A Feminist Criticism of The Passion
Employing a feminist while analyzing Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion allows for the use of many tools that can assist the reader while conducting a close reading of this work. Some terms from Tyson’s Critical Theory Today that will aid in the close examination of The Passion are: traditional gender roles, which “cast men as rational, strong, protective, and decisive; they cast women as emotional (irrational), weak, nurturing, and submissive” (81), patriarchy, which is defined, “as any culture that privileges men by promoting traditional gender roles” (81), subjectivity, which is explained as, “one’s own selfhood, the way one views oneself and others, which develops from one’s own individual experiences” (90) and materialist feminism, which is, “interested in the social and economic oppression of women” (91). There are many instances where Winterson defies the heteronormative gender roles of the 1800s through her writing, and The Passion is a prime representation of her defiance against patriarchal dominated societies. This piece of literature is especially unique for the outlying perspectives she puts forth between the protagonists, Villanelle and Henri, given the socially reversed portrayal that Winterson chose to place on the two.
Henri and Villanelle emerge from two separate societies with Henri being from the linear, masculine, and patriarchal Paris, and Villanelle being from the feminine, theatrical, and ambiguous Venice. The protagonists represent opposing characteristics of the societies in which they originate from, as well as from each other, with Henri upholding softer, and more feminine personality traits, in opposition to Villanelle’s masculine and brusque mannerisms. The utilization of feminist criticism will aid in further analyzing and explaining the methods and reasonings behind Winterson’s abstract gender roles and societal views that are portrayed throughout her writing of The Passion. Patriarchy is ever present throughout the first section of the novel, “The Emperor”, as Henri speaks of his hometown and Bonaparte, while also including his perception of the gender roles that are bestowed upon him and the rest of his community. Napoleon is idolized due to his position of power, societal ranking, and accumulation of supportive followers. In this section of Winterson’s The Passion, Henri describes that, “Bonaparte will snatch up his country like a sponge and ring out every last drop. We are in love with him,” (Winterson 8). He is praised for his level of grit and ability to dictate the lives of those around him. Henri takes such a special interest in Bonaparte due to his embodiment of contrasting personality traits that are evident in the comparison between himself and Napoleon. He professes his adoration for Bonaparte in his confession, “Even when I hated him, he could still make me cry. And not through fear. He was great. Greatness like his is hard to be sensible about.” (Winterson 30). Henri’s delicate personality is evidently showcased in his admittance of admiration for Napoleon as he explains the emotions that are developed when listening to and observing him. He appears to allow Bonaparte’s every word to linger in his thoughts, causing strong feelings to surface due to Henri’s intense sensitivity that coincide with the elements of eloquence and obscurity present in Bonaparte’s dialect. Through the depictions of Henri and Napoleon, the reader is able to understand the difference between the contrasting gender roles that are being represented between the two. Bonaparte continues to demonstrate traits that are associated with traditional gender roles, and Henri demonstrates characteristics that defy heteronormativity.
Another display of Henri’s gentle nature is present when he reminisces about his home, stating, “In spring at home the dandelions streak the fields and the river runs idle again after months of rain.” (Winterson 6), and the dandelions resurface as he later mentions, “At night I dream of dandelions.” (Winterson 9). He is fondly recalling some of the simple the things he had once overlooked, realizing the beauty of his home that he often took for granted. Due to the level of emotions and lack of masculinity present in Henri’s demeanor, patriarchy pushes others to view him as a weaker man and causes him to become the target of taunting from many of those around him. Traditional gender roles are also present in Henri’s hometown, especially when considering the part women are expected to play in everyday life. When mentioning a man in his village, he also recognizes the role his wife plays by stating that, “she was sitting quietly in a clean house mending clean clothes and the fields were planted for another year.” (Winterson 27). While her husband is off constantly losing money, she remains sensible and tends to her domestic duties so everything remains stable, just as she is expected to do. This observation also showcases materialist feminism due to the oppression of women by tethering them to their household and expecting the maintenance of any domestic duties that are present at home front.
In opposition to the many traditional gender roles represented in the first section of The Passion, the second section, “The Queen of Spades”, presents a more defiant set of roles and situations. In this section, we are introduced to Villanelle, a cross dressing Venetian woman that has webbed feet. She is of a sexually ambiguous nature and presents herself as a gender fluid individual. Just like Henri, she is not necessarily a product of her society, but rather more of an outlier to heteronormative gender roles. Evident gender roles of Venetian society are shown when describing pregnant women give offerings while they “beg for a clean heart if her child be a girl and boatman’s feet if her child be a boy.” (Winterson 50). This allows for another defiance of set gender roles when Villanelle describes, “My feet were webbed. There never was a girl whose feet were webbed in the entire history of the boatmen.” (Winterson 51). Given this anatomical characteristic of Villanelle, the reader can infer a sense of gender fluidity early on. As she further develops and transitions into adulthood, she describes her first job in saying, “I went to work in the Casino, raking dice and spreading cards and lifting wallets where I could…I dressed as a boy because that’s what the visitors liked to see. It was part of the game, trying to decide which sex was hidden behind tight breeches and extravagant face-paste.” (Winterson 54). While she defies heteronormativity by altering her outward appearance, the reason behind doing so is to conform to these traditional gender roles. The public desires male presences to work these types of positions, but with Villanelle’s disguise, she is passable as a masculine figure to many of the casino guests. In her time working at the casino, there were many characters that she came across, but there were very few that stuck out to her. The one that stole her attention and her heart is the masked woman that she labels as “The Queen of Spades”. Villanelle describes their first encounter by explaining, “Only for a second she touched me and then she was gone and I was left with my heart smashing at my chest and three-quarters of a bottle of the best champagne. I was careful to conceal both. I am pragmatic about love and have taken my pleasure with both men and women, but I have never needed a guard for my heart. My heart is a reliable organ.” (Winterson 59 – 60). In this recollection of her experiences, it is now incontestable that she is not only gender fluid, but also exhibits traits of sexual fluidity. From such a brief encounter, Villanelle develops a deep infatuation with this woman, and so allows her to become a burning desire, and ultimately, her object of passion.
Winterson’s main focus of the novel is to portray the passion that drives each individual and the story that goes along with their attempts to achieve their deepest desires. In various instances, this yearning is describes as being, “somewhere between fear and sex. Passion I suppose.” (Winterson 55). Villanelle’s passion quickly turns to grief as the woman disappears, and Villanelle abandons her stand in search of this mysterious woman. When “The Queen of Spades” is nowhere to be found, Villanelle begins to progress towards a sense of emptiness. After her search yields no results, she states, “My time was up and I went back to the booth of chance full of champagne and an empty heart.” (Winterson 60). As time passes, she continues to have a yearning to once again meet with this woman as she declares, “I will find her.” (Winterson 62). While in search of the masked woman, Villanelle is also in search of herself, and this is where Winterson introduces subjectivity to her text. Villanelle begins to question herself and explains a situation that is indicative of an identity crisis when she describes, “I walked the streets, rowed circles around Venice, woke up in the middle of the night with my covers in impossible knots and my muscles rigid. I took to working double shifts at the Casino, dressing as a woman in the afternoon and a young man in the evenings.” (Winterson 62). In taking on the double shifts at her place of work, she quickly transitions from one outward appearance to another, showcasing a prime example of her gender fluidity. The reader can lose a sense of her subjectivity throughout her narration in The Passion, seeing as she presents many conflicting claims. The reader is pushed to wonder how she truly sees herself in relation to others’ perceptions of her, especially after she makes the claim, “My flabby friend, who has decided I’m a woman, has asked me to marry him.” (Winterson 63). In stating that he made the decision that she is a woman, we can wonder if she sees herself just the same. Further in this section, Villanelle’s subjectivity is made clear as she straightforward admits, “’I’m a woman,’” to her beloved “Queen of Spades” (Winterson 71). With this validation of Villanelle’s subjectivity, the reader can move forth to further understand who she truly is. As Winterson moves forward to the section, “The Zero Winter,” a correlation can be made between the two protagonists as their stories come together and begin to merge into one. The reader is able to develop a deeper understanding of the characters as they begin to understand each other throughout the progression of this section. It begins with the return of Henri’s narration, and with the change of times, there is also prevalent change in his character.
As Henri once adored Napoleon, his perception shifts as he proclaims, “I don’t want to worship him anymore. I want to make my own mistakes. I want to die in my own time.” (Winterson 86). While Henri still harbors his sensitivity and emotional traits, he is transforming into his own person and despises Napoleon for what he once idolized him for. This section allows the reader to connect the story from the different perspectives and changing narration to finally bring them full circle and understand the points that Winterson is trying to make. Given the context between the different narrations, character portrayal and development that Winterson provides, the reader is able fully understand this work with the implication of a feminist lens. With the contextual evidence provided, the comprehension of the traditional gender roles, patriarchy, subjectivity, and materialist feminism throughout Winterson’s The Passion should come more easily to the reader.
Works Cited Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. Bloomsbury Publishing, 1987. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. Routledge, 2015.
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