Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?


Jeanette Winterson

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Themes

Themes and Colors
Storytelling Theme Icon
Religion and Control Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Love and Happiness Theme Icon
Mothers, Daughters, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.


As a writer, Jeanette Winterson is keenly aware that life can often be stranger than fiction. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is a nonfiction account of the events of her childhood and her adult life as she navigates the fallout of the many traumas inflicted upon her by her adoptive mother, the tyrannical Mrs. Winterson. Throughout this account, Jeanette often references the power and importance of books and storytelling. She returns…

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Religion and Control

The religion of Jeanette Winterson’s childhood—the Elim Pentecostal Church—is an evangelical and fatalistic one, obsessed with death and the coming apocalypse. Throughout Jeanette’s childhood and adolescence, Mrs. Winterson—Jeanette’s strict, devout, and tyrannical mother—openly longed for and fantasized about her own death and the death of the world. The Winterson family’s entire lives revolved around waiting for End Times to arrive. Though Jeanette concedes that as a child she found “excitement” in many aspects of religion…

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The Pursuit of Love and Happiness

Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother Mrs. Winterson, who believed that Jeanette’s lesbianism was a sin and a curse, once asked her daughter, “Why be happy when you could be normal?” This quotation lends the book its title and its central question: what is the worth of the pursuit of happiness? To Jeanette, happiness and love are intertwined and they are of paramount importance—the story of her life is the story of her quest for the…

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Mothers, Daughters, and Forgiveness

At the heart of the narrative of Why Be Happy are the intense and complex roles that mothers play in the lives of their daughters. Though Jeanette is at best full of pity and at worst full of hate for her abusive adoptive mother, Mrs. Winterson, she still feels a possessiveness over her: “She was a monster but she was my monster,” Jeanette writes toward the end of the book, invoking their shared obsession with…

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