a boy that she falls in love with a woman. Like Henri, she experiences passion for the first time. Her lover, however, is content to remain married, and in her grief Villanelle strikes a bargain with a rich, boorish Frenchman who has made his fortune by supplying meat of questionable provenance to Napoleon's armies. Her conditions are that they leave Venice to travel the world, and his that she continue to dress as a boy, for his sexual pleasure. “Just the three of us. Him, me and my codpiece” (96). After two years she flees, and after three more on the road returns home, where her husband finds her out and sells her to Napoleon's army. Two years later, she and Henri meet on the outskirts of the burning city of Moscow and together escape south. They become lovers, and Henri will be the father of Villanelle's daughter. Villanelle loves him dearly and their relationship is sexual, but she reminds him, “You're my brother” (117). Only Henri's love qualifies as passion.

It is 1813 when they reach Venice. Villanelle takes Henri by the hand and guides him into “an impossible maze,” “a city of madmen” where streets appear and disappear from one day to the next, and the churches the French tore down to make way for the public gardens rise up on foggy nights (110, 112). They wander between an Imaginary, gorgeous, golden city filled with life and scented with baking bread, and a gothic, sunless “waste land” of rats and slime and decay, inhabited by refugees of war who are the living dead. For Villanelle the labyrinth is the maternal body as the source of endless pleasure, but it sets Henri's teeth on edge. For him it is the place of abjection where meaning collapses, and he is lost, physically and metaphorically. He asks for a map, but Villanelle cannot give him one, since Venice is a living, shifting thing (113). The city of disguises is a mirror for the subjects it contains, for if you live in Venice, “What you are one day will not constrain you on the next. You may explore yourself freely and, if you have wit or wealth, no one will stand in your way” (150).

Villanelle returns to her old trade. Gambling, with its links to carnival and masquerade, was a synecdoche for Venetian decadence and vice from the seventeenth century until the period following the fall of the Republic, and while the casino where she works, “raking dice and spreading cards and lifting wallets where I could” (54), is a workaday world for her, it is the heart of Winterson's textual labyrinth, a liminal place “somewhere between fear and sex” where everything may be risked. It is the setting for a number of encounters that have driven the narrative: here Villanelle met “the Queen of spades,” the married woman to whom she lost her heart; here she met and agreed to marry the rich French dealer in flesh, and here he sold her to the army; here he will find Henri and Villanelle, and all will be revealed.

Villanelle fancies the “smell [of] urgency” that clings to gamblers: “It's somewhere between fear and sex. Passion I suppose” (55). She dismisses the “hobbyists” who can take it or leave it: “I like passion, I like to be among the desperate” (90), and she understands that “We gamble with the hope of winning, but it's the thought of what we might lose that excites us” (89). Such gamblers rarely play for money: what they risk is the second death, the shattering of the self that plunges them into the feared and desired chaos of the Real. Of the serious gamblers, there are two kinds: those who are astute and “always [keep] something back, something to play with another time,” and those who wait to gamble “the valuable, fabulous thing,” a risk that may be taken only once (90, 94). Villanelle and Henri belong to the second category.

“[T]he valuable, fabulous thing” that the “Devil's gambler” (90) is prepared to risk is suggestive of the relationship between the Imaginary and the Real. There is always a risk that the Imaginary ego, once fractured, may not be able to regain its integrity, and for those who risk this shattering, the stakes lie in the Lacanian “second death,” in the fantasy of the recovery of the corps morcelé. Henri's madness hinges on a scene of actual bodily mutilation, but it is reinforced by other images of dismemberment and evisceration: Henri recalls trying to piece together the body of a friend blown apart by a cannonball, “but when I came back for his legs they were indistinguishable from the other legs” (108); soldiers slit open the bellies of their dead horses and burrow into them to keep from freezing (80); they set their hearts aside in order to be able to function and, mad with hunger, chop off their own arms for food (82). Embedded in Villanelle's narrative is a tale of physical mutilation worthy of Edgar Allan Poe, more “civilized” than Henri's war experiences, and more chilling for that reason. Most of the patrons of the casino gambled for money, but a rich regular client, because he had fortunes to spare, looked elsewhere for the thrill that attaches to the risk of loss. He entered into a wager with a stranger for which the forfeit was “dismemberment piece by piece beginning with the hands” (93). The players at the casino comforted themselves that the penalty would not be exacted, “but one day, months later … we received a pair of hands, manicured and quite white, mounted on green baize in a glass case” (94). It is an allegory for the risks Villanelle and Henri take, which lead to the shattering not of the physical body but of the ego; their experience of the Lacanian body-in-bits-and-pieces takes place at the level of the psyche, although its pain is registered on the body.

Falling in love for Villanelle is the “serious accident” that Catherine Clément calls syncope and that Clément too compares to gambling—a contradictory passion that, like particular kinds of music or certain disorders such as epilepsy, suspends for a marvelous/terrifying moment the experience of living (16). To “lose one's heart” is a figurative commonplace, a dead metaphor, but Winterson, in restoring it to life, reminds us of the corporeality of the resulting pleasure and pain in language that recalls that of Sappho watching her lover with another. Villanelle loses her sense of self, the sense of self-control conferred by the Imaginary order, and for a time is plunged into the shattering pain and pleasure of the Real. She lives “in a hectic stupor” (62), forgetting to sleep or to eat; the hours of the day have no meaning. When she meets her lover she discovers she has lost not just her heart but her tongue; she is without language, the privileged marker of membership within the Symbolic, and her reliable body is reduced to a mass of disconnected sensations: “I couldn't speak. … Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags, and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all” (65, 66). It is, she says, as though she has tumbled through a trap door into another world where she cannot understand the language (68). Her experience of being in love is like Henri's of being in Venice.

In a text full of mirrorings, Henri and Villanelle both see themselves reflected in the world around them. Emphasizing the alienation inherent in this Lacanian mirror construction by speaking of himself in the third person, Henri recalls how as a child he saw his reflection in such homely images as his father's shaving mirror and his mother's shining copper saucepan. The mirror offers the illusion of a single, stable image, but he prefers the saucepan, because in its uneven surface “he can see all the distortions of his face. He sees many possible faces and so he sees what he might become” (26). It may be suitably prophetic that a child who will become a cook should admire his face in a cooking pot, but it is more telling that he should construct his mirror self out of an image associated with domesticity and the feminine, with heart and hearth. Villanelle's mirror is another shifting surface—the lagoon, which also serves as a mirror to Venice. She, too, sees “the future glittering” there, and “in the distortions of my face what I might become” (62). While the associations of Venice and water are, like Henri's saucepan, gendered female, they are liminal and incline to the uncanny, rather than the homely.

A further mirror scene is central to the trauma that leads Henri to lose his mind, as he has already lost his heart. He comes face to face with his monster in Villanelle's casino. While Villanelle works, Henri sits in a window seat, contemplating the past. The romance journey through the wasteland and into the labyrinth is accomplished, and although Henri knows he must think about returning to his French village, it seems that the travelers are safe. Mirrored in the dark glass of a window, he sees at last not what might be but “the face I had become” and reflects, “So the past had gone. I had escaped. Such things are possible” (125). But recalling the kind of ambiguity that inheres in the puzzling figures caught in the mirrors of domestic genre paintings such as Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding of Velázquez's Las Meninas, the frame is shared by two other figures: “Villanelle … with a man standing in front of her blocking her way. … He was very wide, a great black expanse like a matador's cloak” (125), recalling the Minotaur, that symbol of perversion that the labyrinth conceals. The man slaps Villanelle. She runs toward the boat she has moored downstairs, and, in order to reach her before her pursuer does, Henri throws open the looking-glass window and jumps beyond it, into what will prove to be a nightmare of the Real. They escape and are almost home when the stranger from the casino reaches them. It is Villanelle's husband, who, it turns out, is also the cook from Henri's past.

Twelve years later, Henri tells us that “[w]hat happened next is still not clear” (127), though ever since he has thought about it, written about it, and reread what he has written. He does remember the cook coming at Villanelle, and the image recalls vividly the scene of his original trauma eight years before, when he had seen him move to strike the whore in the army brothel. Henri himself suggests the link between the two scenes: “I had never been to a Casino before and I was disappointed the way the brothel had disappointed me years earlier” (125). On that occasion Henri had wanted to act, but, never a violent man, he had not. This time he does. In the ensuing struggle the cook falls on him, and they lie together in the narrow boat, locked in an ugly mirror embrace. Henri, who in all his years in the army had never lacked courage but had killed no one, now stabs his enemy Other, again and again.16 The sexual connotations of this bodily penetration are obvious enough, but what makes it particularly shocking is the complication that inheres in the fact that while Henri wields the blade, it belongs to Villanelle. When the cook is dead, in a scene reminiscent of Jacobean tragedy, Henri hacks a hole, scoops out the heart with his hand, and offers it to her (128). With this bloody mutilation, the border between inside and outside is breached, and the heart of the labyrinth has truly become a place of abject horror.

This is the tragic recognition scene, “the moment when what was hidden is revealed” (125). Henri confronts the violent Other and experiences another uncanny mirroring. What is revealed and then borne out by the memoir Henri writes in his solitary madness is that the cook's cruel jealousy and his desire to control Villanelle resemble Henri's Romantic all-or-nothing passion for her. It is this collapse of the border between himself and his violent Other that is the horror Henri tries to repress, and that returns to haunt him in the nightmare stasis of the imprisonment he chooses. In the figurative journey through the looking glass, the boundary that has separated him from men like the cook and Napoleon, self from Other, is shattered, and Henri is possessed by the traumatic event. He is sentenced to life imprisonment in Shelley's lunatic asylum on San Servolo, where he is surrounded by the ghosts and ghostly doubles that people his text. As he tries to rebuild the borders that have collapsed between his Imaginary ego and the fragmented body of the Real, he reenacts the deadly struggle between himself and the part of himself he denies: he wakes night after night with the cook's murderous hands on his throat, but the hands are Henri's own (135, 147). This is not a symbolic dream that might be interpreted in order to effect a “cure.” It reenacts the trauma with terrifying accuracy. He demands that Villanelle marry him, and when she says she cannot, he insists that he's her husband and mimics the cook as he threatened her on the night of the murder. He recalls: “I remember his mouth opening and coming towards her, … [a] pale pink mouth, a cavern of flesh and then his tongue, just visible like a worm from its hole” (128). Months after the event, Villanelle remembers Henri on the last occasion he agreed to make love: “he put his hands to my throat and slowly pushed his tongue out of his mouth like a pink worm. … ‘I'm your husband,’ he said. … and he came leaning towards me, his eyes round and glassy and his tongue so pink” (148).

A second double who haunts Henri is Napoleon. Both are tiny; both end imprisoned on an isolated, rocky island. Henri advises us that he knows when the emperor is paying a visit to his cell on San Servolo because the odor of chicken gives him away—a further ironized sign of their doubleness, since Henri had earlier commented that he himself smelled of chicken during his years as Napoleon's cook (6) and, more figuratively, feared that the “whiff of Bonaparte” about him would give him away as a French soldier during the escape from Moscow (6, 105). Henri wears his wartime complicity on his body. But most important, his description of Napoleon in his madness mirrors his own neurotic writing and rewriting of his repetitive memoir: “He talks about his past obsessively because the dead have no future and their present is recollection. They are in eternity because time has stopped” (134)—as it has for Henri.

Villanelle plans Henri's escape, but when she comes for him he refuses to go: “Was she mad? I'd have to kill again” (152). The reason Henri gives for his grief, and the ostensible reason for his insanity, is Villanelle's refusal to marry him, her failure to match his passion with her own. His grief is real, as is his love, but his behavior, and his belief that to return to the world would necessitate a return to killing, suggests that his decision is a response to his war experiences. The return of the repressed in the form of the cook triggers in Henri a capacity for violence he had denied, and the asylum, for all its horror, offers a place of safety within which he is able to contain what he perceives to be his own terrifying potential.

Henri's retirement into isolation and madness, his obsessive cataloging of his war experiences, and his terrible nightmares all suggest that he is suffering from the kind of trauma that during the European war of 1914–18 would be called “shell shock” and that has now been subsumed under the blanket term “post-traumatic stress disorder.” It is not surprising that Henri's madness should take this form, but it is particularly interesting given the feminized connotations of shell shock, on the one hand, and the ambiguity attached to his own gendered subjectivity, on the other. Elaine Showalter devotes a chapter of her study of women and madness to the hysterical and neurasthenic patterns of behavior diagnosed in soldiers during and after the First World War, because such manifestations of nervous disorder had previously been associated with women—indeed, “the term ‘shell shock’ [provided] a masculine-sounding substitute for the effeminate associations of ‘hysteria’ and [disguised] the troubling parallels between male war neurosis and the female nervous disorders epidemic before the war” (172). Showalter suggests that, far from providing the great masculine adventure, war feminized conscripts, who experienced powerlessness in the face of danger and lost any sense of being in control, of being “autonomous actor[s] in the manipulable world.”17 Henri and his friends dream of adventure, but ill-equipped, ill-trained, and half-starved, their reality is that described by Showalter. Henri is further feminized in that he is confined to the kitchen, his battlefield function restricted to rescuing the wounded and, in what sounds like a dream recounted by a veteran of the First World War, futilely trying to piece together the broken bodies of the dead (108).

Henri's murder and mutilation of the cook can be explained in terms of Lacan's reading of the death drive's origins in the violent splitting of the subject against itself with the advent of the mirror stage, where the trace remains in feared and longed for images of dismemberment. Henri breaks through the repressive mirror of the Imaginary and for a brief moment, in the destruction of the body of his hated Other, regains access to the Real and the primal chaos of the corps morcelé. From the beginning of his war experience, he has maintained an Imaginary barrier between himself and the violence he has witnessed: it was always perpetrated by the Other, not because Henri fails to recognize his complicity but because “I could never lose myself in the cannonfire, in the moment of combat and hate. My mind ran before me with pictures of dead fields and all that had taken years to make, lost in a day or so” (123). But when Villanelle is threatened, in a scenario that returns Henri to the earlier trauma in the brothel in Boulogne, the boundary between Real and Imaginary is breached. A jouissant shattering of the ideal self is reflected in the mangled body of his “double”:

I had the knife in my hand and I thrust it at his side. As he rolled I thrust it in his belly. I heard it suckle his guts. I pulled it out, angry knife at being so torn away, and I let it go in again, through the years of good living. That goose and claret flesh soon fell away. My shirt was soaked in blood. Villanelle dragged him off me, half off me, and I stood up, not unsteady at all. I told her to help me turn him over and she did so, watching me.

When we had him belly up and running blood I tore his shirt from the collar down and looked at his chest. …

… I … made a rip with my silver friend, such an eager blade. I cut a triangle in about the right place and scooped out the shape with my hand, like coring an apple.


No longer able to deny that the violence he abhors is internal as well as external, Henri is confronted with a split self that he cannot accept and retreats from a world that has become intolerable.

I have suggested that it is difficult to define Venice because its oscillation refuses fixity. The fluidity of Villanelle's gendered identity, as well as her body's freakish mixture of human and animal, makes it as difficult to define Villanelle. Like Venice, she inhabits a phantasmagorical space in which she is now an “ordinary woman,” now a fantastical creature. Like her city, she is amphibious, a thing of land and water. Her ability to walk on water, in a book filled with references to biblical as well as sexual passion, is a distinctly masculine characteristic; this masculinity is reinforced in Winterson's Venice, where webbed feet are a kind of cultural fantasy, a phallic signifier of secret power. Villanelle's amphibious, sexually ambiguous body and the paradoxical, amphibious body of Venice both refuse the neat binary oppositions of true and false, good and evil, masculine and feminine, and against such paradoxical grounds, Winterson begins to trace disruptive, transformative possibility. The dichotomies by which we have come to know ourselves and by which we distinguish ourselves from the Other—which in times of war can conveniently become the enemy Other—in the body of this city and in the body of this woman collapse into mutability and confusion, a condition that in its frightening and fascinating unrepresentability is suggestive of the Real and a jouissance beyond oedipal law.

There is no catharsis at the heart of Winterson's novel. The revelation of the monster, far from leading to redemption, signals a retreat into despair and madness, and Henri's villanelle-like text, peopled with the ghosts of his past, is no replacement for life among the living. But The Passion is nothing if not ambivalent, and the text Henri produces from within his Romantic dark tower, in the company of the ruined, set against the immortal sea of Romanticism and within a Venetian “sea of stories,” is a powerful act of the creative imagination. The trauma that cannot be bound, the impossible experience of war Henri must carry within himself, is transformed into the potentially communicative and therefore potentially productive medium of poetry.

Of the chronicles of our modern Western zeitgeist, perhaps none has been more influential than psychoanalysis, and the feminized narrative topography of Venice in the late twentieth century has with barely a ripple—on its Imaginary surface, at least—accommodated that mapped by Freud and redrawn by Lacan: the centrality of death to the Venetian narrative and to psychoanalysis makes them a perfect fit. The effect of the incorporation of psychoanalysis into the Venetian narrative has been that Venice as city-in-crisis is more than ever before read as an allegory for the world-in-crisis and for the subject-in-crisis, each on the verge of a catastrophic collapse. Henri's narrative, filled with references to loss and fragmentation, exposes a politics of patriotism that promises a seamless unity based on blood brotherhood to be a deceitful mask for the death-driven force that maims and mutilates not just its citizen heroes but the whole of Europe, within which “peace” will only ever be “a respite from the war to come” (108). Henri became a soldier because he fell in love with Napoleon and what he believed Napoleon stood for. He thought he was “doing a service to the world, setting it free, setting myself free in the process” (153). Villanelle, too pragmatic to be taken in by the rhetoric of nationalism, views the repetitious human condition from the level of the subject constructed in psychic loss and alienation: “Men are violent. That's all there is to it” (109).


  1. Other late-twentieth-century texts in English that are part of the particular return to Venice I discuss in this essay include Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Barry Unsworth's Stone Virgin (1985), Witi Ihimaera's The Matriarch (1986), Michèle Roberts's The Book of Mrs. Noah (1987), Robert Coover's Pinocchio in Venice (1991), Harold Brodkey's Profane Friendship (1994), and Caryl Phillips's The Nature of Blood (1997).

    Joel Garreau coined the term “edge city” to describe the effect of a shift in urban development in the late twentieth century, particularly in North America, which has seen the movement away from a single dense downtown core toward sprawling developments and a multiplicity of urban hubs.

  2. For a discussion of the Renaissance restructuring and mythologization of Venice, see Cosgrove 36–41.

  3. Little critical work has yet been published on Winterson, and for perfectly sound reasons reviews and interviews have tended to focus on issues of gender and sexuality. Lisa Moore, who in a fine recent essay suggests that wider issues are important in The Passion and that “spatial and linguistic dislocation maps neatly on to the plot of imperial aggression” (115), points out that “[c]onflict in this fictional world is always romantic conflict; even war is primarily an opportunity for Henri to express his obsessive love for Napoleon. … Winterson's novels may be read politically, but they themselves make no explicit political argument” (113).

  4. Of the destruction of the Croatian city of Vukovar in the early stages of the recent war in the Balkans, Michael Ignatieff argues that there was no military objective—only “a desire to hurt, humiliate and punish”—and therefore the town should not be rebuilt but declared a European heritage site, since “[w]hat could be more European, after all, than our tradition of senseless nationalist warfare?” (31).

  5. Henri remembers and repeats this initial encounter at the beginning of the third section. The repetition has a particular resonance, since his innocence has by this time been displaced by his experience of the killing fields of Ulm, Austerlitz, Eylau, Friedland, and Moscow.

  6. Joyce is one “monster” at the heart of a textual labyrinth with whom, to stay with Bloom a moment longer, Winterson wrestles, as Jacob wrestled the Everliving, as all strong poets must wrestle their strong precursors. For Winterson, ephebe poet that she clearly believes herself to be (she is notorious for her comments about the centrality of her position in literary history), Joyce is a precursor with whose “phantom presence” she must wrestle. (Bloom refers to Jacob's “wrestling” as a metaphor for poetic struggle and influence in A Map of Misreading [17].) Winterson's list of “vital” modernists in Art Objects includes Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, Eliot, Graves, Pound, Yeats, and others but excludes Joyce (126). She makes it clear that not all those she lists influence her work—she's talking about what influences her to collect first editions, after all—and while she chides Joyce for his “unhelpful” linguistic innovations (81), she surely makes a reference to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and to Stephen Dedalus when she states, “every true writer finds a gift of wings. To assume that the wings can be ready bought and fitted is a problem for modern Daedaluses everywhere” (173).

  7. Something of this ubi sunt formula is reflected again when, during a night vigil, Henri hears “the dead moan round the rock” (158), recalling Tennyson's elegiac post-epic Ulysses, who, like Henri, is speaking to his own phantoms when he says, “the deep moans round with many voices.” To reinforce this possibility, I would note earlier references in the text to Ulysses—not forgetting, of course, that Homer's Odyssey is not only the fundamental quest romance but, for Harold Bloom, the first Romantic poem (Ringers 3). Speaking of the lies that are the foundation of patriotism, Henri states: “And the heaviest lie? That we could go home and pick up where we had left off. That our hearts would be waiting behind the door with the dog. … Not all men are as fortunate as Ulysses” (83). On the dangers of passion, Villanelle makes reference to the irresistible power of “the siren calls” so “terrible to hear” (145), and in one of a string of opaque comments about her own writing, Winterson warns that with The Passion we might “be back at the Trojan horse” (Art Objects 189).

  8. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is viewed as central to Lacan's return to Freud, as the death drive is central to psychoanalysis. See, for example, Gallop 98 and Ragland ch. 3.

  9. Freud distinguished between two types of repetition. The first is the process by which the subject masters the pain of loss and so reinforces the sense of his or her own identity. His famous example of this is his infant grandson's fort-da game, in which the child stages a fantasy of control over the disappearance and return of his mother by discarding and retrieving a cotton reel attached to a piece of string. The second form of repetition is linked to the traumatic experience that shatters the boundaries of the ego, and that cannot be mastered. The subject compulsively restages the event mentally in an attempt to bind it retrospectively, and so to regain the sense of constancy that has been lost (see Beyond the Pleasure Principle 1–64, esp. 35).

  10. The former Benedictine monastery on the Venetian island of San Servolo has been an insane asylum for almost a century when Henri is incarcerated. Since it is the island Shelley's protagonists travel to in his Julian and Maddalo in order to visit a French madman who bears some resemblance to Henri and who would have been an inmate at the same time, I take Winterson's “San Servelo” to be a typographical error.

  11. Winterson states her intention “to break down the assumed barriers between poetry and prose,” since “[t]he novel form is finished.” She does admit that such a mixing of genres is not an entirely new concept (Art Objects 191).

  12. In Art Objects Winterson states, “There is at present no twentieth-century poem that means more to me than Four Quartets. … it remains a vital influence on my life and on my work” (129). In terms of this particular work, The Waste Land, “The Hollow Men,” and The Rock are also manifestly important.

  13. Compare section 5 of “The Hollow Men”: for example, “Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the Shadow.”

  14. “Irony,” Linda Hutcheon notes, “happens as part of a communicative process.” It “comes into being in the relations between meanings, but also between people and utterances and, sometimes, between intentions and interpretations” (13).

  15. There are a number of references that point to the dangerous delusions surrounding Napoleon's governing “appetite” (3). The world is his object petit a, to be ingested and swallowed up by the bodily ego in a manner that is a psychic reflection of his physical eating habits. Henri, on delivering a whole roast chicken to Napoleon's tent, observes him sitting alone, turning and turning a globe in his hands, “holding it tenderly with both hands as if it were a breast,” and he knows that once alone Napoleon will turn his attention to the chicken, wishing “his whole face were mouth to cram a whole bird” (4). In retrospect, Henri recognizes that Napoleon had viewed the world as an extension of himself, as something one might own as one owns a house and garden. The freezing winter that tormented and killed his ill-equipped soldiers was for him quite simply the larder that kept his food fresh (5), while the sea in which they drowned was his rain barrel (8).

  16. Villanelle says: “Henri is a gentle man. … He told me, on the way home from Moscow, that he had been in the army eight years without so much as wounding another man. … He was no coward though, he'd risked his own life over and over again to get a man off the field. Patrick told me that” (147).

  17. Philip Hamilton Gibbs, Now It Can Be Told (New York: Harper, 1920) 547–48, qtd. in Showalter 190.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. 1953. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971.

Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford UP, 1975.

———. The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.

Breuer, Joseph, and Sigmund Freud. Studies on Hysteria. Vol. 2 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1955.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Clément, Catherine. Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture. Trans. Sally O'Driscoll and Deidre M. Mahoney. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1994.

Cosgrove, Denis. The Palladian Landscape: Geographical Change and Its Cultural Representations in Sixteenth-Century Italy. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Doan, Laura. “Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 137–55.

Eliot, T. S. “The Hollow Men.” 1925. Collected Poems: 1909–1962. London: Faber, 1974. 89–92.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Vol. 18 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1953. 1–64.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Hutcheon, Linda. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Ignatieff, Michael. Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. Toronto: Viking, 1993.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1914–15. London: Penguin, 1992.

Moore, Lisa. “Teledildonics: Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson.” Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism. Ed. Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn. London: Routledge, 1995. 104–27.

Ragland, Ellie. Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud to Lacan. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Scholes, Robert. “Stephen Dedalus: Poet or Esthete?” PMLA 89 (1964): 484–89. Rpt. in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ed. Chester G. Anderson. New York: Viking, 1968. 468–80.

Shelley, P. B. Julian and Maddalo. The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. London: Oxford UP, 1907. 185–200.

Showalter, Elaine. The Female Malady: Women, Madness, and English Culture, 1830–1930. 1985. London: Virago, 1987.

Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. Toronto: Knopf, 1995.

———. The Passion. 1987. New York: Vintage-Random, 1989.

Keryn Carter (essay date fall 1998)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3937

SOURCE: Carter, Keryn. “The Consuming Fruit: Oranges, Demons, and Daughters.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 40, no. 1 (fall 1998): 15–23.

[In the following essay, Carter explores the mother-daughter relationship in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, arguing that Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre acts as a mother-text for the heroine, Jeannette.]

The narrator of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit cites two of the most painful events of her childhood as follows: first, the moment in which she discovered, by reading Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre for herself, that her mother had been rewriting the ending of Brontë's story when reading it out loud to her (72–73). In the mother's version, Jane Eyre marries St. John Rivers and the couple become missionaries. The narrator of Oranges views her mother's revision as an act of betrayal and refuses to read Jane Eyre ever again. She then states that that event was just as shattering as the moment when she discovered her adoption papers hidden away in the back of a drawer. Although I am certain the discovery that one is adopted would be momentous, the intensity of the experience involving Jane Eyre is perhaps more difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless it offers tantalizing possibilities for the literary critic.

Those two events, fused into the narrative as almost a single experience of betrayal by the mother, form the starting point of my article. I intend to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by concentrating on several closely related issues that, for me, grow out of those narratorial “revelations” and, more generally, out of the text's representation of its central mother-daughter relationship. My paper falls into two sections: in the first I will discuss Oranges in the light of Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection; in the second I will put forward the argument that Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre occupies the space of a mother-text for Winterson's heroine.

As an introduction I want to make explicit some associated ideas that I hope the title of this paper will set into play. With the title “The Consuming Fruit: Oranges, Demons, and Daughters,” I have tried to evoke the image of a “fruit”—in this case a child and the text's shifting symbol of the orange—as active, as dynamic, and as possessing at least the potential to consume that which threatens to consume it. The “demon” refers to the “orange demon” that the heroine first encounters when she is locked in her mother's parlor for thirty-six hours (106) as a punishment for her “Unnatural Passions” (16). The orange demon is linked to Jeanette's distinctive creativity, her humor, her lesbianism, to all those qualities that the people around her would have her hold in check. Her conversation with the demon can, of course, be explained away as an hallucination, but so too can Jane Eyre's uncanny, and much discussed, experience in the red-room at Gateshead Hall (Brontë 18–20).

In The Powers of Horror, Kristeva discusses the drive within societies to “dam up the abject or demoniacal potential of the feminine” that does not “respect boundaries” and refuses to take up its position as “other” (65). I hope to demonstrate that that insight relates not only to the “monstrous” power of Jeanette's mother, but also to Jeanette herself and the “orange demon” of daughterhood.

Anyone who has read Oranges or watched the recent BBC television series would have been struck by the character of Jeanette's mother. She is a powerful, forbidding figure who dominates the young girl's life; the story the narrator tells is in one sense the story of a painful separation from this all-powerful figure who retains much of the authority of the pre-Oedipal mother, while at the same time standing firmly—as one critic argues—on the side of patriarchal law (Suleiman 137).

The narrator's struggle to define herself as separate from this overpowering mother is set within the confines of an oppressive English town in the 1960s and 1970s. Educated at home until the age of seven, the young Jeanette has an imagination that blossoms along unconventional lines as her mother feeds her a diet of religious fundamentalism. Jeanette “could not recall” a time when she did not know that she was “special” (4). Her mother's most explicit fantasy is that Jeanette will becomes a missionary, like the heroine in her own version of Jane Eyre. In her earliest years Jeanette successfully mimics her mother's desires, rising to a position of responsibility within the church, even preaching and organizing Bible study classes. In adolescence, however, she begins to threaten the security of the entire community as she strives to define and enact her difference from her mother and her mother's desires.

For Kristeva, as for Freud, the original “not self” of any individual is the mother. As the boundaries between the child's body and the mother's gradually become more and more distinct, the child suffers an enormous sense of loss for the wholeness he or she had once experienced with the mother. Throughout this “whole,” or pre-Oedipal stage, the child had not perceived itself as separate from the mother; the sense of loss that accompanies the child's realization of its separateness is, for Kristeva, complicated by fear—even horror. To develop a self the infant must retain its sense of difference from the mother: thus, the mother comes to represent the border between the self and the unknown. That border must be maintained at a distance because it retains the capacity to destroy—even devour—the child's emerging self. Paradoxically, the border is necessary to the child's development: It defines the child's sense of self by its very difference, its separateness.

There is the source of the process that Kristeva calls “abjection”: the process that expels the boundaries that threaten the self even as they define it; the expulsion of the abject, of “the place where meaning collapses” (2). Such a process, Kristeva argues, is essential for the individual's successful access to the social world; throughout our adult lives we work to maintain those boundaries at a safe distance. Many aspects of human existence can be read as representing abjection, but the body of the mother remains the primary object of abjection: the original not-self in every individual's history.

I would argue that in at least two ways abjection can be seen to operate on the surface of Winterson's text. First, and most obviously, in the narrator's relationship with her mother, and second on the communal level where the expulsion of the abject takes on ritualistic proportions. In the second scenario Jeanette, the narrator, herself comes to occupy the place of that which is abject.

The mother-daughter relationship depicted in Oranges, on the individual level, may be read as dramatizing the process of abjection—the daughter's development as a subject relies on a process of separating herself from a dominating, even monstrous, mother who threatens to engulf her selfhood. The text's “icon”—as the narrator herself calls it—of the orange is bound up with many stages of this process of separation. However, the function of the orange-as-symbol is to some degree a shifting one. Most obviously it stands, boldly, for the narrator's sense of her own identity, but warm in color and distinctly breast-like, the orange also has the capacity to feed and nurture the growing Jeanette in ways that her mother clearly cannot. In that sense the oranges may be read as signifying the boundary between mother and daughter.

The oranges begin as a food championed by the mother and fed to the young Jeanette at all kinds of inappropriate moments, often accompanied by the chant, “oranges are the only fruit.” We might speculate that the mother feeds oranges to her daughter in an attempt to satisfy the child's demands: in other words, she gives oranges instead of herself. When Jeanette is old enough to begin making her own choices, she circulates oranges, as she circulates herself, within a broader community of “mothers,” women who satisfy her various and developing needs. She sometimes “breaks” an orange with one of these women in an almost ritualistic dramatization of the act of “giving” her body to other women. Jeanette thus defines her separateness partly through exerting her right to choose fruit other than the obvious. Perhaps her mother is at last beginning to recognize this separateness when toward the end of the novel, she states, “after all … oranges are not the only fruit” (167, my italics).

On the communal level, abjection can be seen to operate when Jeanette begins to make choices and is herself expelled, cast out, abjected from the close-knit religious community of her childhood. She is expelled because she is seen to cross the borders that threaten the precarious social order, not only by her lesbianism but later by her willingness to work at the local funeral parlor.

According to Kristeva, the human corpse is “the most sickening of wastes” (3); the ultimate disruption of the boundaries that signify, “identity, system, order” (4). She writes:

The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. […] Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us.


Jeanette, a young girl already expelled from the security of her family home, her church, and her love affair, now seeks refuge with and receives an income from the dead. Cheerfully, she makes-up the faces of corpses and cleans out the back of the hearse.

In my view, Jeanette appears to threaten the fabric of the social order so profoundly because she does so from both inside and outside. To quote Kristeva once again:

Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death. Menstrual blood, on the contrary, stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual); it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.


Thus, Jeanette not only threatens to disrupt the security of the community from the outside, through her involvement with “excrement and its equivalents,” but she also threatens it from within, as she visibly crosses the border between child and woman. From the community's perspective those transgressions are further compounded by the abjectivity of her “Unnatural Passions.” And her visibility poses the problem for the symbolic order: If woman signifies nothing, absence, lack, then how does it read a young girl's changing body, the onset of menstruation and, in Jeanette's case, the visibility of her sexual preferences? As one of the novel's characters—herself a lesbian—asks Jeanette: “[W]hy haven't you been a bit more careful?” (103). In other words, “Why did you allow yourself to be seen crossing boundaries?” Thus the community constructs Jeanette as representing its own (potential or actual) transgressions: as the subject who refuses to take her place in the symbolic.

But Jeanette manages to outrage the community's sense of its own “cleanliness” still further: During two separate events involving the one corpse she mixes death with food—thus crossing the boundary that separates bodily contamination from bodily nutrition. Significantly, in both instances the food she happens to serve is, appropriately, ice cream: deathly cold and soggy. On the first occasion Jeanette, whose other part-time job is driving an ice-cream van, is accused of “making money from the dead” when her van is accosted by the excited crowd that has gathered outside the house of her newly dead friend, Elsie (148). Jeanette must serve the customers if she is to make her way to Elsie's front door. On the other occasion, Jeanette is required to serve dessert—ice cream once again—at Elsie's wake. One member of the congregation, turning her back on vanilla ice cream simply because it is Jeanette who offers it, remarks to Jeanette's mother, “Oh she's a demon your daughter.” “She's no daughter of mine,” is the mother's swift reply (153). Jeanette serving ice cream is interpreted not only as Jeanette dishing up the chill of death, but also of disruption and difference.

Before her fall from grace Jeanette has occupied a unique position within the congregation. She was “chosen”—adopted—at a very young age so that her adoptive mother might fulfill her own dream of becoming a missionary—from a safe distance, through another person. The young Jeanette is “special,” and at times treated as a kind of mystic. Indeed, her mother and the rest of the church-going community misread a severe ear infection, or rather its accompanying loss of hearing, as spiritual ecstasy (22–23). The mother was prone to that kind of misreading. She tells Jeanette that once, years ago in Paris, she mistook the symptoms of a stomach ulcer for the stirrings of romantic love (85).

Although the child Jeanette was granted a unique position, in adolescence her lesbianism marks her femaleness as excessive. It cannot be read and, therefore, represents the point at which the community's sense of its own meaning collapses. That situation is complicated by the fact that the church's “strong women”—her mother included—have offered Jeanette role models that have lead her to have faith in the power of her own femaleness. Those models, however, are defined and sustained by patriarchal law, and the young Jeanette has not understood the significance of their limitations. Instead, she has viewed her own behavior within a continuum that includes women like her mother. Thus she experiences a profound shock, a profound loss of meaning, when her mother betrays her publicly:

The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church. Our branch of the church had never thought about it, we'd always had strong women, and the women organized everything. Some of us could preach, and quite plainly, in my case, the church was full because of it … then a curious thing happened. My mother stood up and said she believed this was right … Until this moment my life had still made some kind of sense. Now it was making no sense at all. My mother droned on about the importance of missionary work for a woman, that I was clearly such a woman, but had spurned my call in order to wield power on the home front, where it was inappropriate …

So there I was, my success in the pulpit being the reason for my downfall. The devil had attacked me at my weakest point: my inability to realize the limitations of my sex.

(131–32, my italics)

By siding with the church rather than her daughter, the mother, in one swift movement, has come perilously close to destroying Jeanette's complex, still-emerging sense of self. But the mother does more than just collude with the crude, sadistic exorcism that her daughter undergoes; she appears to be the driving force behind it.

Cinema critic Barbara Creed's reading of female “possession” in horror films, which also draws upon Kristevan theory, may prove useful here:

The possessed female subject is one who refuses to take up her proper place in the symbolic order. Her protest is represented as a return to the pre-Oedipal, to the period of the semiotic chora … [as] a return of the unclean, untrained, unsymbolised body. Abjection is constructed as a rebellion of filthy, lustful, carnal, female flesh.


For Kristeva the speaking subject—man or woman—speaks or writes from a position within the symbolic. Creed's reading does not address the issue of what takes place when the subject who speaks appears to do so from out of the experience of abjection itself. An exploration of that issue is well beyond the scope of this paper, but I will make one suggestion that I feel is applicable to Winterson's text.

As narrator, Jeanette is invested with an authority that would seem to disallow her abjecthood. Rather than being the point at which meaning disappears, she is—for the reader—the point at which meaning is generated. The bold, idiosyncratic voice of the mature narrator distances her—and the reader—from the pain of the past; the humor of the text also functions as a strategy that draws reader and narrator together in a bond of shared secrets and shared values. Once the expelled object of her church's defilement rites, the older narrator now adopts storytelling as a medium through which she enacts her own rite of purification. By immersing herself in the past, by writing-out her abjected self, the narrator expels that past. And the subject who speaks from the pages of the text is in a sense spoken by this process.

In my introduction, I suggested that Jeanette's rejection of Jane Eyre is bound up closely with her complicated relationship to her mother. I will now elaborate on the way in which I read this interconnectedness and in the process draw together some of the threads of this discussion.

In a sense, Jeanette's first-person narrative of female development follows the framework laid out by Charlotte Brontë in her now-classic tale of a young woman's struggle for selfhood. Jane Eyre has become, to borrow Gayatri Spivak's phrase, “the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction” (251, my italics). Jeanette's quest for autonomy is, therefore, acted out within the narrative confines constructed not by one mother but by two. Although both “mothers” have proclaimed their separateness, Jeanette—as the daughter of both—is in the position of being constrained by both mothers. The framework of the mother's desires is difficult to escape, but so too is the narrative paradigm of Jane Eyre. Both mothers threaten her identity even as they define it.

In my view, Jeanette composes and superimposes her own quest narrative on the imprint of earlier texts, both private and public. That her action is to some degree self-conscious is perhaps evidenced by the smattering of fairy-tale narratives that surface regularly in Oranges: tales that fragment and re-shape her personal experiences within a mythological paradigm.1

The only mother missing here is Jeanette's birth mother who, as a shadowy figure, is glimpsed only briefly. Her story, and the stories she might have told, are completely absent. I should stress, however, that the narrator knows more about her than she discloses to her readers, because she has overheard “every word” of a conversation between her adoptive and birth mothers.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that for Jeanette the adoptive mother's story is a lie, just as her claim to the “truth” of parenthood is a lie. The real ending of Jane Eyre has been concealed from the child just as her adoption has been concealed. The mother's version of Jane Eyre thus comes to stand for the narrator's dream of a lost, impossible wholeness: a wholeness that neither the “real” Jane Eyre nor her “real” mother could ever grant her. And the imaginative potential of the mother's creativity—the “rewriting” of daughter as well as text—is overlooked in the narrator's desperate quest for separateness. Thus adoption may be seen as one of the strategies by which Winterson explores the perimeter of the mother-daughter relationship: the doubleness of Jeanette's adoption highlighting the fictitious nature of any return to a lost wholeness.

Jeanette's first experiences of narrative, like that of many people, seems to have been closely bound up with the voice and the body of the mother. One might speculate that perhaps those were also her earliest critical experiences. In an essay published in 1989, critic Jane Gallop questioned whether or not, “women's studies, [and] studies by women, differ from those performed by male scholars in that the woman, perhaps because of her more permeable self-boundaries, tends to get entangled with the object of study” (17–18). Gallop borrows and expands upon Ronnie Scharfman's ideas to suggest that the feminist reader or critic who sees herself “reflected” in some way in a text constructs that text as mother, with herself as daughter (18). That is, the woman reader, who within the psychoanalytic paradigm possesses a fluid sense of self-boundaries, will not necessarily perceive the object of study as essentially separate from herself. She will see herself in the object and the object in herself; her relationship with the object of study in a sense mirrors her relationship with her original “object”—her mother. Gallop raises this issue in the context of the reader-daughter who remains to some degree entangled in the reflection of a monstrous mother who represents both self and other.

I have already suggested that the narrator of Oranges writes-out her past self and her close association with the abject; however, the multiple—and powerful—“mothers” who have threatened her identity are also expelled during this process. Paradoxically, that writing-out also represents the drive to re-write the shattered story of pre-Oedipal wholeness, to regain the fairy-tale love affair with the mother's voice, the mother's body. In this sense the daughter's text is a reconciliation with the early pleasure experienced with both mother and mother-text.

The form that the reconciliation takes reproduces the entanglement of the mother-daughter relationship on a number of levels: readings become texts; daughters become mothers. As Jane Gallop writes, “The literary critic is that kind of monster” (20). Although Narcissus drowned in the beauty of his own reflection, he was at least separate from that reflection; he was the subject looking. For the demon-daughter as reader or as critic, the situation is not so clear-cut. She is still attempting to disengage herself from the murky waters of daughterly ambivalence, and sometimes she is not sure what she sees in its depths.

In conclusion, perhaps it is possible to relate this notion of “reproduction” more directly to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Surely the potential threat posed by Jeanette's behavior is what so horrifies the evangelistic community that they cast her in the role of the abject. If demonic daughters are seen to cross the border into womanhood, then, for the security of the social order, their excesses must be “dammed up.” However, if “excessive” daughter-readers like Jeanette produce mother-texts like Oranges, then the flow of this demon is, in fact, much more difficult to arrest. For we, as daughter-readers, will in turn produce more texts. And so on—each entangled in her own reflection. Perhaps, unwittingly, Jeanette's mother refers to this kind of academic, critical propagation when she calls the system of formal education, from which she is so keen to protect Jeanette, “the Breeding Ground” (16, my italics).


  1. These analogous “fairy-tales,” with their dark, sparse, and unconventional humor, make up a substantial proportion of the novel and deserve to be the object of a separate discussion. See, in particular, the fascinating tale of the prince who searches for and finds the “perfect” woman, has her beheaded, and is then offered a copy of what appears to be Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (58–65).

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.

Gallop, Jane. “The Monster in the Mirror: The Feminist Critic's Psychoanalysis.” Feminism and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Kristeva, Julia. The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Dir. Beeban Kidron. Dram. Jeanette Winterson. BBC Enterprises, 1990.

Scharfman, Ronnie. “Mirroring and Mothering in Simone Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent Télumée Miracle and Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea.Yale French Studies, 62 (1981) 88–106.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakrovorty. “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 243–261.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “Mothers and the Avant-Garde: A Case of Mistaken Identity?” Femmes=Frauen=Women. Ed. Francoise Van Rossum-Guyon. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1990.

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. 1985. London: Vintage, 1991.

Eric Lorberer (review date summer 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

SOURCE: Lorberer, Eric. Review of The World and Other Places, by Jeanette Winterson. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 2 (summer 1999): 143–44.

[In the following review, Lorberer offers a positive assessment of The World and Other Places.]

Fans of Jeanette Winterson's laconic prose will find much to enjoy in this [The World and Other Places], the author's first collection of short fiction. Culling stories from the last twelve years, this book shows that Winterson can sculpt her sentences as precisely in the short form as she does in the novel. Her gift for imagery is startling, whether noticing an aged woman (“with a face like a love-note somebody crushed in his fist”) or a dinner table suspended in the air by chains: “an armoury of knives and forks laid out in case the eaters knocked one into the abyss.” Despite the deft, self-deprecating irony that finds expression in her characters, Winterson's lyricism is the central note struck throughout, as in this passage from “Adventure of a Lifetime”: “I started to think about Hansel and Gretel and how they found their way through the forest by leaving a trail of stones. We left nothing behind but the heat from our bodies and that soon chilled.”

One of the most delightful things about this book is its range; Winterson proves herself equally adept at personal narrative (“The 24-Hour Dog”), fable (“The Three Friends”), speculative fiction (“Disappearance I”) and arty metatext (“The Poetics of Sex”). Her story “Newton” (which contains the all-time great sentence: “There's no room for the dead unless you treat them as ornamental”) lengthens this reach even farther. As in her novels, Winterson is able to enunciate a feminist politics without leadening her prose, and her facility for portraying strong women (such as the Artemis who quietly kills a brutish Orion in a reimagined mythology) is balanced here by complex male characters (see “Atlantic Crossing,” “The Green Man,” or the title story). “Using my compass I write to you,” Winterson says in her afterword, and indeed, she directs these stories to her readers with unerring aim.

Antje Lindenmeyer (essay date autumn 1999)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6218

SOURCE: Lindenmeyer, Antje. “Postmodern Concepts of the Body in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.Feminist Review, no. 63 (autumn 1999): 48–63.

[In the following essay, Lindenmeyer discusses Winterson's reconciliation of postmodern and feminist views of the female body in Written on the Body, highlighting the novel's critique of conventional biological approaches to gender differences.]


It has been said that postmodern theory is inimical to feminist goals, because it effaces the reality of female experience in favour of discursively constructed identities. In embracing postmodern theories of the body, one faces the, as Lisa More puts it, ‘dystopian possibility’ that the ‘discontinuous, heterogeneous experiences, sensations, desires and identifications that pulse through us as we experience our “bodies”’ become chaotic once the identity categories that structure our perception of the body are deconstructed’ (Moore, 1995: 104). However, I believe that Jeanette Winterson, in her novel Written on the Body, develops a postmodern concept of the body that escapes that trap and offers many possibilities for feminist theorizing. The title alone situates her book within an ongoing debate on the relations between bodies and texts, bodies and society: Michel Foucault claims that the body is permanently inscribed by power relations seeping into everyday life in the form of disciplinary practices. Moreover, the body itself is ‘totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body’ (Foucault, quoted in Grosz, 1994a: 146). This model still assumes that there is a quasi neutral body surface inscribed by society's discursive practices. Judith Butler dismisses this view as idealist: the body is perceived as a pure and prediscursive entity inscribed and mutilated by society. She states that the very surface of the body is discursively produced, and it is produced gendered: ‘Gender-instituting prohibitions work through suffusing the body with a pain that culminates in the projection of a surface, that is, a sexed morphology’ (Butler, 1993: 65). The same discourses which produce the bodily surface work to keep the surface intact by regulating passages through body openings: ‘The construction of stable bodily contours relies upon fixed sites of corporeal permeability and impermeability’ (Butler, 1990: 132).

However, the permeability and impermeability of the body is regulated differently for male and female bodies. Women are soft, penetrable matter with no really stable surface at all, whereas men's bodies are ‘sealed off,’ and powerful taboos are placed on anal intercourse, because it reveals their penetrability (see Waldby, 1995: 268–9). Moreover, it has been argued that bodies are masculinized and feminized precisely in regard to penetration: ‘When a man is raped, he too is raped as a woman’ (de Lauretis, 1987: 152). Thus, feminist postmodernists have their task cut out for them: they are to reveal the way in which gendered, stable identities and bodily surfaces are produced, and to develop concepts of the body which allow for fluid boundaries between body and psyche, between ‘real’ and imaginary or prosthetic parts of the body (see Grosz, 1994a).

In Written on the Body Winterson echoes the postmodern claim that the body is discursively produced through language by introducing a narrator whose words bring the body of the beloved woman into existence, and who constantly attempts to recreate her absent body through evocative descriptions. However, the narrator does not simply repeat society's discourse of the body, but draws on scientific and poetic imagery in order to form a highly individual representation. Likewise, the narrator disrupts the deeply entrenched distinction between fact and fiction by storytelling. Winterson is convinced that stories contain more truth than the so-called facts:

Everybody who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us everybody sees it differently. … People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious.

(Winterson, 1991: 91)

In the following [sections], I will show how Winterson uses literary fiction to experiment with postmodern and feminist concepts of the body in order ‘to interrogate, trouble, subvert and tamper with gender, identity and sexuality’ (Doan, 1994: 154).


‘The narrator's undeclared gender makes the space of narration a “virtual space”’ (Moore, 1995: 108). But first and foremost it irritates the reader, who attempts to figure it out, deciding that the narrator must be a woman at first, only to revoke that decision some pages later. Eventually it becomes clear that s/he is not one seamless character but constructed by the stories s/he tells, with different identities evoked by various memory flashbacks typically beginning with ‘I had a girlfriend once’ or ‘I had a boyfriend once.’ One personality is a heterosexual male who is in danger to become ‘a parody of the sporting colonel … fancying a glass of sherry and a little mental dalliance with Inge, Catherine, Bathsheba, Judith, Estelle …’ (77). Another is a gay man with a succession of kinky boyfriends (see 99, 143 and 152). Again another is the androgynous Lothario with a passion for married women, who craves the thrill of the adulterous affair and the—however brief—victory against conformity: ‘I used to think of marriage as a plate-glass window just begging for a brick. The self-exhibition, the self-satisfaction, smarminess, tightness, tight-arsedness’ (13). However, the narrator is also the lesbian, the committed lover familiar from romance novels: ‘The speech patterns, cultural references and relationship problems made conventional by lesbian fiction are scattered liberally throughout the text’ (Moore, 1995: 108). The succession of ‘impossible girlfriends’ is clearly influenced by satirical lesbian novels like Rubyfruit Jungle. At times, the narrator expresses deep contempt for marriage and heterosexual penetration: ‘Her husband lies over her like a tarpaulin. He wades into her as though she were a bog’ (73).

This strategy is a source of boundless confusion. While the narrator, at one point in the text, claims knowledge about and solidarity with male behaviour (‘men's toilets are fairly liberal places’), s/he expresses incredulous puzzlement only five lines later (‘why do men like doing everything together?’ [22]).1 Moreover, instead of fixing her/his gender once and for all, the author teases the reader, playing on its various implications within psychoanalytic frameworks. In a lurid dream-scene, the narrator visits a girlfriend and encounters a vagina dentata:

Poking out of the letter-box just at crotch level was the head of a yellow and green [papier-mâché] serpent. … ‘You've nothing to be frightened of’ she said. ‘It's got a rat-trap in the jaw.’ … She returned with a leek and shoved it into the snake's mouth. There was a terrible clatter and the bottom half of the leek fell limply onto the mat.


This passage plays with popular assumptions about castration and penis envy: the snake as implement of the phallic woman, the snake's jaw as vagina dentata. ‘You've nothing to be frightened of’ has a double meaning. If the narrator is a woman, it means that she has no outer genitals that could be harmed by the snake, or, in psychoanalytic terms, she is already castrated, has ‘nothing,’ and therefore nothing to lose. If the narrator is a man, it means that his castration anxiety is silly, because the rat-trap is not meant for him, but for the obnoxious postman (another psychoanalytic in-joke, given the importance of the letter in Lacanian theory). Winterson never affirms the importance of the penis/phallus as marker of sexual difference, but plays around it, offering only shifting positions of phallic woman/castrated woman/man ridden with castration anxiety that can never be immovably allocated.

For the narrator, sexual difference is of little or no importance. Describing a former boyfriend, s/he states: ‘His ambition was to find a hole in every port. He wasn't fussy about the precise location’ (93). Within the regulatory system described by Butler, however, the ‘location’ of the hole is crucial, because the female vagina is deemed penetrable, the male anus impenetrable. Thus, ‘sexual practices … that open surfaces and orifices to erotic signification … effectively reinscribe the boundaries of the body along new cultural lines’ (Butler, 1990: 132). The strategy of displacing sexual difference is not limited to the re-signification of body orifices. Describing the relation between her/his body and that of the beloved woman, Louise, the narrator admits:

What I wanted to do was to fasten my index finger and thumb at the bolts of your collar bone. … You asked me if I wanted to strangle you. No, I wanted to fit you, not just in the obvious way but in so many indentations. … I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same. Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.


The obvious way in which male/female couples are said to ‘fit’ is being displaced by extending the attempt to mould into the other's body on to many different places. The assumed difference between the sexes evolves into a basic sameness, according to biblical metaphors (‘Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh’). However, if the narrator is read as female, this passage describes the erotics of sameness, usurping the terms describing the perfect match between Adam and Eve for lesbian purposes. This is similar to Elizabeth Grosz's attempt to refigure lesbian desire:

The sites most intensely invested always occur at a conjunction … they are always surface effects between one thing and another—between a hand and a breast, a tongue and a cunt. … We have to abandon our habitual understanding of entities as the integrated totality of parts, and instead we must focus on the elements, the parts, outside their integration or organisation.

(Grosz, 1994b: 78)

The notion of a coherent body relating to another coherent body (in a male/female couple, via sexual difference and complementarity) is broken up into many surfaces which are able to ‘dock’ and bond with other surfaces in a transitory union.

The different personalities of the narrator could tentatively be brought together by describing her/him as ‘butch.’ All the necessary elements are there (active courting of women, pride in giving them pleasure, a violent streak that leads to fisticuffs with male rivals and a chivalric protectiveness). The fact that s/he leaves Louise in an attempt to make her accept her doctor-husband's offer to have her cured of leukaemia—if she stays with him—points towards another famous literary butch, Stephen Gordon in The Well of Loneliness, who pushes her beloved Mary into leaving her for a man who promises marriage and a ‘normal’ life. ‘Butchness’ is not contingent on having a specific (male) body, but is ‘a belief, a performance, a swagger in the walk … an attitude, a tough line, a way of dressing’ (Halberstam, 1994: 223). If gender identities are indeed a performance (see Butler, 1990), sex thrives on performativity: ‘Her pleasure was in … a game between equals who might not always choose to be equals. She was not a D. H. Lawrence type; no-one could take Louise with animal inevitability’ (67). The female body is freed from its status as ‘pure nature,’ guaranteeing the ‘naturality’ of (heterosexual) sex.

Winterson thus disturbs rigid gender boundaries in several ways. First, her ungendered, ‘virtual’ narrator functions like a perspective drawing that can be seen as either the inside or the outside of a geometric body, but never as both at once. The meanings her text produces oscillate and change dependent on the look the reader wants to assume, the gender s/he wants to read into it. Second, she discloses gender identities as performance, using the ‘butch’ as ideal example. Even if the narrator were a man, his ‘butchness’ would always be a performance, an imitation of a literary chivalric archetype (‘What do I think I am? Sir Launcelot?’ [159]). Third, the notion of stable bodies with complementary sexual organs is being destroyed by making sexuality dependent on variant fittings and connections between different parts of bodies. Winterson assumes a general sameness of human bodies and generates from it what Heather Nunn calls a ‘postgenital erotic economy’ (Nunn, 1996: 17): a host of small differences, gendered or ungendered. This makes one realize how narrow the usual definitions of sexual difference are: only a few body parts are allowed to be invested with sexual significance and then pronounced complementary.


As the love between the narrator and Louise deepens, the fleeting contact of body parts is replaced by a feeling of total fusion. This deeply romantic idea,2 however, contains a threat to the self-contained subject: ‘Erotic pleasure arguably requires a kind of momentary annihilation or suspension of what normally counts as “identity,” the conscious, masterful, self-identical self’ (Waldby, 1995: 266). Winterson's metaphor of choice for the total fusion is molecular docking: ‘There are many ways to fit molecules together but only a few juxtapositions that bring them close enough to bond. … We touch one another, bond and break, drift away on force-fields we do not understand’ (61–2). This total fusion brought on by indomitable forces, destiny or chemistry, is a staple of romantic fiction.3 The idea begins to become disturbing after the narrator perceives her/himself ‘inside’ Louise's body (or vice versa): ‘Sometimes I think I'm free, coughed up like Jonah from the whale, but then I turn a corner and recognize myself again’ (120). And, later: ‘She was my twin and I lost her. She flooded me … she beats upon my doors and threatens my innermost safety’ (163). The absolute obsession threatens the integrity of the self. Looking in the mirror, the narrator discovers: ‘It's not my own face I see. Your body is twice. Once you once me. Can I be sure which is which?’ (99). This familiar literary motif has been named ‘the shock of nonrecognition’ by Jenijoy LaBelle, who shows its use as a harbinger of imminent madness (see LaBelle, 1988: 100). However, the intensity of romantic love does not only bring about fusions but also splittings of the self into different entities, into ‘lover and child, virgin and roué. … I had Mercutio's swagger. … I quivered like a schoolgirl’ (81–2). This seems to be a positive effect, bearing witness to the ‘complexity of passion’ (81). But it is not only love that causes personalities to multiply. Most commonly it occurs in the service of conventional domesticity: ‘package up your life with supermarket efficiency, don't mix the heart with the liver’ (71). Compared to this self-alienation, Louise's integrity as a ‘whole person’ is reaffirmed: ‘It was necessary to engage her whole person. … She would not be divided from herself. She preferred celibacy to tupping’ (68).

In describing what happens within the body of Louise after she is diagnosed with leukaemia, Winterson introduces a splitting of the body that becomes potentially lethal: the body turns on itself, and the single parts take over. In a grim parody of the standard depiction of the T-cells as a police force, the narrator describes an army out of control: ‘The security forces have rebelled. Louise is the victim of a coup. … Here they come, hurtling through the bloodstream trying to pick a fight. There is no-one but you Louise. You are the foreign body now’ (115–16). The politically conservative description of the body as a law-and-order state with the immune system as police (see Martin, 1994) is carried to its logical conclusion: the putsch of the security forces, causing death and destruction of the body. Louise's subjection to the power of the medical establishment gives Winterson the possibility to address the implications of a split image of the body from a political angle: ‘In doctor-think the body is a series of bits to be isolated and treated as necessary. … Wheel round the drugs trolley, bomb the battlefield, try radiation right on the tumour. … Desperate measures for desperate diseases’ (175). This tendency to ignore the patient's body as a whole and to engage in a crusade against the personalized tumour has been described by Susan Sontag with great clarity: ‘Treatment also has a military flavour. … Not only is the clinical course of the disease and its medical treatment thus described, but the disease itself is conceived as the enemy against which society wages war’ (Sontag, 1991: 66–7). Cancer research and treatment is revealed to be a man's world, governed by the imagery of the military expedition and the Western frontier: ‘It was very sexy medicine. Gene therapy is the frontier world where names and fortunes can be made’ (66–7).

The dilemma which Winterson sets up—the way to avoid setting up rigid, gendered identities seems to be concentrating on the body parts, but disjoining the body parts can be lethal—is not overcome by reverting to a stable image of the body. In fighting the attempts made by the political and medical establishment to compartmentalize human beings, lives and bodies into neat, manageable units,4 Winterson employs ‘wholeness’ in a strategical way: ‘The biology of metastasis is what doctors don't understand. They are not conditioned to understand it. … That the body in its very disease might act as a whole is an upsetting concept. Holistic medicine is for faith-healers and crackpots, isn't it?’ (1975). This ‘wholeness’ is, however, not brought on by a stable surface, but by an understanding how body parts interact (for example, in metastasis). Winterson's metaphor for this concept of the body is the gravitational field. In an attempt to describe the feeling of having the ground cut away from under her/his feet, learning that Louise has been diagnosed with leukaemia, the narrator explains:

Two hundred miles from the surface of the earth there is no gravity. You are stretching slowly slowly, getting longer, your joints are slipping away from their usual places. … You will break up bone by bone, fractured from who you are … the centre cannot hold.


The problem with both traditional medicine and postmodern theories, the disintegration of the body into single parts, is addressed by a concept of the body that stresses the interaction of parts within one or between two bodies. Winterson, using romantic conventions of boundary-transcending love as well as postmodern concepts of the body to deconstruct rigid identities and boundaries, escapes total dissolution by envisaging a connectedness that is not relying on stable selves and surfaces: the gravitational field.


Both protagonists in Written on the Body have ‘Foucauldian’ bodies inscribed by history. Louise's body is marked by telltale scars: ‘There's a story trapped inside your mouth. A crashed car and a smashed windscreen’ (117). Even more cruel is the inscription of the ‘scars between your thighs where you fell on barbed wire’ (117). This could be an allusion to psychoanalytic concepts of female castration, where the genitals themselves are read as ‘scars’ or ‘wounds,’ the most crucial fact of a woman's personal history being the castration complex. However, not all imprints on the body bear witness to ‘history's destruction of the body’ (Foucault, quoted in Grosz, 1994a: 146). Some are the signs of lived bodily experience, which leaves a ‘secret code only visible in certain lights. … The palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille … I didn't know Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her book’ (89). The distinction between ‘body’ and ‘text’ becomes blurred, lovemaking turns into a hermeneutic act of reading and translating the beloved's body. However, if the text inscribed on the body can be changed and translated, the body is no longer a mere passive object of inscription by an all-powerful history.

The narrator describes her/his attempt at knowing Louise's body as a voyage of discovery: ‘How could I cover this land? Did Columbus feel like this on sighting the Americas?’ (52). In mentioning Columbus, Winterson evokes the trite colonialist metaphor of Woman's body as a dark continent, passively waiting for the male conqueror to penetrate, explore and exploit it, where mapping the body is a way of gathering knowledge, assigning a position of power to the cartographer.5 However, the narrator feels unable to assume this position, confounded by the vastness of the task. Instead s/he envisions an ideal situation of lovemaking where both bodies involved are constantly and reciprocally mapped and re-mapped, read and covered with telltale bite-marks: ‘I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will. We shall cross one another's boundaries and make ourselves one nation’ (20). Power relations are thus kept in balance: ‘Neither of us had the upper hand, we wore matching wounds’ (163).

This process of mapping takes on a sinister note when the narrator tries to remember Louise whom s/he has left in order to save her. Knowing her body becomes a part of a mourning process: ‘I became obsessed with anatomy. … I would go on knowing her more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. … I would recognize her when her body had long since fallen away’ (111). Mapping the body's surface gives way to a necrophiliac obsession of exploring and mapping the body's insides, fuelled by the fear that Louise might already be dying or dead. The female body, perceived as an inner space or gravelike cavity, as ‘womb-tomb-home’ (Bronfen, 1992: 66) becomes the site of a pathologist's examination: ‘Let me penetrate you. I am the archaeologist of tombs. … I'll store you in plastic like chicken livers. Womb, gut, brain, neatly labelled and returned. Is that how to know another human being?’ (119–20). This is clearly influenced by the traditional image of knowledge as penetration and dissection:

Men strive to ‘know’ women in the biblical sense, just as the natural sciences continually aim to penetrate nature's mysteries. … Woman, as the personification of nature, was the appropriate corpse for anatomy, which was … symbolically male in that science was also the masculine practice of looking, analysing and interpreting.

(Jordanova, 1989: 110)

This attempt at knowing Louise's body ends in an imaginary dismemberment of the body similar to that caused by ‘doctor-think,’ but the narrator does not gain a position of mastery. S/he is destroyed as well in the process: ‘You must be rid of life as I am rid of life. We shall sink together, you and I, down, down into the dark voids where once the vital organs were’ (119).

Thus, neither the narrator in her/his obsessive attempt at remembering nor the doctor-husband armed with scientific authority can establish power over Louise's body. Against the concept of knowledge-as-power, Winterson posits the utopian concept of a mutual reading/translating/redrawing of the body which does align knowledge not to plunging the depths, but to touching—and changing—the surfaces.


Louise's body has an almost fluid quality to it. The first image the reader gets of her is her naked body, floating in a river: ‘your body bright beneath the clear green water. … You turned on your back and your nipples grazed the surface of the river and the river decorated your hair with beads’ (11). Water seems to be her natural element. Moreover, the colours of her body ‘creamy but for your hair your red hair’ (11) are reminiscent of bodily fluids, red and white, milk and blood. Both are commonly associated with femininity and life-giving qualities (menstrual blood, maternal milk). According to Elizabeth Grosz, women's bodily fluids threaten patriarchal society:

Women's genitals are the loci of (potential) fluids, red and white, blood and milk, flows that are difficult to appropriate … a site of potential social danger insofar as they … insist on the irreducible specificity of women's bodies, the bodies of all women.

(Grosz, 1994a: 207)

The very fluidity and life-giving capacities of the female body become inextricably bound to mortality, because the corporeality of human beings that are ‘of woman born’ renders them vulnerable to death. Thus, ‘the maternal body … [is] fundamentally deceptive, the source of life clothed in beauty but infested by the ferments of death’ (Bronfen, 1992: 67). Accordingly, when the red and white flows are incorporated into the bloodstream, as red and white blood cells, they become susceptible to disease: ‘Marrow where the blood cells are formed red and white. Red and white, the colours of Louise’ (110). Insofar as Louise is an allegory of fluid femininity, she is also related to death.

Moreover, Louise is not only a female body, but also a work of art. The image of her body floating in water is suggestive of paintings of Ophelia, death-bound, floating downstream.6 The narrator describes her (or constructs her) in terms of a painting: ‘Louise against the pale blue sky looking like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine’ (99). The women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings form another connection between femininity and death. They waste away poetically, while their living bodies are being absorbed into works of art: ‘Rossetti's images of the fading Elizabeth Siddall, beautiful in her dying, signify the virility and immortality of his art’ (Bronfen, 1992: 174).

The Pre-Raphaelite women seem to be infected with the most romantic illness, TB, where the victim gains ethereal qualities and an inwardly burning intensity (see Sontag, 1991: 26). Louise's leukaemia seems, at first, not romantic at all. The narrator recounts in detail the brutal effects of chemotherapy (constipation, vomiting, swellings, hair loss). But her/his anticipation of the dying body still evokes the romantic TB sufferer: ‘She would be very thin, my beautiful girl, thin and weary and lost’ (102). On the other hand, the possible effects of her illness are described as a monstrous pregnancy: ‘Will your spleen distend? Will the rigorous contours of your body swell under an infertile load?’ (125). Thus, the leukaemia activates two of the traditional images that connect women to death: poetic emaciation or monstrous maternity.

Within romantic conventions, love and desire themselves are directed at an absent beloved, and women come to stand in for lack and absence. Psychoanalytically, ‘desire is the movement of substitutions that creates … an endless network of replacements … and representations for the perpetually absent object’ (Grosz, 1994b: 71). The perfect romance can only be had with a dead woman who won't interfere with the attempts to reconstitute an object that is already lost: ‘At least your relationship with Louise didn't fail. It was the perfect romance’ (187). Elisabeth Bronfen claims that ‘narratives by women writers install the cultural paradigm that links femininity with death in the same gesture that they critique it’ (Bronfen, 1992: 432). This could be the case in Written on the Body. However, the concluding twist in Winterson's narrative is that Louise's symptoms may or may not point towards a deadly illness. It is perfectly possible that her husband has tried to use his power as a medical expert in order to make her stay with him, because she is an essential asset for his career. The strategy fails and she leaves him nevertheless, thereby exposing the narrator's chivalric sacrifice as foolishness. In the end, Louise comes to find her/him, and her appearance as a romantic spectre is contradicted by her liveliness: ‘Am I stark mad? She's warm’ (190). This ending can, however, be read in a twofold way: either Louise comes back paler, thinner, but alive, or the narrator descends into madness, the excessive fantasy expunging a deadly reality. In Christy Burns's view, ‘Winterson pushes fantasy to the extreme implication of its use and here refuses to turn back from the madness it invokes’ (Burns, 1996: 301). However, Louise's death and imaginary resurrection would be a full enactment of the romantic plot, where a woman is killed off and then transformed into a text, a fantasy, a work of art (see Bronfen, 1992). The narrator admits that s/he attempted to ‘invent’ Louise, to make her into the object of her/his fantasy, but, again, this attempt is thwarted: ‘She wasn't yours for the making’ (189). Thus, Winterson develops a narrative that confirms the power of desire and imagination and exposes, at the same time, the dark underside of the romantic tradition: the way women's bodies are used up to create a perfect romance.


Laura Doan argues that, in Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson ‘envisions the contours and logic of a lesbian postmodern that collapses binarisms and creates a space not just for lesbians but productive, dynamic and fluid gender pluralities and sexual positionings’ (Doan, 1994: 153). By constructing a contradictory, ‘virtual’ narrator from diverse sexual identities, she disturbs the concept of a ‘natural’ stable heterosexuality as much as that of an essentially stable lesbian identity. However, in coupling a ‘virtual’ narrator with a romantic narrative, she defies the notion that postmodernism and romance don't mix. ‘Postmodernism … has tended to imply a refusal of the possibility of romantic love because of its presumed status as an illusionary discourse of authenticity’ (Moore, 1995: 80). In Written on the Body the very conventions of romance, driven to their extremes, work to undermine the ‘discourse of authenticity’ by disrupting the stable subjectivity (by effecting personality splits) and bodily boundaries (by causing sensations of drowning in the beloved). On the other hand, positioned against conventional society, love becomes the site of uncompromising authenticity: ‘I love you and my love for you makes any other life a lie’ (19). Letting romantic concepts of wholeness work with and against the postmodern fragmented self, Winterson avoids rejecting love as mere illusion or reinforcing an exclusionary concept of subjectivity. The result is the paradoxical construction of a ‘virtual’ character claiming her/his own authenticity:

The room will be a wall-to-wall virtual world of your choosing. … Your can go into your Virtual house and do Virtual housework, add a baby or two, even find out that you'd rather be gay. Or single. Or straight. … And sex? Certainly. Teledildonics is the word. … For myself, unreconstructed as I am, I'd rather hold you in my arms.


The ‘virtual’ world that is ironically described in this passage is a hollow simulation of what is already there (Virtual housework). The point is underscored by the favourite computer games of Louise's husband. They are a weird repetition of his usual work, called LABORATORY and HOSPITAL (‘You get to operate on a patient who shouts at you when you get it wrong’ [29]). However, if the narrative itself is a ‘virtual’ space, it means that in a few, privileged moments, the characters have the power to change the world around them. The attic room the narrator and Louise make love in becomes suddenly a magical, ‘virtual’ space: ‘I could feel [the walls] moving under my touch. We were magnified in this high, wild room’ (51). Louise can make the prissy families gaping at her naked body vanish just by saying ‘“There's nobody here but us.” I looked up and the banks were empty’ (11). If the world can be changed just by a magical word, absolute sincerity is, paradoxically, the only option: ‘“With my body I thee worship.” How can you say that to one person and gladly fuck another?’ (16).

The postmodern body concept Winterson develops is very much like a ‘virtual room’ or space. What seemed to be a solid, immovable wall becomes fluid and changeable, and the emphasis is on those mobile boundaries and not on the interiors. The very concept of surface and depth is unsettled, and the ensuing urge to get beyond the surface is unmasked as necrophiliac. The desire to utilize the possibilities of bodies and virtual spaces in a way that does not lead to reproduction or a cloning of already existent worlds is fuelled by a deep (and romantic) commitment to love and creativity: ‘I don't want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new’ (108).

In Written on the Body, Winterson engages with feminist theory and politics on various levels. On one level, the novel is a straightforward feminist critique of androcentric science, its image of the female body, and the destructive way in which it strives to penetrate and dissect it. On a further, ‘postmodern’ level, the author disturbs fixed boundaries and gendered identities. Heather Nunn argues that Winterson's political strategy consists in reclaiming the abject, the sick, the lesbian in order to disrupt society's self-image as self-contained, healthy body (Nunn, 1996). However, as Winterson argues elsewhere, ‘in the two-fold image of the goddess Kali, as we destroy with one hand, we have to rebuild with the other’ (Winterson, 1990: xxiii). In Written on the Body, she opens up the classical dichotomies between wholeness and body parts, body surface and interiority in order to exceed them in a concept of the body that is fluid, subject to change and resignification, yet held together by fragile and always endangered connections within the body or between different bodies. I believe this concept could be a way to avoid the pitfalls of postmodern theories I have outlined in the introduction. In the same way as it is possible to create a narrating voice without having to endow it with a gendered identity, it is possible to develop a way of theorizing the female body that does not think of it as simply there, untainted by society, or as a passive, victimized site of society's inscription, or as constructed by an omnipotent discourse, but as a multiplicity of parts and changeable surfaces, held together not by discursive regulations, but by forces of connection.

On yet another level, Winterson upholds the power of desire and imagination against a societal reality she perceives as deadening, attempting to stir up a potential of change in the reader: ‘Winterson's use of fantasy and eroticism [works] to open up a space for alternative life styles (alternatives to family, to heterosexuality, to society, to postmodern media). And the point where concrete reality meets fiction-as-fantasy occurs precisely at the moment of reading’ (Burns, 1996: 304). However, Written on the Body is no escapist fantasy, where ‘reality’ is totally replaced by poetic imagination. Rather, in rare moments of excess in the text, cracks and fissures open up in the existing structures to reveal possibilities beyond. Thus, the book ends not with an unequivocal happy-end, but with the unfolding of possibilities:

Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it's getting late. I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in the open fields.



  1. See also Moore, 1995: 109.

  2. Although everybody seems to understand what ‘romantic’ means, it is quite difficult to define. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition 1989) offers ‘having romance as its subject; treating of a love affair’ or ‘of a fabulous or fictitious character, having no foundation in fact.’ Thus Written on the Body could be called a truly ‘romantic’ novel. I use ‘romantic’ fiction both in the wider sense of literary fiction where love plays the most important role and in the more narrow sense of a Romantic literary tradition distinguished by its tendency to connect love and death, particularly through the image of a young and beautiful female corpse (see Bronfen, 1992, and Dijkstra, 1986).

  3. The image of illicit love as inescapable molecular bonding is already employed in Goethe's novel Wahlverwandtschaften (Wahlverwandtschaften—elective affinities—is a term of eighteenth-century chemistry and means bonding between molecules brought on by a catalyst).

  4. In a different context, Winterson describes a similar splitting of the female body by commercial pornography: ‘She [the stripper] is the sum of her parts and these parts are discussed, manipulated and packaged in much the same way as a set of machine tools. … They had already learned to cut themselves up, split themselves off, in order to do the job at all’ (Winterson, 1990: xix–xx).

  5. ‘The trope of the dark continent [merges] … two unknowabilities, racial difference and sexual difference. … Otherness, whether sexual or racial, is usually articulated as a problem of the limits of knowledge and hence of visibility, recognition, differentiation. … The trope, however, reduces and oversimplifies the extremely complex relations between racial and sexual difference articulated by the colonialist enterprise’ (Doane, 1991: 212).

  6. For an analysis of the conjunction of death, femininity and eroticism within various Pre-Raffaelite Ophelia paintings, see Dijkstra, 1986.


All quotations in the text, unless stated otherwise, are taken from: Winterson, Jeanette (1993) Written on the Body, London: Vintage.

Bronfen, Elisabeth (1992) Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Burns, Christy (1996) ‘Fantastic Language: Jeanette Winterson's Recovery of the Postmodern Word’ Contemporary Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 278–306.

Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York/London: Routledge.

——— (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex,’ New York/London: Routledge.

De Laurentis, Teresa (1987) Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Dijkstra, Bram (1986) Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siècle Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doan, Laura (1994a) editor, The Lesbian Postmodern, New York: Columbia University Press.

——— (1994b) ‘Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern’ in Doan, (1994a) editor.

Doane, Mary Ann (1991) Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis, New York/London: Routledge.

Grosz, Elizabeth (1994a) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

——— (1994b) ‘Refiguring Lesbian Desire’ in Doan (1994a).

Grosz, Elizabeth and Probyn, Elspeth (1995) editors, Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism, London: Routledge.

Halberstam, Judith (1994) ‘F2M. The making of female masculinity,’ in Doan (1994a).

Jordanova, Ludmilla (1989) Sexual Visions: Images of Gender in Science and Medicine Between the Eighteenth and the Twentieth Century, New York/London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Labelle, Jenijoy (1988) Herself Beheld: The Literature of the Looking Glass, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Martin, Emily (1994) Flexible Bodies, Boston/Massachusetts: Beacon.

Moore, Lisa (1995) ‘Teledildonics. Virtual Lesbians in the Fiction of Jeanette Winterson’ in Grosz and Probyn (1995).

Nunn, Heather (1996) ‘Written on the Body: An Anatomy of Horror, Melancholy and Love’ Women: A Cultural Review, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 16–27.

Reynolds, Margaret (1990) editor, Erotica: An Anthology of Women's Writing, London: Pandora.

Sontag, Susan (1991) Illness as Metaphor, London: Penguin.

Waldby, Catherine (1995) ‘Destruction. Boundary Erotics and Refigurations of the Heterosexual Male Body’ in Grosz and Probyn (1995).

Winterson, Jeanette (1990) ‘Foreword’ in Reynolds (1990).

——— (1991) Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, London: Vintage.

Thomas Fahy (essay date September 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4796

SOURCE: Fahy, Thomas. “Fractured Bodies: Privileging the Incomplete in Jeanette Winterson's The Passion.Mosaic 33, no. 3 (September 2000): 95–106.

[In the following essay, Fahy examines Winterson's use of fragmented bodies in The Passion to represent the restorative powers of postmodern art.]

Many lesbian writers, such as Monique Wittig and Jeanette Winterson, have used images of fragmented female bodies to subvert heterosexist norms and question the politics of gender roles. For these and other authors, shattered or incomplete bodies call into question culturally constructed assumptions about women's bodies as knowable sites—sites which can be possessed and controlled. This fragmentation also destabilizes some of the boundaries placed on bodies to promote possibilities for social and sexual difference. As Judith Butler has argued in Bodies That Matter, objects have a discrete set of boundaries, but bodies do not; instead, it is the act of labeling bodies and sexuality according to heterosexual standards (“woman” or “she is a lesbian”) that creates or defines bodily limitations. Fragmented bodies in postmodern fiction can therefore disrupt traditional images of women's bodies and undermine dominant ideologies; or as Linda Hutcheon has suggested more broadly, postmodern texts can “denaturalize some of the dominant features of our ways of life” (2). But once the body has been dismembered as an act of resistance, what kind of narratives get constructed that offer new understandings about women's bodies?

For Jeanette Winterson, fragmented bodies become a way of exploring the various coercive forces (heterosexism, imperialism, violence, spirituality, sexuality) that tear people apart and fracture their relationships with others. In novels such as The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), Written on the Body (1992), and Gut Symmetries (1997), love often fails to bring people together (or reassemble the broken pieces), but it is valued precisely because it remains incomplete, ongoing. Though many critics have labeled Winterson a lesbian feminist postmodernist, these readings of her as postmodernist have not adequately examined her writing of bodies. In “Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern,” for example, Laura Doan's discussion of The Passion focuses on Villanelle's lesbian relationship and the novel's use of cross-dressing to blur gender distinctions. And Marilyn R. Farwell's Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives discusses the ways Winterson's lesbianism distinguishes her postmodern techniques from male and gay writers. I want to complicate these readings of Winterson by considering her use of fragmented bodies. Through her images of the body, she offers a solution (or resolution) to postmodernist narratives of fragmentation, enabling her characters to find meaning in art that validates the incomplete.

In The Passion, fragmented bodies are spaces where love doesn't work, and they act as metaphors for the severed emotional, spiritual, and physical states of her characters. These body-parts reflect contemporary anxieties about creating fragments that do not cohere into a unified whole. Yet Winterson's novel suggests that postmodern art offers a means of achieving spiritual and emotional comfort. This may sound like a modernist agenda. But in modernism, fragmentation is a source of anxiety—leaving the individual with a desperate need, as Virginia Woolf says, “to seek among phrases and fragments something unbroken” (266). Postmodernism, instead, embraces the fragmented. In this essay, I first consider the forces that fragment Winterson's characters, specifically empire-building (the ways Napoleon's empire sectionalizes people), religion (the loss of spiritual passion for God), and sex without love. After tracing the intersection of these forces and their impact on bodies in the novel, I show that Winterson uses postmodern art as a means of allowing for fragmentation while still affirming individual strength.

Although Napoleon's empire-building differs significantly from European colonial exploitation of non-Western countries, Winterson addresses the issue of global imperialism by fashioning Napoleon as a colonizer-king. In the first section of The Passion, “The Emperor,” Henri describes Napoleon as “sitting alone with a globe in front of him. He doesn't notice me, he goes on turning the globe round and round, holding it tenderly with both hands as if it were a breast” (4). Through this image of the woman's breast, Winterson presents Napoleon as feminizing unconquered territories on the globe, conflating uncolonized territories and the woman's body—both objects to be violated. Images of penetration and expansion also equate Napoleon's imperial conquest with the sexual exploitation of women. When Napoleon's cook ejaculates into the prostitute's mouth, for example, her cheeks “[fill] out like a rat's when she took him” (15). Such images reveal the limitations of empire-building. Like the prostitute who spits out semen and exclaims “what else would I do with it,” regurgitation becomes an act of resistance, suggesting that imperialism cannot successfully procreate and generate lasting desire. Imperialism's failure is illustrated by Napoleon's inability both to create a dynasty and to maintain his soldiers' devotion; ultimately Napoleon's empire can only expect resistance and rejection from those it conquers and subjugates. In other words, unfulfilled desire and non-reproductive sexual acts become metaphors for the inevitable erosion and failure of imperialism. In one example, Winterson uses the prostitutes Napoleon provides for his troops to liken imperialism to infertility, suggesting that an empire's own destruction is inherent in its failure to create the conditions where healthy generativity might be possible.

While serving in Napoleon's army, men fashion a virgin/whore dichotomy that prevents them from finding love and spiritual meaning in heterosexual relationships. Henri and the other soldiers separate a woman's physical body from her spiritual or ethereal one: “Here, without women, with only our imaginations and a handful of whores, we can't remember what it is about women that can turn a man through passion into something holy. […] We never think of them here. We think of their bodies” (27). Women, and presumably heterosexual relationships, had the power to sanctify men before the war. Under the imperial hand, however, women—the unconquered land—become prostitutes, physical objects to be taken, mere “breasts.” Their bodies become objects through which men hope to find spiritual as well as physical fulfillment. Unable to possess the bodies which they have despiritualized, however, the men eventually abandon them for their love of Napoleon, the one who can tangibly make France (and by extension themselves) powerful. Henri's parable of the inventor—a man who leaves his wife to make his fortune, yet loses everything—illustrates this abandonment of women: “She had made him possible. In that sense she was his god. Like God, she was neglected” (28). Here Winterson suggests that women possess a spiritual power that men cannot access through the virgin/whore, spirit/matter dichotomy, and because of this boundary, the colonizers eventually neglect women (and religion) in order to find passion in their service for Napoleon.

Through the character of Patrick, Winterson provides a direct link between imperial and religious forms of power that sever love from sexuality and desire. Before Napoleon appropriates his telescopic eye for the empire, Patrick uses his “gift” to watch women: “he had been forced out of the church for squinting at young girls from the bell tower. What priest doesn't? But in Patrick's case, thanks to the miraculous properties of his eye, no bosom was safe” (21). Like Napoleon fondling his globe-breast, the leader of the church touches/watches women as a way of “possessing” them. Looking, in other words, gives men the power to subjugate—“the women looked at the earth and said they knew when they were being watched” (21). Ironically, Patrick loses his status as a priest primarily because his gaze suggests heterosexual desire. The Bishop who dismisses him “[preferred] the smooth shapes of his choirboys [and thought] a priest should have better things to do than look at women” (21). In Patrick's experiences with Catholicism, homoerotic, not heteroerotic, bonds are privileged: “[Women] always sense our lying ways. The Blessed Virgin's a woman too, for all that she's Holy, and there's no man I know can get his own way with her. You can pray all day and all night and she won't hear you. If you're a man, you'd much better stick with Jesus himself” (40). Homoerotic bonds fail in the novel when they, too, are based on possession, not on reciprocal love.

After abandoning their relationships with women, men also abandon institutional, here Christian, religion. Beginning with the title's allusion to the passion of Christ, the novel compares religious suffering, which is an integral part of Christian lore, to romantic passion. Winterson implicitly refers to the body of Christ, which is marked and scarred by his passion and love for humanity, to invoke his physical body as an image of the supreme sufferer and martyr. Yet no single martyr appears in The Passion; instead, many characters experience Christ-like suffering, such as the prostitute who like Christ “lost consciousness at thirty-nine (lashes)” (38) and Henri who, while looking at the chalice's silver imprint on his palms, wonders “were these my stigmata then?” (42). Given the absence of a single martyr-figure, the text does not invoke Christ as a totality, so much as it disperses fragmented images of his tortured body throughout the novel. The synecdoche that Christianity offers—the sacred heart, the blood and flesh of communion—may elicit passion, but the fragmentation leaves its followers continually looking for wholeness. Henri, for example, feels an unjust imbalance in his relationship to God: “My mother loved God, she said that God and the Virgin were all she needed […]. I can't be a priest because although my heart is as loud as hers I can pretend no answering riot. I have shouted to God and the Virgin, but they have not shouted back […]. Surely a god can meet passion with passion? She says he can. Then he should” (9–10). Since religion fails to incite any “spiritual fervor” in Henri and most of the people in France (“we're a lukewarm people” [7]), he begins to devote himself to Napoleon's cause. “He was my passion and when we go to war we feel we are not a lukewarm people anymore” (108).

Napoleon, on the other hand, can tangibly return the love and devotion of his soldiers through the acquisition of new territories. Emotional allegiance therefore takes on capital value for them because it is reciprocated and validated by France's literal expansion. Eva Illouz's Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism argues, in part, that romantic love often occurs within the context of capital and cultural consumption. The link she suggests between consumerism/acquisition and the romantic interchange parallels the soldiers' relationship to Napoleon in The Passion. After Romantic love and religious passion fail the men of France, Napoleon's cause—a cause motivated by an insatiable desire for power and control through territorial expansion—gives them something concrete to believe in. Imperial power, in other words, offers wholeness because it imposes unity on fragmentation. It is also a project whose successes and failures can be measured and mapped. However, the intersection between consumption and love has the power, according to Illouz, at “one and the same time [to] bind and divide, unite and separate” (6), and, in the context of Winterson's novel, it unites France at the cost of separating the soldiers from their families and literally from themselves through the loss of body parts.

The men of France also transfer a religious significance to Napoleon; and through the influence of the village priest, Henri specifically fashions Napoleon into a savior figure who revivifies France:

For years, my mentor, the priest […] told me that Bonaparte was perhaps the Son of God come again. […] I have lain with the priest on an old and impossibly folded map of the world looking at the places he had gone and watching the frontiers of France push slowly out. The priest carried a drawing of Bonaparte next to his drawing of the Blessed Virgin.


In place of Christ, the priest carries a picture of Bonaparte, warrior-savior, next to the Mother of God, and he positions himself and these photographs above a map of the world to suggest that Napoleon's mission to “push out” the frontiers of France is God's mission. Henri and his fellow soldiers will later echo this notion to justify their actions in war. When they prepare to attack England, for example, Henri explains: “We knew about the English; how they ate their children and ignored the Blessed Virgin. […] The English have the highest suicide rate in Europe. I got that straight from a priest” (8). Not only is religious devotion transferred to the figure of Napoleon, but morality is also used to validate imperial expansion and the subjugation of France's enemies. David Spurr, for example, explains in The Rhetoric of Empire that moral justification recurs throughout colonial discourse to “[justify] the authority of those in control of the discourse through demonstrations of moral superiority” (110). For Henri and most of France, Napoleon maintains his superiority by filling a need for passion that the Church cannot satisfy. When, “at the last second he took the crown [from the Pope] in his own hands and placed it on his own head” (13), he becomes the physical embodiment of spiritual passion for the people of France.

In her essays Art Objects, Winterson discusses the differences between the roles of the priest and the king in order to explain the deification of political leaders like Napoleon. “King was more accessible to his people than were the priests. Although King and priest worked together, priesthood is still allied to magic. […] The priest did not fight in battle, take concubines, hoard treasure, feast and riot” (140). Kings share in the tangible or physical aspects of everyday life—thus making them more “real” for the common people. At the same time, because kings are already endowed by God, their subjects can see them and their actions as invested with religious and moral significance: “At its simplest and at its best, royalty is an imaginative function; it must embody in its own person, subtle and difficult concepts of Otherness. The priest does not embody these concepts, the priest serves them. The priest is a functionary, the King is a function” (141). Like the “lukewarm” priest who visits Henri's village and Patrick who serves Napoleon, the functionary and passive roles of priests offer the people no alternative or model to escape their own emotional stagnation: “Not much touches us, but we long to be touched. […] Our children frighten us in their intimacy, but we make sure they grow up like us. Lukewarm like us” (7). At one point, Henri suggests that the only appealing aspect of the Catholic religion is the Jesuit order: “I would have preferred a burning Jesuit, perhaps then I might have found the extasy [sic] I need to believe” (12). Henri has simply not seen this type of passionate, religious fervor in France. Napoleon's grandeur and imperial drive, however, have been able to ignite, even if temporarily, the passions of the people, and, like religious missionaries, he seeks ideological control over those he conquers: “Bonaparte always claimed he knew what was good for a people, knew how to improve, how to educate. He did; he improved wherever he went, but he always forgot that even simple people want the freedom to make their own mistakes” (103). Yet when the Russian peasants effectively reject Napoleon's attempts to “improve” things, they expose the ultimate ineffectiveness of imperial attempts at ideological control.

As Winterson's characters become aware of the ways their bodies have been fractured and dismembered by imperialism, both Napoleon's empire and his position of moral superiority begin to break down. Specifically, Henri sees how war has damaged his body and those around him: “I lost an eye at Austerlitz. Domino was wounded [losing one side of his face] and Patrick […] never sees much past the next bottle” (79). Throughout the drive to capture Moscow, Henri's awareness of body parts enables him to see how his individuality and that of his friends has been subsumed by Napoleon's possessive desire for conquest and power. Napoleon's quest for expansion tears apart the people of France and those it wishes to control, pulling them away from their families and homes. Thus, images of fragmented bodies in The Passion work as metaphors for the (self-) destructiveness of imperialism which fragments both the self and the other. On one occasion, Henri describes a man whose “horse froze around him; in the morning when he tried to take his feet out they were stuck, entombed in the brittle entrails. We couldn't free him, we had to leave him. He wouldn't stop screaming” (80). Like this man's feet, the soldiers have become limbs or expendable parts of Napoleon's body, and their damaged bodies force them to acknowledge the physical and spiritual losses of Napoleon's attempts at empire-building. “Even Bonaparte was beginning to learn that numbers count. In this vast country there are miles and men and snowflakes beyond our resources” (100). Napoleon's insatiable desire for expansion and control ultimately forces his empire to meet its own limitations and borders. As the army reaches its furthest point from the heart of France during the march to Moscow, the novel shows his empire literally disappearing as more soldiers lose parts of their bodies and/or lives.

Lost and/or removed hearts become another central image that links spirituality and love. After Henri's disillusionment with Napoleon, he explains how he and the other soldiers had to relinquish their hearts to survive: “You can only give up your passion. Only then can you begin to survive. […] When I say I lived with heartless men, I use the word correctly” (82–3). We also learn through Villanelle's experiences that the empire wants heartless bodies because it needs them as objects. After the cook sells Villanelle as a prostitute to the French army, she explains that she “was to join the army, to join the Generals for their pleasure. […] They didn't give me enough time to collect my heart, only my luggage, but I'm grateful to them for that; this is no place for a heart” (99). Napoleon's empire and its demonic representative, the cook, have objectified her and Henri, de-individualizing both the self (Henri) and the other (Villanelle). Only when these characters become concerned with their individual identity—their needs and losses—can they resist the destructive desires of Napoleon's growing empire: “We wanted glory and conquest and slaves and praise. [Napoleon's] desire burned for longer than ours because it was never likely that he would pay for it with his life” (104).

As Napoleon's empire crumbles, the cook, who has made his fortune by selling the army low-quality supplies, becomes a symbol for its excesses:

He was much heavier than when I had known him, with jowls that hung like dead moles, and a plump case of skin that held his head to his shoulders. His eyes had receded and his eyebrows, always thick, now loomed at me like sentries. He folded his hands on the edge of the boat, hands with rings forced over the knuckles. Red hands.


Imperialism has encoded itself on the cook's face, making his eyes barely visible under his sentry-like eyebrows. Nameless, eyeless, and, as Villanelle assumes, heartless, his debased identity makes him a perfect tool for empire-building. The ways in which he financially profits seem to make him physically heavier, and, like Henri's description of Napoleon's stuffing an entire chicken into his mouth, the cook's body becomes a symbol for the gluttony of empire: a consuming machine. Finally, when the cook confronts and threatens Henri and Villanelle, Henri literally cuts out his heart: “I cut a triangle in about the right place and scooped out the shape with my hand” (128). Henri does to the empire what the empire has done to him.

As their search for wholeness through physical relationships (heterosexual and homosexual love), religious practices, and imperialism fails, Winterson's characters turn to art: Joséphine's gardens, the Queen of Spades's tapestry, and Henri's notebook. Through this shift Winterson suggests that in a fragmented world, passion can be sustained only through artistic expression which privileges the incomplete. Even though her characters suffer from spiritual and physical fragmentation, she presents art, postmodern art—a space where fragments do not form a unified whole—as enabling them to find ongoing meaning. Unlike empire, which wants to consume the parts in order to create a masculinist-imperialist homogeneity, the “whole” in postmodern art does not swallow the parts into its self. Thus, Winterson can use Henri's incomplete notebook to locate value in an individual's fragmented experiences.

In order to present postmodern art as a salve for the contemporary condition, she first contrasts the art of imperialism, which requires the imposition of artificial order (“Where Bonaparte goes, straight roads follow, buildings are rationalised” [112]), with the never-ending mutability of Venice. After Napoleon tears down many of the churches in Venice, Joséphine seeks to impose order over nature through the art of her gardens. She specifically uses these spaces to make public gardens. “Why did we want a public garden? And if we had chosen it ourselves we would never have filled it with hundreds of pines laid out in regimental rows. They say Joséphine's a botanist” (53). Venice, however, the city of mazes and disguises, resists imposed order: “Not even Bonaparte could rationalise Venice” (112). The city rejects the way imperialism measures order through maps. When Henri asks for a map, Villanelle responds: “It won't help. This is a living city. Things change” (113). Villanelle sets up an explicit contrast between the constructed and the organic, and the city of Venice can thus be read as a symbol for postmodern art with the continual (natural) changes it gives to meaning and life.

Just as Venice rejects Joséphine's artificial garden—“four sepulchral churches rise up and swamp the regimental pines” (112)—Winterson uses Henri's appropriation of her art to place it into a meaningful context. While in San Servelo, he plants a garden with seeds from Joséphine, but his artistic vision is of “a wide field where flowers grow of their own accord” (155). After receiving the seeds, he learns that while she had been in prison “she and the other ladies of strong character cultivated the weeds and lichens that spread in the stone and managed to make for themselves, while not a garden, a green place that comforted them” (158). This comforting “green place,” which is made from plant detritus and wild materials (weeds, fungus), becomes something that Henri perceives as offering ongoing comfort. Subsequently, he decides to plant “a cypress tree and it will outlive [him]. That's what I miss about fields, the sense of the future as well as the present. That one day what you plant will spring up unexpectedly” (156). As distinct from the squared-in boundaries of Joséphine's earlier gardens and her attempts to organize weeds, these open fields are natural because they don't stop changing and growing.

Like the dissolution of Bonapartes's arts (empire-building and formal gardens), Winterson uses the Queen of Spades's tapestry and home to critique highly structured art and imperialism. After her affair with Villanelle, the Queen of Spades weaves “a tapestry some three-quarters done lay in its frame. The picture was of a young woman cross-legged in front of a pack of cards. It was Villanelle” (119). Like Joséphine's gardens, the art of the Queen of Spades represents an attempt to create something that can capture her passionate past with Villanelle. Her art, in effect, keeps Villanelle fragmented—a very postmodern gesture, as it were. Her entire home, a mausoleum of stagnant arts, illustrates the lifelessness of structured crafts: a stuffed “full-sized scaly beast” (119), a room with nothing but a harpsichord, stained-glass windows, illegible journals, two coffins, and a map of the world. As the two coffins suggest, even death becomes something that can be artificially ordered.

The Queen's husband, who is a book and antique dealer, has a map which explicitly links the arts of her home with imperialism and offers another image of how empires turn on and destroy themselves:

In the fifth room a light burned and covering the whole of one wall was a map of the world. A map with whales in the seas and terrible monsters chewing the land. There were roads marked that seemed to disappear into the earth and at other times to stop abruptly at the sea's edge. In each corner sat a cormorant, a fish struggling in its beak.


By depicting finite territories, roads leading nowhere and lands consumed by unknown monsters, this map-painting captures the futility of empire-building. Maps both enable imperialism to mark conquered territories and expose the limitations of conquests. Through this map and these lifeless artistic objects, Winterson criticizes the “unnaturalness” of these arts—at least what they have become in the Queen's house. And through Henri and Villanelle, she suggests that art should not be “finished.”

Finally, through Henri's notebook, Winterson presents an example of fragmented art which offers ongoing emotional and spiritual comfort. Because of his experiences, which have fragmented his passion, Henri becomes a type of ascetic figure, withdrawing from his relationships and the empire in order to survive: “I have to send her away because she hurts me too much” (151). He ultimately realizes Villanelle will neither marry him nor return his passion, so he tries to find meaning in the notebook where he records his experiences. After Patrick dies, for example, he explains that “[Patrick] was always seeing things and it didn't matter how or what, it mattered that he saw and that he told us stories. Stories were all we had” (107). As a result, Henri becomes a storyteller by the end of the novel, and, through this ongoing creative process, he becomes a postmodern-artist figure who finds the strength to survive in his own fragmented narrative.

I re-read my notebook today and I found:

I say I'm in love with her, what does that mean?

It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly she explains me to myself; like a genius she is ignorant of what she does.

I go on writing so that I will always have something to read.


For Henri, art needs to reproduce itself, and he goes on telling and rereading stories because this gives him something to believe. Just as hearing the story of Josephine's “green place” consoles him (“Hearing about it comforts me” [158]), his fragmented collection of stories fills an aesthetic and spiritual need that relationships, religion, and empire could not. And through Henri, Winterson suggests that postmodern art can revivify the individual.

Winterson's use of reiterated images, particularly fragmented bodies, offers an invaluable way for interpreting the intersection of empire-building, spirituality, and love in this and many of her works. Bodies are often sites for resistance in postmodern fiction, and the act of breaking apart these bodies suggests, paradoxically, a rejection of totalizing ideologies and narratives. These images also speak to a fracturing of self that cannot be remedied by the conventional passions of love, religion, or empire. This condition leaves her characters continually yearning for more, for wholeness through these forces. But even as her novels reject these attempts at wholeness, they challenge her readers to find meaning in images and stories that are incomplete. In The Passion, empire, religion, and love fragment people physically, emotionally, and spiritually by destroying their passions. Religious leaders have lost their fervor and commitment. Husbands, wives, and lovers have lost their passion for one another. And France eventually loses its passion and love for Napoleon. Yet postmodern art, which recognizes and represents these fragments, becomes a source of strength for individuals. Henri does not attempt to impose an artificial structure on his art; therefore, its vitality and meaning come from its ability to continue without a prescribed shape or form. It is also important to recognize that this art comes from him; it exists for himself. His journal and isolation at the end of the novel suggest that strength and meaning for postmodern individuals comes from the ongoing art within.1


  1. I want to thank Linda Wagner-Martin and Pamela Cooper for both their invaluable help with this essay and their friendship.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993.

Doan, Laura. “Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Postmodern.” The Lesbian Postmodern. Ed. Laura Doan. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 137–55.

Farwell, Marilyn R. Heterosexual Plots and Lesbian Narratives. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Illouz, Eva. Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990.

Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. New York: Vintage, 1987.

———. Sexing the Cherry. New York: Vintage, 1989.

———. Written on the Body. New York: Vintage, 1992.

———. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. London: Cape, 1995.

———. Gut Symmetries. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Woolf, Virginia. The Waves. 1931. New York: Harvest, 1978.

Jenny Turner (review date 7 September 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3694

SOURCE: Turner, Jenny. “A Tulip and Two Bulbs.” London Review of Books 22, no. 17 (7 September 2000): 10–11.

[In the following review, Turner discusses the development of Winterson's fiction and offers a mixed assessment of The PowerBook.]

We all know of writers who just keep writing the same book, but what is sadder is when a true writer seems to run out of books. T. S. Eliot observed that to continue to develop stylistically, a writer had to continue to develop emotionally … It is a commonplace of psychology that human beings, beyond a certain age, find it difficult to supplement their personalities with new emotional understandings. If this happens to the writer, she is lost.

Jeanette Winterson, ‘A Work of My Own,’ Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, (1995)

From the outside, Jeanette Winterson's new book looks quite different from what she usually does. Instead of one of those browny-orangey oil paintings she has hitherto put on her covers, this one is sunshine yellow, small and square. It's bright, modern, not blurry: ‘21st-century fiction,’ as the advertisement on the inner flap proclaims. An extended conceit to do with personal computers is carried through to the setting of the author's name—Jeanette.Winterson—and of the title, The.PowerBook, itself. And to GUIesque, tarotish little icons—an e-mail with an eye in it, a tulip with a vaginal-or-maybe-disk-drive-like slot in it. ‘Using cover versions, fairytales, contemporary myths and popular culture The.PowerBook works at the intersection between the real and the imagined … Intense, erotic, incandescent in the power and beauty of its prose, [The.PowerBook] is an astonishing achievement.’ Jeanette Winterson generally writes her own jacketcopy. If you hadn't already guessed.

Inside, there's an entity called Ali who lives in Spitalfields, East London: ‘The sign on the shop says VERDE, nothing more, but everyone knows that something strange goes on inside.’ (This building really exists, I noticed, on one of the streets by Spitalfields market. It's a former greengrocer's which seems to have been converted into a house.) But anyway, Ali writes stories for people on e-mail. She's working on one for another, nameless, entity, which becomes the story of a love affair, between ‘I’ and ‘You.’ ‘I’ is the lover, ‘You’ the beloved (who is married, as Winterson beloveds usually are). The action is set in Paris, Capri, London; in hotel beds, restaurants, a train station and, yes, in ‘Cyberspace’ also, if by that is meant exchanges like this:

‘You say you write stories. Write me a story.’

‘Freedom just for one night, you said.’


‘All right, but if I start this story …’


‘It may change under my hands.’

… ‘So what shall I wear?’

‘It's up to you. Combat or Prada?’

‘How much can I spend on clothes?’

‘How about $1000?’

‘My whole wardrobe or just one outfit?’

And so on.

I don't know why Winterson put that bit in her blurb about popular culture. Winterson hates popular culture, and she hasn't put any in The.PowerBook at all. There is that strange, isolated, remarkably ugly fashion namedrop—‘Combat or Prada?’ And the beloved does say ‘Be here now’ to the lover at one point, thus quoting the title of the Oasis album. But that's pretty much it for popular culture. There isn't much detail of any sort in the novel, but what there is is bland rich-enough-to-live-like-a-poor-man Eurochic: the odd glass of champagne, the occasional artichoke, trips to Capri and Paris, but not the fashionable bits, which are ‘too crowded, too expensive and too noisy for me.’ There's a list of Great and Ruinous Lovers—Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere. There are storyettes about knights and foxes, and Paolo and Francesca, and a real self-parody of a framing story about a girl who fakes a set of male genitals with a tulip and two bulbs. There's a recipe for Salsa di Pomodori (‘Serve on top of fresh spaghetti. Cover with rough new parmesan and cut basil. Raw emotion can be added now’). So those will be the cover versions and the fairytales and maybe the contemporary myths.

Much of The.PowerBook is made up of aphoristic fragments concerning the nature of erotic love. ‘Love's script has no end of beginnings. The characters and the scenery change. There are three possible endings: Revenge. Tragedy. Forgiveness … Nothing could be more familiar than love. Nothing else eludes us so completely.’ These are not dissimilar in solemnity or content to the aphoristic fragments concerning the nature of erotic love to be found in Written on the Body (1992), Art & Lies (1994), Gut Symmetries (1997). In other words, The.PowerBook is not methodologically new. Except that it isn't really a novel anyway. It's more like a set of short stories being marketed as a novel, in the way that Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing was last year. Except that it isn't even a set of short stories. It's more like a bundle of bits and pieces, nicely laid out, signed, numbered and bound in home-splodged cardboard and sold as an artist's book at a private gallery in the West End. It's a half-finished, collectors-only artefact which has somehow stumbled into mass-market circulation. It's close, in fact, to not being a book at all.

Yet it keeps afloat, somehow. It just about prevails. It more or less functions as what JW calls in her essays ‘a structure bonded by language.’ If you are willing to go along with it a little, if you are willing to let it do its thing. It's so sure of itself, it's so forcefully projected. Who can muster the force to forswear it? And so, the book has won the argument before it has started. It's such an almighty act of will.

It is Winterson's will, really, which is the ‘astonishing achievement.’ It is her great strength and her biggest topic, even more than the aphoristic fragments on the nature of erotic love. What do we see if we think of her first novel, the marvellous, autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)? We see a small, determined, red-haired whirlwind of a creature, battling and winning through against the forces of darkness, like Jane Eyre, like Anne of Green Gables, like Elizabeth I. Read Oranges now and you will still find in it the exuberance and the craft of a jack-in-the-box. There is so much energy stowed away in those neat, demure little sentences. It will leap out and cuff you hard.

You can feel that will in the way that, the minute Oranges made the young Winterson successful, she steered sharply away from the territory that had formed her—the working-class girlhood in Lancashire, the deranged but also magnificent evangelical mum—into the Oxford-graduate historical romance of The Passion (1987) and Sexing the Cherry (1989), as close as one can get, outside of SF or without inventing a private language, to a self-created world. You can feel it in her brilliant marketing instincts—what other contemporary British author has such brand recognition? What do you think about when you see a Le Creuset pan? And you can feel it in her good secular-Protestant financial foresight: she doesn't use a literary agent in Britain. She does the haggling herself. It's true, very few people really know what they want from a book they buy, or from a person they fall in love with, or from a pasta sauce. So here comes Winterson to point us in the right direction. We just have to give over our belief.

But Winterson's will is perhaps going underchallenged. In her essays and in her fiction, she writes a lot about the rich-enough-to-live-like-a-poor-man lifestyle: ‘And if you believe, as I do, that to live for art demands that every other part of life be moved towards one end, then the question “How shall I live?” is fierce,’ she explains in Art Objects, her 1995 book of essays. I am sure she also likes swanking about this good life she has brought into being, like the demiurge, through her own desire: the seclusion, the devoted lover, the opera and the garden, the Bloomsbury Set first editions, the pseudo Old Master paintings, like the ones she used to put on the jackets of her books. She only engages with the most irreproachable writers: Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf. The only constitutive human relationship is to the partner, a shadowy figure, a troubadour's muse. For a writer who so wonderfully emerged in such a flurry of strife and conflict, it has all gone quiet and comfy, surely, a bit like those people who live in oxygen tents. Except that it hasn't ‘gone’ that way by accident. It has been made like that, with toil and deliberation, because that was what Winterson willed.

The Passion and Sexing the Cherry were Winterson's novels of the 1980s: with Oranges, the big successes that made her what she is today. Each has an exotic, historically eclectic setting: 18th-century Venice, Renaissance London. Each has that furbelows-within-furbelows quality of the magic realism school. These novels made perfect literary accessories for an age otherwise engaged in building itself cod-classical buildings and brightening up its living-rooms with gilded plaster putti and busie olde foole unrulie sunnes. But, as always, it's the deeper structures in the books that have the power to show more. In The Passion, the continuities with Oranges are obvious and satisfying. The telling is concise, the images are solid and voracious—the severed hands of the gambler, Napoleon stuffing whole chickens into his face—and the big emotions have to do with staunchness of heart and farness from home. But in Sexing the Cherry, ‘the world’ is beginning to give way to ‘other places,’ to borrow from the title of Winterson's short-story collection of 1999. ‘The Hopi have … no tenses for past, present and future,’ reads one epigraph. ‘What does this tell us about time?’ ‘Matter, that thing the most solid and the well known,’ reads the other one, ‘is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?’

From Sexing the Cherry on, Winterson's fiction gets ever more metaphysical, in small-m and big-M senses. It is metaphysical in that it is underpinned by some sort of interest in a ‘reality’ beyond the consensual one we think we live in: ‘words that cut through the semblance of the thing to the thing itself’ is one of the ways Winterson expresses this herself. The prose never stops being precise, but it gets less and less concrete, more and more full of abstract qualities, ‘points of light.’ It is big-M Metaphysical in that it pursues extravagant metaphorical connections, in the manner of those Elizabethan poets Dr Johnson was so sniffy about. By the time she came to write her fourth novel, Written on the Body (1992), perhaps Winterson was beginning to find all these fancy plots a bit beside the point and babyish, which of course in a way they were. So [Written on the Body] is largely plotless. It's a poem in prose to the wonders of a lover, who then gets blood cancer, and then is worshipped anew. The eroticism, the morbidity, the memento mori is Marvell's ‘To a Coy Mistress.’ Marvell in a prose much influenced by Woolf.

In Winterson's book of essays, art is compared to ‘enchantment’ and ‘ecstasy’ and ‘rapture.’ The values admired are ‘smoothness,’ as in the ‘smooth surface’ of Shakespeare's late plays, and ‘style,’ defined as ‘sensibility and technique distinctively brought together.’ The task of the writer is thus to forge ‘collections’ to ‘harmonise’ ‘jags of matter.’ There's that magic triangle of Eliot, Woolf, Shakespeare, locked together like an Escher drawing in a mutual admiration society; no one else really gets a look-in, apart from an emergent fourth member (I think you can guess who that would be). Winterson's essay on Orlando: ‘Woolf (like T. S. Eliot) … admired the Renaissance for its efforts to grasp the unruly world whole and tame it through art.’ Her essay on The Waves: ‘Rapture is a state of transformation. Woolf lifts up the veil of words that filmy or thick hides myself from the moment, you from me … Against the blunted days of approximation comes the clarity of the Word.’ Not only does she agree with the Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ and so on. She even writes like she's him reborn.

The trouble with metaphysics, however, is that they only work within a pre-modern world picture, before science rips its great indifferent discontinuities between the happily harmonised spheres. Winterson is terribly uneasy about science and technology. She's too attracted to leave them to writers who know what they're talking about. She's too repelled to grasp the images firmly and think them through. Thus in Gut Symmetries, her novel before this one, a romance was had between a couple of particle physicists in which transatlantic travel was done by boat and never aeroplane. Communication was by letter, not e-mail or even phone. Discussions of their work were entirely metaphorical—the hero liked superstrings because they reminded him of his mamma's spaghetti—never involving the real appurtenances of the subatomic world, particle accelerators and labs and so on. The present book at least has computers in it. But Winterson would not be the first person to discover that interfacing with the Internet is good for blurring life's rough edges: ‘This is a virtual world. This is a world inventing itself’; ‘I trawl my screen like a beachcomber—looking for you, looking for me’; ‘There's no Netscape Navigator to help me find my way around life.’

In Gut Symmetries, ‘harmonisation’ was effected with dire recourse to the occult airbrush: ‘The Miracle of the One that the alchemists sought is not so very different from the infant theory of hyperspace; where all the seeming dislocations and separations of the atomic and subatomic worlds are unified into a co-operating whole … Star-dust that we are, will death lose its sting?’ Chapters were prefaced by astrological readings. Paracelsus strode around in his big boots. There are no horoscopes in The.PowerBook, thank goodness. Instead there emerges a slightly more lucid Neoplatonism, one which at least takes account of evolution, sort of:

Sex. How did it start? In the strange dark history of our evolution, there was a shift, inevitably, away from self-reproducing organisms—like bacteria—towards organisms which must fuse with one another to survive … Sex and death belong together, joined in our imaginations as they are in DNA. Sex and death are our original parents. For some of us, the only family we'll ever have.

And finally, rousingly, like a great stomping evangelical hymn: ‘All human love is a dramatic enactment of the wild, reckless, unquenchable, undrainable love that powers the universe. If death is everywhere and inescapable, then so is love, if we but knew it. We can begin to know it through each other.’ Except that instead of taking such a sentiment off in the direction of caritas—good neighbours, good works, the overseas missions which so engage Jeanette and her mother in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit—Winterson takes us in the direction of eros. We can know the universe only by rapt erotic engagement with one other person. Champagne and artichokes add to the sacramental quality of this engagement. If you don't have this one other person, at least you have the books.

There is, as I have said, a lot of Woolf in Winterson's essays, and so there is unsurprisingly a continuing engagement with the Woolf of A Room of One's Own. Towards the end of Art Objects Winterson quotes a long passage, the one in which Woolf thinks ahead ‘another century or so’ to when women ‘have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own’ and ‘see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality’: ‘then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare's Sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.’ ‘That,’ Winterson states, ‘is where I am in history.’

But one reason Virginia Woolf related to ‘reality’ in the way she did was that she had the strange, intense, terribly isolated education of an upper-middle-class woman at the turn of the last century. In some ways, Winterson's childhood, as rendered in Oranges and elsewhere, was even stranger. But it wasn't the education of an upper-middle-class woman before women's suffrage, before the Education Acts of 1918 and 1944. She went to school and university, she borrowed books from public libraries; and just as well she did, because there would have been no private tutors waiting to teach Greek to a working-class girl from Lancashire, no Leslie Stephens's library waiting to be read. And yet, in her novels and in her essays, Winterson writes as though nothing had really changed in the world since Woolf's time. Orlando now has a mobile phone she uses in her motor car, but that's about it.

By chance I borrowed Julie Burchill's autobiography, I Knew I Was Right (1998), from the library just as I was thinking about this problem. There we have another extraordinarily talented and charismatic British woman writer of working-class origin, exactly the same age as Winterson (both were born in 1959). Burchill writes a great deal about what it's like to be one of very few people of working-class origin in the world of letters, still very much an upper-middle-class milieu: she rages, she gloats, she savages, she avenges, she smugly smirks. In her essays, Winterson says something about how she thought a trick was being played on her in her first weeks at university: suddenly, she was not only allowed to read but being paid for it. She doesn't say much else. She has learnt the virtue of reticence. Burchill's book is so explosive and all over the place, it's quite hard going. You get motion sickness as you read. Winterson's more recent writing is so worked over and ‘harmonised’ that whatever content it may once have had is muffled, like a room of who knows what emotional furniture, all covered up in sheets.

I like this bit, though, from Gut Symmetries, about the main character's company-director dad:

He was a self-made man. He was a blue-collar boy who could afford a tailor … They acted as though it was just a fluke that more people like him weren't in the same position as more people like them. And sometimes they hinted that he had had it easy. And sometimes, quite openly, they called him a thug. He had energy, no one could deny that, and a mission about him, that, frankly, they found vulgar. They wanted to like him but he just wasn't a likable man. Too awkward, too angled, too arrogant, too proud … He was lonely. None of his friends, his own kind, his own type, had done as well as he had. He had sailed away from that life and there was no passage of return … Now he was an island unto himself visited for goods and water.

Notice how the language starts out plain-spoken, written the way people talk; and yet, within not terribly many sentences, it has wandered down to the gilded blue frescos of the Vatican map room. I wonder if Winterson feels like this, having emerged, like the Great Gatsby, from a Platonic conception of herself. Except that she positively welcomes the solitude. Or so she always says.

The.PowerBook is a bit less 1980s than Winterson's other recent novels: fewer costumes, fewer revisionist folktales, less sex, less cross-dressing. It's also just less, full stop. Calling it ‘1980s,’ however, does not seem the insult it once did, now that we are far away enough to be able to identify 1990s publishing trends. Compared to some underworked sludge by a shame-faced journalist or one of those my-family-was-more-dysfunctional-than-yours-was memoirs, wearing tulips as fake male genitals seems edifying and jolly. Indeed, to think about the latter genre is to be struck anew by the wonder of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In that book, the young Jeanette is neglected (the holy glue ear), exorcised, deprived of reading, taken advantage of by an elder of her church. But Winterson does not wallow. She turns it all comic and redemptive. I wonder how many girls in trouble have found themselves sustained by that novel. I wonder how many girls in trouble read arty books about serial killers and end up feeling worse.

My favourite Winterson book, though, is her third, first published in 1986. Sadly, it is long out of print. It's called Fit for the Future: The Guide for Women Who Want to Live Well, and it's a feminist workout book of the mid-1980s sort. It's constructed as a riposte to Martin Luther: ‘Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips and accordingly they possess intelligence … Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a wide fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear children.’ It's full of sensible advice about eating, sleeping and exercising, and it is very bossy in the most endearing way. I consult it often for its diagrams of trunk exercises: ‘Sit-ups are now a feature of the rest of your life … Flat on the floor is fine, but a slant board is better.’ I avoid the bit about ‘champagne and fresh pasta and weekends in bed with your lover or the cat.’ The rot was setting in even then.

And yet, there is in all of Winterson's books a strong, deep sense of purpose, a faith in beauty, order, clarity, and a talent for self-projection that is energising and exciting. Is she writing the same book over and over? Has she run out of new books to write? ‘Rembrandt,’ she ominously reflects, towards the end of The.PowerBook, ‘painted himself at least fifty times, scribbled numerous drawings and left twenty etchings … because he was there, but, just as importantly, because he wasn't there. He was shifting his own boundaries.’ At least fifty times, plus drawings and etchings. Winterson has plenty more to go.

Teresa Waugh (review date 9 September 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

SOURCE: Waugh, Teresa. “A Fine Balancing Act on the Tightrope of Fantasy.” Spectator 285 (9 September 2000): 38–39.

[In the following positive review, Waugh evaluates the strengths of The PowerBook.]

The sparkling originality of Jeanette Winterson's new novel, The.PowerBook, is all the more enjoyable for being, despite its extraordinary flights of fantasy and a rich mixture of literary and historical references, entirely unpretentious. This writer may sometimes have been accused of showing off, but if she is doing so here, it is with such wit and subtlety and so much for the reader's pleasure that it is a joy. This reviewer for one was as delighted by Winterson's recipe for tomato sauce as by her list of great and ruinous lovers which rates Burton and Taylor, Oscar and Bosie alongside the likes of Tristan and Isolde and Paolo and Francesca.

The novel takes place—if it can truly be said to take place at all—in Cyberspace where fantasy evolves through the Net, in Paris, Capri and London. It is, like all good novels, about love, passion, possession, time, death, pleasure, the human condition, the search for reality and history. You name it, it's there, yet because of the nature of the book's construction and because of the remarkable darting about in time and space, it all seems like fairyland where nothing is quite as it appears and nothing is tangible.

It tells the story of how, through the Net, our narrator, a young woman writer sometimes called Ali, sometimes Alix, meets and falls in love with a beautiful married woman. Will she, won't she, leave her husband? The only selfish life is a timid one, we are told, and our narrator is certainly no timid creature. She sells dreams through the Net or disguises from a fancydress shop in Spitalfields for those who wish for freedom for one night—the freedom to be someone else. But is such an escape attainable, or does the escaper merely find that a new net is closing around her? How possible is it to become an exile from one's own past?

A marvellous combination of history and myth is interwoven into the story of Ali and her friend, from which tales Winterson raises questions, philosophises, producing on occasion a little homespun wisdom along the lines of ‘in this life you have to be your own hero.’

Here we have the story of Mallory's final attempt to climb Everest, the awful tale of Francesca da Rimini and her lover, Paolo, whom Dante punished so cruelly for their ill-fated love, we have references to Rembrandt, to Tiberius, to Muck House, our narrator's deprived childhood home whence she began her search for treasure—love, truth. The whole short book seems to gallop apace on the winged chariot of Winterson's fantasy, carrying the reader with it by its humour, its lightness of touch and most especially by the clarity and the brilliance of the evocative writing.

Winterson never seems to put a foot wrong. You can sometimes feel her sailing dangerously near the wind as she scurries along, tacking between 16th-century Turkey, the mythical world of Lancelot and Guinevere and present-day Italy, talking of love and power and the Net, but she miraculously manages never to fall into sentimentality, banality or tendentiousness of any kind. She, like her narrator, is always on the run. It is worth reading the book for her description of Capri alone.

But it has to be said that, in essence, this is a book about love and a love story—a very moving one at that—which by virtue of the way it is told contrives to have a universal application. It is funny, clever, entertaining and wholly delightful.

Andrea L. Harris (essay date 2000)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8926

SOURCE: Harris, Andrea L. “A Feminist Ethics of Love: Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.” In Other Sexes: Rewriting Difference from Woolf to Winterson, pp. 129–47. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Harris draws upon the feminist theory of Luce Irigaray to examine transpersonal aspects of sexual difference and Winterson's subversion of gendered language and narrative subjectivity in Written on the Body.]

I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will. We shall cross one another's boundaries and make ourselves one nation.

—Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

How can I say “you,” when you are always other? How can I speak to you? You remain in flux, never congealing or solidifying. What will make that current flow into words? … These streams are without fixed banks, this body without fixed boundaries.

—Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One

Like The Waves,Written on the Body is a self-reflexive text preoccupied with language; like Nightwood, it confounds simple gender categorization; and like The Talking Room, it is a meditation on love and loss. As the narrator struggles with the loss of her beloved to cancer, she attempts to literally recreate her through and as a written text.1 Writing becomes a manifestation of passionate sexual love that enables the lover to cross the boundary between self and other and thereby fully inhabit the other's being. The central trope of the novel—writing as bodily act, the body as written text—is another trope of the liminal, similar to Woolf's “little language,” [Djuna] Barnes's third sex, and [Marianne] Hauser's ambiguously gendered characters. For Winterson, to touch the flesh and to love the body is also to write upon it and to read it. Through these metaphors, the flesh, typically considered the marker of the boundary between self and other, becomes the gateway to immersion in the other's being. Due to the central character's nearly insatiable desire for this immersion, the possibility of violating this boundary looms large in the novel. Just as Winterson explores the space between self and other, word and object, so she explores the space between masculine and feminine. While Barnes and Hauser depict characters who may be described as both masculine and feminine in terms of their behavior and desire, Winterson goes about creating gender ambiguity very differently. She depicts a nearly featureless narrator (we are only told of its romantic history) and gives us no clear signals as to its gender such as gendered pronouns or a name. Despite this refusal to mark gender, at the same time the novel offers many hints that “it” is in fact a she. By leaving her narrator's gender a question, yet loading the text with suggestions that “it” is in fact a woman, Winterson boldly claims universality for a feminine and lesbian subject position, an idea advanced in Monique Wittig's theoretical writing.

Written on the Body explores the intersubjective, ethical ramifications of the meeting of opposed terms that are the focus of this study. By dwelling on the contact between one and another in a loving, passionate relationship, the novel traces a complex tension between respect for the other and the violation of the other. In this focus on the ethics of love, the novel details a poetics of fleshly, mundane, earthly love; it dwells on the caress, the embrace, and the touch. Yet it also suggests that such love has a spiritual dimension, one that transcends the everyday and earthly. This meeting of mundane and spiritual, like the meeting of masculine and feminine within the subject in Barnes, Woolf, and Hauser, echoes Luce Irigaray's theory of the sensible transcendental. All are a means of restoring the repudiated feminine, in all its various associations, to its central place in Western thought.


More than the other novels studied [in this book], Written on the Body raises the question of the ethical ramifications of these meetings and crossings of opposed terms, because the meeting in this text is an intersubjective one. What does it mean to attempt to become one with the other? Although the narrator wishes to consume her lover, Louise, early in their relationship, by the end of the novel the narrator begins to see love in different terms, terms that allow her to be joined with Louise, yet not be consumed by nor consume her. The narrator discovers that “true love” requires an ethical relationship to the other. My reading of Written on the Body's ethics of love is based on Irigaray's concept of the sensible transcendental, as discussed in chapter 1. The two manifestations of this concept that bear directly on the novel are the immediate and the passion called wonder.

A central aspect of Irigaray's theory of the ethics of sexual difference is her inquiry into that which has been excluded from metaphysics—the immediate or the sensible—because it has been relegated to the feminine. Although the exclusion of the immediate is a critical problem, it is frequently overlooked: “Few people worry about finding new ways to experience passion, or passions, about working out a new pathos, or rather a more ethical spirit, rooted in the world of the senses. … the problem of the relation to the immediate has not been resolved” (Sexes and Genealogies 115). In order for “our relation to the immediate” to be “resolved,” we must first of all begin to admit that there is such a thing as the immediate, and we must acknowledge that the immediate has been problematized due to its connection with the feminine, the body, and the material. The issue of the immediate is directly related to the simultaneous insistence upon difference and lack of genuine sexual difference. In a pivotal passage, Irigaray asks why a genuine sexual difference “has not had its chance to develop, either empirically or transcendentally” (An Ethics 15). One aspect of the lack of genuine sexual difference is the split between the sensible and transcendental, which would be resolved by the meeting of these realms in the sensible transcendental. In answer to her own question, she alludes to her key notion of the sensible transcendental without naming it as such:2

It is surely a question of the dissociation of body and soul, of sexuality and spirituality, of the lack of a passage for the spirit, for the god, between the inside and the outside, the outside and the inside, and of their distribution between the sexes in the sexual act. Everything is constructed in such a way that these realities remain separate, even opposed to one another. So that they neither mix, marry, nor form an alliance. Their wedding is always being put off to a beyond, a future life, or else devalued, felt and thought to be less worthy in comparison to the marriage between the mind and God in a transcendental realm where all ties to the world of sensation have been severed.

(An Ethics 15)

Irigaray envisions a restoration of and to the senses—a healing of the breach between the sensible and the transcendental. Irigaray's language is sweeping in this passage because the nature of this breach is immense. Margaret Whitford writes that through the concept of the sensible transcendental, “Irigaray is positing that the oppositions might come into relation—the mother and father, the Sensible and the Intelligible, the immediate and the transcendent, the material and the ideal—in imaginary and symbolic processes, that is, that each sex might be able to assume its own divisions” (Luce Irigaray 122). For Irigaray, the oppositions come into relation in the meeting of man and woman. However, to take her point to its conclusion, if “each sex” is to truly “assume its own divisions,” then each sex would bear the fruit of this encounter and would be the meeting place of masculine and feminine, or the realization of genuine sexual difference. The sexed subject conceived in this way should be understood as “other-sexed,” and only possible in the context of a genuine sexual difference.

The ethical encounter that Irigaray alludes to involves not the merging of self and other but the meeting of self and other. The male-female couple is her focus because of their inherent difference: “[T]hey are irreducible one to the other” (An Ethics 12). When such an encounter truly takes place (and her language makes clear that she believes it has not), the boundaries between the lovers remain fully intact despite the intense “joining” that takes place between them. Irigaray writes: “Who or what the other is, I never know. But the other who is forever unknowable to me is the one who differs from me sexually. This feeling of surprise, astonishment and wonder in the face of the unknowable ought to be returned to its locus: that of sexual difference” (An Ethics 13). Many negative emotions factor into the relation between man and woman, “but not that wonder which beholds what it sees always as if for the first time, never taking hold of the other as its object. It does not try to seize, possess, or reduce this object, but leaves it subjective, still free” (An Ethics 13).3 The relationship between Winterson's narrator and Louise reaches this point in their last encounter in the novel. Wonder possesses a healing power, because it takes place at the junction of the sensible and the transcendental. Irigaray writes that wonder is a

birth into a transcendence, that of the other, still in the world of the senses (“sensible”), still physical and carnal, and already spiritual. Is it the place of incidence and junction of body and spirit, which has been covered over again and again, hardened through repetitions that hamper growth and flourishing? … Wonder would be the passion of the encounter between the most material and the most metaphysical, of their possible conception and fecundation one by the other. A third dimension. An intermediary. Neither the one nor the other. Which is not to say neutral or neuter. The forgotten ground of our condition …

(An Ethics 82)

Irigaray bases the possibility of a genuine sexual difference in an irreducible otherness that man and woman find in each other.4 This wonder is not the exclusive property of the sexually differentiated, however. To argue that, as Irigaray does, is to reduce the complexity of sexual or gender difference within the subject as well as between subjects who are presumably identical as men or women. If we think of Irigaray's writings on ethics in dialogue with her 1970s writings on women such as “When Our Lips Speak Together” (This Sex), it is possible to bridge this seeming gap. The encounter between man and woman, as Irigaray herself acknowledges, is fraught with negativity because of the history of the relation between the sexes. That is, the very division that the sensible transcendental seeks to overcome is liable to threaten this encounter. As Irigaray writes, “[B]etween man and woman … [come] attraction, greed, possession …” (13). The encounter between subjects of the “same sex” is less likely to be fraught with such issues because a history of domination between them does not exist, while it certainly does between men and women. This history of the male subordination of women is present in every encounter between the sexes. For Irigaray to insist on wonder in the heterosexual encounter and to largely dismiss the possibility of these passions occurring in the homosexual encounter is to risk simplifying homosexuality by equating it with narcissism. That is, she is blind to the difference within women as well as between women (and between men), despite her constant insistence upon the recognition of difference.


The mutual exchange and reciprocity discussed in the passage from Written on the Body used as an epigraph to this chapter represent the ideal that is only occasionally grasped by the narrator in her desire to be one with Louise. The fact that the narrator desires such a close connection to her lover is important in and of itself. The early parts of the novel involve two simultaneous narratives: the ongoing narrative about the relationship with Louise and the episodic narrative of her many affairs prior to Louise. Most of these affairs are with married women and most last under six months, due to the narrator's circadian clock, as she puts it.5 The stories of these affairs provide a necessary counterpoint to the story of Louise, for the narrator undergoes a profound reeducation about love by means of this relationship. She realizes that while she has had many affairs due to her disdain for serious relationships, especially marriage, and her belief that they are passionless, a kind of love is possible in which she may have both passion and commitment (79). She finds just this with Louise. Her jaded view of love, as represented by her previous, more lighthearted affairs, nearly compromises her relationship with Louise, despite its basis in love. When they first become lovers, the narrator is quick to declare her love, but Louise cautions her to be careful to mean what she says (53). Louise is extremely wary of the narrator due to her past exploits.

Throughout this narrative, the narrator traces her development from heartless Lothario to committed, responsible, and deeply passionate lover. The narrator is rather self-conscious about the issue of ethics in love. At one point, she questions her own ethical failings as well as those of most people (43). Louise stands in the position of “saviour”: through loving her fully, the narrator will be able to escape her past (77). But the narrator must first fail Louise before she learns to love her as she is meant to be loved. In fact, the impetus for the novel is the narrator's desire to understand “where I went wrong” (17). Throughout the novel, the narrator's understanding of love expands and matures: she comes to learn that intimacy is “the recognition of another person that is deeper than consciousness, lodged in the body more than held in the mind” (82). Yet despite this realization early in her relationship with Louise, it takes her some time to act on this knowledge. She also revises this definition somewhat, eventually “recognizing” Louise on levels other than the physical. When she leaves Louise upon learning that she has cancer, she does so because Louise's husband Elgin, an oncologist, will continue to care for her only on this condition. Despite the concern for Louise's health upon which this decision is based, the narrator makes the mistake of not recognizing Louise's wish to stay with her. Instead, the narrator only recognizes her own sense of what is right, and by completely overlooking Louise's sense of what is right, she betrays her. After their separation, the narrator begins to think of Louise differently, and this indicates the distance she has come in her awareness of what love can be in the fullest sense. While praying for Louise, the narrator begins “[t]o think of Louise in her own right, not as my lover, not as my grief. It helped me to forget myself and that was a great blessing” (153). At the same time, because she is thinking of Louise in her own right, the narrator begins to doubt her decision to leave Louise to Elgin: “‘You made a mistake,’ said the voice” (153). Part of this process of understanding love anew involves the narrator's gradual realization of the way in which she has failed Louise by leaving her. In the act of writing this narrative, she recognizes that to leave Louise was to fail her. After several moments when she doubts her actions (148, 153), the narrator finally admits that “I had failed Louise and it was too late. What right had I to decide how she should live? What right had I to decide how she should die?” (156–57). After her employer and one-time lover Gail Right confirms the narrator's own opinion (and Gail Right's name tells us how to regard her views), the narrator decides to return to London to look for Louise (158–59). Although she does not find her, she leaves a letter with her address, which leads to their eventual reunion on the last page of the novel.

The narrator's love for Louise is so profound that she wants to immerse herself fully in Louise's being, primarily her physical being. As Winterson writes, “I didn't only want Louise's flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together. I would have held her to me though time had stripped away the tones and textures of her skin” (51). This passage is notable for its hyperbole. The narrator has always guarded herself against full attachment and commitment, yet now she wants these as well as complete absorption in every aspect of her lover's being. Because her desire for Louise is so extensive that it is boundless, she speaks constantly of crossing all boundaries between them. Yet there is a kind of violence implicit here in her desire to have Louise as a collection of body parts (“her bones, her blood, her tissues”). This violence comes full circle in the central section of the text, entitled “THE CELLS, TISSUES, SYSTEMS AND CAVITIES OF THE BODY,” in which the narrator literally seeks to become one with each part of Louise's body, using the language of medical textbooks to get under Louise's skin. In what follows, I refer to this section as the body parts section.

The narrator's desire for full connection is not always so excessive, however. It is tempered, for example, in a passage where she discusses the “tie” between them. Although she and Louise are “held by a single loop of love,” it is a straight loop with “no sharp twists or sinister turns” (88). She compares this “loop of love” to the actual rope that was used to tie two fighters in Renaissance Italy. This is not her wish; instead, she wants a clean, straight line between them: “I want the hoop around our hearts to be a guide not a terror” (88). At this point in the text, Winterson uses writing and reading as metaphors for the connection between the narrator and her lover, and these best convey the nature of this tie.

Articulacy of the fingers … signing on the body body longing. Who taught you to write in blood on my back? Who taught you to use your hands as branding irons? You have scored your name into my shoulders, referenced me with your mark …

Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there … I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn't know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book.


In this passage the narrator and Louise switch roles: it is usually the narrator who is the lover and Louise who is the beloved. The lover here does a certain violence to the beloved's body, branding and scoring marks upon her flesh. But these are marks upon the surface of the body and they merely add to “the accumulations of a lifetime”—the scars and marks of daily living and aging. The act of reading that is described in the rest of the passage is a loving act: having sheltered herself and her story, the narrator now opens herself like a book under Louise's hands. These hands have a double function, which is both to write upon her body and to read her body. The “translation” described in the last line of the passage is a transfer into another medium, which does not irrevocably alter the narrator or her story.6 It is not a violent appropriation or violation like the narrator's forced entry into Louise's body in the body parts section. Writing and reading metaphors serve to balance the narrator's desire for immersion with ethical respect for the other. Such metaphors imply that there is always a remainder: she cannot fully have Louise, but only a version or interpretation of her, just as Louise cannot fully have her.

At these moments when the narrator balances desire for immersion in the other and recognition of the other in her otherness, there are striking parallels between Winterson's novel and Irigaray's classic text on the union between women lovers, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” the source of the second epigraph to this chapter. What unites the speaker and her lover in Irigaray's text is first their similarity, from which everything else springs. She writes: “We live by twos … Our resemblance does without semblances: for in our bodies we are already the same. Touch yourself, touch me, you'll ‘see’” (This Sex 216). Their giving is reciprocal, since to love the other is to love the self: “When you say I love you … you're saying I love myself … That ‘I love you’ is neither gift nor debt” (206). As in Written on the Body, the issue of language is central to the issue of connection and boundary crossing: Irigaray writes of “find[ing] our body's language” (214). Such a bodily language will facilitate the fluidity of the boundaries between the two women: “Let's hurry and invent our own phrases. So that everywhere and always we can continue to embrace … We shall pass imperceptibly through every barrier, unharmed, to find each other” (215).

Irigaray writes of a kind of alternative space or relation that is possible between women, in comparison to the place in which women find themselves in Western culture—a subordinate place in the patriarchal, heterosexual economy that divides women from each other. Similarly, in Written on the Body, it is the narrator's investment in a limited notion of love drawn from the heterosexual economy that divides her from Louise. Irigaray writes: “We put ourselves into watertight compartments, break ourselves up into parts, cut ourselves in two, and more. Whereas we are always one and the other, at the same time. If we separate ourselves that way, we ‘all’ stop being born” (217). Women are deprived of life itself in this economy because of the insistence on clear boundaries between all beings. Women must escape in order to survive. Irigaray describes the deadening effect of being immersed in the patriarchal economy in this way:

How can we speak so as to escape from their compartments, their schemas, their distinctions and oppositions … How can we shake off the chain of these terms, free ourselves from their categories … You know that we are never completed, but that we only embrace ourselves whole. That one after another, parts—of the body, of space, of time—interrupt the flow of our blood. Paralyze, petrify, immobilize us. Make us paler. Almost frigid.

(212; emphasis added)

This is precisely what we see in the body parts section of the novel, in reverse. Having lived fully in, through, and with Louise, the narrator is stunned by loss when she leaves Louise to Elgin. She then attempts to recreate Louise but uses the language of Western medicine to do so. The more she thinks of Louise in this light, the less alive she becomes. Over the course of this section, this same categorization and negation that Irigaray details take place. Rather than bring Louise to life, as is the narrator's wish, she renders her lifeless, piece by piece.7

The narrator violates Louise, from a metaphorical standpoint, when she takes the notion of crossing boundaries too far during their separation by using a Western medical approach to the body. That she rewrites Louise's body in this context at the same time that she literally abandons Louise to Western medical care makes this violent rewriting all the more violent. When Louise asked the narrator early in their relationship if she would stay with her unconditionally, clearly she was referring to the narrator's inevitable discovery of her illness. Just as she fails Louise by leaving her, so she fails her by attempting to invade her body much as the cancer itself has done. The particular way in which she approaches Louise's body—as a collection of discrete parts—also constitutes a failure. Ironically, such an approach overlooks the specific way that cancer attacks the body. The narrator makes several references to the anomaly that cancer is when considered from the standpoint of Western medicine, yet she herself does not follow this lead. Cancer is holistic in its invasion of the body, while Western medicine isolates the body into discrete parts (105, 175). She explains metastasis in this way: “Cancer has a unique property; it can travel from the site of origin to distant tissues … In doctor-think the body is a series of bits to be isolated and treated as necessary, that the body in its very disease may act as a whole is an upsetting concept. Holistic medicine is for faith healers and crackpots, isn't it?” (175). The narrator fails to understand that she herself uses “doctor-think” to recreate and know Louise more fully when she leaves her. She seeks to be one with her, paradoxically, by dividing her up and knowing each part of her, an approach that is anything but holistic. Louise's style of loving should also have given her a hint: “It was necessary to engage her whole person. Her mind, her heart, her soul and her body could only be present as two sets of twins. She would not be divided from herself” (68). The narrator has previously approached relationships in just the opposite way: relationships engaged her body and her passion, but never any other part of her. To some extent, this is also true of her relationship with Louise. The narrator is attentive to the body in and of itself and to the bodily nature of their love, at the expense of other aspects of their connection. Only after leaving Louise and trying to find her again is she able to see that she has made an error and must bring back into their love those other parts of herself, primarily her faith and her trust.

Although the body parts section begins with an attempt to become more intimate with Louise, in the narrator's sense of “recognition,” it takes several turns away from this initial aim.

If I could not put Louise out of my mind I would drown myself in her. Within the clinical language … I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognise her even when her body had long since fallen away.


The effect of this method of knowing her is to depersonalize her utterly. By studying an anatomy textbook, she does not learn about Louise's skin and organs; instead, she learns about generic skin and organs. The body represented in the anatomy textbook is not Louise's body, but any body (and at the same time, no body).8 Simply reading about biology and anatomy is not going to bring Louise to her on this level. It is even arguable whether this is the level at which the spirit of a human being exists. It seems that the narrator has taken her former style of loving, which stopped at the physical and passionate, and has pushed that to an extreme, hoping that this will be the equivalent of “true love.” This may be due to her new definition of intimacy as “the recognition of another person that is deeper than consciousness, lodged in the body more than held in the mind” (82; emphasis added). Privileging the body over the mind is as great a mistake as privileging the mind over the body. A true recognition of the other would be an ethical encounter, which would involve a meeting of mind and body, just as it is a meeting of self and other. Although the narrator believes that she can avoid death and mortality through this approach to Louise, she in a sense kills the real Louise and replaces her with Louise as dissected corpse, the material basis of the anatomy lessons she teaches herself. The language of death even creeps in to these sections more and more.9

In the section on the cavities of the body, the narrator very explicitly uses such a language: “Let me penetrate you. I am the archaeologist of tombs. I would devote my life to marking your passageways, the entrances and exits of that impressive mausoleum, your body” (119). Of course, since the narrator is contemplating her beloved's eventual death, she is bound to see Louise's body as her grave. Yet it seems that she metaphorically assists in the process by so relishing her role as mortician, as in her reference to “embalm[ing] you in my memory” (119). Because losing Louise has made her feel dead, the narrator wants to kill her in turn: “You must be rid of life as I am rid of life” (119). Such remarks make it clear that the narrator is conscious of and deliberate about the language that she is using. The reason for this attempt to metaphorically invade Louise's body is at last made clear. The narrator writes of “knowing” Louise externally by appreciating her physical beauty, but she sees a vast gap between knowing the surface and knowing the depth: “I have held your head in my hands but I have never held you. Not you in your spaces, spirit, electrons of life” (120). The narrator's desire to penetrate Louise actually preceded their separation. “Mining” is a common metaphor in the text for the narrator's lovemaking, whether or not it is with Louise. She speaks of “explor[ing] you and min[ing] you” (20), as well as of her queasiness about “plumbing” the depths of her lovers (17). She often uses the term “pushing into” as well (110, 137). Related to this series of metaphors are analogies between a woman's sex and a shell (15, 73), and the narrator occasionally brags about her violent penetration of these shells. She notes, “I've … blown into the hollows of many [shells]. Where I've left cracking too severe to mend the owners have simply turned the bad part to the shade” (15). Coupled with the violent metaphors of the body parts section, the overall picture is one of the violation of the other.

The ethical dimension of love that the narrator eventually discovers has a spiritual dimension as well, which is suggested through the narrator's many references to the pilgrim. The first reference is to a print in Louise's house, of Edward Burne-Jones's Love and the Pilgrim. This comes into play early in their affair when the narrator is quick to say “I love you,” and Louise cautions her to “Never say you love me until that day when you have proved it” (54). The narrator then reflects on Love and the Pilgrim, which hangs in the room where they have just made love: “An angel in clean garments leads by the hand a traveller footsore and weary. The traveller is in black and her cloak is still caught by the dense thicket of thorns from which they have both emerged. Would Louise lead me so? Did I want to be led?” (54). The narrator is correct in her judgment that “As a lover I was lethal” (53). Not fully present, because she is still wrapping up her relationship with Jacqueline, the narrator is far from ready to be led by Louise. First, she must wander through that “dense thicket” alone—her self-exile from Louise.10

The narrator muses again on the image of the pilgrim, after comparing being held by Louise to being rocked in a boat. She imagines medieval pilgrims setting sail, secure in their faith and belief in God. In this image, Louise is the boat, the narrator the pilgrim: “Louise let me sail in you over these spirited waves. I have the hope of a saint in a coracle … Love it was that drove them forth. Love that brought them home again” (81). The narrator feels herself capable of trusting Louise and following her faithfully, but this is prior to learning that Louise has cancer. She thinks she is ready to give up her past and become someone new with Louise: “Louise, I would gladly fire the past for you, go and not look back … I know what it will mean to redeem myself from the accumulations of a lifetime” (81). As the story plays out, however, she discovers that she is far from ready. The narrator tellingly transforms the pilgrim's voyage into a bodily voyage as they begin making love again: “Eyes closed I began a voyage down her spine, the cobbled road of hers that brought me to a cleft and a damp valley” (82). Compared to the open-ended, dangerous voyage of emotional intimacy, the voyage of physical intimacy is easy and pleasant. She seems to realize this herself towards the end of the novel, after she has returned to London to seek out Louise. She questions every move that she has made, particularly her failure to accept Louise's refusal to go back to Elgin. In this context, she refers to Louise again as her guide and potential saviour. “Louise, stars in your eyes, my own constellation. I was following you faithfully but I looked down. You took me out beyond the house, over the roofs, way past commonsense and good behaviour. No compromise. I should have trusted you but I lost my nerve” (187). By initiating their reconciliation, the narrator finally puts her faith in Louise, becoming pilgrim to her angel/saviour as in Love and the Pilgrim.11

The love between the narrator and Louise, particularly when they are reunited at the end of the novel, involves wonder in the Irigarayan sense because it involves the unification of body and soul, the sexual and the spiritual. While several critics see this union as “fantastic,” I would argue that it is important that we see it as real and realizable.12 The narrator's shock and surprise when she opens her door and sees Louise indicate wonder, not the fantastic, imaginary nature of Louise's return. Upon seeing Louise, the narrator needs to touch her to be convinced that she's real: “I put out my hand and felt her fingers, she took my fingers and put them to her mouth … Am I stark mad? She's warm” (190). The expansiveness of her vision as she describes the scene of their reunion is now the measure (to use the narrator's own metaphor) of love, rather than loss being the measure of love, as was the case at the beginning of the novel (9). “The windows have turned into telescopes. Moon and stars are magnified in this room. The sun hangs over the mantelpiece. I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. The world is bundled up in this room” (190).13 Here Winterson uses the same language to describe the reunion that she used to describe the room in which Louise and the narrator first made love: “The walls … were breathing. I could feel them moving under my touch … The light, channeled by the thin air, heated the panes of glass too hot to open. We were magnified in this high wild room. You and I could reach the ceiling and the floor and every side of our loving cell” (51). This earlier scene is just as fantastic as the final reunion scene, but there is not doubt that it takes place: their love is so profound and so transformative that it alters material objects. Such a meeting on all levels, such a crossing of strict boundaries, is possible. Winterson achieves the crossing of boundaries in another context through the genderless narrative voice.


I thought you were the most beautiful creature male or female I had ever seen.

(Winterson, Written on the Body 84)

While Winterson's narrator is technically ungendered, there are many wry hints that “it” is in fact a “she.” For example, we learn of the narrator's revolutionary acts with her radical feminist girlfriend Inge, and it is impossible to imagine Inge as anything but a lesbian (22–23). We also learn of the narrator's dream about a girlfriend who sets a mousetrap for her mailman's penis because she is annoyed with him. She tells the narrator that she has nothing to worry about; that is to say, her genitals could not be caught in such a trap (41–42).14 On a more serious note, many of the narrator's girlfriends refer to her lovemaking abilities and the implication seems to be that she knows and loves them in a way that their husbands and boyfriends cannot. The narrator's refusal to equate love with reproduction suggests that her brand of loving is nonreproductive, that is, lesbian (108). There are also extratextual reasons for reading the narrator's gender as female; Winterson discusses her lesbianism as well as the autobiographical nature of all of her texts (particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Written on the Body) in interviews.15

In addition to the many plot “hints” that the narrator is a woman, many passages establish the strong similarities between the lovers. Here, again, Winterson is rather direct. In the following passage, the narrator comments on the differences between heterosexual and lesbian love precisely in terms of the question of difference.

I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same.

Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh. To remember you it's my own body I touch. Thus she was, here and here.


One of the means by which the heterosexual economy operates is of course this idea that “opposites attract.” By contrast, the narrator discovers through Louise the intense allure of sameness. The narrator also states, while separated from Louise: “You are still the colour of my blood. You are my blood. When I look in the mirror it's not my own face I see. Your body is twice. Once you once me. Can I be sure which is which?” (99). These passages, in their freshness and beauty, resemble Irigaray's “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Despite this, the narrator occasionally slips into a dangerous kind of boundary crossing, as in the body parts section as well as in other passages such as this: “She was my twin and I lost her. Skin is waterproof but my skin was not waterproof against Louise. She flooded me and she has not drained away. I am still wading through her, she beats upon my doors and threatens my innermost safety” (163).16 There is a certain danger even in these positive evocations of connection through similarity; it is due to the all-consuming nature of their love, which threatens the loss of self.

Why does Winterson leave gender unmarked in the standard sense by eliminating gendered pronouns, yet load the text with other marks of gender, as discussed above?17 It is doubtful that Winterson finds concealment in and of itself subversive. Rather, what is subversive occurs on the level of language. The use of the pronoun “she” immediately locates women in a subordinate position in the social order. According to Monique Wittig, to refuse to gender women in this way grants them a different status, the status of the universal, a position historically available only to men.18

Wittig is concerned with gender not just as a social category but as a linguistic category, and she notes how these two categories inform each other.19 For Wittig, the foundation of oppression is difference—the male/female as well as the heterosexual/homosexual oppositions.20 For that reason, she takes a position quite different from Irigaray's regarding difference. For Wittig, difference must be abolished, not rediscovered, for difference is synonymous with “domination.” On this point, she writes that “[t]he concept of difference has nothing ontological about it. It is only the way that the masters interpret a historical situation of domination. The function of difference is to mask at every level the conflicts of interest, including ideological ones” (29). Difference and gender mark women only, not men, for “the masculine is not the masculine but the general” (60). Wittig's position on gender is the opposite of Irigaray's. Instead of the masculine being the only sex, the feminine is the only sex in Wittig's account: “[T]he category of sex is the category that sticks to women, for only they cannot be conceived outside of it. Only they are sex” (8; emphasis in original). For this reason, in order to assume a universal position, a woman must be de-gendered as Winterson's narrator is. Language provides this possibility of freeing women of their entrapment in the particular: “Gender then must be destroyed. The possibility of its destruction is given through the very exercise of language. For each time I say ‘I,’ I reorganize the world from my point of view and through abstraction I lay claim to universality. This fact holds true for every locutor” (81). In Wittig's terms, the fact that Winterson's narrator is a lesbian makes her better able to assume such a universal, that is, non-gender-marked position.21 Although in some ways the fact that lesbians are women is inescapable (that is, after all, part of what makes them lesbians), lesbians are in many ways “not women,” as Wittig succinctly puts it (32). Lesbian “is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject ‘lesbian’ is not a woman, either economically, politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man” (20). This distance of lesbians from womanhood by virtue of their distance from men may explain the amount of attention paid to Louise's husband, Elgin, in the novel.22 It is only by understanding him that we can understand Louise's leaving him for the narrator.

It is important that we read Winterson's “concealment” of her narrator's gender and not just read through it by attempting to read the gender that is presumably concealed.23 Winterson's refusal to mark the narrator's gender must be read as a strategy: what she attains through de-gendering the narrative voice is a universal subject position. As a “universal” voice, however, doesn't this narrator speak as a man, a possible result of the universalization of women and lesbians that Wittig doesn't consider?24 As is well known, much of the work of feminism over the past twenty-five years has been aimed at particularizing one's position as subject and speaker. Concurrent with this is the critique of the masculine hidden under the guise of the universal. While I argue that the narrator of Written on the Body is feminine, I also argue that she is feminine under the guise of the universal/masculine. Such an impersonation is both disturbing, because it seems retrogressive, and exciting, because it seems subversive and productive. Again, my dual perspective here is informed by both Irigaray and Wittig. For Irigaray, if a woman were to adopt a masculine position, this would be disturbing because it further eradicates the feminine, the other sex, and bolsters the masculine, the one sex. For Wittig, however, a woman's adoption of a masculine position would be liberating because it would relieve woman of the burden of sex, by which she is always marked. If we consider not just the genderless voice of the novel but what that voice is saying at various times, we might be able to escape this critical impasse. Early in the narrative, when the narrator has just entered her relationship with Louise, she seems to speak from a masculine position: she is a Lothario, a rake who brags about the many women she has “had.” After she leaves Louise and begins to doubt herself and admit her failure, her vulnerability positions her as a woman in the traditional sense. The flexible ego boundaries that the narrator discovers while with Louise also indicate a classically feminine subject position. If the narrator can be and is both these things, isn't her gender more nuanced than the simple designation “masculine” or “feminine” would allow? I am tempted to say that, like Bernard, the narrator moves from the masculine to the feminine end of the gender spectrum. Yet, when the other characters analyzed [in this book]—Robin, Matthew, V, and J—are also considered, the very fluidity of their sex/gender identifications throws into question the metaphor of a “gender spectrum.” A linear metaphor does not begin to suggest the complexity of “other sexes.”


  1. The gender of Winterson's first-person narrator is never specified in the text, a fact that has been widely discussed in reviews of the novel. In the few critical essays on Winterson, this issue has not been adequately resolved, I would argue. I refer to the narrator as “she” throughout this chapter because there is much support, both textual and extratextual, for reading “it” as a “her.” I will discuss this in detail later in the chapter.

  2. In a note to Irigaray's essay “The Limits of the Transference,” Margaret Whitford provides a gloss on the sensible transcendental: “The sensible transcendental is a term which refers to the overcoming of the split between material and ideal, body and spirit, immanence and transcendence, and their assignment to women and men respectively. Each sex should be able to represent both possibilities” (117).

  3. My discussion of Irigaray here is based largely on “Sexual Difference,” the introductory essay in An Ethics of Sexual Difference (5–19). The key terms I have used from Irigaray—angel, mucus, lips—all emerge from this essay and are key components of Irigaray's vision of sexual difference. The mucous membranes are the site of a “communion” between lovers (19); angels are “messengers of ethics” that represent “a sexuality that has never been incarnated” (16); the paired lips of the woman's body provide a model of the ethical relationship, for they “do not assimilate, reduce, or swallow up” (18). See chapter 1, note 21, for further references to these figures.

  4. Irigaray's ethics of sexual difference is in many ways a response to the philosophical tradition, particularly Emmanuel Levinas's work on ethics. She writes that Levinas's view of love fails to reach “the transcendence of the other which becomes immediate ecstasy in me and with him—or her. For Levinas, the distance is always maintained with the other in the experience of love … This autistic, egological, solitary love does not correspond to the shared outpouring, to the loss of boundaries which takes place for both lovers when they cross the boundary of the skin into the mucous membranes of the body, leaving the circle which encloses my solitude” (“Questions to Emmanuel Levinas” 180). Her description of the crossing of the boundary between lovers in this passage could be a description of the genuine encounter between the narrator and Louise at the end of the novel.

  5. Although these numerous affairs are presented comically, there is a kind of urgency about some of them that indicates the narrator's greater investment. The narrator seems crushed when one lover, Bathsheba, returns to her husband. With Jacqueline, she consciously seeks out a long-term, committed relationship, and when she leaves Jacqueline for Louise (with guilty doubts about her choice), Jacqueline's revenge is brutal and devastating.

  6. See 89, 106, 118, 124–25 for other passages on writing on the body.

  7. In “The Fecundity of the Caress,” Irigaray writes, “The other cannot be transformed into discourse, fantasies, or dreams. It is impossible for me to substitute any other, thing or god, for the other—because of this touching of and by him, which my body remembers” (An Ethics 216). This cautionary remark certainly bears on the narrator's deep involvement in finding a stand-in for Louise in the form of a scientific knowledge of the body.

  8. The body of the anatomy textbook is more likely to be a “universal” male body than a female body, except in the chapter on reproduction.

  9. Several critics and commentators on the novel see this section in a very different light. Christy L. Burns sees the narrator's writing in this section as “playful and erotic” (11). She also claims that the narrator counteracts the clinical textbook language though her own rewriting of it (Burns refers to “the narrator's own resistance to the callousness of that language and her/his attempt to fantasize Louise's presence into being” [11]). Laura Reed-Morrison reads the section in a similar way, writing that “the narrator … rewrites sterile medical language as something transcendently personal” (1). See Carolyn Allen, Following Djuna 76 and Daphne M. Kutzer 143 for similar comments on this section. Taking a different approach, I argue that a strong undercurrent of violence marks this section, because the model of the anatomy textbook is not just “clinical” but dehumanizing on several levels, and the narrator's language is taken over by it.

  10. While working in the British Museum, the narrator reflects on a visual image of a pilgrim and a maze in an illuminated manuscript in which these figures illustrate the letter “L.” The narrator asks herself, “How would the pilgrim try through the maze, the maze so simple to angels and birds. I tried to fathom the path for a long time but I was caught at dead ends … I gave up and shut the book, forgetting that the first word had been Love” (88). Again, at this stage, the narrator is simply not up to the task of finding her way through the maze of love, either literally or, as here, figuratively.

  11. Louise's angelic status makes her a figure of the fluid boundary as much as the narrator is through her undeclared gender. In chapter 4, I discussed Irigaray's figure of the angel, which stands for the merging of opposed terms and the crossing of boundaries on many levels. See Written on the Body 54, 131, 160 for references to Louise as an angel.

  12. For readings of the ending as fantastic, see Burns 14–15 and Allen, Following Djuna 71–72.

  13. This passage alludes to John Donne's “The Good Morrow” and “The Sun Rising.”

  14. This could also imply that the narrator's penis is too small to be caught in the trap. There are other suggestions that the narrator could be male, such as his/her boyfriend “Crazy Frank,” who wears nipple rings in an attempt to be “deeply butch” (92). Crazy Frank seems like a gay man, thus leading the reader to consider whether the narrator might be a bisexual man. Most of the evidence, however, points to the narrator being female.

  15. For one example of such an interview, see Winterson, “I fear insincerity,” where she says that Written on the Body is based on her affair with her former agent, Pat Kavanagh. Allen cites similar reasons for reading the narrator as a woman (Following Djuna 48–49). She also situates the narrator's unspecified sex in the context of fear of loss, which is the key to her argument about women's fiction in the Barnes tradition. The unspecified sex works to undercut the similarity of the lovers' bodies, which threatens “loss of boundaries” in the psychological sense (49).

  16. These passages may be read in another sense as well, however. Although I maintain that the narrator is a woman, it is possible to imagine such passages being written about a certain kind of relationship between a man and a woman. This would be the sort of true union between the sexes that Irigaray describes in the context of wonder.

  17. Winterson reserves the genderless status for her narrator: all the other characters are decidedly male or female.

  18. Indeed, the position of the universal is not just available to men but is by its very definition a male position, as the use of “he” in English as the “universal” pronoun attests.

  19. Burns notes the similarities between Written on the Body and Wittig's The Lesbian Body. I will be exploring the connections between the novel and Wittig's critical writing in The Straight Mind. All further references are to this text. Kutzer mentions in passing that Written on the Body “comes quite close” to Wittig's call for a “minority point-of-view that becomes truly universal,” but she discusses neither the means of achieving this nor the ramifications of it in the novel (140).

  20. Wittig writes that “straight society is based on the necessity of the different/other at every level … what is the different/other if not the dominated?” (29).

  21. This statement should be qualified. The narrator makes several references to past boyfriends, but far more to girlfriends. Like Robin Vote in Nightwood and J in The Talking Room, her sexuality is not easily contained. All three women are bisexual in terms of their sexual practice but seem to be lesbian in terms of identity and desire.

  22. We learn more about Elgin than we do about Louise or the narrator (of whom we learn nothing at all). We learn of his family and childhood, his career path, his sexual interests (masochism), and the history of his relationship with Louise.

  23. My experience of teaching the novel to undergraduates is telling. Many of my students were preoccupied with “finding out” the narrator's “real gender,” to the point of asking me if Winterson revealed what it “really was” in interviews.

  24. In her essay on the convergence of feminism and postmodernism in three of Winterson's novels (see 143, 149), Laura Doan addresses the issue of Winterson's female characters usurping masculine power in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion. In my reading, the universal voice of the narrator in Written on the Body has a similar function. Doan's readings of Winterson's various strategies for challenging the gender binary and the institution of heterosexuality (including parody, cross-dressing, and grafting) are similar to my readings of Barnes and Hauser in particular. I see my reading of the narrative voice in Written on the Body as a further stage in what Doan calls Winterson's creation of “a sexual politics of heterogeneity and a vision of hybridized gender constructions outside an either/or proposition” (154).

Leigh Gilmore (essay date 2001)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10585

SOURCE: Gilmore, Leigh. “Without Names: An Anatomy of Absence in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body.” In The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony, pp. 120–42. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Gilmore examines Winterson's treatment of gender and sexual self-representation in Written on the Body, as well as discussing the novel's problematic explorations of female identity, lesbianism, and sexual difference.]

A name makes reading too easy.

—Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher”

Written on the Body least resembles autobiography in the context I've developed here. Unlike [Dorothy] Allison, [Mikal] Gilmore, and [Jamaica] Kincaid, Winterson has neither asserted nor acceded to a primarily autobiographical context for understanding her writing. Following her first autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Winterson wrote the kind of postmodern fiction that does not readily lend itself to autobiographical reading. Why, then, read Written on the Body as a limit-case about self-representation? The chapters that precede this one form a context for understanding how Winterson engages autobiography's central issues without reproducing its formal conventions. Indeed, she resists them, not because they are unrelated to her project, but because they are central, and resistance offers a renewable and resilient mode of engagement. Autobiography's attention to names as markers of identity, its tension about the relation between historical verifiability and the limits of memory, its distrust of fantasy, dreams, and the imagination, its multiform history and patchwork present tense all offer Winterson grounds for an experiment in (self-)representation focused on sexuality, love, and loss.

Winterson offers this exchange in Art and Lies: “What do Lesbians do in bed? ‘Tell them,’ said Sophia, the Ninth Muse. Tell them? There's no such thing as autobiography, there's only art and lies.”1 As a response to the injunction to tell what lesbians do in bed, “[t]here's no such thing as autobiography, there's only art and lies,” is a curious reply. Winterson seems to suggest that autobiography lies immediately behind, or within, questions of sexuality and sexual know-how. What lesbians do in bed is a personal question, a subjective question despite its generalizing tone and capital L, an autobiographical question. Yet immediately after coming to the fore, autobiography is made to recede. The circuit from sexuality to autobiography is made with dazzling brevity on the way to “art and lies,” and in this moment autobiography is negated and absented in the place perhaps where one is most likely to look for it. Traces of autobiography are significant here. That they keep turning up indicates that autobiography is embedded in both sexuality and artifice and even provides a way to think of how they are related. Indications of autobiography appear in unexpected places or they fail to appear in expected places. “There's no such thing as autobiography” echoes the fervently whispered “there's no such thing as ghosts” as a denial in the presence of uneasy, even downright panicky, belief. There is something discreditable about both autobiography and ghosts—those figures of absence and haunting—and despite the presumed truthfulness of one (autobiography) and unlikeliness of the other (ghosts), one finds recurring assertions that they either do or do not really exist, as if the meaning of that existence were insistently and precisely in question. In facing the meaning of autobiography's existence, Paul de Man in “Autobiography as De-facement” came up with tropes of absence and death. Autobiography, as de Man notes, in its effort to represent life comes inevitably upon its own impossibility. There is a certain gothic quality to his reading that allows for a link to Terry Castle's Apparitional Lesbian in which Castle argues that the lesbian is typically represented as a ghostly presence, a specter whose haunting is evidence of both her derealization and persistent presence.2 In its frequent absenting from the scene of writing and persistent interruptions of it, autobiography, like sexuality, is knowable both in and as absence as well as vivid, self-declaring presence.

I offer this reading of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body as a limit-case focused on sexed and gendered self-representation. Her book is interesting in this context because it plays with certain expectations about how and whether a lesbian author writes a lesbian text, and what such a claim might mean. Yet Written on the Body is more interested in proliferating questions around that query than in producing answers to it. In so doing, it invokes certain interpretations, expectations, and conventions that attend autobiography even as it reworks those connections for productive kinds of dissonance. It allows the reading effects implied by autobiography to remain lively even as it presses beyond autobiography's formal boundaries. I describe Winterson's text as being in implicit dialogue with autobiography in order to highlight the way certain rhetorical conventions and cultural references or situations catalyze the expectations generated by autobiography, namely, that the writer has a truth to tell and is telling it about the writer's life.

What motivates this contextualization? That Winterson's first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was widely received as autobiographical has installed the expectation, confirmed by some reviewers and almost all my students, that subsequent texts by Winterson can be read within the context of an autobiographical project, even if Winterson wants to change the rules.3 Rather than pronounce this interest as false or limited, I want to let it provide a way into the trickier and more expansive discourses of self-representation and the issues raised there through its interrogation of identity as a function of representation, especially in its attention to the materiality of bodies, and the relation of language to the coming-into-being of sexuality and gender.

Let me introduce a comparison to further clarify the context in which I read Winterson's project. As a major influence, Monique Wittig's Lesbian Body has been a part of feminist discourse about the body from the beginning of contemporary interest in that topic.4Written on the Body intersects with a developed stage of this discourse and depends, in my view, on the thinking about the body that precedes it, including Wittig's Lesbian Body as its most salient precursor. Written on the Body is contemporaneous with a renewed interest in speech-act theory, specifically, the performative as it has been theorized by Judith Butler and others. This interest in the performative links legal studies of injurious speech to the U.S. military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, and to the contexts in which one must answer the question “who are you?” with a statement that begins “I am.”5 Additionally, both texts explore how and whether texts perform autobiography, how the lesbian author's sexuality motivates the reading of her text as autobiography, and how such impulses might be rethought.

Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body features an ungendered, unnamed narrator who falls in love with a married woman. Monique Wittig's Lesbian Body creates a lesbian world in which the lovers explore the possibilities of embodiment. Through an intertextual reading, it is possible to consider what Wittig's strategy of renaming and Winterson's strategy of not-naming reveal about gender, sexuality, and the modes of signifying them, in relation to self-representation. Both Wittig and Winterson deploy one of the most common tropes of autobiography: the intertwined figures of book and body. Wittig writes: “The body of the text subsumes all the words of the female body. … To recite one's own body, to recite the body of the other, is to recite the words of which the book is made up” (10). Winterson, too, offers this trope: “I like to keep the body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn't know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (89). Because the bodies in both are anatomized in less than familiar ways, the figure of the book and body suggest texts that one must labor to read well. Wittig names the bodies in question on the title page as “lesbian” and feminine pronouns appear in the text. The body is represented in the mode of becoming lesbian rather than in its possession of any particular parts that make it such. In Winterson, no gender references are permitted about the first-person narrator who nonetheless describes her or his sexual adventures with men and women in some detail. The body in both texts signifies gender and sexuality in shifting allusions to the transparency and opacity of what bodies can tell us about what we “see.”

In neither text is the relationship between body and sexual identity primarily referential or mimetic. There is no stable referent, neither anatomical nor metaphorical, that makes the bodies lesbian; no single practice or array of fetishes that proves the body's sexuality as lesbian. Rather, the relationship between identity (what can and cannot be rendered visible when “I am a lesbian” is or is not the primary signifier of sexual identification) and representation (how to tell a story with sexuality at its center without relying upon a familiar way of representing sexuality) becomes the ground for an extended inquiry into the claims to knowledge made by the presence and absence of the names around and through which the body is made to cohere. Evidence of identity, therefore, is located in representational practices of habeas corpus (bringing out the body) that resist a legalistic imperative of proof in favor of signification, that is, of proximate and shifting signifiers that can be read relationally within and among texts. I invoke legal language here to remind us that expectations about whether and how a text is autobiographical are often coded as expectations about whether an author is telling the truth, which is frequently elided with a judgment about how well the author can be said to conform to (or reproduce) hegemonic notions of appropriate identity. This expectation reveals that identity is a function of representation which is thoroughly imbricated in the juridical. Instead of judging whether the body is made intelligible within normative discourses of identity, I want to intervene in those judgments by turning the focus toward how these texts bring out the body. The question, then, is not whether the author is telling the truth, but how the body is used as a truth-text and what truth-claims about identity are made through the body.

Wittig explores ways to signify “lesbian” through what we could call reanatomization, a comprehensive invention and display of and by bodies under the rubric of “the lesbian body.” Her refusal of a patriarchal regime of names makes it possible for bodies to dissolve under that system of kinship, which depends upon patrilineage as a system of meaning and value, and to reemerge through a matrix named “lesbian.” That the name lesbian titles the project but is not reproduced on every page indicates that the power of this signifier lies in naming the whole text The Lesbian Body rather than any single or separable dimension of it. Bodies in this text are always coming apart. They are either described through a cataloguing of parts coming back together, or parts being disjoined limb from limb, and limb from socket. The violence of this disarticulation and rearticulation points up the materiality of language (especially in Wittig's catalogues of body parts), the way language bears upon the body, and makes it knowable (or unknowable). In contrast to Wittig's experiment with the body under the name lesbian, Winterson's ungendered, unnamed narrator declines such an utterance. If Wittig's lesbian body is rendered material by its name, Winterson's textual body coheres around the performative, “I grieve.” An intertextual reading of Winterson's and Wittig's representations of bodies makes it clearer how Winterson's signification of desire without sexual identification can be read as a refusal of the patriarchal regime of names and the identities it compels. The body's intelligibility is risked in both; in Wittig by claiming and in Winterson by declining a sexual name. Both, however, work the body for its capacity to figure sexuality in terms that do not reproduce heterosexist claims to knowledge. Wittig's emphasis on naming as the mode through which the lesbian emerges makes it possible to ask of Winterson's choice of not-naming: How, in the context created by reading the texts together, does absence signify?

In order to direct this question toward critical conversations beyond autobiography studies, we need only look to the work being done on the body and the performative, and to some earlier work on the theoretical meanings of presence and absence initiated, from different but not irreconcilable directions, via deconstruction and feminist theory. A fairly diverse group of theorists informs my formulation here of how absence signifies. Feminist critics, for example, have undertaken a critical project of recovering and remembering the erased cultural productions and lives of women. Although some poststructuralist work on absence, notably by Pierre Macherey, Hélène Cixous, and Jacques Derrida, is written at a conceptual distance from the retrieval and archival work of lost, buried, and disappeared writers and subcultures, taken together these projects amount to a massive reconceptualization of evidence. Evidence, following these interventions, may be adduced in and as what is missing, through loss, omission, trauma, or some condensation of these and other phenomena. Interpretive practices have followed these projects and extended them by reading inferentially and circumstantially for remnants, traces, and fetishes of what has to be recognized as a revised real.

In the context I am describing, the revised real emerges through a reconceptualization of evidence. Representations of the real depend upon and are a function of what can be claimed as evidence, in the case of self-representation, of identity, of who was there, and of how identity can be rendered intelligible. Critical work on bodies is significant here for its claims about how bodies are read as and for evidence of the real. A newly fashioned matrix for reading bodies has merged insights about the body's materiality with claims about how the body performs meaning. Both emphases—upon materiality and performance—underscore that representations of the body are caught up in competing systems of meaning. Although an emphasis on how bodies perform gender, race, and sexuality contends with the insistence that the body possesses these attributes, these positions appear furthest apart in their most abstract formulations. They are surprisingly similar when they situate the body in a realm of material consequences. Whether the body possesses or performs race, gender, and sexuality, the material consequences nonetheless strike with similar intensity. Both The Lesbian Body and Written on the Body exploit the possibilities of how bodies possess and perform “identity.” In both, the ways in which the representation of the body is its identity is of central concern.

Written on the Body extends the self-representational project Winterson initiated in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published in 1985 when she was twenty-six, which won the Whitbread Prize in England for fiction. Yet the stability of “fiction” as a sufficient description of Oranges is called into question immediately because the constructed line between first-person fiction and autobiography is barely meaningful as a marker of generic territoriality. In Oranges, Winterson trades across this border through her combination of historical events and places (in her and her protagonist's lives) with allegory and fantasy. This intermingling of the imagined and the verifiable articulates a threshold between fiction and autobiography, and an entry point for the text into a category that expands upon the generic limits of both. Protagonist and author are brought up in Lancashire, adopted daughters of an evangelical mother and barely visible father, and both are named Jeanette. In Oranges, young Jeanette is recruited into her mother's allegorical pact with the world. Here, she recites her origin story: “I had been brought in to join her in a tag match with the Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn't that she couldn't do it, more that she didn't want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next best thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me” (3). The mother expects the daughter to become an evangelist, and this proceeds more or less according to plan until Jeanette falls in love with Melanie. Once she does so, what she is capable of seeing in herself and the local community of women believers alters. Subsequently, the lesbians in whose midst she has grown up are recognized as such. Jeanette realizes that she shares their sexuality, though what she will make of this at the end of the book is still an open question. She does not reject the carnival-tent atmosphere of evangelism and the otherworldly orientation of her mother, but neither is she accepted by her mother, minister, and church as a lesbian. So in the way of the autobiography, the bildungsroman, the coming-out story, and the heroic quest narrative, she must leave her home to find it. In this case, she heads off to university. The author's notes on the book jacket preview, condense, and displace the same lesbian pilgrim's progress.

Winterson's books and Winterson's body have been conflated by some reviewers and readers in an attempt to gender and name her narrator “lesbian.” To do so, readers must detour through the autobiographical, a detour into the intelligible, whereby readers inscribe the identity of the author upon the dissonance in the category of identity in the text. Whereas Oranges blends allegory and fantasy as ways to reread the contours within an arguably historical and personal landscape, Winterson's own, intervening works Sexing the Cherry and The Passion depart from the verifiable details of her life and engage history on a grander scale.6 In these texts her penchant for allegory is untethered from the Bible and autobiography per se and channeled into meditations upon space, time, and narrative. Her new interests resume and extend what can still be called an autobiographical task in Written on the Body insofar as Winterson's first-person narrator returns to some earlier preoccupations with identity and representation first explored via the autobiographical.

Some reviewers have assumed that Written on the Body is a sequel to Oranges, both of which are claimed as romans à clef. This is less evidence of a critical consensus than a symptom of what kinds of questions get asked when a review is framed through autobiographical assumptions. In the New York Review of Books, Winterson's fictionalizing of the self-representational “I” has been reviewed as a literary device.7 The unnamed and ungendered narrator is taken as an interesting conceit in a love story focused so centrally upon the body and its materiality. After all, the reasoning goes, it's not like Winterson is really hiding anything with this “I,” everyone knows she's a lesbian. While the autobiographicality of Written on the Body has not been particularly contested or even really puzzled out in the so-called straight press, some lesbian reviewers have had another point to make. Sarah Schulman, for example, finds the device of the ambiguous narrator an odd and rather unsuccessful refusal by Winterson to take the name of lesbian. For her, Written on the Body is like “all fiction based somewhat on real life” and is marred by “lapses of discipline” such as “too many lines of recreated dialogue” which somewhat surprisingly in this review, make the “emotions richer, easier to recognize.” Schulman considers the text flawed, if endearing.8 Schulman solves the ambiguity of the narrator's gender by diagnosing her as “a confused, insecure lesbian who can't fully love the woman of her dreams.” The problem here is not so much that the narrator isn't identified as a lesbian, but that a lesbian author has an ambiguously gendered narrator. Both reviews concern sexuality, its visibility, and what one makes of it. Yet both breeze past the constitutive and not merely perfunctory impediment Winterson sets in their path. There is a prior question here about autobiography as the generic grid of truth. To claim that the name “lesbian” would solve the questions of name, gender, sexuality, and identity evades the problematic within the representation of identity Winterson engages. In terms of names, Written on the Body already claims to be a novel. It is not through the presence of the name “novel” that this text enters into the problematic but through the absence of the name “autobiography” precisely in the places one wishes to find it. Were it present, all competing or disruptive knowledge of identity could be compelled to cohere under this name. Identity (the author's, the narrator's, the text's) would become knowable through a grid of intelligibility already in place.

I take Written on the Body as both a continuation and an expansion of Winterson's interest in self-representation, if in significantly altered terms. The question with which Written on the Body begins, “Why is the measure of love loss,” expands upon one posed in Oranges, which concerns naming: “There are many forms of love and affection, some people can spend their whole lives together without knowing each other's names. Naming is a difficult process; it concerns essences, and it means power.” Here, her question was: “But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name” (170). In Oranges, Winterson sought an answer to “who can call you home?” in allegory and fantasy. That narrative moves between the coming-out story and its consequences for Jeanette, and parables in which she chats with advice-giving demons. While her interest in fantasy links Oranges to The Passion,Sexing the Cherry, and Art and Lies, a different connection links Oranges to Written on the Body. In Written on the Body the various tensions and problematics are not charted primarily through the alternative plenitude of fantasy, but in the linkage of love and loss. Fantasy's counterpart, anxiety, emerges in the responses induced by an unnamed and ungendered narrator. In Oranges, Winterson's questions about power, knowledge, and names; her recurring tropes of home, wild nights, love, and loss; and her exploitation of autobiographical echoes gesture explicitly toward self-representational discourse. In Written on the Body, however, she extends the self-representational strategies of Oranges into the perverse strategy of not-naming.

The strategy of not-naming raises some related questions about identity and the mechanisms of identification through which identity is ascertained and secured: In what ways does a name indicate presence? Must the absence of a name be linked to loss? Or, to put it more precisely in Written on the Body's terms: When and how can absence be read as something other than loss? When and how does absence signify what one does not possess rather than what one refuses to give? Winterson's text works these questions for a range of possible answers. But there are prior questions here about names and their function within the field of representation. How, within the discourses of self-representation, do names signify identity? What does it mean for a name to identify a subject—to gender it, sex it, make it real? What are the definitional limits of “sex,” “gender,” and “sexuality” as evidence of the “identity” of an autobiographical subject? Ultimately, these questions can be focused on Winterson's text in a very particular way: they suggest a project interested in the possibilities that attend the representation of identity when names are absent.

Written on the Body offers a hard case for testing the meaning of names. Immediately, the lack of disclosure or seeming invisibility of gender foregrounds sexuality as a question. Without the name of gender and the identity it indicates, how are we to know this “I”? When we attempt to infer sexual identity from the narrator's lovers, we are offered bisexuality as a nonidentifying answer to the question of gender: the beloved is a woman and the narrator has had some male and more female lovers. Gender and sexuality do not reduce to each other nor do they confirm an identity for the narrator. The refusal to disclose gender and the subsequent interpretation of sexuality as a question moves the reader briskly onto autobiography's familiar ground, where identity is implicated in questions of representation and ontology. What might seem so ontologically there as to defy the need of representation becomes, in this text, difficult to name. In this way, Winterson forces the autobiographical to divulge its weirdness and to open onto the wider, and wilder, field of self-representation through the questions above. Through her inquiry into naming, as it instantiates identity as a function of representation, Winterson moves to an unexpected location within self-representation.

The expected claims about names in autobiography emphasize their stabilizing function: a name identifies a person, a family, a history, and focuses attention on the solid corporeality to which it refers. Ultimately the name seems to mark a ground zero of representational veracity: “who is the autobiographer?” can be answered by a simple cross-check and verification of the author's name and the protagonist named in the text. If they are identical, you have autobiography. But as Winterson suggests in Oranges, the stakes are too high for naming to function as a simple referential anchor that holds the world to the text through the name of the autobiographer: “Naming is a difficult process; it concerns essences, and it means power.” Though this may sound like a young lover reaching for “deep meaning,” as a comment on naming in autobiography, it is suggestive. In autobiography, the name becomes a symbol of not only the past to which one may lay claim but the past and family that claims you. Such a symbol (and such families) may well be more threatening than comforting. After all, not everyone who writes autobiographically ends up embracing the name as a signifier of familial belonging. Some write in order to destroy the claims upon them made by families, communities, and past experiences. Following in this vein in her feminist intervention in the history of ideas, Denise Riley finds an apt figure in Desdemona whose life depends upon what may be done to her through a name.9 Desdemona's questioning and querulous signature, “Am I that name?” resonates here as a self-representational signifier that is different from the performative, “I am that name,” though comprehensible as part of the same signifying system. “Am I that name?” does not mean the obverse of “I am that name,” not, that is, “I am not that which men say I am,” but “am I?” a question that leads toward an interpretive context in which, presumably, those who know the answer can ensure the consequences that will follow. To find oneself named, pinned in place by that identification, and placed within a community, a family, and a home is precisely what many self-representational writers are trying not simply to represent but to escape. Thus, writers may engage the discourses of self-representation as much to lose a name as to find one. To lose a name is not merely to exchange one set of constraints for a less-familiar one. To remove oneself from a familiar audience and community in an effort to find a more companionable home is not an easy task. Rather, to route self-representation more emphatically and precisely through representation necessarily engages the subject in an altered discursive project, the terms of which are not fully predictable. The writer may well need to reconstruct the very possibilities and grounds for community through this effort.

The terms in which Winterson casts this venture are more concerned with the anxiety provoked by the absence of the name than with sustaining the conceit of an unnamed, ungendered narrator. In other words, if not-naming were merely the coy pose of a clever writer, its ability to generate anxiety might well dissolve within a few chapters. Anxiety remains in lively play, however, because what is missing is the signifying chain of identity that presumably corresponds to a material reality in which identity coheres through the progressive, motivated, and linked signification of sex, gender, and sexuality. Autobiography not only depends upon this signification, it seems to prove its reality. Winterson's strategic omission of the name strikes at the signifying seam between reality and autobiography. Winterson's installation of a speaking subject whose only name is “I” places the reader in a position to question which signifiers cause the subject to unravel and which to cohere, and in what contexts.

Through the absence of names, Winterson raises questions of identity that the presence of names does not really answer. Questions about the ascertainable identities of the narrator, the author, and the text are stabilized by names, but are not identical to them. The questions lie there, redundant, seeking transparency. An answer would throw light, but in doing so would obliterate the opacity through which this narrator emerges. Both the text itself and the topos of gendered and sexual identity here are “written on the body” in such a way that the body cannot simply offer a transparently visible or unambiguously legible proof of “identity,” but that does not remove the problem of identification, of establishing how “we” know “one” (a woman, a lesbian, an autobiography) when “we” see “one.” The body is usually thought to provide compelling, even irrefutable, proof of sex and gender, and ultimately of unique identity. The body coalesces under the name of sex. The erotic body is mapped through acts, zones, desires, all of which usually cite sex as identification. How then can a book on the body, a love story no less, avoid sexing the subject? While Oranges brings out the autobiographical body through naming it as female, as lesbian, as “Jeanette,” Written on the Body traces a different path through self-representation. Winterson almost seems to be asking how much she can leave out and conserve the autobiographical trace. The experiment here plays at the extreme edge because she chooses to omit both name and sex as she refuses to secure the body's identity beyond that of “lover.” It seems improbable to pursue self-representation without names. It not only defies generic conventions and the expectations they install, it risks coherence altogether. But perhaps the limit of coherence at which Winterson plays through figures of the name and the body locates the risk worth taking precisely due to the functions both name and body have played in regimes of truth and identity, regimes in which autobiography itself has served.

Written on the Body attempts to map the boundary of representation—its limit—in relation to what can and cannot be known and uttered about the lover's body, and between what can be represented through a lover's discourse and what, in the absence of the beloved, is lost and must achieve signification elsewhere. To do so, Written on the Body divides into three sections. In the first, the narrator recounts falling in love with Louise, who, when they meet, is married to Elgin, a cancer specialist. The narrator is a hero cast in the Byronic mold; there have been many lovers, mostly women, and many married women. There have also been many heartbreaks. The narrator fears that Louise, too, will become another figure in this romance narrative, but Louise defies expectation and instead of kissing the narrator good-bye, declares that she is leaving Elgin: “My love for you makes my other life a lie.” The lovers begin an idyllic stretch that ends abruptly in some awkward and rather implausible blackmail: Louise, it turns out, has leukemia. Elgin tells the narrator that Louise's symptoms have flared, that he and he alone can guarantee her the best medical care, and that his connections offer the best hope for Louise's health. But there is a catch: he will not offer them unless the narrator vanishes. Without consulting Louise, the narrator agrees and the book breaks into its second part, a sustained meditation upon the body. This section consists of four chapters devoted to the body. At their conclusion, the narrative of the first section seems to resume, though the ending invites a revision of this schema.

The excess generated by the absence around naming and gender finds explicit, even hyperbolic, representation in Louise and Elgin, the Married Couple. There is even a detailed account of how Elgin got his name, and he is rendered in stereotypical terms as Jewish. In a similarly schematic way, Louise's gendered representation is a proliferation of formalist attributes, even fetishes, of gender: her red hair, her pale skin, her lovely home, her effects, all amount to a hyperbolic emphasis on her femaleness, on the necessity of saying “she” in reference to Louise. Louise pervades, even invades, the scene as a system of gendered signs. Signifiers of gender proliferate around her; she is an extension of and extends into her home. All this metonymic displacement allows the narrator to find fetishes everywhere: “She dribbled viscous juices down her chin and before I could help her wiped them away. I eyed the napkin; could I steal it? Already my hand was creeping over the tablecloth like something out of Poe” (37). The excessivity of Louise's gendering in the context of the narrator's self-representation casts Louise's “reality” into doubt. She is a gendered object in a hyperreal sense: she is almost a phantasm. Some names attach to her readily, but all depend upon an interpretive context of sexuality that is structured through a significant absence. The problem of knowing Louise's name(s) is consistent with the problem of not knowing the narrator's; both concern the context in which gender and sexuality as evidence of each other is performed. Louise is not presented in a delimited way as a “married woman”; her desire is not thoroughly heterosexualized by this name, and therefore the narrator doesn't pop out from behind namelessness as a fella. Instead, Louise reacts unpredictably in relation to that name, and the reader is offered another possible name for the beloved. She's a real femme, that Louise. With the femme-ing of Louise comes the subtextual encoding of the Casanova-Narrator as a butch lesbian.

Perhaps Terry Castle's reading of the lesbian as apparition permits a two-step reading toward identifying the narrator: if Louise can be read as an apparitional lesbian, then the narrator steps from behind the curtain and reveals herself, too, as such. Louise's extreme womanliness is not precisely what Castle argues for as the lesbian's derealization, but it accomplishes the same spectralization of the character. Obviously, this is an inferential reading, a circumstantial reading, and it is consistent with the opening-up of this reading practice rather than in the narrowing of the evidence into a single proof of the narrator's identity. But such an inference does not, finally, resolve the question. Do lesbians fall in love only with lesbians? Can a reading practice that seeks to open up the categories “married” and “woman” afford to, or be expected to, close down around the category “lesbian”? In other words, things get tricky here precisely because it is the ascription of names to identity, the very code of the juridical, that Winterson is scrambling. Castle's argument works best, I think, for texts other than Written on the Body, for in this case it is the unknowability that is interesting. Thus I see less a veiled derealization than a sympathetically posed question about realization. While Castle provides an engaging way to identify lesbians in literature, I mean to emphasize here that Written on the Body's signification performs in a different way. The absence of a referential ground zero for the narrator keeps the signification in play, renders interpretation necessary. If the narrator is not readily comprehensible as a “woman,” she need not be incomprehensible as a lesbian, and this is the sort of linkage of gender to sexuality as the basis of identification and identity that Winterson wants to keep coming at throughout the text and not, particularly, to resolve. Her questions unfold in this way: Must a reading of sexuality be routed through a gender proof? How great is the distance (interpretive, representational, self-representational) between the names woman and lesbian? Both questions concern the interpretive space opened up between sexuality and gender, between identity and names. It is a space Winterson will not suture.

Since Winterson will not suture this space, what meanings are generated and circulate here? The space ambivalently evokes both loss and omission; namelessness may seem like the space that marks where a name was lost as much as the space of its refusal or obliteration. Such ambivalence between loss and refusal leads in two directions. In one direction, if one believes that a name has been lost, then its former presence registers as that which one formerly possessed or knew. The “lost” name becomes a pretext for nostalgia, which gestures toward a narrative with an origin (toward myth) and installs the repetition of loss as a central motif, whether this is figured as the “return” of or to what was lost, or the repetition of its loss. In a different direction, namelessness memorializes another struggle. Here the absence of a name does not signify loss, but a successful evasion of the fixity implicit in naming, and a redirection of the representation of identity. Nostalgia and this provisional freedom from fixity are welded together in Written on the Body, and both circulate through the representation of gender and sexuality.

In this context Winterson's narrator raises the question of narcissism by turning from the other or others to the self, toward the narrator's own pain rather than toward an external love object. The narrator's own body is now the only place where Louise's body can be known and, functionally, is. In this extreme incorporation that apprehends another as the self and that merges self and other to the point of absorption, Winterson seems to be flirting with something rather more controversial than character development. By coding the narrator as narcissistic, she gestures toward the discourses of sexology and their inscription of homosexuality as pathology, most notably, as narcissism. However, I find no simple identification grid here: if narcissism, then lesbianism. The connection is implicit in the discourses of sexuality, and interpretive practices of reading for the possibility of lesbian representation make much of inference. Even as the specter of narcissism is raised in this text, however, Winterson eludes the trap that Freud set because the subject to whom narcissism would attach engages self-representation differently. This isn't, then, simply a story of “women who love too much” or “lesbian without very good boundaries.” The text frustrates those conclusions, even as it suggests them, as Winterson constructs a discussion of the beloved's body by a lover without the name to which narcissism might attach.

Following the first section of Written on the Body, the narrator's body is removed from one narrative, a straightforward tale of complicated love, and another self-representational discourse in which to measure love and loss is called for. Winterson does all that can be done with the questions that I have suggested animate the first section of the book, and then raises the representational stakes. The narrative breaks when Louise becomes ill and the narrator presumes to choose Louise's future for her. At this point, Louise's body is on the verge of becoming the body in pain, and, as a body saturated in a materiality with consequences, a body that demands another discourse for representation. Winterson removes Louise in order to focus primarily on how the narrator experiences the pain of loss. The narrator has lost a body that in this text is primary. While it is not originary per se as either a maternal or infantile body, it is a primary love object nonetheless, and, insofar as it is absent, mourned, and central, is a fetish for the body logic that is generated by the context of a central loss.10

The text moves to an engagement with representing the self in relation to representing trauma. The pain of lost love—amplified by the narrator's decision to heed Elgin's blackmail without consulting Louise, the narrator's disappearance, and then Louise's—combines with the way the narrator can imagine Louise's illness. Lost love and leukemia become analogues with different textual references. Bereft of Louise's body, which the narrator imagines changing in relation to disease, the narrator enters a textual universe where all constructions of the body are simulacral. The narrator reads books on grief and mourning that advise sleeping with a pillow to blunt the pain of the beloved's absence. In addition, the narrator pores over medical literature about bodies and illness. In contrast to the self-help books' emphasis on the beloved's absent body, the medical texts construct a present, if simulacral, body through a rhetoric of parts and their functions.

Following the opening, unnamed narrative section, there are four lessons in the anatomy of absence entitled “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body,” “The Skin,” “The Skeleton,” and “The Special Senses.” Each section begins with a Gray's Anatomy-like description: “The clavicle or collar bone: The clavicle is a long bone which has a double curve. The shaft of the bone is roughened for the attachment of the muscles. The clavicle provides the only bony link between the upper extremity and the axial skeleton” (129). What follows are reminiscences in the presumed present tense of narration from which the narrator has recounted the story. Memory combines with grief to produce a discourse in which the partial presences conjured by memory combine within the sliding invention of imagination. Memory goes beyond reporting and becomes self-invention. The turn toward the other via memory is a turn toward the self as the producer of counterimages and also as the locus of grief. The absence of the beloved within this present tense is now embraced and becomes the occasion for both memory and self-representation: “It was a game, fitting bone on bone. … Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh. To remember you it's my own body I touch. Thus she was, here and here” (129–30).

Even with this renewed emphasis upon the materiality of the body, upon the names by which the body can be described beneath the surface, sex is still not announced. Written on the Body refuses to hint at sexual identification through sexual difference. Here is the narrator on the presumptive appeal of sexual difference: “I thought difference was rated to be the largest part of sexual attraction but there are so many things about us that are the same” (129). The invocation of sexual difference suggests the old chestnut that “opposites attract,” which is shorthand for the logic of heterosexism in which sexual difference is the fetish that, ironically and illogically, grounds heterosexuality. In the narrator's embrace of sameness, an unmarked body offers no “clues” to gender and sexuality. Although this is the sentence I have heard quoted as “proof” that the narrator is a lesbian, consider how it continues to deflect that gaze and to pursue a different discourse of sexuality than one that assigns names to sexual identities. No erotogenics follows from conventionally sex-marked sites, body parts, zones—no penis, labia, clitoris, breasts, but also no anus, no nipples. No “source” sites or parts from which substitutes are drawn—the site of pleasure and pain is, more comprehensively, the body. If there is a fetish, and why wouldn't there be, it would be the body as the displaced locus of embodied knowledge, the material with which eros develops, the real that aches. If I say, as Winterson's narrator might, “I ache for you,” do you want to know, precisely, what part hurts? Winterson's language helps to locate a different source of desire—the “I” rather than the specified, named person, who in desire has desire. It is not “Jeanette” or the genitals (“jeanette-als”?) so much as the self-representational “I,” the capacity for saying “I,” that constructs pleasure and pain.

Through its emphasis upon the “I,” the anatomy lessons continue to explore autobiography, if in different terms from the first section in which absences in the narrative could be filled, as some reviews of the text suggest, with information from Winterson's life. The lessons anatomize absence and indicate, however, that this is a self-representational project that capitalizes on the shared “I” of autobiography and first-person fiction in which the “I” forms an opening, an orifice through which the self-representational pours. It is impossible to say, though, which is hole (the self-representational? narrative?) and which is rim in this reading because the “I” of the narrator generates meaning in both locations.11 Perhaps most pertinent to Written on the Body is the way in which this “I” functions as a body part in a way that is consistent with the text's erotogenics and is no more or less a mark of the real than the other body parts represented here. It is not that Winterson claims there is no materiality to bodies and sex, the representations of other characters besides the narrator suggest as much. Rather, the text makes it possible to consider the materiality of language through the representation of the narrator. The materiality of names does not totalize the materiality of bodies and sex, and the materiality of bodies and sex is not totalizable under names.

In this context, we can ask if Winterson succeeds in taking up the project that Judith Butler adumbrates in the conclusion to her essay, “The Lesbian Phallus”: “For what is needed is not a new body part, as it were, but a displacement of the hegemonic symbolic of (heterosexist) sexual difference and the critical release of alternative imaginary schemas for constituting sites of erotogenic pleasure.”12 Butler rereads narcissism and the phallus to uncover two meanings: (1) that Freud links pain to love when he detours through hypochondria in his discussion of narcissism, and (2) that Freud's and Lacan's use of the phallus depends not upon the equivalence or nonequivalence of phallus to penis, but upon the logic of expropriability and substitution. That is, the phallus is not the signifier of the signified worth having, but the signifier of investiture. As such, according to Butler, other phalluses or other assignations of the phallus are certainly possible and would become productive of other imaginary morphologies. Through this reading, Butler makes clear that the lesbian phallus is not a new body part, but a signifier of alternative morphologies, of imaginary bodies with pleasures that are not predicated on their reproduction of what she calls the “hegemonic symbolic of (heterosexist) sexual difference.” To enlist Butler in reading the body logic I am describing in Written on the Body, the “I” does not underwrite the coherence of the body any more than any body part does, though taken together, all gesture toward a materiality that motivates signification. They do not so much refer to a total object of which they are all parts so much as the function that produces them, here, a representation of the body, and a materiality of sex rendered without the names of sexual difference-as-identity.

At this critical intersection, Wittig's work offers a significant counterpoint to Winterson's. Compare the interpenetrative possibilities in the named lesbian body in Wittig to the unnamed in Winterson. A representative moment in Wittig: “The women lead m/e to your scattered fragments, there is an arm, there is a foot, the neck and head are together, your eyelids are closed, your detached ears are somewhere, your eyeballs have rolled in the mud, I see them side by side, your fingers have been cut off and thrown to one side, I perceive your pelvis, your bust is elsewhere, several fragments of forearms the thighs and tibiae are missing. … I announce that you are here alive though cut to pieces, I search hastily for your fragments in the mud, m/y nails scrabble at the small stones and pebbles, I find your nose a part of your vulva your labia your clitoris, I find your ears one tibia then the other, I assemble you part by part, I reconstruct you …” (79–80).13 The beloved's violent bodily dispersal and her recuperation are repeated throughout the book. The lesbian body is capable of infinite disarticulation and reassembly under the name of lesbian. Wittig's pleasure in cataloguing the lesbian body, its organs, functions, and intimate anatomy, form the rhetoric of a series of prose poems or block-style fragments. Without the name of lesbian, this body does not cohere. It would merely be destroyed, its resurrection outside the logic of identity explored in this text. However, the grieving lover may always collect the beloved and restore her to health within the embrace of the lesbian body as a system of representation.

In this sense Butler's reading of Lacan can illuminate what Winterson and Wittig are doing with names. As Butler points out: “For Lacan, names, which emblematize and institute this paternal law, sustain the integrity of the body. What constitutes the integral body is not a natural boundary or organic telos, but the law of kinship that works through the name. In this sense, the paternal law produces versions of bodily integrity; the name, which installs gender and kinship, works as a politically invested and investing performative. To be named is thus to be inculcated into that law and to be formed, bodily, in accordance with that law.”14 This presumption of bodily coherence through sex and the name are refused and reworked by Wittig's, and Winterson's (if in a very different way), inscription of the lesbian body. Without the phallus, without genitals, or hierarchized erogenous zones, Wittig gives us a body ripped and ripping open that nonetheless persists under the name of “lesbian.” A name is generated here that is also part of the pieces from which all of the lesbian body may be reworked. Its pleasures are in its continuity. Winterson's narrator declines the performative because the narrator's identity cannot logically be identified by that utterance. To declare a name and a gender would give the narrator the status of all narrated objects, including Louise, and the project would implode. Winterson gives us bodies in pain: the text of Louise's leukemic body is set beside the narrator's grieving figure.

It is important to raise again, and in altered terms, why the refusal of names, especially in a climate of detection, is significant. When we remember how emphatically the name goes to kinship, and how the enforced linking of names to kinship structures makes legally binding familial ties out of arrangements such as marriage, and through this construction legalizes acts that would be crimes were they committed against non-kin, we might well conclude that the call for names is less about establishing referentiality than the kinship structures and juridical discourses that follow from them. Names for identity and body parts belong to an order of signification that is a social order. To resist these specific names, at the very least, is to resist that social ordering. In The Lesbian Body the resistance to the social ordering that includes patriarchal kinship focuses on linking changed names to a changed body, and, implicitly, to changes in the social body. The patrilineal names are refused along with the regimes of the body they impose. Wittig breaks down the body and catalogues it, reanatomizes it as lesbian, and undertakes an epic and violent reworking of the acts of love, their embodied knowledge, and their complex pleasures. In the absence of patronymic traditions, the body breaks down. In fact, bodily integrity itself is risked. This makes possible the emergence of an altogether different bodily coherence, one not organized around the phallus as the symbolic signifier of value.

I should clarify here that my interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis is subordinate to my interest in Butler's reading of it. I intend her reading to operate as a pivot, a way to turn from psychoanalysis, while acknowledging its relevance, toward an alternative reading. A Lacanian morphology misses the pressure points of Wittig's experiment, for although it could be suggested that Wittig seems to start and stay within the logic of a return to the mirror stage by representing a body in pieces, it seems more plausible that the lesbian body as le corps morcelé is on the verge of cohering differently. Through this representational location and tactic, Wittig undertakes a sustained project in signification. Her emphasis does not fall simply upon putting the body together differently; that is, she is not trying to come through the mirror stage to and as something/someone/someplace different. Rather, the project is sited there and stays there, inhabiting its function and techniques and working the contours of signification for the persistence and appearance of the disallowed—the lesbian body, a body the subject is prohibited from forming. The repetition is key here. Wittig can disassemble and reassemble the lesbian body from any part. Thus a psychoanalytic reading reaches a particular limit when confronted with The Lesbian Body. As an alternative to a Lacanian reading and as a supplement to Butler, I would suggest that the logic through which Wittig's lesbian body coheres is fractal.

Fractal geometry offers a way to describe irregular shapes (sometimes called “pathological” in Euclidean geometry) that are self-similar, that is, shaped identically at their micro and macro levels. Fractal geometry has been used, for example, to demonstrate that the shape of the English coastline at one-hundred-mile segments or at one-mile or one-foot segments is identical to its overall shape. The point in my reading of The Lesbian Body as a shape that is comprehensible through fractal geometry is to claim that no fetishized part of the body stands in for or represents the whole (as through synecdoche); rather, as I read Wittig, the lesbian body at every order is identical in morphology to every other order of magnitude. Each part is identical to any other part in shape and therefore the body can be recognized as lesbian from any fragment and can also regenerate the largest organization of the body from any fragment. From any body part, including the “I,” the whole project of writing autobiography without names could be generated.

In Written on the Body, the grieving lover has left the wounded beloved and cannot recollect her. Parts and functions of the body become occasions for meditations upon loss without the prospect of reconstruction. Whereas Wittig has refused patrilineal names and instituted a discourse of the endlessly explorable lesbian body, Winterson seems to go under its interdict and lose a name. Winterson's narrator cannot reach the beloved, but can only move further away, study books on grieving, and wait. The narrator is returned to one body: the narrator's own. This I's discourse on the body does not bridge the violence of separation, but leaves the I on one side of the abyss with only the body s/he can touch as evidence of the other's presence … and absence. There are similar tropes in both texts, but one difference remains the place of the name and the morphological equivalence between identity and name that both will claim. For Wittig, “lesbian” is the signifier of bodily coherence that incorporates violent dismemberment but permits the pleasure of putting the body back together. Without the signifier of lesbian in Written on the Body, the lover's identity persists through and as the absence of Louise, a monument to breaking up: “I am alone on a rock hewn out of my own body” (9).

Following the four lessons on the anatomy of absence, Written on the Body returns to the story. It is March and Elgin has promised to call with news about Louise's condition. But something has shifted, and it is not just what was left of the plot. Interruptions in the style of the lessons recur in the narrative as it drives toward an ending that is distinct from the storytelling style of the first section and informed by the self-reflexivity of the second section's excursion into the body. The ending reflects on the process of writing (perhaps the most narcissistic gesture of all because it entails the representation of the self to the self and an engagement with the gap that structures representation), and the identity that emerges from this shift in the third section is the author-identity which, Foucault argues, is always disappearing: the identity signified by the autobiographical performative “I am writing.”15

The third section breaks from the confines of storytelling to become more self-reflexive, almost an allegory of storytelling, and finds Winterson resuming her interest in fantasy. The differing form of each section offers differing strategies for writing on the body and as such form an experiment in alternative morphologies (of the lover's body, of the body of the writing, of sexuality). Whereas the first section is more conventional in narrative terms and the second section meditates upon anatomy and absence, the third section is disorienting in terms of time, and in its willingness to turn phantasmatic Louise loose as the uncanny. When the narrator finally decides to find Louise and set it all right, attempts to track her down turn up only traces and dead ends. The places where the narrator might find Louise are now, more than ever, the narrator's own body. Yet Louise, phantasmatic in the first section, and spectral in the second, is now, curiously enough, “back.”

Louise returns in the penultimate paragraph, paler and thinner, but alive. But the shimmering real into which Louise enters is loaded with signifiers of writing and textuality. Winterson concludes:

This is where the story starts, in this threadbare room. The walls are exploding. … I stretch out my hand and reach the corners of the world. … Beyond the door, where the river is, where the roads are, we shall be. We can take the world with us when we go and sling the sun under your arm. Hurry now, it's getting late. I don't know if this is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields.


In its conclusion, Written on the Body appears to be more prequel than sequel to The Lesbian Body. The lovers have reunited and their bodies grow to incorporate the world that can now contain them both. Here, to be “let loose in open fields” may signify the same expansive and fictive desire for limitlessness that namelessness has signified throughout the text. Winterson's refusal to anchor the narrator through the name “lesbian,” or her textual practice through the name “autobiography,” has allowed for a particular inquiry into the limits of intelligibility within the representation of identity. Nonetheless, the ending turns back upon the project itself as the narrator wonders: “I don't know if this is a happy ending.”

This hesitant moment may well suggest the next best question to pose within the terms of what I have been describing as Winterson's project. We should allow this moment its charm: Could a narrator who asks “why is the measure of love loss?” resist asking whether the story has a happy ending? Still, and with no damage to pleasures besides charm, I am concluding that Written on the Body allows for an exploration of figures of facticity. Winterson has assembled a code for reading around the nexus of identity. She plays with the semiotics of naming as an i.d. code, and investigates the slippage between names and things in a way that reworks the meanings among sex, gender, sexuality, and autobiography as problematical, uncertain, even enigmatic. To emphasize the connection to Wittig, we should remember that Wittig has argued that women are made knowable through the category of “sex” as a forcible interpretive act and that “sex” is a category she considers thoroughly political, without ontology, and constituted through a violent assault on the grounds of ontology.16 For her “[t]he category of sex does not exist a priori, before all society. And as a category of dominance it cannot be a product of natural dominance but of the social dominance of women by men, for there is but social dominance” (5). “Sex” as it prefigures “gender” and the autobiographical body for women is not primarily, then, a lived construction so much as a nonlived obstruction.17

Thus, to “be” a woman already indicates a kind of material violence. Winterson and Wittig reject autobiography as the narrative account of a woman's subjection. That Winterson chooses to tell a love story focused upon the intensity of embodied longing without a gender marker may mean less that the narrator doesn't feel like a lesbian than that she doesn't feel like a woman in precisely the way that Wittig does not, and, therefore, refuses that identification. For Wittig, the name “lesbian” trumps patriarchal kinship, makes it impossible for it to tell its story. Writing twenty years later, Winterson is more skeptical about whether a different name (and the substitute order it proclaims) escapes the juridical. In this she plays poststructuralist to Wittig's structuralist. For Winterson, a name is still a name and while namelessness may not smash the juridical, it sure throws a wrench in the works. Taken intertextually, Winterson's and Wittig's work frames a question for self-representation and lesbian representation: if the continued possibility of self-representation is currently being renegotiated through autobiography without names, is this a happy ending? “I don't know,” as a self-reflexive signature of dubious tone, indicates the need to read absences and the resistance to conventions of autobiographical, gendered, and sexual representation as revisions of the real.


  1. Jeanette Winterson, Art and Lies (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1994), 141.

  2. See her Polemical Introduction to The Apparitional Lesbian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) for a briefing on this thesis. The familiar term “thinly veiled autobiography” further suggests the ghostliness of autobiography. Some readers look for autobiography everywhere, as if it were everywhere, and when they find a certain kind of text they suggest that its art is subordinate (“thinly veiled”) to its real existence as autobiography. Writing, in this view, merely drapes the real recalling the metaphors of language as the clothing of thought or existence.

  3. Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987).

  4. Monique Wit