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  • Exile and Freedom in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion:Venice, the British Inner Cities, and the Cultural Politics of Disenfranchisement
  • Alexander Beaumont (bio)

Venice has long been considered fertile ground for narratives of death, desire, and psychological dissolution. Soon after arriving in the city in 1816, Byron wrote in a letter to the poet Thomas Moore that he considered it to be “the greenest island” of his imagination because its “evident decay” was in keeping with his own personality, which had been “familiar with ruins too long to dislike desolation” (136). John Ruskin’s obsessively researched Stones of Venice (1851–53) is shot through with anxiety over the object of its devotion crumbling into the waters of the Laguna Veneta, never to rise again, and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) dramatizes the infatuation of an aging writer with an adolescent boy while its titular city is ravaged by a cholera epidemic. However, if Venice has come to be perennially associated with thanatos in the Western imagination, this tradition experienced a particularly visceral revival in Britain toward the end of the twentieth century. Published within a decade of one another, both Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now” (1971) and Ian McEwan’s novel The Comfort of Strangers (1981) exploit the city’s unique combination of disorienting geography and atrophied grandeur to dramatize emotional discomfiture and sexual ecstasy before culminating in acts of shocking and apparently inexplicable violence. They also enjoy a prominent place in the popular consciousness, [End Page 270] having been adapted for the cinema by Nicholas Roeg (1973) and Paul Schrader (1991), respectively, and cast with well-known performers such as Christopher Walken and Donald Sutherland in the title roles. Both of these films can be described today as benchmarks of macabre and melodramatic eroticism.

Although the story told in Jeanette Winterson’s 1987 novel The Passion takes place during the early nineteenth century rather than the present day, it contains many of the same elements as “Don’t Look Now” and The Comfort of Strangers and reproduces quite a few of the clichés that have marked representations of the so-called city of masks over two centuries. Consequently, we might be inclined to regard it as of limited interest when placed alongside Winterson’s other, ostensibly more original works Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), Sexing the Cherry (1989), and Written on the Body (1992). However, there is reason for considering the novel a unique and compelling contribution not just to a long-standing tradition of “Venetian” narratives, nor even to a historically particular resurgence of the latter, but also to an entire realm of cultural discourse that has had an acute impact on the political experience of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher periods, as well as their attendant literatures. To situate the novel in this way is not to ignore the critical attention it has already attracted. Over the last three decades, Winterson’s fiction has inspired a huge amount of analysis, and The Passion accounts for a notable part of it. The debate has largely ignored the novel’s historical and geographic context, however, tending instead to reinforce the broad hermeneutic consensus surrounding Winterson’s work by deploying language borrowed from poststructuralism in order to demonstrate how it challenges patriarchal and heteronormative understandings of gender and sexuality. This approach is certainly justifiable, since The Passion’s mercurial setting is highly amenable to being read in light of the skeptical attitude, held in common by poststructuralist and postmodernist critics, toward essentialized identity categories. Judith Seaboyer notes in her analysis of the novel that although Venice has long functioned as “a theater for narratives of death, fragmentation, and decay,” by the late twentieth century it came “to serve a wider purpose than it did for the Romantics,” as a space in which larger “concepts of reality, truth, and meaning are thrown into question by the idea of [End Page 271] difference” (484). At the moment the novel was published, critical and political sensibilities in the U.K. and U.S. were swinging toward the complex ontologies that would preoccupy third-wave feminism and queer theory, so it is unsurprising that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9949
Print ISSN
0010-7484
Pages
pp. 270-303
Launched on MUSE
2014-08-29
Open Access
No
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