Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Leviticus | Summary

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Summary

Jeanette remembers a Sunday after church when she and her mother and her mother's friend Mrs. White are about to listen to a religious radio program. They hear noises from the people next door that cause the two older women to become uncomfortable—but not so uncomfortable to keep them from eavesdropping on what is going on: fornication. Her mother tries to cover Jeanette's ears so she won't hear "Next Door's at it again" and then sends her out to buy ice cream. When Jeanette returns, they all join in to sing—very loudly—a hymn about not yielding to temptation, accompanied by Jeanette's mother's piano playing. The performance causes the neighbors to protest, Jeanette's mother responding by praying and quoting scripture.

The next section provides background information about how Jeanette's mother became the treasurer of the Society for the Lost at the recommendation of her mentor, Pastor Spratt. These duties often take her to the town of Wigan, and under her leadership the society doubles in size. Each year the society has a weekend retreat at the guesthouse in Morecambe owned and run by the treasurer who retired from the society just before Jeanette's mother took the position. On one of those weekends Jeanette offers to help a friend of her mother, a wreath maker, there to create the tribute flowers for a number of pupils at a nearby boarding school who died during an epidemic. Jeanette likes the woman, who will become another important female in Jeanette's life as she enters her teen years and will hire Jeanette to help prepare bodies for viewing at memorial services.

Jeanette also remembers a religious conference in her hometown held to recruit new members, when Jeanette's mother sends her out on the streets to hand out pamphlets. It is raining, and Mrs. Arkwright lets Jeanette stand in a booth she has on the weekends. Unable to distribute all the pamphlets, she returns to the conference site for the sermon. She does not like the topic, perfection, and at this point Winterson interrupts the narrative with a traditional tale centered on that theme.

This tale is about a prince who seeks perfection in the form of a wife "without blemish inside or out, flawless in every respect." When he tells his constant companion, a goose, of this desire, the bird lets his advisors know they need to find him the perfect wife. They look far and wide for three years, with no success, and when the goose suggests the prince modify his expectations, he chops off her head.

After another three years, the prince writes a book on the topic of perfection. He asserts that the only way the world can be saved from corruption is by producing "a world full of perfect beings." He tells his advisors to keep looking, and finally one of them comes upon a beautiful woman identified as perfect by those who know her. The problem is the woman is not at all interested in the prince or his theories. As wise as she is beautiful, she knows some balance is what should be sought, not perfection.

Because the woman rejects the prince, thereby making him lose face, his advisors tell him to take serious action against her. So he orders her head chopped off. Feeling satisfied about having "stamped out a very great evil," the prince thinks about how to continue his quest. On the way out of town, the prince buys some oranges from a man but seems suddenly to come to his senses when the man offers him the very book he had written about perfection—the man calling it "a bit weird"—in response to his request for some good reading material.

Analysis

The biblical Book of Leviticus catalogues and explains the many laws and procedures the Hebrews were expected to follow. This chapter of the novel focuses on Jeanette's mounting tensions in response to her church's teachings. However, she is still devoted to all the church activities and especially looks forward to the big recruiting campaigns to attract more believers. What might be behind her excitement at this time is the opportunity to meet others outside the small world she occupies.

Jeanette also obviously admires her mother's work in this area, calling her a good businesswoman and creative thinker when it comes to the things offered to people who give their time and money to the cause. Indeed admiration for her mother's intellect and inventiveness seems to continue to soften her toward easy acceptance of her harsh demands.

However, Jeanette's response to the sermon on perfection—"it was at this moment that I began to develop my first theological disagreement"—and the rather long tale about the prince's search for perfection resulting from that sentiment point to a growing sense of her shift toward independent thought. This change of attitude was first made obvious in the previous chapter by Jeanette's comment "Now I was finding that even the church was sometimes confused." Readers also should notice this shift in Jeanette's occasional sardonic comments about how her mother and her mother's friends respond to those they view as heathens. If the sounds of fornication (a term Jeanette does not yet know the definition of) are so terrible, why do her mother and Mrs. White use wine glasses, which her mother has but sternly says she never uses, pressed against the wall to hear those sounds more clearly? When Mrs. Finch feels her husband, the pastor, is getting too overwrought in his messages, why does she suggest he eat some trifle dessert because "it's got sherry in it," even though all church members are supposed to abhor alcohol? Winterson makes it somewhat easy to giggle at the preposterousness of such an absolute view of life, especially when she makes passing comments such as the understatement in this chapter that Jeanette's mother is going through a somewhat difficult time because "a lot of the missionaries had been eaten, which meant she had to explain to their families."

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