Jeanette Winterson the writer and Jeanette the character are both keenly aware that life can often be stranger than fiction. In writing an autobiographical novel based heavily on her own experiences growing up as an adopted child in an evangelical household in a small, working-class English town, Jeanette Winterson the author blurs the line between the real and the unreal, the recorded and the invented, to communicate the emotional experience of her childhood. Though most of the novel closely tracks the “realism” of her own childhood, several interludes—fairy tales, parables, and stories of King Arthur’s knights—explore the cruelty of Jeanette’s circumstances through her escapist fantasies of knights, sorcerers, and princesses. As the narrative unfolds, Winterson uses these fantastical tales to impose a narrative on her childhood, imbue it with morals and meaning, and, in doing so, make her horrible experiences into something she could survive.
Jeanette (the writer and the character) seeks solace from her traumatic childhood in invented tales of fantasy and adventure, which shows the importance of storytelling to everyday life. Each time the narrative splits off into these flights of fancy, there is a direct or indirect parallel between what is happening in Jeanette’s “real” life and what is happening in her fantasy world, showing that Jeanette makes sense of her life through stories. For example, when Jeanette’s pastor speaks menacingly of perfection and flawlessness during a sermon, the narrative splits from the main action and bounds off into a story about a prince who sought the perfect bride—unable to find her after years of searching and meditating on the nature of perfection, the prince beheads every woman who does not meet his standards of flawlessness. This tale mirrors the pressures the young and faithful Jeanette felt to be a flawless and unquestioning member of her church, despite her burgeoning homosexual desires and escalating conflicts with her mother.
Likewise, the story of Winnet, who leaves home and seeks refuge in the hut of an evil sorcerer who attempts to claim her forever by guessing her name, comes right after Jeanette’s mother has ordered her to leave home after learning about Jeanette’s second lesbian relationship. Adopted and “named” by the sorcerer, Winnet’s experience mirrors Jeanette’s adoption by her mother as an infant. When Winnet experiences love and desire for the first time, the sorcerer insists that Winnet has been “spoiled” and casts her out. The sorcerer tells Winnet that if she stays, she will find herself “destroyed by grief,” but if she leaves, she will have to use the powers she has learned under his apprenticeship “differently.” Just as Jeanette knew that to stay in her mother’s home against her mother’s wishes would be to subject herself to more pain and abuse, she was fearful of leaving and being unable to make her way in the world, practically or emotionally.
It is purposefully unclear whether the stories woven throughout the text are the child Jeanette’s fantasies or the elder author-Jeanette’s reflections on the lessons learned and unlearned from her own past. This ambiguity speaks to the tension between past and present, and the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. Because the novel is so closely tied to Jeanette’s own life, it is both invented and reported, but Winterson seems to want to muddy the boundaries between things she has remembered from her past and things she has created in order to dramatize it. “I wrote a story I could survive,’ Jeanette Winterson has said of the process of writing Oranges in her early twenties. In combining the reality of her abusive childhood with fantasy, therefore, Winterson allowed herself to imagine a version of her life that was not as painful as her reality. The novel then saved her in two ways: it gave her that imagined reality, and the success it garnered allowed her to claim her identity as an artist, to profit off her talent, and to escape mentally and physically from the despair of her childhood.
Storytelling, Fantasy, and Invention ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Fantasy, and Invention Quotes in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies. Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms), Next Door, Sex (in its many forms), Slugs. Friends were: God, Our dog, Auntie Madge, The Novels of Charlotte Brontë, Slug Pellets, and me, at first. I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the Rest of the World.
The old woman got hold of my hand. She looked at my palm and laughed a bit. “You’ll never marry,” she said, “not you, and you’ll never be still.” She told me to run home fast. I ran and ran, trying to understand what she meant. I hadn’t thought about getting married anyway. There were two women I knew who didn’t have husbands at all. They ran the paper shop and sometimes they gave me a banana bar with my comic. I liked them a lot… [Once] I heard [my mother] telling Mrs. White about [them]. She said they dealt in unnatural passions. I thought she meant they put chemicals in their sweets.
“Jeanette, we think you may be having problems at school. Do you want to tell us about them?”
“I’m all right.” I shuffled defensively.
“You do seem rather pre-occupied, shall we say, with God. Your sampler, for instance, had a very disturbing motif. And why did you choose to write about hoopoos and rock badgers in your animal book, and in one case, I believe, shrimps?”
“My mother taught me to read,” I told them.
“Your reading skills are quite unusual, but you haven’t answered my question.”
How could I?
My mother had taught me to read from the Book of Deuteronomy because it is full of animals (mostly unclean). Whenever we read “Thou shall not eat any beast that does not chew the cut or part of the hoof” she drew all the creatures mentioned. Horses, bunnies, and little ducks were vague fabulous things, but I knew all about pelicans, rock badgers, sloths and bats. This tendency towards the exotic has brought me many problems.
When the children of Israel left Egypt, they were guided by the pillar of cloud by day and he pillar of fire by night. For them this did not seem to be a problem. For me, it was an enormous problem, perplexing and impossible. I didn’t understand the ground rules. The daily world was a world of Strange Notions. I comforted myself as best I could by always rearranging their version of the facts. One day, I learned that Tetrahedron is a mathematical shape. But Tetrahedron is an emperor… The emperor Tetrahedron lived in a palace made from elastic bands. The emperor was beloved by all. Many brought gifts; [fine] material and stories of love and folly. One day, a woman brought the emperor a revolving circus operated by midgets. The midgets acted all of the tragedies and many of the comedies. They acted them all at once, and it was fortunate that Tetrahedron had so many faces, otherwise he might have died of fatigue. They acted them all at once, and the emperor, walking round his theatre, could see them all at once. Round and round he walked, and so learned a very valuable thing: that no emotion is the final one.
It was clear that I had stumbled on a terrible conspiracy. There are women in the world. There are men in the world. And there are beasts. What do you do if you marry a beast? Beasts are crafty. They disguise themselves like you and I. Like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood.” Why had no one told me? Did that mean no one else knew? Did that mean that all over the globe, in all innocence, women were marrying beasts?
I now know she had rewritten the ending [of] Jane Eyre. It was her favourite non-Bible book, and she read it to me over and over again, when I was very small. I couldn’t read it, but I knew where the pages turned. Later, literate and curious, I had decided to read it for myself. I found out, that dreadful day in a back corner of the library, that Jane doesn’t marry St. John at all, that she goes back to Mr. Rochester. It was like the day I discovered my adoption papers while searching for a pack of playing cards. I have never since played cards, and I have never since read Jane Eyre.
That is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained… Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently… People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious. Very often history is a means of denying the past. Denying the past is to refuse to recognize its integrity. People have never had a problem disposing of the past when it gets too difficult, and if we can’t dispose of it we can alter it.
Constipation was a great problem after the Second World War. Not enough roughage in the diet, too much refined food. If you always eat out you can never be sure what’s going in, and received information is nobody’s exercise. Rotten and rotting. Here is some advice. If you want to keep your own teeth, make your own sandwiches…
“Here you are,” said my mother, giving me a sharp dig in the side. “Some fruit. You’re rambling in your sleep again.” It was a bowl of oranges. I took out the largest and tried to peel it. The skin hung stubborn, and soon I lay panting, angry and defeated. What about grapes or bananas? I did finally pull away the outer shell and, cupping both hands round, tore open the fruit.
“Feeling any better?” sitting in the middle [of the orange] was the orange demon.
“I’m going to die.”
“Not you, in fact you’re recovering, apart from a few minor hallucinations, and remember you’ve made your choice now, there’s no going back.”
I was almost asleep when the pastor appeared with my mother hovering in the background. He stood a safe distance away like I was infected. The pastor explained to me as quietly as he could that I was the victim of a great evil. That I was afflicted and oppressed, that I had deceived the flock. My mother gave a little cry, then got angry again. They started arguing between themselves whether I was an unfortunate victim or a wicked person. I listened for a while; neither of them were very convincing, and besides, seven ripe oranges had just dropped on to the window sill.
“Have an orange,” I offered by way of conversation. They both stared at me like I was mad. I lay for a long time just watching the oranges. They were pretty, but not much help. I was going to need more than an icon to get me through this one.
I made my bed carefully the last morning at home, emptied the waste paper basket, and trailed the dog on a long walk. At that time I could not imagine what would become of me, and I didn’t care. It was not judgement day, but another morning.
“Daughter, you have disgraced me,” said the sorcerer, and I have no more use for you. You must leave. Winnet could not ask for forgiveness when she was innocent, but she did ask to stay.
“If you stay, you will stay in the village and care for the goats. I leave you to make up your own mind.” He was gone. Winnet was about to burst into tears when she felt a light pecking at her shoulder. It was Abednego, the raven she loved.
“[If you leave] you won’t lose your power, you’ll [just] use it differently. Sorcerers can’t take their gifts back, ever.”
“And what if I stay?”
“You will find yourself destroyed by grief. All you know will be around you and at the same time far from you. Better to find a new place now.
Winnet sat silent at the edge of the fireplace. The raven, struck dumb, could not warn her that her father had crept in, in the shape of a mouse, and was tying an invisible thread around one of her buttons.
If demons lie within they travel with you. Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.
I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever been anywhere. My mother was treating me like she always had; had she noticed my absence? Did she even remember why I’d left? I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had. There’s a chance that I’m not here at all, that all the parts of me, running along all the choices I did and didn’t make, for a moment brush against each other. That I am still an evangelist in the North, as well as the person who ran away.