Written on the Body

Winterson, Jeanette

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

  • Date of entry: Sep-24-2018


In this uncommonly sensual novel, the narrator has neither name nor gender; the object of the narrator’s frenetic love is a woman, Louise, who is married to a prominent medical researcher. The marriage is loveless, without empathy, affection, and sex. Undaunted by Louise’s relationship, the narrator quips knowingly, “Marriage is the flimsiest weapon against desire. You may as well take a pop-up gun to a python” (78). Louise’s marriage eventually crumbles, and the lovers flee. Their happiness, though, is disastrously brief. Louise’s husband, Elgin, discloses to the narrator that, before their affair, Louise was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. As a globally distinguished cancer expert, Elgin exacts his revenge on the lovers by promising treatment available only at a clinic abroad, which would force the couple to split. Fearing that Louise will forgo treatment to stay (and eventually die) the narrator writes a letter pleading her to go abroad, then vanishes into the countryside—a decision that haunts the narrator for the rest of the novel.

In rural isolation, the narrator pores obsessively over anatomy books: “Within the clinical language, through the dispassionate view of the sucking, sweating, greedy, defecating self, I found a love-poem to Louise. I would go on knowing her, more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid” (111). In a kind of medicalized elegy, Winterson breaks the novel out into a standalone section divided into individual segments that juxtapose excerpts from anatomical textbooks with deeply felt recollections of the beloved’s leukaemic body. In one section, “The Cells, Tissues, Systems and Cavities of the Body,” the narrator entreats, “Will you let me crawl inside you, stand guard over you, trap them [white T-cells] as they come at you?” (115). Winterson’s narrator, far removed from the realities of Louise’s treatment, apostrophizes her physical features, performing a kind of poetic embalmment of her lover’s body as she once knew it.


Winterson’s novel provides a window into how individuals experience grief during periods of a loved one’s illness. Following her lover’s diagnosis, the narrator’s perception of the human body undergoes a marked poetic shift. Until Louise’s illness, the narrator describes her lover using erotic imagery—indeed, Louise is defined as a briny sea anemone; a flexing and recalcitrant steed; a seaside olive tree bearing refreshing, saline fruit. The lover’s body is an absorbent tabula rasa on which desire leaves its inscriptions and imprints. Following diagnosis, though, these dreamy phenomenological expressions of the body are somewhat subdued—and, while the narrator’s characterizations of the leukaemic body neither lose poetic intensity nor become estranged from their own kind of peculiar beauty—they come to describe a biological state that is abruptly finite. At one memorable instant, the author realizes the inadequacy of language to describe Louise’s body: “Frontal bone, palatine bones, nasal bones, lacrimal bones, cheek bones, maxilla, vomer, inferior conchae, mandible. […] those words don’t remind me of your face” (132). In grieving Louise, the narrator falters between anatomical vocabulary and the language of love, revealing perhaps that the fullness of healing cannot be had within the margins of human language alone.


Vintage International

Place Published

New York

Page Count