Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Context


Fundamentalist Christianity

Winterson, the author of this semiautobiographical novel, grew up in the 1960s in a religious home characterized by fundamental Christian beliefs. Although the term fundamentalist has come to be viewed as synonymous with extreme religious views, those within the Christian community at that time would have viewed it as a testament of true faith. Christian fundamentalism began as a Protestant movement in the 19th century. Followers reacted against what they viewed as unwelcome modernist viewpoints, such as those embracing evolution rather than creationism and interpreting biblical stories as based on myth rather than fact. At a conference in Niagara, New York, in 1895, a group of conservative Protestants formally stated what they called the five points of fundamentalism:

  • The Bible states the truth without error. Stories of how the world was created, Noah's Ark, Moses parting the Red Sea to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and every sentence in both the Old Testament and the New Testament are true and correct.
  • Jesus Christ was born in human form but was divine.
  • Jesus's mother was a virgin.
  • Jesus died as an act of "substitutionary atonement," which means Jesus took the place of sinners, taking their sins upon himself so that all are forgiven.
  • Jesus came back from the dead and was seen and touched by people, thus proving his physical presence.

During the time of Winterson's childhood, fundamentalist Christians like Winterson's mother were proud of themselves for adhering so strictly to what they viewed as pure Christianity. As one modern-day fundamentalist leader, Dr. Dale A Robbins, describes his beliefs in defending the movement, "In the broad sense, fundamentalism may be used to describe Christians who are uncompromising, conservative and who take their beliefs to the maximum."

Steven McSwain, a writer who grew up in a fundamentalist household similar to Winterson's, describes additional ideas embraced by fundamentalists that almost certainly affected Winterson. Marriage is defined as a union only between one man and one woman. Homosexuality is viewed as a sin. Abortion is labeled murder. Christians go to heaven when they die, but everyone else goes to hell, which is believed to be a real place where people burn forever as torture for the way they chose to live on Earth. Jesus could come back at any time, and every Christian—by continual prayer and repenting of sins—must be prepared for this Second Coming, which will herald the end of the world. Therefore, when a member of a fundamentalist community goes awry and acts in ways that contradict the belief system, the community's responsibility is to force that member to admit sin and to ask for forgiveness. Readers of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit will see these actions taken against Jeanette when her homosexuality is discovered and will see the fundamentalist attitude clearly manifested in her mother.

First Eight Books of the Bible

Because religion so thoroughly dominated her upbringing, Winterson chooses to structure her semiautobiographical first novel in eight chapters, each bearing the name of an Old Testament book of the Bible. Together these eight books are known as the Octateuch. The first five of the eight books are also known as the Pentateuch, or Torah, which is the foundation of Jewish religious faith. The chapters of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit are ordered in the same chronology as the biblical books, and the content of each chapter corresponds to the cited book of the Bible.

  • Genesis: This book is also known as the book of the creation and explains the origins of the world. In the corresponding chapter of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Winterson explains how she came to be in her adoptive home and how her mother tries to mold her to be a missionary.
  • Exodus: In the Bible Exodus recounts how the Israelites escape from Egypt and make their home in a new land. Near the end of the corresponding chapter in the novel, Winterson describes her own feelings of displacement when she was forced to leave home and go to school (at around eight years of age). She contrasts it with the experience of the Israelites, who seemed able to accept "Strange Notions" (beliefs not in accordance with her church) without worry.
  • Leviticus: The third book of the Bible is about Jewish laws. In her corresponding third chapter, Winterson presents many of the religious doctrines governing her mother's life—and thus her life as well.
  • Numbers: This Bible book recounts the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness. The parallel theme in Winterson's chapter involves her trying to navigate her way through a world in which marriage is supposedly sacred yet seems to hold no joy for those who are married, a world in which she begins to come into her own sexuality and meets the young woman she falls in love with.
  • Deuteronomy: This is considered the last book of the law in the Bible. In her novel the corresponding chapter is the only one to which Winterson gives a subtitle: "The last book of the law." The chapter is very short, unlike the other chapters, and something more of a personal reflection than part of the narrative. Here Winterson reflects on time, storytelling versus history, fact and nonfact, and other bits of information important to her. Winterson's chapter echoes the purpose of Deuteronomy in the Bible: to recapitulate the most important lessons in light of the history as described so far.
  • Joshua: This book of the Bible tells of the leader Joshua and how he keeps his people safe because of his faith in God over his own military skills. Winterson's corresponding chapter tells of the militaristic way her church deals with her homosexuality, believing their actions demonstrate God's word. Winterson learns she needs to be true to herself, yet she tricks those around her with false statements admitting that homosexuality is a sin and repenting to satisfy them.
  • Judges: This biblical book gives the account of the Jewish people rebelling against God and being punished over and over for it. Lacking strong leadership, they do not act in their best interests. In the novel's corresponding chapter, Winterson returns to the church yet acts rebelliously in being true to herself and her sexuality. Ultimately she leaves the church and is forced from her home as a result.
  • Ruth: The Book of Ruth is notable as one of the few instances in the scriptures that feature women at the core of a story. Ruth's story is of her choice to remain with her mother-in-law after her husband's death and to adopt her religion. Although Jeanette cannot stay with her adoptive mother after achieving her own sense of self in the bigger world (and mostly rejecting her mother's religious beliefs), she nevertheless has a calm reconciliation with her mother that fits the overall mood of Ruth.

Sir Perceval's Quest for the Holy Grail

One of the traditional tales Winterson interweaves throughout the narrative of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a legend of the Holy Grail. She chooses to focus on the version that features Sir Perceval, one of the knights of King Arthur's Round Table. King Arthur was a legendary king of Britain, and tales about him and his knights became widely accepted during medieval times. Revered as a great and benevolent ruler, he based his governance on the concept of chivalry. His Knights of the Round Table conducted themselves according to a code that demanded honor, honesty, valor, and loyalty.

The Holy Grail legend also arose during medieval times. The story is that Jesus Christ drank from a goblet—the Holy Grail—during his final meal with his followers, known as the Last Supper. Said to possess great powers, this goblet has been the object of many unsuccessful real and imaginary searches. One of the most celebrated versions of the legend associates the search for the Grail with the Knights of the Round Table. In this version, the Grail is supposed to be hidden in a desolate area in Britain, in a castle belonging to the "Fisher King," who is in a perpetual state of illness, poised between life and death. The purest of King Arthur's knights should be able to resolve the struggle simply by seeing the Grail, which would restore the Fisher King to health and his wasted lands to their former glory. So trying to achieve this goal was seen as the knights' noblest cause. The knight Perceval supposedly did catch sight of the Grail but didn't recognize it, and so failed in his quest. These legends add to Winterson's story and help set her character's quest in a more meaningful context.

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