Exploration of the Body Itself in Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Written on the Body’

Jeanette Winterson uses fantastic and glorified imagery throughout her novel, Written on the Body, to discuss the human body. The images represented are mostly the bodies of women, in which she calls attention to the various elements of objectification and “the male gaze” to represent the body as other elements outside of itself, while also using anatomical terminology to show the literal representation of the body. The different lenses used to discuss the images cast a subversive representation of the narrator’s view on the human body.

The most highlighted and discussed image of the piece is the body of the character, Louise. She is first shown in a scene where the narrator describes, “your body bright beneath the clear green water, its shape fitting your shape, holding you, faithful to you. You turned on your back and your nipples grazed the surface of the river and the river decorated your hair with beads” (11). The reader is given the first impression that Louise is an object of desire for the narrator as the story reveals the admiration of her beautify through a fetishized observation. There are also many moments where the distinction between the body and its continued metaphor as text becomes skewed. The narrator often describes the body as a transcription that must be read and interpreted by their different lovers, especially Louise. The reader can interpret these images as the narrator feeling understood, or not understood, by their lovers in how they interpret and unravel the different bodily and textual elements of themselves.

One of the most significant pieces of evidence to allude to this understanding is shown as the narrator states: “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 had reading hands. She translated me into her own book” (89). The presence of textual body representations is also used to explain the impact that the various lovers have had on the narrator, not only to express their levels of understanding. This is evident as the narrator describes, “Your hand prints are all over my body. Your flesh is my flesh. You deciphered me and now I am plain to read” (106). In contrast, if the text inscribed upon the body must be deciphered and interpreted, then the body itself becomes an active object to engage with and understand the history behind itself the person that it represents. The attempt at the narrator understanding the transcription upon Louise is described, “I will find a clue to you, I will be able to unravel you, pull you between my fingers and stretch out each thread to know the measure of you” (50). The narrator sees Louise’s body as an undiscovered land that must be explored and conquered, also asking Louise to transcribe upon their body as well. This can be seen as the narrator describes, “I will explore you and mine you and you will redraw me according to your will” (20). With the objectification and arbitrary representations of the female body, the reader can begin to question the motives and ideologies of the narrator.

The implementation of Laura Mulvey’s article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” as a lens over this novel is extremely useful, because it sheds light on the problematic representations of women through “the male gaze,” which is objectifying and sexualizing in nature. This problematic representation can be understood as Mulvey describes, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (837). The narrator often describes women in this light, creating an objectified image of who they are through the descriptions of their bodies. For example, at one point, the narrator is rationalizing a relationship with one of their lovers with, “Why didn’t I dump Inge and head for a Singles Bar? The answer is her breasts,” claiming their breasts to be worn as a status symbol determining worth, the narrator continues, “They were not marvelously upright, the kind women wear them as epaulettes, as a mark of rank” (24). The essence of “the male gaze” is also evident throughout the different observations of Louise as well. While the narrator sat down to eat a meal with Louise, they begin to describe, “When she lifted the soup spoon to her lips how I longed to be that innocent piece of stainless steel. I would gladly have traded the blood in my body for half a pint of vegetable stock. Let me be diced carrot, vermicelli, just so that you will take me in your mouth” (36). These observations and descriptions move beyond the fetishized light and shift towards more anatomical and concrete images of the body.

Rather than wanting to know Louise deeper than her skin in terms of beyond her physical being, the narrator describes, “I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid. I would recognise her even when her body had long since fallen away” (111). The language used throughout the novel represents the body by introducing the concrete and objectified images of it into existence. This is done by a narrator who continually draws attention to the body through various, differing, and evocative descriptions through both anatomical, fetishized, and objectified lenses. Representing the different characters from perspectives of such lenses creates a subversive aspect of the human body, showing the true inner thoughts and feelings of the story’s narrator.

Works Cited

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44. Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. New York: Random House, 1994.