Female self-representation in Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry

Seminar Paper, 2002

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A)

Free online reading


X.) “How hideous am I?” - Introductory remarks

1.) Overview on First-person narratives
1.1.) Narrative structures of first person narratives
1.2.) Self-representation or Narrating identity
1.3.) First person narrators and sympathy

2.) Concepts behind female self-representation in Sexing the Cherry
2.1.) Breaking Gender expectations
2.2.) Myths and archetypes
2.2.1.) Monsters within and monsters without – Archetypes in Sexing the Cherry

3.) The two female protagonists in Sexing the Cherry
3.1.) Beyond stereotypical women
3.1.1.) Dog-Woman
3.1.2.) Female Environmentalist
3.2.) Violence and physical force or How to get noticed
3.3.) Unusual lovers
3.3.1.) Dog-Woman
3.3.2.) Female Environmentalist

4.) Conclusion


X. “How hideous am I?” - Introductory remarks

“How hideous am I?” (STC: 24) – With this question, one of the female protagonists in Sexing the Cherry starts an account of her physical appearance. She does not question whether or not she is hideous, she introduces her hideousness as a granted fact.

This startling statement roused an interest in me to closely examine the way in which the female protagonists in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry construct and represent themselves in the narrative.

My reading filters the text through the prism of the female self and how it is constructed in the narrative. Thus, I activate one way to perceive and understand the novel in accordance with Mark Currie’s thesis that “(a) narrative does not speak for itself. It needs to be articulated by a reading, and a reading will always be a kind of rewriting, but the reading cannot interpret the text in complete freedom (…) the reading invents the narrative no more than it is invented by it.” (Currie 1998:133)

I start with a short theoretical overview of narrative structures of first person narratives and narrative structures of self-representation. Next, I contrast the identities of the two female protagonists - Dog-Woman and the unnamed female environmentalist - with existing gender-related or mythological concepts. This will clarify to what extent their self-representation corresponds or clashes with those concepts.

In a third part I pay detailed attention to certain domains that play an important part in presenting their identities: the degree to which their self-representation bursts the bonds of stereotyped womanhood, how they present means of resolving conflict and pursue their intentions, and the way in which by narrating their few sexual encounters gender relations are described.

I exclusively concentrate on the passages narrated from Dog-Woman’s and the female environmentalist’s point of view.

1. Overview on First-person narratives

1.1. Narrative structures of first person narratives

The times when literary theory assumed that a first person narrator is merely a cover for the author of the narrative have long made way for an understanding of the first person narrator as a fictional character, independent of the persona of its author (comp. Stanzel 1991:111).

As Sexing the Cherry can be understood as the one of three types of first person narratives that Stanzel calls “quasi-autobiographische Form” (ibid:112) I would like to offer a short overview of its dominant features. If this kind of narrative is reminiscent of an autobiographic account, it is its literary structure that makes the reader believe that what they read is lived experience put into words.

The participating first person narrator (or in the case of Sexing the Cherry: the multiple first person narrators that seize the story in turns) has been ascribed a certain set of values and opinions, particular modes of expression together with preferred vocabulary and a defined intellectual and experiential capacity (comp. ibid:83). In short, the author has invented a specific pair of spectacles through which the first person narrator perceives and then relates the fictional world around her[1]. It is this “pair of spectacles” and the being situated in this fictional world that make the first person narrator an unreliable narrator. It is clear that whatever it is she narrates is only valid as a subjective account of events and, thus, highly dependent on her restricted capacity (comp. ibid:122).

To save the first person narrator’s “honour” I would like to add that it might be exactly this unreliability that makes her so convincing as “someone inside the novel (who is) talking to someone outside the novel” (Stanzel 1991:109).

Stanzel identifies one aspect of the “quasi-autobiographische Form des Ich-Romans” that he understands as most crucial: “das Spannungsgefüge zwischen dem älteren, gereiften, einsichtigeren Ich als Erzähler und dem noch völlig in seiner existentiellen Situation befangenen Ich als Helden” (ibid:112).

The distance between narrating “I“ and experiencing “I” is often a distance of time and space but can also be an intellectual and experiential distance. The spectrum of this form of distance ranges from identification to complete alienation (comp. ibid:272).

1.2. Self-representation or Narrating identity

Self-representation can be understood as the act of relating one’s identity to others.

In order to further explore what possibilities the first person narrator has been given to relate her identity to the reader of the narrative I will move away from Stanzel’s “classic” Theorie des Erzählens and draw from Mark Currie’s more recent study Postmodern Narrative Theory. He is also concerned with unreliability and identifies one way “to stabilise one’s identity as a narrative in the process of narrating oneself as if one were another person” (Currie 1998:118). Though he is talking about “narrative” and not explicitly about “first person narrators” I understand those two terms as congruent in meaning in this context. This statement is in fact applicable to the case of female self-representation in Sexing the Cherry as Winterson uses exactly this strategy when she lets her female protagonists speak about themselves. From an internal point of view they often objectify themselves, draw comparisons to animals, monsters when they speak about themselves and, in the case of the environmentalist, refer to themselves in the third person.

I agree with Currie when he states that there is no such thing as an inborn identity, a core of oneself. But even if identity does not exist inside a person it certainly and perhaps exclusively can be found in narrative (comp. ibid:17). For him, “the only way to explain who we are is to tell our own story, to select key events which characterise us and organize them according to the formal principles of narrative.” (ibid:17)

Currie identifies two interlinked actions of relating (fictional) identities: discovering and inventing. “When I tell my own story,” he says, “I must deny that I am inventing myself in the process in order to believe that I am discovering myself.” (ibid:131) He understands that writing a first person narrative is a process of inventing a first person narrator complete with a story and identity but he sees it as important to find strategic means to make this invention seem like a discovery of “what was objectively there in the first place” (ibid:131) in order to be convincing.

Sexing the Cherry’s story line, if narrated from an external point of view, would have led the reader to perceive the protagonists differently. Certain aspects of Dog-Woman’s and the environmentalist’s identities can only fully be disclosed when presented from an internal point of view.

Below I will illuminate the narrative strategies in Sexing the Cherry that are aimed at communicating the female narrators’ identities to the reader.

1.3. First person narrators and sympathy

We are more likely to feel sympathetic toward first person narrators in novels written in what Stanzel calls “quasi-autobiographische Form des Ich-Romans”. This strong statement needs qualification. Currie identifies two basic propositions about sympathy: “(1) We are more likely to feel sympathetic with people when we have a lot of information about their inner lives, motivations, fears, etc. (2) We sympathise with people when we see other people who do not share our access to their inner lives judging them harshly or incorrectly.” (ibid:19).

If those propositions are true then my first statement must also be correct as we get at least all the “personal” information mentioned in (1) above by virtue of the literary structure of the “quasi-autobiographische Form des Ich-Romans”.[2] If the reader’s sympathy is stimulated even more by being confronted with fictitious characters, who do not know the first person narrative’s protagonist as well as the reader does, depends on the story.

What has sympathy with a first person narrator to do with their way of self-representation and identity? I would argue that sympathy, self-representation, and identity are interdependent: The narrative self-representation of the first person narrator/ protagonist determines her identity and determines the degree of sympathy the reader feels toward the protagonist. Thus, sympathy can be understood as a result of self-representation.

In Sexing the Cherry sympathy for the female protagonists is determining how we perceive their identities. Especially in the case of Dog-Woman, the perception of her identity can range from “over-sized, ruthless female serial killer” to “enviably strong and independent woman” depending on how sympathetic the reader feels toward her.

2. Concepts behind female self-representation in Sexing the Cherry

What can be discerned when we view Dog-Woman and the female environmentalist not as unique, independent characters of fiction but as existing in relation to gender expectations and myths of women?

2.1. Breaking gender expectations

According to Hester Eisenstein, the behaviour that was thought to be appropriate for the stereotypical woman[3] was “passive or weak”, “non-aggressive, and dependent” and, thus, resulted in her being understood as “essentially incapable of a strong, independent and autonomous existence.” (Eisenstein 1984:59).

Both Sexing the Cherry’s Dog-Woman and the environmentalist reduce this still widely valid formula of womanhood to absurdum. By challenging those concepts, Winterson plays with the fact that the general readership is familiar with the idea that there exists something like appropriate looks and behaviour for women.

Dog-Woman is presented as having features contrary to those of the stereotypical woman and simply as not meeting any of the gender expectations. The environmentalist’s good looks may not obscure the fact that she too is strong, independent and autonomous. A loathing for subordination had led her to be overweight for as long as she had been living with her parents:

I wasn’t fat because I was greedy; I hardly ate at all. I was fat because I wanted to be bigger than all the things that were bigger than me. All the things that had power over me.

It was a battle I intended to win.


As there is only a minor part of the novel dedicated to the female environmentalist’s story I will concentrate on Dog-Woman in this chapter.

Incomplete as it is, the following table should illustrate that Dog-Woman is in a large number of features the exact opposite of what we understand as appropriate for or would expect of the stereotypical woman.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Dog Woman is no less a fictitious character than what I called the stereotypical woman but the latter strikes us as much less peculiar than the former because of the gender concept behind those features that has been handed down in history.

Dog-Woman’s name is the first break with gender conventions. One might argue that by accepting being called “Dog-Woman”, firstly, she accepts a name others have given to her and, thus, allows others to impose power on her. Toril Moi defines the act of naming as “an act of power (that) reveals a desire to regulate and organize reality according to well-defined categories” (Moi 1985:160) Secondly, and as a result of the first, she appears to agree to being described as a “woman” also.

The power aspect in the act of naming can hardly be denied. But I would like to point out that in an English language environment women are usually referred to with regard to their marital status. Dog-Woman’s name, however, implies that she is considered as being self-sufficient as she is; she is neither somebody’s “better half” nor the “better half-to-be”. She does not need a husband or the prospect of one to justify her existence; she has two domains of her own that characterise her well enough: being female and breeding dogs.

To accept the “well-defined category” of “woman” as appropriate is in Dog-Woman’s case merely a sign that she understands herself as being female. It does not mean that she accepts any commitments which the gender category of “woman” accompanies. She is female but she is by no means feminine. Though Dog-Woman apparently knows about them, she is not prepared to come up to any gender expectations.

When Dog-Woman remembers a childhood event, it becomes clear that her mother has enlightened Dog-Woman at least about some of the “obligations” that come along with being gendered as a woman:

When I was a girl I heard my mother and my father copulating. I heard my father’s steady grunts and my mother’s silence. Later my mother told me that men take pleasure and women give it.


By seemingly ignoring what framework of adequate behavioural patterns the patriarchal society has allocated to women, Dog-Woman lives outside those gender boundaries.

Her second break with gender expectations is her hugeness. Throughout the narrative, Dog-Woman’s gigantic female body is related to the reader. All her features are ultimately female but extremely over-sized; she is attributed with a pair of breasts between which she tries to choke men on several occasions, her vagina is so large that no penis is able to fill it, and her clitoris resembles an orange. What is traditionally considered to exist only for pleasuring men either visually (breasts) or physically (vagina) or to be connected to childbearing and nursing offspring turns into a weapon and into a source for making men feel inadequately equipped.

I agree with Susan Bordo who views the body “as a metaphor for culture” (Bordo 1993:165) and Pierre Bourdieu who understands the body as a result of cultural practice (comp. Bourdieu 1999).

These assumptions can be taken to their logical consequence: The currently preferred slender female body is customised to meet current male desires. By being slim a woman does not consume too much space in both its literal and figurative meaning. The fact that men find her attractive will ensure procreation and, thus, a position in the community; as “a pretty jade” (STC:36) on someone’s arm or a mother.[4]

Dog-Woman’s body, however, seems to deny being culturally transformed.

2.2. Myths and archetypes

In her book Jungfrau und Monster. Frauenmythen im englischen Roman der Gegenwart, Susanne Schmid describes Winterson as one of those contemporary female authors who consciously and repeatedly confront their readership with myths to both expose them as myths (as opposed to facts) and to unveil their potential (comp. Schmid 1996:26).

Myths work on three levels: On an anthropological level, myths are culturally specific interpretations of certain basic events or archetypes. On a socio-political level, myths are valid for a group of people and communicate the group’s conception of itself. On a formal level, myths consist of a number of parts (in German: mytheme) that can be re-combined to form new versions of a myth that will, consequently, refer to one another. (comp. ibid:25).

Archetypes can be understood as “myths brought to life”. They are models construed to stand for the essence or the ideal of a group. The archetypical mother, for instance, would incorporate all the characteristics a community would ideally demand from any mother and be stripped of any characteristics that are of no relevance to a mother.

According to Schmid, the characters of both Dog-Woman and of the female environmentalist do not fit into any of the archetypical categories traditionally used for woman: the virgin, the lover, the mother, and the sister. With regard to Gilbert and Gubar, she opens a new category: the monster (comp. ibid:94).

I agree with Gilbert and Gubar’s definition: “(t)he monster woman is simply a woman who seeks the power of self-articulation” (Gilbert/Gubar 1984:79). To declare women who try to find a way to articulate themselves as abnormal and, thus, exclude them from the community means to discourage women from trying for fear of ending up as outcasts. It is a patriarchal strategy aimed at keeping the patriarchal world in the accustomed order.

For Schmid it is inevitable for women to become monsters if they want to break out of the patriarchal corset: “Wenn die New Woman nicht eine Neuauflage traditioneller Stereotypen sein will, muß sie zum Monster werden.” (Schmid 1996:164, her italics).

2.2.1 Monsters within and monsters without – Archetypes in Sexing the Cherry

In Sexing the Cherry, Winterson uses the archetype of a monster woman; a woman that does not care for other people’s explanations but tries to make sense of the world herself, a woman unafraid of asserting herself forcibly if necessary, a woman who chooses whom she wants to care about, a woman of her own.

The degree of Dog-Woman’s non-conformity finds its expression in her extraordinary body. She can “hold a dozen oranges in her mouth at once” (STC:26), sweats “enough liquid to fill a bucket” (ibid:21) and is strong enough to hold a man “from the ground at arm’s length” (ibid:28) by using only one hand. If judged from the outside, the environmentalist who is the contemporary continuation of 17th century Dog-Woman might be in line with the appearance of a stereotypical woman. “’You are pretty,’ said my father, ‘any man would want to marry you.’” (ibid:127). However, she thinks differently and describes herself either as being a monster hidden in a slim and attractive body: “I may not look like a monster any more but I couldn’t hide it for long. I’d break out, splitting my dress, (…).” (ibid:127) or as having a monstrous alter ego living inside of her: “(T)he other one, lurking inside. She fits, even though she is so big.” (ibid:127).

Their huge bodies, either being openly visible or hidden inside, are merely the symptoms of, not the cause for their monstrosity. That they are considered to be monsters, i.e. not in line with expectations and, therefore, considered abnormal, derives rather from their independence, their strong sense of justice and their willingness to take action to put through what they think is right. None of these features play a role in any of the traditional myths regarding women. On the contrary, especially the independence would counteract most of them.

I agree with Lidia Curti who makes the following optimistic remark on monsters in her book Female Stories, Female Bodies:

The monsters that have recently invaded female fiction may be instances of a new freedom, signs of the possibility of bringing them to life, after the times when monsters (..), just as witches and freaks, had to be suppressed and repressed.

(Curti 1998:117)

3. The two female protagonists in Sexing the Cherry

3.1. Beyond stereotypical women

3.1.1. Dog-Woman

The Dog Woman, a huge and monstrous creature with a powerful right hook and a wide vocabulary. She is perhaps the only woman in English fiction confident enough to use filth as a fashion accessory.


“I had a name but I have forgotten it. They call me Dog-Woman and it will do.” (STC:11) From the way in which she introduces herself, one could jump to the conclusion that Dog Woman simply does not attach any value to names. However, in the very same paragraph, her contemplations about her son’s name make clear that she not only attributes meaning to names but views them as potentially having influence on someone’s life: “I should have named him after a stagnant pond and then I could have kept him, but I named him after a river and in the flood-tide he slipped away.” (STC:11)

The people who chose the attribute that was to determine Dog-Woman’s name did not even have to get very close; that she was always having dogs around was clearly visible from far off. That Winterson attributed the character of Dog-Woman with a name that is narrated as given to her after she had grown up and claimed a domain that was to support herself seems to reflect her public identity more appropriately than any name given to her before she could start developing any identity of her own.

I know that people are afraid of me, either for the yapping of my dogs or because I stand taller than any of them.


It is with this frankness that Dog-Woman talks about herself throughout the novel. Her style of speech is matter-of-fact and the only figurative language she indulges in consists of comparisons of herself to either animals or mountains. When she tells her story, conveys her opinion or questions something, it is usually laconically said; as if with a shrug. An example is her catapulting an elephant up into the sky with her weight and then stating: “What it says of my weight I cannot tell, for an elephant looks big, but how am I to know what it weighs? A balloon looks big and weighs nothing.” (SCT:25).

Thus, she questions what appears to be obvious and shows that it is sometimes necessary to find one’s own logic to make sense of the world.

She approaches her looks with the same pragmatic manner she approaches everything else around her:

How hideous am I?

My nose is flat, my eyebrows are heavy. I have only a few teeth and those are a poor show, being black and broken. I had smallpox when I was a girl and the caves in my face are home enough for fleas. But I have fine blue eyes that see in the dark.


There is no glossing over and no trying to find excuses. The “but” before she mentions her “fine blue eyes” make clear that she is well aware that the popular prejudice does not run in favour of her looks but she is not concerned about it. Even the one positive feature she mentions – the fine blue eyes – is in fact only “fine” to her because she can see in the dark with them, a quality that is usually attributed to certain animals.

This way of representing her appearance makes the reader aware of her bodily features but we do not view (or rather read) her as a spectacle, a freak in a circus[5] ; an impression that an omniscient narrator describing Dog-Woman might have evoked.

Dog-Woman as a first person narrator uses anecdotes, factual descriptions and accounts of events to relate her hugeness. In a pun on corpses she conveys that the body is of no importance to her. When she is asked to help disposing of the murdered Puritans she agrees “because bodies mean nothing to me, dead or alive.” (STC:86).

The body might not mean anything to Dog-Woman but her body certainly is vital to her independent identity and to her strong physical presence in the novel.

I agree with Susana Gonzáles opinion that the foregrounding of Dog-Woman’s body is closely connected to Winterson’s enhancing of the self. (Gonzáles 1996:294)

The narrative invites the reader to accept that Dog-Woman’s gigantic appearance is crucial to the story itself as most events would not be feasible or believable were she of less impressive build. But the narrative does not invite the reader to pity her because of her looks: If presented differently, some pieces of information about Dog-Woman’s past life[6] could have been used as excuses for her appearance and, thus, have earned the readers’ pity.

There simply is nothing to pity Dog-Woman for: That she is gigantic helps her to get heard, to be taken seriously, be it only for fear. That she is not concerned about being dirty proves her confidence. That she lives on her own by the river shows her independence. Rather, the narrative invites the reader to sympathise with Dog-Woman; to be on her side and sometimes to even envy her for her seemingly boundless possibilities.

3.1.2. Female Environmentalist

I am a woman going mad. I am a woman hallucinating. I imagine I am huge, raw, a giant.


The cumbersome way of referring to her may have suggested already that the second female protagonist remains nameless throughout the novel.

Lidia Curti suggests that “the absence of a name is the mark of a blurred identity.” (Curti 1998:122)[7]. The environmentalist is in fact presented as consisting of two identities though I would argue that her inner and her public identity put together form a united identity which is more comprehensive than the two taken separately would constitute.

What the environmentalist says about mercury can also be understood as referring to her different identities: “It’s one life or countless lives depending on what you want.” (STC:126).

With reference to her public identity she describes herself “as a chemist with a good degree, and as an attractive woman whom men like to work with.” (STC:125). Her inner identity, the way in which she perceives of herself, resembles Dog-Woman: “I had an alter ego who was huge and powerful, a woman whose only morality was her own and whose loyalties were fierce and few.” (STC:125, her italics).

In contrast to her, however, the environmentalist is prone to withdraw from the outer world to another one. “I don’t know if other worlds exist in space or time. Perhaps this is the only one and the rest is rich imaginings. (…) We have to protect both possibilities. They seem to be interdependent.” (STC:128). While Dog-Woman can perceive of things and events in an unrestricted way as her thoughts were not directed by education, the environmentalist, by virtue of formal education, has to seek refuge in daydreams and hallucinations in order to escape natural and cultural laws.

She appears to be resigned to the fact that her perception of and acting in the world is not met with much sympathy. A re-occurring sign that suggests that she also has lost patience with the people around her is the fact that she does not even openly respond to what is said to her.

The environmentalist is clearly a postmodern character; weary of the world around her with its outdated but persistent structures, tirelessly pursuing a task that is bound never to be accomplished, and having more questions than answers.

3.2. Violence and physical force or How to get noticed

Dog-Woman’s violence is as much part of how her identity is presented as her body is. She is aware of what strength she has and knows how to use it.

The reader is presented with a number of actions carried out by Dog-Woman that would justify condemning her. She is a murderer and it becomes clear that she is aware of it when she says: “This was my first murder.” (STC:107) after narrating the killing of her father. There were more to come. On a day that can only be described as a killing spree, she murders 60 men and keeps their eyeballs and teeth. “I had 119 eyeballs, one missing on account of a man who had lost one already, and over 2,000 teeth.” (ibid:85).

But the reader does not condemn her as the acts that are being narrated are violent acts but the way in which they are narrated is less lurid than comical; even slapstick-like. The playfully exaggerated presentation of the scenes determines the way in which they are perceived.

The hypothesis that a reader will be more inclined to develop sympathetic feelings for the protagonist when she is presented in a “pseudo-autobiographical”[8] mode seems to be true.

The first person narrative provides first-hand insight into Dog-Woman’s motivations for every murder or violent act that she commits.

One part of her violent acts is a result of Dog-Woman not getting heard or of her being afraid of not getting heard. Dog-Woman always narrates a “prequel” which does not always justify but at least explains her reasons for attempting or carrying out each individual murder.

She does not accept any authority except the King and God. She hates the Puritans for misinterpreting the words of God, for overthrowing and beheading the king and for being outrageously hypocritical.

The other part of her violent acts results from her tendency to take what is being said at face value. This corresponds with her way of expressing herself: she uses the same direct manner that she obviously expects from others. What I described as a killing spree, for instance, was initiated by a Royalist preacher whose advice Dog-Woman follows dutifully in its literal meaning:

‘Then you must go in secret and quiet, and gouge out your enemies’ eyes when you see them, and deprive them of their teeth if they have them. This fulfils the Law of God.’


The environmentalist indulges in her violent fantasies as a desperate attempt to get noticed at least in a fantastic world.

The means both female protagonists choose to assert themselves reflect the way in which the body was treated in the respective eras in which the two protagonists act.

As shown above, Dog-Woman does not have any inhibitions to carry out physical punishment when she thinks others or herself are being mistreated.

While Dog-Woman thinks of murder as an appropriate way to stop people who do wrong from doing so, the environmentalist rather tries to discipline and reform those misusing and abusing their power. In a hallucination her alter ego has a sack with which she “stop(s) off all over the world filling it up” (ibid:121) with everyone who represents power. In this utopian episode her plan works out and “what used to be power is now co-operation” (ibid:123).

Thus, Winterson’s representation of punishment is in line with Foucault: Over the centuries the body gradually ceased to be the focus of punishment and disciplining replaced physical torture as an accepted way of punishing misdoings (comp. Foucault 1991).

3.3. Unusual Lovers

3.3.1. Dog-Woman

She might be indifferent to her looks but in a number of passages the reader learns that she is well aware that society only rewards those who conform to expectations when she says: “I am too huge for love. No one, male or female, has ever dared to approach me. They are afraid to scale mountains.” (STC:35).

Though Dog-Woman is autonomous she is not being presented as being past love. As she has been neglected by love her view on it is rather bleak. She describes love as “that cruelty which takes us to the gates of Paradise only to remind us they are closed for ever.” (ibid).

When she narrates an anecdote on what it was like when Dog-Woman had been in love, the reader learns that she knows that love comes with strings attached. The measures she takes in order to be deserving of love, however, are not quite the ones that promise be successful:

I hate to wash, but knowing it to be the symptom of love I was not surprised to find myself creeping toward the pump in the dead of night like a ghoul to a tomb. I had determined to cleanse all of my clothes, my underclothes and myself.


The reader is not overly surprised when her attempts to win the love of the one who Dog-Woman clandestinely dotes on fail.

As a sexual lover, Dog-Woman proves to be dangerous. An invitation to fellatio leads to castration and during the one sexual intercourse she has had, Dog-Woman – as a result of trying to satisfy a wish by literally following instructions – sucks her lover in with her vagina so that he has to be freed “with aid of a crowbar” (ibid:106).

Now and then it is mentioned that she does feel lonely but how Dog-Woman would incorporate a lover into her independent life remains unanswered.

3.3.2. Female environmentalist

What comes across as being her involuntary inner wishes – as they appear to her in a dream - sounds rather traditional: “When I’m dreaming I want a home and a lover and some children” (STC:127) but Winterson is quick at letting her add that “it won’t work. Who’d want to live with a monster?” (ibid).

Before the reader is presented with an account of the environmentalist’s one and only sexual encounter it becomes clear that she has given up hope that there are men who would appreciate a “monster” - a woman who is not content with meeting expectations but voices her own, a woman who sees through hypocrisy, a woman who claims for herself the traditionally male domain of fighting for a universal cause.

While Dog-Woman is a cannibal by accident, cannibalism is a concrete fantasy of the environmentalist:

Later I said, ‘I’d like to swallow you.’ (…) Whole, I meant, every single bit, straight down the throat like an oyster, your feet last, your feet waving in my mouth like flippers. (ibid)

This passage is even more significant as, for the one and only time in the novel, the environmentalist addresses a character by using direct speech. To other questions, directed to her by her one-time-lover she responds with her characteristic internal answers.

With a side blow on heterosexual relationships she says: “They (men) all want to be heroes and all we (women) want for them is to stay at home and help with the housework and the kids.” (ibid).

The environmentalist clearly wants more than that for herself. She has given up comfort and company to raise awareness for environmental pollution; and not because it is romantic or even remotely sexy but because it is important:

The trouble is that when most people are apathetic ordinary people like me have to go too far, (…) just to get the point across. Did they really think I’d rather be camping by a polluted river than sitting in my own flat with my things about me?


Thus, Winterson reverses the traditional concept that women rather sacrifice their goals and plans in order to turn themselves into a promising lover (read: one who rather supports her lover’s plans than having some of her own), whom men want to settle down with.

By stripping the environmentalist’s camping by the river Thames of any desirable connotations, Winterson does not present being on one’s own as the best way for achieving ultimate independence. She rather criticises that the existing patriarchal structures do not make it easy for women who choose their own course.

4. Conclusion

In Sexing the Cherry the female stands by itself as a positive, assertive and powerful entity.

(Gonzáles 1996:285)

The two female protagonists in Sexing the Cherry represent themselves as strong women who defy gender norms and expectations.

What Gonzáles says about Dog-Woman also applies to the environmentalist: “It is precisely, (.), in her rebellion against this social and cultural imposition of “femininity” that we recognize her as a woman.” (Gonzáles 1996:285).

Though they live outside gender boundaries, neither the 17th century woman nor her contemporary counterpart are being presented as living in a utopian environment. Winterson says about her novel: “Sexing the Cherry was a narrative I could construct around a loosely known set of facts.” (www.jeanettewinterson.com). This “realistic setting” helps to make this fictional world presented in the novel recognisable. And in this recognisable yet fictive world gender obligations do exist and women like Dog-Woman and the environmentalist have to live with the consequences that are the result of their breaking the rules.

Thus, the way in which the female protagonists present themselves from a first person narrator perspective can be understood as a criticism to the existing patriarchal structures.

The female protagonists live their lives on their own terms and have to accept the drawbacks that come with such attempts to challenge social structures. Whether the freedom they gain outweighs the loneliness that is the cost for it remains unanswered. The protagonists simply do not have a choice; their identities simply refuse to accommodate gendered expectations.


Primary Text:

- WINTERSON, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. London 2001.
Secondary Resources:
- BORDO, Susan. Unbearabl e Weight. Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1993.
- BOURDIEU, Pierre. Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt am Main 1999. (11th edition)
- CURRIE, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York 1998.
- CURTI, Lidia. Female Stories, Female Bodies. Narrative, Identity, and Representation. London 1998.
- EISENSTEIN, Hester. Contemporary Feminist Thought. London 1984.
- FOUCAULT, Michel. Überwachen und Strafen: die Geburt des Gefängnisses. Frankfurt am Main 1991 (9th edition)
- GILBERT, Sandra M. & GUBAR, Susan. The madwoman in the attic: the women writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. New Haven 1984.
- GONZÁLES, Susana. „Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry: Rewriting „Woman“ through fantasy.“ in: CORNUT-GENTILLE D’ARCY, Chantal & LANDA, José Ángel García (ed.). Gender, I-deology. essays on theory, fiction and film. Amsterdam 1996.
- MOI, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London 1985.
- SCHMID, Susanne. Jungfrau und Monster. Frauenmythen im englischen Roman der Gegenwart. Berlin 1996.
- STANZEL, Franz K. Theorie des Erzählens. Göttingen 1991. (5th edition).

Online Resources:

- http://www.jeanettewinterson.com


[1] I will refer to all persons or characters with unspecified gender (reader, protagonist, character, etc.) by using the female form.

[2] The participating first person narrator does not need to be the sensitive type prone to confessing her inner secrets in order to reveal a lot about herself in the due course of narrating the story.

[3] I use the term stereotypical woman not as referring to a “real” woman but as the sum of all the gender expectations and the concept behind the idea that people refer to when they say “woman”.

[4] One could argue that things have changed and sexual equality is just one step away. But with women passionately refusing to be considered feminists since that is not being considered sexy, women still seem to be kept in check by patriarchal structures.

[5] As we will learn later in the narrative, Dog-Woman did not hesitate to kill her father when he attempted to exhibit her as such.

[6] For instance the father who used to beat her, the mother that died early, even the smallpox she had as a child could have been presented as spells of bad luck that destroyed her face, made her gain weight to overcome the sorrow and the physical pain, made her stop caring about her looks as she was deprived of parental love, etc.

[7] Curti actually said this in reference to Dog-Woman as being the one without the name, but I disagree with her as Dog-Woman has a name and has acquired it in the most usual way: by accepting what has been given to her.

[8] Compare with Stanzel’s “quasi-autobiografische Form”.

24 of 24 pages


Female self-representation in Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry
Humboldt-University of Berlin
Seminar: (De)Constructing Gender
1,3 (A)
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Female, Jeanette, Winterson, Sexing, Cherry, Seminar, Gender
Quote paper
Katja Bartholmess (Author), 2002, Female self-representation in Jeanette Winterson's Sexing The Cherry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/107895


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