Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Chapter 11 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At Oxford, Jeanette realizes that there is rampant inequality in her college, and that the women in her class will in large part “have to educate [them]selves.” But it doesn’t matter, she says, because “books were everywhere and all we had to do was read them.” She discovers modern and contemporary feminist writers and feels she has found a “new Bible.” Despite the challenges and inequalities at Oxford, she takes refuge in the university’s “seriousness of purpose” and devotion to “the life of the mind.”
Despite the sexist culture at Oxford, Jeanette is in heaven—she is able to read whatever she wants, whenever she wants, and she is nourished by the books that surround her everywhere. Her discovery of a “new Bible” represents a new way forward and a new doctrine which bolsters her even in the face of inequality and unfairness, to which even Oxford is not immune.
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As Jeanette reads more and more widely, she begins to feel more connected to other lives across time, and her isolation lessens. She also begins to think about visiting Mrs. Winterson, and wonders whether she herself can make peace with their shared past in order to weather a journey home—she looks to literature to see if she can find the answer. She knows that the answer to “reconcil[ing her] life with itself” lies in love, but only in a “very dimly lit way.”
Jeanette draws so much strength from literature, and is thinking so deeply about the way human lives impact one another, that she feels empowered to be able to visit Mrs. Winterson for the holidays. She wants to come to terms with her difficult childhood, and feels the way to do this is through love—though she doesn’t know exactly how love will connect to her “reconciliation” with her past.
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Jeanette writes to Mrs. Winterson to ask if she can come home for the holidays and bring a friend. Mrs. Winterson replies “yes,” which Jeanette thinks is “unusual.” Mrs. Winterson does not ask what her daughter has been up to, and Jeanette does not attempt to explain.
Jeanette feels a spark of hope that Mrs. Winterson has released some of her need for control, and will not attempt to “ransack” Jeanette’s life while she is home for the holidays.
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Jeanette arrives home with her platonic friend Vicky Licorish—Vicky is black, and Jeanette has “warned” Mrs. Winterson of this. Mrs. Winterson has asked her missionary friends who are “veterans of Africa” what “they”—meaning black people—eat, and for some reason her friends have told her “pineapples.” Jeanette writes that Mrs. Winterson was “not a racist,” and “would not hear slurs against anyone on the grounds of color or ethnicity.”
Though Mrs. Winterson condemns hateful speech and seems to want very badly to make Vicky feel comfortable, she harbors some racist tendencies which alarm and alienate both Vicky and Jeanette.
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Get the entire Why Be Happy? LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Mrs. Winterson makes a plethora of pineapple-themed meals for the girls’ first couple days in town—but eventually Vicky confesses that she doesn’t like pineapple. Mrs. Winterson then experiences a drastic change in mood, and becomes antagonistic toward the girls. Vicky and Jeanette are working as volunteers at a local mental hospital while they are in town, and feel that “the atmosphere [at the Winterson] home [is] crazier than anything at work.”
When Vicky speaks up politely about her own tastes, Mrs. Winterson is deeply offended and flies off into one of her moods. Jeanette is aware of what is going on, but Vicky is a newcomer in the Winterson household, and it becomes clear that things there are not normal or stable in any way.
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Mrs. Winterson refuses to talk to the girls for nearly a week, but as Christmas approaches, Mrs. Winterson’s mood seems to improve. One night, Vicky finds that her pillowcase has no pillow in it, and is instead stuffed with “religious tracts about the Apocalypse.”
As the situation at the Winterson household worsens, Mrs. Winterson returns to her passive-aggressive, domineering method of communication through Bible verses and other religious materials.
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When Jeanette walks in on her mother making egg custard in the kitchen and muttering darkly to herself about the nature of sin, Jeanette tells Vicky that it is time to leave and return to Oxford. The next morning, Jeanette announces their departure to Mrs. Winterson, who replies with the words “You do it on purpose.” Jeanette tells her mother goodbye, and leaves—she will never see Mrs. Winterson again.
Jeanette realizes that the situation has worsened beyond her control or help, and decides to get herself and Vicky out before things really fly off the rails. She does not know that this is the last time she will ever see her mother, and they part while Mrs. Winterson is angry and resentful, and Jeanette herself is wary and fearful.
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