Memories of a Body

“Written on the body is a secret code only visible in certain lights; the accumulations of a lifetime gather there. In places, the palimpsest is so heavily worked that the letters feel like braille. I like to keep my body rolled up away from prying eyes. Never unfold too much, tell the whole story. I didn’t know that Louise would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book” (Winterson 89).

In the above passage from Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body the Narrator (who is nameless and genderless) is talking about their intimate relationship with Louise. At the beginning of this passage the words, “written on the body” immediately grabs the reader’s attention as a repetition of the title. This passage offers one answer to what is written on the body; “written on the body is a secret code”. The most obvious interpretation of this would be physical marks, not words and letters specifically, but scars, freckles, and stretch marks which adorn the skin of the Narrator. However, it is also possible that this “secret code” is not written in any physical mark but rather is a metaphor for an internal self that the narrator keeps “rolled up away from prying eyes” meaning that they do not readily share their interior thoughts and feelings with others. Following this vein of thinking then, what is “written on the body” can be viewed as a reference to the memories of the body, which together speak more towards the being of the Narrator than physical marks. The inclusion of the phrase “Never unfold too much, tell them the whole story” implies a level to which it is possible to keep something hidden away in some small corner that is only accessible if the Narrator allows it. This supports the idea that the secret code is not physical but a metaphor for memories and thoughts, which are internal and able to be hidden. That is until Louise at least, “I didn’t know that Louis would have reading hands. She has translated me into her own book”. Louise, unlike any of the other romantic panthers of the Narrator who would have also had access to the Narrator’s body, created the desire within the Narrator to share parts of themself with her, not only their body but their memories and thoughts to the point where they become an open book. 

The notion that Louise is able to bring up memories of the Narrator is woven through the format of the book. Written on the Body is not written linearly but instead jumps around in time as the Narrator relives different memories about past lovers which are brought to the surface by a thought or action of Louise. Memories are more meaningful than physical marks on a body, which dies, decays and changes. Louise’s own body is fighting against her. However, the memories of Louise linger with the Narrator after her body is absent and continues to invoke emotions within the Narrator. 

2 thoughts on “Memories of a Body”

  1. I would be so interested in reading a paper from this perspective. The idea that the chronology of the book is not broken because the narrator chooses to interject memories, or simply a stream of thought, but because Louise is pulling all of these deep memories out dramatically changed by understanding of the story. It also presents the narrator as someone who is only read and understood by Louise herself. That begs the question, who is the reader in this relationship? We are not Louise, so do we even get an accurate account of the story? Or, maybe we are simply let into the narrator’s mind and we do see what they believe to be true. The narrator says they will “never unfold too much”, though, and we see that this is true at the end of the book. It is up to the reader to decide if Louise is actually alive but a more reliable or open narrator would have said so explicitly.

  2. I really like this interpretation, especially considering we know the narrator is some type of translator for their job. The idea of them being a translator whose simultaneously terrified of the vulnerabilities that come from someone being able to read what exactly is written on the body, is brilliant. Louise is able to translate the narrators body, but she gets betrayed by her own body’s writing; a puzzle that the narrator is helpless to fight against.

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