Written on the Body

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Any resemblance Written on the Body might have to the usual love story is eclipsed by Jeanette Winterson’s deft juggling of the English language. In Winterson’s hands, love—that most tired and well-worn of literary subjects—is pummeled, dissected, and flipped upside-down until the word itself rings new and unfamiliar. Love, make no mistake, is equal to such rough treatment. For Winterson’s characters, love is more likely to be gut-wrenching than gentle, life-shattering than uncomplicated. When it is profound and reaffirming, her characters often brace themselves for disappointment. Still, one cannot honestly describe love without giving its cliched aspects their due, observes the narrator of Written on the Body: “Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to each other is still the thing we long to hear? ’I love you’ is always a quotation.”

The first-person narrator of Written on the Body (whose name and gender are left unstated) is no stranger to love and its frequent attendants of sex, fatigue, late-night flights, mental distraction, and moral confusion. In fact, the narrator has just about bid good-bye to the more exhausting characteristics of love when love slams freight-train-hard again. Is it time to cling fast to comfortable, if predictable, companionship? Although the narrator solves that dilemma in about the length of time it takes to return another’s gaze, other questions quickly present themselves. How can love be measured? What sacrifices for one’s lover are worthy? These are the metaphysical partners with which this sexy, savvy novel dances. Written on the Body is a meditation—with a plot—if what one does and fails to do in the name of love.

In its structure, Written on the Body most closely resembles monologue. It is an examination of the past, told as the narrator languishes alone in a rented room, at the end of a long, dry summer when the lack of rain has left the grapes withering on the vine. 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 single-minded romantics, male and female lovers alike, is what the narrator must traverse again to determine what went wrong.

The use of monologue is but one of several unusual narrative strategies used here. In the first short pages before the plot emerges and the book accommodates a more traditional structure, Winterson allows the narrator to address directly her or his great lost love, Louise. Yet the judicious use of “you” seems at times to be addressed to a larger audience, as if the narrator recognizes that others have lain where she or he has lain, that others have wielded soft phrases as “bullets and barter” too.

A chronology of love found and lost slowly begins to emerge from these memories of heavily armed forays into the deadly jungles of love. For the narrator, the story of Louise actually begins with Jacqueline, the woman with whom the narrator is sharing a too-calm life when Louise interrupts. The narrator recognizes the advantages of life with Jacqueline: “I had survived shipwreck and I liked my new island with hot and cold running water and regular visits from the milkman.” Still, Louise’s blood-red hair and Australian accent lure the narrator into setting sail again.

The tension between long-term faithfulness and feverish short affairs is very familiar to the narrator, given the number of married women who have been her or his lovers. “I’ve been through a lot of marriages,” she or he declares. “Not down the aisle but always up the stairs.” This time, though, the narrator recognizes the possibility of wholehearted commitment to Louise. In the past, the narrator might have begun the romance with Louise behind Jacqueline’s back; this time the narrator notifies Jacqueline of the new relationship. For her part, Louise chooses to leave cancer specialist Elgin Rosenthal, her husband of ten years, rather than conduct the affair with his tacit approval. Despite this mutual declaration of devotion, Louise still remains only too aware of the narrator’s Lothario past and instructs her sweetheart to refrain from saying “I love you” until the day when the narrator can prove that love.

Louise moves into the narrator’s apartment, and although they have very little money, they are “insultingly happy” for five months. Then, on Christmas Eve while Louise is off visiting her mother, Elgin unexpectedly drops by. Louise has cancer, he tells the narrator, and he wants her back as a wife and patient. The narrator is doubly devastated, first and foremost at the description of Louise’s asymptomatic leukemia but also at what Elgin is proposing. With Elgin, Louise could have access to the finest, most cutting-edge cancer treatments. As his wife, she could accompany him to the clinic in Switzerland where he conducts his research. Such early intervention might save her painful months of conventional chemotherapy. In return for this special treatment, however, the narrator must terminate the affair with Louise.

When the narrator confronts Louise with the news delivered by Elgin, Louise reacts by playing down her disease. She feels fine, she protests. She does not trust Elgin, as her husband or as her doctor. Yet the narrator sees only one way to save Louise’s life, only one way to act that is worthy of the love shared with her. The...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written on the Body is a meditation on the nature of sexual love and passion as experienced by the first-person narrator, whose name and gender are never revealed. The narrative’s primary focus is on the absent Louise, the most recent and apparently most passionately adored of a series of lovers, both men and women. Details of these earlier affairs are interspersed throughout the novel as points of comparison to the all-consuming passion expressed for Louise. Alternately anguished and exhilarated, cynical and romantic, the monologue immediately establishes the circumstances of lost love, although why and how this loss came about is not revealed until later. The narrator addresses his/her thoughts and ruminations at times to the absent Louise, at others to the reader.

Witty and cynical accounts of former loves punctuate this mournful, elegiac remembrance. Readers are told about Inge, the “anarcha-feminist” who is also a committed romantic and a lover of beauty. She suffers at the thought of the damage that she may do to beautiful objects or innocent lovers when, as part of her crusade against patriarchal, phallocentric monuments, she blows up buildings. Because of her qualms, she eventually limits her terrorist activities to men’s toilets, abetted by the narrator. There is Bathsheba, the married dentist who insists on keeping the affair clandestine and finally ends it in favor of her husband, causing her lover some temporary pangs of deprivation and longing. Other briefly mentioned lovers include Bruno, a mover who finds Jesus while trapped for hours under a fallen wardrobe, and Crazy Frank, the six-foot,...

(The entire section is 669 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Winterson published her first novel to immediate acclaim in the mid-1980’s. Although she is both a lesbian and a feminist, the themes that Winterson explores are not limited to specifically lesbian or feminist issues, nor do they display any overt political posturing. It is through form rather than content that Winterson might arguably be seen to contribute a new voice and perspective to literature by women. The richness and value of her work comes through her freely employing and mingling many different styles and literary forms in her exploration of a variety of large themes—notably sexuality, gender, time, and freedom. All of her novels experiment with narrative form, creating disorienting shifts in time and character, the latter often presented as sexually ambiguous.

Her fourth novel, Written on the Body is considered by some critics to be a sequel to her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), whose central character, Jeanette, bears a strong resemblance to Winterson herself and her own early life and experience as a lesbian. Winterson denies that either novel is autobiographical, although both, particularly the earlier novel, contain many possible correlations to her own experience. As if in direct response to this speculation, however, Written on the Body seems to both set up and then undermine it in the use of a possibly similar, but clearly fickle and unreliable, first-person narrator. Winterson seems to be teasing those who presume to associate the fictional character with the author.

Winterson’s work defies any pigeonholing of genre or theme. It is her diversity that is viewed by many critics as her most important contribution to literature by women. In Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing (1989), Nicci Gerrard sees Winterson as walking in the footsteps of Angela Carter, sharing with her a boldness and breadth of imagination which allows them to leave the “woman’s world” and “treat the whole world as their own.”


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.