Written on the Body

by Jeanette Winterson

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Written on the Body

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The first-person narrator of WRITTEN ON THE BODY (whose name and gender are left unstated) is alone at the end of a hot dry summer when the novel begins. It has not always been so for the narrator; she or he recalls other summers, lush and fertile, filled with mutual desire. The path between then and now, a trail strewn with male and female lovers alike, is what the narrator must traverse again to determine how Louise, the great love of the narrator’s life, was lost.

When Louise and the narrator meet, the narrator is trying hard to enjoy a comfortable, if routine, life with Jacqueline, a zookeeper. But Jacqueline’s quiet virtues pale quickly next to the charm of Louise’s blood-red hair and Australian accent. For her part, Louise chooses to leave cancer specialist Elgin Rosenthal, her husband of ten years, to join the narrator. Despite this mutual declaration of devotion, Louise is very aware of the narrator’s Lothario past. She instructs her sweetheart to refrain from saying “I love you” until the day when the narrator can prove her or his love. That moment arrives when Elgin suddenly reappears and informs the narrator that Louise has leukemia. Although it is asymptomatic now, only early intervention can prevent the disease’s onset. Abandon her, he tells the narrator, and as his wife Louise can receive the finest medical care. Continue the relationship and Louise may die.

What one does and fails to do in the name of love is at the heart of this sexy, savvy book. By making use of unconventional narrative devices, particularly a series of poetic essays on the parts of the body, Winterson demonstrates that the familiar story of love lost can be made new again through sheer virtuoso writing and clever gender-bending.

Bibliography

Anna, Gabriele. Review of Written on the Body. The New York Review of Books 40, no. 5 (March 4, 1993): 22. A long and extremely thorough review which gives as much attention to previous works, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as it does to the subject text. Also contains references to and comparisons with other authors and/or literary works and interesting biographical details about Winterson.

Gerrard, Nicci. Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1989. A good survey of the social and political climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s and its effect on women writers and their work. Brings in the opinions of several writers, literary agents, and editors. Although only brief reference is made to Winterson, and then only to her earlier work, Gerrard’s work places Written on the Body in an insightful and comprehensible context.

Hunt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. London: Simon & Schuster, 1992. The essay on Winterson discusses Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a “crossover” text into the dominant culture, which is seen to have lost its radical lesbian content in its adaptation to a television film.

Petro, Pamela. Review of Written on the Body. The Atlantic 271, no. 2 (February, 1993): 112. A thorough and intelligent discussion of Written on the Body presented within the framework of Winterson’s previous novels. The review clearly identifies and comments on recurring themes and formal techniques in Winterson’s work.

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