Literary Criticism / passage from Winterson’s ‘The Passion’ – how did I do?

The following is an extract from Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Passion.

After this, is my literary critique (close reading) of the passage.  It was written for a course.

How did I do?

…………………………

The surface of the canal had the look of polished jet.  I took off my boots slowly, pulling the laces loose and easing them free.  Enfolded between each toe were my own moons.  Pale and opaque.  Unused.  I had often played with them but I never thought they might be real.  My mother wouldn’t even tell me if the rumours were real and I have no boating cousins.  My brothers are gone away.

Could I walk on that water?

Could I?

I faltered at the slippery steps leading into the dark.  It was November, after all.  I might die if I fell in.  I tried balancing my foot on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness.

Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?

I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who’d walked across the canal like it was solid.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.

 

When we met again I had borrowed an officer’s uniform.  Or more precisely, stolen it.

This is what happened.

At the Casino, well after midnight, a solider had approached me and suggested an unusual wager.  If I could beat him at billiards he would make me a present of his purse.  He held it up before me.  It was round and nicely padded and there must be some of my father’s blood in me because I have never been able to resist a purse.

And if I lost?  I was to make him a present of my purse.  There was no mistaking his meaning. 

We played, cheered on by a dozen bored gamblers and, to my surprise, the solider played well.  After a few hours at the Casino nobody plays anything well.

I lost.

We went to his room and he was a man who like his women face down, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ.  He was able and easy and soon fell asleep.   He was also about my height.  I left him his shirt and boots and took the rest.

 

She greeted me like an old friend and asked me straight away about the uniform.

‘You’re not a solider.’

‘It’s fancy dress.’

I began to feel like Sarpi, that Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.  Many times that evening as we ate and drank and played dice I prepared to explain.  But my tongue thickened and my heart arose up in self-defence.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………..

 

This engaging passage is from Winterson’s postmodern, metafictional, magical realism novel, The Passion. [1]  In it, our heroine (Villanelle)[2] uses her romance with the married ‘Queen of Spades’ to investigate the discourse of (lesbian) passion through the motif of games of chance.[3]  That the reference to a deck of playing cards is the only clue to the identity of the object of Villanelle’s passion is significant.  In ancient myths, to know one’s name was to hold power over her.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

According to Christopher Butler, the most important postmodern ethical concern is the relationship between discourse and power (Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.44).  Through the discourse of power we are normalised – made ‘uniform’ – by inviolable truths thrust at us by advertisers, and political and religious leaders.  (Butler, 50). By pushing back at the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, Winterson asks us to challenge the discourse of power.   To do this, we must suspend our most cherished beliefs and what better way to do that than through ‘fiction?’

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, magical realism is a kind of modern fiction in which ’fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the reliable tone of objective realistic report.’ Magical realism urges the reader to set aside her usual assumptions and see her world through new eyes.  Magical realism turns away from science and empiricism and returns to folklore and mysticism in order to undermine the establishment’s established ‘truth’.  Only in this way can we hope to explore different ‘truths’ about our world and how we live in it.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, metafiction is a ‘fiction about fiction’, which ‘openly comments on its own fictional status.’  The technique is purposefully jarring so as to refocus the reader’s attention from the story to the process of storytelling.  The technique, especially in conjunction with the first person narrative, is often used for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to a friend relating a story, we are aware that it is filtered through her perceptions and prejudices.

This is wholly appropriate for our friend, Villanelle.  For even as she searches for meaning, she reminds us that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

As friends, we do trust her.  Equally, forewarned is forearmed.  Why the exhortation if all were as it would seem to be?  The heightened tension forces us, as Winterson doubtless desires, to pay even closer attention to the text.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

For readers to creatively address this question, Winterson must craft an atmosphere in which such things appear possible.  This she does par excellence.  Through imagery, we slip into the soft, slow, dreamy world of nighttime where, from personal experience, we know the borderlands of reality are blurred.

In the first paragraph, we discover that the surface of the ‘canal’ has the look of ‘polished jet’; we begin to relax with the onomatopoeia – polished – the ‘shhh’ of our mother encouraging us to stop fussing and fall asleep.   We sink further into the reverie as Villanelle takes her boots off ‘slowly’, pulls the laces ‘loose’, and eases them ‘free’.  We are invited to ‘play’ with her as she examines her own ‘moons’ (webbed feet) – ‘pale and opaque’ – ‘moons’ that even she is not certain are ‘real’.  The invoked lunar world is akin to the unconscious – a fascinating – yet dangerous place – in which intuition and feeling take precedence over rationality and thought.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

“Could I walk on that water?”  With this example of intertextuality, we are launched into the metaphysical, miraculous world of faith.  With this example of intertextuality, our spiritual selves are challenged to rise above the negativity of the material world to be fully realised in the bosom of God. By referencing the Bible (Matthew 14:22-33), Winterson cleverly triggers brand awareness.  God is a powerful spin-doctor.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

The powerful truth is that, without faith, there is no redemption.  Be not afraid.  Yet doubt not, we are not safe.  Without faith, we could still ‘falter’ at the ‘slippery steps leading into the dark’ and ‘die’ in the ‘cold nothingness’.  But if like Villanelle, we have faith to ‘step out’ of our normalised selves, we too, might walk ‘across the canal like it was solid.’  And this canal is not just any canal, but one at the Rialto in Venice.  It is entirely in keeping with the metaficitional technique for our story to be set in such a carnivalesque atmosphere.  It is entirely in keeping with magical realism to utilise hybridity.  By introducing a ‘real’ place into the magical (fictional) world – we are yet again reminded that there might be multiple planes of reality.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

In the next paragraph, Winterson introduces another dimension of the discourse of (lesbian) passion – gender politics.  Here, we find yet another metafictional reminder that as readers, we stand between the narrator and the story she relates.  ‘This is what happened.’ Do we believe?  Should we believe?  After all, if Villanelle were not trustworthy, then why would she take us into her confidence and explain that actually, she had not ‘borrowed’ the soldier’s uniform, but ‘stolen’ it?   Yet it is ‘well after midnight’ at the ‘Casino’.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

In this sequence, Winterson uses variations of the word ‘play’ three times in quick succession.  Repetition hammers home her theme that to achieve insight, we must enter into the spirit of play.  Such an invocation is a common feature in postmodern fiction.   Are we, as readers, willing to take a chance and ‘play’?  After all, it is an ‘unusual’ wager.

Or is it?  If we (women) win, we get a man’s ‘nicely padded purse’ (money and all that it offers).  If we lose, we forfeit our ‘purse’ – our female sexuality – our passion – our selves.  With this example of metonymy, we are confronted with the quid-pro-quo aspect of gender politics.  Oddly, although this association might be unpleasant, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves prostitutes, we realise that there is some element of bargain in our own gender politics.

Could the price of ‘playing’ ever be too high?

‘I lost.’

‘Face down’ and ‘arms outstretched’ – Villanelle is used by the solider ‘like the crucified Christ.’ Such imagery reminds us of the price both men and women pay for redemption from the ‘original sin’ (reputably) committed by a woman.  However, if we (women) are clever, we still might turn this around.  Villanelle does. Because the ‘officer’ (who is no gentlemen) was ‘about (her) height’, our heroine is able to steal his ‘uniform’ and, in effect, change places with him.

Donning uniforms make us ‘uniform’, normalised.  I am told that English schoolchildren wear uniforms for just this purpose.  Further, uniforms endow us, for better or worse, with the stereotyped qualities of those who usually wear them.  We’re in the army now.  Soldiers wear ‘uniforms’.  Soldiers are men.  In the ‘uniform’ world, women love men not women.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

When her ladylove suggests that despite her uniform, Villanelle is not a ‘soldier’, she replies that ‘it’s fancy dress’.  This conjures images of a masked ball, during which we have an opportunity to dress up and play at being something other than ourselves.  Being other than ourselves allows for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to ourselves relating a story, we are aware our stories are filtered through our perceptions and prejudices.  This is wholly appropriate for us.  For even as we search for meaning, we remind ourselves that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

‘I began to feel like Sarpi,’ says Villanelle.  ‘That Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.’  With this example of hybridity, we are yanked back from the brink.  Google Sarpi.  He is not fiction.  Villanelle’s statement is also a paradox.  Oddly, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves liars, we realize that we do not always tell the truth.

Many times during the evening of eating, drinking, and playing ‘dice’, Villanelle is ‘prepared to explain’ but her ‘tongue thickened’ and her ‘heart rose up in self-defence.’  Who among us have not had a similar response when faced with the possibility of losing that for which we have a passion?  Might we be more like Villanelle than we’d like to believe and if we are, where does that leave us in regards to whom we’ve believed ourselves to be?

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than one night?’

 

Winterson’s emphasis on play as well as her playful writing style seems to suggest that not only will we will never have an answer, but also we ought not to care.  As with all postmodern works, the question posed by the author is never the same as that answered by the reader.  Each of us has her own reality and – as the saying goes – fact is stranger than fiction.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

‘I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

­­­­­­­­­


[1] Winterson has chosen to write this novel in the Romantic Tradition that, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, relates ‘improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting’. Her choice supports the purpose of postmodern literature, which means to examine the impact of words on our lives. According to Peter Otto (“Literary Theory,” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age – British Culture 1776-1832, ed. Ian McCalman, Oxford University Press (1999), pp. 378-385), romance is intended to focus a reader’s ‘response to objects’ in such a way as to allow him to better ‘examine (his) passion.’  This is precisely the effect Winterson intends to achieve.

[2] In my chosen portion of text, Villanelle’s name is never disclosed.  However it is interesting to note that the poetic form, villanelle, is often used to express passion. The sledgehammer effect produced the two rhyming lines (aba) is potent and obsessive. Although Winterson does not utilize the villanelle form in my selected passage, her style is similarly repetitive and obsessive and I suspect that the name chosen for her heroine is no coincidence.

[3] While this section of the novel deals with lesbian – non-uniform – passion, other sections deal with other manifestations of passion.

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