09 March 2017

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Trade paperback, 192 pages
Published 1997 (originally 1985)

Acquired January 2007
Previously read February 2007

Reread September 2014
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

Look, why oranges anyway? When one of my students asked that in class, we came up with a tremendous list of resonances and symbolisms that the oranges have in this novel-- the cover of my edition, at least, makes a sort of "forbidden fruit" interpretation obvious. One of the meanings of the oranges comes from fairy tale narratives embedded in the text of the novel, like the tale of Sir Perceval or the tale of Winnet. These are the stories that young Jeanette needed to hear but never did, the kind of stories that could have helped her operate in the world, but she never received; she only had one source of stories, her mother's (often warped) Bible tales. She had a steady diet of oranges, so to speak.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with embedded narratives like the fairy tales. This novel, as Mikhail Bakhtin would say all novels are, is heteroglossic, different-tongued. Bakhtin reminds us that you can't separate the form from the content; the fairy tales aren't a sideshow or a diversion, they're part of the meaning of the text as much as the plot is. Everything in a novel refracts the intentions of the author. So why the fairy tales? We should remember that, as Jeanette/Winterson tells us, stories are "a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained" (93). Every story explains something and fails to explain something else; we all forget the aspects of the past that make us uncomfortable. So what can we do about this? As we're told (95), the world is a sandwich made up of other peoples stories, so you need to add your own mustard! Or, go even further, and make your own sandwiches.

Jeanette's mother never gets it. She only has one story. She reflects near the end of the novel, "After all… oranges are not the only fruit" (172), but this is in the context of her feeding a group of houseguests only pineapple! She's just substituted one universal story for another. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit argues that the world is heteroglossic, that everyone needs a different story, and the worst thing that you can do is fail to recognize that. Jeanette grows up and loses the simplicity of her old world, the one where oranges were the only fruit, but she gains a new world with new stories-- and yet the old stories remain there too. She can go back and see her mother, and Jeanette is different but the same, and her mother is different but the same.

We're always finding new stories and discarding old ones when they don’t work. Jeanette’s mother’s stories work for her, but Jeanette needs a different set of stories, and yet the old stories remain inside her. Our sandwiches need mustard. We need oranges and pineapples and many other fruits. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is filled with different stories because we all need to be filled with different stories if we're going to survive.

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