Jeanette Winterson explores the complex themes of identity, maturation, and one’s place in their society through a rough account of her own earlier life. We see her character develop as she ages and how her own individual self is subject to the forces and powers that loom over her, such as her religion with her mother being the vanguard of that particular faction.
However, one can argue that the book is more a delve into the mechanisms of her own mind, the manifestations of her identity and her desires that play about in her head, the strange pulls and pushes which lead her down her path, the feelings alien to her at first that quickly grow intensely familiar.
One can see this with the element of sexuality. Jeanette is a lesbian and her feelings for other girls is shown to expose her to greatly harrowing events, such as the nonsensical exorcisms that are exacted upon her by those superior to her in her religion. These feelings, just like the feelings many others experience whether homosexual or not, are at first depicted as being unfamiliar, alien sensations that Jeanette cannot identity but is confident in knowing they are the truth.
However, we quickly see how Winterson conveys the different attitudes towards this revelation about one’s self. Some may look upon it as being evil and thus requiring banishment, fearful of the unknown and prejudiced against anything that isn’t the norm. Some choose to remain ambivalent, they open themselves up to their inner desires, frolic in the liberty, but quickly retreat to servitude under the norm because it doesn’t wash with the majority.
We can see this in Melanie who, because of her fear to break the role her society gave her, disallows herself the freedom to be who she truly is. We then see the rebellious but ultimately progressive character in Jeanette who fights back against these forces and tries to work out who she is. Though she experiences her own dips, the curves and missteps on her life path, we see that what we thought were mistakes, dips and missteps, were actually evolutionary points in the progress that led to her identity.
This concept of a coming of age in this particular way, that in which an individual overcomes the odds, battles the legions that harry them, and truly finds themselves, is applicable to almost everyone and need not find itself constrained to sexuality alone. It is true that this is Jeanette’s reality but the moulds still match no matter the individual.
Some make it their mission to discover themselves, to say no to what society prescribes them, to deny the roles they are shoved into. Others are tentative, too afraid to be who they are though they are aware of their differences. They seek the security of their roles, the comfort it brings them in being ‘normal’, unaffected by the scrutiny they might face otherwise.
Others revel in following the flock, eager to fix what they think is wrong, criticise what they find is bad, exorcise the demons they cook up in their own minds. They are ruled by fear. In this one way of viewing the novel from a summary glance, one can clearly see how Winterson has carved out a finely crafted and exhaustive narrative on finding and having confidence with one’s self, to make what we at first see as unfamiliar familiar.
To take those parts of us that do not fit with the stifling role we have been given and have pride in them, the be aware and confident in what we have that isn’t ‘normal’, whatever normal actually means.
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts.
At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.