A discussion board post for English 105, Introduction to Narrative, a freshman literature course taught by Gerry Canavan, written on 13 July 2006 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
On Jeanette's Mother in Jeanette Winterson's
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
by Matt Wallace
The scene you mentioned [see below] (as well as the entire novel) is written from the Jeanette's point of view. Accordingly, the various forces which Jeanette views as working against her are going to be cast in a negative light, rightly and wrongly. As the heroine of the novel, Jeanette's view of events and their interpretation is most, if not all, we're going to see. Thus the novel is surely a biased and incomplete version of what "really" happened no matter how honest and complete Jeanette is in her version. Winterson tried to warn us of this in "Deuteronomy."
First, understand that a parent raises his/her child in his/her own image, an image of what a "good" human being is. All seems to be going well throughout childhood, but childhood always comes to an end. As is so often the case, adolescence disrupts even the most diligent parent's plans. With maturity, a child ceases being an empty vessel or a blank slate and becomes his or her own person more fully than ever before.
Part of the essential struggle of adolescence is the battle between parent and child over the adolescent's personhood. The parent is fighting to preserve the person they think they've created. The child is fighting to become the person they are-- and will be. Usually, things work out one way or another, and parent and child enjoy a mature relationship as adults. One of life's great ironies is that they were fighting for the same thing.
Now, suspend judgment and try seeing the situation from the perspective of Mother.
From the very beginning, Mother has done all she can to raise Jeanette to be a perfect instrument of the Lord as she sees it. Jeanette the Child is precisely that perfect instrument. With the onset of puberty, Jeanette becomes aware of her sexual orientation which leads her to seek relationships and to perform acts which are clearly, strictly forbidden within their faith community. Jeanette knows this but acts on and justifies her homosexuality. In doing so, she willfully rejects at least that portion of the teachings of her church, thus she makes herself a "demon" in the eyes of her church.
Furthermore, Jeanette is rejecting not only the church, but her mother as well. Mother sees Jeanette's abandonment of both the path of righteousness and the holy work she was trained to do as both a personal humiliation and a betrayal performed publicly by Jeanette. For Mother, "Jeanette the Willful Sinner" is not "Jeanette the Perfect Missionary." The former is a demon who has possessed the daughter she raised. Accordingly, mother's rejection of the "Demon Jeanette" is not a rejection of her daughter, but rather an embracing of the daughter she thinks she raised.
Please note well, I'm not defending Mother, but rather what I perceive as one of Winterson's purposes in writing Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Namely, the tellers and writers of stories, as well as their listeners and readers, must never forget that the story they're involved with is but one version of the real story and should never be considered to be the whole story.
Anyway, I thank my lack of god for the Pentecostals! No, really, truly, and literally! (Please refer to "A Pilgrim Wanders into Apostasy" in The Compleat Heretic's Autobiography.)
In the referenced scene (156-7), Jeanette, employed as a funeral home worker, serves ice cream to the mourners at the funeral reception for Elsie, Jeanette's fellow churchmember and elderly friend. In addition to Elsie's family, the mourners are members of Jeanette's former church, including her mother. The churchmembers are so offended by the presence of apostate Jeanette that they unceremoniously leave the funeral home:
"Elsie's relatives from Morecambe thought we'd gone mad. The pastor stood up.
'Where's Mr Ramsbottom? Is this a sick joke?'
'The woman's ill,' I explained, 'I'm helping out.'
'Have you no shame?'
The pastor motioned to the flock. 'We won't stay to be mocked any longer.'
'Oh she's a demon your daughter,' wailed Mrs White, holding on to the pastor's arm.
'She's no daughter of mine,' snapped back my mother, head high, leading the way out.
And they left, and so the relatives from Morecambe had seconds, and two pieces of Battenburg. When Joe came back he just shook his head, said they were all mad, and that I was well out of it. He was right, but I was lonely."
Copyright © 1985 by Jeanette Winterson