book The Passion

reviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 15 ~ August, 1998

Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion mixes the cosmic and the carnal into a Napoleonic era, surrealistic romance. The plot and subject matter are nothing new. Winterson’s ideas about language are.

The Passion creates, not so much a psychological identification with the main characters, Henri and Villanelle, as a loss of traditional bearings through Winterson’s juxtaposition of the mystical and the violent and the psychical, elements linked only by the word passion. The text avoids the cerebral, claiming the existence of webbed feet that walk on water and live women with no hearts in their chests, but the subtext asked questions about language. Where would this book have been without the word passion, its catalyst? Winterson’s story plays on our emotions and explores the roots of human passion. Passion motivates every turn of the plot, every thought her characters have. Would these plot twists have happened or these character’s emotions have been realized if the word passion did not exist?

Technically, this story is brilliant. The title word creates both an emotional framework for the characters and a thematic background. Henri and Villanelle’s voices pace the book, maintaining a tight plot. Winterson’s diction is sparse and dense, such as when Henri describes Napoleon, “But he had furs to keep his blood optimistic.” Her text is moody and emotional. On one page Villanelle writes after making love with her female lover, “I took to going to service twice a day to bask in the assurance of Our Lord & My body loosens then, my mind floats away.” A few pages later her lover goes vacationing with her husband, and Villanelle describes her religion again, “What a wonder, joining yourself to God, pitting your wits against him, knowing that you win and lose simultaneously. Where else could you indulge without fear the exquisite masochism of the victim?”

Despite this ingenious technical and thematic setup, I was put off by Winterson’s philosophizing and the repeated phrase, “In between fear and sex, passion is.” My right to ask What is passion? was usurped, and reading the pointed sentence again half a dozen times was aggravating. Too often Winterson tyrannically told me what to think, spouting her life philosophy, instead of respecting me and her narrative enough to allow my own conclusions. As a result, her text did not particularly resonate with me.

Luckily, Winterson wisely chose not to answer The Passion‘s subtextual questions directly but allowed her narrative to convince me to answer, Language impresses life and history, and vice versa. The language, the words passion, love, and hate, guide the narrative. I kept wondering, what if none of the characters had these words? It reminded me of George Orwell’s ideas about language in 1984. If we don’t have the words to describe what we sense or feel or desire, we can’t discuss it or demand it. What if Villanelle or Henri could not express the passionate aspects of their emotions and psyche? Would they feel or act the same way? And conversely, without these acts of passion, Napoleon storming into Russia, Henri killing the cook, would history and life be the same? No, passion, life, and history are interdependent.