‘Imagining’ Monstrosity and Gender in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry

Before I begin writing this, I will make a confession: I only picked up Sexing the Cherry last weekend, as it was 140 pages long. I had assumed I would finish it in one sitting and go off to sleep. I was so wrong. As the Winterson says, ‘every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle.’ – this book is special because it explores these paths not taken, these forgotten angles, by mixing the postmodern, the historical and the fantasy. So what one comes across in those 140 pages is a Rabelaisian mixture of historical fantasy, fantastic postmodernity and even postmodern history – or history imagined through a very vivid postmodern lens.

I will only provide a brief synopsis of the plot as there are better places where a whole summary can be found.

So here is what happens: It is a tale of a woman who calls herself Dogwoman – a woman of huge proportions of body and power of will, and her son Jordan, who live in 17th Century London. As a boy, playing on the banks of Thames, Jordan meets his mentor, John Tradescant, an adventurer and gardener for the King Charles. Jordan becomes his apprentice and sails round the world, exploring foreign lands and brining back exotic fruits and plants back to Britain. During his journeys to faraway places, he discovers cities of wonder: one that is not bound by gravity and one that has been destroyed by love, for example. In the City of Words, Jordan meets the Twelve Dancing Princesses and eventually falls in love with the youngest, Fortunata. In London, Dogwoman lives her life breeding dogs for a living (hence the name Dogwoman), struggles against political and religious rise of the Puritans, survives the Plague, and eventually sets the city on fire. At the end of the novel, Jordan and Dogwoman leave burning London together.

The following excerpt foregrounds one of the main, and most striking preoccupations of the novel:-

“The Hopi, an Indian tribe, have a language as sophisticated as ours, but no tenses for past, present and future. The division does not exist. What does this say about time?

Matter, that thing the most solid and the well-known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?”

Yes, time and space. Since I am in the process of reading William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), and am frankly struggling with Benjy’s narration, I can quite appreciate the difficulties of representing the space – time conundrum on paper.

But unlike Benjy’s incomprehensibility (Benjy is mentally retarded and has no conception of time), Winterson beautifully interrogates Time and Space through Jordan’s voyages and journeys. At times, these are for real, but he also seems to travel in his mind – across realities, dimensions and time. His stories often had me questioning: What is real? What is true? And most importantly, how powerful is the mind as an agency to transcend both the limitations of the truth and the real.

I feel imagination becomes the key; the aesthetic pivot and moving force behind the book.

In The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh’s writes about the lives of people who will perish with the onset of World War II, a week from then,

“Which was more real, their dirty bathtubs and shared bedrooms or that other reality, waiting one week away? Most of all he would despair because he could not imagine what it would be like to confront the most real of their realities: that within two years three of the four of them would be dead. The realities of the bombs and torpedoes and the dying was easy enough to imagine–mere events, after all, recorded in thousands of films and photographs and comic books. But not that other infinitely more important reality: the fact that they knew; that even walking down that street, that evening, they knew what was coming–not the details, nor the timing perhaps, but they knew, all four of them, that their world, and in all probability they themselves, would not survive the war. What is the colour of that knowledge? Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable: nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.”    (emphasis: mine)

It is this intuitive knowledge of what it means to be, and what it means to know, a specific place, at a specific time, amidst the otherness of things that escape the grand narratives of history, that most deeply intertwines with the plot of the novel; and Winterson sets out to capture this the essence of things, of time, of places, reflected through the lives of a voyaging or imagining Jordan, and a stationary and oriented-to-action Dogwoman.

Speaking of gender, I will begin by drawing attention to Otto Jespersen’s Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin, where he adopted a male-centered (and frankly outdated) point of view and described women’s language as more conservative, in keeping with the traditional language they learned from their parents, while men are innovative (242). He also pointed out that women’s language is more euphemistic, “shrinking from coarse and gross expressions”, preferring instead “refined (and in certain spheres) veiled and indirect expressions” (246). Years later, Robin Lakoff argued that the language that is allowed to women constrains their identities; it limits them to a less powerful discourse, that is, if they want to preserve their femininity.

If this can be assumed to be the standard patriarchal standpoint on women’s discourse, then Jeanette Winterson upends this order by reversing gender-specific expectations.

Hence, it is Dog-Woman who uses stronger words than Jordan, and whose general style of story-telling is more tomboyish, as she is fascinated by gruesome details and takes morbid pleasure in describing them.

One such repugnant scene is Dog-Woman’s visit to the brothel, where her description of sexual perversions can be associated with the Medieval comic register:

“I put my eyes back to the flap and saw that the man had been branded with the sign of a rutting pig […] I heard a snorting, and a pig was driven into the room, wild with fright. The man leaped at it and, holding it between his legs, continued his pleasure with deep thrusts while the dwarf heated up the iron again” (86).

The bawdy tone is reminiscent of Medieval literature, but the element that truly draws attention to the reworking of the canon is the fact that her tale questions the centrality of antifeminism in the literature of the Middle Ages. During that time, the anonymous authors or the first authors who used their names were male and indulged in such clichés of femininity as the insubordinate wife or the talkative and sexually aggressive woman.

The woman narrator of Sexing the Cherry is an example of this type of Medieval woman, but she is not the object of representation or mockery of men, since she is in control of her tale.

Dog Woman’s unruly attitude and style of account might be explained in terms of popular theories during the Middle Ages related to laughter, excess, the four humours and a woman’s body. Thus, women were seen as more prone to excess and to laughter, because their humours tended to shift more, because they found themselves under the dominion of their bodily passions, which is why they were associated with the body itself (Perfetti 4-5). However, this laughter might be interpreted at a symbolical level as a defiance of men; after all, Hélène Cixous sees women’s laughter in terms of its connection to Medusa, the Greek mythological creature whose writhing snakes turned men into stone.

The sexual connotations of stiffness and her writhing snakes make her a symbol of the quintessential monstrous woman, a threat to patriarchy. In the male imaginary, the Medusa is a representation of a castrated male, but this is only because of men’s failure to see her only as a castrated male; her laughter is thus a way of proving men wrong: “Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one. But isn’t this fear convenient for them? […]You have only to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (885).

Jordan himself muses on women’s conspiracy against men and their Janus-faced attitude that allows them to pretend men are in power just to “laugh” at men’s deceit:

“I watched women flirting with men, pleasing men, doing business with men, and then I watched them collapsing into laughter, sharing the joke, while the men, all unknowing, felt themselves master of the situation and went off to brag in bar rooms and to preach from pulpits the folly of the weaker sex” (32).

Other than the women’s generalized laughter, further arguments in favour of the idea that DogWoman’s discourse is far from Jespersen’s model and closer to Cixous’s laughter can be found throughout the whole episode of the Spitalfields brothel. Her violence against her Puritan neighbours Firebrace and Scroggs brings her closer to a warrior than to a delicate woman and the imagery of dismemberment and necrophilia points to the type of woman that men fear.

Dog-Woman rebels against patriarchy first by using bodily force, by reversing the natural balance according to which man is more powerful than woman and secondly, by choosing not to censor or euphemize the horrid aspects of bodily functions that she witnesses.

Therefore, in her monstrosity lies the greatest strength and most telling argument (assuming the author does make an argument) of the novel.

Yet, for all this, Winterson does not simply create a male character who happens to have a female anatomy. Although the Dog-Woman, in her opposition to male dominance, must adopt a “masculine” mode of behaviour, she ultimately does not subscribe to those traditional roles and attitudes ascribed to men; her “masculine” behaviour, ironically enough, is in defence of a ethic that exceeds or even contradicts the traditionally masculine. The trap that Sexing the Cherry approaches in these moments is that of conflating the traditionally masculine and feminine with the essentially masculine and feminine. It is here that we should consider whether or not Winterson, despite her depictions of a subject that can drift away from the moorings of his or her identity, has recourse to the notion that there are male and female “essences” and whether Sexing the Cherry keeps the same traditional categories while arguing for a mere levelling or reversal of the gender hierarchy.

A similar inversion comes to fore when we read the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. Each of the tale, is an inversion of the formulaic ‘prince saves princess and they live happily ever after’ template, as all of the eleven tales consist of ways in which the princesses kill their tyrannical husbands and come to live together in harmony. The twelfth, Fortunata, escapes and is found in the end by Jordan, whose offering of love she spurns.

Apart from these telling aspects, I will strongly recommend this book for its beautiful wordplay, its digressions, and a sense of poetic that binds the language. But most importantly, for two very beautiful characters: Dogwoman and her son Jordan, and the love they share.

As Kamala Das had written, “A mother’s love fashions a kind of eternity”. The book ends on such a note. And I think if there is a moral to be found, it is in the course of the development of the two characters, through their journeys, their conflicts, and the static love that pervades these life-altering transitions.

Leaving you with a few of its covers which I found most delectable.



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