Sexing the Cherryby Jeanette Winterson
“Sexing the Cherry is a dangerous jewel . . . a mixture of The Arabian Nights touched by the philosophical form of Milan Kundera and told with the grace of Italo Calvino.” —San Francisco Chronicle
Jeanette Winterson’s dazzling novels have earned her widespread and unanimous international acclaim, establishing her as a major figure in world literature. Sexing the Cherry is an imaginative tour de force exploring history, imagination, and the nature of time. In a fantastic world that is and is not seventeenth-century England, a baby is found floating in the Thames. The child is rescued by the Dog Woman, a murderous gentle giant who names her newfound trophy Jordan and takes him out for walks on a leash. When he grows up Jordan, like Gulliver, travels the world, but finds that the strangest wonders are spun out of his own head. The strangest wonder of all is Time. Does it exist? What is its nature? Why does every journey conceal another journey within its lines? What is the difference between seventeenth-century Jordan and twentieth-century Nicholas Jordan, a navel cadet in a warship? And who are the Twelve Dancing Princesses? With a story full of shimmering epiphanies, Jeanette Winterson again demonstrates the keenness of her craft and the singularity of her vision.
“Sexing the Cherry fuses history, fairy tale, and metafiction into a fruit . . . of a memorably startling flavor.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The marvelous and the horrific, the mythic and the mundane overlap and intermingle in this wonderfully inventive novel.” —The New York Times
“Sexing the Cherry is a firecracker. . . . Those who care for fiction that is both idiosyncratic and beautiful will want to read anything [Winterson] writes.” —The Washington Post Book World
My name is Jordan. This is the first thing I saw.
It was night, about a quarter to twelve, the sky divided in halves, one cloudy, the other fair. The clouds hung over the wood, there was no distance between them and the tops of the trees. Where the sky was clear, over the river and the flat fields newly ploughed, the moon, almost full, shone out of a yellow aureole and reflected in the bow of the water. There were cattle in the field across, black against the slope of the hill, not moving, sleeping. One light, glittering from the only house, looked like the moat-light of a giant’s castle. Tall trees flanked it A horse ran loose in the courtyard, its hooves sparking the stone.
Then the fog came. The fog came from the river in thin spirals like spirits in a churchyard and thickened with the force of a genie from a bottle. The bulrushes were buried first, then the trunks of the trees, then the forks and the junctions. The tops of the trees floated in the fog, making suspended islands for the birds.
The cattle were all drowned and the moat-light, like a lighthouse, appeared and vanished and vanished and appeared, cutting the air like a bright sword.
The fog came towards me and the sky that had been clear was covered up. It was bitterly cold, my hair was damp and I had no hand-warmer. I tried to find the path but all I found were hares with staring eyes, poised in the middle of the field and turned to stone. I began to walk with my hands stretched out in front of me, as do those troubled in sleep, and in this way, for the first time, I traced the lineaments of my own face opposite me.
Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are the journeys I wish to record. Not the ones I made, but the ones I might have made, or perhaps did make in some other place or time. I could tell you the truth as you will find it in diaries and maps and log-books. I could faithfully describe all that I saw and heard and give you a travel book. You could follow it then, tracing those travels with your finger, putting red flags where I went.
For the Greeks, the hidden life demanded invisible ink. They wrote an ordinary letter and in between the lines set out another letter, written in milk. The document looked innocent enough until one who knew better sprinkled coal-dust over it. What the letter had been no longer mattered; what mattered was the life flaring up undetected till now.
I discovered that my own life was written invisibly, was squashed between the facts, was flying without me like the Twelve Dancing Princesses who shot from their window every night and returned home every morning with torn dresses and worn-out slippers and remembered nothing.
I resolved to set a watch on myself like a jealous father, trying to catch myself disappearing through a door just noticed in the wall. I knew I was being adulterous; that what I loved was not going on at home. I was giving myself the slip and walking through this world like a shadow. The longer I eluded myself the more obsessed I became with the thought of discovery. Occasionally, in company, someone would snap their fingers in front of my face and ask, “Where are you?” For a long time I had no idea, but gradually I began to find evidence of the other life and gradually it appeared before me.
“Remember the rock from whence ye are hewn and the pit from whence ye are digged.”
My mother carved this on a medallion and hung it round my neck the day she found me in the slime by the river. I was wrapped up in a rotting sack such as kittens are drowned in, but my head had wedged uppermost against the bank. I heard dogs coming towards me and a roar in the water and a face as round as the moon with hair falling on either side bobbed over me. She scooped me up, she tied me between her breasts whose nipples stood out like walnuts. She took me home and kept me there with fifty dogs and no company but her own.
1. Begin your discussion of this incredibly inventive work by talking about the ways in which the narrative structure moves away from conventional realism. How do some of Winterson’s innovations reflect the subjects discussed within the narrative: the linear nature of time, the subjective quality of truth, history as a place rather than a time, convergence of disparate realities, journeys within journeys. Did you find the format of the novel challenging?
2. The putrid stench of bawdy seventeenth-century London rips through the novel, immersing the reader in the brutality and physicality of life under Charles I during the civil wars, but how true would it be to say that this is a historical novel? What do you believe Winterson’s intentions are in setting the bulk of the narrative in the distant past? How does she use history?
3. Plucked from the River Thames as an abandoned baby, Jordan spends his life on a quest: searching out exotic fruits on far-flung shores, seeking a dancer he saw once at a dinner, looking for answers to questions about time and space, about his different selves. How much of his peripatetic, exploratory nature do you think comes from the fact that he is adopted? Do you believe he is trying to understand his own story by traveling the world and finding his place in it? Talk about his awareness that his life with the Dog-Woman is his by chance—and the accompanying thought that, therefore, many other lives are possible.
4. Look again at the moment when Jordan sees the banana and, with it, a world beyond the reality of the present, a place with “deep blue waters against a pale shore and trees whose branches sang with green” (p. 6). As the Dog-Woman states “this was the first time Jordan set sail” (p. 6). What does she mean by this, and what is its relevance to the novel as a whole?
5. If, for Jordan, all paths lead away from home, is it because he is running away? How does he view his home, his upbringing, and most importantly, the Dog-Woman, the only mother he has ever known? How does she affect his attitude to life, to other women? If he is not running away, what is he running toward? Does he know?
6. Take this opportunity to discuss the formidable character of the Dog-Woman, the strong and immensely likable presence at the center of the novel. Talk about her personal sense of morality (“her pressing need to do away with scoundrels” (p. 156) that turns her into a murderer, her fierce maternal instincts, her pragmatism, her gentle side. Is she a living contradiction or is she a fully rounded, flawed example of human nature? Look at the following and discuss how well it captures her essence: “There were the usual villains on the sands, hoping to rob a poor woman in her sleep, but I pushed them under-water and left them bloated with salt. In my spare time I collected shells” (p. 122).
7. The Dog-Woman briefly describes her loveless childhood ending with the murder of her father. Is it surprising that, having known no love in her own life, she is able to love Jordan as she does? What does she believe about love? Does she fear it for herself? For Jordan?
8. Continuing this line of discussion, talk about love as it is portrayed throughout the novel. From a city where love is viewed as a plague to accounts of the failed marriages of the twelve dancing princesses to a philosopher who warns that “love is better ignored than explored” (p. 37) is there anyone in the narrative who advocates for—and experiences—love as a bringer of happiness? What about Jordan? Where does he stand in all this? What is he hoping for when he pursues the dancer?
9. Alongside the world of Charles I’s London stand other fantastical worlds that Jordan visits on his travels. Look at the way that Winterson mixes the familiar and strange, and the effect that has on the narrative. Discuss, also, elements of the magical that exist in the Dog-Woman’s world.
10. Winterson weaves myth and fairytale throughout the text, highlighting themes and expanding upon ideas and further reminding us that this is not a conventional realistic narrative. How does reading the stories of the twelve dancing princesses help with our understanding of the book as a whole? What about the myth of Artemis and Orion? When surrounded by the timelessness of mythology do Jordan and the Dog-Woman’s stories take on their own mythic quality? Discuss how their stories fit into this rich tapestry of disparate histories.
11. When John Tradescant first meets Jordan he sees something of his past self in the young boy. To Jordan, Tradescant becomes a hero. Why is this? Later Jordan realizes that Tradescant is quite different to him: “For Tradescant, voyages can be completed. They occupy time comfortably. With some leeway, they are predictable. I have set off and found there is no end to even the simplest journey of the mind” (p. 115). Does Jordan see this as a failing in himself or in Tradescant? Why?
12. On his travels Jordan meets a member of the Hopi, an Indian tribe and learns that their language has no tenses for past, present, and future. “They do not sense time in that way. For them, time is one” (p. 155). Using this quote as a springboard, discuss the place of time in the novel. Does Jordan believe that it is possible to exist in more than one time? Why and how? Give examples. Talk about the “journeys within journeys” that are so important to Jordan and their relationship to time. Within the context of the novel consider how it is possible that “the future and the present and the past exist only in our minds.”
13. If the existence of time itself can be questioned then what does that say about the nature of reality? What does Winterson mean when she says “matter, that thing the most solid and the well known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light.”
14. Talk about the interesting statement “the earth is round and flat at the same time.” How does it apply to truth in the novel?
15. On all his journeys—and his journeys within journeys—Jordan is on a mission. Ultimately, what do you think that mission is? What is he searching for and does he ever find it? At one point he says, “Was I searching for a dancer whose name I did not know or was I searching for the dancing part of myself?” (p. 39). Does that help to clarify your responses?
16. In one of the most moving parts of the novel we realize the disconnect that exists between the Dog-Woman and Jordan. “When I left, I think it was relief she felt at being able to continue her old life with the dogs and the dredgers and the whores she likes . . . She was busy with her own mind, but I was hurt” (p. 114). What was your response to this? Was it hard for you to believe? What do you think Winterson is saying about the nature of the reality we project? Or the subjective nature of truth? Can we ever know ourselves if it is so hard to fathom others?
17. Fortunata is the only dancing princess who escapes marriage to live the life she wants to lead, a life as a dancer. When Jordan finds her what is she doing? Is she happy? Why can she never love Jordan?
18. Toward the end of the novel two new characters appear: an unnamed scientist who dreams that she is a giantess and Nicolas Jordan, a navy cadet. Discuss these people as alter egos of the Dog-Woman and Jordan—how similar are they? Are they diluted versions, different version or the same people in a different time and space? When Nicholas sees the scientist he is reminded of someone else and sets off on a quest to find her—how do you think this story will end?
19. In many ways the entire novel, in both form and substance, is a tribute to the power of the imagination. “I don’t know if other worlds exist in space or time. Perhaps this is the only one and the rest is rich imaginings. Either way it doesn’t matter. We have to protect both possibilities. They seem to be interdependent” (p. 146). Draw your discussion of the work to a close by considering this interesting quote. Does it seem to be at odds with some of the questions and possibilities raised during the narrative? Would you agree that it doesn’t matter? Do you think that Jordan would have a different viewpoint to the scientist here?
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