Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) contains elements common to both modernism and post-modernism. To illustrate, the author experiments with technique, employing tactics that result in a unique work. In Winterson’s piece, we find a novel whose plot is pluralistic replete with different storylines, appearing side by side and written in different genres: Fiction and non-fiction prose as well as poetry/prose-poetry. The author weaves in other elements also such as ambiguity where different interpretations create a web of possibilities; the intricately webbed plot leaves the readers with no clear resolution but rather an ironic conclusion.
One of the most interesting techniques that Winterson employs in her work is the weaving of two stories: One appears to be her non-fiction biography while the other appears to be a series of fairy tales, which increase in appearance as the plot thickens. As the action rises, it appears the fairy tale is attempting to esoterically explain or enhance the meaning of the conflict in the non-fiction biography as both plots involve a main character experiencing a similar problem. The first place where the reader gets a glimpse of this modernist/post-modernist strategy is on page 9, in a chapter aptly named “Genesis,” where Jeanette, the author and Jeanette the character end the scene with the following question: “…but what do these things mean?” (Winterson, 1985). The fairy tale that ensues immediately after the scene in which the question appears offers the possibility that meeting a certain “magical” person will offer answers that will allow all an education into “such things” that appear unanswerable as well as to become an educator of such esoteric knowledge to those she finds in the same predicament as the one she once found herself.
In addition to weaving in fairy tales, Winterson carefully sprinkles outbursts of “stream of consciousness” poetry and prose poetry juxtaposed brilliantly after each scene that ends ambiguously as though trying to explain and enhance further through the mysterious words of poetry; words revealing there is more beneath the surface not visible to the eye. An example of one of these scenes appears on page 89 in the Numbers chapter. The scene in the top half of the page ends as follows:
Melanie and I had volunteered to set up the Harvest Festival Banquet, and we worked hard in the church throughout the day. When everyone arrived and started to pass the potato pie, we Stood on the balcony, looking down on them. Our family. It was safe. (Winterson, 1985)
One view may be that the religious girls felt safe and cozy as pie; however, keeping in mind that pieces of the era at times have ambiguous endings and nothing is what seems, a second view is that something else is going on: Perhaps a hint at the lesbian motif that runs through the piece giving it an ironic twist since Jeanette is supposed to be the “chosen” and “pure” child of God, yet she commits the sin of loving the same sex, prohibited by her religion.
The “stream of consciousness prose/poem” follows, stating and confirming either the secure position of both girls within their home or “outside” of it looking in as the “other”:
Here is a table set at feast, and the guests are arguing about the best recipe for goose…It has always been this way, nothing can intrude./Father and Son. Father and Son./It has always been this way. Outside, the rebels storm the Winter Palace. (p. 89)
Are these words to be taken literally? Or is there more than meets the eye? Are the guests Jeanette’s and Melanie’s family? Are they the rebels outside? Is the storm a metaphor for their lesbian relationship? This is a masterpiece of a work that incorporates the different layers of interpretation because of the author’s use of ambiguous methods, often resulting in paradoxical situations.
Winterson (1985) uses a similar technique on page 122 in the Joshua chapter at the bottom of the page where the female protagonist states that her friend Katy offers a sleep over. The next scene is composed of poetic prose about “a secret garden cunningly walled” (p. 123). A secret entrance exists. The main character writes about eating forbidden fruit and “other longings” (p. 123). Could there be a connection between the ending of the previous storyline and this esoteric scene? Is it possible Winterson hints at lesbian relationships? The non-linear and fuzzy plot rises in action by what appears to be a conflict related to homosexuality and its forbidding practice due to the “sex sin” as tradition dictates within her religious upbringing. The climax finds Jeanette banished from the household because she refuses to stop loving women, an ironic twist in that both the real Jeanette and the character Jeanette were raised and trained to preach the holy word that denounces such practices.
Another way to look at Winterson’s (1985) work is through the Feminist lens, which focuses on the behaviors of the females and males within a male dominated society. One such part of the book, revealing such relationships is found on page 133, “The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teachings of St Paul, and allowing women power in the church…” (p. 133). However, when viewing the piece specifically through Elaine Showalter’s approach–gynocriticism, which presents three phases or stages: Feminine, Feminist, and Female (Barton & Hudson, 2011, p. 83), the reader realizes that Winterson’s piece reflects the Female or third stage. In the Feminine stage, the female is imitating and internalizing the views of the dominant tradition; in the Feminist stage the female rebels against the dominant tradition; during the Feminine stage the female “sees with fresh eyes” (p. 83). Winterson’s main character clearly illustrates a stage of self-discovery and the ability to see the world without the coloring of the male’s tradition but through one whom only the feminine eyes can see.
The lesbian theme is one that reflects this phase of discovering to love the same sex as opposed to the traditional view found in the male-dominated society, particularly those views within her religious upbringing, and “reflects three levels of awakening–physical, mental and spiritual–which are nevertheless, interrelated” (p. 85). Physically, Melanie makes love to the women she loves, awakening the physical need for a woman’s physical touch although frowned upon by her immediate society/culture. Mentally, Melanie awakens to the fact that she is independent and powerful. She states, “If you want to talk in terms of power I had enough to keep Mussolini happy” (Winterson, 1985, p. 124). Spiritually she awakens to the fact that “if there was such a thing as spiritual adultery, her mother was a whore” ( p. 134). And as she had always known, that “to the pure all things are pure…” (p. 123), including loving other woman.
Finally, Winterson’s (1985) narrative illustrates elements of New-Historicism. Through the New Historicist’s lens, the reader sees how the work of an author is tied to the society in which he or she has assimilated into and how that author is also “bound by social codes and conventions, while they prove, in other ways, to subvert or undercut the dominant beliefs of their societies” (Barton & Hudson, 2011, p. 359). As a result, the piece will reflect the authors “behaviors and thoughts” (p. 135). Winterson’s piece is clearly her biography mixed with fiction as was previously illustrated. Her main storyline indicates that the author is bound and shaped by her society’s codes and beliefs; both author and character are able to “subvert and undercut” these codes and beliefs through extensive participation within its context while at the same time rejecting it by practicing otherwise and making fictions to conceal such practices. Once again, one motif that supports this is the lesbian one that runs through the piece as both author and main character prove that although they were born bound by certain values and beliefs, each reflects what interests and what New Historians look for in the literature: The ability “to express, reflect and interconnect matters of history, biography and religious belief” (Barton & Hudson, 2011, p. 137). In short, the context of the novel within Winterson’s piece cannot be analyzed in isolation of the time period and other social factors for a true account, specifically when viewing it through the New Historicists Lens (Barton & Hudson, 2011).
Winterson’s novel, “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” is representative of how post-modernists continued using the experimentation of techniques as did the modernists when writing narratives. In addition, by using both the Feminist and New Historicists Lens when reading it, readers experience an authentic richness and depth to the novel because of the many possible interpretations that yield more meaning and purpose.
Barton, E.J. & Hudson, G.A. (2011). A contemporary guide to literary terms. (3rd ed.). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Winterson, .J. (1985). Oranges are not only fruit. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.