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Definition: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit from Brewer's Curious Titles

A semi-autobiographical first novel (1985) by Jeanette Winterson (b.1959) about the childhood and growing up of a fictional Jeanette against the background of the religious fanaticism of her Pentecostal mother. The oranges of the title represent her mother's attitude to life, in which ‘ everything in the natural world was a symbol of the Great Struggle between good and evil’. The crunch comes when she abandons the forces of good, which she was destined to promote as a missionary, in favour of those of evil, having been discovered in flagrante delicto in bed with another girl. A televised version (1990) was adapted by Winterson from her own novel.

from Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature: Contemporary British Fiction

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985 and clearly tapped into the increasing popular interest in the way in which gender and sexual identities were constructed in mainstream British culture. It attempted to do this by breaking down and challenging prescribed attitudes (especially religious ones) to sexuality and to the role of the nuclear family in maintaining established gender roles. The book is fictional, but is presented in a way that suggests a sense of a closeness and authenticity to the experiences of the author. The main character, for example, is called Jeanette and certain sections and chapters, such as ‘Deuteronomy’ sound like statements of belief that come direct from Winterson. This is a novel, however, that is keen to scrutinize received distinctions between fiction and fact. Winterson comments on it: ‘Is Oranges an autobiographical novel? No not at all and yes of course’.13 In terms of structure the novel is consciously experimental, interweaving the main linear and chronological narrative of Jeanette’s rite of passage with other stories: fairy tales, dream sequences, Arthurian legend, and structuring references to other texts such as the Bible and Jane Eyre (1847). Jane Eyre, in particular, is a significant intertext on a number of levels. Like Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Oranges is a Bildungsroman, and the main protagonist in each is an orphan who is placed within a harsh (though at times loving in the case of Oranges) environment.14 In addition, Jane Eyre is Jeanette’s mother’s favourite novel. However, her mother recounts a bowdlerized version to Jeanette by adapting the ending. In her mother’s version, Jane Eyre marries the religious and safe St. John Rivers, avoiding the return to the more passionate and sexually charged Rochester. This reworked narrative relates to Jeanette’s mother’s own life, in that she chose to marry her safe and, throughout the novel, silent husband. Rochester thus stands for unrepressed desire, and consequently, by one of the many gender reversals that the novel effects, lesbian desire.

Oranges is clearly of its moment. It appeared during a period in the mid-1980s where commentators on the political right were blaming left-wing radicals and the sexual revolution of the 1960s for a series of ailments in contemporary society, such as the break down of family values and the disruption of traditional moral codes as set out in conventional religious discourses. Winterson’s novel openly engages in political debates and acts as an iconoclastic challenge to a series of related discourses. As she writes in an introduction to a later edition of the book: ‘Oranges is a threatening novel. It exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham; it illustrates by example that what the church calls love is actually psychosis and it dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people’s’ (p. xii).

The traditional nuclear family structure is challenged in a number of ways. Firstly, the father in Jeanette’s household is a weak figure and does not play a great part in family decisions or in the narrative as a whole. As Jeanette says of him: ‘Poor Dad, he was never quite good enough’ (p. 11). Jeanette’s mother is the dominant figure in the relationship and controls her father either through ignoring him completely or making sure he adheres to the codes of behaviour set down within her religion. Her mother also takes on the household roles conventionally attached to the male; she is, for example, building a bathroom for the family (p. 16). The marriage appears to be one of convenience. It is explained on the first page, for example, that Jeanette’s mother ‘had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, more that she didn’t want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the next best thing and arranged for a foundling’ (pp. 3–4). Later Jeanette tells us: ‘As long as I have known them, my mother has gone to bed at four, and my father has got up at five’ (p. 15) and this appears to have always been the case. The lack of a sexual relationship between her parents also suggests the reason why Jeanette was adopted. Another clue to her mother’s sexuality is given when the pair of them are looking through the ‘Old Flames’ section of her mother’s photograph album. There are a few men there – Mad Percy, Eddy and Pierre with whom Jeanette’s mother has had sex with because she has confused the ‘fizzing and buzzing and a certain giddiness’ to be love but turns out to be a stomach ulcer (p. 85). Her conclusion is that, ‘What you think is the heart might well be another organ’. More significant is the picture of ‘Eddy’s sister’, which is initially in the old flames section, but is removed after Jeanette asks her mother about her. It is only a hint, but the suggestion is that Jeanette’s mother has had uncomfortable (for her) desires towards this woman, desires that she has presumably repressed and continues to do so – the photograph is never mentioned again. Later in the text, Miss Jewsbury, herself a lesbian, tells Jeanette that her mother is ‘a woman of the world, even though she’d never admit it to me. She knows about feelings, especially women’s feelings’ (p. 104). This also explains to a certain extent the marriage of convenience that she has made with Jeanette’s father.

Although Jeanette’s family is not conventional, one of the alternative social units in the novel is the church group to which Jeanette and her mother belong. Women predominantly people this group and it is, in one sense, a kind of matriarchy, at least in its everyday organization, although the authority of the male pastors at crucial times in the text, show that this is a contingent and localized form of female power. That Jeanette has loving relationships within the church is an indicator of an alternative matriarchal family structure. The social relationships Jeanette experiences in both her family and the church serve to disrupt conventional roles of masculinity and femininity and this extends to Jeanette’s perceptions of gender codes around her. From an early age, she resists the prevailing codes of femininity that society tries to impose on her, for example, when the man in the Post Office gives her ‘Sweethearts’ she reacts with rage:

Sweet I was not. But I was a little girl, ergo, I was sweet, and here were the sweets to prove it. I looked in the bag. Yellow and pink and sky blue and orange, and all of them heart-shaped and all of them said things like,

  • Maureen 4 Ken
  • Jack’n’Jill, True

On the way home I crunched at the Maureen 4 Ken’s.

(p. 70 – italics in original)
This passage represents the way in which seemingly innocent cultural products such as sweets help to reinforce dominant heterosexual codes of sexuality, but also reveals Jeanette’s inherent dislike of having those codes imposed upon her. This extends to her dreams about marriage, one of which sees her walking up the aisle to meet a husband but, ‘sometimes he was blind, sometimes a pig, sometimes my mother [. . .] and once just a suit of clothes with nothing inside’ (p. 69). This reveals Jeanette’s awakening sexuality and her anxieties about becoming part of a traditional heterosexual relationship.

Jeanette’s sexuality offers another challenge to the traditional codes of masculinity and femininity. When Pastor Finch tries to account for the relationship Jeanette has with Melanie he argues that it is due to Jeanette subverting the established roles between men and women. Finch defines lesbianism in terms of Jeanette unnaturally taking the role of the man in her relationship with Melanie. This of course serves to posit desire as a masculine trait, which Jeanette’s narrative firmly denies:

The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church. Our branch of the church had never thought about it, we’d always had strong women, and the women organized everything [. . .] There was uproar, then a curious thing happened. My mother stood up and said she believed this was right: that women had specific circumstances for their ministry [. . .] but the message belonged to the men [. . .] She ended by saying that having taken on a man’s world in other ways I had flouted God’s law by trying to do it sexually.

(p. 131)
The sentiment here is clearly coming from Pastor Finch, even though Jeanette’s mother is the messenger. Jeanette feels particularly betrayed by the fact that her mother agrees with the Pastor re-imposing a patriarchal narrative onto Jeanette’s behaviour, especially as this goes against the strong female image that Jeanette has come to expect of her mother.

The novel, then, sets out to challenge the connection between religion and conventional discourses of gender and sexuality that, in the Protestant Christian church (both High Church and non-Conformist variations), traditionally upholds the heterosexual nuclear family as the ideal social unit. The direct target is the form of Old Testament, non-Conformist Evangelism that Jeanette’s mother practices. This leads the novel, however, to question some of the bases on which Christian doctrines rest generally. Part of this critique is seen in the parodic attitude to the Bible suggested by the chapter titles and structure of the novel. As Susana Onega has argued, a parodic equivalent is established between ‘the stages in Jeanette’s quest for maturation and [. . .] the biblical narration’.15 Each of these chapters is loosely based on the first eight chapters of the Bible and has a connection with the experiences Jeanette goes through: for example, ‘Genesis’ recounts Jeanette’s earliest memories and the details of how her mother has ‘got’ Jeanette (p. 10). ‘Exodus’ details Jeanette’s journey from the home environment to the unfamiliar social world of school, described by her mother as the ‘Breeding Ground’ (p. 17). The Pentateuch (the first five books of the bible) represents the laying down of the law, and in Winterson’s novel the first five chapters detail the establishment of the ideology against which Jeanette eventually places herself. The last three chapters of the novel, ‘Joshua’, ‘Judges’ and ‘Ruth’, find Jeanette establishing her own alternative world view and correspond to those books in the Old Testament that offer stories of individuals who either adhere to or set themselves against the word of God. Unlike the corresponding books in the Bible, the last three chapters of Oranges seem to support Jeanette’s attempt to escape religious laws, and are part of her challenge to the patriarchal framework of the Old Testament.

Despite its iconoclasm, however, the novel is more ambivalent about the place of God within her narrative of empowerment. At one point towards the end of the text, Jeanette reflects nostalgically on the ideology she has rejected:

But where was God now, with heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord overthrown? I miss God, I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend.

(p. 165)
As Jeanette becomes more at ease with her sexual identity, the Old Testament, patriarchal God to which her mother, perhaps somewhat grudgingly, concedes is replaced by an alternative discourse that is closer to a New Testament, Christian doctrine that celebrates love over obedience, and tolerance and forgiveness over discipline and punishment. As Peter Childs has argued: ‘Against the Old Testament logic of her mother, there is however a New Testament counter-narrative running from Jeanette’s miraculous birth to the story’s conclusion on Christmas Day’.16 Jeanette’s arguments for her love of Melanie are significantly taken from the New Testament, encapsulated in the quotation she cites from St. Paul ‘To the pure all things are pure’ (p. 103). However, it is also St Paul’s teaching that is used by the Pastor and her mother to challenge Jeanette’s taking on the traditional role of the male in pursuing relationships with women. Despite this, Jeanette stresses her belief in a pure love that is reconfigured as a love between women:

Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere it is still in the original, written on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed.

(p. 165)
In this sense, Jeanette’s Bildungsroman, like many a modernist text, models the trials of the central character on Christ.17 The parallels with Christ are many, although often parodic: Jeanette is the product of a kind of Virgin birth (as Childs points out) who faces a time in the wilderness, and who eventually rejects established codes of a religion that are shown to be too draconian. She preaches a doctrine of love and is ultimately betrayed by those closest to her. In a telling passage that suggests Jeanette as a prophet Christ-figure, she argues:

I could have been a priest instead of a prophet. The priest has a book with the words set out. Old words, known words, words of power [. . .] The prophet has no book. The prophet is a voice that cries in the wilderness, full of sounds that do not always set into meaning.

(p. 156)
Where the priest preaches the established doctrine, the prophet’s message is unsettling and threatening to the prevailing power relationships in society. The prophet’s meaning, however, is not necessarily anti-spiritual, it is a different understanding of the religious nature of man. Oranges, then, does not reject outright a spiritual outlook on life. Religion becomes one of a series of valuable narratives that go towards the building of an individual’s identity. In this sense Oranges is not an atheistic book, nor is it an example of the nihilistic variety of postmodernism despite its engagement with ideas of pluralism, its suspicion of the grand narratives of history and patriarchy, and its formal experimentation. It is, in fact, closer to what Patricia Waugh has called ‘weak postmodernism’ as opposed to the more Nietzschean-influenced ‘strong’ version:

Unlike strong postmodernism, the weak version may accept the human need to invest in grand narratives, though its proponents would reject monocausal varieties and insist that all knowledge is embedded or situated in particular cultures or cultural traditions. According to weak postmodernism, understanding arises through the practices, customs, traditions and textures of a particular culture and we may arrive at a shared structure of values, a sense of personal significance, and the possibility of belief in historical progress through collective engagements which do not require foundations of truth or value.18

This type of postmodernism, according to Waugh, is more open to the liberatory struggle of the feminist movement, which wants to question certain grand narratives, but rejects an outright relativism, because it needs to have some ethical basis on which to construct an alternative politics. This form of tempered postmodernism fits well with Winterson’s approach in Oranges.

This can also be seen in the form of the narrative. Although Winterson makes a bold claim for the experimental nature of the novel, in comparison with other texts covered in this book its experimentalism is far from radical. In fact, it tends to use a traditional linear realism, which is then disrupted by the non-realistic sections. Much of the novel reads like a traditional tragi-comedy, a dominant feature of British fiction from the 1950s onwards; the description of Northern working-class life make its setting similar to novels such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Billy Liar (1959) and A Kestrel for a Knave (1968).19 However, Winterson disrupts this essentially male, working-class tradition with the incorporation of the non-realistic narratives of fairy tales and dream sequences. In her 1991 introduction she emphasizes that the novel has ‘a spiral’ form and ‘I really don’t see the point of reading in straight lines’ (p. xiii). Formally, the novel’s disruption of a linear narrative corresponds to its aim to challenge patriarchy. As Susana Onega has argued, the use of the spiral has become established in lesbian film iconography in particular, and the use in Oranges of this alternative formal structuring disrupts a patriarchal grand narrative, which is represented by ‘reading in straight lines’ as Winterson puts it.20

Within the linear frame there are a number of other narratives that obliquely comment upon Jeanette’s experiences: the fairy tales, passages influenced by Arthurian legend, dream sequences and statements of opinion. These other forms of writing disrupt the linear time frame and problematize the notion of time in writing as a continuum and this disruption can be related to the novel’s suspicion towards the grand narratives of religion, the family and the heterosexual norm. In the important short chapter ‘Deuteronomy: The last book of the law’ the narrative voice of the novel sets out a philosophical approach to the function of stories and storytelling in which traditional history is seen to be a reductive form of linear narrative: ‘this reducing of stories called history’ (p. 91).

This attitude to linear story-telling is similar to the kind of reduction that Jeanette observes in her mother’s explanation of the world through her religion. For her mother, religion orders the world (and how to behave in it) in a fixed way with clear demarcations between right and wrong: a discourse that resembles the organizing principles of a linear narrative. What Jeanette learns is that the world is far more complicated than this and the interaction of the differing stories expresses this in a formal way: ‘that is the way with stories; we make of them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time’ (p. 91). History, for Jeanette, can be used to impose strict ideologies on people as in the way Jeanette’s mother and the Pastor interpret the bible as a means to control what they see as Jeanette’s unnatural behaviour. Stories, on the other hand, supply a more complicated way of interpreting the world:

Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to find the end.

(p. 91)
This suggests a way for the reader to approach the relationship between the main narrative and the various fairy tales and legends in the novel. For example, the story about the woman in the forest and the prince’s search for perfection follows the Pastor’s sermon on perfection, and links with Jeanette’s mother’s attempt to live life in perfect adherence to a set of religious codes (p. 58). The story shows that this search for perfection is inevitably flawed. This is not to say that the story is a direct analogy of Jeanette’s relationship with her mother, rather that the stories feed off each other, and this is what Winterson means when she explains that the novel can be ‘read in spirals’ (p. xiii). The different narratives often share motifs that help to form the connections. For example, the significance of the rough brown pebble Jeanette finds in her pocket after she has finished her affair with Katy, is only explained with reference to the raven in the Winnet story for whom a ‘brown pebble’ represents his heart because he has chosen to stay in the restricting village (p. 144); and the invisible thread that the sorcerer ties round the Winnet’s button (p. 144) reappears as a metaphor for Jeanette’s strong connection with her mother despite their differences (p. 171).

Both Winterson and Carter are interested in the way that dominant and prevailing codes of behaviour and ideologies have served to fix traditional gender roles and sexual conventions, and they are particularly interested in the way these codes have restricted women’s behaviour. The next novel we will consider, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, is also interested in gender roles, but takes codes of masculinity as one of its main subjects.


Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (London: Vintage, [1985] 1991), p. xiv. All subsequent references in the text are to this edition.


Following Winterson’s lead, I will refer to the novel by its shortened title from this point onwards.


Susana Onega, Jeanette Winterson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 21.


Peter Childs, ‘Jeanette Winterson: Boundaries and Desire’, in Contemporary Novelists: British Fiction since 1970 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), p. 266.


See, for example, D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1913] 2006); and James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1916] 2003).


Patricia Waugh, ‘Postmodernism and Feminism?’, in Contemporary Feminist Theories, ed. Stevi Jackson and Jackie Jones (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 177–92, p. 88.


Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London: Flamingo, [1958] 1994); Keith Waterhouse, Billy Liar (London: Michael Joseph, 1959); Barry Hines, A Kestrel for a Knave (Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1968] 1969).


Onega, Jeanette Winterson, p. 33.

© Nick Bentley, 2008

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