‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 171 pages; 2001.

First published in 1985 by a precocious new writing talent — Jeanette Winterson was just 24 at the time — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is one of those books that you know you’ll get around to reading one day. Well, that one day came around for me last week although I’d had the book in my reading queue for a year or more.

Not having seen the BBC TV series of the same name, I knew surprisingly little about the storyline except that it had “something to do with lesbians”. Funny how your mind catalogues unread books by such crude generalisations, isn’t it?

Of course female homosexuality is one of the themes that runs through Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but it is far from the only theme. Religion, obsession, poverty and adoption are other subjects that are central to the storyline.

The main thread goes something like this. Poor young girl, Jeanette, is adopted by a Pentecostal couple —  a quiet, largely absent father and a church-obsessed domineering mother — in Lancashire. From an early age Jeanette is indoctrinated into the religious life and plans to become a missionary when she leaves school. However, as a teenager she succumbs to “unnatural passions” and falls in love with another girl, scandalising the local community. Forced to endure exorcisms, she is eventually kicked out of home. She supports herself by selling ice-cream and working at a funeral parlour, all the while remaining true to herself.

This unique coming-of-age book — Winterson claims it is semi-autobiographical — won the 1985 Whitbread Award for a First Novel. I found the writing style strangely confident but very idiosyncratic, wavering as it does into fables and fairytales, but then returning to a more matter-of-fact refreshingly simple narrative. It’s a little too clever and a little too knowing in places, almost as if the author is showing off, and I found the leaps from one style to another slightly clunky and confusing.

I’m not ashamed to admit that getting a handle on the storyline stumped me. I couldn’t figure out the age of Jeanette, the main character and narrator, because she seems to jump in age without any sense of time having moved on. And nor could I determine the era in which the novel is set. It had the feel of the inter-war period, but given the story is based on Winterson’s own life, it must have been the 1970s.

I know many people regard Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as one of their all-time favourites, but I found it completely underwhelming. Given it hasn’t been out of print since it was published some 23 years ago, my opinion won’t make one iota of difference to its ongoing popularity, but I still can’t help feeling that it’s not as special as everyone makes it out to be. I’m sure someone out there will set me to rights though!

6 thoughts on “‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

  1. Kyara, the author of this blog — which is me — wrote this review. Judging by the amount of question marks in your comment, I’m guessing you don’t agree with my views, no?

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  2. To understand the meaning of the text, you need to understand the literary devices used.
    Oranges is a text that subverts the traditional conventions of content and form that are associated with a genre known as the Bildungsroman.
    This is a genre that involves following the development of a protagonist from youth into maturity. It’s about how the protagonist matures, searching for the meaning of their life, their identity and discovering the nature of the world.
    Things that relate Oranges to the traditional form of the Bildungsroman are: the isolated childhood, dissatisfaction at school, complicated confrontation with the outer world and the strong autobiographical element
    But one thing other than the subject matter and the questions it raises, which makes this text so appealing and successful is the subversion of the traditional conventions concerning content and form.
    Winterson uses a biblical framework for her text and throughout the ‘realistic’ linear plot of the novel there are a lot of interwoven fantasy narratives that are utilised for a number of different reasons,
    Use of fable and fairy tales –
    1) To subvert the realistic coming-of-age story –
    By including fantasy tales throughout her story, Winterson creates a non-linear plot, subverting the possibility of her text having a single, fixed meaning.
    This re-enforces her comments concerning the ideas of storytelling– that there is no single, definitive or authorative reading.
    Winterson writes on pg93: ‘…I can put these accounts together and I will not have a seamless wonder but a sandwich laced with mustard of my own.’
    She’s saying here, that everyone has different values, beliefs and experiences that make up who they are and how they interpret things. She says: ‘Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently’.
    2) To comment on, explain, displace, condense and/or allegorise some of the crucial elements displayed in the linear progression of realistic events AND/OR to illustrate personal and psychological conflicts and to point out possible solutions or alternative explanations for them –
    While this also overlaps with the last point here is one examples of how the fairy tales actually comment on, explain and represent key themes and events through metaphor.
    E.G. → separation from her mother and the church – the story of Winnet and the sorcerer rewrites and re-enacts Jeanette’s relationship with her mother in fairytale terms.
    In this fantasy narrative the mother figure is played by the male sorcerer who tricks the young Winnet into believing she is his daughter and causing her to follow his beliefs and way of life etc… Which is of course the mother who adopts Jeanette, without telling her she is adopted, and immerses her into the rigid, single-minded, evangelical beliefs.
    Jeanette’s lover is rendered as a young boy in the fairy tale, who unwillingly provokes Winnet’s expulsion from the sorcerer’s castle… which by castle we can assume to stand for her home and the church
    There is a lot more to it, but of course I don’t have time to comb through every little detail, but the whole story becomes an allegory of Jeanette’s separation from her mother, her home and her Evangelical community. It allows her to express feelings of sorrow as well as a growing sense of foreignness and exclusion that is mostly hidden and looked over in the main ‘realistic’ narration.
    3) Fairy tales are often critiqued as a source of negative and limiting female stereotypes –
    Throughout the text Winterson questions the traditional images of girlhood and femininity, challenging the construction of heterosexuality within culture as the ‘norm’ and providing us with some alternative models of female identity. A Isabel Gamallo says in her paper ‘Subversive Storytelling – The Construction of Lesbian Girlhood through Fantasy and Fairy Tale in Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’: ‘it is undeniably obvious that fairy tales and folk stories have traditionally offered different and unequal paradigms of maturation for men and women. For the most part, feminist critics, such as Simone de Beauvoir (1953) and Betty Frieden (1963), have tended to see fairy tales as a source of negative and limiting female stereotypes…’
    Just think of all the stories you know – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – the female protagonist in all of these are whimsical, helpless damsels, awaiting rescuing by the strong handsome prince etc etc. As Mary Daly sums up for us – “Patriarchy perpetuates its deception through myth.’
    So what is being said here is fairy tales are a cultural tool in which society forces heterosexuality and gendered stereotypes upon itself.
    Because we grow up hearing these fairy tales, we grow up enforcing the gender roles which they promote.
    What Winterson is trying to do is change these images of girlhood and femininity, reinventing the position of women as gendered subjects in the patriarchal discourse of myth, romance and fairy tale.

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  3. It’s really interesting to read your views on this one, Kim. I didn’t dwell too much on the fables but can see how the changes in style might not be to everyone’s tastes. I thought it felt earlier than the seventies too, perhaps the fifties or sixties…

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