“Adultery is as much about disillusionment as it is about sex. The charm didn’t work. You paid all that money, ate the cake and it didn’t work. It’s not your fault, is it?” (78).
This quote, from Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, contains two of the central themes of the novel. Commitment, and responsibility. The meat of the quotation is spent discussing marriage, an institution built on commitment, and always tied to a breaking of that commitment in the narrator’s experience. As is clear from their description of “pay[ing] all the money, [eating] the cake” the narrator views marriage as only its traditional, shallow, commercial parts, with the use of “charm” implying a sort of magic ritual, an act towards the production or achievement of a fantastical goal.
Focusing more on the third sentence, the narrator lists these traditional, shallow planning choices as boxes to be checked off, putting the focus of marriage on its physical elements rather than emotional ones. The disillusionment comes when these physical aspects do not change the emotional ones. The last line of this quotation is the most important. Once resigned to disillusionment, the disappointment turns to blame. Twice in the quotation does the narrator reference the self directly, “you ate the cake, you spent that money” and “it’s not your fault, is it” However the self is absent when discussing “the charm” failing. Adultery is the inevitable result, the product of some failure beyond your control. To the narrator, responsibility is foreign, and this quote shows that. None of the failures have to be their fault if the magic of marriage independently failed. There is no internal problem to address, no personal flaw, because “the charm” just didn’t work.
The narrator has disconnected their awareness from their actions, living in a place of technical innocence, pondering the inner wound they feel and fill with partners they will never assume responsibility for. Keeping just far enough from these women that they don’t hold emotional weight, already committed to another, yet close enough that they will relieve the narrator’s loneliness on the most superficial level. And when the superficial no longer fills them the way it once did, they can comfort themselves saying, its not my fault.
However, Winterson doesn’t write this last sentence as a statement, but rather as a question. “Is it?”. While this question could be read as indignation, it could just as easily be read as a demonstration of the narrator’s inner conflict, and the start of their self-reflection. A genuine question, as well as an insecurity. They feel failed by commitment because they fail at commitment but cannot fathom themselves at fault. The problem must be institutional, their failure must be out of their control. During their discussion of fading feelings, they site a natural circadian clock of love, removing blame once again, however doubt is evident in their subconscious if nothing else. The question is sincere, and they are desperate for a reassuring answer despite all odds. They spend most of the novel discussing the emotional wreckage they leave behind, wondering why without stating the obvious common factor in all of it. It’s not their fault. Isn’t it?