(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Applying and mingling different influences and genres, most notably the romantic and the picaresque, Written on the Body presents a reflection, at once specific and universal, on romantic and sexual love. In purposefully refusing to reveal the narrator’s gender, intentionally playing with the reader’s preconceptions through the narrator’s reference to him/herself at various times as a Boy Scout, a Lothario, or the girl in “Rumpelstiltskin,” various effects are created. As some critics have observed, Jeanette Winterson implicitly presents the experience of romantic passion as universal, transcending gender.

Through this device, however, the novel also forces the reader to acknowledge the existence of sexual stereotypes based on gender. The male/female narrator has had lovers of both sexes, though predominantly with married women who presumably are, or were, essentially heterosexual. This presents a surprising variety of sexual possibilities. The whole tone and perception can change depending on whether the narrator is believed to be male or female. For example, the impulsiveness and self-indulgence admitted to by the narrator have different conventional interpretations depending on gender. Literary portrayals of similar male characters, such as the eponymous hero of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), tend to present this type of behavior with some indulgence, even envy—a kind of winking acquiescence to the naughty boy. The traditional feminine corollary is the femme fatale, but this type is conventionally portrayed as distinctly uncharming: a kind of black widow who heartlessly seduces and discards men and who herself usually meets a sticky end. Perceived as female, the narrator of Written on the Body does not fit this mold, not only because he/she is too witty and exuberant but...

(The entire section is 747 words.)