Courseworks

The importance of stories

How does Jeanette Winterson convey her central concerns in the narrative and what influences are significant to the reader’s appreciation of the novel’s title and central metaphor; Lighthousekeeping?’Utterly skewwhiff’ is how one critic describes Lighthousekeeping, yet despite the disrupted narrative and switching of style so typical to the modern novel, the prevailing themes of Lighthousekeeping are made clear, sometimes to the point of bluntness. One of the main themes is undoubtedly storytelling and its role in our lives. We are persistently reminded of this by the repeated sequences starting with ‘Tell me a story’, first between Silver and Pew and then Silver and her lover. Despite the sometimes confusing structure of the novel the sequences draw the direction back to the core themes of love and storytelling, and also constantly remind us of the constructed nature of the text and the fact that we’re reading a story. Storytelling is a ‘way of navigating lives’ and in this way the sequences help us navigate our way through the novel.For we do need help navigating; Winterson claims that it is in stories where the truth lies, yet the truth is dynamic and shifting and never solid, and we can see this in the way the split narrative causes swings ‘between one story and another, across time and across character’. First we are introduced to Silver’s story of her mother’s death and her beginning a life with Pew, and just as we become comfortable with the fairly linear storyline Pew dips into the story of Babel Dark when telling Silver stories, and this narrative seems to gain its own force independent of Pew and silver, and runs throughout the novel alongside Silver’s story, ‘with the two stories often sounding like duets sung in counterpoint to each other, one voice light and the other dark’. However the two narratives are not altogether contrasts; there is the same search for meaning and a place in the world which the characters are unable to find peace with. Ultimately, perhaps due to Pew’s love and guidance earlier in her life, it is Silver who is able to navigate her way through the ‘Atlantic’ inside of her and lets herself be healed by love.We can define ourselves through stories; Pew advises Silver to ‘tell yourself like a story’ and the story of what happens next depends on ‘how I tell it’; according to Winterson ‘to read ourselves as fiction is much more liberating than to read ourselves as fact’. Storytelling is reflective of something inherent in the core of us, or perhaps just reflective of human nature and the way we live and explain ourselves. When Silver is finally able to find herself and her place in the world she finds herself able to tell her own story; ‘this one’, as requested by her lover.Storytelling is not only a vital element of the novel but of Winterson’s life, having been told Bible stories throughout her childhood. Winterson was adopted by religious parents who prepared her to become an evangelical preacher and ultimately a missionary but was cut off from her family at the age of 15 when she had a lesbian affair, for going against the Church’s beliefs about homosexuality. However she is clearly still influenced greatly by the teachings of Christianity and the Bible and this is reflected by the biblical style of writing prevalent in Lighthousekeeping; the prose is intricate and flowing and pulses with a fairytale-like rhythm, and Winterson seems ‘to love the cadence of sentences’. Similarly to the Bible ‘the reader experiences not one story but… a number of loosely connected stories heading in the same direction’. The stories complement each other and ‘we reach… connections’; they guide us like a Lighthouse to the main points of the novel. Just as the Bible contains the teachings of a religion, Winterson has her own doctrines; the importance of storytelling and the ‘moral imperative’ of, if you love a person, telling them so- and these are emphasised in the different threads of the story.The influence her past has had on Winterson is also reflected in the numerous Biblical references in Lighthousekeeping. Babel dark is named after the Tower of Babel; ‘after the first tower that ever was’. Like the tower Dark’s life is built up at the beginning of the novel only to be broken down. The lighthouse is completed in the year of Babel’s birth and Winterson draws contrasts between them, with Molly questioning ‘Why could he not be as steady and as bright [as the lighthouse]?’ and Babel claiming ‘there is no light in me that can shine across the sea’. Unlike Silver he is unable to let himself be saved by love; he denies himself the women he loves but for two months of the year, and repeatedly betrays her. Silver claims ‘Part broken, part whole, you begin again’ but Babel is too broken; he is ‘splintered by great waves’ and ‘coloured glass from a church window long since shattered’. A Biblical reference is also used when Pew says the story of Babel Dark ‘starts with Samson…because Samson was the strongest man in the world and a woman brought him down’. Dark was unable to love both Molly and his wife like he should or could, and this inability to love was what brought him down in the end; Winterson emphasises this point by comparing his fall to that of Samson’s.One of the curious aspects of the novel is the introduction of the historical figures of R L Stevenson and Charles Darwin. The role of Darwin is undoubtedly central in Dark’s story, especially the conflict his theories have with Dark’s religion. Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection which stated that we are all descended from common ancestors. These findings would challenge the special creation of humans as described in the Bible, and suggest that we were actually descended from the simplest of organisms. When Darwin comes to Salts and Dark is introduced to the theory of Evolution he consequently comes to doubt his faith, asking himself: ‘Why would God make a world so imperfect that it must be continually righting itself?’ Dark realises that ‘Now, time had to be understood mathematically. It could no longer be imagined as a series of lifetimes, reeled off like a genealogy from the Book of Genesis.’ Here Winterson again emphasises how the theory of evolution de-personalises history and time. While the Bible measures time by describing a ‘series of lifetimes’ science must measure time mathematically and undermines the element of storytelling that the Bible gives to life.Before the 18th century people thought that living things were unchanging and static in time; this idea was called essentialism, and this is what Darwin was challenging. Winterson also seems to be challenging this idea in her writing; she emphasises that we are not linear people which is why stories should not be static. Ideas of change and permanence are significant in Lighthousekeeping and are looked at in various ways. Dark sees change as negative as he longs for the ‘the unchanging nature of God’ to cling to and feels ‘lonely’ without Him; ‘That things might be endlessly moving and shifting was not his wish’. While a world that is unchanging seems safe and comforting to Dark this is impossible; however although we cannot find stability in the external world we can find our strength and our metaphorical lighthouse in love. Dark fails to love Molly fully which is why he cannot find his place in the world. Silver also experiences change as being negative when the lighthouse is automated, but is consoled by Pew who explains that ‘Nothing keeps the same form forever’. Change is inevitable because ‘life [is] always becoming’. This point is emphasised in the context of stories as well; instead of ‘A beginning, a middle and an end’ Winterson claims that stories and life are made of a series of beginnings. Silver says ‘Part broken, part whole, you begin again’; change and new beginnings are unavoidable as they are part of life.This seems to show that Winterson doubts the truth in the way people see the world. Unlike most she doesn’t see our lives as an unswerving narrative and she questions the accepted concept of reality; she claims that it is through art that we can find a way to connect with the real world, which is transcendent. In this way there seems to be a correspondence between love and storytelling; similarly Winterson claims that love is the only way we can journey into and beyond the self. In this way love and storytelling seem to be held as important because they can let us access the true, sublime, nature of ourselves and the world around us. When told she is ‘out of touch with reality’ Silver claims she has ‘been trying to find out what reality is so that I can touch it’; and like Winterson, the way she finds her place in the world is through storytelling and through the power of love.Like Darwin’s character, the addition of the retelling of the story of Tristan and Isolde is significant to the novel. Other stories are evidently important to Winterson when writing as literary references are abundant in Lighthousekeeping. She claims that ‘books speak to other books- they are always in dialogue’ and that in retelling stories you can find ‘new angles’ and ‘new possibilities’. In retelling the story of Tristan and Isolde which is a love story Winterson can reiterate the importance of love whilst emphasising its healing power. The idea that Tristan should have died but that love healed him implies that love is more important and has more power than science; she claims that ‘In the fossil record of our existence, there is no trace of love…The long bones of our ancestors show nothing of their hearts.’ Love is essential and when Darwin puts emphasis on fossil remains and evolution he is almost missing the point; the focus should not be on the bones and remains of our ancestors but on the love and thoughts and feelings they experienced; ‘Love is not part of natural selection’. Natural selection is almost irrelevant when looking at our true nature; ‘what is left is love’.Similarly, Silver seems to think that while love prevails in the story we tell of ourselves, other things are irrelevant, claiming ‘all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling’. This would explain why Silver seems to miss out vital details about a ‘partner’ and ‘business’ she alludes to when living in Capri yet goes into immense detail when describing her theft of a bird. However Benjamin Kunkel claims that when fiction has the purpose of letting people journey into something transcendent and beyond them ‘The prisoner… needs first to be trapped in order to be sprung’. This means that for an exceptionally metaphorical novel like Lighthousekeeping to be effective it needs to possess ‘the components of fictional reality’ such as characterisation and description, and that Lighthousekeeping lacks these and the characters and settings are drowned under the metaphor that Winterson focuses so heavily on instead.One could question, for example, whether the lighthouse even exist or is it just a metaphor for what Silver and Pew value and how they live their lives? However it could be argued that this is how Winterson wants us to think; that this novel should lead us to questioning the nature of reality. Although Kunkel claims Lighthousekeeping is lacking in description the novel goes into exquisite detail on many occasions, describing a mother on the boat from Athens ‘as moist as a purple fig’ and her children ‘as zesty as lemons’. While we are not told much about Silver’s mysterious lover’s character, appearance or even their gender, Winterson describes in detail the time Silver and her lover spend together and their sex life. Perhaps Winterson is trying to show that it does not matter who it is you love- their gender and appearance are irrelevant- it is the nature of love that she is interested in and which she explores in the descriptions of Silver and her lover.

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