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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Plot Summary

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Early Childhood

As the book opens, readers learn that Jeanette was adopted as a baby and thus considers her adoptive parents her mother and father. She grows up in a small town in industrial northern England in the 1960s. Her mother, a fundamentalist religious zealot, spends most of her time working for her church and listening to religious programs on an old-fashioned radio. As her church's Missionary Secretary, she is especially interested in the work of missionaries. Her conversations revolve around Bible stories and details of religious conversions, including her own. She keeps odd hours, usually not going to bed until 4:00 in the morning. Jeanette's father gets up at 5:00 in the morning to go to his factory job. Jeanette shares the bedroom with them. Jeanette's mother is the dominant member of the household, setting the rules for her husband and daughter. Jeanette's father is easygoing and, in her mother's eyes, "never quite good enough." Jeanette's mother spends years working to build a bathroom at the back of the house—they have only an outhouse—and fitting a partition in place so Jeanette can have a little privacy in a "half room."

Jeanette's early years center around religious practices. Her mother educates her not at school but at home by teaching her to read and memorize the Bible. Jeanette describes a typical Sunday as "the most vigorous day of the whole week." Her mother rises very early on Sunday to pray and meditate by herself until 10:00, when Jeanette has her tea ready and prepares herself for the inevitable Bible quiz her mother gives her. Then they listen to the missionary report on the radio. Jeanette takes notes for her mother to use in her report that night at church. Depending on how well things are going for the missionaries, the family either has a good or a bad meal before Jeanette and her mother take the dog for a long walk through town while her father cleans and polishes all the shoes. Jeanette and her mother always climb a steep hill and sit at the top, looking over the town as Jeanette's mother thanks God they made it safely and sermonizes about human folly and God's wrath.

Jeanette shares details about specific events she remembers during these years, including statements her mother makes, such as "You can change the world" (her mother is raising her to be a missionary), and encounters she and her mother have with preachers, fellow believers, and people around town her mother disapproves of. The narrative is regularly interrupted by a fairy tale or other type of traditional story.

At one point Jeanette goes deaf for three months as a result of adenoid problems, but her mother decides Jeanette is undergoing religious rapture and does nothing to address the situation. Finally a church member takes Jeanette to the hospital, but Jeanette's mother is busy with church work and rarely visits while her daughter endures diagnostics and then surgery.

This phase of Jeanette's life ends when her mother receives a letter ordering her to send Jeanette, about age eight, to school.

School Years

Jeanette's eccentric upbringing makes her ill suited for school. She simply doesn't fit in. Although extremely smart and gifted at reading and writing, all Jeanette has learned about up to now are religious beliefs. She desperately wants to do well, but her bizarre projects—including art, writing, and stitchery—shock her teachers and provoke the other students into taunting her.

When parents complain about Jeanette scaring their children with her stories about hell and damnation, the school officials try to intervene. But Jeanette's mother only praises her for doing the right thing. She and her religious friends try to comfort Jeanette by telling her she is in the right and everyone else is "not holy." They say she will get used to being apart from the rest of the world—a required proof of one's faith. So Jeanette, isolated, endures school and comforts herself by thinking about her church and celebrating her successes there, where she preaches, teaches, and helps with all sorts of projects.

Sexual Awareness

Jeanette's mother and her church friends make frequent but veiled references to people's sexual preferences and behaviors. On the first page of the novel, Winterson lists enemies identified by Jeanette's mother; on that list is "sex in its many forms." Two women who own a paper shop in town and share a home are said to have "Unnatural Passions," whereas Jeanette's neighbors, known and despised as "Next Door," upset her mother by noisily "fornicating" and regularly having babies. Jeanette is confused as a child when women refer to their husbands as "pigs," and traditional tales show women marrying "beasts." Yet being married seems the only acceptable way to be with "the right man" and the only way to have babies. She feels embarrassed whenever she is around "necking" couples since she has been taught sex is sinful. She tries to talk to her mother about her fears of men and marriage, but her mother dismisses her, claiming she doesn't need to worry since she has been dedicated to the Lord's service. So Jeanette eavesdrops and comes to her own understanding that women sometimes might choose to be with other women instead of with men.

At around 16, Jeanette finally understands what falling in love means when she meets Melanie, a young woman her age. She takes Melanie to church with her as they become friends. Everyone feels joyful when Melanie confesses her sins and converts, her conversion providing Jeanette the opportunity to visit her regularly as a religious counselor. Jeanette is smitten with Melanie, so it is situationally ironic when her mother thinks she is interested in a boy from the church and cautions her not to let anyone touch her "Down There." It's as close to a talk about sex as Jeanette gets from her mother. And that very night Jeanette's relationship with Melanie turns physical. They wonder if they are having "Unnatural Passions" but decide it cannot be so because it feels right, and much of what they do together is, in their eyes, for the church.

Lesbianism Discovered

Mostly because of Jeanette's innocence—her pure love for Melanie and her openness when telling her mother about her feelings for Melanie—her mother soon identifies the girls' relationship as lesbian. At church the pastor identifies the girls as having "fallen under Satan's spell." In this public forum the girls are asked to repent and deny their love for each other. Melanie quickly breaks under pressure, but Jeanette refuses to accept that she cannot love both Melanie and God. Melanie is taken to another room to be prayed over and helped, but Jeanette is told to go home. Outside the church another neighbor, Miss Jewsbury is waiting for Jeanette. She takes Jeanette to her home to talk to her and reveals that both she and Elsie are lesbians and had hoped to protect Jeanette from what is now happening to her. By evening Miss Jewsbury makes love to her, which Jeanette "hated and hated" but would not stop.

Two days later Jeanette falsely confesses and repents because she has been locked in a room without food and wants the punishment to end. She learns where Melanie has gone and immediately goes to see her, with the help of Miss Jewsbury. She spends the night with Melanie but then becomes ill and is not well enough to see her again until the summer. But by then Melanie has left the area to attend university.

Continuing in the Religious Community

With Melanie gone and the church satisfied with Jeanette's apparent repentance, Jeanette returns to religious service. She preaches and teaches regularly, and her mother is satisfied. But Jeanette soon finds another lover: Katy, a new convert. When Melanie visits the church around Christmas and tries to get Jeanette back, Jeanette will have no part of it. A few months later Melanie returns again, this time to announce she is marrying an army man.

Before long Jeanette's relationship with Katy is discovered. Her mother forces Jeanette to move out of the house and live on her own. Jeanette announces she is leaving the church. To protect Katy from an exorcism, Jeanette claims her affair with Melanie never ended, and Katy has been trying to help her stay in touch with her.

Life on Her Own

Jeanette finds a place to live and works two jobs: helping out at a funeral parlor and driving an ice cream truck. She does not see her parents or people from the church. But one day her old worlds do intersect when Elsie Norris dies. Driving the ice cream truck in the neighborhood Jeanette sees activity at Elsie's house. The church members who are there are rude to Jeanette when she continues selling ice cream. Then Elsie is brought to the funeral parlor where Jeanette works. Although Jeanette tries to tell the funeral parlor owners her involvement with the funeral will be problematic, they need her to help. Her participation is as awkward as Jeanette predicted, but in her way she feels honored to do her best on Elsie's behalf.

Jeanette soon finishes school and takes a job at a mental hospital in a large city. After several years Jeanette decides to visit her parents at Christmas. She finds things at home have both changed and remained the same. Her mother is still a religious fanatic, but the society she belonged to for so long has been disbanded—for corruption. Having modernized her life with an electric organ and a CB radio, she is willing to put up with Jeanette, who does not attend church while there. When the visit is over, with her mother acting and speaking as eccentrically as before, the novel ends, with no strong reconciliation between them. There is, however, the sense that Jeanette has found herself, both in how she describes the visit and through the previous resolution of the tales she has been interweaving throughout the narrative.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Jeanette's early years are tightly controlled by her mother.

Rising Action

2 After years of home schooling, Jeanette must attend school.

3 Classmates and teachers are put off by Jeanette's zealotry.

4 Jeanette begins to question male-female relationships.

5 Jeanette realizes she loves Melanie, a teen her age.

6 Their affair is discovered and severely punished by church.


7 Jeanette's affair with Katy forces her from church and home.

Falling Action

8 Jeanette makes it on her own and moves to the city.


9 Years later Jeanette visits home at peace with herself.

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