Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Wintersons 'The Passion'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

I Introduction

II Assignment
1. Historiographic Metafiction
1.1 The Relationship between History, Reality and Fiction
1.2 Historical Elements in The Passion
2. Female Literature
2.1 The Romance Novel
2.2 Gender Identities and the Body
2.3 Gender Identities in The Passion
3. Fairy Tale
3.1 Grotesque, Horror, Gothic – Fairy Tale Elements in The Passion
3.2 Passion as a Supernatural Element
3.3 The Meaning of Gambling

III Conclusion
Works cited
Primary Texts
Secondary Texts

I Introduction

Jeanette Winterson’s novels are a combination of history, fictional stories, fairy-tales and female romance. She has an experimental style which approaches many readers in particular women. The genre could be called post-modern fiction as it shows a lot of post-modern writing techniques such as intertextuality, parody, self-reflectivity and the rewriting of history.

In this work the different literary genres which Jeanette Winterson knows to combine should be presented by the example of the novelThe Passion1, written in 1987. Using literary devices, generic details should be analysed which make it possible to categorizeThe Passionaccording to the different genres.

The novel tells the story of Henri, a poor farm boy who works for Napoleon and his troops as a chicken cook instead as a soldier and Villanelle, a young Venetian lady, daughter of a boatsman, born with webbed feet. As they are switching gender roles2 Henri doesn’t have the heart to kill anybody during his service and Villanelle has the very unfeminine job in a casino where she uses to dress up as a boy. Both characters lose their hearts. While Henri falls in love with Villanelle, she loses her heart for the Queen of Spades. At the end of the novel both of them get nothing but keep to oneself.

Starting with the first chapter, it should be outlined whyThe Passionfits to the genre of historiographic metafiction. What is historiographic metafiction and what is the difference to historiographic literature are the questions which are to be treated here. The superior issue of what is reality, what is history and what is fiction is to be kept in mind. Besides of that the historical elements in the novel should be presented especially by looking at the Italian city Venice which serves as one of the settings.

In chapter 2 the novel is seen as female literature. It should be talked about what is feminine literature? What is it that constitutes feminine literature? Who writes it and what are the themes? How come that our western society has a special attitude regarding what is male and what is female? After that it should be explained whyThe Passionis also called a lesbian novel by presenting Villanelle as the main figure and as a very strong character representing the emancipated woman. Sexual identity, corporeality and the body are focused inThe Passionas can also be realised in almost all novels of Jeanette Winterson. The problem of gender identity will be exemplified looking at the main characters and their special male and female attributes.

Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Winterson’sThe PassionAnne-Kathrin Wilde As postmodernism makes almost everything possible regarding writing, Winterson also uses fairy tale elements in her novels (cf. chapter 3). Grotesque, horror and gothic are used to create a certain atmosphere and to draw a line between the natural and the supernatural. These elements should be looked at focusing on the meaning of passion as well as the presented way of its image. Also the sense of gambling, which plays an important role throughout the novel, will be analysed and connected to the meaning of passion. Finally follows a conclusion.

II Assignment

1. Historiographic Metafiction

1.1 The Relationship between History, Reality and Fiction

Historiographic metafiction objectifies the aspect of story telling. A (hi-)story is always told or written by someone and therefore never objective. It draws attention to its constructiveness and the relativity of our interpretative models and meaning systems. The emphasis, also put in Winterson’sThe Passion, lays on the fact that history is constructed and that even documents are no objective contemporary witnesses, instead they are given their meaning by historians or archaeologists. Reality is the history that we perceive and due to our own experiences and influence, education or emotions it can never be neutral. It arises the question what is history, what is reality, what is fiction and why isn’tThe Passiona traditional historical novel?

First of all it has to be said that historiographic metafiction wants to rewrite the past by using fiction and history. It is not entirely a post-modern phenomenon although it gains more and more attention since the 1980’s. The postmodernist in general confronts the “fictive/historical, the particular/general and the present/past and asks for the relation of history and story in order to write the truth” (Hutcheon 106).

Both, history and fiction share cultural or social contexts and formal techniques. They are cultural sign systems, which can only function in certain domains where those signs can be read. According to Umberto Eco there are three ways existing to narrate the past: the romance, the swashbuckling tale and the historical novel.3 In the 1980’s Linda Hutcheon introduces a fourth possibility, the “historiographic metafiction.” According Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Winterson’sThe PassionAnne-Kathrin Wilde to her the difference is that historiographic narrative techniques directly address the process of writing and the necessarily constructed images of our representation of reality.4 Besides, it envisions the narrator’s presence and his power of manipulation. This manipulation can often be recognized through commenting or addressing the reader directly.

The narrativization of past events is not hidden; the events no longer seem to speak for themselves, but are shown to be consciously composed into a narrative, whose constructed - not found - order is imposed upon them [...]. This does not in any way deny the existence of the past real, but it focuses attention on the act of imposing order on that past, of encoding strategies of meaning-making through representation. (Bölling 41/42)

Furthermore stylistic devices such as fragmentation, self-reflexivity or discontinuity as typical post-modern practises are used.5 Hutcheon turns away from the traditional genre of the historical novel where history is presented unreflectingly. In addition she differentiates between explicit and implicit metafiction. Explicit metafiction uses fiction through a fictive narrator while implicit metafiction only thematises the fictionality of literary texts in the background.6 Nünning, criticizes Hutcheon’s definition of historiographic metafiction as being generalized and too unspecific. It doesn’t include various forms dealing with history and historiography in post-modern literature.7 Ansgar Nünning’s typology of historiographic metafiction comprises five different types of historical writing (Kotte 46): documentary historical fiction, realist historical fiction, revisionist historical fiction, metahistorical fiction and historiographic metafiction.8 The major differences which should not be understood as completely separate classes are described as follows:

Correspondingly, it is possible to distinguish between narratives which predominantly aim at a ‘mimesis of product,’ which requires the reader to identify Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Winterson’sThe PassionAnne-Kathrin Wilde the products being imitated – characters, actions, settings – and to recognize their similarity to those in the ‘real’ past world, as opposed to those which aim at a ‘mimesis of process’ by focusing on the narrative processes of turning past events into history. (Kotte 47)

Nünning says, that historiographic metafiction explicitly comments and reflects on metahistoriographic problems.9 In parallel the novel’s plot may fade into the background in order to create a free space for the discussion of the possibilities and limitation of retelling the past. This is not the case in Winterson’sThe Passionalthough she also thematises the problem of telling (hi-)story. Winterson “[...]stresses the necessity for any individual to give his/her own version of past events and contributes to the making of the historical process” (Antosa 59) but she doesn’t aim to reconstruct the time of Napoleons campaigns in the 18th century. So the sentence “I’m telling you stories, trust me” (TP69) is omnipresent throughout the whole novel. The major difference to the traditional historical novel is that historiographic metafiction plays deliberately upon truth and lies of the historical record. It doesn’t necessarily have to try to tell the truth. More over this genre knows that it’s almost impossible to represent reality as it is and tries to benefit from that aspect. Historical fiction uses detail or historical data in a way that should make the reader believe. Those intertextual references refer to literary as well as to historical description. It’s aim is not to present historical facts only but to get one to know certain features of a period of time due to a fictive main character who tells the story from his special point of view. An image of how something could have been during that period of time is presented. Or as Hutcheon says:

The fiction that is discussed in Narcissistic Narrative is, in some dominant and constitutive way, self-referring or autorepresentational: it provides, within itself, a commentary on its own processes of production and reception.10

The Passionis therefore no traditional historical novel because of its fictive narrators, the aspect that it is thematised that a story is told, the intertextuality and fragmentation. Nevertheless Jeanette Winterson is very convincing in her manner of writing and makes the reader reflect about whether Napoleon really had a passion for chicken or not.

Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Winterson’sThe PassionAnne-Kathrin Wilde As typical for post-modern novels the book deals with identity and subjectivity, the question of perception and its representation also including ideological implications of writing about history and the intertextual nature of the past. Intertextuality is hence important because we know the past only through its textual remains, which clarifies past events. As the mixture between history and fiction makes the story much more interesting (the reader has to consider what is fiction and what is history and therefore takes an active part), the historical elements in the novel should be analysed.

1.2 Historical Elements in The Passion

InThe Passionhistory and fiction take on a parallel status. The author problematises the relationship between history, story and story telling which may lead into a “reducing of stories”. (Antosa 58) By giving a one-sided version of it, it is really difficult to get a truthful reporting of past events. Despite that, Winterson’s authoritative self-confidence persuades the reader to accept the historical details in case that he’s not willing to take an active part and agitates whether those facts are true or not.

The plot is set in Paris and Venice during the Napoleonic wars where Henri and Villanelle as fictive characters move. Both cities accomplish very important roles. Since the Renaissance the city of Venice has obtained a greater significance in literature (Shakespeare’sMerchant of Venice, Ann Radcliffe’sMysteries of Udolpho, Henry Jame’sWings of the Doveor Thomas Mann’sTod in Venedigetc.). Both cities are historically important. In all those novels the presentation of Venice is quiet one-sided. The writers don’t link Venice with Italy or Europe but with a mystical East and South so that a certain image of Venice as the “inner-European Orient” emerges. (Pfister 18) What fascinates those writers is the mixture of colours talking about Venetian costumes and masks, the magnificent buildings, the gambling but also to bargain, the alluring religiosity on the one hand and the many small crooks on the other hand. Those aspects represent Venice as a highly theatrical, performative place where even the visitor, the spectator or the tourist becomes part of the potpourri. Venice as the scene of femininity and ambiguity is opposed to Napoleon’s linearity and fixative mapmaking Paris. Besides the description of Venice as a city of chance and madness can be found in English literature from Renaissance through to Romantic poets. (Makinen 66)

Particularly Venice reflects the quest for identity due to its labyrinthine structure and its various ways to get to a certain place. As Villanelle puts it:

The city I come from is a changeable city. It is not always the same size. Streets appear and disappear overnight, new waterways force themselves over dry land. There are days when you cannot walk from one end to the other, so far is the journey, and there are days when a stroll will take you round your kingdom like a tin-pot Prince. (TP97)

A similarity between the narrative structure in the novel and the one of Venice is the labyrinthine composition. The story is told alternating in Henri’s or Villanelle’s voice. Villanelle contributes to the narration by making a first step towards a change in narrational functions. The growing importance of her can also be seen in her name as a “villanelle” refers to a French poetic stanza (consisting of five tercets and a quatrain) which is characterized by a repetition of lines 1 and 3 of the first tercet. (Antosa 64)11

Obviously the connection between Venice and Villanelle also lies in her bisexuality and androgyny, an ambivalence, which is unpredictable. She likes to engage in role-plays that makes even her own sexual identification an exciting game including risk and chance. She can only live this part of her life in the city of Venice where the waterways represent the possibility of living parallel lives.

Like the mutability of Villanelle’s body Venice stands for ambiguity. Venice is the city for thieves, exiles, orphans and so those inhabitants form the “Other” to whom she fits very well. Venice is a metaphor for a liminal space because it exists in a liminal area between land and see. It is “a city of bridges which connects and divides certain territories.” (Pfister 18) Villanelles androgyny could also be understood as a liminal area in which she moves because she is neither completely male nor female.

The Passion quite obviously takes up many of these fantasies of a sexually transgressive and metamorphic Venice. Here, too, erotic desire cannot be contained within the social code and symbolic order of binary gender divisions; it is as fluid, instable, labyrinthine and amphibious as the city itself. Neither is Henri, smallish, passive, shy, and introvert, a paradigm of potent and self-asserting masculinity, nor is Villanelle unambiguously a woman. (Pfister 24)


1 The novel The Passion will further be abbreviated as follows: TP

2 By talking about the sex, the biological sex is meant, while gender stands for the psychological sex.

3 Cf. Hutcheon 113, text quoted: Umberto Eco (1983)

4 Cf. Kotte 39, text quoted: Hutcheon (1988)

5 Although Winterson herself doesn’t describeThe Passionas a work of Postmodernism her way of writing includes many different characteristics of writing history which is a main concern in Postmodernism.

6 Cf. Bölling 30, text quoted: Hutcheon (1988)

7 Cf. Kotte 45, text quoted: Nünning (1995)

8 As it would go too far to describe Nünning’s five typologies, I will confine myself only to his definition of simply historiographic metafiction. Although he’s right by saying that Hutcheon’s definition is too unspecific, the main characterizations of historiographic metafiction are the same.

9 which is also Hutcheon’s statement

10 Cf. Bölling 28, text quoted: Hutcheon (1988)

11 Antosa (ed.) 2008:64 in: Crossing boundaries

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Wintersons 'The Passion'
University of Bayreuth
Female Identities in the History of British Fiction
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Different, Genres, Literary, Elements, Jeanette, Wintersons, Passion
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Anne-Kathrin Wilde (Author), 2009, Different Genres and Literary Elements in Jeanette Wintersons 'The Passion', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/131003


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