Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Study Guide

Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit | Themes


Journey to Selfhood

As a coming-of-age novel at its core, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit prominently features the theme of reaching selfhood as a journey of mythical proportions. At the end of the novel, Jeanette is still trying to become completely comfortable with herself—with the person she is, which is so different from the person the church and her mother say she should be.

To reach the point where Jeanette is as a young adult has been a difficult journey. Along the way she has had to shuck her past, question her beliefs, and endure betrayal and loneliness. Winterson makes her difficult journey to selfhood even more evident by weaving myths throughout the novel that parallel, inform, and help explain Jeanette's life. These include tales of legendary searches for meaning such as Sir Perceval's quest for the Holy Grail, stories that are literally of biblical proportion—present in the very naming of the novel's chapters—and known and invented fairy tales of women in distress who survive through their goodness or grit.

The strong feeling through it all is that Jeanette will make it to a better life. Like her alter-ego Winnet, she will "set her mind to making it happen." Jeanette is strong enough, smart enough, thoughtful enough, and moral enough to make the best choices and finally find a way to fulfill the needs that are still being unmet as this part of her life story ends.

Black-and-White Perception of the World

The drawbacks or dangers of a black-and-white view of the world appear repeatedly. As early as the novel's first page, readers learn Jeanette's mother "has never heard of mixed feelings." Indeed her "Enemies and Friends" list leaves no room for interpretation. There exist only right and wrong, good and evil, truth and lies. In the vernacular, it's "her way or the highway." It takes most of Jeanette's childhood for her to realize this is an inaccurate worldview that lacks real vision. As she begins venturing beyond her mother's tightly controlled universe, Jeanette is able to see shades of grey in most of what she observes. Elsie Norris is helpful to her in this way. When Jeanette first spends time with Elsie, when she is hospitalized for adenoid trouble that leads to temporary deafness and for the weeks following her surgery, Jeanette is exposed to art and poetry, numerology, and other new ideas she understands despite her sheltered and rigid upbringing. She learns there are different ways to interpret reality, not just a binary approach, for Elsie is accepted as a church member despite her eccentricities and tendencies toward embracing the very forbidden.

The error of a black-and-white perception of the world is especially powerful and poignant for Jeanette when she is told she must choose to love God or love Melanie. The church tells her she cannot do both, and Jeanette cannot understand why one love precludes the other when she does love both and feels happier than ever before.

Importance of Stories

That the practice of storytelling is vital to the survival of individuals and even to culture as a whole is a clear theme in the novel. The very act of telling her own story helps Jeanette understand it better. Yet Winterson believes no story is ever completely true or accurate, because "we make them what we will." Winterson explains that "people like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact" and thus will believe what is considered history even though it too may be quite fanciful. But history is, in fact, storytelling. Human perspective and interpretation are necessarily involved and thus explain why she will never agree that the novel is purely autobiographical.

The key point in the novel occurs when the importance of stories—and the correct interpretation of them—is revealed in "Deuteronomy." Much shorter than the others, this chapter is at the heart of the book. Careful and repeated readings of the chapter can help readers fully understand Winterson's ideas about stories and pick up on the theme through the artistry she employs in structuring the novel in different voices and levels. By interweaving stories of all types, Winterson helps readers recognize how vital they are in interpreting the world.

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