Writing, Identity, & Queer Studies

In & Out, Either/Or, and Everything In Between

Tag: Love

Ship and the Sea

“Where am I? There is nothing here I recognize. This isn’t the world I know, the little ship I’ve trimmed and rigged.” (101)

When Elgin tells the narrator about Louise’s cancer everything they know is shaken, “Where am I? There is nothing here I recognize” (101). A couple lines before, “‘Louise tells me everything,’ I said coldly. ‘As I do her.’” (100), the narrator has this absolute certainty about their relationship with Louise, and to an extent a certainty about the world around them.

In this passage the narrator returns to the metaphor of a ship on the open seas. This is not the first time this metaphor of a ship on the seas is used “the journeys they made were beyond common sense; who leaves the hearth for the open sea? especially without a compass, especially in winter, especially alone” (81), but it is the first time it is used in a negative manner. For the narrator their relationship is an exploration of something new; Louise is the ocean and the narrator a ship. This metaphor is commonly used during sex, the first time the narrator begs Louise to let them “sail in you over the spirited waves” (80).

For the narrator Elgin took the map they had so carefully and painstakingly drawn and ripped it apart, “this isn’t the world I know, the little ship I’ve trimmed and rigged” (101).

This passage is about the narrator’s loss of balance and certainty in everything.  This relates to the whole of novel  because for the first we saw the narrator passionate and in love with someone just as passionately in love with them, the first person we know of that chose them, possibly the first time the narrator truly was loved by their partner as more than a dirty little secret. And now the narrator is faced with losing this, and not just to another person but to death.

The inside of your body is innocent

“Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you? Why can’t I dam their blind tide that filthies your blood? Why are there no lock gates on the portal vein? The inside of your body is innocent, nothing has taught it fear. Your artery canals trust their cargo, they don’t check the shipment in the blood.” (115)

The narrator is asking themselves multiple rhetoric questions about the human body, and how the sickness that is affecting Louise’s body manages to take hold. The questions are filled with naïve and hopeful imagery, of “gates” that could be closed to keep cancer out of the body. The narrator is using the questions to cope with the facts they have just learned about the sickness that will cause their lover to die.

The passage is lined with a theme of ships and the sea. The narrator uses words like “tide”, “canals”, “cargo” and “shipment” to describe the ways in which the sickness is transported through the body. They also describe the trust the body has in the “shipment” that is being transported. The body does not expect a deathly attack of cancer cells and is consequently not prepared to defend it.

Parallel to that, one could compare the narrator to Louise’s body. They have never lost a lover to a deadly sickness, or death at all for that matter. They are innocent, no one has taught them this specific kind of fear. The narrator didn’t check the “cargo”, the “shipment”, that Louise is carrying with her because they never had to before. Maybe they would have wished for a “lock gate” themselves, to protect their heart from hurt and pain. However, it is already too late. They have fallen in love with Louise and Louise is going to die. There is no changing nature. They can try to prolong Louise’s life, fight cancer as long and hard as possible – only at a terribly painful prize.

What is Love?

“Why is the measure of love loss?

It hasn’t rained for 3 months. The trees are prospecting underground, sending reserves of roots into the dry ground, roots like razors to open any artery water-fat. The grapes have withered on the vine. What should be plump and firm, resisting the touch to give itself in the mouth is spongy and blistered. Not this year the pleasure of rolling blue grapes between finger and thumb juicing my palm with music. Even the wasps avoid the thin brown dribble. Even the wasps this year. It was not always so.” (p 9)

This quote really struck me when reading because it starts with such a huge question and then uses the example of grapes  on the vine, a noun that does not exactly scream out love to the reader. However, after looking at this quotation more in detail there are several aspects that I became aware of. There are a strong usage of binary words throughout, such as firm, withered, blistered, and dry. Another selection of words used throughout are spongy, plump, juicy, and dribble. These are the exact opposite of the previous group of words, perhaps to show how something that was not perceived as good or was even viewed as ugly can turn into the something beautiful and to the human soul that is delicious. Time can truly change everything, especially in matters of the heart. This passage exposes the reader to the idea of time effecting our bodies and identities; the body can wither and the identity can evolve. The author is asking us to question what are our conceptions of love and not view it as we always do, it should be seen for its possibilities not for its endings. There is a lot of nature imagery here such as roots, wasps, grapes, trees, water, vine and underground. Nature represents pure and untouched, just as the body. This ties into the use of body imagery such as mouth, finger, thumb, and palm.  I think this because of the opening line primarily, it sets the reader up to view the upcoming passage as loss but begs not to at the same time, you should look outside the box in terms of love. The author wants you to see that the ground, trees etc are at a loss because they are having a dry spell but actually it is the possibility of rain we should be focusing on instead. The phrase ‘even the wasps avoid’ is used to represent that even a creature that no one likes will not come close, representing that sometimes even those who you view below you can reject you.

I especially loved the message behind the quotation. It represents that there can be love and it can change into something else overtime but why view that as a loss? The passage says ‘it was not always so’ meaning that once there was love so there can be love again. The language shows that there stages we go through as humans, at one moment we can be rolling in the pleasures and in the next there might only be a ‘thin brown dribble’ left that we cling to because we are afraid of being alone. The rain will come again but the ground has to be patient, which makes the waiting even more enjoyable once it does arrive.

If this is love, then love is easy.. or is it not?

Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to each other is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. (9)

I don’t like to think of myself as an insincere person but if I say I love you and I don’t mean it then what else am I? Will I cherish you, adore you, make way for you, make myself better for you, look at you and always see you, tell you the truth? And if love is not those things then what things? (11)

In both of these passages the unidentified narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body asks one of the most vital questions of mankind (and the singer Haddaway): ‘What is love?’. He or she wonders why hearing somebody say ‘I love you’ is such an important thing for us and if it shouldn’t be more important how we convey our own personal notion of love.

Even though, as the narrator points out, the words are unoriginal and have been said many times before, we long to hear them and make a big deal out of them, almost worshiping them. They give us a feeling of security, security that our significant other can’t possible leave us, as he/she said those magical three words. Words that many might only say because they feel pressured into it. Pressured by society, their partner, friends, parents, etc. And haven’t they most likely said I love you to somebody else before? Haven’t they had relationships before that didn’t work out even though they assured themselves they loved each other over and over again?

The narrator realizes that we need to be sure to only say ‘I love you’ when we truly mean it and when we can support these words with our actions. Only then there is a slight chance that it is actually love. Because we can’t possibly ever know what love truly means, can we? Who knows if there isn’t always somebody out there who we would love ‘more’ if ever given the chance of meeting each other? And isn’t it the beauty of love that it feels different for each and every one of us and with every partner that we’re with? It evolves, grows and changes, with us. That is what makes everybody’s love special.

When wondering what love is, the narrator repeatedly uses the word ‘you’. He/she realizes that love is not about yourself but about the person you are with. There is no ‘I’ in love. Love should always be about the other person. It should never be about what you think the other person may want or need but about truly listening to them, hearing them, seeing them for who they are.

Looking back at his/her previous relationships the narrator makes a conscious decision not to say ‘I love you’ to his/her current partner Louise until he/she can be sure that it is really love. However, the question remains if the narrator will successfully follow his/her ideals until the end of story. In the end, love, with all its emotions, usually gets the better of us.


A precise emotion seeks a precise expression.  If what I feel is not precise then should I call it love?” (Winterson, 10)

This passage immediately drew me in, despite its brevity, because of the simple eloquence of its phrasing.  In a mere two sentences, the narrator turns the widely accepted idea of ‘love’ on its head, questioning how we define our feelings and what ‘love’ actually means.  The narrator poses an almost scientific theory, in the vein of Newton’s third law of motion (every action must have an equal and opposite reaction,) essentially stating that every precise emotion must be expressed through equal precision.  This opposition is itself then juxtaposed with the concept that if an emotion is not precise, it may not be expressed precisely.  In fact, the word “precise” is repeated three times, drawing special focus to the concept of precision and inviting the reader to question if it is possible define an emotion precisely in the first place. We all think we know what ‘love’ is, but if we were to ask everyone who is in ‘love’ to define what ‘love’ is, it is unlikely that we would end up with two identical definitions.  By that logic, if those feelings of affection most of us seem to experience are imprecise and individual-specific, should we even be allowed to define them as ‘love’?

I believe that Sedgwick’s idea of queer, “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning,” can help us cope with this issue (8).  Humans are pattern-seeking animals and therefore seek definitions, particularly for those things that scare or confuse us, such as imprecise emotions.  Labels and clichés make us feel safe, assuring us that we are not the only ones experiencing the perplexing emotions that we do when we say, fall in ‘love.’ However, perhaps we overuse these clichés, forcing ourselves to shave down our emotions into precise pegs that easily fit in the holes we’ve made for them.  We’ve streamlined ‘love,’ cutting out any room for the “…gaps, overlaps, dissonances…” that Sedgwick speaks of by “embracing one identity or one set of tastes as though they were universally shared, or should be” as Warner argues (Sedgwick, 8)(Warner, 1).  As a result, we invite shame into the equation and push it on those whose idea of ‘love’ is more of a square peg than a round one.  Perhaps if we were to utilize Sedgwick’s idea of queer as a precise expression of imprecise emotions, we would be more at ease (and therefore hopefully less condemnatory) with emotions that don’t identically match our own.

Have We Already Fallen?

“I had lately learned that another way of writing ‘FALL IN LOVE’ was ‘WALK THE PLANK.’ I was tired of balancing blind-fold on a slender beam, one slip and into the unplumbed sea” (26).

“Lately learned” implies prior ignorance. It is so interesting that a feeling, a sense of happiness, a supposed ‘euphoric’ feeling can be so scary. The unstated connection made between the narrators heart and an “unplumbed sea” demonstrates the depth of the universal language of love.

I see freight in the words plank, balancing, blind-fold, slip and even sea; but why are these words associated with the oh so beautiful LOVE? Well, this fear was just learned. ‘Ignorance is bliss,’ or, was.

Why is love a “slender plank?” Is it the fear of the unknown? Fear of getting hurt? Fear of shame? Or fear of slipping off the slender plank and into the unplumbed sea? The Author suggests that his/her new learning of the dangers of love is strictly a game of ‘survival of the fittest.’ If we have already ‘fallen’ in love… then how are we still on the plank? There’s a connection there. The only difference is that it is an emotional fall, not a physical fall.

“Balancing blind-fold on a slender beam” would instill fear in us, it would give us an almost animalistic instinct to fight, to prevail and to survive. Who did The Narrator ‘learn’ that you need to ‘survive’ love from? Is he/she crazy? Or did we teach ourselves? Are we dying to survive something that would never kill us in the first place?

In Sedgwick’s Tendencies, she states that,

“The survival of each one is a miracle. Everyone who survived has stories about how it was done” (1).

Maybe this is the “newly learned” case in Winterson’s Written on the Body? Should we fear love? or love the fear? I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is the fear of the unknown within the unplumbed sea that makes us fear surviving, but LOVE survival.



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