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Gulliver Revisited: The Horizon of Travel Writing in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry

Gulliver revu et corrigé: l’horizon du récit de voyage dans Sexing the Cherry de Jeanette Winterson
Emilie Walezak
p. 67-76


Jordan, l’un des deux énonciateurs du roman de Winterson, parcourt le monde au côté du célèbre explorateur John Tradescant et relate ses voyages dans un carnet de bord. Toutefois le récit présenté au lecteur ne correspond pas à ce récit officiel. Jordan nous raconte ses voyages intérieurs dans des pays imaginaires dont il dessine les cartes. Jordan affirme être un de ces voyageurs-menteurs dont Gulliver est un représentant puisque son portrait dans le paratexte des Voyages donne à lire la phrase horatienne, « Splendide Mendax », soit menteur glorieux. Le retournement inattendu au dernier chapitre, qui transforme les personnages du dix-septième siècle anglais en alter egos fantasmatiques de personnages contemporains, vient en complément au récit fantaisiste de Jordan dans lequel le temps et l’espace ne sont que mirages. La quête de Jordan s’avère être une quête identitaire et subjective qui vient faire écho à l’interprétation postmoderne que donne Winterson du texte de Swift. Selon elle, Gulliver au pays des Houyhnhnms doit faire face à la difficile question « Que suis-je ? Qui suis-je ? ». Elle y répond dans Sexing the Cherry avec le récit de voyage de Jordan comme éloge des mensonges de la fiction.

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1Direct intertextual references to Gulliver’s Travels abound in Jeanette Winterson’s 1989 novel Sexing the Cherry, most of them standing in relation to the Dog Woman. Those references are designed to enhance the satirical impulse that characterizes the Dog Woman’s speech. Susana Onega has thus demonstrated how the Dog Woman ‘constantly alludes to her grotesque Swiftean parentage’ (Onega 81). However no critic has yet tackled the generic Gulliveran intertextuality in Jordan’s travel narrative. In 1999, Jeanette Winterson wrote a preface to Gulliver’s Travels entitled ‘Gulliver’s Wound’ in which she insisted on the transformation of Gulliver’s character in Book 4 into a modern hero when his exotic quest turns into an inner quest. Christine Reynier has underlined how Winterson’s preface sheds some light on the characteristic split of the protagonists in Sexing the Cherry whose last chapter reveals that the seventeenth-century characters, Jordan and the Dog Woman, are but the fantastic alter egos of twentieth-century figures, thus blurring the chronological distinctions between past, present and future and turning their quest for the other into a quest for themselves (Reynier 77). Such tension between the exploration of self and the other is a characteristic feature of travel narratives, according to Jean Viviès (2003, 7), and corresponds to travel narratives as heterology as Michel de Certeau analysed (222). As Swift did, Jeanette Winterson uses the conventions of travel narrative for her own purposes, which turn out to be a quest for the speaking subject as she reckons the question in Book 4 of the Travels is: Who am I? What am I? This article aims at inquiring into the relevance of travel writing for contemporary fiction by looking first at how Sexing the Cherry can be apprehended as a travel narrative and then at the similarities and differences between Jordan’s narration and Gulliver’s.

A Composite Book

2A distinctive feature of Sexing the Cherry, that all critics have taken care to underline, is its composite nature. In its graphic composition, it includes floating fragments that are numbered though not systematically ordered, meditations on the nature of time and space inserted into the narrative with titles in capital letters, fruit drawings that serve as enunciative markers, and a single unanchored page written in italics to whose singularity Frédéric Regard has devoted an article (2003). It mirrors the novel’s combination of genres. The narrative of the Dog Woman first reads as a historical novel but also integrates burlesque fables and her speech is tinted with a Juvenalian satirical impulse as is her contemporary counterpart’s. Jordan’s narrative combines dreams and fairy tales, philosophical tales and myths. Such a mixture of different generic paradigms may be approximated to what Jean Viviès called the ‘generic frictions’ (2002, 9) typical of travel narratives. Furthermore the novel’s epigraph and title add to the hybridity by referring to various scientific discourses. Botany is alluded to in the title, anthropology is mentioned in the first epigraphic quotation which highlights the Indian Hopis’ different appreciation of time and contemporary physics are invoked in the second quotation to question the fabric of reality. However no critic has yet related those diverse elements to travel narrative which Adrien Pasquali defined as a montage of genres and discourses and Michel de Certeau as an ‘interdisciplinary laboratory’ (Certeau 222).

3The ultimate aim of Winterson’s blend of history and fantasy in Sexing the Cherry is to question the two major coordinates of travel writing, namely time and space. A recent collective work dedicated to the treatment of time and space in her works focuses on its political implications (Sonmez, Orzvut Kilic). Through re-shaping time and space, it argues, Winterson questions cultural constructs. In the case of Sexing the Cherry, her use of the text as a heterogeneous space accommodating different genres and discourses matches Pasquali’s contention that travel narratives are distinguished by a characteristic disregard for homogenization (Pasquali 113). Moreover, the diegetic ‘strata and spirals’ of the novel, as Catherine Bernard described them creating a ‘post-Newtonian multiverse’, in Susana Onega’s words (Onega 80), can be construed as a result of Winterson’s use of travel narrative which, according to Michel de Certeau, ‘offer[s] to analysis various combinations between the practices of scientific investigation . . . and their figuration in a literary space-time’ (222).

4Thus, by appropriating the discoveries of contemporary physics that matter is but ‘empty space and points of light’, Winterson challenges the commonplace idea that the world is finite because it has all been mapped out and investigates unknown inner territories. Her book is an invitation to re-enchant the world by looking not at what is there but at what is not, as Jordan tells the reader: ‘So what the universe doesn’t contain is as significant to us as what it does’ (90). In this context, Gulliverean and Eliottian intertextualities are crucial as they inform Jordan’s quest of himself as a subject defined negatively as an eclipse glimpsed at in the gaps between hypothetical worlds. From the start, Jordan thus speaks in favour of the ‘things which are not’—the Houyhnhnms’ circumlocutory definition of lies—asserting the need for a renewal of belief in fictive lies.

Travel Liar

5From the start, Jordan defines his narrative negatively as not your usual travel account and forewarns the reader that his record is not to be trusted:

Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle. These are 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 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. (10)

6Jordan does mention once in the text the travel book he wrote for Tradescant: ‘I’ve kept the logbook for the ship. Meticulously’ (101).

7As in Gulliver’s Travels, there are two books: a faithful account and a distorted one. But while Gulliver—whose candour is proverbial (Swift xxxvii)—blames his publisher for disfiguring his work and making him say ‘the thing which is not’, Jordan speaks in favour of fictive lies and presents his record as a faithful one with regard to some inner understanding: ‘I believe it to be a faithful account of what happened, at least of what happened to me’ (101). This is because Swift’s novel is designed as a mystification ironically imitating the conventions of travel writing, providing maps and delineating a precise horizon of expectation with its title Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. Jeanette Winterson shatters all such expectations. Jordan’s narrative as travel narrative is defined negatively as an absence: though they are mentioned, there are no drawing of maps and no logbook so that it stands outside the traditional formal confines of travel writing and refuses to limit the reader’s imagination.

  • 1 The expression is taken from the title of P.G. Adam’s book, Travellers and Travel Liars 1660–1800.

8While Swift’s mystification, mocking strategies of denial of fictionality, was designed to legitimate fiction at a time when it was accused of falsity (Millet 205–214), Jeanette Winterson’s lies aim at rehabilitating fiction in a period when simulacra have invalidated it as mere fallacy. So while Gulliver is only indirectly branded as a liar with the addition to his portrait in the second edition of the book of the Horatian sentence, ‘Splendide Mendax’, or glorious liar, Jordan claims to be ‘a fantasist and a liar’ (92). Both, however, belong to the same category of Utopian travel liars1 describing strange journeys into extravagant allegorical places ruled by literal metaphors where they undergo physical transformations. As an alazon, however, Gulliver’s lies are designed to portray him in a good light, in particular as a remarkable linguist, while his transformations are the work of the satirist castigating the character’s pride and denouncing the corruption in language (Bony 75–91). Conversely, Jordan’s fanciful account is counterbalanced by his honesty when he admits to not speaking the women’s language (31) and his cross-dressing is not conceived as a humiliation. Jordan’s quest is indeed a quest for the feminine part of himself.

The Dancing Part of Himself

9All the negative definitions on which Sexing the Cherry relies may be interpreted as a representation of the cultural construct of femininity as an absence or the lack of a symbolic inscription. Jordan’s quest for the elusive twelfth princess, Fortunata, is really a quest for his own feminine nature as he says he is looking for ‘the dancing part of himself’ (40). Thus his fanciful account written in invisible ink has been described as ‘an example of “écriture féminine”’ (Onega 87). His ‘post-Newtonian’ travels centered round the idea of escaping the laws of gravity are mirrored in his characteristic floating syntax (Bernard 225) and the text’s general ‘conversion of referential gravity into the gravitation’ of stories within stories (Bernard 224, my translation). Frédéric Regard has demonstrated how the ‘wild gyration’ (72) of stylistic devices in Fortunata’s dancing lesson could be construed as a defeat of the law of the Father as they serve to negate the very idea of origin (Regard 2002, 184–185). This is also true of Jordan’s travel narrative which contrasts with the phallic satirical enunciation of the royalist Dog Woman whose very excess underlines the demise, in post-Œdipian times, of the symbolic Father.

10Through the metonymic spinning, in particular, of the signifier ‘light’, referring variously to weightlessness and the ‘points of light’ of modern physics and Fortunata’s dance, Jordan endeavours to create those interstices where ‘the self might, for a moment, be seen vanishing through a door, which disappears at once’ (80), to design symbolic blank spaces for the expression of his feminine utterance. This stylistic device is complemented by the use of a wandering intertextuality which similarly offers brief glimpses at other worlds modified by the new perception provided by the text. The reader may turn to Winterson’s preface to Gulliver’s Travels to better apprehend the author’s own reading of Swift that she wove into Sexing the Cherry. In it, she interprets the wound Gulliver receives on leaving the Houyhnhnms’ island as a narcissistic wound that transforms Gulliver the alazon into a split subject. The split consciousness is what Jordan’s two books express, ‘the gap between my ideal of myself and my pounding heart’ (101). As he explains, the invisible life he tells the reader about is what makes him unfit to be the kind of hero with a wife and children, who is more excited by adventure than by domestic quietude and boasts of his discoveries and journeys (101), the kind of hero that Gulliver is until book four where, according to Winterson’s reading, ‘Gulliver’s disintegration of self almost amounts to a gender switch’ (ix), as he becomes an attentive housewife for his Master and where ‘he tries to write up his strange split world as a log-book but it reads like a diary’ (x). Thus Jordan’s travel narrative telling of inner journeys similarly reads more like a diary than a log book. As the fruit drawings in Sexing the Cherry demonstrate, the castration process inaugurating the law of the Father malfunctions—the drawing of cut-up fruits underline the difficulty to put the split subject into words—Jeanette Winterson, therefore, seeks to inscribe the split consciousness differently through Jordan’s feminine narrative, written invisibly and dominated by negative and hypothetical forms, that ultimately raise the question of the speaking subject.

What am I?

  • 2 ‘Large or small, above or below, Gulliver was always the observer, the one recording, measuring, ma (...)

11As Frédéric Regard has pointed out, the crucial issue in Sexing the Cherry is that of enunciation and the origin of enunciation (Regard 2002, 178). It matches the question which Jeanette Winterson reckons is raised by Gulliver’s transformation in Book 4 of the Travels: ‘Who am I? What am I?’ (ix). While Gulliver’s ‘I’ serves the creation of a persona with no definite identity for satirical purposes in the first three books, Jeanette Winterson insists that in Book 4 Gulliver, at last, is filled out as a character when ‘Gulliver the reliable witness has become Gulliver the unreliable narrator’ (x). In her own words, from the position of distant observer in the first three books, he becomes a ‘player’2 whose humanity is at stake and who must have a self to answer the question of his subjective stance. Sexing the Cherry is thus an enactment of ‘the disintegration of self and narrative that happens in “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms”’ (ix). Similarly to Gulliver whose words are only true at the moment when he utters them, the truth of Jordan’s words is versatile as he is careful to point out. At the beginning of his narrative, Jordan thus claims: ‘This is the first thing I saw’ (9) and describes a foggy night but then, eighty-six pages later, he says: ‘Nor was the night in the fog-covered field the first thing I saw’ (95) though this correction is inserted into a passage entitled Lies 8. Thus Jordan’s conclusion in the passage reads: ‘And so what we have told you is true, although it is not’ (95).

12By shifting the emphasis from truth to lies Winterson not only puts into question narrative but also narration, storytelling and storyteller. The question ‘What am I?’ refers not only to self, character and identity but also to subjectivity and style. The other intertextual horizon of Sexing the Cherry is T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and with it Eliot’s impersonality. For Winterson, ‘the total realisation of Self necessary for the artist and evinced in her style is that which makes possible a total escape from Self’ (Winterson 1997, 188). Jordan’s time travels through hypothetical worlds enacts Eliot’s ‘perpetual possibility’ (171) of ‘what might have been and what has been’ (171). Jordan’s Gulliverean lies defining things in the negative—the travel book that his narrative could have been but is not, the journeys he did make but does not tell and those he might have made—take up Eliot’s own negative proposal:

In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. (181)

13Jordan’s travels are also literary journeys through texts as the common metaphor goes. Winterson’s use of intertextuality, however, is not quite so common. Rewriting in her own words and worlds the split state Gulliver is in in Book 4 of The Travels or Eliot’s speculations in Four Quartets is what enables her to rebuild a fictional pact with her reader. Jordan’s fantasist lies are the equivalent of Henri’s invitation in The Passion: ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’ Achieving impersonality through fleshing out first person narrators experiencing a disintegration of self, Winterson renegotiates the author’s death and efficiently recreates a symbolic fictional space for her reader to navigate in.

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Adam, P.G., Travellers and Travel Liars 1660–1800, Berkeley: U of California P, 1962.

Bernard, Catherine, ‘Sexing the Cherry de Jeanette Winterson: des mondes suspendus’, Tropismes 7 (1995): 211–225.

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1 The expression is taken from the title of P.G. Adam’s book, Travellers and Travel Liars 1660–1800.

2 ‘Large or small, above or below, Gulliver was always the observer, the one recording, measuring, making notes, standing slightly to one side, even at his most embroiled. Here, in the land of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos he has to admit that he is a player. It’s not his life that is at stake, it is his humanity. The questions “Who am I?” “What am I?” cannot be answered outside the self’ (Winterson 1999, vii).

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Emilie Walezak, « Gulliver Revisited: The Horizon of Travel Writing in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry »Études britanniques contemporaines, 40 | 2011, 67-76.

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Emilie Walezak, « Gulliver Revisited: The Horizon of Travel Writing in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 40 | 2011, mis en ligne le 27 août 2015, consulté le 29 septembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Emilie Walezak

Université Lyon III.
Emilie Walezak est PRAG à l’Université Lyon 2 depuis la rentrée 2010. Elle a rejoint le laboratoire LCE. Elle est titulaire d’un doctorat d’Études anglophones et sa thèse s’intitule « Histoire et fiction dans les romans de Peter Ackroyd, A.S. Byatt et Jeanette Winterson ». Spécialiste du roman et de la nouvelle au xxe siècle, elle a consacré plusieurs articles à Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield, A.S. Byatt ou Jeanette Winterson et a co-dirigé l’ouvrage A Myriad of Literary Impressions. L’intertextualité dans le roman contemporain de langue anglaise paru en 2010 aux Presses universitaires de Perpignan.

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