Analysis of Jeanette Winterson’s The World and Other Places

The World and Other Places is, to date, Jeanette Winterson’s only short story collection. In the afterword of the 1998 edition, Winterson explains how she wrote these 17 stories gradually over 12 years, after the publication of her first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985). There is a pathos invested in many of these stories, but there is also a glimpse of the humor of Oranges. This is particularly true of the last story, “Psalms,” in which the child narrator and her evangelical mother are replicas of the characters in the novel. Psalms is the unfortunate pet tortoise (who is named, on the mother’s insistence, after a book of the Bible) who drowns while the family is on holiday in Blackpool. Both the first and last stories are concerned with loving a pet and therefore explicitly frame the collection. Typically for Winter-son, love in the first is frightening and risky and introduces the reader to one of Winterson’s dominating concerns: that loving is about taking a chance.

This whole collection is characteristic for its close relationship with Winterson’s novels. In “The Three Friends,” for example, appearing in Gut Symmetries (1997), the three title characters find death after journeying for “that which cannot be found” (49). The story is akin to a quest narrative, or rather a moral fable, and is a reminder of how Winterson adapts different forms for her own use. “Orion” also appears in Sexing the Cherry (1989) as Fortunata’s story, and the names of the two main characters in “The Poetics of Sex,” Sappho and Picasso, are also used in Art and Lies (1994). In addition, “Atlantic Crossing” is a condensed version of Winterson’s script Great Moments in Aviation (1994).

Jeanette Winterson

As well as these overt connections, the style of writing also marks these tales as Winterson’s work. There are sentences here that are repeated in her novels, such as “What you risk reveals what you value.” This appears not only in “Adventure of a Lifetime” and “Orion” but also in The Passion (1987) and other novels. Such recycling is open to criticism, but the repetition has the effect of layering Winterson’s works with similar meanings. The sentence itself (“what you risk reveals what you value”) also indicates that Winterson is inciting the reader to gamble with emotions. Her characters often turn to adultery as a means of escape from the normative effects of institutionalized love. The risk, more often than not, is described as worth it when love has become false or stale.

These stories also have political aspects, especially when late 20th-century consumerism is interrogated. This occurs in “Holy Matrimony,” “A Green Square,” and, to a lesser extent, “The Green Man,” in which the modern world is decried as superficial and meaningless. “Holy Matrimony” maintains Winterson’s commitment to a higher faith and criticizes the faithless exchange of vows; marriage is depicted as having become another commodity. “A Green Square” follows immediately after and continues this tone of despair. “The Green Man” conveys a similar sense of despair and questions the life of a married couple once the excitement has begun to pall. These three tales value love when it is genuine, and they critique conformity and the commodification of desire.

More political reactions can be found in “Orion” and “The Poetics of Sex.” In these two stories the influence of feminism is tangible. In “Orion” Winterson rewrites the myth in which Artemis kills Orion with a scorpion as a punishment for raping her, and “The Poetics of Sex” is structured by ignorant homophobic questions asked of lesbians, such as “Don’t You Feel There’s Something Missing?” and the repeated “Why Do You Sleep With Girls?” This story challenges the marginalizing effects of the dominant heterosexual culture and uses lesbian sexuality to undermine this hegemony.

Recurring Winterson themes are also apparent in the title story. The narrator is a young boy whose family is depicted as so poor that they have to imagine the world and the journeys they could make. This reverence for the imagined journey, the city of the interior, is also evident in Sexing the Cherry, in which Jordan’s imagination takes the reader to fairy-tale cities.

These journeys in the novel and short story expose an interest in the quest motif and the influence of romanticism and modernism on Winterson’s writing. The “other places” extend beyond physical geography and offer travels to richer, imagined landscapes that are escapes from realism. Several of these stories barely have a plot, allowing for a reflection on other concerns, such as the power of language. The use of metafiction, by which the fictionality of the story is self-consciously highlighted, is often touched on in this collection and is a trademark of Winterson’s later novels.

The departure from plot has confounded critics of Winterson’s work in the 1990s and has contributed to negative criticism of her novels. Because this collection was written over a 12-year period, it is possible to trace a trajectory in the writing that moves increasingly away from the comparatively more grounded Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In the afterword of The World and Other Places, Winterson writes that the nature of time, love, the quest, and the outsider are the compass points of her life and her writing. Furthermore, this collection, alongside her novels, demonstrates that the art of storytelling is another dominant concern for Winterson.

Cumming, Laura. “Books: Reader, Are You Up to It?” Guardian. 27 June 1998, p. 10. Jeanette Winterson.
Winterson, Jeanette. The World and Other Places. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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