Temporary Loss

     Loss is something that no one wants to experience, but somehow everyone inevitably encounters it in one shape or form. It wouldn’t be as troublesome if there were an end-all solution, but the problem is that there is no clear way to deal with loss. In Jeanette Winterson’s novel, “Written on the Body,” the theme and experience of loss is consistently brought up. Even in different contexts, there is an underlying message that Winterson brings to light, which might not be all that obvious. To elaborate, loss may not be as permanent and devastating as the narrator makes it out to be. 

      The narrator has many points of self reflection and realization about loss, yet one in particular stands out. The focus point reads, “To lose someone you love is to alter your life forever. You don’t get over it because ‘it’ is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new people, but the gap never closes.” (155). It is easy to assume that this passage is about the long-lasting effect of loss. However, based off of the previous stories about the narrator’s past lovers, this described loss seems to be just another one in the books. This assumption is possible because when looking at how the narrator grieved the ones she had loved and lost, the story remained the same; they fell in love, the relationship failed, they lost each other, and they grieved. Each time, the narrator got over the additive pain and eventually moved on, only to find a seemingly greater love and ultimately a greater loss; possibly adding to the so-called “gap” left behind from past lovers. And each time a loss is explained, there seems to be so many possibilities to avoid it from happening, yet the narrator’s decisions inevitably result in greater loss. This recurrence questions if the pain of loss is actually unavoidable or if it was the narrator’s subconscious decision to avoid potential pain? 

      Even though the narrator’s losses could’ve been avoided, they still happened and the narrator still buried the emotions and moved on every time, proving the point that “the pain stops.” Perhaps each time the pain stops, it allows there to be an opening for someone new, someone like Louise. And even though the narrator demonstrated a strong bond with Louise, it ended with loss, and was the biggest loss of them all. However, bringing back the proposed question, if the narrator managed to overcome the previous losses, why is Louise the one that is seemingly the change of pattern? Considering the significant contradiction between the pain of loss with left behind feelings of love, versus moving on, the narrator’s seemingly unbearable feelings resulting from losing Louise are only temporary and the pain will eventually stop; allowing the cycle of love, loss, and recovery to restart. 

The Truth About Change

“THINGS HAD CHANGED, what an arsehole comment, I had changed things. Things don’t change, they’re not like the seasons moving on a diurnal round. People change things. There are victims of change but not victims of things. Why do I collude in this mis-use of language? I can’t make it easier for Jacqueline however I put it. I can make it a bit easier for me and I suppose that’s what I’m doing.” -Page 56-57

A few pages before this passage the narrator is contemplating if they should cheat on their girlfriend, Jacqueline. Like the passage above it is written following the narrator’s stream of consciousness. I believe Winterson’s intention is to help the reader connect to the narrator, humanizing them by showing their thoughts and feelings. Without an assigned gender the humanity that is brought to life, allows the narrator to be anyone. The internal monologues expressing the narrator’s thought process helps facilitate empathy between the narrator and the reader. That is especially the case when readers may not like the narrator or agree with their actions all the time.

After re-reading the passage I wanted to know how does this analysis of their comment makes them feel better? At first, I believed this passage was indicating that the narrator is owning their actions and ultimately taking the blame. “Things hadn’t changed,” (56) but the narrator had changed (page 39) and admitted to taking the leap (having an affair), knowing it would ultimately hurt Jacqueline. It seems like the narrator is taking ownership when they indirectly call themselves an ‘arsehole’. The narrator feels guilty and taking responsibility possibly makes them feel better. “A weight has been lifted off their chest” some might say.

The phrase “It’s the cliches that cause the trouble.” (10) continues to reappear throughout the novel, the act of airing everything out and taking responsibility is supposed to make people feel better, perhaps the narrator is doing the exact opposite of what I just said. Maybe they aren’t owning up to their actions like I previously thought. What if the narrator is alluding to the idea that even though they have changed, it isn’t their fault? The line “There are victims of change but not victims of things.” (56-57) introduces the new idea that the narrator considers themself to be a victim of change. People go through phases and are always changing, just like the seasons. “Things don’t change, they’re not like the seasons moving on a diurnal round.” (56) It is humanity’s inability to stay the same that’s to blame.

The narrator questions why they would “collude” (57) with such wording. Although they answer the question, to make themself feel better, the narrator is lying to themself. Maybe no one has changed. Like the aforementioned seasons, the narrator naturally moves through relationships and fooled themself into “believing” they would be happily married. Although their friends questioned if the narrator would be happy, they have to convince themself this experience is what marriage is and it isn’t always happy. Deep down the narrator always knew there was something wrong and playing the victim of change is easier than saying ‘I made a mistake and I dragged you (Jacqueline) through the mud’.

If the narrator wants to feel better and make it easier on one of them it makes sense to shy away from the blame and more importantly the guilt. Later on in the book, the narrator hits Jacqueline and the readers can tell the guilt is eating them up inside. It is the guilt that is difficult to deal with. It isn’t something the narrator can control, it just happens to them and so they are just as much a victim as Jacqueline.

Blood, Water, and the Body in Between

“Her hair was shining with bright drops of rain, the rain ran down her breasts, their outline clear through her wet muslin dress.” (85)

Winterson introduces Louise to the narrator as rain after a drought. Each subsequent encounter is further marked with the appearance of rain (54, 72), and the honeymoon period that follows the fulfilment of their affair is depicted as “The wettest June on record. We made love every day.” (20)

To the narrator, Louise is a tactile wetness that writes along the skin: the platonic lunch charged with sexual tension right before the start of their affair culminates in their first touch, incited by “viscous juices” dribbling down her chin, and the narrator rushing to steal the napkin for the opportunity to dab it away (37). Her “outline” is first revealed to them as the rain runs down her figure.

“Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead. (123)

The dichotomy of “dermis” and “epidermis”—the living body and the dead cells of the surface of the skin is one that’s complicated by Louise’s cancer—because her body has turned on itself, the epidermis, while already dead, is the only part of her—because they lack “blood vessels or nerve endings,” untouched by her illness (123). The narrator, as a “creature who feeds at your hand,” who “rub(s) away” at the “dead you,” is at a constant struggle to dig skin-deep, yearning to feel life at their fingertips (124). Yet the core of Louise’s being hides death, while the dead epidermis appears more lively than her condition truly implies. This is mirrored in the plot and Louise and the narrator’s character development: Louise, who is asymptomatic, fails to show any sign of illness on the outside, while intimacy and authenticity reveals to the narrator that she no longer has very long to live.

The only part of Louise that is neither dead nor dying, then, is the thin layer of skin cells at the apex of the dermis which meets the epidermis, a layer that can’t feel the narrator, nor be felt by them, but which becomes visible to them in the glow of wet skin, because as water is absorbed by the pores of the skin it makes it reflective, and its reflectiveness the light bounces in and out of the surface of the skin. The water is what enables Louise to appear in the fullness of her life, and Louise, in turn, refers to the narrator themselves as this water: “You are a pool of clear water where the light plays.” (85)

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.

A wet June, a dry June

“June. The wettest June on record. We made love every day. We were happy like colts, flagrant like rabbits, dove-innocent in our pursuit of pleasure. Neither of us thought about it and we had no time to discuss it. The time we had used. Those brief days and briefer hours were small offerings to a god who would not be appeased by burning flesh. We consumed each other and went hungry again. There were patches of relief, moments of tranquility as still as an artificial lake, but always behind us the roaring tide.” (pg. 20)

“June. The driest June on record. The earth that should have been in summer glory was thin for lack of water. The buds held promise but they didn’t swell. The beating sun was a fake. The sun that should have brought life was carrying death in every relentless morning.” (pg. 150)


The first passage above appears early in the text, after the first mention of Louise by name. The second passage appears near the end of the novel, shortly after Louise’s cancer diagnosis, and directly after a few chapters about anatomy. The focus of the story shifts from exploring the body as an object of love and sex, to exploring the body as it functions and as it fails to function over time. This is also evident in the use of repetition/double meanings above; the phrases “the wettest June on record” (20), and “the driest June on record” (150), besides being obvious sexual innuendos, hint at a sort of cyclical experience. This could refer to the repetitive cycles in relationships that we’ve seen the narrator experience, or it could reference more simply the cycle of life and coming to terms with natural endings.

The passage of time, measured in different ways throughout the book, and not always linear, is a major focus of Winterson’s writing. Along the changing timeline, the narrator’s relationship with Louise undergoes physical and emotional changes. The two passages I’ve highlighted above directly contrast the narrator’s feelings of falling in love versus dealing with inevitable loss as it progresses over the course of the novel. More explicitly we can see that the language in each passage remains rooted in nature imagery, but shifts from descriptions of life, love, happiness, and growth, to descriptions of darkness, death, and loss. This is parallel to the changes in both Louise’s body (from more energetic/sexually-charged to tired and cancer-ridden) and in her relationship with the narrator (from exciting, new, and passionate, to dying and distant).

I think these ideas are also representative of the idea of the “palimpsest,” which we discussed briefly in class: the concept of rewriting stories, memories, or a body of work on top of past versions in order to reflect the always-changing nature of life, the self, and relationships.

Library Access

One passage that stood out to me was on page 96, just before the break. This passage reveals a lot more about the speaker’s overall perception about what their relationships mean to them and the value they give them than it seems to on the surface. “They’ve taken my ticket away,” they tell Louise (96), talking about their ability to use the British Library which is important to their work as a translator. Not just their work, their “livelihood” (95). On the surface this passage and the scene leading up to it shows their humiliating removal from the library, which they take almost emotionlessly, and the subsequent feeling of that emotion when they are with Louise. However, their time within the library really had nothing to do with their work, it was simply a space for them to occupy while they were “sick to the gut with fear” waiting for Louise to decide the fate of their relationship (91) and reliving a moment when someone they loved left them (93-94). The layering of these events and memories ties the loss of the library pass to, not just their current predicament with Louise, but all the times they lost access to a central person in their life. Even though they haven’t lost Louise yet this period of waiting and the expectation that she will leave allows them to feel it prematurely. Upon being reunited with Louise, neither of them speak about their future. Instead the narrator bursts into tears, finally releasing all of the emotion from the past two days. This takes on even more meaning because it is the only time the narrator has been able to mourn the loss of their love with that person, though they do not end up being separated at this time. The idea that the ticket is not just for “work”, like a single part of their life, but for their “livelihood” translates to their relationships taking precedence in their life rather than being just one peice of their understanding of themself. Along with that, the fact that they view their relationships as a ticketed event, something they must have access to or else be left outside in the cold, further clarifies their intense attachment style. However, because this comes from the narrator’s own mouth, rather than just showing the reader events (like their stalker tendencies, for example), this passage also makes it clear that the narrator is aware of their attachment style and perspective on their relationships, yet chooses to engage in them anyway. 


Jacqueline and ‘Normal’

“I wanted the clichés, the armchair. I wanted the broad road and twenty-twenty vision. What’s wrong with that? It’s called growing up. Maybe most people gloss their comforts with a patina of romance but it soon wears off. They’re in it for the long haul; the expanding waistline and the little semi in the suburbs. What’s wrong with that? Late-night TV and snoring side by side into the millennium. Till death us do part. Anniversary darling? What’s wrong with that?” (Winterson, 26)

This passage comes at a point in Winterson’s text where the narrator has just met Jacqueline and is trying to decide whether a relationship with her is what she wants and/or needs. Jacqueline is different from anyone the narrator has previously been with: “She worked nine to five Monday to Friday, drove a Mini and got her reading from book clubs. She exhibited no fetishes, foibles, freak-outs or fuck-ups. Above all she was single and she had always been single. No children and no husband” (26). Jacqueline is strikingly normal and mundane, and as the narrator considers their past relationships, they find themself wanting to test the waters of normalcy. They are thinking in circles, considering what they want, what they need, what they should want, and how being with Jacqueline will be different. Deep down, however, they know a relationship with her will never be fulfilling. The repeated question “what’s wrong with that?” clues the reader in to the narrator’s anxieties around long-term commitment and their fear of an unsatisfying relationship, and shows that they are questioning whether they can really be happy with Jacqueline. The narrator seems to be trying to convince themselves that “growing up” and settling into a comfortable, clichéd relationship isn’t actually that bad; however, the way they imagine that relationship reveals a different story, as they describe a loss of romance, growing old with their partner, and having nothing more exciting than late-night TV and anniversaries to look forward to. The relationship becomes stagnant, unchanging, and boring. “What’s wrong with that?” the narrator asks themself. Nothing, except that a stagnant, boring relationship is at odds with what they really want. 

When considering this passage alongside ideas of ‘normal’ and ‘queerness’ as imagined by Warner and Rubin, it becomes apparent that the narrator is trying to reconcile their queerness with the desire to conform to given norms. Though the narrator’s gender and sexuality are never revealed, they fit into several categories in the “outer limits” or “bad/abnormal/unnatural” section of Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. They are unmarried, promiscuous, and their sex life is focused on pleasure rather than procreation; regardless of their gender, they have had relationships with both men and women, and thus can also fit into the category of homosexuality. Jaqueline, on the other hand, seems to fall into more of the “good/normal/natural” categories, though not entirely. Her sexuality is rather complex, as she is introduced as “the mistress of one of [the narrator’s friends] the confidante of both… She traded sex and sympathy for £50 to tide her over the weekend and a square meal on Sunday” (25). She therefore fits the “commercial” and (potentially) “sadomasochistic” categories in Rubin’s sexual hierarchy. Yet the narrator believes a relationship with her will be calm, clichéd, and normal, to the point of boredom. There is no passion between the two of them, and once together, their sex life becomes stagnant (28); it doesn’t seem too much to assume, considering the boredom and lack of romance, that it is private and vanilla as well. The narrator wants to try this calm, mundane kind of relationship with Jacqueline, seeing it and her as a welcome respite from the affairs they have had in the past. The problem is, the narrator is lying to themself on some level. They insist that they want “the clichés, the armchair,” when in reality, they will eventually become bored and frustrated with Jacqueline and her mundanity and leave her, choosing Louise and queerness over Jacqueline and normalcy.

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. 

The Palimpsest

“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” (89).

Winterson describes the body as a palimpsest, a manuscript so worked over that the original text gets erased or covered to make way for new texts. This might connect to how Winterson tells the story. The narrator has a new story being written with Louise, but the “old text” of past relationships still appears both in the narrator’s recollection, but also their repeated patterns. These repeated patterns might relate to the visible traces of past writing on the manuscript that this the body, the remnants of the same tale. These visible traces of the narrator’s experience cause repeated patterns, they enter into a second relationship with a married woman when they begin their affair with Louise, but they had promised not to make that mistake after Bathsheba. But the old text shines through, and the narrator falls into old habits. The writing changes, in the narrator’s case, the writing on the body changes the most with their relationships. The palimpsest can also contain drawings, “I will find a map as likely as any treasure hunt. I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will” (pg 20). So, the new writing on the narrator’s body and their experience with Louise covers and writes over their experience with Jacquelin or Frank or Inge. Additionally, the concept of the body as a palimpsest, rather than a simple book or poem, is important. While in many ways, this seems like a minute difference, it is a critical one. In normal books or essays, you never see the draft, you only see the finished product. But the body is a palimpsest, the old text that came before might fade, or might be scrubbed away, but traces remain. Your past experiences don’t go away. This connects to Sedgwick’s idea of survival. We survive into our experience, not through or past it. The affects are lifelong, even if we gain new experiences. Considering the body as palimpsest, where your life and experience is written on your body, in your skin can help us understand identity. Winterson gives the narrator very few defining characteristics, the narrator has no gender, we don’t know their age, and their occupation is vague. What we as readers do know, is the narrator’s experience. The moments that are written on their body. This provides a different way of defining and describing our identities. They encompass more than our gender, our age, who we love or don’t love, or what our jobs are. Our identities are greatly shaped by our experiences, how we heal from them or grow because of them. We can use this idea to further our understanding of identity and how to write and explain it. While words used to describe identity: sexual or gender orientation, age, nationality, and others are useful, experience can provide deeper insight into our identities and how they blend with our lives.

How to add pronouns to Zoom

Hi all!

As we are Zooming our way through these first few weeks of class, it might be quite useful for us to all add pronouns to our Zoom names.  To do so, hover over your video image when in a session.  When the blue box with three dots appears, click that and follow to Rename.  Once there, you will want to edit Display Name.  Don’t forget to hit OK!

Or, if you are not in session, open your app and click on the home icon/tab at the top, then click the settings cog image in the right corner.  From there, click Profile, the Edit My Profile, and finally the Edit button near your name.  Then you can change the display name to include pronouns. Don’t forget to Save Changes before you leave!