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“Fantasists or Liars”: Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry as an instance of Post-modernism
“We experience the world as flat, even though we know it is round. Likewise, we experience the world as solid matter when we know from physics that it is mostly empty space. In other words, our perception of reality is a fiction we adopt.”1
Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry2 has been widely critiqued, debated and acknowledged as a penultimate example of post-modern literature. Published in 1989, the book is a finely etched compendium of various post-modernist narrative techniques and themes. Imbued with a style of story-telling that completely flouts the reader’s expectations, the text continually foregrounds itself in a space of subversion and emancipation with regards to various issues. It is the intent of this paper to critically discuss the novel Sexing the Cherry as an instance of post modernism by looking at various techniques and thematic concerns of the novel.
It is perhaps important to deal with the themes of the narrative first so as to further venture into the narrative technique.
The revolutionary post-modernist implications of the novel essentially present itself through its dealing with the politics of representation and identity. Primarily, the novel unsettles all the readerly expectations through the basic characters and narrators of the text , Dog-Woman, Jordan, Nicholas Jordan, and the environmentalist woman, who are marginal characters or in Hutcheon’s words, they are “anything but proper types: they are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figures of fictional history”3(p.114) As Jordan says is the novel that “I discovered that my own life was written invisibly, was squashed between facts.”(STC, p.2), the reader is alerted to the
1 Rosemergy, Jan ‘Navigating the Interior Journey: The Fiction of Jeanette Winterson’, British Women Writing Fiction, ed. by Abby P. Werlock .University of Alabama Press, 2000, pp.248-269, p.264.
2 Winterson, J. Sexing the Cherry. Delhi: Vintage. 2014.
3 Hutcheon, L. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. London: Routledge. 1988.
problematic invisiblisation of certain characters by the empirical and factual historiography which is predominantly patriarchal, phallogocentric and heteronormative. Perhaps the inclusion of voices of the characters like the giantess Dog-woman, who completely flouts all societal standards of beauty and femininity4 and their representation is a move towards visiblising the invisible. This notion needs to be elaborated upon.
Firstly, the physical characterisation of the Dog-Woman as a giant and grotesque female, eliciting a type of monstrosity, becomes an act of subversion in itself. She introduces herself as:
How hideous am I? My nose is flat, my eyebrows are heavy. I have only a few teeth and those are a poor show, being black and broken. I had smallpox when I was a girl and the caves in my face are home enough for fleas. But I have fine blue eyes that see in the dark. (STC, p.19)
Winterson, while constructing a grotesque subject in coherence with the concept of Kristeva’s5 abject, that which defines what is fully human from what is not” (p. 65), also employs various strategies to display it as an empowered character and thus subverts the negative connotations of the abject. As Anna Baren asserts:
The Dog-Woman uses her monstrosity as a source of power and empowerment; she does not shy away from society, cover her face, remain silent, or passive. On several occasions, instead of her strength and critical voice, it is her abject-like embodiment, her excess fluids and smells which are her most powerful weapons. To force the herbalist Thomas Johnson to hurry up and show his strange and wonderful fruit (a banana), she pushes him into her dress. As a result Johnson was: “soon coughing and crying because I haven’t had that dress off in five years” (12). During a swelteringly warm
4 The paper would elaborate on these ideas regarding the representation of the grotesque body and the feminist aspect of it later.
5 Kristeva, J. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.
summer in 1640, the Dog-Woman sweats excessively, and these waterfalls took with them countless lice and other timid creatures” (22), which she, grudgingly, washes away under the pump. The Dog-Woman turns her apparent “weakness”, her monstrous size, into a source of strength, a powerful weapon. (p. 42)6
The empowerment of the Dog-Woman also emancipates her from the predisposed notions of a female as concocted and propagated by the patriarchal society. As Susana Onega7 claims that the Dog Woman:
challenges the definition of woman in Lacanian terms as ‘absolute Other’, as the mirror in which man can define himself. Unlike women under the patriarchal system, she does not need men to achieve a self-determination and therefore is not worried about failing to conform to the ideal of corporeal beauty devised by men. (p. 304)
It is this thematic subversion of characterisation and representation that perhaps glorifies the post-modernist intentions of the novel, as it “traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’”8(p. 4).
Furthermore, this politics of representation extends itself to the idea of gender identity and the use of lesbian narrative in the novel. Jordan’s accounts of his travels — which are imaginative even though he does endeavour of real voyages alongside Tradescant as well includes the story of the twelve dancing princesses which is yet again a subversion and moreso a parody of the fairytale by the same name by the Grimm Brothers. Mustafa Kirca presents an elaborate discussion on this topic:
6 Baren, A. Multiplying narratives, Disclosing bodies: Story-telling and embodiment in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry and The Powerbook. Phd Thesis. University of Utrecht. 2007
7 Onega, S.“Jeanette Winterson’s Politics of Uncertainty in Sexing the Cherry” in Gender IDeology: Essays on Theory, Fiction and Film. Eds. D’Arcy, Chantal Cornut Gentille and Angel Garcia Landa Jose. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 1996. pp.297-313.
8 Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Routledge. 1981.
Gender boundaries and old-established images constructed about women, that is, “phallocentric definitions of femininity”, are overthrown in these fantastic stories integrated into Jordan’s narrative… The fairy tales that Jordan reports subvert the myths created about women by heterosexist discourses and transgress gender boundaries; so they offer “counter images” for women and alternative ways of conceptualizing gender identity as opposed to the one defined by heterosexual thinking, giving voice to the silenced women… In the city of words, Jordan finds the opportunity to explore the world of women by getting rid of the burden of his gender through dressing as a woman… He learns that these women can abandon the place if they feel like it through the stream of water running under the floor and leading to a convent, and that they can escape through the passage with the help of the nuns and can take refuge in the convent; the nuns, on the other hand, can work for some time in the gentleman’s brothel to raise money like other women in the city… Winterson manages to deflect the image of women, either as nuns or whores, by showing the nuns and whores in an unexceptionally strong solidarity, in a lesbian love relationship, and without a defining boundary between the two… The Twelve Dancing Princesses tell Jordan…how they escaped from their husbands, or even killed them, and experienced happiness by means of their lesbian love… Heterosexual marriage, in Winterson’s work, is what women are forced to accept and lesbian love is offered as alternative to heterosexual marriage by the writer. Winterson’s rewriting the fairy tale from a feminist perspective further indicates that the female image in the role of a loyal wife is a construct… Women are liberated from the limits of hetero-patriarchal world in Winterson’s fiction through their lesbian relationships. (p. 73-76)9
Furthering from the idea of the fantastic tales, the narrative of the Dog-Woman and Jordan together coincide to signify another important theme and technique, that of historiographic metafiction. The narrative of the Dog-Woman sheds light from a different angle on some real historical events such as the dethronement of Charles I, the period of Cromwell and the strict practices of the Puritans, the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague and the restoration of the monarchy by Charles II. This crude historical materialism emerging in the Dog Woman’s narration is mingled with the fantastic stories of her adopted son Jordan which signifies the deconstruction of the historical discourse in Sexing the Cherry by merging of the factual with the fantastic. This is a characteristic historiographic metafiction which, as Linda Hutcheon claims, gives way to the celebrated postmodernist “paradox”: “its world is both resolutely fictive and yet undeniably historical” (Ibid. p.142)
With the idea of historiography, Winterson also subverts the notion of space and time in the novel. As Jordan explains in the novel:
Time has no meaning, space and place have no meaning, on this journey. All times can be inhabited, all places visited. All times can be inhabited, all places visited… Some people who have never crossed the land they were born on have travelled all over the world. The journey is not linear, it is always back and forth, denying calendar, the wrinkles and the lines of the body.The self is not contained. (STC, p.89)
This notion of time and space is reflective in the narrative of the text through the final section of the novel entitled “Some Years Later,” which contains the stories of naval officer Nicholas Jordan and an unnamed ecologist/feminist. Firstly, it plays with readers’
9 Kirca, M. Postmodernist Historical Novels: Jeanette Winterson’s And Salman Rushdie’s Novels as Historiographic Metafictions. Phd Thesis. Middle East Technical University. 2009.
expectations of time who would expect a leap forward in time of just some years, instead, the last section of the novel is set three centuries onwards. Secondly, the story of two characters is underlined with suggestions of them being same characters as the earlier major ones, or perhaps duplications of Jordan and Dog-Woman and the transgression of the border between past and present or distinct space and time becomes clear with these sentences of Nicholas Jordan:
I rested my arms on the railing and my head on my arms. I felt I was falling into a black hole with no stars and no life and no helmet. I heard a foot scrape on the deck beside me. Then a man’s voice said, ‘They are burying the King at Windsor today.’ I snapped upright and looked full in the face of the man, who was staring out over the water. I knew him but from where? And his clothes nobody wears any clothes like that anymore. I looked beyond him, upwards. The sails creaked in the breeze, the main spar was heavy with rope. Further beyond I saw the Plough and Orion and the bright sickle of the moon. I heard a bird cry, sharp and fierce. Tradescant sighed. My name is Jordan. (STC, p.139)
Hence, converging all these notions together, Arostegui states that “Sexing the Cherry exposes its constuctedness as a literary artefact by using the technique of repetition with a difference…as a narrative continuum in which four basic first-person narrative instances offer alternative perspectives and create a complex web of interrelated self-echoing voices.”(p.250)10
Thus, Sexing the Cherry becomes an intriguing and brilliant instance of Post modernism that completely subverts any and every aspect of realist literature. Winterson in the novel presents in the form of ‘lies’ the post-modernist nature of the novel:
10 Arostegui, M. “Postmodernist (Discontinuities: Jeanette Winterson’s Silence on Wyndham Lewis” in Wyndham Lewis the Radical: Essays on Literature and Modernity ed. Carmelo Cunchillos Jaime. Germany: Peter Lang. 2007
Lies 1: There is only the present and nothing to remember.
Lies 2: Time is straight line.
Lies 3: The difference between the past and the future is that one has happened and the other has not.
Lies 4: We can only be in one place at a time.
Lies 5: Any proposition that contains the word ‘finite’ (the world, the universe,
Lies 6: Reality as something which can be agreed upon.
Lies 7: Reality as truth. (STC, p.92-93)
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