Sexing the Cherry

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2197 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 550 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 439 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.