Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Exodus | Summary



Having to send Jeanette to school puts her mother into a snit. She takes her anger out on Jeanette, who tries to respond to her mother's rage with calm and practical comments—many of them based on Bible stories—but her mother is not swayed. Jeanette is reminded of the time earlier in the year when her mother refused to accept that Jeanette suddenly went deaf, preferring to see her condition as "a state of rapture," a departure from the normal world resulting from spiritual union with God.

Jeanette recounts the story of her temporary deafness. When she notices she is not hearing, she tries to tell her mother, who ignores her. So Jeanette tests it out herself, playing music on her recorder to see if she can hear it. She can't. The next morning she wants to tell her mother again but finds herself alone in the house. Her mother is at the hospital praying for another church member.

So Jeanette goes for a walk and meets Miss Jewsbury. She pulls Miss Jewsbury into the post office so they can communicate by writing on the papers lying on the counters. On learning of Jeanette's deafness, Miss Jewsbury promptly takes her to the hospital and angrily shouts at Jeanette's dismissive mother, "This child's not full of the Spirit ... she's deaf." When Jeanette's mother still doesn't accept it, Miss Jewsbury takes the situation up with the doctor, who does some tests.

Jeanette's mother enters the room after a while and lets her frightened daughter know she is leaving to get some things Jeanette will need at the hospital. Jeanette cries, but her mother leaves anyway. Jeanette requires surgery to fix the adenoid problem causing her deafness. Her mother is absent for much of the ordeal, especially at the beginning of it, but her father comes frequently. However, Elsie Norris, an eccentric church member, comes every day. Jeanette enjoys the visits and is thrilled when Elsie promises to teach her the basics of numerology, especially because her mother disapproves of it. Elsie reads Jeanette a variety of texts including poetry, plays games with her, and encourages her. Indeed when Jeanette is released from the hospital, she has gained, in addition to her hearing, a new level of confidence. She stays with Elsie right after getting out of the hospital because her mother is off doing mission work.

Following the recounting of this earlier event, the narrative returns to Jeanette's school experiences. After three terms, she is still confused by how things work there and cannot fit in socially. The other students are mean to her, but she has no trouble returning their cruelty, especially by her graphic descriptions of Hell. The only bright spot in her life, keeping her from total depression, is the upcoming summer camp and proselytizing trip to Devon her church has been focused on for several months. As she describes what it will be like, Jeanette reports conversations with her mother, who recalls the early days of their church and then goes back in her memories to the time before her conversion when she was living in Paris and dating men.

One of Jeanette's greatest disappointments about school is her failure to win prizes that are given out. She knows she is smarter and more creative than other students, but the religious approach she takes to every project makes her teachers uncomfortable. Eventually parents of other students complain about the "disturbing motifs" in Jeanette's work and the way she gives children nightmares with her descriptions of "the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned." When the head of the school brings this situation to Jeanette's mother's attention, she only laughs and gives Jeanette a special treat for following the call "to be apart" from other people. Elsie does offer Jeanette some comfort with the words, "You'll get used to it."

"Exodus" ends with a story from the Bible and a tale Winterson relates about an emperor named Tetrahedron. The Bible story is from the Book of Exodus, describing the Israelites' flight from Egypt. They are led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and Jeanette cannot understand why the Israelites so easily accepted such "Strange Notions" whereas she struggles to understand the "perplexing and impossible" world she is in at school.

In the tale about the imaginary Tetrahedron, evidently inspired by Jeanette's learning about the mathematical shape of that name, his home is described as "a palace made absolutely from elastic bands." The emperor is beloved by all and often showered with gifts. One day a woman comes with a "revolving circus operated by midgets" who act out tragedies and comedies, all at once. Because he is so flexible, the emperor can see them all at once, and the lesson he learns is "no emotion is the final one."


This chapter focuses on Jeanette and how she is able to survive such a strange childhood. Most likely Jeanette has been so sheltered and brainwashed that at this age she simply cannot understand any other way of thinking and living. Therefore she is unable to see her personal situation as unsatisfactory and remains convinced of the rightness of her views, despite her unhappiness at school. She keeps her mind calm by focusing on church activities and believes missionary school is where she belongs, especially because she is so miserable in the other school she is forced to attend.

Oranges, an important motif in the novel, show up in this chapter as the fruit Jeanette's mother offers her in a minor attempt to provide comfort when she is sick and in the hospital. There is never any other fruit in Jeanette's household except oranges because they are "the only fruit," as her mother firmly states. As there is no other fruit but oranges, there is no other way to think except her mother's way. At the age she is, Jeanette is not rebelling against that way, but she is beginning to question it, "finding that even the church was sometimes confused." But she is unable to process completely her doubt "for many years more." Meanwhile she remains steadfast in the belief that her mother is right in her strong convictions about why things happen. Indeed her mother's unwavering self-confidence makes Jeanette feel this security and keeps her love for her so strong.

While Jeanette's mother is off trying to save the world, Elsie Norris manages to save Jeanette during a time when she is very afraid. She befriends the young girl and strengthens her confidence, understanding Jeanette in a way her mother cannot. This understanding becomes more apparent later in the novel. In addition to comfort, Elsie offers a peek into literature and the arts outside of the strict biblical confines Jeanette's mother has imposed—with the exception of Jane Eyre. Elsie's worldview intrigues Jeanette, who is permitted to listen to it because Elsie is an accepted church member and shares some of her mother's zealotry. One of the wisest things Elsie tells Jeanette is that there is the outside world and a person's inner world and "if you want to make sense of either, you have to take notice of both." Jeanette doesn't understand at the time, but she will. For now, she still seeks approval from others, and because of this need she is especially devastated when her carefully wrought, extravagant school projects are viewed as undesirable, whereas other students' simplistic approaches are rewarded. However, she does, finally, gain an important insight into the nature of problems like those she is experiencing: problems do not come from a thing or an environment alone but from the two of them not fitting together, as in "something unexpected in a usual place" or "something usual in an unexpected place."

This chapter also reveals some information about Jeanette's father, a minor character in the household and novel, whom Jeanette's mother controls and bullies as she does everything else. Nevertheless he is Jeanette's other parent and a constant in her world. He seems to be a kind man: he comes to the hospital with oranges for Jeanette when her mother chooses not to put her daughter first. Jeanette describes him as a nice person who never becomes angry, accepts her mother's religious beliefs, and helps out at the church when asked. It is significant that, despite how disgusted she is throughout the novel by men and their often-distasteful behaviors, she never says a bad word about her own father.

The tale about Tetrahedron the emperor that ends the chapter is tied to the math Jeanette learns at school, but the lesson she states so clearly is more significant. She is going to have some major upheavals in her young life. In fact she will experience deep despair and great joy, but all is cyclical and she will learn from it all.

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