Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit is about a girl’s coming of age and self-acceptance in a community that punished difference. Set in the 1960s, the character learns to make her own opinions about herself and the world.
Critics consider Winterson’s 1985 semi-autobiographical account as one of the best productions of modern fiction due to its stylistic prose and creative structure, with each chapter named after a book in the Bible. It has also been heralded as one of the most important works in gay literature today. It was later made into a television mini-series in 1989. The screenplay was also written by Winterson, winning her the BAFTA award.
Jeanette is a lonely isolated girl living in Lancashire, England. Adopted into an evangelical household, Jeanette grew up with absent father and an overly zealous mother who forbade from going to school for several years, calling it a “Breeding Ground” that would “lead her astray.”
She obeys religious teachings, attends church every Sunday and though viewed by the attendants as “full of spirit,” she is an active participant in congregation. However, she becomes a teenager and besides the mother’s mounting fears of her “bad influences,” Jeanette discovers that she is interested in women. She falls in love with a girl named Melanie. The day she meets her, the pastor also begins his sermon on “unnatural passions” and notices her new friend getting upset. As they spend more time together, she wonders if it was what the preacher talked about in church. However, her mother does notice at first, initially relieved that Jeanette was no longer spending time with Graham. Jeannette begins to feel the stirring of her emotions but is confused with what she had been taught, especially since it conflicted with her goal of becoming a missionary. She confesses her feelings to her mother and during the next mass, the preacher turns to them and declares them as sinners, demanding that they give up their sin and atone at once, stating that they cannot love the Lord and each other at the same time. Jeanette is betrayed and devasted. The entire town, except for Mrs. Jewsbury whom they laud as unholy, attempts to “cure” Jeanette of this evil and locks her into a room until she repents. She eventually gives in, but as soon as she is released runs to find Melanie who tells her that they are forbidden to see each other. They cry and kiss all night, confused but in love.
The next day, Jeanette comes down with glandular fever. During her illness, her mother comes to her with a bowl of oranges and declares that she had made her choice and that there was no going back. However, Jeanette did not make a choice, at least not the choice that the Church forced upon her.
Time passes, peace is restored, and Melanie moves away.
One day, a new convert, Katy, comes to the church. They fall in love. They go away together for the weekend, but encounter her mother’s friend. Feeling trapped, Jeanette is unsure of what to do. She returns home to her mother smashing dishes and calling the pastor. They had been discovered. What followed were a chaotic array of meetings. People began to act differently around Jeanette, even losing their place in the sermon after catching her eye. She has been ostracized. She leaves home, first afraid to return because those that do “ don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities” (109).
However, she eventually does return. As one would expect much has changed, and much has not. Nevertheless, her mother states rather philosophically, when faced with pineapples than her favourite, “Oranges are not the only fruit.”
Winterson’s novel is one that would strike a chord for the many men and women who have struggled to embrace their identity. In many cases, like the characters of Jeanette, they face opposition not just from general society but also in their own homes. On the other hand, there are also those who suffer in silence, forced to deny a natural part of themselves in favour of public acceptance. Many view difference as a threat to the social order, an aberration of their religion and biology. However, the fatal flaws of these arguments are the idea that there is only a single law, a single religion or a single way of living. The author states in an interview that she wrote the book in order to forgive and understand the past (www.jeanettewinterson.com). For many people who are subject to sexual, racial or even economic prejudice, rejections are not easy wounds that heal. Some are only granted acceptance if they “fit” the accepted stereotype of being gay. One example is men who can only gain acceptance as homosexuals if they fit the stereotype of flamboyant characters portrayed on television. Thus, the public can declare themselves “liberal” but without having to face the truth that a person’s emotions are involved, not characters for their entertainment. Though sexual orientation and religion is often a topic of debate, such as the case of Winterson’s novel, where the pastor declares that she cannot have both. Thus, a person not only loses a right to him or herself but loses the right to spirituality as well. Intolerant behaviour and judgement impinges on another human being rights. The book’s use of biblical phrases to refute the arguments of her detractors points out the irony of their judgment. The novel is also, as Winterson states, a process of healing but on a deeper level, it is also someone telling her story, which is what the bible is about as well—a means to comprehend their life and the world around them. At present, many religions do not accept same-sex relationships. It is a sad fact, but hopefully, one day soon, things can change.