For the final week of 2016 I’m reviewing two short works by two larger than life female writers.
Although both books seem completely different (one is a modern 20th century romance while the other is a book of short works from the 19th century), they are powerful works that explore common themes of love and loss, grief and rage, and hurt and healing. Both of these books rightly deserve their spots on the 1001 Books list as they helped show just how great women writers are.
51. Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
This is my second book by Jeanette Winterson, the first being The Gap of Time, a modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic. I sat down with this book one morning with the intention of just reading a few pages and ended up covering the entire first half. The rest of the novel was read slowly in between parts of the other book I was reading at the time. It is easy to lose yourself in Winterson’s prose. She definitely has style. While Written on the Body appears as your typical romance novel, Winterson’s playfulness with the text helps make this a very original work. The novel is extremely philosophical in parts, intense in others, with generous amounts of humor laced throughout. There were moments that had me laughing out loud while crying in others.
The most unique aspect of Written on the Body is that the narrator’s name and gender are never given. Despite having full access to thoughts and feelings, we only learn about the character through the multitude of romances (s)he has had. While this was difficult for me because I like to envision each character in my mind, I can see why Winterson kept her narrator without an identified gender. Winterson did not want our preconceptions of men/women or heterosexual/homosexual relationships to interfere with our reading of this novel. Winterson wanted to demonstrate these events as universal to any type of relationship.
The narrator has been involved with several men and women with a tendency to always go after women who are married or involved in unhappy relationships. (S)he is addicted to the intensity, but these affairs only last a matter of months. After a particularly bad ending to the last relationship, (s)he begins dating Jacqueline, someone who is stable and free from any attachments. Things appear to be going well until the narrator meets Louise, whose classical beauty is described in-depth. Although (s)he initially resists, the two fall in love. Unfortunately, Louise is married to an ambitious but cold cancer doctor. Further complications arise when the narrator learns that Louise has cancer. Louise’s husband gives the narrator an ultimatum to leave in exchange for the best possible medical care. Although the road to happiness is not always smooth, this novel flies by due to the exquisite prose of the author.
I mentioned a lot of humor in this work (my personal favorite being the scene where the narrator is locked outside in Mickey Mouse one-piece pajamas), but quite a lot of it focuses on the narrator’s fascination with Louise’s body as the following passage demonstrates:
I didn’t only want Louise’s flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together. I would have held her to me though time had stripped away the tone and textures of her skin. I could have held her for a thousand years until the skeleton itself rubbed away to dust.
This is just a small example of the exploration of the body in this novel. In another exploratory move with form, Winterson provides several short chapters devoted to her understanding of topics such as skin, tissues, and organs. Winterson writes these short chapters as part romance and part medical textbook. This creates an extremely interesting effect with her words that are smooth like poetry. I applaud Winterson for merging the mind and body so effortlessly, as these concepts typically are held in separate spheres.
I would definitely recommend Written on the Body just for the concept of the un-gendered narrator. Had this been written with either a definite male or female protagonist, it would not have worked. Winterson’s experimental novel definitely frees us from the prison of looking at our binary gender. I have now liked two works by this writer, so I will definitely tackle a third one in the near future.
52. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I remember reading The Yellow Wallpaper in high school and loving this little horror story. “Little” is putting it mildly as this might be the shortest work of fiction to make it to the 1001 Books list. Gilman created something more than just a frightening tale dealing with madness. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was an achievement in getting out Gilman’s message regarding gender equality. Although the other short stories in this collection never reach the popularity of the title one, I found all of them interesting as Gilman had much to say about the unfairness towards the female sex.
Told in the first-person,‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is written from the perspective of a woman whose husband takes her to an old country manor to have rest and seclusion for her nervous condition, basically her anxiety and depression. Known as the “rest cure,” the narrator is confined to an upstairs bedroom where she is not allowed to do any work or have any mental stimulation of any kind. While confined to her bedroom, the narrator becomes obsessed with the hideous yellow wallpaper. She devotes several journal entries to describing its bizarre patterns, its missing sections, and its horrible yellow color. As her obsession deepens, she works to unravel the secrets beneath the wallpaper leading her down a path into madness.
Gilman was inspired to write this story based on her own experiences with the rest cure. As someone who was nearly driven into madness herself by her own physician, it is not surprising that Gilman structured this story as an attack on a cruel and ineffective form of treatment. This story serves as an outstanding work of feminist literature that demonstrates nineteenth-century attitudes towards women. It also shows how far we have come in the field of mental health and psychiatry over the past two centuries. Gilman dedicated her life to spread a message of equality and the fairer treatment of women.
It was refreshing to read this story after so many years because now I can understand the underlying issues that Gilman was trying to convey. However, it is still an incredibly creepy short story so it can be enjoyed on that level as well. I really liked the other short stories in this collection too. My favorite was “If I Were a Man,” where the female narrator found herself inside the body of a man. This is a fun story that allows Gilman to explore the idea that there should not be differences between the “male” mind and the “female” mind. My other favorite, “Mr. Peebles’ Heart,” is the story of an unhappy married couple and the unusual solution prescribed by the sister-in-law. This is another great story with a lot of emotional depth fused with thought-provoking issues on the male/female relationship.
The remainder of the book includes excerpts from three of Gilman’s longer works, one a work of science fiction while the other two are nonfiction books. Herland is the account of three male explorers who uncover an all-female society. I’m definitely going to add this work of science fiction to my 2017 reading list. The works of nonfiction focus on how women are dependent upon men and the need for economic equality between the sexes. I wonder what Gilman would think of our world today!
I alternated between this and Written on the Body, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Both of these women worked to challenge our conceptions of gender relations while writing some incredible pieces of fiction. If you have never read Winterson or Gilman, you should definitely give on of these strong female writers a try.