Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279
The Passion is a novel by Jeannette Winterson that places a magical realist perspective on the period of the Napoleonic Wars in France. Structured in alternating segments by two narrators, it follows Henri, a member of Napoleon Bonaparte's kitchen staff who later joins his army, and Villanelle, a Venetian woman who passes as a man to enjoy the privileges and protections of Venetian men.
The novel begins from Henri's perspective. A passionate advocate for Napoleonic politics, he moves from the kitchen to the army to try to fashion greater meaning for his life. In the army, he makes a couple of eccentric friends, Patrick (an excommunicated priest) and Domino (a spiritual guru). Once engaged in the war, Henri becomes disillusioned about Napoleon's idealistic politics. Later, he meets Villanelle, who has been forcibly enlisted in the army. They pretend to be married to escape combat, but Villanelle ultimately rebuffs Henri's evolving affection.
Villanelle's story is also one of rebuffed love. She starts her story as a pickpocket and falls for a woman named the Queen of Spades. They have a short affair, but she later witnesses the Queen with her husband and recognizes that they have an irreplaceable bond. Heartbroken, she moves on to marry a wealthy but malicious man who sells her as a prostitute to Napoleon's army as it reaches Russia. In Moscow, she meets Henri, where their stories converge.
While Henri grows insane by the end of the novel, Villanelle is unable to stop ruminating on her own impossible love. Winterson's novel thus posits that while human passion is irrational and uncontrollable, often leading to despair, it is also a force that makes life redeemable and meaningful.
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