Feminism in Levy and Winterson

In this essay I discuss Small Island (Andrea Levy; 2004) and The Passion (Jeanette Winterson; 1998).  In particular, I discuss the theme of feminism with respect to (i) Levy’s character Queenie, and (ii) Winterson’s protagonist Villanelle.Patriarchal society imposes constraints on female protagonists: we tend to view them as either home-maker or whore and this is often no middle-ground.  I argue that this problem persists with Small Island and The Passion.  Both Levy and Winterson try to counteract the effects of a patriarchal society.  But their narrative decisions and settings undermine the independence and autonomy of their female protagonists.

1. Small Island

Queenie is a white woman who lives in the racially-sensitive 1940s.  She is open-minded but her socially-awkward husband Bernard is not.  Bernard goes off to war and Queenie invites Jamaican servicemen to stay in her home.  She enters into a relationship with one of her Jamaican boarders, Michael.  Queenie even falls pregnant with Michael’s child.  She shows sympathy to the immigrants while many of her contemporaries do not.  This is probably because Queenie attended the British Empire Exhibition in her youth and the Colonies left a strong impression on her.

Queenie has two roles over the course of Small Island.  First, she is a diligent and submissive housewife whose only taste of freedom comes once her husband leaves for war.  Second, she is a passionate lover.  Queenie feels as if her relationship with Michael somehow belongs to another woman: she insists on distancing herself from it.  It is clear from this that Queenie embodies the two competing archetypes of home-maker and whore.  And Levy keeps these archetypes separate and mutually-exclusive.

2. The Passion

Jeanette Winterson’s novels have always been fantastic, toying with the conventions of fantasy and stretching the limits of the short refrain – Burns (1996; 278)

Henri is a romantic quester (Seaboyer 1997: 484) who pursues Villanelle, the enigmatic daughter of a gondolier.  Villanelle is an independent woman who refuses to attach herself to Henri.  She alone can navigate the mysterious waterways of Venice and she alone is comfortable expressing her sexuality in a number of ways.  There is no evidence to suggest that Villanelle is attracted to Henri, and yet she commands him to make love to her nonetheless.  As the novel ends, Henri is doomed to live out the rest of his days locked away from Villanelle.  The Passion emphasizes Villanelle’s independence and power over Henri.

It appears (at first blush) as though Winterson has envisaged a female protagonist who defies patriarchal stereotypes.  But this is only partly successful.  First, consider the varieties of sexuality that Winterson presents.  Henri is in love with Napoleon (i.e. homosexual); Henri is in love with Villanelle (i.e. heterosexual) and Villanelle is in love with the Queen of Spades (i.e. homosexual).  Villanelle may be an independent woman but she is never able to realize her lesbianism.  In addition, the exotic setting of Venice undermines Villanelle’s credibility.  The city is fantastical and, therefore, it provides an excuse for moral experimentation.  Seaboyer (1997: 484) claims that Venice represents a paradox, a blurring of mind and body or even between masculine and feminine.

3. Discussion

First, consider that we associate Small Island and The Passion with the Feminist movement in literature.  Feminist literary criticism aims to combat denigrating myths that arise from patriarchal constructions of gender roles (Abrams 1996: 88).  Literature (and not just politics) has played a pivotal role in influencing our understanding of women’s roles (Barry 2002: 121).  Feminist critics (i) select texts that showcase women’s struggles in a patriarchal society, and/or (ii) highlight ways in which female protagonists overcome cultural stereotypes.  Both Queenie and Villanelle are strong and independent characters.

Both Small Island and The Passion share the theme of war.  In Small Island, Jamaican soldiers (e.g. Michael) fight alongside the British.  Levy tells us how preoccupied the soldiers are with women and sex.  In The Passion, Henri is a chef for Napoleon’s army and Villanelle is a prostitute.  Like Levy, Winterson tells us about the male camaraderie and sexual desires of the camp.  A feature of wartime is that men and women are separated: the men go off to fight and the women stay at home and are expected to remain chaste.  Here, there are double standards.  In Small Island, Bernard feels pressured to visit a prostitute; in The Passion, Henri describes his passion as an explosion of dreams and desires that find expression in sex and not in love.

In Small Island, Queenie exerts her independence by pursuing an extra-marital affair with Michael.  To some extent, Queenie is led to this affair by her husband’s aloof nature and the attraction that the Colonies have always held for her.  In The Passion, Villanelle is a mysterious inhabitant of Venice with webbed feet.  She refuses to marry Henri (despite carrying his child) and is unable to move on from her relationship with the Queen of Spades.  For both women, independence comes at a cost.  Queenie exerts her independence at the cost of being unfaithful.  And Villanelle exerts her independence at the cost of appearing fantastical.

References

Abrams, M H., 1999. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th edition. UK: Heinle & Heinle

Barry, P., 2002. Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. UK: University of Manchester Press

Burns, CL., 1996. Fantastic Language: Jeanette Winterson’s Recovery of the Postmodern Word. Contemporary Literature. 37. (2). 278-306

Levy, A., 2004. Small Island. UK: Headline Review

Seeboyer, J., 1997. Second Death in Venice: Romanticism and the Compulsion to Repeat in Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. Contemporary Literature. 38 (3). 483-509

Winterson, J., 1996. The Passion. UK: Vintage

 

 

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