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A woman climbs into the pulpit and begins to preach. Her words are persuasive and moving, and many believe that she speaks from the Spirit. She is a woman of faith who longs to fulfill her mother’s desire for her to become a missionary. She is smart and she is pious. And according to her congregation, she is an abomination.
This gifted preacher is Jeanette, the protagonist in Jeanette Winterson’s “quirky, unconventional, and often comic” novel “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” (Merriam-Webster 1207). As was Winterson herself, the book’s protagonist is raised in a climate of religious fanaticism. Her family’s DEEDS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT tablecloth is only one indication of its unswerving devotion to biblical fundamentalism. But just as the word “Bible” means not “a book,” but “a collection of books,” so “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” is not a story but a collection of stories. Ranging from the wry to the fanciful, these related anecdotes tell the tale not only of Jeanette’s life, but also a tale about storytelling itself. Through the postmodern use of story frames, Winterson both constructs and deconstructs her own narrative, and in doing so, she builds Jeanette an escape hatch from the snares of religious zealotry.
“Oranges” is a book brimming with religious symbolism. Most obviously, the chapters are built on a biblical armature, each named for a book of the Bible. In the first chapter, Genesis, Jeanette tells of her Messiah-style birth: Her mother, not wanting to conceive a child in the typical fashion, “followed a star until it came to settle above an orphanage, and in that place was a crib, and in that crib, a child. A child with too much hair” (Winterson 10). But there the symbolism only begins. Jeanette says that her mother “took the child away for seven days and seven nights” (Winterson 10). The phrase echoes a biblical passage—“So they sat down with [Job] upon the ground for seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:13)—and includes the symbolic number seven, the number of “completion and perfection” (Ferguson 154). The mystical nature of the number is of ancient origin (Sahibzada) and also occurs elsewhere in the novel, as when Pastor Finch ask the young Jeanette how old she is and she replies, “Seven” (Winterson 11). “Ah, seven,” he says. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven-branched candlestick, the seven seals” (Winterson 11). But also how cursed, he thunders, because “the demon can return SEVENFOLD” (Winterson 12). And indeed it does return sevenfold, according to the pastor, when Jeanette is revealed for the second time to be a lesbian (Winterson 131). At the same moment, “seven ripe oranges” appear on the windowsill (Winterson 131). Seven is also, incidentally, the number of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of the deadly sins, and of the cardinal virtues.
Some of the novel’s biblical allusions are more direct, like the amusing reference to Elsie’s three mice in a fiery cage as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Winterson 31)—three figures from the book of Daniel—and the same reference to name to the sorcerer’s three ravens (Winterson 145). But some of the book’s biblical allusions are more subtle: “And so, being sensible, the collector of curios will surround himself with dead things, and think about the past when it lived and moved and had being” (Winterson 95). The reference is to Acts: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
This weaving of religious words and symbols into her novel is no doubt a byproduct of Winterson’s evangelical upbringing. Her parents belonged to the Pentecostal denomination, one that believes that the Bible is literally true in all things—that it is “inerrant” (United Pentecostal Church International). In declaring the Bible inerrant, the church makes it a substitute for God—a form of idolatry called “bibliolatry” (Gomes 36). As John Shelby Spong says in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, this is a comforting belief: “Those whose religious security is rooted in a literal Bible do not want that security disturbed. They are not happy when facts challenge their biblical understanding or when nuances in the text are introduced or when they are forced to deal with either contradictions or changing insights. The Bible, as they understand it, shares in the permanence and certainty of God, convinces them that they are right, and justifies the enormous fear and even negativity that lie so close to the surface in fundamentalistic religion. For biblical literalists, there is always an enemy to be defeated in mortal combat” (Spong 3).
When Jeanette’s lesbian love affair with Melanie comes to light at church, Jeanette becomes an adversary in this mortal combat. Even as recently as 1977, the Pentecostal Church declared that it disapproved of “liberal groups within Christianity who are accepting ‘the so-called gay-rights movement as a legitimate lifestyle” and condemned homosexuality as “vile, unnatural, unseemly and an abomination in the sight of God” (ReligiousTolerance.org). The denomination’s words here are taken from Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Romans 1:26-27). Peter Gomes, the chaplain at Harvard College, explains views like this one in terms of fear. Fear is “at the heart of homophobia, as it was at the heart of racism,” and religion is “a moral fig leaf that [covers] naked prejudice” (Gomes 166). Gomes adds that “no credible case against homosexuality or homosexuals can be made from the Bible unless one chooses to read scripture in a way that simply sustains the existing prejudice against homosexuality and homosexuals. The combination of ignorance and prejudice under the guise of morality makes the religious community, and its abuse of scripture in this regard, itself morally culpable” (Gomes 147).
Jeanette’s congregation responds to news of her ongoing homosexuality by rethinking her role in the church overall and prohibiting her from having “influential contact” with the other parishioners (Winterson 134). Here again, they use the Bible to support an existing prejudice: “The real problem, it seemed, was going against the teaching of St. Paul, and allowing women power in the church” (Winterson 133). The Bible does say, after all, that “it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:35). Jeanette’s mother is no doubt thinking of this verse and others like it when she stands up in church and says that “the message belonged to the men” (Winterson 133). It would seem to be an occasion of moral clarity, one that would appeal to Jeanette’s mother, who “had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies” (Winterson 3). And Jeanette had become the enemy.
Convinced that it is possible to love another woman and God at the same time, Jeanette ultimately responds by leaving the congregation and setting out on her own. But Jeanette the character is also Jeanette the author: Winterson’s book is largely autobiographical. The author Jeanette writes a book that questions the very act of storytelling. Its postmodern conceit includes frames not only from her own life but also from the Arthurian legend and other apocryphal tales. By including these fanciful elements in her narrative, Winterson deconstructs the storytelling process and shows the hazard of believing in the inerrancy of any book. Her approach is not unlike that of Toni Morrison’s in The Bluest Eye. Morrison deconstructs the traditional “Dick and Jane” children’s story to show that it simply doesn’t apply to African-Americans (Morrison).
But Winterson’s deconstruction effort extends to the Bible itself. As Spong says, “We need to be reminded that even in this modern world with its technological genius, there is still no such thing as ‘objective’ history” (Spong 37). By writing a postmodern book on a biblical armature, Winterson seems to say that the Bible itself is open to interpretation. Like her life story, the Bible is a narrative that should not be taken too literally.
In doing so, Winterson exposes the gray areas of which her mother seems to be so fearful. “A major function of fundamentalist religion is to bolster deeply insecure and fearful people,” Spong says (Spong 5). But despite her ongoing religious fervor, Jeanette’s mother appears to have softened her position on her daughter’s lesbianism when Jeanette returns home at the end of the story. And Jeanette might well be grateful that being a lesbian has caused her to reexamine the fundamentalist faith she inherited from her mother: By running afoul of her Church’s Christian teaching, she rejects judgment over charity, and in the process becomes more Christian herself.
A stanza from an old hymn captures this progressive notion: New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward Who would keep abreast of truth. James Russell Lowell, 1845
As Oranges comes to a close, the biblical naming of the book’s chapters is at its most poignant. Consider the familiar “Song of Ruth”: Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16)
This text, sung at so many heterosexual weddings, is a biblical song that—although few realize it—is sung by one woman to another woman. No longer wanting to pursue a traditional heterosexual marriage, Ruth says these words and persuades Naomi that they should be together. In calling this final chapter Ruth, Winterson sheds new light on the notion of biblical literalism.
Jeanette’s mother had hoped her daughter would become a missionary, and so she does—a missionary for understanding.
Gomes, Peter J. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: Wiliam Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996.
Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Wester, Inc., 1995.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1994.
ReligiousTolerance.org. “Homosexuality and the Pentecostal Movement.” www.religioustolerance.org/hom_upci.htm. Accessed May 8, 2003.
Sahibzada, Mahnaz. “The Symbolism of the Number Seven in Islamic Culture and Rituals.” www.wadsworth.com/religion_d/special_features/ symbols/islamic.html. Accessed May 8, 2003.
Spong, John Shelby. Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
United Pentecostal Church International. www.upci.org. Accessed May 8, 2003.
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