The night before her first day of school, Jeanette asks why she is being sent now. Her mother tells her that if she doesn’t go to school, she herself will be sent to prison. Jeanette’s mother makes her a sandwich for dinner, and then the two of them listen to a religious program on the radio. Jeanette’s mother proclaims that though the Devil is out in the world, he is not in their house, and she reverently gazes upon a watercolor picture of the Lord which hangs over the oven. The painting has become splattered with bits of food over the years, but no one has taken it down to clean it.
Jeanette’s mother begrudgingly prepares to send her daughter to school, growing more and more anxious about Jeanette leaving the safe haven of their home and entering the cruel, evil world. The portrait of Jesus hanging in the kitchen, and Jeanette’s mother’s gazing at it on this particular night, reveals Jeanette’s mother’s desire to keep her home a safe and holy place, and to keep Jeanette ensconced within it.
In the morning, Jeanette’s mother rouses her, complaining that she herself has had no sleep all night. As Jeanette struggles to get her pyjama top off to put her school clothes on, she irritates her ears, which are constantly sore after a recent three-month period during which she went deaf suddenly and seemingly without explanation.
The extraordinary or the bizarre often intrudes upon the ordinary in Jeanette’s household. As she tries to get ready for her first day of school, the memory of her bizarre illness rears its head, plunging her back into the realm of the divine and the strange.
One night, months earlier, Jeanette was lying in bed and realized that life had been “very quiet” lately. She was unable to hear sounds around her, and Jeanette assumed she was in a state of rapture, which was “not uncommon [at] church.” Her mother assumed the same, telling her friends who asked why Jeanette had gone quiet that the Lord was working in mysterious ways—Jeanette was seven, after all, a holy number, and odd things happened in sevens. As an example, Jeanette’s mother told her friends to consider Elsie Norris. Nicknamed “Testifying Elsie” by the other members of the congregation, Elsie, an elderly churchgoing woman, frequently testified in church to the Lord’s goodness and listed all the things He had done for her lately. Elsie prayed two hours every day, made a hobby of numerology, and had a home full of interesting things—Jeanette loved visiting and playing on Elsie’s organ.
Jeanette’s bizarre upbringing has left her with great holes in her common sense—she does not realize that a sudden episode of deafness is a serious medical condition, and her only language for understanding what has happened to her comes from her religious education. This search for a religious lens through which to view one’s life was seen as normal and even encouraged; members of the congregation like Elsie created a culture within Jeanette’s community of constantly trying to see who could get closest to God, and so Jeanette sees this as a blessing rather than a trial or an ailment.
One Sunday, during Jeanette’s period of deafness, the pastor at church proclaimed to the congregation that Jeanette was full of the spirit. Unable to hear what the pastor was saying, Jeanette sat silently and read her Bible in the pews; this seemed like a godly demonstration of modesty to the rest of the congregation. One night soon after that, Jeanette realized that something was very wrong, and went to her mother to tell her that the world had grown quiet. Jeanette’s mother, reading in the kitchen, simply nodded, still believing that Jeanette was having a divine experience. Jeanette took an orange from a nearby fruit bowl and went back to bed to test her ears.
When Jeanette begins to realize the seriousness of her condition, and fears that it is not an enviable and admirable divine blessing but perhaps a true ailment, she turns to her mother for help. Her mother, for the first time but certainly not the last time within the narrative of the novel, offers Jeanette an orange in place of any actual comfort or help. Oranges will come to be Jeanette’s “icon,” and will serve alternately as a comfort or as a reminder of her pain as the novel progresses.
Upstairs in bed, Jeanette played on a recorder she’d received as a gift. She could see her fingers moving, but no sound came from the instrument. In the morning, Jeanette went downstairs to tell her parents that she had lost her hearing completely, but no one was home—a note on the kitchen counter stated that Jeanette’s mother and father had gone to the hospital to pray for an ill member of their congregation.
Jeanette’s mother discounts her daughter’s agency so completely that she does not even stick around to see how Jeanette is doing in the morning, though Jeanette had expressed concern for her own physical well-being the night before.
Jeanette decided to take a walk, and while she was out she ran into Miss Jewsbury, who had not been to church for a long time and did not know that Jeanette was “full of the spirit.” Miss Jewsbury tried to talk to Jeanette, but Jeanette could not understand what she was saying, and led her into the post office. There, Jeanette wrote a note telling Miss Jewsbury that she could not hear a thing. Miss Jewsbury asked what was being done about it, but Jeanette wrote back that her mother didn’t know the extent of her illness, and besides was at the hospital.
Jeanette, unable to get through to her parents, seeks help from another member of her congregation, who thankfully is not so swept up in the rhetoric of divine episodes and moments of rapture that she can see that Jeanette is, deep down, truly troubled and in pain and discomfort.
Miss Jewsbury snatched Jeanette’s hand and walked her to the hospital, where Jeanette’s mother and several other churchgoers were gathered around the ill woman’s bed singing hymns. Miss Jewsbury, unable to get Jeanette’s mother’s attention, shouted loudly that Jeanette was not full of the spirit, but merely deaf.
Miss Jewsbury acts as an advocate for Jeanette, seeking to call Jeanette’s mother out for neglecting her daughter in favor of attending to her religious duties. Jeanette sees for the first time two competing versions of maternal care, as Miss Jewsbury takes her mother head-on.
A doctor took Jeanette back to an examination room, and Miss Jewsbury joined them for the examination. Soon, Jeanette’s mother arrived, conversed with the doctor, and wrote Jeanette a note. “You’re just a bit deaf,” it says; “Why didn’t you tell me?” Jeanette’s mother prepared to go home to fetch Jeanette’s pyjamas, and Jeanette started to cry. Jeanette’s mother fished around in her purse for an orange, which calmed Jeanette down.
Jeanette’s mother, upon learning of her daughter’s condition, blames her ignorance of the situation on Jeanette herself, despite the fact that Jeanette asked for help multiple times. Again, an orange is a stand-in for any real support or comfort.
This episode of deafness and neglect allowed Jeanette to see that even the church, which she had seen as an unimpeachable institution, made mistakes sometimes. In the hospital, Jeanette played with orange peels and waited for her mother to return. When her mother came back, she brought a “huge carrier bag of oranges,” and Jeanette sat with her mother and thought of Jane Eyre, who had faced many trials but had remained brave. Jeanette’s mother wrote Jeanette a note telling her that her surgery would be the following day, and promising to return soon. Jeanette feared she would die, and recalled words she’d heard her mother speak to a friend: that the Lord brings back as ghosts those who he still believes have work to do. Jeanette prayed that if she died, she’d be brought back.
Jeanette’s deafness is the first time she realizes that the church is not immune to problems. Though she is still young and devoted, this incident lays the groundwork for Jeanette’s later struggles with the church. In this passage, though Jeanette has seen the church’s failings, she still remains fearful of death and faithful in the Lord’s power to listen to her and enact change upon her life. The mechanism of religion both controls and enriches Jeanette’s life, and just as Jane Eyre functions as a lesson and a touchstone in dark moments, so does the “story” of Christianity.
On the morning of Jeanette’s operation, smiling nurses arranged her oranges in a symmetrical tower just before she was brought off to surgery. After the procedure, she believed the doctor standing over her bedside to be an angel, and was greatly relieved to be able to hear again. Her mother could not visit her until the weekend, and so Elsie Norris came to call each day, telling jokes and stories, which she said would help Jeanette to understand the world.
Jeanette is attended to in this passage by everyone but her mother. Her nurses, her doctor, and Elsie Norris all appear to her as benevolent, caring figures, and even angels in the case of the doctor. Jeanette’s mother is nowhere to be found, and Jeanette must rely on the other women around her to show her care and tenderness.
Toward the end of Jeanette’s stay, her mother came to see her frequently, but often couldn’t stay long because it was the busy season at church, and congregants were planning the Christmas campaign. When Jeanette’s mother couldn’t come, she sent Jeanette’s father with a letter and some oranges. Jeanette ate the oranges in bed, much to her nurses’ chagrin, and shared them with the toothless Elsie during her daytime visits.
Jeanette’s mother does visit her daughter, but still sees church as her priority even over her own child. In her place, Jeanette’s mother sends oranges and missives as a stand-in. Jeanette gobbles the oranges in her bed, consuming hungrily whatever she can get of her mother’s attention and affection.
Elsie told Jeanette about the power of manifestation—thinking about something for long enough that it happens in real life. Jeanette asked Elsie if praying for something was the same thing, and Elsie replied only that God was in everything. Elsie and Jeanette played board games and word games and read poetry together, and all the while Jeanette worked on a massive igloo made of orange peels.
The devout Elsie’s interest in the power of thought is one of the first times Jeanette has been told that there’s any agency in the world other than that which comes from God. Moreover, Elsie plays with the orange peels with Jeanette rather than letting Jeanette just eat or play with the oranges on her own, symbolizing her desire to help Jeanette achieve comfort, reassurance, and peace, rather than just throw it at her and hope it takes.
When Jeanette got out of the hospital, her mother was away on a church endeavor, and Jeanette stayed with Elsie for a few days. At Elsie’s house, the two played music and built religious-themed dioramas which always featured Elsie’s three pet white mice. One night, Elsie told Jeanette that there were two worlds, but spoke vaguely of what they were. Jeanette fell asleep troubled, hoping that school would give her the answer to Elsie’s questions.
At Elsie’s house, Jeanette encounters the same fervent and all-consuming religious devotion, but there is something more fun and carefree about Elsie—she helps Jeanette make craft projects rather than take Bible quizzes, and she hints at mysticism whereas Jeanette’s mother only ever speaks of fire-and-brimstone punishment and misery.
Jeanette flashes the narrative forward. She has been in school for three terms now, and she is beginning to despair. Besides country dancing and needlework, she has hardly learned anything at all. She hates the children she is in school with, and she is often bullied. Jeanette often hides in the mudroom, despite the horrible smell of feet which not even the school cleaning lady can eradicate.
Jeanette is miserable. She has left the safety and familiarity of her mother’s home and now, because of the strange and spotty way her mother has educated her and brought her up, she finds herself unable to connect with anyone her own age.
On the last day of term, Jeanette’s teacher Mrs. Virtue helps one of Jeanette’s enemies at school to sew a summer party dress. Jeanette comforts herself with thoughts of church summer camp. Pastor Spratt is becoming a famous and successful missionary throughout England, and as a result the local church is thriving—Jeanette will get her first real missionary experience in the coming months, and she cannot wait to get started gathering new converts.
Though Jeanette cannot fit in at school or win the approval of either her friends or teachers, she knows that in church she is special, and sees her religious life as her true life, and the place where she can really shine. This brings her some comfort and happiness.
As excitement for the summer mounts, Jeanette has lately been listening to her mother’s stories of the early days of their church, and how she reformed Jeanette’s father, converted him to evangelical Christianity, and married him. Though Jeanette’s grandfather told her mother that she was marrying down and cut off all communication with her, Jeanette’s mother insisted that the church was the only family she needed.
Jeanette loves hearing her mother’s stories, even though they are, in actuality, fairly dark. Jeanette’s mother’s story of being disowned by her own father is upsetting, and demonstrates how Jeanette’s mother’s blind allegiance to the church over everyone and everything else started when she was a much younger woman.
At school, Jeanette just can’t fit in, and she reflects on the nightmare of her first year. In the first week of school, when classes had to write an essay about what they’d done over their previous summer vacation, Jeanette wrote the true but bizarre story of her summer, which was peppered with anecdotes about her mother healing the sick, the strenuous relationship with her next-door neighbors, and baptisms in the public baths. Jeanette’s classmates laughed at her, and when she went home, she told her mother she didn’t want to return to school. Her mother offered her an orange and told her she had to keep going.
Jeanette, who takes refuge in stories and loves telling and hearing them, attempted to show off and connect with her classmates earlier in the year by sharing some of the stories of her life. The stories were too bizarre to be interesting or relatable to the other children, however, and Jeanette was treated as an outcast. Jeanette’s mother, again unable to offer her comfort or a solution, as she doesn’t even believe her daughter should be in school in the first place, simply offers her an orange.
As the year wore on, Jeanette continued to find herself isolated—during a cross-stitch project, when her classmates were making samplers that read things like “TO MOTHER WITH LOVE,” Jeanette wanted to embroider hers with fairly frightening quotes from the Bible and the sermons she’d heard at church.
In one of the most comical examples of Jeanette’s total unpreparedness for the world of secular children, she frightens her classmates by trying to embroider fire-and-brimstone-tinged religious motifs rather than simple, friendly sayings. To Jeanette, the frightening world of evangelical fundamentalism is comforting and familiar.
Two mothers with children in the class complained about Jeanette, and Jeanette’s classmates physically provoked her into hitting them. Jeanette was called into the office by her teacher Mrs. Virtue and the head of the school, Mrs. Vole, and asked about her problems with the other children. The two women noted that Jeanette was deeply preoccupied with God. They called her obsession and her bizarre religious knowledge “disturbing.”
Jeanette’s teachers, though they come off as judgmental and condescending, are probably trying to help Jeanette. They see her struggling to fit in but at the same time leaning heavily on her religious background, which will not help her navigate the “real world” with much success at all.
Jeanette tried to explain to the women that her mother had taught her how to read from the Bible—specifically the Book of Deuteronomy, which describes animals that are “unclean” and should not be eaten, not to mention long lists of Abominations and unmentionable sins. Jeanette’s teachers accused her of talking about Hell to her classmates, and Jeanette apologized, saying that she thought what she was telling her school friends was interesting. Mrs. Vole sent Jeanette away, promising to write to her mother.
When Jeanette’s teachers call her out on frightening her other classmates, and she seems really not to know that Hell is, in the real world, frightening, the teachers realize they must intervene. From Jeanette’s perspective, she is just attempting to educate and entertain her classmates, but from her teachers’ perspective, she represents a threat to their students’ sense of safety.
After her meeting with Mrs. Virtue and Mrs. Vole, Jeanette felt depressed, and began to look fervently ahead to the time when she would be able to attend missionary school in ten long years. When Jeanette’s mother received the letter from Mrs. Vole describing Jeanette’s bizarre religious leanings, Jeanette’s mother rejoiced and took her to the movies to see The Ten Commandments as a reward.
Jeanette feels like no one at school understands her—and she is right. She has been raised in such an insular and particular community that anything else feels strange and unnavigable, and Jeanette begins looking forward to the future to avoid the present. Meanwhile, Jeanette’s mother is thrilled that her daughter has been “testifying” to her classmates and staying to steadfast in her beliefs.
Shortly after the meeting with Mrs. Virtue and Mrs. Vole, all of Jeanette’s classmates began ignoring her, but she did not mind, believing deep down that she was right and just. When she told her mother about her isolation at school, her mother told her that the two of them were “called to be apart” from others, and reassured Jeanette that she herself did not have many friends, either.
Jeanette’s mother reinforces Jeanette’s belief that she is special. She tells her daughter that the two of them are “apart” from the rest of the world—indeed, apart from the rest of their church—and as such shouldn’t worry about the concerns of others. In reality, Jeanette’s mother is so fanatical that she has driven everyone close to her outside of the church away, and if Jeanette follows in her footsteps, she will do the same.
Jeanette tried to submit her needlepoint sampler for a prize at school, believing it to be a masterpiece: it showed the “terrified damned” stitched in black thread. When she handed it to her teacher for evaluation, Mrs. Virtue criticized it deeply in front of the entire class. Jeanette chalked her teacher’s disapproval up to the fact that Jeanette had made the right thing in the wrong place—the sampler would be perfect in church or as a gift for Elsie Norris, but was not right for sewing class. After Jeanette didn’t win the prize, she gave her sampler to Elsie, though she told Elsie she was sad about not having won. Elsie reminded her that “the Lord himself was scorned.”
Like Jeanette’s mother, Elsie reassures Jeanette that being an outcast is a holy thing. She tells Jeanette that even Jesus himself was looked down on and rejected, fueling the persecution complex that Jeanette’s mother has tried to instill in her as well. Everyone in Jeanette’s life is helping her to tell the story of herself—to construct a narrative of her life in which she is without fault, holy, and apart from the rest of the world by virtue of her faithfulness.
Jeanette reflects on other projects she made for school throughout the year—many with Elsie’s help, and all focused on religious themes. None won any prizes, and Jeanette grew angry that her other, less talented classmates’ projects garnered praise when hers drew scorn. When Jeanette complained to Elsie, her mother, and other members of the congregation, her mother’s friend Mrs. White told Jeanette that she could rest peacefully in the knowledge that none of her schoolmates were holy.
Rather than capitulating to the status quo, over the course of her first year in school Jeanette leaned even harder into the ostracism and othering that her intense religion brought upon her, making projects that were outliers compared to her classmates’ work. Jeanette’s decision to set herself apart from her classmates even further is supported by all the women from her church.
Jeanette recalls being confused by the story of the Israelites’ flight from Egypt, and about how they were led during the days by a pillar of cloud and through the nights by a pillar of fire. Jeanette never understood the ground rules of this story, or of the daily world in general, and often comforted herself by rearranging the widely-received versions of things.
Jeanette has a hard time fitting in at school, but here she reveals that she also has trouble figuring out the “ground rules” of the larger world in general—including the ground rules of her religion. In order to soothe herself and make sense of things, Jeanette continues to spin stories, more and more fantastical each time.
When Jeanette learned that a Tetrahedron was a mathematical shape, she spun a story in her mind about a many-faced emperor named Tetrahedron who was loved throughout the land. One day, a woman brought the emperor a revolving circus operated by “midgets.” The midgets acted out tragedies and comedies for the emperor, and the emperor, with his many eyes, was able to see them all at once. From watching the circus performance, the emperor came to understand that “no emotion is the final one.”
As Jeanette wrestles with feelings of shame, rejection, and differentness, she constructs a story in which the moral serves to guide her through this difficult transition time in her life: no emotion is the final one, and Jeanette’s life will offer her a never-ending “circus” of emotions. She will not always feel this alone, and she takes comfort in being able to teach herself this lesson.