Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


Jeanette Winterson

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jeanette Winterson

Born in Manchester to a seventeen-year-old factory worker and adopted by the Winterson family six months after her birth, Jeanette Winterson was raised by Pentecostal Evangelical Christian parents in Accrington, a manufacturing city in Northern England. Winterson was raised to be a missionary, but after coming out as a lesbian at the age of sixteen, she was forced to leave home, live in her car, and work odd jobs to put herself through college at Oxford University. Shortly after graduating, when she was just 25 years old, Winterson published her first book, the autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. The novel was an enormous success, and was eventually adapted into a serial television program for the BBC—Winterson wrote the screenplay, and the program premiered in 1990 to even more buzz and acclaim. A prolific writer, Winterson is the author of over twenty-five books of fiction, nonfiction, and literature for children. She was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006. She is married to the writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, and she teaches at the University of Manchester. She makes her home in the Cotswolds, just west of Oxford. 
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Historical Context of Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winterson charts the histories of both Manchester, the place of her birth, and Accrington, the stuck-in-time city where she grew up, in order to explain the historical context of both Oranges and Why Be Happy. She describes Manchester as a “raw,” working-class city, which became a “radical” hub due to the “uncontrollable reality” of harsh factory conditions and the “success and shames” that accompanied them. Ann, Winterson’s birth mother, worked in a textile factory at the time of Winterson’s birth, and her adoptive father, in Accrington, was a shift worker at a power station and a manual laborer all his life. Religion was a hub and a refuge in the “raw” world of the factories, and the Pentecostal Church was the center of young Jeanette’s life (as it was the center of life for so much of her community)—so much so that, for the Wintersons, the church subsumed and overpowered everything else.

Other Books Related to Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Winterson refers to Why Be Happy as the “silent twin” of her 1985 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In Oranges, she wrote an account of her life story that she could “survive”—in Why Be Happy, separated from Oranges by a quarter of a century, she speaks more frankly and accurately about the traumas she endured. Memoirs such as Augusten Burroughs’s Running With Scissors, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and David Sedaris’s Naked and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim are all memoirs by LGBT writers which explore the artist’s often difficult, bizarre, or even traumatic childhood as they come to inhabit their identities and understand the complexities of family.  
Key Facts about Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
  • Full Title: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
  • When Written: 2009-2011
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 2011
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Accrington, Lancashire; Oxford; London
  • Climax: After years of denying herself the opportunity to seek out her birth mother, Jeanette Winterson seeks out, finds, and meets her birth mother, a woman named Ann.
  • Antagonist: Mrs. Winterson
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Stranger Than Fiction. Jeanette Winterson, who famously rattled the international literary landscape with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, has long drawn on her real life in order to inform the characters in her fiction. In addition to using fictionalized versions of herself and Mrs. Winterson in Oranges, Winterson has created versions of herself that have appeared in later novels—for instance, the orphan, Silver, in 2004’s Lighthousekeeping, can be read as a Jeanette-figure.