Feminism with Postmodernism Harrative in Novel "‘sexing the Cherry’"

Published: 2021-09-10 18:25:10
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Jeanette Winterson in her novel “Sexing the Cherry” blends Feminism with Postmodernist narrative. Postmodernist movement has to do with breaking away from the normative way of the world. Body of a human being, which is a site through which society exercises its control on individuals, in this novel, becomes a site of subversion. The character that Winterson makes the major trope of this idea is Dog Woman, whose portrayal destabilizes all the stereotypes related to women. She is lesbian, filthy, huge and violent. On the other hand, we have Jordan, who is born a male, engages in cross-dressing and the twelve princesses who break free of captivity from their father’s tower, by the virtue of their light bodies. In all these instances, body of the characters is helping them set themselves free. This paper analyses various ways in which the novel does that.
The paper brings in use the theories from the following critics to analyze Winterson’s focus on body as site of subversion-Julia Kristeva
“There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects. A certainty protects it from the shameful—a certainty of which it is proud holds on to it. But simultaneously, just the same, that impetus, that spasm, that leap is drawn toward an elsewhere as tempting as it is condemned. Unflaggingly, like an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.”
“… from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master. Without a sign (for him), it beseeches a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out.” (Kristeva, 2)
“Loathing an item of food, a piece of filth, waste, or dung. The spasms and vomiting that protect me. The repugnance, the retching that thrusts me to the side and turns me away from defilement, sewage, and muck. The shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery. The fascinated start that leads me toward and separates me from them.” (Kristeva, 2)
Mikhail Bakhtin
“They were under the direct influence of folk festival and carnival forms, hence a pronounced hyperbolism of bodily images, especially those of eating and drinking. Exaggeration characterized both grotesque realism and folk festival forms…” (Bakhtin, 63)
“In the example of grotesque, displeasure is caused by the impossible and improbable nature of the image… and such an absurdity creates a strong feeling of vexation. But this feeling is overcome by two forms of pleasure: first, we see the truly existing monastic corruption and depravity as symbolized in the hyperbolic image; in other words, we find some place for this exaggeration within reality. Second, we feel a moral satisfaction, since sharp criticism and mockery have dealt a blow to these vices.” (Bakhtin, 305)
“The exaggeration of the inappropriate to incredible and monstrous dimensions is, according to (Heinrich) Schneegans, the basic nature of the grotesque. Therefore, the grotesque is always satire. Where there is no satirical orientation there is no grotesque.” (Bakhtin, 306)
Donna Haraway
“By late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” (Haraway, 6)
Barbara Creed
Much pornography, intended for heterosexual male consumption, displays an obligatory scenario of nubile female bodies engaged in sexual acts. In pornography the body of the lesbian is constructed as insatiable – a monstrous quicksand of desire. (Creed, 86)
Jeanette Winterson in her novel ‘Sexing the Cherry’, published in 1989 tries to give an alternative to the prevailing coded social normativity. She reworks the notions of her time through a narrative which is majorly set around the time of seventeenth century English Civil War and partly in Winterson’s contemporary time. The text, being a Postmodernist text tries to subvert the norms through several tropes, human body being one of them.
Winterson was born in the England of sweeping changes. Some of those changes included introduction of contraceptive pills in 1960 and legalization of abortion in 1967. These things strengthened a woman’s claim on her own body, while at the same time were seen as subversive by the conservatives. These changes and her own identity as a lesbian influenced her to take a stand against heteronormative culture. She focuses on body as an important part of her politics.
Postmodernist denial of existence of a single coherent self is prevalent in the novel. The novel consists of four different narratorial positions- Dog woman’s, Jordan’s and those of their alter egos living in time contemporary to the author. The presence of alter ego of characters stands for the split that Postmodernism advocates. Also, the main characters of the novel, Dog woman and Jordan do not quite conform to the gendered roles prescribed to them.
While Dog woman does not fit into the norms of conventional femininity, Jordan, in spite of being a sailor (considered to be a stereotypically masculine profession) is not a very masculine presence; rather, his cross-dressing at many points of the narrative and his finding associations of his self with Fortunata shows his bent towards the ‘feminine’ aspect of his personality. The way their narratives are divided is an extension of their non-conformism towards roles they are supposed to play. The narratives of Dog woman begin with a picture of Banana which is a classic phallic symbol and those of Jordan begin with a picture of Pineapple which is a grown seed (that is, the female part of the plant).
This novel also has a contested portrayal of a mother-child relationship. Though, here the relationship between Dog woman and Jordan is not biological and yet Dog woman plays a fiercely loving mother and protector towards Jordan and yet, lets him go when the time comes. Their relationship denies the importance of having an impregnated uterus in order to feel the maternal love and hence does away with the necessity of a man in a woman’s life for bearing a child, which is in keeping with the French Feminist ideology which postulates that involvement of men and impregnated uterus becomes a way of controlling women.
Dog woman although, is not a universal, all giving, benevolent mother, she is a murderess too. Motherhood as a mode of controlling the passions of a woman turns out to be a failure in the novel. Mother here is not the conventional procreative mother, she is someone for whom killing is as simple as peeling potatoes, her body does not take part in reproductive processes and rather she uses it to scare people off.
There was and still is, a fetishization associated with lesbian bodies. They have been portrayed as exotic, hypersexual bodies across a spectrum of representations. A cover story titled “Wicked Women” in daily ‘Melbourne Age’ described lesbians as being “glamourous, gorgeous, and glad to be gay”(Creed, 86), even in contemporary pornography, lesbian relationships are exclusively designed as ‘insatiable’, simply for the sake of pleasure of the voyeuristic male gaze rather than the presentation of a genuine lesbian relationship. Winterson in her novel tries to dismantle this fetishization through her portrayal of Dog woman, who is a lesbian.
She does not have the excessively sexualized body that lesbians are stereotyped to possess, she is huge and smelly and has never had sex. Dog woman’s body is not simply a subversion from the imagined lesbian bodies, with her untidiness and bad odour, she also stands against the hypocritical sense of ‘cleanliness’ of the Puritans. Her exceedingly huge bodily dimensions metaphorically present her uncontainable strength and society’s inability to control her. Her body seems to be protesting against all the influences that are forced on other bodies, in spite of walking into the pile of corpses of those who died of plague, she walked out unaffected.
Dog woman’s body is a body which Mikhail Bakhtin would call ‘grotesque’. Bakhtin employs Rabelais’ Gargantua for theorizing the ‘grotesque’ body. In her gigantic description, Dog woman can be seen as a successor to the giant Gargantua. In her, we see the carnivalesque overturning of normative order. This description of her bodily excess can also be read as Winterson’s mockery of prevailing norm of thinking of the Queer body as monstrous and sick, as the exaggeration of here hugeness at times goes beyond what is believable.(Bakhtin, 63, 305) As for instance, she overweighs the elephant on a see-saw. As Bakhtin himself points out, “Where there is no satirical orientation, there is no grotesque.”
Grotesque, thus is not simply an awe-inspiring description of body, it has a political purpose and the Dog Woman’s body meets that purpose on several levels. Another example of mocking the patriarchal fear of being devoured by women through exaggeration is seen when Dog woman, while having sex with a man ends up sucking him inside her vagina. This refers to an age old belief of “Vagina Dentata”, which states that women have teeth in their vaginas and that whenever a man enters a vagina; he comes out lesser than what he entered as.
Presence of Dog woman in novel is often accompanied by her bad body odour and body fluids that make her repulsive amongst people. It is because she shatters the divide between the private and the public, the ‘abject’ {Julia Kristeva describes Abject as human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. (Kristeva, 1)} and the accepted.
She brings before people that part of human being which they all try to do away with and that is exactly what threatens them and their ideas of ‘cleanliness’ and ‘development’ In this way, she becomes the more literal embodiment of the abject body, which women are generally considered to be because their bodies are more penetrable than a man’s, as it bleeds, lactates and gives birth and so reminds the society of their ‘debt to nature’ that is, their primitive state of being. (Kristeva, 102). Dog woman is extremely frank about her body, not even for a moment does she hesitate from pushing Johnson into her dress. We can say that for her, body is not something private; rather, it is something universal.
Dog woman also debunks the capitalist division of labour based on sex, which assigns the household chores to women and earning income to men. She handles both the spheres by herself and hence, does not let the conceived notions of limitations of female body hinder her ways. While the heaviness of Dog woman’s body renders her with the strength to break away from the patriarchal expectations from a woman, for Twelve Dancing Princesses, it is the lightness of their bodies that sets them free from the confinement of their father’s tower.
They are described to be so light that even gravity is unable to hold them back. And also, it is worth noting how they sustain this freedom that their bodies provide them with. They subvert the notion of happily-ever-after of fairy tales; they create their own happy endings, which for them do not lie in the marital sphere. Fortunata’s investment in Dance as an act of liberation from patriarchy and Dog woman’s breaking her father’s leg (who wanted to display her in a circus) as a child only extends the theme of subversion through body to another level.
There are hints of Cyborg feminism in ‘Sexing the Cherry’. Donna Haraway in her essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ rejects the rigid boundaries, notably those separating “human” from “animal” and “human” from “machine.” (Haraway, 6) This idea is in keeping with postmodernism which rejects the idea of a unified and perfect body. For Dog woman, dogs are intimate companion and flees are an innate part of her body. Besides, her very name, Dog woman and her filthy physique refers to her animalistic form of existence. For Jordan, it is as if compass, telescope and ships are a part of his body, he cannot live without them.
Jeanette Winterson thus, describes and politicizes the human body in multiple ways in the novel. The principal trope for this act of hers is Dog Woman, but none of the other major characters are left untouched. Body as a site of generation of forms of identity other than the sexual is emphasized in the novel.

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