It is reasonable to expect a novel’s protagonist to be dynamic and clear-cut; main characters are the most important people in any given story, so it therefore stands to reason that—more often than not—the author conveys important details about them to the audience, which results in a relatable and identifiable individual. Occasionally, however, this standard of storytelling is subverted and the pertinent character knowledge is withheld from the reader. The 1992 British novel Written on the Body is one such story; its narrator is nameless and genderless, and it is up to the reader to interpret the character as they see fit. As with most narratives wherein the author purposefully choses to withhold the gender of the protagonist, Jeanette Winterson uses this literary device to make a statement—specifically in this case about society’s gender expectations and traditional roles of men and women.
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Personally, the narrator came across to me initially as a woman—for no specific reason other than the word choice and language used, which made interesting to me putting it in writing. Later, however, I kept changing my mind back and forth, because I was finding it difficult to put my finger on it. The fact that I assumed the status of a person’s gender based merely on the way they communicated says a lot about me as a person—but also about humanity overall. Perhaps the intent of withholding the narrator’s gender is made to expose the reader’s underlying sexism; that, even if we can’t help it, we as humans have a subconscious cerebral structuring system that seeks to label and classify things into familiar categories. If my theory is correct, it is therefore an interesting authorial choice to have her readers consistently second-guessing themselves about this topic as I did.
Reading a love story without ever determining for sure the narrator’s gender puts an interesting spin on the genre of romance as well. It subverts the genre in more ways than one; with respect to the narrator’s gender, it demonstrates that readers overall are familiar with the standard tropes of the genre—the archetypal “hero gets the girl” storyline is thrown away in Written on the Body, because we do not know much about the main character and, therefore, cannot neatly put them into preordained categories. It challenges the reader’s expectations and truly makes them think.
The choice to have the protagonist remain nameless also proves that gender is incredibly important in constructing our views of romance. This type of narrative structure is unsettling and likely seeks to expose our old-fashioned ideas of love and sex—as well as our ideas of sexuality. Because the narrator has been lovers with people of more than one gender, it adds another piece to the puzzle in determining their sexual orientation. This is also likely done intentionally; perhaps ahead of her time in terms of the progressive stance of multiple genders and multiple orientations, Winterson leaves the narrator’s sexuality up for interpretation as much as she leaves their gender. One could argue that the main character is pansexual—as the author shows no indication that the narrator subscribes to the binary concept of gender.
In the end, whichever interpretation one decides to make on this character, the effect is the same. Whether you fell victim of the trap laid before you and made assumptions about the protagonist, or whether you resisted the temptation and did your best to see through the idea of gender, the author’s choice rang true. Written on the Body therefore serves as an excellent reminder to read closely and not to postulate about things with insufficient information.
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