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Oranges are Not the Only Fruit

Jeanette Winterson

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Context

Jeanette Winterson was born on August 27, 1959 in Manchester, England. John and Constance Winterson adopted Jeanette in her infancy and raised her in Accrington, Lancashire. Her adoptive parents belonged to a Pentecostal Evangelical congregation. Winterson lived a very sheltered early life reading the few books found in her house, which included the Bible, Jane Eyre, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Winterson trained to be a preacher at a young age and always desired to be a missionary. When she reached her teenage years, she found a Saturday job at the local library and started reading voraciously. Around the same time, her increasing romantic preference for members of her own sex caused conflicts within her congregation. Winterson's lesbianism led to an exorcism performed by church officials. Soon after, Winterson broke off her connection to her family and her church. She left home at the age of sixteen and began working in various temporary jobs, such as an ice cream truck driver, a makeup artist in a funeral parlor, and at a mental home.

Winterson replicates most of these crucial events from her early life in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, her first novel. The similarities between Winterson's life and that of her main character, also incidentally named Jeanette, suggests that Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit contains autobiographical elements. Winterson started writing Oranges several years after she received a degree in English from St. Catherine's College at Oxford University. After working briefly in advertising and theater, Winterson sought a job in publishing. According to Winterson herself, the idea for her novel germinated during an interview for an editorial position at Pandora Press, the company that later published Oranges. When Winterson saw that the interview was going poorly, so she started to entertain the interviewer with stories of her own life. The interviewer was so impressed that she encouraged Winterson to write down these accounts. Winterson followed this suggestion. Her novel was published two years later in 1985. The book won the Whitbread Prize for a first novel in the same year. A television adaptation, with the screenplay written by Winterson, followed in 1990. By that time, Winterson had published three more books: Boating for Beginners (1985), The Passion (1987), and Sexing the Cherry (1989). Since 1990, Winterson has published five more books: Written on the Body (1992); Art & Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd (1994); Gut Symmetries (1997); and Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (1995). In the early 1990s, England celebrated Winterson as one of its hottest new writers. Gore Vidal called her one of the most exciting new writers that he had read in twenty years. Her attention to lesbian and feminist themes brought her to the forefront of many feminist scholarly groups.

Jeanette Winterson's work fits firmly in the postmodern tradition as her techniques reflect the ideas of such theorists as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and Jean Lacan. Unlike the modernist period before it, postmodern art attempts to step beyond the mere presentation of a narrative in order to question the ability for a narrative to stand separate from reality at all. In many ways, Oranges appears to be an autobiography and it could also be considered a classic novel about growing up, or bildungsroman. However, Winterson refutes the idea that the novel is simply an autobiography by placing not just stories about her narrator in her novel, but stories about other myths (some taken from Malory's Morte D'Arthur) and made up fables that range from meaningful to highly comic. Winterson's placement of these stories in her novel creates a "metafiction," or a fictional novel that attempts to question the nature of fiction instead of just recounting a simple plot. By forcing her readers to question the nature of storytelling, Winterson pushes them toward another post-modern idea, which concerns the questioning of "objective reality." Since many of the stories in the novel are blatantly mythical and even farcical, the reader cannot accept any portion of the story as true, even those elements that appear to be Winterson's autobiography. As such, Winterson supports the post-modern idea that no truth can be true since the truth, our reality, can only exist in the way that we represent it—which will always be subjective.

The ultimate effect of Winterson's efforts is a narrative that might appear slightly confusing to some. Her story is not always told chronologically and she frequently jumps to inserted tales that appear to have nothing to do with the life of the main character. This relative difficult in reading, however, also is intentional. The fragmented style helps the reader to see the novel as "metafiction" and additionally demonstrates Winterson's desire to explore the relationship between the reader and the text.