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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Genesis | Summary



The first chapter of the novel opens with immediate attempts to characterize Jeanette's mother and the relationship she wants to have with her adopted daughter. Jeanette was adopted as one of her mother's typically fanatic religious projects, and she also intends for Jeanette to become a missionary who can "change the world." So, as Jeanette describes in detail, her days are filled with religious indoctrination. Jeanette's mother closely controls her daughter's life and would like to manage her thoughts as well as her actions. Jeanette is expected to know the Bible inside and out, to answer biblical trivia questions, and to recite verses on demand.

Jeanette's mother is strongly judgmental about non-believers. She makes clear to Jeanette who in their town is good and who is evil. People who drink alcohol, are sexually active, take advantage of the poor, or enjoy activities outside church are sinners. She also enjoys sharing conversion stories, including her own, and obsessively following the activities of the missionaries sponsored in different countries by her church.

Jeanette finds her mother's conversion story "very romantic." As a young woman Jeanette's mother mistakenly walked into "Pastor Spratt's Glory Crusade." A charismatic man with an advertising background, Pastor Spratt was especially successful at converting women. What keeps Jeanette's mother part of Spratt's flock is her "abiding interest in missionary work."

After providing this information as well as a description of the grimy industrial town, Winterson interrupts the narrative with a fairy tale about a princess "so sensitive that the death of a moth could distress her for weeks." The princess is saved by an elderly hunchback who realizes she has "great energy and resourcefulness" and needs only to take on significant duties to get over her sensitive nature. When the hunchback turns the duties of the small village over to the princess and then promptly dies, the princess is able to live happily ever after.

The next part of the chapter tells of a specific Sunday night at church, when Jeanette is seven. With his attention focused on Jeanette, Pastor Finch uses the number seven to preach about how quickly someone, even an innocent child, can fall from blessedness and become "a house of demons." He warns parents to watch their children and husbands to watch their wives. Jeanette, feeling awkward, then goes to the Sunday School Room to create miniature Bible scenes with felt material. Pastor Finch follows her, and so she goes back to her mother, who decides it is time to go home.

Jeanette thinks about the unusual standard pattern of nights at their house: her mother stays up until 4:00 in the morning, and her father gets up at 5:00 to go to work. When Jeanette has trouble sleeping, she and her mother read the Bible and eat bacon and eggs. Jeanette has never been to school; her days are filled with lessons given by her mother and centered on religion. When she needs time away, Jeanette sits on the toilet in the outhouse, the only place she can find privacy. This pattern is about to end, however, when Jeanette's mother receives a letter informing her she must send Jeanette to school.


From this first chapter, readers learn the main traits of Jeanette's mother. She believes she is always right. She expects everyone to do exactly what she tells them to do—whether that is a small thing like calling ladies from church "Auntie" or a huge thing like dedicating one's life to God. She has chosen her life rather than having been raised in a religious household, so she does not lack in sophistication about worldly matters, although she rejects them. She is hardworking and loyal to those who do not disappoint her. Winterson does not give Jeanette's mother a name, thereby denying, or at least de-emphasizing, her individuality and her existence apart from her role as a domineering and one-dimensional mother figure.

The environment in which Jeanette grows up is also clear by the end of this chapter. Her house is small, affording no opportunity for privacy. But it sits near the top of the hill, from which one can "see everything, just like Jesus on the pinnacle except it's not very tempting" because it's ugly. Surrounded by hills, it is "a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens." Indeed it is a poor and scrappy mill town, a place where one could easily feel trapped.

After tackling "Genesis," readers know this is a challenging book to read. The interruption of the narrative with the fairy tale about the sensitive princess is typical of Winterson's writing style throughout the book. She does not call attention to the disruptions nor does she always connect the tales, stories, and dreams to the main narrative, although she does here. In the narrative Jeanette's mother's decision to "get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the Lord" is described in lyrical language. Jeanette's mother feels sure she knows how to save Jeanette and hand down her responsibilities to her—in the way the hunchback does for the princess. As a child Jeanette, like the princess, requires the protection of a strong woman who makes her purpose in life clear. Also Jeanette knows she is special, different from others, and beginning to understand that it is her mother who has made her this way. Indeed her mother's vision for Jeanette's life is not much different from the unreality of a fairy tale.

The nonlinear narrative may challenge readers at first. Winterson pops back and forth in time without warning, so it is often hard to keep track of Jeanette's age, for example. In "Genesis," however, the events Jeanette describes occur from the time she is a baby until she is seven. Jeanette's sophisticated thought process at that age underscores her high level of intelligence.

For example as she begins wondering how women can stand to be married to ugly men like Pastor Finch, she feels some relief from what an old gypsy woman has told her—that she will never marry. When her mother takes her home from church that night, saying, "I think you've had enough excitement for one day" Jeanette has the wry thought, "It's odd, the things other people think are exciting."

Jeanette also pays close attention to everything people around her say and the tone they use when speaking. When her mother and her friends talk about "Unnatural Passions" or her mother refers to school as "the Breeding Ground," Jeanette does not know exactly what is meant, but she knows it is negative. When Pastor Finch's wife gets nervous at his zealotry, Jeanette takes note. When church member Miss Jewsbury speaks, Jeanette notices she always talks in the same way, using a particular tone and holding her mouth in a rather odd position. Jeanette attributes it to the fact that she plays the oboe, which "does something to your mouth." When Mrs. Arkwright presents her with gifts, Jeanette knows she has a soft spot for her and is trying to do something, anything, to help her survive what this down-to-earth woman views as a horrible childhood. Jeanette's ability to observe people closely without judging them is just one way she is markedly different from her mother.

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