How should we fight against evil? The question is an eternal one, one which will have bearing on life during all ages. Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry is a good example of this because it crosses the lines of multiple time periods – it is set in 17th century London, the present day and a few time periods in between – and because it addresses many perceived social injustices and makes statements about them. It is the story of a journeying mother, Dog-Woman, and her son, Jordan, who break boundaries, blur lines and question conventionally accepted ideals. One such topic that is questioned is the idea of patriarchy and Winterson employs the retelling of a fairy tale, in which the women actively seize their own destinies, to make a statement about the oppression and inadequacies of the patriarchal system. The retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, however, is unsuccessful in its fight against patriarchy because it portrays women as violent, over the top, maniacal creatures who dish out punishments that do not fit the crime.
A case by case analysis shows that the majority of the twelve dancing princesses fights evil with evil. A few of them find some method of escape that is fairly harmless, but many of them end up murdering their husbands. The first princess falls in love with a mermaid and runs away to begin “housekeeping with her in perfect salty bliss” but the second princess tells Jordan that “she had wrapped her own husband in cloth and gone on wrapping the stale bandages round and round until she reached his nose” (43-44). While the method of some of the princesses is harmless, those princesses are a minority. Instead, most of them, like the second princess, murder the husband in a fairly violent yet creative manner. They are faced with evil – oppressive and often violent husbands – and they meet that evil with more evil – murderous behavior. This suggests that the only way for women to be active against injustice or to be autonomous is to behave in an evil manner. Winterson wants the reader to think about fighting against the oppression of women, but the only example she gives of the fight against oppression is murder. This sends the message that not only is murder acceptable, but also that it is the only or maybe the best way to struggle against an oppressive husband. If Winterson is suggesting that the way to fight evil is with more evil, she does not present a successful argument for the fight against oppression because evil cannot drive out evil, it can only add to it.
Some of the princesses resort to violent punishments that are unwarranted in terms of the crimes of their husbands. Many of the husbands are not innocent, that is for sure. But the justification for some of these cases is certainly lacking. One of the princesses poisons her husband to death and she does not even really attempt to justify why she does it; in fact, the most negative thing that she says about him is that “he is very, very fat. He is the fattest man in the village. He has always been fat. He has eleven brothers, all of whom are as slender as spring corn. Every day he eats one cow followed by one pig” (49). Certainly, this man demonstrates gluttonous behavior to an extreme level, but does this warrant death? Is overeating so bad that one ought to be poisoned to death for it? The way this princess describes his death (“As soon as he had finished [the poisonous concoction that she had mixed up for him] he began to sell up. He swelled out of the house, cracking the roof, and within a few moments had exploded” ) seems cruel and unusual if the crime is enjoying food too much. Perhaps his death could be justified if this man had been painted as a person who takes excessively and does not regard that some things should not be taken, but Winterson does not do that. Instead, she depicts him simply as a gluttonous man and, in effect, she makes the woman look ridiculous for poisoning someone to death simply because they enjoy food. This example presents the woman as cruel, unjust, and irrational; it does not present compelling evidence that women ought to fight against the patriarchal system that constrains them. Instead, it suggests that women are ridiculous and are unable to react in a relevant way when presented with difficulties.
The behaviors of the princesses place them on the same level as their oppressive husbands. It does not merit approval; instead, it depicts them as being just as bad as their dictatorial husbands. When the husband of the fifth princess blinds her, no reaction is necessary in order to feel sympathy for the princess. His actions are so horrific that no response is needed for the reader to acknowledge and be outraged by his chillingly evil conduct. But the princess does respond and she responds in a way that suggests that she seeks personal vengeance:
As for me, my body healed, though my eyes never did, and eventually I was found by my sisters, who had come in their various ways to live on this estate.
My own husband?
Oh well, the first time I kissed him he turned into a frog.
There he is, just by your foot. His name’s Anton. (47)
This quote is cold, sinister. It suggests that the princess has become just as evil as her husband was. It continues the theme that the princesses ought to fight against their evil circumstances with evil tactics. Indeed, it is the second princess who says that she “had a moment’s regret, and continued” as if she knew that what she was doing was not right, was not warranted, but she does not stop (44). The princesses are fighting against evil, but they have become evil themselves, so why should we sympathize with them? Why should we advocate for their behavior? Is it not just as bad as the behavior against which they are so opposed?
Ultimately, neither party is worthy of admiration because both the princesses and their husbands are in the same moral condition. This is most clearly displayed by the tale of the ninth princess who was chained to the bed and chained when she rode her horse and who had to hang at her husband’s arm and feed at his hand (50). One night in June, she “flew off his wrist and tore his liver from his body, and bit [her] chain in pieces and left him on the bed with his eyes open” (51). It is hard to choose which person behaves more despicably. I suppose that the argument could be made that her husband is worthy of greater blame than she is because he instigated horrid behaviors without reason while she was merely reacting to her circumstances. But when it is such an evil, such an immoral, such an unspeakable act, does motive matter? Certainly, it makes the crime more understandable, but not more justifiable. But I would argue that the behavior of this princess is just as bad as the behavior of her husband and as such, it is not commendable, it is not justifiable, it should not be hailed as a courageous struggle against oppression and patriarchy. If their behaviors are at the same place on a spectrum of morality and her husband’s behavior is not acceptable, her behavior is assuredly not acceptable either. To admire this princess’s conduct would be grossly inconsistent because it would mean that one admires in the princess what one despises in her husband.
The validity of Winterson’s idea – that women must combat the evilness of oppression with which they are surrounded and that they take an active role in expressing their autonomy by resisting the repression of their husbands who are so ingrained in a patriarchal system that they know no other way to behave – is completely negated by the fact that she demonstrates this struggle as a violent war, a war in which one must meet evil with more evil. She contradicts herself. On the one hand, she presents the oppressive, unfaithful, and sometimes, violent men as evil, abominable, as a force against which the princesses ought not give in, but ought instead to endeavor actively to combat these men. But on the other hand, she portrays the violent and cruel women who commit murderous acts as commendable, as people who fight bravely against injustice. The problem is that this suggests that murder of the oppressor is the only way to combat oppression. This is ultimately what renders Winterson’s argument unsuccessful – it suggests only one way, and an evil way at that, to break free of patriarchal constraints, but life is not so one-dimensional. Life is complexity and the fight against oppression is no exception.
Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. New York: Grove Press, 1989. Print.