“Death’s head in the chair, the rose chair in the stagnant garden. What is the point of movement when movement indicates life and life indicates hope? I have neither life nor hope. Better then to fall in with the crumbling wainscot, to settle with the dust and be drawn up into someone’s nostrils. Daily we breathe the dead.” (Winterson 107-108)
This poetic passage from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson contains several significant themes from the novel. When the narrator arrives in the deteriorating cottage they banished themselves to, they look at the armchair, which is a symbol of the cliché heteronormative life they despise. The armchair represents eternal monogamy, something that they have never allowed themselves to have or want until Louise. They look at an armchair and imagine sitting in it, fading away, which is a death-like fate for them, exemplifying the novel’s theme of questioning heteronormative life. Furthermore, this quote demonstrates the novel’s themes of life, death, and the in-between. The narrator gives themselves the title of Death itself, insinuating their sorrow is so overcoming that they are not living. This brings up the question that is present throughout the novel’s latter half: What does it mean to be alive?
The first half of the novel focuses heavily on themes of sex and the external body as it details the narrator’s sexual pursuits and failed relationships. However, when the narrator discovers Louise has cancer, the structure of the novel shifts along with the theme as the narrator examines Louise’s body physiologically. The focus shifts from sex, a sign of life, to death and the deterioration of a body that was previously romanticized heavily by the narrator. The language in this passage correlates with this dichotomy of life and death, as the narrator paints the picture of a garden that was once filled with life, no longer blooming. They are hopeless and resign themselves to deteriorate with the cottage, also symbolic of their belief that the cliché life is destined to fail. The crumbling wainscot is a symbol of the inevitably crumbling life of the person who lives in the cliché house with an armchair, or at least according to the narrator. The narrator then suggests a reincarnation of sorts, claiming that death is always present in even life, reminiscent of their description of Louise’s skin “Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead” (Winterson123). The narrator further blurs the lines between life and death, claiming they embody death though they are living. They stay stagnant because they don’t feel alive, and moving signifies life and thus hope, neither of which they believe to possess.
What it means to be alive, therefore, is not the mechanical operations of the body that the narrator examines in later sections but something much more. Something that the narrator experienced for the first time with Louise and can’t live without, possibly love. The narrator’s self-pity has led them to resign to life in the cottage, the picture of heteronormativity, perhaps as a form of self-punishment. Ironically, the cliché is still not fulfilled because they are alone, without the monogamy that they now find they desire for the first time. It’s a cliché, but a mere ghost of one, much like a stagnant garden in which the narrator sits their dying head in a rose chair.