A Feminist Reading Of Jeanette Winterson

’s The Passion And A Brief Analysis Of The Relationship Betw Essay, Research Paper Trust her. She’s telling (hi)stories. And what was myself? Was this breeches and boots self any less real than my garters? (pp. 65-66) The theme of female identity dominates both modern feminist critical theory and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion.

’s The Passion And A Brief Analysis Of The Relationship Betw Essay, Research Paper

Trust her. She’s telling (hi)stories. And what was myself? Was this breeches and boots self any less real than my garters? (pp. 65-66) The theme of female identity dominates both modern feminist critical theory and Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. The question `What is woman?’ has all too often received a male answer in a patriarchal society. A woman is defined in relation to men – woman as mother, woman as lover. One of the key objectives of feminism is to question and challenge the existing images of women, drawing on authors such as Winterson whose works are part of an `alternative tradition of women’s writing’.1 This branch of feminism has been termed `woman as writer’ by Elaine Showalter: with woman as the producer of textual meaning, with the history, themes, genres and structures by women.2 A key element of this type of feminist criticism is to concentrate on texts in which women writers challenge the existing patriarchal conventions of literature. Showalter describes this form of writing as that in which `feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems which contain them’.3 Three areas in which feminist writers attempt to challenge the structures of patriarchy in literature are gender stereotypes, narration and the gender of the central characters. Traditionally we are conditioned to read texts written by males (or from a male viewpoint), about males and in which the characters conform to pre-conditioned roles and characteristics dictated by their gender. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion overturns these conventions. Villanelle is a character who does not conform to gender stereotypes. Even her name, which can be corrupted to make `Villain-elle’ and interpreted as `Villain-female’, suggests that she is a figure who will not conform to the patriarchal gender laws of society. One of the most striking features of the early part of Villanelle’s narrative is the absence of her father: `How like him, she thought, to be as absent in death as he was in life’(p.51). It seems appropriate that Villanelle is born into a male-free environment which is somewhat counteracted by her webbed feet, a characteristic unique to male Venetians. Possession of a male physical feature is another indication that Villanelle will not conform to female stereotypes. Despite the fact that Villanelle possesses the webbed feet of a boatman, she is not able to work as one: what I would have most liked to have done, worked the boats, was closed to me on account of my sex (p.53). She is not the only character denied her chosen vocation due to gender. Henri’s mother, Georgette, who wished to enter a convent is instead to be sold off at a cattle fair with the `lumbering bullocks and high-pitched sheep’ (p.10). Here women are reduced to the level of animals, mere units of exchange. Even religion is not available as an avenue of freedom for women. Animals are used as metaphors for women from the very start of the book. The opening description of Napoleon’s kitchen with `birds in every state of undress’ (p.3) evokes an image of Bonaparte’s chickens like concubines in a harem. The analogy is furthered by the direct comparison of Bonaparte’s wife with his favourite dish: `He liked no one except Josephine and he liked her the way he liked chicken’ (p.3) . When Henri is first shown to the caged birds he is shocked by the `convenient mutilation’ (p.6) they have suffered. Again it is significant that, like women, the beaks of the birds have been removed, symbolising the silencing of women, the removal of a female voice throughout history. It is significant that many of the representations in the text provide a contrast when juxtaposed with Villanelle. Winterson does not only illustrate the patriarchal framework of society, she also provides a female that transcends this system. One of the central contrast in the text is that between the French and the Venetians. Bonaparte and the French represent the dominant male who imposes himself on the female world of Venice with the Queen of Spades as its symbol. This is perhaps best exemplified by the garden built by the French in Venice. It is characterised by order and uniformity, an attempt to constrain the dynamic `mercurial city’ (p.49). In a wider context, a garden, which on the face of it is something positive and creative, is actually a mask. Behind the superficiality of the garden is an attempt to control: the French trying to control the Venetians, males trying to control females. The association of females and Venice, with its watery alleys and quality of indefinability, brings to mind the work of the French feminist Luce Irigaray whose writings emphasize the dynamic quality of the female: Woman is neither open nor closed. She is indefinite, in-finite, form is never complete in her. This incompleteness in her form, allows her continually to become something else, though this is not to say she is univocally nothing.4 This `indefinite’ identity of women is something Winterson explores in The Passion. Villanelle’s identity is an important motif. She has great control over her outward appearance; by dressing up as a young man she is refusing to conform to pre-conceived images of female beauty as defined by men. Villanelle cross-dresses to gain power. Her gender becomes outwardly fluid, she is not fixed or tied down by it. When Villanelle, without her false moustache, is confronted by her lover, she initially experiences an identity crisis. She questions herself: `And what was myself? Was this breeches and boots self any less real than my garters (pp.65-66). It is the next line of the text that is crucial: `What was it about me that interested her?’ (p.66). The role of definer, of identity-creator is taken by a female. Villanelle also dresses as a boy when working at the casino: It was part of the game, trying to decide which sex was hidden behind tight breeches and extravagant face-paste (p.54). In deciding what gender to adopt, it is Villanelle who makes the rules of the `game’, it is a female figure in control. The notion of Villanelle creating her identity, rather than having it imposed upon her, ties in closely with the feminist concept of the female as made rather than born. Any single definition of `woman’ becomes impossible and the concepts of a unified `female’ or `woman’ are arbitrary. Villanelle tends to support this model: she can not be defined as a woman since only male Venetians have webbed feet. This dual, or even multiple sexual identity, is something Villanelle demonstrates throughout the text. She is both `garters’ and `breeches and boots’ at once; neither is any `less real’ than the other. In Venice such an existence becomes possible, for this is the city where: `There are women of every kind and not all of them are women’ (p.58). Ostensibly this seems paradoxical, but it is the arbitrary nature of `woman’ as a signifier, a signifier for the unsignifiable, that is unsatisfactory. A passage in which the identity of women is seen from a male perspective is that in which Henri enters the house of Villanelle’s lover to retrieve Villanelle’s heart. The rooms through which Henri searches have a special sexualized quality. It seems important that the horned beast Henri first encounters is stuffed, an indication that the phallus has no power – it is effectively dead, just as the woman’s husband is away. The room which contains the tapestry of Villanelle is highly significant. It is an image of a woman constructed by another female, not a male vision of the opposite sex. It is also relevant that it is `some three-quarters done’ (p.119). It is not completed and this leaves the image fluid, not determined nor final. Like Irigaray’s description of woman, she has a quality of `incompleteness in her form’.5 The eighth room of the house is a particularly female environment and it is here that gender is conveyed by Henri’s reaction to his surroundings. The fact that Henri states that it is a `woman’s room’, brings to mind and image of the womb. Henri seems to return to a child-like state, he feels safe and protected: `Here, I felt no fear’ (p.120). It is his sense of smell, the first to develop in the unborn child, that most delights him. From this infant-like reaction to the room, Henri then returns to adult sexuality and the thought of this `sweet-smelling seductive woman’ (p.120). He makes the transition from the child-mother relationship to an adult-lover perspective. His viewpoint is male orientated and he defines women’s roles by their relationships with males. It is here that it should be recalled that Henri is the male puppet in the hands of Winterson, a female puppet master. Winterson uses both a male and female narrator, thus restoring the usual `male-perspective’ imbalance to a state of equilibrium. There is very little difference between the language and styles of the speakers. When the narration first changes from Henri to Villanelle, the reader cannot immediately detect the switch. This apparent use of an ungendered narrator is somewhat misleading as both voices are actually that of Winterson: a female. There is a sense that as Henri explores this female room he is out of place. He has entered something of a `wild-zone’ and there is an atmosphere of intrusion; Henri has violated a female space. Many representations of females throughout the text exist in opposition to Villanelle. By presenting more traditional, patriarchally governed images of women, Winterson makes the contrast with the story’s central female character seem all the more marked. One such representation is the mermaids described by Patrick. He claims that it is these mysterious females that take the lives of the soldiers, `it’s the mermaids lonely for a man that pull so many of us down’ (p.24). Here two stereotypes are established: firstly, the notion of the female as strange, a sexual mythical figure; secondly, the portrayal of women as dependent on males for sexual fulfilment. There is also a sense of the mysterious about Josephine. Henri cannot write about her, `She eluded me the way the tarts in Boulogne had eluded me’(p.36). The passage in which Henri encounters these `tarts’ provides an interesting example of male/female polarity. While the highly unpleasant cook is the embodiment of many aggressive male characteristics, there is a special quality of sensitivity amongst the whores. The cook is aggressive, he strikes the whore and insults her. He is in competition with the other men, not their friend. The whores, on the other hand, exhibit a sense of sisterly closeness, one kisses her `companion’(p.15) sensitively. It is ironic that one of the whores rather than the brutal cook commits the decisive act of violence. The whores, despite the indignities to which society subjects them, still command much respect from Henri. Another group of women are the victims of a society in which the rules are decided by men, are the vivandieres. The great irony is that these women have nothing to be lively about, they have no life. It is fitting that vivandieres, who are denied a life of their own, are female misfits: runaways, strays, younger daughters of too-large families, servant girls…. and fat old dames.(p.38) It is these females, who do not fit into convenient categories of the patriarchal framework, that are shared among the officers like food supplies. One of the key methods used by Winterson to undermine some of these features of the patriarchal systems is through a parody of the conventions of the fairy-tale. This technique has also been effectively employed by Angela Carter. Carter describes herself as being in the `demythologizing business’6 and by making subtle inversions to traditional fairy-stories she undermines patriarchal culture; a culture she views as characterized by falseness: the literary past, the myth of folklore and so on, are a vast repository of outmoded lies.7 Jeanette Winterson uses a similar method to expose these `outmoded lies’. Rebecca O’Rourke describes Winterson’s characters as inhabiting `the semi-real, semi-fantasy world’.8 Much of The Passion resembles a historical account infused with myth. Winterson challenges the traditional relationship of fantasy and reality with dates and battles intertwined with fantastical tales of a race of web-footed people in a city of mazes. A passage that does much to undermine the mythology that Carter describes as `the extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree’9, is that in which Villanelle pursues the beautiful woman whom she has seen at the casino. The first indication of a fairy-tale parallel is the firework display that commences at midnight, evoking images of pumpkins and handsome princes in the tale of Cinderella. Such tales are often parodied in feminist writing which challenges the `happily-ever-after’ conventions of these comfortable heterosexual tales. A cautionary reminder that this is not a fairy-tale in the traditional sense is offered by Villanelle’s reference to pick-pocketing and bribery. But as with the traditional Cinderella, there is a glass slipper, `faces and dresses and masks and kisses’(p.60) and even an elusive princess. However, she is not pursued by a handsome prince but a woman. The more usual model of a woman’s sexuality as a unit of exchange is subverted as it is the `two glass balls’(p.60), icons of male genitalia, that are offered to Villanelle by an infantryman. This word also has concealed within it the subconscious association of `infant’: the soldier is an `infant-man’. This might be interpreted as an attack on childish, male joking about genitals, a possibility that is supported by Villanelle’s somewhat sarcastic attitude towards the man: `I was in no mood for charming games and pushed past him’(p.60). As Villanelle searches for her `princess’, she describes the amazing array of sights in the casino. It is interesting that the `three-breasted woman’ is described as `fabulous’(p.60). This positive term, as opposed to a word such as bizarre or grotesque, makes this woman special rather than abnormal. As with Villanelle, this stray from the path of those with so-called `normal’ female attributes, that fairy-tale mythology conditions us to accept, is portrayed as positive rather than negative. This version of the Cinderella story differs from the original in terms of a distinction between the pursued and the pursuer. It might be argued that there is no difference between the roles of the women – both are actually searching for each other: `”There was a woman looking for you”‘(p.60). The notion of the male hunting a female is removed. The golden earring is not a trophy or a clue that puts the hunter on the animal’s trail. Instead it is a gift, a sharing of a pair of earrings between the two women. This passage does much to subvert the way culture conditions the reader into false preconceptions of gender roles. As Alicia Ostrika writes, commenting on women writer’s utilisation of myths: this feature of women’s writing as a process of revisionary myth-making… plunders sanctuaries of existing language where our meanings of `male’ and `female’ have been preserved.10 Possibly the most radical attack Winterson makes on the phallocentric paradigm is in her construction of Villanelle as a lesbian. Lesbianism offers feminists the greatest model of sexual freedom : the male is completely excluded. Pauline Palmer identifies the prejudice against homosexuality in the dominant world view, defining heterosexism as: the set of values and structures that assumes heterosexuality to be the only natural form of sexual and emotional expression `the perceptual screen provided by patriarchal cultural conditioning’.11 Winterson re-evaluates female desire, something distinct from male desire, a part of a `separate sexual economy’.12 An interesting perspective on lesbian sexuality is a comparison of The Passion with another lesbian text, The Color Purple. Sara Mills, in a critical analysis of Alice Walker’s book, highlights the strong female characters in the text and remarks that the author gives: `very negative portrayals of heterosexual love, and very positive portrayals of lesbian love, both sexual and non-sexual’.13 Villanelle is a very strong character. She dominates Henri, the text’s principal male character, both sexually and non-sexually. She is highly independent, contrasting markedly with the traditional literary image of women as weak and dependent on males. Villanelle, scares Henri, `I will always be afraid of her body because of the power it has.’(p.123). She conveys an image of great physical strength as she rows away from her husband. Henri is struck by the image of muscles and sweat. Villanelle also displays an aptitude in those fields more commonly associated with men: `Villanelle was skilful with the compass and map;’(p.101) As with The Color Purple, there is a great difference between the representation of heterosexual and homosexual sexual activity. The cook treats the whores with no respect. When Villanelle has sex with soldiers it is described as `fucking’(p.87) rather than making love. She does so not for pleasure but because she has to. The man from whom she steals a uniform is a typical example of the dominating, aggressive, heterosexual male who is too often considered acceptable: We went to his room and he was a man liked his women face down, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ. (p.70) These representations of heterosexual activity are most effective when they are juxtaposed with the lesbian relationship of Villanelle and her lover. Perhaps the most striking example is the passage in which Villanelle first visits her lover’s house. As with the fairy-story parody, this section again challenges dominant literary conventions (from Cinderella to Mills and Boon) of a perfect heterosexual love that always finds its way. Opposing this mythical notion of love being smooth-running, Winterson argues more realistically that: `Whatever you have set store by, your dress, your dinner, your poetry, will go wrong’(p.66). The seating arrangements at the table, side by side, challenge the traditional pattern of lovers sitting opposite one another, almost in opposition. Here the emphasis is on equality. The removal of man from this environment is highlighted by the statement given a separate line: `He was away’(p.67). He is removed from the situation, even his interests are intangible and mythical:, the `griffin’ and the `Holy Grail’(p.67). There is a sense of him not being as real as the women: Villanelle’s lover describes her husband only as a `man of whom she was fond’(p.67). The physical part of the lovers relationship provides a marked contrast with the other sexual encounters in the text. When Villanelle later sees the woman kissed by her husband she remarks that `They did not live in the fiery furnace she and I inhabited’(p.75). It is ironic that Villanelle’s lover says `I can’t make love to you’(p.67) when the scene is far more like love-making than the `fucking’ Villanelle is forced to undergo with the soldiers. Here we see the ultimate contrast between violent male sexual desire and sensitive female sexual desire. One of the key lines in the passage concerns the underlying theme of re-definition: `so the mouth becomes the focus of love and all things pass through it and are re-defined’(p.67). This notion of re-definition suggests a movement away from the phallocentric world to one where the mouth, in this case possibly a metaphor for the vagina, becomes the `focus’. Thus, the phallus is replaced at the centre of society. While in most texts, lesbians are portrayed as marginalised figures, and lesbianism is considered an inversion or abnormality, in The Passion it is celebrated and takes centre-stage. The commonly accepted model of women as restrained and sexually passive is subverted: `I thought of myself as a civilized woman and found I was a savage’(p.95). However, Winterson does make the reader aware that, in society, lesbianism is invariably considered `not the usual thing’(p.94). It is highly symbolic that Villanelle must reveal her breasts to the woman, thus displaying her female sexual identity, but her webbed feet, that represent the male side of her sexuality, remains concealed: `I never take off my boots away from home’(p.70). Villanelle even questions her own lesbian feelings: `Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’(p.69). Perhaps, however, Winterson is asking, Is a woman allowed to love a woman? Society makes the lovers criminals, denies them any more time together – they are forbidden any more of the appropriately phrased `snatched hours’(p.72). A crucial feature of The Passion is that lesbianism is viewed through the eyes of a woman, not from some male voyeuristic perspective. As with The Color Purple, men are seen as oppressors and women treated as property. Bonaparte can be identified as the master signifier of male oppression, a controller, greedy for power and without consideration for other people. Villanelle, on the other hand, has much in common with Sophia in The Color Purple, who is described as: `a woman full of life who lives her passion as she likes and not as the conventions suggests she should`.14 An extremely important concept in The Passion is the notion of Villanelle as a lesbian by choice. She is a character who is free and strong and rises above the patriarchal society that attempts to constrict her: `What you are on one day will not constrain you on the next. You may explore yourself freely’(p.150). Although feminist critics may consider The Passion as a highly successful subversive text, some may regard the events of the text as too far removed from the lives of modern females to have a great impression on contemporary readers. Though the text is characterised by the fantastic, the emotions conveyed are still applicable to a wider range of female experience. In 1771, when Napoleon Bonaparte was only two years old, the first Encyclopaedia Britannica could only manage six words under the entry of Woman: The female of Man. see Homo.15 A factor that contributes to the distancing of the text from the modern reader is its location in the early nineteenth century; it is ostensibly a historical text. Just as Winterson re-evaluates the representation of women in society, so The Passion comments self consciously on the issue of history in literature: What was she trying to see? Her future? Another year? Or was she trying to make sense of her past? To understand how the past had led to the present.(p.75) The relationship of past and present is one that dominates The Passion. Many of the self-reflexive passages reinforce concepts normally associated with New Historicism. One of the key features of the New Historicist discourse is the recognition that history operates at two conflicting levels. On the one hand, history is actual events that have taken place; on the other, it is these events retold as a story. The former is intangible, the past is transient and immediately lost. In reality, as in The Passion, history is always narrated and untenable. It is never available in a pure form, always a representation. As Winterson reminds the reader, we have to trust her narrators: `I’m telling you stories. Trust me’(p.160). The fact that Winterson employs two narrators demonstrates the ambivalence of history. There is no unified, single history but an infinite number of histories. History is viewed as a `narrative construction or stories’16. Villanelle’s opening description of Venice reinforces this idea, with the maze-like city as a metaphor for history. The notion of `finding’ and `missing’ your `way’ questions the existence of a correct way at all(p.49). This analogy seems to suggest that there is no predestined correct course, like the route-ways of Venice – history is fluid and dynamic. There are no pre-ordained boundaries or paths that must be taken. If the true events of history are that `same place’ we strive to attain, then our present attempt to recreate them `never go by the same route’(p.49). The traditional view of history, a history of the ruling classes (invariably a male history about males) sees the past as it would view Venice – as something we can locate on a map. A landscape in which, if you use the correct compass and ask the right people, you will find the right way. For Winterson, though, history is like Venice, a `mercurial city’, where `all things are possible’(p.49). Another New Historicist interpretation that is emphasised in The Passion is the notion of history as subjective. There is no absolute history, the past is (re)created by Winterson from texts already written and her own experience. As Domino tells Henri it is in the present that the past is actually formed: `The way you see it now is no more real than the way you’ll see it then’(p.28). The relationship of past to present is circular. A view expounded by Gadamar: `the past (is) as ever constructed in relation to a present which is also a development out of that past’17. The past is something that is lost as soon as it occurs; any view formed of this past is done so from a detached present perspective. Henri reflects on the transient nature of any single segment of time: It’s hard to remember that this day will never come again. That the time is now and the place is here and that there are no second chances at a single moment.(p19) Here again the emphasis is on all events existing in the present: `There is only now’(p.29). The present is the only absolute state and even the `here’ and `now’ are constantly on the process of becoming `there’ and `then’. A view of the past is as much about the present perspective from which it is viewed as the past itself. The work of Foucault has had much influence on critical theories which study the relationship between history and literature. Foucault’s work did much to emphasise the importance of ideology. He argued that the dominant world views of any era will shape any literature produced in it. In The Passion, Winterson seeks to undermine the dominant views of her time. Society determines who is mad, who is criminal, who is sexually abnormal. To subvert the dominant ideology, Winterson makes her central characters a pick-pocketing lesbian who steals a soldier’s uniform and an army deserter who commits murder and is sent to a madhouse. In making these figures heros, Winterson is attempting to reverse the reader’s preconceptions. New Historicism is also a critical discourse that moves away from Formalist notions of the text existing as a detached entity, completely discrete from its creator: There is the renewed emphasis on the author as an element in the relationship between the meaning of a text and that `person’, or `conception’, or `situation’ to which that meaning is related.18 Again the emphasis is on the fluidity of the text, meaning is not fixed. Just as the author moulds meaning, so the reader becomes `an actively mediating presence’.19 The text is without a stable meaning, it is not an entity in itself but a `thing’ or an `event’ that happens to the reader. The text is not an immovable object standing in isolation with its creators and consumers irrelevant. It is active. Every reading of The Passion is different and meaning is only produced as it is read. It does not pre-exist as an isolated unit of meaning. It is dynamic and both Winterson as its author and anyone who reads the text play a part in its meaning. The ramifications of this argument are that any reader’s reaction to a text exists not only in terms of linguistic experience but also in relation to the reader’s personal experience. That is to say, when we read The Passion, we produce meaning not just from the words on the page but also from our own experiences. Many similarities can be drawn between the two notions of `meaning’ and `history’. Just as we produce meaning from the fusion of the text with our own experiences, so history is produced by the combination of historical texts and our practical experience of living in a society, a society that has been shaped by history. Both history and meaning are abstract notions. Just as history exists in no absolute state, so textual meaning is multivalent. These ideals have particular relevance to a text such as The Passion. A one-dimensional view of history, in which text is merely a reflection of the society which it describes is unsatisfactory. Winterson is writing in the post-modern era, though the events she describes take place in the early nineteenth century, it cannot be assumed that she recreates a past. The Passion is a twentieth century creation, influenced by Winterson’s twentieth century views and environment. Though Henri and Villanelle may have needed Napoleonic Europe to bring them into existence, they still belong to the late twentieth century: The future is foretold from the past and the future is only possible because of the past. Without past and future, the present is partial. All time is eternally present and so all time is ours(p.62).References 1. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader (Sevenoaks: Edward Arnold, 1992),p.92 2. Ibid., pp.92-93 3. Ibid., p.96 4. Sara Mills (et al.), Feminist Readings Feminists Reading (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989),p.173 5. Ibid., p.173 6. Ibid., p.133 7. Ibid., p.133 8. Susan Sellers, Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991),p.64 9. Mills, p.172 10. Ibid., p.172 11. Sellers, pp.91-92 12. Ibid., p.94 13. Mills, p.62 14. Ibid., p.67 15. Mary Ritchie, Male/Female Language (Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975) 16. Rice & Waugh, p.260 17. Ibid., p.260 18. Ibid., p.262 19. Ibid.,p.263Bibliography Cott, Nancy, The Bonds of Womanhood (New Haven, Conn.: Yale U.P.,1977) During, Simon, Foucault and Literature (London: Routledge, 1992) Marks, Elaine, New French Feminisms (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1981) McNay, Lois, Foucault and Feminisms (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992) Millet, Kate, Sexual Politics (London: Hart-Davis, 1971) Mills, Sara (et al.), Feminist Readings Feminists Reading (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989) Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, Modern Literary Theory: A Reader (Sevenoaks: Edward Arnold, 1992) Ritchie, Mary, Male/Female Language (Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975) Selden, Raman, Practising Theory and Reading Literature (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989) Sellers, Susan, Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) Wilson, Richard and Richard Dutton, New Historicism and Renaissance Drama, (Harlow: Longman, 1992) Winterson, Jeanette, The Passion, (London: Penguin, 1987)