“Boating for Beginners” by Jeanette Winterson Book Review

Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959 in Manchester, then she was adopted by a couple from Accrington – Constance and John Winterson, their family belonged to the Pentecostal Evangelical Church. This fact from the biography of the author certainly had further impact upon her writings and ideas. Being a child, Jeanette attended the Pentecostal church and she produced her first sermon at the age of eight. Her parents wanted the girl to become a missionary. This plan could not be fulfilled because of the lesbian love affair of the girl at the age of fifteen. Jeanette Winterson had to leave her home and earn her money during studies at Accrington Further Education College and she worked in an ice-cream van and then at a mental institution. Later she obtained BD in English at St. Catherine’s College. In 1985 her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985. It was an absolute success and the author won the Whitebread Best First Novel award in the same year. Later Winterson published one more novel – Boating for Beginners. This was a comical novel, which had received enough of critical attention and comments. This novel is considered to be an intertextual rewriting of the Bible with the major focus upon Noah and the Flood.

Winterson used the method of multiple points of view in her novel Boating for Beginners and aimed at reinterpreting of the available Biblical materials using parody. Linda Hutcheon commented the work of the writer in the following way: “the postmodern artist was no longer the inarticulate, silent alienated creator figure of the Romantic but some theorists who showed they could write with sharp wit verbal play and anecdotal verve.” (Opperman, 2000). Parody is the central important means for the writer to consider other discourses and texts and to build connections between them. This fact also contributes to creating a number of various interpretations instead of pointing out one single meaning. Parody was chosen by the writer as the best option for rewriting of the past forms with a variety of purposes. It provides the opportunity to imitate the past or criticize it, deconstruct the past forms for the sake of creating of the new ones, which are more actual and modern. Winterson was looking for the meaningful gaps in the Biblical texts and exactly these gaps were criticized by her. At the same time her use of parody is deconstructive and thus has impact upon the sacred foundations of the Bible. “Being great contributions to the tradition of postmodern parody, the novels shatter the belief in fixed concepts such as the sovereignty of the author within the written text and perfect unity of grand narratives, which are extensive explanations of knowledge through one universal truth, as well as divine relief and hope.” (Barthes, 1971).

Winterson proved to develop negative attitude towards gender biased perceptions, which are constantly distributed within societies, neither was she ready to accept such monolithic features of fiction as consequential events order and logical patterns of unity. She aimed at revealing of the weakness of the totalitarian perceptions, which resulted from the blind belief into one and the only transcendental truth, thus she asks her multiple questions about the Bible. “Winterson also creates a complex intertextual structure by means of parody. Consequently, the novels are networks of many other texts including parodic references to other works of literature and discourses. Hence, it is impossible to seek a traditional understanding of unity in them. As open texts, they “answer not to an interpretation, even a liberal one, but to an explosion, a dissemination” (Barthes, 1971, p.159).

Boating for Beginners is a complex combination of various texts, which were combined with the aim to discuss the issues of the Biblical flood myth and the ways of its patriarchal implications. Again parody is used by the author as the basic tool for subverting of the Biblical concepts along with the capitalist values of the 20th century’s society, where the spiritual values of the Scripture could hardly be traced. “The Biblical flood myth functions as a frame in which many contemporary intertexts and discourses are interwoven. The outcome is an intertextual mixture which “creates pluralist signifying practices within the textual parody of Genesis” (Opperman, 2000, 82). Boating for Beginners does not allow the possibility of supporting the position of the “transcendental signifier” – something or somebody, able to provide meaning for all other creatures. The author of the scriptures is considered to be God, but Winterson tends to represent God as a kind of fictional entity and does not support the absolutely privileged status of God, who is considered to be “the transcendental signifier”. In other words, his role of the almighty creator is not supported by the author. Moreover, Winterson conducts her deconstruction of the concept of the unity of the Biblical Flood myth, creating a parody for it. In the traditional understanding there is only one single meaning possible, which is theological and related to the Author-God. In the novel Boating for Beginners there is a kind of open narrative created, which does not allow the existence of the single meaning. In the Biblical Flood myth it is mentioned that mankind became corrupt ten generations after Adam was created: “The Earth was also corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and behold, it was corrupt;  for  all  flesh  had  corrupted  his  way  upon  the  earth (Bible, 1999, p. 5). God becomes concerned about the situation and then takes the decision to punish all the living creatures on the planet and sends a deluge. According to his decision only one man should have been saved – Noah, who was just a man and perfect in his generations. Noah receives the message from God to built a wooden ark and take his wife, his three sons and their wives there. In addition, Noah was also to take one pair of every kind of mammal, reptile and birds. Noah follows the instructions received and it starts to rain so hard that all living organisms perish. When the water starts to recede, Noah sends the raven to check, but the raven does not return. Then he sends the dove, but the dove has to return as there is no place for its nest. A week later Noah sends the dove again and this time the dove brings the olive leaf and it becomes clear to Noah that the water has receded. In order to please God, Noah builds an altar and God promises to never destroy the earth again. It is described in the Bible in the following way: “I establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth” (Bible, 1999, p. 6). Winterson creates a sophisticated mix of modernity and biblical antiquity, presenting a usual story in a different way, actually reinventing the whole story. Noah runs the company, which is called Boating for Beginners. Everything goes smooth until Noah receives a leaflet from God. Noah does not want to miss his chance to earn money. He travels the ancient lands with the Glory Crusade, impressing Mrs. Munde so much that she gives her daughter the name Gloria. When Gloria becomes older, she starts looking for her place in the world. The world, created by Winterson, is half modern and half ancient. “Matters are complicated by the fact that Noah accidentally created the incarnation of the Unpronounceable “out of a piece of gâteau [Black Forest] and a giant electric toaster” (that’s the kind of world this is), and the two have an uneasy relationship.” (Opperman, 2000). God wants to organize the big flood in order to remake the story for better version than that of the cake-and-toaster. Noah becomes the organizer of the event.

The novel Boating for Beginners does not support the authoritarian image of God, created in the Bible, and does not acknowledge God’s ultimate power. Noah is presented as a capitalist from the 20th century, who owns the company Boating for Beginners. Noah conducts some experiments with the electric toaster and black gateau. When he gets some Black Forest Gateau and some ice-cream from his deep freezer, he feels “a curious, frightful, intoxication motion” which rocks “the plate back and forth.” Consequently, he sees “new life forms struggle their way to the surface of what had been vile slime” which turns out to be a great power (Winterson, 1991, p.83). Parody is the major deconstructive strategy of the author to change the privileged role of God.   Such approach of the author towards the authority of God has caused a lot of controversies and discussions among the critics. Most of them related such approach of Winterson to the era of Enlightenment, which had its profound impact upon the medieval understanding of humans, being sinful creatures with a lot of faults. The chain of signifies, which is prevalent in the Bible, is broken by Winterson, as the author transforms the creator into a fictional character. The position of God in the Bible is the central one and Winterson uses parody in order to disrupt the meaning of “transcendental signifier”. This could be proved with several examples from the novel. First of all God is presented by the author as an actor, who participates in the movie The Big Flood. “All this was happening a long time ago, before the flood. The Big Flood starring God and Noah and a cast of thousands who never survived to collect their royalty cheques (Winterson, 1991, p.12). Such mentioning of God breaks the overall concept of God almighty. One more example is the reference to God as “I am that I am, Yahweh the unpronounceable” (Winterson, 1991, p.13) and then putting God at the same level as the other humans: “This is the biggest theatrical spectacle anyone has ever seen, and it’s got Bunny Mix doing the screenplay and YAHWEH himself helping with the dialogue. How can it fail- the winner of the Purple Heart Award and the Creator of the world brought together for the first time […] (Winterson,1991, p.47). The message of the author is intensified by the fact that God himself asks questions about his own status “God is a multifaceted and complex character who shouldn’t be restricted by a single actor” (Winterson, 1991, p.21). In the scriptures there is a mentioning of the fact that God had created a man in his own image, but Winterson does not see the clear image of God, as there are several men participating in creation of God. The author changes the image of God throughout the narration. Ham, who is the son of Noah, speaks of God as “not a namby-pamby socialist idol,” “the God of Love,” “the  Omnipotent  Stockbroker,”  and  “Omniscient  Lawyer”  (Winterson,  1991, p.30). In the novel God is deprived of his holy status. In addition God is not presented as flawless and superior, he is just a capitalist with his usual business concerns about financial outcomes of his actions and decisions. Winterson (1991) writes:

‘Destroy  him,  destroy  him,’ urged  one  of the  more  hyperactive angels.

‘I can’t do that,’ snapped God. ‘It would mean a riot. I’ve just started to get some control down there, and our Good Food Guide’s selling well. I like being in print.

God does not destroy Noah, as he has doubts regarding the potential riot and negative outcomes of this riot for his business. Winterson wanted to reveal the lack of perfection by God. In the Bible Noah is saved due to the fact that he is honest and just a perfect representative of his generation. The Bible underlines that God is the source of ultimate love: “He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love” (Bible, 1999, p.243). All people are also called to love each other in the way they are loved by God. The believers are convinced that God has ultimate love towards humanity and they love him. Winterson refers to this idea in her novel: “For a few moments the cloud hovered, then veered away in dazzling loops, leaving a message in the night for all to see: GOD IS LOVE, DON’T MESS UP WITH ME (Winterson, 1991, p.14). Here God is not associated with the bond, existing between him and humans, on the contrary he is put above them as the source of power. “Noah said that love is hard and strong and love makes choices. Love discriminates and above all, love cannot embrace the inherently unlovely, i.e. those without Yahweh in their hearts (Winterson, 1991, p. 70). The author plays with the idea that only those humans, who support the doctrines of God and Noah, could expect to develop this bond with God. The author uses the same concepts, as presented in the Bible, and at the same time turns them upside down, as God’s love is transformed into the means of showing his power and his grace.

According to the Bible God is the origin of all living creatures. Winterson uses the image of the Orange Demon in order to shake the presentation of God and his authority. The power of the Orange Demon is revealed via his ability to appear in different texts. The Orange Demon is contrasted to God, who is controlled by the text. As the Christian belief states God is the author of the Holy Scriptures. This fact is denied in the novel, as God is deprived of his status of the origin. This shift supports the transformation of God into fictional creator. Moreover, God is deprived of his identity outside of the written text. This position leas to further questions regarding the ultimate power of God, as the world was created before.

Overall, Jeanette Winterson is generally considered to be one of the most controversial and innovative fiction writers. Her ability to incorporate the modernist traditions along with postmodernist approaches, involvement of magical realism and metafiction, contributed to creation of an outstanding parody- novel Boating for Beginners. Winterson is the master of manipulation of time and space, as the story is set in various historical periods, including the twentieth century society. The unique feature of the novel is the inability of the readers to find the concrete message of the author; rather the readers are motivated to look for the keys for the closed doors in front of them. The readers could be guided by historical facts, by scientific assumptions or by their religious beliefs and still they would face a lot of controversies and enigmas on their way.

Works cited:

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” in Stephen Heath (1978):155-164, 1971

Opperman, Serpil. “Postmodern Parody and Intertextuality in Jeanette Winterson’s Boating for Beginners.” in Journal of English Literature and British Culture: 82-104, 2000

The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1999

Winterson, Jeanette. Boating for Beginners. London: Minerva, 1991

The terms offer and acceptance. (2016, May 17). Retrieved from

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[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]

"The terms offer and acceptance." freeessays.club, 17 May 2016

[Accessed: June 30, 2022]
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