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Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit

April 20, 2010
Winterson, Oranges are not the only fruit, book cover

Book cover: Used by permission of the Random House Group Limited

As I was reading Jeanette Winterson’s novella Oranges are not the only fruit, the question, rightly or wrongly, that was uppermost in my mind was “What is it with the oranges?” Is there something about oranges that I don’t know? Something specific that they symbolise?  I racked (wracked) my brain for something in my literary past that would give me a clue, but I came up with nothing. I guess she wanted to choose a motif to represent her mother’s limiting interactions with her and an orange seemed as good as anything? Certainly oranges are a recurring motif, and her mother regularly insists they are “the only fruit” until the end when a “pineapple” makes its appearance. I’m not sure, however, that this change heralds anything in their relationship other than compounding the paradoxes that seem to underpin this novel.

This is an intriguing book. It is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel which tells the story of the first person protagonist, Jeanette, who was adopted by a religious zealot and is being brought up to be a missionary. However, around the age of 16 she discovers that her (homo)sexual leanings do not meet her mother’s (or her church’s) approval and, well, the plot is slim but perhaps I will leave it here nonetheless…

The novel exhibits some of the hallmarks of postmodernism, of which the most obvious is its metafictional elements, the way it contains stories within stories and plays around with the idea of stories in relation to “truth”. It all begins with Winterson naming the main character after herself and modeling that character’s life on much of her own, resulting in our being, from the start, teased by notions of what is “true” and “real”.

The book is divided into chapters titled appropriately, given Jeanette’s upbringing, by books of the Bible, such as Genesis, Joshua and Ruth. These titles are descriptive but also symbolic and even a little satirical; Jeanette, for example, has walls to confront just like Joshua. And the narrative, while roughly chronological, intermittently leaps from “reality” to “fantasy” as Jeanette tries to escape or make sense of her experience of life. Sometimes these stories – such as the Winnet story near the end – represent a parallel fantasy life for what is happening to her, but other times the reference point is more indirect, and draws on history and myth such as the King Arthur legend (and Sir Perceval’s search for the Holy Grail).

And this brings me to “story” and “history”. Readers of my blog will know that these notions, and the related one of “truth”, fascinate me when they are played out in fiction. I tend to enjoy reading books that deal self-consciously with them, that recognise the challenges and ambiguities inherent in them – and this is one of those books. Jeanette, the character, has some interesting things to say on these topics around the time the “truth” of her life, her sexuality, is becoming clear. She says in the short chapter titled Deuteronomy: The last book of the law:

Of course that is not the whole story , but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained … People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious …

And she goes on to discuss how history, the past, “can undergo change” because “the lens can be tinted, tilted, smashed”. She recognises that “perhaps the event had an unassailable truth” but we all see it through our own lens. Tellingly, near the end of the book, in the chapter titled Ruth, she runs into Melanie, her first lover (now married with a child):

…she [Melanie] laughed and said we probably saw what had happened differently anyhow … She laughed again and said that they way I saw it would make a good story, her version was just the history, the nothing-at-all facts.

Melanie, it seems, does not have the imagination to re-vision her “story”.

So, did I enjoy this book? Yes, pretty much. I like her attempt to make sense of what was a very particular childhood, and to try to draw from it some larger “truths” about how we might all manage the “stories” of our lives. It is not a straightforward read – and it is first novel with, perhaps, a little of the overdone in it. I’m not sure why, for example, she suddenly decides to include a little rant against Pol Pot. It usefully supports a point she is making about the uses of history, but it is odd in a story that is nowhere else political. Perhaps that’s just being post-modern!

In her introduction to my 1991 Vintage edition, Winterson claims to have written an experimental, anti-linear novel. Well, it is a bit of that I suppose, though not dramatically so. I would have called it reasonably linear – at least in the chronological sense – but perhaps the ideas in it do “spiral” (as she calls it) a bit in the way she toys, through the various narratives, with the idea of “story” and what it means to us. What it means, I think, is not always clear – we like stories but we cannot (perhaps need not) always draw conclusions from them. That is the paradox of our lives. As she says near the end

…not all dark places need light. I have to remember that.

Jeanette Winterson
Oranges are not the only fruit
London: Vintage, 1991 (orig. 1985)
171pp.
ISBN: 9780099935704

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. April 20, 2010 6:03 pm

    Perhaps Winterson’s title is a reference to my town? Not. Others wrongly assume that Orange is named for the fruit, but it is apples that grow all around here. Our town’s name owes itself to the currying of favour to William, Prince of Orange.

    As to the symbolism, it’s surely a puzzlement.

    Fascinating review Sue. Must follow up on this one.

    • April 20, 2010 6:16 pm

      LOL Steph, I never knew that – about your town that is. It seems that you, as an English teacher, don’t have much to add to oranges as symbol? I think it’s not really meant to be symbolic – I suppose they are just a nice, round, orange thing, and it’s a nice word to say?

  2. April 20, 2010 6:18 pm

    The title looks so familiar, but I have never seen or read the book. I do think I’d be scratching my head, trying to figure out if there was more to oranges than I knew, but I cannot help you with an answer. Even though you sound like you’re having some mixed feelings about the book, I’ve added it to my wishlist.

    • April 20, 2010 6:30 pm

      You are right – I do have some mixed feelings but I think it is worth giving a go. It’s got enough going for it to make it worth seeing for yourself I think, and I’d happily read another of hers, so that’s a recommendation isn’t it?

  3. April 20, 2010 8:18 pm

    Nothing in my Dictionary of Symbols or Oxford Dictionary Of Allusions!

    I think I read this book a long time ago but I don’t remember it at all.
    Lisa

    • April 20, 2010 8:33 pm

      Thanks for checking those, Lisa … I’m rather glad there’s not something obvious I missed. It’s been around a while so you could very well have read it! I know I started my brother’s copy a long time ago but didn’t finish it, and the only thing I remembered was that it was a mother-daughter story! I do wish I could remember books better!

  4. April 20, 2010 11:56 pm

    This sounds like a good book. I’ve only read her Sexing the Cherry and liked that one quite a bit. You might like it if you haven’t read it already as it talks a lot about what is real and what is not and history and all that. Perhaps this a a recurring theme with Winterson?

    I searched for information on orange symbolism on the internet and found that the orange in Christian symbolism stands for purity, chastity and generosity (http://arthistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/symbols_in_christian_art).
    In dreams the orange is a symbol of physical health and spirtual vitality. And coming originally from the East, there it is associated with fertility and weddings (http://www.answers.com/topic/orange). Do any of these fit with the book?

  5. April 21, 2010 1:25 am

    I always assumed it was rather matter of fact, simply that life contains choices other than those we are given.

    Given it’s semi-autobiographical, perhaps it’s based on life too. Perhaps we’re meant to wonder if it’s based on life.

    It sounds a trifle didactic in places, this quote:

    “Of course that is not the whole story , but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained … People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious …”

    felt a touch unsubtle.

    How did you feel about the use of language? I’ve not read any Winterson, but I understand she has a passionate interest in English as a language, in the use of words. Did any of that come over?

    Lately she’s taken to writing bad science fiction and denying that it’s sf. For my money, by the time you have your characters colonising an alien world with the help of robots, you can call it what you like but I’ll call it science fiction. My impression is her earlier work is her better, but it’s an uninformed impression.

  6. April 21, 2010 9:08 am

    Stefanie (no idea why wordpress moderated you when you have commented here before – it seems to do that sometimes. Maybe you came in from a different email). Anyhow, thanks for those ideas. I think those ideas could explain why she chose an orange for her motif (or metaphor). I don’t think she is focusing on the symbolic meaning in the book, but I felt there had to be a reason for choosing one thing over another. The Christian symbolism could have an ironic edge as her mother wouldn’t think Jeanette was “pure” by the end; the Eastern one has some validity in that the book is about “spirituality” in a way although mostly in its “religious” meaning than in the wider meaning you would usually associate with Eastern thinking.

    Max, yes it is a bit unsubtle though it didn’t come across as didactic but more as the character thinking through her experiences. The sudden Pol Pot analogy though did seem a bit out of context so more of an authorial rant. Re the language. Usually when the language or expression grabs me, I say so, so you may conclude from this that it didn’t particularly zing with me. There was the odd bit of word play etc but… For me, the strength of the book was in its characters and the coming of age exploration in a very particular situation. People say The passion is good, and also Stefanie (above and others) have like Sexing the cherry. All older books! I thought Lighhousekeeping got good reviews, but must admit I haven’t checked.

    • Rhianna permalink
      November 29, 2011 10:52 pm

      I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this comment streama and have found it useful in better understanding the book! Thank you.

      However, I would like to contradict your point that the christian symbol has an ironic edge – it is only ironic if you assume that Jeanette herself is the “orange”. Instead, I suggest that while Jeanette’s church, home and life are full of pure, chaste “oranges”, she means exactly what she says in that “oranges are not the only fruit” – Jeanette does not conform to the norm, so must therefore be a different type of fruit. Through the book, she discovers that she is not the only (for argument’s sake) apple in the world. By the end of the book, the mother figure is forced to also aknowledge the title as truth, although she does this with a certain reluctance. I also find it fascinating that the mother’s ignorance remains but is transferred to racism rather than homophobia (hence the pinapple anecdote).
      I hope that you find this an interesting alternative interpretation, thank you again for helping me to develop my understanding of the text :)
      A student

      • November 29, 2011 11:05 pm

        Oh thanks Rhianna for engaging and adding your ideas … you make good sense. I didn’t really think “oranges” were being used in that sort of symbolic way anyhow … but was exploring possible meanings if they were. I think your interpretation is a more likely one.

        • rhianna permalink
          November 30, 2011 1:06 am

          Thank you! I was very confused by the recurring image of a brown stone – first handed to her by the orange demon but it’s referred to a few times in different situations… do you have any idea what that might represent?

  7. April 22, 2010 7:03 am

    I came. I saw. I poked around.

    I took the ‘orange’ reference to be directed towards conformity and sexuality–there’s not just one way to do things.

    I saw the British television version of the novel, and I have to say that this is one of those rare instances when I thought the film was better than the book. I liked the book, but there were parts of it that caused my mind to wander a bit (the fables). It’s been a few years since I read it, but it wasn’t my favourite Winterson.

  8. April 22, 2010 8:07 am

    Welcome Guy, glad you did. Thanks for your reading of “the orange. I’ve really appreciated people’s contributions to this. Your reading makes good sense … do you think the mother’s introduction of the “pineapple” at the end suggests that she has moved a little on this subject?

    Re film being better than the book, I’ve been thinking of writing a little post on films and books. One of the films I think was better than the book was Miss Smilla’s feeling for snow (Smilla’s sense of snow). And one I though wasn’t better but did excellent justice to the book is Atonement. Anyhow, I wish I’d seen this one. Re the fables, I wandered a bit more with the first couple but as I got into the book I became more engaged.

    Anyhow, to cut this long response short, your last point begs the question of course: what is your favourite Winterson?

  9. April 22, 2010 9:19 am

    I haven’t read that many to be honest–Written on the Body.

    I hadn’t thought of the pineapple that way, but it’s possible.

  10. April 23, 2010 8:47 pm

    This book was dramatised very successfully by BBC Television back in 1990 and was thought to be very ground-breaking at the time. Since then the BBC have also dramatised books by Sarah Walters to perhaps Winterson started a new genre of “acceptable” gay literature.

    I think this novel is of particular interest to people who had a stultifying religious background and managed to break free of it to one degree or another. Glad you enjoyed it anyway.

    • April 23, 2010 9:23 pm

      Yes, I think perhaps it is more a work of its time than some. I enjoyed it well enough though wasn’t totally enraptured. I mainly liked it because it was interesting to ponder/unravel what she was trying to do. I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I’d read it when it came out?

  11. April 24, 2010 12:02 am

    The TV adaptation is excellent, I hadn’t realised it was groundbreaking (though I can see that now it’s pointed out) but it was very good. Well worth trying to catch sometime.

    • April 24, 2010 10:28 am

      Thanks for that encouragement. having now read the book I would rather like to see it so will look out for it (perhaps see if a DVD is available).

  12. rajendran permalink
    May 3, 2010 9:16 pm

    I haven’t read the book
    Heard about it today only through a crossword clue
    Happened to land into your nice and interesting blog.

    Can’t the allusion be to Apple – the forbidden

    • May 3, 2010 9:48 pm

      Thanks rajendran for popping by – and commenting. How fun that she was in a crossword clue! An apple would be the more logical one – temptation, forbidden – and maybe that idea was hidden behind her choice of a different fruit.

  13. Deb Floyd permalink
    July 7, 2010 12:34 pm

    As an avid JW reader and fan, I found Oranges to be a very satisfying read – but I also agree that the movie brought the novel to life in a way I could not have imagined. I live in the US and have been searching for a DVD of this movie (I taped it on VHS from the BBS premiere) that is playable in Region 1. So far no luck, and with my VHS player broken I fear I will never have the joy of this movie in my life. If anyone has knowledge of a DVD please respond!

    • July 7, 2010 6:48 pm

      Welcome to my blog Deb. I haven’t seen the movie. Would love to though. I hope someone in the US can help you with your query. I assume you have searched all the usual sites.

  14. Ollie Rolls permalink
    December 13, 2010 12:24 am

    The oranges represent a way of thinking. Oranges are the only fruit mentioned for a very long time, until Melanie appears, so named because her ‘head looked like a melon’ when she was born. God, strict heterosexuality, her mother’s dominion, are all represented by Oranges, and oranges are all Jeanette knows, until it dawns on her that oranges are not the only fruit, that heterosexuality is not the only form of sexuality, and her mother’s word is not law.

    Jeanette’s mother also comes to this realisation by the end of the novel. She accepts Jeanette back into her house, and soon after pineapples are brought into the mix. She has learnt to accept Jeanette’s lesbianism.

    Why oranges? Not really sure; homosexuals are sometimes referred to as ‘fruits’ but that’s about as far as I’ve got.

    • December 13, 2010 10:38 am

      Welcome Ollie, and thanks for adding to our discussion. I love the way you’ve expanded on the discussion here. The particular choice of “orange” is still a little up in the air but I like how everyone’s teased out the ideas packed behind their not being “the only fruit”.

  15. thaitonight permalink
    November 28, 2011 3:43 am

    hi! I just finished reading this book I’m actually writing coursework about it
    I thought oranges could represent men/sexuality in some sense, in that for females being heterosexual is the only way forward. But also represent everything else ie. the church, becoming a missionary, living life by the laws of the bible. ‘oranges aren’t the only fruit’ meaning this isn’t the only way to live a good life. Also because her mum always gives her oranges to avoid the truth/answering questions. Oranges seem to be a defence mechanism she uses to block out all things she doesn’t agree with or cannot explain so at the end introducing the pineapple shows Jeanette’s mother accepting Christianity is not the only way and accepting Jeanette for who she is.

    • November 28, 2011 9:47 am

      Welcome, thaitonight, and thanks for your contribution. You make a lot of sense … I almost feel like reading the book again! But, perhaps I should aim for another Winterson.

      • November 28, 2011 9:54 am

        Yes you should read her new book ‘its better to be normal than to be happy’. A bit like oranges in that its another autobiographical novel. I’m going to read it next

        • November 28, 2011 11:48 am

          Thanks Thai … that sounds a likely one. Will keep an eye out for it or perhaps recommend it for my reading group.

        • Edward permalink
          January 9, 2013 11:31 pm

          It’s actually “Why be happy when you could be normal?”

        • January 10, 2013 11:09 pm

          Thanks Edward …

  16. November 30, 2011 10:56 pm

    Oh Rhianna … I’m really sorry but I can’t comment on that. It’s so long since I read the book that I’d have to go back and look at it, and find those references, to refresh my mind and I’m not able to do that right now. I don’t recollect the brown stone at all – sorry.

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