oranges

Gender and Non-Normativity in Jeanette Winterson’s [Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit]

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Front cover of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (henceforth OANOF) is a 1985 Bildungsroman (novel of development) centered on the life of Jeanette, a girl who is adopted and raised by a woman who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian. Jeanette’s mother believes in literal translations of the Bible, and she freely uses religious rhetoric to accommodate her black and white fashion of viewing the world. As Jeanette, the narrator, mentions early on in the novel, her mother “had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies” (3). Although Jeanette happens to feel greatly connected to her church and her church’s teachings, this fidelity towards the supposed perfection of the church becomes challenged as she realizes that she is sexually and romantically drawn towards women. OANOF focuses most of its attention on the tensions and frictions that spark when Jeanette’s sexual life clashes with her religious life, and on the drastic measures that her church takes to drive the “demon” of “unnatural passions” away from her.

Although Jeanette’s development and moral growth is most certainly the focus of this novel, a lot of the content is focused on her strange relationship with her mother, and even more so, on the mother’s blind and ritualistic devotion to her church. The mother desperately tries to shield Jeanette from evils, especially those associated with gender and sexuality. For instance, when Jeanette develops a friendship with an ostensibly lesbian couple that runs a paper shop, the mother soon forbids Jeanette from going to that store because there was a rumor that “they dealt in unnatural passions” (7). Seeing as the mother doesn’t speak to her daughter about matters of gender, sexuality, and the body, Jeanette naively believes that “unnatural passions” are referring to the fact that the couple puts chemicals in their sweets.

This desire to protect Jeanette from evil, in addition to the mother’s penchant for explaining phenomena using religious rhetoric, makes it increasingly difficult for Jeanette to adjust to the outer world. For instance, Jeanette goes deaf for three months in the novel. Rather than taking Jeanette to the hospital, the mother begins to inform everyone that Jeanette is “in a state of rapture” (23), and she prevents people from speaking to her. It is Miss Jewsbury, a closeted lesbian, who brings Jeanette to the hospital to be treated for her condition. Jeanette realizes that her condition is due to biological processes rather than spiritual rapture, and it is in this moment that she begins to question the perfection and infallibility of her church:

Since I was born I had assumed that the world ran on very simple lines, like a larger version of our church. Now I was finding that even the church was sometimes confused. This was a problem. But not one I chose to deal with for many years more. (27)

It is in this moment that Jeanette begins her process of development and maturation: it is the moment in which she realizes that her mother doesn’t have all of the right answers, and neither does the church. Thus, rather than resorting to donning the mother’s ideological perspective of the world, which consists of viewing things as either good or bad, Jeanette must learn to challenge herself to explore areas of contradiction and ambiguity that do not necessarily conform with the notions of right or wrong.

It is  during Jeanette’s time time at the hospital that that the motif of oranges becomes heavily introduced into the narrative, for her mother constantly sends her oranges along with some “get better soon” letters when she doesn’t have the time to visit Jeanette. Throughout the novel, the only fruit that Jeanette’s mother will give to her is the orange, for it is “The only fruit” (29). Little is said as to why oranges are deemed to be the only fruit worthy of consumption. However, the meaning behind the orange is not necessarily based on the fruit itself, but rather, on how the fruit is used. First and foremost, oranges become a way of further characterizing Jeanette’s mother, showing how she perceives the world categorically, and showing how she desires to limit the options that Jeanette can have. Furthermore, since oranges are the only fruit that are validated from the mother’s perspective, all of other fruit go on to lack legitimacy. Much later on in the novel, when Jeanette gets slightly ill, her mother brings her a bowl of oranges, and the following scenario takes place:

I took out the largest and tried to peel it. The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas? I did finally pull away the other shell, and, cupping both hands round, tore open the fruit. (113)

In this context, it becomes a little more clear that oranges are representing either gender or heterosexuality. By questioning why she can’t have other fruit, Jeanette puts into question the limitations that are imposed on her in terms of her choices and preferences. Notice that she has trouble accessing the orange’s pulp, which can symbolize the difficulty that Jeanette has towards complying with a simplistic, limited, heteronormative view of the world. It would be much easier for her to eat grapes or bananas, however, we observe that Jeanette’s mother is still coercing her to struggle with oranges.

The entire spectrum of fruit, in this interpretive view, would go on to represent the entire spectrum of gender–the mother’s efforts to impose oranges as the only good fruit go on to represent efforts to approach a single gender or sexual orientation has valid and legitimate. As can be expected, the mother’s views toward fruit also apply towards her views on gender and sexuality: “I remembered the famous incident of the man who’d come to our church with his boyfriend. At least, they were holding hands. ‘Should have been a woman that one,’ my mother had remarked” (127). This leads Jeanette to one of her many philosophical musings, in which she recognizes the fact that her mother is unable to interpret the world without resorting to the use of binaristic thinking. Instead of accepting the fact that these two men are, in due course, simply men, she resorts to approaching one of the men as a woman. But, as Jeanette remarks:

This was clearly not true. At that point I had no notion of sexual politics, but I knew that a homosexual is further from a woman than a rhinoceros. Now that I do have a number of notions about sexual politics, this early observation holds good. There are shades of meaning, but a man is a man, wherever you find it. (128)

The desire to steer away from convention and normativity is a staple of this novel. Just as Jeanette desires another fruit besides an orange, she also desires to be romantically involved with someone besides a man. Jeanette’s penchant for non-normativity is even expressed in her artistic inclinations and projects. While Jeanette is in school, she truly strives to win a prize in the school’s various artistic competitions. While at first she loses these competitions because of her adherence to religious doctrine, she notices that she still continues to lose competitions even when she presents projects that are non-religious in their themes. For instance, in an Easter Egg painting competition, Jeanette creates an elaborate diorama that recreates a scene from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des NibelungenHowever, she loses to a a student who covers eggs in cotton in order with the title of “Easter Bunnies” (48). Jeanette realizes that even though her masterpiece was definitely the best project submitted to the competition, she loses simply because she steers away from convention. Rather than creating a habitual Easter-themed project for the competition, she strives to be different and creative, which essentially makes Jeanette a queer character in many other aspects besides her sexuality.

As I mentioned previously, Jeanette’s queerness certainly causes her a lot of pain and heartache, which is perhaps epitomized when she is publicly accused for being a lesbian while in church. The church members deem that Jeanette and her girlfriend, Melanie, have engaged in homosexual activity because they are possessed by demons. This accusation sparks a lot of commotion in the church, and thus, one of the most confusing and convoluted sections of this novel takes place. After the accusation, Jeanette escapes the church and goes to Miss Jewbury’s home. Miss Jewbury does her best to comfort Jeanette, and out of the blue, the two have sex: “We made love and I hated it and hated it, but would not stop” (106). When Jeanette returns home after her encounter with Jewbury, the tension of the novel escalates to an unprecedented degree as members of her church congregation perform an intense exorcism on her. The members stay from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. “praying over [her], laying hands on [her], urging [her] to repent [her] sins before the Lord” (107). The exorcism ultimately culminates with Jeanette being locked up in a room for 36 hours without food, and she only claims to be repentant in order to get access to food.

The resolution and “conclusion” of the novel focus on Jeanette becoming closely involved with the church as she also begins a relationship with a new church member named Katy. Contrary to the beliefs of her congregation, Jeanette firmly believes that her spiritual and sexual life are able to coexist. She is soon caught in a compromising situation with Katy, and her mother proceeds to kick her out of their home. This so-called failure pushes Jeanette to move to a city and start a new life–while unfortunately being deprived of her family and her history. She eventually returns to her old home to visit her mother, who seems to express a degree of ambivalence towards Jeanette–they do talk, but they never discuss Jeanette’s love life. The conclusion, however, shows a surprising revelation: Jeanette’s mother starts its first mission with black people–and she serves them pineapple because “she thought that’s what they ate” (172). Because of this, Jeanette’s mother ends up eating many dishes with pineapple in it, while claiming, philosophically, that “oranges are not the only fruit” (172). Thus, while the novel certainly ends in a sad note, indicating that many people still believe that Jeanette is possessed, the mother’s acceptance of other fruit leads the reader to believe that perhaps the mother is not viewing the world in the conceptually simplistic fashion that she used to. Just like white and black communities are starting to coexist in the mother’s church, the mother’s black and white conceptual distinctions start to blur.

On a personal note, this novel is fabulous. It is touching, shocking, and even funny at times. This novel is definitely a cornerstone of LGBTQ lit, even though the author does not necessarily consider OANOF to be a lesbian novel.  While I do recognize the universality of the themes present in the novel, I can particularly see how LGBTQ readers would appreciate and love this masterpiece.

You can purchase a copy of Winterson’s novel here.

Thoughts? Comments? Opinions? Please feel free to engage in this conversation using the comments section below!

Work Cited

Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Pandora, 1989. Print (paperback edition).

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