One with Nature

“Most days I didn’t feel like messing with flowered plates, so I ate my meals from the skillet…I left off the starch [from John’s old shirts] now, and let the cotton fall in wrinkles around me, with the collar unbuttoned and the tails left untucked more than not. I was forgetting the look of things for the feel of them, and that is a dangerous thing in this world” (Stinson 96).

After Amanda’s stories are published in the magazine in Martha Moody, she draws herself into her own world: she no longer washes herself or her laundry, she eats when she is hungry and drinks when she is thirsty, and she completes her chores and moves through her day at her own pace, stopping to write when she has an idea and taking her time with things that move her. This is very similar to the way that Mala Ramchandin finds herself becoming one with her life and connected with nature in Cereus Blooms at Night, when she retreats from the hustle and bustle of town and begins to live her own, separate life inside her yard. In fact, I worried when I began to read that part about Amanda that the same thing would become of her as became of Mala, and that she would become the town outcast; that everyone would look down on her, tease her, make fun of her, and abuse her for simply being different and isolating herself from everyone else. At first, this did happen; on page 126, when Theda Wilks rides past Amanda, she insults the larger woman for her way of living. However, the difference between Amanda and Mala is that Amanda is both more willing and (at least mentally, if not physically) able to leave her house, go into the town, and spend some amount of time with the people she knew before her period of isolation. Of course, Amanda’s time alone was much shorter than Mala’s, but both women’s seclusion allowed them time and space to grow and develop.

Amanda was able to come to better terms with her sexuality and the way that she sees Martha. To Amanda, Martha is (or rather, was?) her lover, her friend, and her (very short-term) boss. Amanda also developed her sense of self and, like Mala, became closer to nature and the animals, or more specifically, her cow, Miss Alice. Though Mala spoke to the birds and insects in their language, and Amanda spoke to Miss Alice in the English language, this communication intensified the connection between the animal and human worlds in the two novels. 

Ants in a Circle (Not on a Log)

“She cut across their path and encircled one of the ants in a line drawn thickly, chalk powder flying. The ants outside the circle marched up to the chalk line and one after the other backed off, refusing to cross. The ant trapped in the circle ran around the inside of the chalk edge, frantically changing course, standing on its hind legs and then crouching on the ground in its panic. Outside the circle several ants dropped their leaves and scurried back in the direction they came. Within seconds a new path bypassing the circle had been created, and the ants outside it hesitantly resumed their trek, more cautiously than before. The ant in the circle stood completely still” (Mootoo 89).

The ant trapped in the circle acts like Mala trapped in her house with the fence around it, stuck at the top of the hill in the middle of Paradise with a visible and seemingly uncrossable barrier around her. The circle of chalk is just a line on the ground—to anyone looking from above (a human), it’s just a line of chalk, perfectly harmless and able to be both stepped on and over—but to the ant, the circle is a solid wall, marking a barrier that the ant perceives that it cannot go across. Just like the ant, Mala perceives that the fence around her house is keeping her inside, preventing her access to the outside world and forming an inescapable prison within its low walls. Like the ants on the ground carrying their leaves, the people of Lantanacamara learned how to make their way cautiously around Mala’s house (whispering and occasionally throwing rocks or other debris, including various rotten fruit, at her and her home). The ant represents how trapped Mala feels in Paradise, even though she put herself there, and how stuck she feels with nowhere to go but her own backyard. 

When Asha asks why she drew the circle around the ant, Mala has no answer for her. I think Mala drew the circle because she wanted someone else to understand how she was feeling at that moment, even though she didn’t have the words to describe the feeling. She didn’t know how to express her loneliness, isolation, and frustration other than to show it to Asha with the chalk circle, and she became even more frustrated when Asha didn’t immediately understand why she drew it and questioned her (“‘Why did you do that?’”) (Mootoo 89). Eventually, when Asha leaves, Mala comes to the point where she completely loses herself to the insanity that is life within the chalk circle: she is trapped in this repetitive life with her father, who rapes and abuses her daily, and she can find no way out, so she frantically (metaphorically) runs around her property searching for a crack in the chalk circle surrounding her. When she finds no way out, she snaps and kills Chandin Ramchandin, sealing her fate and trapping herself in the chalk circle forever (or, I guess, until Otoh came along).

A Pearl in a Mussel

“‘Among their [the Yamana] variations of the verb
“to bite” was a word that meant “to come surprisingly on a hard substance
when eating something soft
e.g. a pearl in a mussel.”’” (Carson 80).

As Geryon gets older, he slowly begins to accept that he likely will not see Herakles again. In other words, he is “eating something soft;” though he doesn’t know it, he will soon come upon something hard. His life is not necessarily mundane, but it seems to be going as he expects it to. However, the reappearance of Herakles serves as the moment that Geryon “come[s] surprisingly upon a hard substance” in the midst of his eating something soft. Herakles throws a wrench in Geryon’s plans and brings him to Peru. The moment on page 107, where Herakles and Geryon reunite in the middle of a bookstore in Buenos Aires, serves as a moment that Geryon begins to reevaluate his life. This reevaluation, however, actually comes in the seconds before Herakles appears, where Geryon thinks, “Kissing makes them happy…and a sense of fruitlessness pierced him” (Carson 107). Geryon feels like everything he is doing is pointless; perhaps, indeed, it is a mundane life, eating something soft and only getting what he expects. Herakles, then, could potentially be a welcome change to Geryon’s everyday sameness, but if this were the case, then why does Geryon (and even Ancash) seem so utterly exhausted of Herakles’ buoyant personality and neverending presence? On the streets of Buenos Aires, the reader sees “Herakles jumping ahead like a dog / smelling everything and pointing at objects in the shops. Ancash and Geryon / came behind” (Carson 113). In Peru, “A silence tossed itself across the tall gold heads of the fennel stalks between them [Ancash and Geryon]. / Into this silence burst Herakles” (Carson 144). Herakles consistently jumps into and out of scenes; his personality bubbles up over the top of any container Geryon or Ancash try to hold him in, and he acts childish in almost every way possible. These circumstances lead me to believe that Geryon now merely tolerates adult Herakles, who still acts immature in every way except sexually. Therefore, it is not difficult to believe that if Herakles is the “hard substance” that Geryon comes upon surprisingly, Herakles is not entirely welcome, but simply accepted and moved past.

Barbed Wire?

“The naked eye. How many times have I enjoyed you with my lascivious naked eye. I have seen you unclothed, bent to wash, the curve of your back, the concurve of your belly. I have had you beneath me for examination, seen the scars between your thighs where you fell on barbed wire. You look as if an animal has clawed you, run its steel nails through your skin, leaving harsh marks of ownership” (Winterson 117). 

Jeannette Winterson writes in Written on the Body about the Narrator’s love for Louise and eventually, the Narrator becomes obsessed with Louise to the point of medically describing Louise and her body. The Narrator mentions the scars on Louise’s thighs from where she “fell on barbed wire” (Winterson 117), which she may actually have done. However, this brief anecdote sounds as though it may be referring to another circumstance: perhaps the Narrator has found a poetic way to describe the way their fingers grab Louise. The Narrator may well be describing their own nails scratching Louise, claiming that she fell on barbed wire to disguise the true nature of the situation. The “harsh marks of ownership” (Winterson 117) may be the Narrator’s nail marks on Louise’s legs as they have sex. This example of the Narrator describing one situation under the guise of another shows their tendency to avoid taking full ownership for their actions. Throughout the second half of the novel, starting at the point where the Narrator makes Louise get back with Elgin and the Narrator moves away from the couple, the Narrator refuses to accept any responsibility for the loss of Louise. The Narrator mentions, once, that they “should have trusted [Louise] but [they] lost [their] nerve” (Winterson 187), but this is not admission of fault. The Narrator should have allowed Louise to make her own decision about where to go and who she wanted to be with, but they prevented her from doing so. The deep marks on Louise’s thighs may or may not have been caused by barbed wire, but either way, the Narrator is unable to admit fault or responsibility for any part of Louise’s body and, by extension, cannot admit fault for the loss of her entire body and soul.