Sexing the Cherry

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Sexing the Cherry is Jeanette Winterson’s third novel, following Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) and The Passion (1988). A fantasy on the theme of discovery and renewal, it centers on a foundling, Jordan, who searchs with his mentor, John Tradescant, for new and exotic fruits and plants to bring back to the England of King Charles I. Jordan also embarks on more exotic voyages of the imagination.

Jordan’s name comes from the fact that his foster mother, the Dog-Woman, fished him out of the Thames, as the Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from the Nile. The Dog- Woman wants to name him for a river, and it would be unthinkable to name a baby “Thames,” or “Nile,” so he becomes Jordan. The Dog-Woman has forgotten whatever name she was given, and is content to be known by the term which identifies her as a trainer of fighting dogs. She is the character who gives Sexing the Cherry its firmest grounding in reality, while Jordan embarks on his real and imaginary travels, searching for the new and for himself During most of the action of Sexing the Cherry (the term refers to a botanical procedure involved in hybridization) these two characters alternate narratives.

The “real” of the early part of the novel is the disordered world of London during the Puritan Revolution, which began in 1641 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. The gigantic Dog-Woman is a Royalist, loyal to the King, and despises the Puritans, whom she sees as taking all the joy from life. She makes her living preparing dogs for the fights which provide London’s poor with amusement and the occasion for gambling.

She is a lusty, vigorous person, extremely strong, but her experience has been somewhat limited. Much of the comedy in Sexing the Cherry results from her ignorance of human anatomy and sex, and from her naive comments on the world around her. She is certain that Jordan has sailed off the edge of the world in his voyages to far places. She is capable of drastic action; after the Restoration in 1661, she joyfully witnesses the execution of the regicides who condemned King Charles I and does her own part by beheading her grim Puritan acquaintances, Preacher Scroggs and Neighbor Firebrace.

The Dog-Woman also provides a secure place to which Jordan may return in order to rest between voyages, as well as someone to whom he can talk about his discoveries. While he was still a boy, Jordan’s ability to build model boats had attracted the attention of John Tradescant, gardener to the King. At Tradescant’s invitation, Jordan and the Dog-Woman had moved into the Royal Gardens while the scientist trained Jordan in botany and other fields as preparation for accompanying Trades- cant on his voyages. When Jordan was little more than an infant, the Dog-Woman had taken him to witness the first appearance of a banana in England, an occasion on which the Londoners were shocked and amused by the sexual appearance of the fruit; later Jordan and Tradescant bring back another fruit with sexual overtones, the pineapple. Along with the banana, it becomes a central symbol in the novel. After the Restoration, with Tradescant dead, Jordan continues his voyages of discovery.

Jordan’s emotional life, however, is rooted in the voyages he makes in his imagination. He goes to far and unreco’gnizable places, meeting fantastic people and seeing unbelieveable things. His narratives are filled with speculations about the nature of time, space, love, and reality. In one of his flights, he disguises himself as a girl and is...

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shocked when a woman shows him what women think of men. In another, he lists speculations about objects and time and concludes with what are labeled lies about what people can know. He visits fantastic places, including one city whose inhabitants are subject to the plague of love; when they fall in love, they die of it. Jordan’s playing of a disused guitar threatens to bring on a new outbreak. To save the city, the rulers, an old monk and an old whore, have decreed that love is forbidden. Later, Jordan learns that the plague had returned and everyone in the city except the monk and the whore were killed.

One of his trips ends with Jordan spending the night with a beautiful woman named Zillah, who has been exiled to a tower. The experience leads him to search for a dancer, one of Zillah’s eleven sisters. His vision takes him to the castle of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, eleven of whom tell him the story of their marriages. The stories compose a sermon on the dangers of marriage for women. As the oldest tells Jordan, the sisters lived happily, magically flying from their castle at night to visit a place where everyone danced and returning in the morning before they could be discovered, until a clever young prince found out their secret. “He had eleven brothers and we were all given in marriage, one to each brother, and as its says lived happily ever after. We did, but not with our husbands.”

Each of the princesses has had a disappointing marriage. A few of them loved other women. Others loved husbands who did not return that love. One loved a husband who loved a boy; another husband married only to disguise his multiple affairs with other women. In the end each of the princesses disposed of her husband; some simply left, others killed their spouses. When they discovered that their common fate was to have marriages that failed, they decided to live together once more.

When the sisters’ stories have been told, Jordan realizes that there have been only eleven tales and only eleven princesses. The youngest, the others tell him, is Fortunata, who has never lived with them. She was the best dancer, the most agile, the lightest, the one who escaped her prince on her wedding day. “She didn’t burn in secret with a passion she could not express; she shone.” She must now, they fear, be old and stiff

Jordan finds Fortunata, who has not aged but who now teaches others to dance. Fortunata then becomes a narrator, telling Jordan the story of the sisters’ lives. Her story is much like theirs, although the version of her escape on her wedding day is much less romantic and magical than theirs. The center of the story is a city which, following an apparent earthquake, had lost its gravity; when a child fell into a pit, she floated, unharmed. When the citizens began to dance, they found that they were no longer bound to earth.

Eventually the city itself floated, drifting around the world and finding itself over the castle of the sisters, who allowed themselves to be drawn up to it to dance with the residents and with the city itself The sisters decided to live permanently in the city, but before they could do so, the clever prince discovered them and they were given in marriage. Only Fortunata escaped. The city she describes is a symbolic counterweight to Jordan’s city where love had been a plague and music a symptom of illness. Jordan stays with Fortunata for a time and then goes back to his ship, promising to return; both know he will not.

The final quarter of Sexing the Cherry takes place partly in 1990, partly in the 1660’s. Jordan’s modern avatar, like his seventeenth century counterpart, grows up loving to make and play with boats, much to the disgust of his friend Jack. Jordan’s earlier self is evidenced in the later time in his attraction to a painting of the pineapple being presented to King Charles II and in his fascination with a book of heroes, which includes such seagoing adventurers as Christopher Columbus, Francis Drake, and Lord Nelson, as well as William the Conqueror. John Tradescant appears occasionally to Jordan wearing the same clothing he wore three hundred years earlier, yet although Jordan knows his name, he never realizes who Tradescant has been.

In this life, Jordan’s parents are ordinary people. His father spends most of his time watching action movies on television. His mother saves mementos of Jordan’s childhood. When he grows up, Jordan joins the British Navy, in the aftermath of the Falkland Islands conflict. He has dreams of heroism similar to those his earlier self had known. At the same time, the Dog-Woman (who does not appear in the twentieth century episodes) is telling the story of Jordan’s triumphant return to London in the 1660’s, the illness he suffered when the plague struck England, and the Great Fire which destroyed much of London in 1666, in the aftermath of the plague. Jordan recounts to his mother the story Fortunata had told him of Artemis and her rape by Orion.

This interpolated story, a variation on the Greek myth of Artemis, the immortal virgin goddess, seems intended to explain Fortunata’s reluctance to marry. In Fortunata’s tale, Artemis is raped by Orion, an event which is not part of the original myth in which Artemis killed Orion accidentally. In this version, Artemis buries Orion (in the original she set him as a constellation in the sky), but cannot truly bury her resentment of men or the pain of her violation. Fortunata’s devotion to Artemis does not seem to prevent her from loving Jordan.

The other narrator in this final segment is a woman scientist, highly trained and disgusted by what human beings have done to the planet. She is not named, but she is clearly the modern version of Fortunata. She dreams of going to the World Bank and the Pentagon, kidnapping the financiers, the military men, and the world leaders, and teaching them the error of their ways. Her program is simple: “I force all the fat ones to go on a diet, and all the men line up for compulsory training in feminism and ecology. Then they start on the food surpluses, packing it with their own hands, distributing it in a great human chain of what used to be power and is now cooperation.”

In reality, she camps beside a badly polluted river, calling attention to the effects of industrial waste. She is regarded as a troublemaker, but as she says, who can truly believe she prefers to live where she does instead of in comfort and case? Jordan reads about her activity and is drawn to seek her out. They recognize that they have somehow been connected before. The woman’s suggestion that they burn down a factory echoes the Dog-Woman’s desire for a purifying fire which will burn down London; both wishes arc fulfilled by the Great Fire. Jordan and the Dog-Woman leave on a seventeenth century ship; they will not return to London. Fortunata appears at Jordan’s side and then is gone, presumably to return from time to time, as she does in the twentieth century.

The power of Sexing the Cherry is in its unadorned but enchanting prose and in Winterson’s success in melding the elements of fantasy and reality of which the novel is made. Dreams and speculations which seem to be tangential eventually come to be essential elements of the story. Some of the symbolic elements are never entirely clear, and some of the digressions do not seem integral to the story or to Jordan’s search, but the central theme of searching for the self in new experiences and finding it in others is never in doubt. The three principal characters, while they are dreamlike figures out of a fairy tale world, are nevertheless distinctive and interesting on a human level.

Bibliography

Brown, Rosellen. Review of Sexing the Cherry. Women’s Review of Books 12 (September, 1990): 9. A critical review of Sexing the Cherry from a feminist perspective. Thorough and accessible, it both praises Winterson and takes her to task.

Gerrard, Nicci. Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1989. An overview of the milieu of women’s writing that brings in the opinions of women writers, literary agents, and editors and puts Jeanette Winterson’s early work into a comprehensible context.

Gorra, Michael. Review of Sexing the Cherry. The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1990, p. 24. A somewhat defensive but nevertheless insightfully critical review that considers Sexing the Cherry a fashionable historical pastiche with a unique emotional intensity.

Hunt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism, Literary and Cultural Readings. London: Simon & Schuster, 1992. The essay on Jeanette Winterson discusses Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a “cross-over” text into the dominant culture that lost its radical lesbian content when it was made into a television movie.

Innes, Charlotte. Review of Sexing the Cherry. The Nation 251, no. 2 (July 9, 1990): 64-65. A substantive review of Sexing the Cherry, locating the work within the genre of lesbian fiction and clearly elucidating its complex reality.

Krist, Gary. Review of Sexing the Cherry. Hudson Review 43, no. 4 (Winter, 1991): 695-707. An in-depth review of Sexing the Cherry from a male perspective. While judging the work to be unfair to men, Krist finds much in it to admire.

Form and Content

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The title Sexing the Cherry refers to determining the gender of a grafted cherry tree. New to the seventeenth century, the art of grafting fruit trees is practiced by the protagonist, Jordan, during his apprenticeship to the Renaissance figure John Tradescant. Metaphorically minded, Jordan seeks to fuse himself with spirits of self-possessed women to form a hardier, more complete self. The form of the novel is itself a graft of perspectives, with its alternating narrations of a mother and her adopted son, which in turn contain the fabulous tales of others, especially women, who overcome obstacles by living fearlessly in new ways.

Indeed, Jordan, in his journey to find himself, becomes a collector of exotic experiments in living, as well as the man who brings the first pineapple to England. On one occasion, disguising himself as a woman in hopes of finding the elusive dancer Fortunata, Jordan lives among kept prostitutes who escape their fortress nightly on an underground river. On another occasion, he accompanies a word cleaner as she mops up, from her balloon, the clusters of spent phrases hovering above the town. He dreams of a town of cunning debtors who tear down and move their homes nightly to escape their creditors. He is struck by the power and melancholy of the myth of Artemis, who reminds him of his mother, and he causes a riot in a city attempting to recover from plagues of love. He is most enamored of the drifting city whose inhabitants have given up gravity. The unmoored town, beloved by the Twelve Dancing Princesses, glides by several times, embodying Jordan’s sense of shifting time and space.

The Dog-Woman, in contrast, never goes far from London and keeps a linear sense of time. Through her, the reader watches Jordan grow from the infant found among the bulrushes to the young man she knows must leave her. Through her, the reader witnesses the swelling uprising of Cromwell and the Puritans. She attends the trial of King Charles I and his subsequent beheading but lives to see Cromwell’s corpse unearthed and his followers dismembered, and she wreaks her own Old Testament vengeance on enough Puritans to obtain 119 eyeballs and 2,000 teeth. A revealing narrator but a protective mother, the Dog-Woman does not want to hold her son back with the knowledge of her own humiliating experience of romantic love or by letting him know how much she will miss him, and he is hurt by this.

After the climax of Jordan’s own story, after he has found Fortunata and she has sent him on with a kiss, the narration takes a leap of three hundred years and is taken up by clearly recognizable descendants of the original narrators. The young Nicolas Jordan has the same boat-building obsession that his namesake possesses, and he is inspired by a painting of the first pineapple being presented to Charles II. The young, unnamed antecedent to the Dog-Woman outgrows her prepubescent girth, however, and takes on the more svelte but no less avenging profile of Artemis, and Nicolas is as taken by a glimpse of her as Jordan was with Fortunata. In both centuries, the women fight alone against the pollution and greed of their times as the men who would be heroes look to them for love.

Context

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Given her huge proportions and seventeenth century lifetime, Jeanette Winterson’s Dog-Woman is clearly following in Gargantua’s footsteps. Unlike the sixteenth century French satirist Rabelais’ King in Gargantua and Pantagruel, she has the more modest appetite of a peasant woman, and she uses her girth to fight for social justice as she personalizes it. Hers is a caricature informed by a twentieth century sensibility that empowers the woman who is scorned because her figure fails to conform to the standards of attractiveness set by male society. Although she can wreak havoc on those who cross her, she cannot make them love her romantically, so she still suffers in the ways that women conventionally have in literature. After all, it is her son who does the adventuring after love, while she stays at home, the abandoned mother, longing for his return.

It is in the revision of the fairy tale in the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princesses that Winterson’s women defy their restricted choices and refuse to accept the marriages that have been arranged for them. She also has Fortunata give Artemis’ side of the story regarding the death of Orion; to hear her retell it, it was a tale not of love and accidental death but of rape and revenge. In choosing to alter the archetypes, Winterson, like Angela Carter in Strangers and Saints and The Company of Wolves, has targeted the very source of the fearsome instruction that is aimed at clipping female wings. It is a testament to these writers’ literary skill that the new versions of old stories read like recast emotional truths rather than rhetorical diatribes.

Winterson’s first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was an autobiographical lesbian coming-out story in the tradition of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, tinged with a macabre religiosity reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor. Having established her sexual preference in the first person, Winterson began using the device of switching back and forth between male and female narrators, first in The Passion and then in Sexing the Cherry, as if these were two sides of herself. Virginia Woolf used a similar technique in Orlando, where the hero/heroine changes gender as he/she lives across centuries. Both women use gender juxtaposition to point out the inequities that women suffer solely because of their sex and use the gender switch to consider women sexually, although Winterson is not shy about having women pursue women. Hers is an inclusive vision, more focused on the nature of love and self-fulfillment than on political realities, and although it is gender-blended, ultimately, like the titular cherry, it is female.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Brown, Rosellen. Review of Sexing the Cherry. Women’s Review of Books 12 (September, 1990): 9. A critical review of Sexing the Cherry from a feminist perspective. Thorough and accessible, it both praises Winterson and takes her to task.

Gerrard, Nicci. Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1989. An overview of the milieu of women’s writing that brings in the opinions of women writers, literary agents, and editors and puts Jeanette Winterson’s early work into a comprehensible context.

Gorra, Michael. Review of Sexing the Cherry. The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1990, p. 24. A somewhat defensive but nevertheless insightfully critical review that considers Sexing the Cherry a fashionable historical pastiche with a unique emotional intensity.

Hunt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism, Literary and Cultural Readings. London: Simon & Schuster, 1992. The essay on Jeanette Winterson discusses Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a “cross-over” text into the dominant culture that lost its radical lesbian content when it was made into a television movie.

Innes, Charlotte. Review of Sexing the Cherry. The Nation 251, no. 2 (July 9, 1990): 64-65. A substantive review of Sexing the Cherry, locating the work within the genre of lesbian fiction and clearly elucidating its complex reality.

Krist, Gary. Review of Sexing the Cherry. Hudson Review 43, no. 4 (Winter, 1991): 695-707. An in-depth review of Sexing the Cherry from a male perspective. While judging the work to be unfair to men, Krist finds much in it to admire.

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