Multiple Discourses, Multiple Meanings: Jeanette Winterson's Language of Multiplicity and Variety

by Agnieszka Miksza (Author)
©2020 Monographs 186 Pages


Jeanette Winterson is a contemporary British writer whose oeuvre is often defined as postmodern, although the writer herself often underlines her modernist roots. Her novels are inspired by the works of T.S.Eliot and Virginia Woolf. The following book is aimed at researching the poetic devices used by Winterson in her prose. Five novels were analysed: The Passion, Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries and The.Powerbook. Some of the most important aspects of the book are the intertextual references to other literary works, especially to the poetry and essays by T.S. Eliot who is the biggest inspiration in Winterson's works. The book is an attempt to define the Wintersonian style, and it presents a variety of methods used by Winterson to achieve the poetic quality in her prose. The research demonstrates both the prosaic and poetic elements of Winterson's works which illustrate the connection between transparency and opacity of language. What is interesting is the notion of the literal which may appear mundane and unpoetic. However, this analysis of Winterson's novels shows that the literal is an essential element of poetry.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Between Poetry and Prose: Genres of the Middle
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 The Prose Poem as a Genre
  • 1.2 The Prose Poem and the British Tradition
  • 1.3 Prose Poem and Intertextuality
  • 2 Winterson and the Poetry of Fiction
  • 2.1 Winterson and Her Views on Writing
  • 2.1 Winterson’s Prose and Poetry
  • 2.2 Winterson and Repetition
  • 2.3 Winterson and Language (of Poetry)
  • 2.4 Various Voices of Jeanette Winterson
  • 2.5 Winterson’s Metaphor
  • 2.6 Winterson’s Names
  • 2.7 Storytelling and History
  • 3 Conclusions and Questions
  • 2 “I’m Telling You Stories”. Storytelling and Poetry in The Passion
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Magic Realism
  • 3 The Titular Passion
  • 3.1 Definition of “The Passion”
  • 3.2 Gambling and Passion
  • 3.3 Venice and Passion
  • 4 Intertextuality
  • 4.1 Winterson and Intertextuality
  • 4.2 Intertextuality: Theoretical Background
  • 4.3 Winterson’s Intertextuality
  • 4.4 “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Passion
  • 4.5 The Passion and Eliot’s Four Quartets: Winterson’s Views on Time
  • 4.6 “The Rock” by Eliot and “The Rock” by Winterson
  • 5 Villanelle
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 3 “Empty Space and Points of Light”: Storytelling and Poetry in Sexing the Cherry
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 History and Storytelling
  • 3 Fortunata and Narration
  • 4 Time and Reality
  • 5 Defamiliarization and Magical Realism
  • 6 Cities
  • 7 Conclusion
  • 4 A Secret Code: The Poetry of Written on the Body
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Written on the Body: The Title
  • 2 The Conceit
  • 2.1 Theory
  • 2.2 Conceits in Written on the Body
  • 3 Intertextual References to Poetry
  • 4 Religious References in Written on the Body
  • 5 The Prose Poem Series
  • 6 Conclusion
  • 6.1 Storytelling and Poetry
  • 6.2 Repetition
  • 6.3 Defamiliarization
  • 5 The Ambiguity of GUT: Poetry and Science in Gut Symmetries
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Refrain
  • 2.1 Refrain “Walk with Me”
  • 2.2 “What We Know”
  • 3 Poetic Devices and Ambiguity
  • 4 Gut Symmetries and Tarot Cards from Titles of Chapters
  • 5 Language as a Character
  • 6 Use of Clichés
  • 7 Conclusion
  • 6 Unfamiliar Familiarity of Virtual Reality. Storytelling and Poetry in The PowerBook.
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Storytelling
  • 3 Language of Recipes
  • 4 Virtual Reality
  • 5 Intertextuality in the Novel
  • 6 Conclusion
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index


“Only the impossible is worth the effort” (54, 78, 188). This is a sentence from Winterson’s novel, The PowerBook (2000), and it also seems to be the motto of all of her oeuvre. It appears to me that she aims at achieving the impossible: she would like to write prose and poetry simultaneously, her narrators happen to be both men and women at the same time (in Written on the Body and The PowerBook), physics and metaphysics melt into one and past, present and future take place simultaneously in her narrative. Most of all the ultimate impossible is original language to describe love. Whether she accomplishes this “impossible” or not may be debatable but what is evident in her prose is indeed the effort which she calls in reference to Woolf’s The Waves “the effort of exactness” (AO 79), that is, the point in which words intersect with experience.

Jeanette Winterson is a novelist. She has never published any poem, but visiting her website (jeanettewinterson.com) we can read a lot of her favorite poetry. It seems that poetry is extremely significant to her as an author. In her speech in Sydney (“An Evening with Jeanette Winterson”), she emphasizes the importance of poetry in her literary and personal life. The writer illustrates this fact by sharing her private story with the audience: her relationship ended and she went through a hard period of depressive and suicidal thoughts. She was unable to express her emotions, and she claimed that she was abandoned by language. Then, as she confesses, “[l];anguage returned to me through the agency of poetry… because I couldn’t read narrative at the time. Poetry was different because it was concentrated, it was exact”. She continues, “I’ve always had great trust and fidelity in language” and talks about her own therapy which she invented for herself: reciting poems in front of the mirror. One of these poems was “We Are Driven to Odd Attempts” by Adrianne Rich. It probably refers to darkness which she experienced at that time. Literature seems to be a contrast to the dark because, as Winterson puts it, it makes our lives “illuminated”. It is also important because it allows “[p]utting into words things difficult to feel” which is a rewriting of Dante’s statement about poetry and “putting into words things difficult to think”. Thus, she also proposes a thesis that reading is a way to maintaining sanity.

In her speech, Winterson describes her own story connected with books, namely being banned from reading fiction in her family household. As the author recollects, she could read only the Bible and commentaries to it not being allowed to read any fiction. What is interesting is that her mother was ←9 | 10→passionate about reading detective stories. When the writer asked her mother why she read such books, she replied: “If you know there’s a body coming there’s not so much of a shock” (“An Evening with Jeanette Winterson”). This made young Winterson realize why she had a ban on reading fiction: her mother was probably afraid of the influence literature could exert on her. She argues, “[t];he impact that language offers which forces us out of the safe places to the difficult territory”. Thus, she highlights challenging and defamiliarizing power of literature and language.

Winterson also talks about “necessity of other stories”, “hearing someone else’s story which is not ours” which supports her belief in the connecting force of literature that transcends linear time and makes it possible to relate to stories which were written a long time ago. Their emotional impact seems to be independent of the literary period in which it was written. Winterson encourages the audience to look for other stories which may not be contemporary but still we can relate to them to a great extent. Thus, reading stories is confronting the Other, but, at the same time, finding the familiar and our own stories. The conclusion may be that storytelling is significant in one’s identity construction. Furthermore, Winterson talks about one more way of re-constructing yourself by storytelling, namely that “you learn to read yourself as a fiction”. This means that the story can be rewritten or retold which may be life-changing for the storyteller.

Reading Winterson’s novels, I have an impression that her talk in Sydney is inextricably linked with her fiction. As a writer she proves to be a reader of other stories as well as poetry. Her narrations are always in the first person that may indicate that speakers treat themselves as fiction, which can be created and re-created. The sentence in the The Passion, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me” (5, 13, 160) summarizes Winterson’s attitude to storytelling, as well as her fidelity to language as a source of truth. She also proves to be a passionate reader of poetry in her use of refrain, alluding to other poets and her precision of language.

In her interview about Gut Symmetries, Winterson claims,

I write about love because it’s the most important thing in the world. I write about sex because often it feels like the most important thing in the world. But I set these personal private passions against an outside world – sometimes hostile, usually strange, so that we can see what happens when inner and outer realities collide. (jeanettewinterson.com)

What is particularly interesting about Winterson’s texts is indeed the collision of realities which she mentions in the above quote, that is, how she juxtaposes various worlds (from history, fairy tales, medicine, quantum physics or computers) and the inner world of human beings. Her main purpose is showing that capacity of language in describing reality is more than we could expect.

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The author also describes herself as “passionate about language” (jeanettewinterson.com) and “in love with books”, which is visible in her incredibly intertextual novels which clearly show her poetic inspirations (the Bible, T.S. Eliot, metaphysical poets, Gertrude Stein) and her concentration on revitalizing “language that does more than convey meaning” (jeanettewinterson.com).

Defamiliarization seems to be omnipresent in Winterson’s fiction. The author herself says, “[i];n a new century we need new ways of looking at familiar things – that’s the only way we make them ours, otherwise they’re just borrowed and soon become clichés” (jeanettewinterson.com). Thus, Winterson’s fiction encourages her readers to look at the world differently, but defamiliarization leads them to truth about themselves which is free from stereotypes and easy solutions. This can be done through reading.

Winterson is not a typical novelist, and her difficult, yet engrossing, prose was subject to various critical analyses. The most important collections of essays which have been published so far are “I’m telling you stories”: Jeanette Winterson and the Politics of Reading (1998) edited by Helena Grice and Tim Woods, The Novels of Jeanette Winterson (2005) by Merja Makinen, Jeanette Winterson (2006) by Susan Onega, Jeanette Winterson (2007) edited by Sonya Andermahr, Transgressing Boundaries in Jeanette Winterson’s Fiction (2009) by Sonia Front and Love in Jeanette Winterson’s Novels (2010) by Julie Ellam. These publications mainly focus on gender and sexuality which are analyzed through the prism of feminist and queer criticism. The critics referred to theories of écriture féminine by Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, and they underlined a strong link between Winterson’s writing and French feminism. What is also inevitable in commenting on Winterson’s texts is writing about love which, as I have mentioned, is the preoccupation of all her novels. Thus, Ellam’s monography, as the title suggests, is devoted strictly to this subject.

The following book is an analysis and meditation of Winterson’s five novels: The Passion, Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries and The PowerBook. In my view, these are the novels in which poetic quality of her prose is most visible and thought-provoking. The first chapter is going to be devoted to the distinction between two key terms which are included in the title of this work, namely “prose” and “poetry”. This part of the book is going to outline the “in-between” genres which can neither be categorized as prose nor as poetry. Further in this chapter, I am also going to present Winterson’s oeuvre in connection with the categorization which I discussed earlier. I will refer to criticism about her works which points at the topic which I am mostly concerned with: Winterson’s defamiliarizing strategies and poetic quality of her style. Her language is frequently referred to as poetic and original, but the ←11 | 12→critics never elaborate on these statements. I am going to attempt at answering the question: What makes Winterson’s prose poetic? What kind of devices does she use and what is original about them? I will also concentrate on the aspect of storytelling in her fiction which is as obvious as her preoccupation with love. I am going to analyze how storytelling and poetry overlap and resonate with one another.

My book will attempt to prove that Winterson’s prose, even if so concentrated on language as such and expressive of author’s love of words, is not merely an experiment for experiment’s sake and is not a collection of puns and linguistic games but a multilayered construction which makes emotional depth of these texts self-evident. Winterson’s intricate texts which are always structured circularly reflect the way of human thinking and feeling which, as she often underlines, is never linear.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Prose poems Poetic prose Intertextual references T.S. Eliot Literalization Defamiliarization Bible
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 186 pp.

Biographical notes

Agnieszka Miksza (Author)

Agnieszka Miksza is currently working as an assistant professor at the University of Szczecin. She completed her doctoral dissertation on Winterson's works at the University of Łódź (Faculty of Philology) in 2017. Her academic interests are contemporary poetic prose and biblical intertextual references in contemporary British and American prose.


Title: Multiple Discourses, Multiple Meanings: Jeanette Winterson's Language of Multiplicity and Variety
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188 pages