Death and Desire in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body Shahd Alshammari

April 17, 2017

Through a Disability Studies lens, Dr Shahd Alshammari of Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait discusses Written on the Body, a 1994 novel by Jeanette Winterson, in terms of love and loss and the discovery of the failed and deformed body.

“Why is the measure of love loss?” asks Jeanette Winterson in her novel Written on the Body (1994). Winterson’s novel is beautiful in its affair with language, typical of Winterson. For the sake of this commentary, I will briefly state that the novel’s plot revolves around the ambiguously gendered narrator’s love for Louise and the consequent loss that takes place. The narrator’s fascination with love and loss is evident at the very beginning of the novel. Throughout the fragmented narrative, we are faced with a recurring answer: that there will never be closure and never a satisfying response to Winterson’s question. Or was it a rhetorical question all along? What did she mean? Every time I mention the novel to my students, colleagues or friends, their first question is about the title. What does it mean? Having not read the novel, they are not (yet) aware that the driving force of the novel is loss, rather than love, and that loss writes itself in a very corporeal and concrete way on the body.

“What remains when the love disappears, when the body is hijacked by an alien, a foreign being?”

As a literature professor with research areas in Disability Studies, I am interested in the ways in which illness and vulnerability are connected to lovers and our sense of autonomy. Winterson has offered us groundbreaking novels throughout her literary career, but this text is invested in the discovery of the failed and deformed body. What remains when the love disappears, when the body is hijacked by an alien, a foreign being? The protagonist’s love object, Louise, suffers from cancer. Cancer is the Antagonist, the anti-hero that our heroine must contend with. As loss is part of the grander narrative of cancer, the presence of loss is stronger than the love. Winterson sets love and loss as antithetical and simultaneously synonymous.

Theoretically, love has many definitions, often conflicting, psychological and philosophical understandings, abstract notions of its madness, its seductiveness, its pleasures and destructions. In love, there is a definitely a loss, or rather losses. In love you are immediately at risk of the loss of the self, the beloved, and an intense manifestation of jouissance and melancholy. Winterson’s narrator is ultimately faced with the madness of love, the obsessiveness, the desire to keep his/her lover (Louise) healthy and alive. It is only through knowing love that the narrator is faced with mourning the loss of Louise. The sense of impending doom saturates the narrative. We know that Louise has cancer. We know that Louise will leave. When? How? All is uncertain, all is unknown. Louise disappears at some point in the narrative, leaving us, and the narrator, completely heartbroken, dislodged from the fantasy of love. Her absence accentuates her presence. The ghost of Louise is even more real than the corporeal Louise, the one that is touched and written on the body of the protagonist.

“The diseased character is dead the second she receives her diagnosis. There is no character arc, development, and certainly no resolution.”

Louise is the phantom limb that haunts the narrative. Her ailing and failing body has been written on, it has been labelled as diseased. From a Disability Studies angle, this is a theme that can be further explored in light of the phenomenological implications of the disabled subject’s identity. Louise is not granted any sense of agency, but rather the narrator writes on her body, Cancer writes on her body. She becomes an object and as such her illness is not claimed as hers; rather, she is written as the burdened body and the lover who becomes a burden, a lover who becomes unknown, invoking a sense of abandonment, agony, and loss. The disabled individual loses not only her sense of identity, but also her voice. She is robbed of her own voice throughout the narrative and we do not experience her body’s journey of pain. Instead, we hear the lover’s voice and the husband’s voice. Elgin is a scientist, a successful cancer researcher who in the novel comes to symbolize the archetype of able-bodiedness and patriarchal ideology. Both our narrator and Elgin attempt to make sense of Louise’s cancer. They are both unable to give her space or freedom to experience and express her own lived experience of illness.

Louise’s body is regulated both by medicine and patriarchy. The husband is a scientist who can help her and save her from the narrative of disability and illness. Instead of listening to Louise’s story, Louise’s voice and illness narrative, we are presented with the reductive view of medicine. This denies the experience of illness as lived through the diseased body. Arthur W. Frank, in The Wounded Storyteller, argues that: “Observing what stories say about the body is a familiar sort of listening, describing stories as told through the body requires another level of attention” (Frank, 1997, p. 2). All characters speak of Louise’s illness – everyone has a certain opinion, a desire to save her from death – but we do not know whether Louise in fact wants to die. We are not made aware of the extent of pain that has ravaged her body. The diseased character is dead the second she receives her diagnosis. There is no character arc, development, and certainly no resolution. If anything, Louise’s illness is meant to disrupt the narrative. It stops the flow of love and instead shifts to a question of death and loss. The desire to resurrect Louise infiltrates the narrative, the desire to recover the diseased (and later deceased) body is the narrator’s primary concern. Louise’s cancer is the ending of desire in the narrative, and the very beginning of loss and death. This is problematic in the sense that disabled bodies are rendered invisible – she disappears from the narrative once illness enters the picture. At the same time, the protagonist’s love for Louise intensifies once she is ill, invisible, gone.

To measure love theoretically has failed all the great artists, philosophers, historians. It is immeasurable and that is the conclusion, if any, that the reader arrives at. Winterson’s infatuation with language and its failure to describe, to write the body, the lived experiences of love, desire, and death, reminds us of Julia Kristeva’s distinction of the symbolic and the semiotic (Kristeva, 1980, pp. 6–8). The semiotic is that which is in excess, outside the borders of rigid patriarchal language and embraces poetry, rhythm, and music. Winterson’s work explores dualistic thought: male/female, absence/presence, real/imaginary, symbolic/semiotic, life/death, ability/disability, and love/loss. All of the dichotomies are resurrected to organize the randomness of existence, the chaos of love, and it is these very dichotomies that fail to provide a sense of completeness or wholeness for the narrator. Winterson attempts to break these boundaries and create a semiotic space where love and loss are not definable, not separate, but rather, interchangeable. There is a sense of nonsense and ambiguity being the uncertain answer. The narrator ends the affair, the lover’s journey, by stating in the very last sentence of the text: “I don’t know if there is a happy ending but here we are let loose in open fields” (Winterson, 1994, p. 190). And if we don’t have answers, we go back to the first sentence, the very beginning of all lovers’ stories, the question of love and “Why is the measure of love loss?”

Image | SbFuM_DRS, Pixabay


Frank, A. W. (1997). The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. USA: University of Chicago Press.
Kristeva, J. (1980). Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Trans. Thomas Gora. New York: Colombia University Press.
Winterson, J. (1994). Written on the Body. London: Vintage International.

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About Shahd Alshammari

Dr Shahd Alshammari is Assistant Professor of English at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. She has authored an academic monograph, Literary Madness in British, Postcolonial, and Bedouin Women's Writing (2016). Her latest is a collection of short stories Notes on the Flesh (2017) a biomythography that deals with gender, race and disability in Kuwait.

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