Body Image and Identity in Jeanette Winterson's "Written on the Body"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

19 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)


Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Gender
2.1. The genderless I-narrator
2.2. It’s the clichés that cause all the trouble
2.2.1. The cliché woman
2.2.2. The cliché man

3. The Body
3.1. The female body
3.3.1. Louise Fox
3.3.2. Gail Right
3.2. The male body
3.3. The sick body
3.4. Writing on the body

4. Conclusion

5. Literature

1. Introduction

Jeanette Winterson’s novel “Written on the Body” (1990) draws a realistic picture of twentieth century England, but in contrast to the majority of post-modern works that display chaos and displacement often accompanied by apocalyptic future visions, “Written on the Body” sets love and trust against individualism and control. The simple plot of the story as well as the overload of metaphors and imagery have misled some critics into judging the novel as trivial and romantic, but a closer look clearly does not hold that interpretation. The use of imagery and fantastic elements is much too pointed to be read as mere poetic illustration of romantic feelings. In fact what seems trivial and naive at the surface appears highly thought through at a deeper look. “Written on the Body” is a notable comment on society’s perception of gender and identity. The ostentatious playing with cultural conventions and assumptions related to sexual relationships and the female body, constitutes a sociocritical statement, which is artistically wrapped up in a melodramatic love affair. It challenges the conventional binary gender system, although, at the same time, it seems itself trapped in this system. In this paper I want to explore the representation of body, gender, and identity. Chapter 2 deals with the issue of gender roles and gender constructions, Chapter 3 investigates body image and sexuality. And in Chapter 4 I draw a conclusion.

2. Gender

2.1. The genderless I-narrator

The most striking issue the text deals with is gender constructions. With a clever trick Winterson manages to show that gender is indeed a construction: she employs an I-narrator who never reveals her/his sex. There are many papers that try to figure out this ambiguity and – probably due to Winterson’s own biography – are convinced that “I” is a woman1. The fact is that there is no clue whatsoever to the narrator’s sex, and that is exactly the point. The gender-freed narrator offers a new approach towards identity. In a process of interaction with the text that is interwoven with gender clichés of both sexes the reader is forced to shift away from tying identity to biological sex:

“The reader is caught in a net of hints, false assumptions and red herrings concerning the gender of the narrator, counter-acting the hole set of assumptions about the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’. [...] Stereotypes are presupposed and then counteracted”.2

The bisexual I-narrator combines male-connoted scientific language with female-connoted poetic language and stream of consciousness; a male-connoted fighting scene is juxtaposed with a female-connoted crying scene and so on. One finally has to let go of the idea that the narrator’s sex is the basic clue to her/his personality. The narrator’s mind and thoughts come into focus and build the ground on which the reader perceives her/his personality. That leads to the discovery that identity is not dependent on bodily functions or hormones. Furthermore the sexual activeness and eventual passion of the genderless narrator proves to us that libido and sexual preferences are not dependent on the physical sex either. In that respect the I-narrator is the transformation of modern queer theory into a fictitious character. It mirrors Judith Butler’s assumptions about gender and identity, which are summed up by David Gauntlett as follows:

“Butler notes that feminism and sociology more generally had come to accept a model, which she calls the ‘heterosexual matrix’, in which ‘sex’ is seen as a binary biological given – you are born female or male – and then ‘gender’ is the cultural component which is socialised into the person on that basis :

You have a fixed sex gender (male or female)...

...upon which culture builds a stable gender (masculinity or femininity)...

...which determines your desire (towards the ‘opposite’ sex).

Butler’s overall argument is that we should not accept that these follow from each other – we should shatter the imagined connections. The above model would have to be replaced with something like this:

You have a body.

You may perform an identity.

You may have desires.”3

However, Jeanette Winterson is somewhat inconsequent in applying post-modern theories on image and identity to her plot and characters. I am going to illustrate that “Written on the Body” is still caught in both the conventions of the literary genre of love prose and the conventions of body image and gender.

2.1. It’s the clichés that cause the trouble

2.1.1. The cliché woman

The object of the narrator’s desire is a woman who fulfils all the conventional standards of beauty and femininity, which is quite reactionary, especially for an author who is very much concerned with gender issues and queer studies. The motivation might be the aim of reaching a wide audience and therefore compromising on the requirements of standard aesthetics. In a way this problem is made a theme of the book – both Louise Fox’ physical attractiveness and Gail Right’s physical unattractivesness are depicted in excessively exaggerated ways. But in the end the problem is not solved, the story ends quite conventionally: beautiful Louise, who is reduced to femininity and erotic quality, has found love and ugly Gail, who is reduced to obesity and asexual friendliness, is rejected. “Written on the Body” seems infected with clichés, though one has to take into account that this might not be accidental. The issue is articulated by the I-narrator who actually wants to break with all “the clichés that cause the trouble”, but has to admit that s/he can’t help longing for a movie cliché life her/himself:

“I was trapped in a cliché every bit as redundant as my parents’ roses round the door. I was looking for the perfect coupling; the never-sleep non-stop mighty orgasm. Ecstasy without end. I was deep in the slop- bucket of romance.” (21)

She wants the clichés (26), and she finds them (together with all the trouble) in the person of Louise Fox, now married Rosenthal. Louise fulfils every inch of cliché femininity. She is equipped with all the attributes of a cliché female lover: long red curly hair, soft white skin, deep green eyes, feminine dresses, and an intensive(ly) erotic flair (note her maiden name: Fox). She has studied art history4 and is now a housewife, married to a cancer researcher. In the descriptions given by the narrator she is always surrounded by vivid colors, heat, and vast amounts of light, which gives her “a dangerously electrical quality” (49). The narrator’s descriptions of Louise range from an angel of light to a spirit of nature to the sun to a burning vulcano to a piece of fine art. She seems from out of space (“She came out of the air and now she’s returned to it.” (189)) and out of time:

“Louise’s tastes had no place in the late twentieth century where sex is about revealing not concealing.” (67)

“Louise in her blue dress gathering fir cones in the skirt. Louise against the purple sky looking like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine.” (99)


1 Andrea Harris, for example claims that “there are many wry hints that ‘it’ is in fact a ‘she’.” (Harris 2000, 143)

2 Kauer 1998, 45

3 Gauntlett 2000, 137

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Body Image and Identity in Jeanette Winterson's "Written on the Body"
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
Hauptseminar Writing with a Difference
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
483 KB
Body, Image, Identity, Jeanette, Winterson, Written, Body, Hauptseminar, Writing, Difference
Quote paper
Britta Sonnenberg (Author), 2003, Body Image and Identity in Jeanette Winterson's "Written on the Body", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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