The rhetoric that women are either saints or temptresses is not anything new. However, in the 21st Century should we not be beyond the dangerous and toxic narrative that authors need to sentence their sexually active female characters to death.
Throughout literary history we have seen modernist authors of privilege killing off their sex driven women, we saw it Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Madame Bovary. Even now, pop culture implies that women who are sexually active are deviants, whose ultimate consequence is death (look at Arrow, Sara Lance, who was killed off, brought back to life then killed off again.) But by now, shouldn’t we, as a society, shouldn’t authors whose story perpetuate these narratives in media, stop killing off women who have sex?
About the text
Published in 2008, Breath follows Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike, as he remembers his teenage years, and navigates through painful and formative trials that has impacted his life in the present.
As a boy, Pikelet craved the presence of adventure and risk, though he didn’t like participating in daring acts he was enthralled by his friend, Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon. The first summer they spend together, Pikelet was eleven and Loonie “a whole year older than him.” Play chicken with trucks, hold their breath under water and play games with knives, axes and 2×4’s. This danger is fun for Pikelet initially, but he becomes cautious as the dares get wilder. It is clear that Pikelet has a sense of responsibility and knows that his actions have consequences, and Loonie’s attitude is more like fuck it.
A similar binary is shown through Eva and Sando. Sando, who mentors the young boys as a late thirties surfing superstar and Eva, his wife. The story follows all four of these characters as they circle around impressive and irresponsible Sando.
In contrast, Eva, who’s injury doing something she passionately loved and took risks for is a constant reminder of the consequences of risk taking. She engages in a sexual relationship with Pikelet when he is fifteen and introduces him to erotico-asphyxiation and unlike her partner, who in his spare time swims and surfs with and manipulates boys half his age, she admits repeatedly that what she is doing is wrong. Let’s get it clear now that it IS wrong, but that’s not the point of this essay.
This allows Pikelet, in his future relationships with women to heal and move on. This catharsis isn’t offered when it comes to Sando, and the trauma Pikelet suffered through him. Sando, who is glorified – still did something morally and ethically wrong takes no responsibility in how he may have shaped Loonie and Pikelet’s life and it is not until Pikelets marriage has broken and relationships with his daughters falters that he realises that Sando was also a villain.
Tim Winton on analysing his text
In his interview with Martin Flanagan, Winton talks about the recurring themes of his novel. He hates the idea of analysing texts. When asked “Do you get upset about [the questions being asked in literery critiscim]? “I occasionally get annoyed about how the books are taught.”
It seems to be that Winton wants to give information to fill gaps, or to make known intentional symbolism as seen in his obsession with location but against any analysis that implies meaning. He is openly against “policing the text for gender violations” and refers to it as “detritus”. Could it be that he is so against the concept of a close reading because reading it closely makes him look like a dick?
You can find the whole unsettling interview here
The women in Breath
The women in Breath face two different designation. They are written either as saints or temptresses. This leads the audience to believe that Pikelet suffers from what is known as the Madonna-whore complex. First identified by Freud, who said men only see women as pure Madonnas or prostitutes. Winton aides this by naming his female characters with signs of their projected nature: his mum, is referred to as ‘my mother’, or ‘mum’; Queenie, has obvious connotations of a bossy and nurturing figure; Grace, his ex-wife, is again, painfully unoriginal who was graceful in divorce and still lovely; and then Eva who could only be named after the OG temptress, the seductress and deceiver, Eve of man’s rib and Eden so obviously contrived it’s almost despicable that Winton created a character that he would demonise and eventually kill.
While I know, this looks like I am sympathetic to, and aligned with, and in defence of Eva. I can assure you that I am not. I can assure you that I know and condemn the molestation Eva subjected to Pikelet. Eva’s character is not the focus of this essay. The focus of this essay is to demonstrate how even in 21st century literature, we continue to consume, teach and glorify the rhetoric that sexually active women ought to be punished.
The implications in killing Eva
In her text, The Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft stated that: “everything that [women] see or hear serves to fix impressions call forth emotions and associate ideas that give a sexual character to the mind.” This is why the Madonna/whore binary and the rhetoric that sexually active women should die is dangerous. Along those lines, there are two issues I cant reconcile on why killing Eva was unnecessary.
- She was already written to be undermined, disrespected and hated.
In one eloquently written phrase, Pikelet explains Loonie’s feelings toward Eva as: “nothing but a stuck up pain in the arse.” Pikelet continues, “[s]he was a drag, a bitch, a stupid Yank, and a junkie. And though Pikelet, at the time was yet to make those connections with Eva, in structuring the story as a man, who is remembering events there can be confusion in whether the judgements were from Bruce Pike, or Pikelet.
- The story didn’t benefit from it
Her death, almost a throwaway line, that her taboo sexual preferences eventually got the better of her. Pike’s mum sends him the obituary. Found hanging on the back of a door. Condemnation follows. Condemnation came before, when Pikelet found out that she was pregnant. Her death, occurs at the conclusion of the main story line. By this time, Pikelet had already made peace with her responsibility. He hated her, he is allowed to hate her. But Eva’s death was nothing more than a last effort dig to deny her as a passionate human being. In killing her, Winton demonised her for her sexual preferences (BDSM) rather than allowing Pikelet to demonise her for her molestation. He could have been condemning without the connotations that come with killing her off.
One may ask, why is it accepted that Lawrence, Flaubert and Hawthorn demonise women in the same way? In applying genre criticism rather than deconstruction, it is the entire female gender that is denoted rather than the actions of the character Emma Bovary, much like Eva Sanderson, being considered autonomously. Though, a deconstructed reading of Madame Bovary would have to be contingent on knowledge gained through thorough research of women in French society, genre criticism of realism argues that everything written has to be taken factually. The same cannot be done for Winton who did not write for the 1970’s population he based his story on but rather, a contemporary audience. Therefore, if Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Anna Karenina was intended to be a work of realism then the novel serves as a looking glass to view 19th Century, middle class society. My argument is that while Flaubert wrote Madam Bovary as a reflection on the society he was a part of, Winton knows better, Winton is a part of the 21st century, Winton should be beyond that. We should stop making his work into films to further entrench the narrative, we should stop glorifying him – as one YouTube comment put it “up there with Homer and Ovid.”
Why are we studying this text?
I wrote this because my tutor in university asked a question to the class about how Winton created Eva. Her question, was one of theory, textual devices, and potentially could have included what I have written here. Yet, a student took it to mean and answered with, “Do you like Eva.” Most students shook their heads, no. I said yes, I said yes in spite of Winton, who wrote Eva as a villain. The role of the author is to give you an antagonist, is Eva the only villain, no, but she is the only villain created to be hated.
So the question still remains: how did Winton write Eva? And the answer? By demonising her again and again, and again. By making her a villain, and then killing her, by casting judgement on those who like BDSM through Pikelet in two different stages of his life, by creating a parallel who didn’t have the maturity to take responsibility and thereby negating any role or hand in Bruce Pike’s future, by continuing the disgusting rhetoric that killing women who have sex in literature is the expected, the norm, and consequence. The question isn’t ‘Did you like Eva,’ because you never had a choice, she was written to be hated.
The issue isn’t that women have sex, even though Winton tried hard to make it so. Women have been having sex since the beginning of time. The issue is that men still find ways of demonising it and readers still glorify them.
 There’s only one female character that has an on-screen sex scene with protagonist, Oliver Queen, that doesn’t die.