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.

The laws of love

“Two hundred miles from the surface of the earth, there is no gravity. The laws of motion are suspended. You could turn somersaults slowly slowly, weight into weightlessness, nowhere to fall… You will break up bone by bone, fractured from who you are, you are drifting away now, the centre cannot hold” (100).

This passage from Written on the Body speaks volumes. The repetition of words related to science, physics, space, and motion (such as earth, gravity, laws of motion, weight, bone, etc.) is critical to understanding this moment in the novel. The laws of motion are considered by most to be absolute, unchangeable and fixed. However, just 200 miles from where we all stand on Earth, everything we think we know about physics is wrong. We are rooted to the earth through gravity, but in a moment, we can be lifted from normalcy and brought into weightlessness with nowhere to fall.

Much like a scientific fact, the narrator thought they knew everything about Louise and everything about their life together. Yet, because of just one sentence, everything crumbled to pieces. Not only was their life with Louise shattered, but even the narrator themself was “fractured from who [they] were, drifting away now” (100). When something as easily accepted and important as gravity, or in this case, true love, breaks, who you are breaks with it.

As another student mentioned in class, “the centre cannot hold” comes from a Yeats poem titled “The Second Coming”. In my opinion, both the poem and the novel’s passage refer to absolute chaos erupting from the seams of the world. Louise was the narrator’s world and imagining a life without her was like imagining life without the laws of motion- impossible.

“She smells of the sea”: Sexuality and the Senses

“She smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.” (73)

The connection to the ocean is significant. Sexuality as fluid. Sexuality as connection—that is, as taste and smell over sight. There is no separation by viewing, no watcher and watched to create an object out of a person. Taste and smell are visceral and they bring the narrator and Louise together. There is no distance between partners.

This happens in conjunction with the curious language of exploration, i.e. “rockpools when I was a child” and “to run my fingers around the rim.” Here, in this passage, the narrator comes to know Louise’s body. He or she explores through sex, and there is a certain child-like quality to this, this tendency towards play and taste and smell.

What I’m really trying to say here is that maybe people grow out of equal connection. Maybe the tendency to produce a viewer and a viewed object during sex is a learned one. Maybe we grow into this distance as we learn to prioritize one sense over the others. This passage connects taste and smell and touch to a time of innocence, of ignorance. Not willful ignorance, but the kind of ignorance that can and must be remedied through exploration.

The narrator is exploring and thereby learning about Louise’s body in this passage, and through this, he or she comes to know Louise.

The inside of your body is innocent

“Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them as they come at you? Why can’t I dam their blind tide that filthies your blood? Why are there no lock gates on the portal vein? The inside of your body is innocent, nothing has taught it fear. Your artery canals trust their cargo, they don’t check the shipment in the blood.” (115)

The narrator is asking themselves multiple rhetoric questions about the human body, and how the sickness that is affecting Louise’s body manages to take hold. The questions are filled with naïve and hopeful imagery, of “gates” that could be closed to keep cancer out of the body. The narrator is using the questions to cope with the facts they have just learned about the sickness that will cause their lover to die.

The passage is lined with a theme of ships and the sea. The narrator uses words like “tide”, “canals”, “cargo” and “shipment” to describe the ways in which the sickness is transported through the body. They also describe the trust the body has in the “shipment” that is being transported. The body does not expect a deathly attack of cancer cells and is consequently not prepared to defend it.

Parallel to that, one could compare the narrator to Louise’s body. They have never lost a lover to a deadly sickness, or death at all for that matter. They are innocent, no one has taught them this specific kind of fear. The narrator didn’t check the “cargo”, the “shipment”, that Louise is carrying with her because they never had to before. Maybe they would have wished for a “lock gate” themselves, to protect their heart from hurt and pain. However, it is already too late. They have fallen in love with Louise and Louise is going to die. There is no changing nature. They can try to prolong Louise’s life, fight cancer as long and hard as possible – only at a terribly painful prize.

Impossibly Hard: Sexual Stigma and the Ten Commandments

“I used to think that Christ was wrong, impossibly hard, when he said that to imagine committing adultery was just as bad as doing it” (38).
At this point in the novel, the narrator has just finished having a secret dinner with Louise. This passage belongs to an internal dialogue following the dinner in which the narrator explores their new-found love for Louise.
In this passage, the narrator references Jesus Christ’s judgments about committing adultery. By stating, “I used to think that Christ was wrong…” the narrator recognizes their prior ambivalence to Christ’s moral guidance. The use of the words, “impossibly hard,” further suggest that it would be practically impossible to commit adultery just by thinking. One would have to be impossibly consumed by lust for Christ’s words to have credibility. Yet, the use of the past tense suggest that they have now changed their mind and agree with what Christ warns. Throughout the novel, the narrator describes the multiple affairs they have had with married women. Yet, they have never arrived to the conclusion that thinking about an affair was just as bad as acting on it. This shows that the narrator’s feelings for Louise constitute something “different.” The narrator has reached the place where they feel so “impossibly hard” with love and lust for Louise that imagining committing adultery becomes just as bad as doing it.
The specific use of the words “committing adultery” reflect the terminology used in the Ten Commandments. Throughout the novel, the narrator seems to go against all of the socially constructed “rules” for relationships. Yet, in this passage they agree with one of the most steadfast rules of Christianity; “Thou shall not commit adultery.” Although the narrator disobeys the “rules” in some contexts, this passage reflects just how internalized sexual stigma can be (Warner 2-3).

Growing Up is Hard to Do

Sex can feel like love or maybe it’s guilt that makes me call sex love. I’ve been through so much I should know just what it is I’m doing with Louise. I should be a grown up by now. Why do I feel like a convent virgin? (94)

The narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body is waiting for his/her married lover Louise to make a decision on how to proceed with their relationship. Louise’s husband Elgin is aware of their affair, yet they remain married. However, all three of them have come to realize that something needs to change and the narrator is waiting for Louise to choose between her marriage and her affair.

The narrator is wondering if the love Louise has said she has for him/her is truly love and not just an illusion created by sex. By saying that guilt may make sex feel like love, the narrator is suggesting that we like to hide behind love. We are afraid of the shame we might encounter if we have sex for nothing but pleasure. As Michael Warner points out in his book The Trouble with Normal, we are constantly looking for a way to handle our sexual shame, to get rid of it. We want to “pin it on someone else” (Warner, 3), or in this case something else. If we say we love someone, our sexual shame is automatically reduced because it is far more ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ within our society to have sex with someone you love than having sex for your own pleasure.

Even though the reader still doesn’t know if the narrator is male or female, he/she clearly lives on, as Judith Halberstam would put it, ‘Queer Time’. Indulging in numerous relationships with (married) partners of both sexes, not settling down, and clearly challenging “conventional forms of association, belonging, and identification” (Halberstam, 4), the narrator does not follow the traditional life span of school, marriage, kids, a steady job, and retirement. Instead, the narrator realizes himself/herself that he/she is not yet a grown up, does not fit the norm. He/she is aware that society expects him/her to end the affair; that he/she should know what ‘is right’ by looking at his/her life and the mistakes made, the lessons learned. Nevertheless, the narrator feels like a ‘convent virgin’: childlike, innocent, and clueless.

Although the narrator at one point believes that Louise will not, under any circumstances, choose to end her marriage, the comparison to feeling like a convent virgin furthermore suggests the narrator’s hope and faith that their love will prevail against all odds, against the norm, and against his/her fears. It shows the narrator’s hope that not following the norm will pay off in the end and lead to happiness.

 

Born to Die

What is the point of movement when movement indicates life and life indicates hope?  I have neither life nor hope.  Better than 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” (108)

Perhaps the most obvious syntactical choice in this passage is the structure of the first sentence.  The “x begets y begets z” form instantly implies unflagging forward motion. Word choices such as “fall” and “drawn up” conjure the idea of a cycle, and the narrator’s repetition of words such as “life” and “dead” lead me to believe that ze is referring to the circle of life.  To live, we must breathe.  However, the narrator makes the point that the air we breathe, the key to life as many would argue, consists of the dead.  That image in and of itself it wonderfully poetic.

While my explication of the passage could end there, with that dark yet beautiful image, I think that it connects really well to Judith Halberstam’s piece called “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.”  Halberstam introduces to us the idea of “queer time” (1).  The heteronormative timeline is generally considered to play out as follows: birth, school, job, spouse, kids, retirement, and finally death.  However, Halberstam poses the idea of “queer time” that breaks this timeline, as it focuses on “other logics of location, movement, and identification” rather than “reproduction” (1).  The narrator actually addresses this idea in a passage soon after the one I chose to analyze, listing the “characteristics of living things” that she was taught in school.  In fact, ze goes on to say, “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new” (108).

Halberstam’s idea of “queer time” allows us to eliminate reproduction from the list of “characteristics of living things” that exacerbate the narrator (108).  In fact, of all the aspects of life that “queer time” allows us to move around or eliminate, birth and death are the only two constants.  We will all be born, and our lives will all push forward until we die, our dust mixing into the atmosphere to sustain the new life to come.  Beyond that, it is fair to say that nothing else is constant.  We our slaves to our own desires, but our own desires are just that; our own.  Just as desires vary from person to person, so should the characteristics and timelines of our lives.   Perhaps if the narrator was able to read some of Halberstam’s work, ze would struggle less with how zir own wants and desires don’t fit into the supposed timeline we’re all supposed to follow.

sHE…

I had a boyfriend once, his name was Bruno…he found Jesus under a wardrobe… rescued by the fire brigade…Jesus had come out of the closet to save him. ‘Out of the closet and up into your heart,’ raved the Pastor (152)

The word “boyfriend” captured my attention immediately. I have been so caught up in finding the narrators gender and the gender he/she prefers, and this passage may have solidified my opinion.

For some reason I am seeing Jesus as the narrator himself/herself, slyly talking in first-person. He/she is seemingly stuck under a wardrobe and even hidden in the “closet.” Then, there is a “rescue.” A rescue from himself/herself. A rescue from his/her own sexuality. 

Sexuality is something that can either set you free or suck you in. This passage is the moment of freedom for the Narrator. I find it ever so intriguing that there is two terms that suggest suppression of the Narrator’s true self, and that is the use of the words “[rescue]” and “save.” The imagery used to capture the meaning, feeling and reality of ‘coming out of the closet’ is magnificent, while answering a very frustrating, reoccurring question: what is the gender of the narrator?

Though, the use of Jesus in this passage is so cliché, it ties the fact that ‘God knows everything you do and you do not’ into the plot of the novel. I proposed earlier that the Narrator is using Jesus as a double of himself/herself; he/she “had a boyfriend once” and he/she seemingly came “out of the closet.” I believe he/she is, in fact, a he.

Suppression is prevalent in this passage. Suppression of the gay community. In this instance, he needs to be saved from his sexuality and rescued from his own mind just to find himself?? Ridiculous. He found refuge once the pastor “raved” the truth, “raved” reality and “raved” sanity, that there is nothing more real than what is within your heart and nothing more genuine than love. Once it is found, all bets are off, the “wardrobe” is off and the “closet” is gone. I believe that his passage has made him, himself all the way to the core of his heart, where Jesus is ringing bells of true identity.

One Last Act For The Dead

What would you do? Pass the body into the hands of strangers? The body that has lain beside you in sickness and in health. The body your arms till long for dead or not. You were intimate with every muscle,  privy to the eyelids moving in sleep. This is the body where your name is written, passing into the hands of strangers.

This passage is unusual because the narrator refers to Louise as “the body” because ze is in a cemetery and believes Louise to be dead and cannot bear to refer to Louise as a dead body yet. The narrator also speaks to the reader directly asking, “What would you do? Pass the body into the hands of strangers?” referring to the embalming process before burial and how people used to bury their dead themselves instead of passing them off. The narrator believes the past was more romantic, as a family would take care of their dead as an act of love before burial but now families don’t want to see the dead. Nowadays people fear death, and the narrator is no different, with the slight exception that ze fears more about Louise’s death than zir own. This fear translates into a desire to see Louise again, but ze fears it will only be at Louise’s funeral.

The narrator has also tried to block Louise from zir mind while living outside of London to reduce the pain caused by her diagnosis and imminent death. This is why ze cannot bring zirself to say “Louise’s body” and instead adopts a tone as if ze were addressing the reader and the body the reader longs for, not Louise. The narrator cannot admit that ze longs for Louise and her body nor does ze want to pass Louise off to strangers to prepare her for her death, which is exactly what ze does when ze allows Elgin to attempt to cure her. The narrator is beginning to regret zir decision to leave Louise and realizes that passing a loved one’s body to strangers removes the acts of love one does for the dead. The narrator is trying to reconcile this idea with zir thought processes about leaving Louise because up to now, the narrator truly believed ze had helped Louise by leaving her. In fact, the opposite is true, and the narrator now deeply regrets sending zir lover off to strangers when ze could have stayed with Louise and tried to cure her zirself.

If this is love, then love is easy.. or is it not?

Why is it that the most unoriginal thing we can say to each other is still the thing we long to hear? ‘I love you’ is always a quotation. You did not say it first and neither did I, yet when you say it and when I say it we speak like savages who have found three words and worship them. (9)

I don’t like to think of myself as an insincere person but if I say I love you and I don’t mean it then what else am I? Will I cherish you, adore you, make way for you, make myself better for you, look at you and always see you, tell you the truth? And if love is not those things then what things? (11)

In both of these passages the unidentified narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body asks one of the most vital questions of mankind (and the singer Haddaway): ‘What is love?’. He or she wonders why hearing somebody say ‘I love you’ is such an important thing for us and if it shouldn’t be more important how we convey our own personal notion of love.

Even though, as the narrator points out, the words are unoriginal and have been said many times before, we long to hear them and make a big deal out of them, almost worshiping them. They give us a feeling of security, security that our significant other can’t possible leave us, as he/she said those magical three words. Words that many might only say because they feel pressured into it. Pressured by society, their partner, friends, parents, etc. And haven’t they most likely said I love you to somebody else before? Haven’t they had relationships before that didn’t work out even though they assured themselves they loved each other over and over again?

The narrator realizes that we need to be sure to only say ‘I love you’ when we truly mean it and when we can support these words with our actions. Only then there is a slight chance that it is actually love. Because we can’t possibly ever know what love truly means, can we? Who knows if there isn’t always somebody out there who we would love ‘more’ if ever given the chance of meeting each other? And isn’t it the beauty of love that it feels different for each and every one of us and with every partner that we’re with? It evolves, grows and changes, with us. That is what makes everybody’s love special.

When wondering what love is, the narrator repeatedly uses the word ‘you’. He/she realizes that love is not about yourself but about the person you are with. There is no ‘I’ in love. Love should always be about the other person. It should never be about what you think the other person may want or need but about truly listening to them, hearing them, seeing them for who they are.

Looking back at his/her previous relationships the narrator makes a conscious decision not to say ‘I love you’ to his/her current partner Louise until he/she can be sure that it is really love. However, the question remains if the narrator will successfully follow his/her ideals until the end of story. In the end, love, with all its emotions, usually gets the better of us.