Written on the Body Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1992, in Great Britain (first pb. in US, 1993)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Picaresque

Time of work: The late twentieth century

Locale: London and Yorkshire, England

Characters DiscussedThe narrator

The Written on the Bodynarrator, unnamed and of unspecified gender. Significantly a professional translator, the narrator also acts as sole interpreter, through whose perspective all other characters and events are viewed. The character of the narrator is unfolded through revelations of his/her romantic and sexual exploits, which are relayed in retrospective meditations alternating among despair, cynicism, humorous self-mockery, and romantic lyricism. Although the narrator often is flippant and cynical in recalling past loves, the context within which these are related is a mournful, obsessive, and sincere account of the most recent and traumatically ended affair, with the adored Louise, who is later discovered to be dying of leukemia. The self-portrait is a mixture of romantic and sexual renegade with selfless and devoted lover. There are the other aspects of the narrator’s character implicit in the narrative, rather than self-acknowledged; among these less sympathetic qualities is the casualness with which former lovers are abandoned. The narrator admits to an addiction to passion and to dismissing comfortable or contented relationships, specifically marriage, as hypocritical and deadening.


Louise, the central focus of the narrator’s monologue, discussed or addressed in absentia. Revealed through this impassioned perspective, she is described as a pre-Raphaelite beauty with flaming red hair. The Australian is unhappily married to Elgin, a physician and cancer researcher. She is the only one of a series of married lovers of the narrator who immediately decides to leave her husband to be with her/him. Halfway through the novel, it is revealed that Louise is dying of lymphocytic leukemia. Her absence results from the fact that the narrator reluctantly has abandoned her to ensure her return to Elgin’s expert care.


Elgin, Louise’s husband, a physician who specializes in the treatment of cancer. Portrayed through the narrator’s eyes, he appears boring, clinical, and cold. This characterization is supplemented by references to Louise expressing her disappointment in Elgin who, when she had married him, had more humane ambitions for his medicine but, seduced by fame, abandoned his original intention of practicing in the Third World in favor of research. He is the son of poor Jewish shopowners, Esau and Sarah Rosenthal. It was his mother Sarah’s death from cancer that inspired Elgin to choose his particular field of medical research.


Jacqueline, the most recent of the narrator’s former lovers. Jacqueline is abandoned in favor of Louise. Jacqueline works as an animal psychologist at the zoo, helping the animals to adjust to their unnatural surroundings. Physically unprepossessing, Jacqueline is portrayed as a kind and practical but unexciting person. The affair with her is presented in direct (and unflattering) contrast to the subsequent heady, obsessional passion with Louise. On being confronted with the affair with Louise, Jacqueline tears up the apartment she shared with the narrator in an uncharacteristic rage, then leaves.


Esau and

Sarah Rosenthal

Sarah Rosenthal, Elgin’s parents, Jewish shopowners.


Inge, a Dutch “anarcha-feminist,” a former lover of the narrator.


Bathsheba, a married dentist, a former lover of the narrator.

Crazy Frank

Crazy Frank, the giant son of midgets, a former lover of the narrator.


Bruno, a furniture mover who finds Jesus while trapped under a wardrobe. He is a former lover of the narrator.


Gail, the manager of a Yorkshire wine bar in which the narrator temporarily works. She is both lascivious and maternal toward the narrator, encouraging him/her to search for Louise.

BibliographyAnna, Gabriele. Review of Written on the Body. The New York Review of Books 40, no. 5 (March 4, 1993): 22. A long and extremely thorough review which gives as much attention to previous works, particularly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, as it does to the subject text. Also contains references to and comparisons with other authors and/or literary works and interesting biographical details about Winterson.Gerrard, Nicci. Into the Mainstream: How Feminism Has Changed Women’s Writing. London: Pandora Press, 1989. A good survey of the social and political climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s and its effect on women writers and their work. Brings in the opinions of several writers, literary agents, and editors. Although only brief reference is made to Winterson, and then only to her earlier work, Gerrard’s work places Written on the Body in an insightful and comprehensible context.Hunt, Sally, ed. New Lesbian Criticism: Literary and Cultural Readings. London: Simon & Schuster, 1992. The essay on Winterson discusses Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a “crossover” text into the dominant culture, which is seen to have lost its radical lesbian content in its adaptation to a television film.Petro, Pamela. Review of Written on the Body. The Atlantic 271, no. 2 (February, 1993): 112. A thorough and intelligent discussion of Written on the Body presented within the framework of Winterson’s previous novels. The review clearly identifies and comments on recurring themes and formal techniques in Winterson’s work.
Categories: Characters