Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson does not describe her 1985 novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, as an autobiography. However, she calls it a “document, both true and false”, of her early life. It begins with the main character, Jeanette, aged seven. She lives with her adoptive parents, who are devout evangelical Christians. Her mother, in particular, shapes young Jean into a true believer who wants to be a missionary, and whose education mostly consists of learning to read the Bible. However, at seven she is forced to go to school, and as she grows up, she begins to question her church’s teachings. As a teenager, she comes out as a lesbian, and refuses to repent for something she does not see as a sin.
Up until age seven, Jeanette learns by reading the Bible. She is rarely without a copy of the book; as a young girl she terrifies her fellow students with its most violent stories; she teaches Bible classes as a teenager. Even as Jeanette begins to question her faith in God, the Bible still shapes how she sees the world — so much that the chapters of Oranges are named after the first chapters of the Bible.
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As Jeanette gets older, she begins to realise that she is attracted to women. She has affairs with other women at her church: the older Miss Jewsbury, and new converts Melanie and later Katy. When Jeanette tries to tell her mother how she feels, she is condemned in church. She refuses to repent. Decades later, the relationship between faith and sexuality is still a key discussion…
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Jeanette’s father barely appears in the book. But she has a close, intense relationship with her mother. She says she was “very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first” and arranged to adopt a “foundling”, Jeanette, as the “next best thing”. They both have strong characters. They are devoted to religion. And they want to stay true to their beliefs — even if they differ from each other.
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Myths and legend
As she tells the story of her life, Jeanette also tells and reinvents myths and legends. She daydreams of knights and princesses, sometimes switching the gender roles and allowing them to play out her own fears and fantasies. But the whole novel is also a kind of myth; it is the tale of the author’s own past, which blends fact and fiction to create a powerful, symbolic story, both true and untrue.
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There are very few male characters in Oranges. Jeanette’s father never speaks; her mother is the dominant parent; it is women whom Jeanette falls in love with. When news of her affairs reach the church, the pastor (the most powerful man in the book) blames the fact that women have overstepped their role in the church; Jeanette herself has been giving sermons and leading classes.
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