Written on the Body Mini-thesis_Chelsea Dermody

I am not sure why this failed to dawn on me until this section of the reading, but I realized as I was reading today how truly feminist this novel is. Winterson seems to making an attempt to assert feminism throughout this novel.

One of the most prominent examples of this feminist approach is the characteristic of the novel we have been fighting with ourselves over from the beginning—Winterson’s decision to leave the narrator ungendered and unnamed. What better way to assert equality between the sexes than to write a novel whose main character, the story teller, has an unidentified gender! Way to blur the lines, Winterson!

Throughout the novel the narrator and Louise have this fluctuating balance of power. This hits on the post Carissa made on the power relationship in the first section. Louise certainly has power over the narrator, as Carissa points out. The narrator can think of no one but Louise and frequently transposes Louise in the relationships she has with other women. For example, on page 146, the narrator begins relaying a scene in which she seems to be describing Louise moving about the kitchen in the morning. She says, “The aromatic steam warmed our faces and clouded my glasses. She drew a heart on the lens. ‘So that you won’t see anybody but me,’ she said.” This description fits Louise, but it is placed right in the middle of a section where Louise is supposedly in Switzerland and the narrator has another woman, Gail, as company.

The narrator obsesses over Louise. She dreams of her in Switzerland; she relays erotic scenes (supposedly past, or maybe they are fantasies?) between her and Louise to the reader; she calls Louise’s ex-husband, Elgin, in an attempt to check up on Louise; she abandons her life and takes up residence in a dirty, old, one room cottage, quits using her college degree to translate and begins working at a bar. On page 174 the narrator says, “My equilibrium, such as it was, depended on her [Louise’s] happiness.” Louise lacks no control over the narrator.

However, the narrator is not without control over Louise either. Louise is immediately taken by the narrator, before the narrator even knows Louise has ever seen her. Louise cheats on her husband with the narrator—an act we assume she has never committed before. Louise may even engage in a homosexual relationship (if the narrator is a woman)—another act we assume Louise has never engaged in before. Louise leaves her husband. She gives up the life she knew. And isn’t it all for the narrator, or at least a result of her love for the narrator?

The phenomenon of shifting powers between the narrator and Louise, and specifically the continuous attainment and loss of power experienced by the ungendered narrator, is a great representation of feminism. Winterson seems to claim that gender does not determine power or authority. Both genders are equal. Therefore, regardless of whether the narrator is a woman or a man, she will hold power and lose power, while being unaffected by her sex. Isn’t this a powerful message?

I feel like the feminism in this novel should have occurred to me before the final section of book, but it was while reading a few strong comments in this final section that I realized the feminist message Winterson seems to be sending. Specifically, on page 172 after the narrator has visited the home of Louise’s mother and grandmother, the narrator makes a sarcastic comment on what she has just learned. She has discovered that Louise has left Elgin, even after the narrator abandoned Louise. In response to this the narrator tells us, “Instead Louise had left him. The ultimate act of selfishness; a woman who puts herself first.” This is where the feminism slapped me across the face. I read this comment incredibly sarcastically. The narrator seems to be poking fun at the idea that the ultimate act of selfishness comes when a woman puts herself fist. Winterson is careful to mention “woman” in this sentence. This comment references the traditional expectations of women—that they are to put others before themselves (as caretakers, etc.), and makes fun of these expectations.

The realization that Winterson may have been doing a little more with the ungendered narrator than appealing to our inner risqué-ness has made me appreciate this novel even more.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. kishaburton
    Oct 03, 2013 @ 13:18:03

    I particularly like what you mention about Winterson’s use of the word woman in the sentence on page 172. Throughout this novel Winterson is careful of her use of a gender and specifying gender, mainly in relation to the narrator, but I feel as though this can ring true towards other characters as well. Louise’s “ultimate act of selfishness” may in fact be one of the most selfless things that she has done. In comparing this to the narrator who stripped him/herself down to nothing, this almost mirrors what Louise is doing on this page. Is she not being selfless by saying that if the narrator can’t be happy, she won’t go be happy with Elgin? I feel like it would have been more selfish of Louise to have been happy. Therefore, Winterson’s use of “woman” brings a new meaning to what it means to be selfish or selfless.


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