Louise’s “Reading Hands”

“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.” (Winterson 89)

This quote pulled from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson is just one in a long list of declarations by our narrator in which Louise is treated less like a person and more like a rosetta stone through which they hope to understand themselves. While on the surface this quote may appear to be simply a compliment of Louise’s patience and compassion, I think there is more to it than that.

Just before the narrator gives us the quote above, on that very same page they refer to a “secret code,” that is “written on the body.” If we take that code as the thing being read by Louise, it is clear that the narrator’s shielding of their body from their significant other is very important. They don’t want to reveal themselves. They don’t want to open up and be vulnerable. However, as the narrator tells us, Louise does not need the narrator to open up to understand them. Their “reading hands,” translate them all the same.

The important thing to notice here, in regard to the body language the prose describes, is that the only one taking an active role in “reading” our narrator is Louise. The narrator has no interest in what Louise’s translation is, instead mindlessly taking it as gospel and putting her on a pedestal for being able to understand the “code” that is her body. The narrator is so busy shielding themselves from Louise both physically and emotionally that of course Louise will appear more proactive in comparison. I think this is exactly why the narrator holds Louise in such high regard. Our narrator can’t seem to fathom the idea that someone could try to emphasize and understand them simply because they’re a kind, compassionate person who cares about the protagonist unconditionally. No, they must have “reading hands,” or some other kind of psychic power.

I don’t think what Louise is doing is particularly special. It’s only because the narrator is so averse to examining their own body and their own feelings that they are building up Louise as this angelic deity of love. In the absence of their own introspection, Louise’s reading hands are all they have to understand themselves, and thus they take her to be much greater than she actually is. Unlike the picture our protagonist paints for us, I don’t think what Louise brings to their relationship is something as exceptional as “reading hands.” She just cares about our narrator, and the only way she can discover more about her is to try to read this secret code written on her lover’s body. Short of that, how else could Louise hope to try to understand our narrator? Especially when our narrator is so cowardly and self-absorbed that they struggle to even understand themselves to begin with.

3 thoughts on “Louise’s “Reading Hands””

  1. I agree. I took the narrator’s obsession with Louise as coming more from a place of loneliness (and selfishness) than of love. They want to fill a gap in their life without actually coming to terms with their past. I think it’s interesting how you posit the narrator’s view of Louise as an “angelic deity of love,” as it reminds me of the post “Written on the Body’s Narrator is a Snake” by The Ghost of Hanukkah Past, where they talk about Louise being a “fallen angel,” which actually alludes to Lucifer. It is almost as if the narrator sees her as a curse rather than a lover, as they do not actually want to be understood (as you explained).

  2. I thought the same thing! Louise is “reading” the narrator because she loves them. She just wants to know more about them. However, the narrator’s distorted views on love allows them to misunderstand this “reading” as a “translation.” Because the narrator has no understanding of their identity, they begin to adopt Louise’s instead. Additionally, your response reminded me of the quote “you can’t love somebody else if you don’t love yourself.” Without a sense of self, there cannot be a relationship consisting of two people. This can lead to selfishness and insecurity, erasing the mutual support that a relationship requires.

  3. I think that connecting the use of words about writing, reading, and translating to the relationship between the narrator and Louise in Written on the Body is important and worthwhile. It definitely informs the nature of their relationship. What I am understanding from your close reading is that you think the narrator is immature and maybe overreacting, but maybe let’s say the narrator isn’t. A theme or claim of our class is that words/language give us our identity. Maybe through words, the narrator could make sense of Louise, and why they describe her as “this angelic deity of love.”

Leave a Reply