Jeanette writes that heathens were a “daily preoccupation” in her mother’s household. The neighbors next door—which her mother referred to only as Next Door—were particularly hated by Jeanette’s mother, and she often played hymns on the piano as loudly as she could in order to disguise the sounds of fighting and copulation that came from the neighbors with whom Jeanette and her family shared a wall.
As Jeanette delves into her mother’s preoccupation with “heathens” and those who have not been saved, it’s easy to see how Jeanette’s almost desperate adherence to religion, even when flung into the secular world, took root. Her mother terrorizes and shames anyone whose beliefs don’t align with hers, and Jeanette has witnessed her mother’s prejudice and bad behavior her entire childhood.
Jeanette writes that her mother always called herself a “missionary on the home front.” Though she hadn’t been called to far-off places like Pastor Spratt and his Glory Crusade, Jeanette’s mother felt that she was guided by the Lord and that it was her duty to convert those around her as well. Her mother is the treasurer of the Society for the Lost, a religious organization in England that recruits new members by dangling small prizes such as discount hymnbooks and free Christmas records. Jeanette’s mother regularly designs gifts for the Society to give away, such as an outdoor thermometer which doubles as a sliding scale showing the number of possible conversions a member could make each year, were they to convert two souls, who would each convert two souls, and so on.
Jeanette’s mother’s sense of self-righteousness and divine purpose has led her to prioritize connection and community through her religion rather than through the daughter she brought into her home to be a member of her “team.” Nevertheless, Jeanette’s mother is crafty, and seems to truly believe in the gospel of being “saved.” She doesn’t want to participate in church life because she wants to climb a social ladder or secure her own self-advancement; she genuinely believes the world would be better if everyone were a part of her religion, and she seeks to bring as many into the fold as she can.
One year, the Society holds a special conference in Jeanette’s hometown. In preparation for the event, Jeanette’s mother makes Jeanette stand on an orange box at the market and “shout at everyone what was happening” while giving out pamphlets. Jeanette has a bad time at the market; it is raining, and many street vendors shout at her to get out of the way. Eventually Mrs. Arkwright from the pest control shop takes pity on Jeanette and invites her to share her stall so that she can give out her pamphlets without getting wet. Watching Jeanette shouting at passerby, Mrs. Arkwright tells Jeanette that her mother is mad.
In this passage, Jeanette’s mother continues to prioritize religion and “saving” others over her own daughter, forcing Jeanette to stand in the rain at a busy market passing out pamphlets. Again, rather than offering Jeanette any real comfort or support, Jeanette’s mother offers her an old orange box to stand on—a symbol of Jeanette’s mother’s inadequate and half-hearted support as the poor Jeanette toils in the storm.
At two o’ clock, Jeanette is finally permitted to go into the conference with the rest of the Society members. At the door, her mother is waiting for her, and asks how many pamphlets Jeanette has given out. When Jeanette replies “all of them,” her mother moves aside and lets her in. As the pastor begins a sermon on perfection, Jeanette develops her first theological disagreement. She listens skeptically as the pastor proclaims that perfection, the condition of man before the Fall, can only be achieved in the next world, and that perfection can be equated with flawlessness.
Jeanette, having just gone through a decidedly un-fun ordeal in the name of serving her church, enters services to find that for the first time she disagrees with the “story” being told to her. She has been striving for perfection in her mother’s eyes all her young life, and as the question of what constitutes perfection and flawlessness is raised, Jeanette finds herself with a serious intellectual and philosophical quandary in front of her: how can she ever be perfect if to be perfect is to be without flaw?
Jeanette launches into a fanciful story of a woman so beautiful that the sight of her could heal the sick and cause crops to flourish. Not only beautiful, this woman was wise, and well-acquainted with the laws of physics, and her favorite things to do were sing and weave. The woman lived in a forest; on the opposite side of the woods, in a section of the forest that had become a town, a prince roamed sadly through his palace, lamenting to his steadfast companion, a goose, that he was unable to run his kingdom properly without a wife. The prince told the goose that he wanted a woman who was perfect, without blemish inside or out. He began to cry, and the goose, moved by the prince’s pain, went off to find his advisors.
As she usually does, Jeanette launches into a story of her own invention in order to relate to and understand the real-world happenings in her life. In this story, a prince seeks perfection, not knowing that there is a woman waiting nearby who could very well meet his needs. The central question of the story is whether perfection is ever attainable, and Jeanette creates a dark and bizarre narrative to investigate this question, which has been posed to her in her own life.
The goose told the prince’s courtiers that he wanted a wife who was flawless in every respect. The advisors immediately took up their horns, sounded the cry, and began their search. After three years, the advisors were unable to find a woman that the prince would not refuse. The goose warned the prince that what he wanted did not exist, but the prince insisted that he would find the perfect bride, and chopped off the goose’s head.
When the prince is confronted with the possibility that the perfection he seeks does not, in fact, exist, he becomes defensive and irate, chopping off the head of his most trusted confidant. A goose, pure, white, and governed by separate laws and instincts from humans, perhaps represents reason and practicality, which the prince annihilates without a second thought.
After three more years of no luck, the prince began writing a book called The Holy Mystery of Perfection. Once completed, the prince gave a copy to each of his advisors as a sort of manual for their continued search. One of the advisors took the book off to a clearing in the woods to read in peace, and there heard a woman singing. He followed the sound of the woman’s voice and came upon a woman spinning thread and singing—it was the beautiful physicist. The advisor approached her and asked for a chat, but the woman rebuffed him and told him to return at noon. Meanwhile, the prince’s advisor asked around about the woman, and was told by all her neighbors that she was perfect.
The mystery of perfection is framed within this story as “holy,” mirroring the fact that Jeanette’s investigation of perfection stems from a pastor equating flawlessness with godliness and asserting that perfection can only be achieved in Heaven. As the prince’s advisor stumbles upon a woman who is, according to all accounts, perfect, it seems for a moment as if the prince’s search will be over, and perfection will have been found in the earthly realm after all.
The advisor returned to the woman’s cottage at noon and told her she had to accompany him and return to the prince to marry him. The woman protested, saying that she did not want to get married, and the advisor left, promising to return. Three days later, the prince and his entourage arrived back at the woman’s house, and the prince begged for her hand in marriage. Again, the woman refused. The prince showed her his book, and the woman frowned, pulled the prince inside her house, and shut the door.
When the prince confronts the “perfect” woman who lives in the woods with his life’s research on theories of perfection and holiness, she responds by taking him into her home—presumably to teach him a lesson. There is a sense of foreboding in this scene, and the introduction of the idea that though this woman is known as “perfect,” she will have a bone to pick with the idea of perfection itself.
The prince’s retinue camped three days and three nights outside the woman’s home, and on the fourth day, the prince emerged “weary and unwashed,” ready to tell the tale of all that had taken place inside. The woman, he had found, was perfect, but not flawless. She was balanced and harmonious, but not without flaw. He announced to his advisors that he intended to rewrite his book on perfection and issue a public apology to his slain goose.
The prince’s mind seems to have been changed after his encounter with the “perfect” woman. She has shown him the error of his ways, and he plans to revise his life and his life’s work in light of the information she has shared with him. In the real world, Jeanette perhaps takes refuge in the idea that she needn’t ruin herself in the name of chasing perfection.
The prince’s advisors told him that as a prince, he could not have been wrong in his original theory, and the prince paced the forest in search of a solution. That night, one of his advisors approached him, and whispered in the prince’s ear what he thought the prince must do. The prince refused his advisor’s advice, at first, insisting that if he followed it no one would believe him, but his advisor told the prince that he must do what he had told him to do. At dawn, the trumpets rang out, and the whole village assembled to see what the prince would say.
The princes’ fawning courtiers assure him that despite whatever the woman has told him, it is his divine right as a prince to always be right, and the prince is slowly swayed by the whisperings of his retinue. Though the prince has been shown the “light” by the woman in the woods, his advisors—for whatever their own reasons may be—want the prince to uphold the idea that perfection can be achieved.
The prince called for the woman to come forth. When she emerged from her home, the sun shone on her, and she was more beautiful than ever before. The prince began his speech, conceding that perfection on earth was not to be found, but to be fashioned. The woman called out that there was such a thing as perfection, and the prince countered that the woman would not have taken such trouble to convince him of her beliefs that perfection and flawlessness were not the same thing if she were not flawed herself. The woman insisted she had many blemishes, and begged the prince to understand that what he sought did not exist. The prince called for the woman’s head, and his courtiers chopped it off.
The prince, not having learned anything, slays the woman who is the closest thing to perfection he has ever found because his courtiers insisted he uphold the belief that perfection could be achieved. If it cannot be found, the prince tells his subjects, it can be made or wrought. This idea will have devastating effects in Jeanette’s real life, as she navigates a landscape in which perfect piousness is deemed the only thing in the world worth striving for.
The blood flowing from the woman’s neck become a lake which drowned the prince’s advisors and most of the court. The prince climbed a tree to escape the rising waters, vowing to continue on his quest. From the top of the tree, the prince heard a noise below him. He looked down and saw an old man selling oranges. The prince asked for a dozen, and also asked if the old man sold any books or magazines. The old man pulled a leather-bound book from his pocket, offering it to the prince for free, and telling him that it was a book on how to build the perfect person with the right equipment. The prince snatched the book away from the old man and ran.
The prince’s murder of the woman drowns many of his people, symbolizing the devastating and sickening effects of such evil acts in the name of a false ideology. Oranges then appear in the story as the prince, defeated by his own folly, seeks comfort and a way forward. The old man offers the prince a manual on how to achieve perfection, and the prince, still hopeful that perfection can be achieved, runs off in search of it.