The Roles of Symbols in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit explores the themes of homosexuality and relationships affected by difference. Throughout this novel, it is clear that there are symbols present that carry the overall meaning in this piece. Jeanette, the protagonist, discovers that she is a lesbian, which is complicated by the fact that she comes from a strict religious background. The symbol of the orange is regularly brought up in the novel, from the beginning all the way to the end. The readers can easily see what the orange represents: the dogma and the structure of which she should, ideally, lead her life. It is seen again and again that the symbol of an orange surfaces only when Jeanette reaches a difficult period in her life, showing that oranges represent the life she is supposed to lead, but ends up taking on another direction. Jeanette also refers to fairy tales in this novel, which also represent Jeanette’s journey from escaping her mother’s views. Ultimately, the symbols present in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit effectively represent Jeanette’s exploration for a life of liberation rather than a life bounded by religion.
Oranges are first introduced to the novel when Jeanette’s mother, who holds Christian values and refuses to go against them, says to Jeanette that “[Oranges are] the only fruit” (Winterson 39). In the book, when Jeanette is in the hospital, it says that her mother always sent her a letter with a couple of oranges. Her mother only has one view on fruits: Oranges were the only ones worth eating. Similarly, her mother also only had one viewpoint on life: To live under God’s will. She had raised her daughter to become a missionary, and sees no other way to live life other than living the life God would want her to live. She sees people as either being good or bad; there is no in-between. Throughout the novel, the readers can see how her mother dedicates her life to whom she believed was her creator; she gave credit to him for the positive things that happened to her. She says in the novel, “Listen to what the Lord has done for me this week. [I] needed eggs, the Lord had sent them. [I] had a bout of colic, the Lord took it away. [I] always prayed two hours a day” (Winterson 32). In her eyes, there was only one way to live life, in service to God, like there was only one fruit to eat, oranges. As the mother of Jeanette, she attempts to push her belief system on her daughter because she wants her daughter to be “a missionary child, a servant of God” (Winterson 14). At the beginning of the novel the readers can see how religion dictates all of their life; it is part of their everyday thinking and everyday activities. Jeanette’s mother imposes a repressive system that restricts her daughter from doing anything unholy.
Oranges are treated the same way. Just like religion is used throughout this novel to navigate life and direct their journey, oranges are offered when Jeanette is in state of confusion and uncertainty. When Jeanette is in the hospital, and her mother is leaving her to go back home, Jeannette thinks, “What was she doing? I started to cry. My mother looked horrified and rooting in her handbag she gave me an orange. I peeled it to comfort myself” (Winterson 36). It seems that the orange is similar to religion for the family; it is like an anchor, something that stabilizes them and keeps them feeling safe. At that particular scene, the readers realize that Jeanette’s mother keeps oranges in her bag, just like how she always carried around a bible as well. Oranges, like the Bible, seems to be a source of comfort, a part of a life that provides feelings of safety, warmth, and familiarization.
When Jeanette first starts going to school, she begins to realize that other people are different and have various beliefs, contrary to her own. This makes her defensive of her religion, protecting it and defending it. In a particular scene, the children are told to write what they did in the summer and present it. Jeanette states, “It was all the same. Fishing, swimming, picnics, Walt Disney’s” (Winterson 49). When it is her turn to present, she tells her class about her church camp. Her retelling of what happens is laughed at by the class, and Jeanette tells her mother that she wishes to not go to school again, in which her mother responds, “You’ve got to. Here, have an orange” (Winterson 51). At this point in the novel, Jeanette is still living in world of “oranges,” in which she is living confined to a single lifestyle (and still eating only one fruit). However, she is also beginning to learn about other people and how there are other ways to live life.
It is from these instances that the readers can see how these oranges symbolize the life of which Jeannette’s mother wants her to live, under the controlling ideology that serves God. It represents her mother’s values, beliefs, and system in which must be followed. Oranges are claimed to be the only fruit by her strict mother who offers oranges to her daughter all the time, but does not help in any other way in terms of fulfilling Jeanette’s needs emotionally. As the novel progresses, however, this begins to change. Jeanette begins to discover a life outside of religion, and starts to fall in love with a girl named Melanie, whom she welcomes into her church. When the church finds out about this, they set up an intervention. While Jeanette is sitting in a room, she begins to talk to an imaginary “orange demon,” which is probably an orange. On page 138, it says, “Leaning on the coffee table was the orange demon. ‘Everyone has a demon as you so rightly observed,’ the [orange] began” (Winterson 138). The orange and Jeanette talk about demons and whether or not they are bad, in which the orange responds that demons are not evil, “They’re just different” (Winterson 138). At this point, Jeanette begins to accept that there are other things besides religion that exists in the world. When she was young, her ideals were of her mother’s ideals – now, she begins to form her own ideas and interprets the world in a different way than her mother does. The way Jeanette speaks to this orange demon makes it seem as if she does not fear the demon, and that perhaps not all demons are necessarily bad like her mother would like her to believe. When the church members come to make Jeanette repent for her sins (lesbianism), she agrees immediately. However, she refuses to leave this demon behind: It is still there with her throughout the chapter. This shows that she lied to the church members about repenting; she is braver since she chooses to live her own life rather than the life the church wants her to lead.
Furthermore, her independence is shown through a quote when her mother offers Jeanette oranges. Jeanette says, “The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas?” (Winterson 144). At this point, we can see Jeanette’s views drastically changing from a Godly worldview to a more secular, independent one.
Oranges are seen again and again as representing the strict, overbearing world Jeanette’s mother forces onto her daughter. In one instance, Melanie, the girl who shared a relationship with Jeanette, was sent away for having an improper relationship with Jeanette. Melanie has chosen the church over Jeanette, and agrees to move away and refuses a relationship with Jeanette. On page 155, when Jeanette sees Melanie again in the bus stop, Melanie offers Jeanette an orange, in which Jeanette responds that she does not. This not only shows that Jeanette is refusing an orange, but also everything that the orange stands for, which is spirituality and the rules in which her mother wants her to live by.
Oranges are not the only symbol that represents Jeanette’s journey from living a life that abides to her mother’s dogmatic views to living a life of her own. The chapters in this novel include interesting fairy tales that show how Jeanette develops from living in a world with only oranges to a world full of various fruits.
In the first chapter, Jeanette talks about her family and how her mother expects her to become a missionary, a child of God. Then she refers to a fairy tale, where a princess meets a hunchback who tells the princess that she “wished to die, but could not because of her many responsibilities” (Winterson 13). The hunchback asks the princess if she could take over her responsibilities, in which the princess responds by saying yes. At this point, the readers are still unaware of what this fairytale means or symbolizes. However, once one reads further, one can see how this refers to the religion-bounded life in which Jeanette and her mother leads. Her mother sees herself as having many responsibilities, like making songs for the festival or preaching the word of God. Like the princess, Jeanette’s mother has left her old life to dedicate herself to a life of God-serving responsibilities. Like the oranges, it symbolizes the one way to live.
In chapter 3, Jeanette hears a story from her pastor regarding perfection and how a man lived his life perfectly before his fall. Jeanette disagrees with her pastor’s idea of perfection, and imagines a myth in which a prince is searching for a perfect wife. He writes a book, with one chapter being about, ” the need to produce a world full of perfect beings. A perfect race. An exhortation to single-mindedness” (Winterson 80). He finds a woman that meets his standards of perfection, but she is smarter than he is, and refuses to marry him. He finds out that the woman “was indeed perfect, but she wasn’t flawless” (Winterson 83). The woman claims that there is no such thing as what the prince is looking for, which is absolute perfection. In response, the prince beheads her. This myth suggests that Jeanette does not agree with everything her pastor says. It foreshadows the fact that she cannot be “perfect” in the eyes of her mother or her church. At the end of this myth, the prince is offered oranges, which again represents the single-minded view of living.
Another myth comes into play when her mother and the church members find out Jeanette is a lesbian. Her world begins to change drastically, as she finds that she still loves God and the Church, but loves Melanie as well. The church members claim this cannot be so, because if Jeanette loves Melanie, then it means she does not love God. In this chapter, Jeanette imagines a man named Sir Perceval and how he used to live comfortably in Camelot. Similarly, Jeanette lived comfortably in her mother’s home, surrounded by religious people and a church that was like an anchor to her. However, in the myth, Perceval says he cannot stay in Camelot because then he will not find what he is looking for. Likewise, Jeanette cannot stay living under the rules of the church if she wants to find her identity and her true self. Again, this myth represents the journey that Jeanette is taking, and how her life is changing just like the character in the myth. It seems that the myths and Jeanette’s life are parallel and very similar.
The final myth in the last chapter of this book sums up Jeanette’s journey to finding herself. Jeanette talks about Winnet, who is a character similar to herself, and how she was adopted and becomes a city dweller, leaving her family behind. Winnet has a relationship with a male, which angers a male sorcerer (which is like Jeanette’s mother) and then kicks Winnet out. This is different from the real world, where women are supposed to be with men. Winnet is supposed to be with a woman, instead of a man. It is clear that Winterson is experimenting with gender roles in this parallel universe, and ultimately challenging gender norms to the readers. Another myth is told later in the chapter, a continuation of the old one. Perceval becomes tired of his journey, and misses his home. Just like Jeanette, she misses her home as well. In the myth, Perceval says, “[I] have seen the vision of perfect heroism and, for a fleeting moment, the vision of perfect peace” (Winterson 212). At this point, one can see that the character has found peace through his journey. Jeanette, similarly, has found some sort of peace after finding out her identity and who she was, from being away from home. In the myth, the prince also says he “had gone [away] for his own sake, nothing more. He had thought of that day of returning” (Winterson 221). His life parallels Jeanette’s, in a sense that Jeanette went on a journey for her own sake, to discover who she really is without the strict boundaries set by her mother.
When Jeanette returns home from living away for a while, her mother treats her as she never kicked her daughter out of the house. Her mother talks to her normally, and it seems that things have changed since Jeanette left. At the end of the novel, Jeanette’s mother says something that confirms her change of beliefs. She says, “After all, oranges are not the only fruit” (Winterson 219). Towards the end of the novel, these symbols lead up to the final conclusion of Jeanette and her thoughts towards belief in God. She says, “But where was God now, with heaven full of astronauts, and the Lord overthrown? I miss God who was my friend. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes.. I don’t even know if God exists..” (Winterson 216). At this point, one can see the journey has taken her to a point where God is missed, her old life is missed, but she still refuses to let religion control what she believes. She accepts what is, including her sexual identity. Her mother, at the beginning, only sees things black and white, and her finding out her daughter was a lesbian was entirely bad, but Jeanette learns to accept this. At the end she also states, “I can’t settle. I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and will be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me. I will give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer but never be destroyed” (Winterson 217). One can still see how her views are set: She does not want a man to marry. Throughout the novel she was learning to accept this fact, and at the end she has learned that she is set on her belief and now has her own belief system, one separate from her mother.
The oranges and myths in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit clearly represent the journey which Jeanette takes from being a strictly religious individual to being one who follows her own rules in life, while still keeping the love of God alive. Both of these symbolize the changes in thoughts that occur through Jeanette’s mind overtime. The oranges show the dogmatic view her mother holds and how Jeanette eventually learns to refuse this orange, literally (as when she rejected it from Melanie) and figuratively. These oranges help her realize that the views of her mother is not the only view that is correct; rather, there are other views out there that are good. The myths that are told in this novel also show the journey in which Jeanette learns to reject these oranges. Winterson brilliantly and effectively questions the perspective other people hold towards homosexuality in this novel by using both the orange and the myths to symbolize the journey of self discovery in which Jeanette learns to achieve a belief system separate from her mother’s.
Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly, 1987. Print.
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