Blesok no. 91, July-August, 2013

Religious Satire in Oranges are not the only Fruit

Chung Chin-Yi

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical portrayal of the author’s life, provides a biting critique of Christianity from someone who feels estranged from its laws, customs and rituals, i.e., Jeanette, the protagonist, a lesbian who feels oppressed by the patriarchy of Christianity. Raised in a fervently religious household with an eye on turning her into a missionary, this extreme zeal for religion is indeed what proves to be Jeanette’s downfall, as women begin admiring her for her biblical fervour and start getting sexually attracted to her, following which she has a string of affairs with the young women in church.
To phrase this downfall in Pastor Finch’s terms, the minister who heads Jeanette’s church, “The best has become the worst.” (Winterson, 1985:16) Jeanette is deemed to have become filled with evil, a downfall from being extremely holy, because she has succumbed to her desire for women. Winterson is demonized from the moment she declares that she is a lesbian. The cruel inhumanity with which she is eventually excommunicated from the church is what she takes issue with.
Indeed, Jeanette feels extremely bitter about the process because she feels that her authentic self has been suppressed. Jeannette strongly views marriage as an empty and meaningless institution. This feeling, of marriage being a sham, is derived largely from her observations of marriage in her own family. The rather passionless marriage of her adoptive parents seems a far cry from the unbridled passions she discovers in the arms of women from her church, who take to falling from her because of her extreme devoutness.
The Christian religion is described on Winterson’s terms as a highly oppressive institution. She describes her mother as being more Old Testament than New Testament, in other words, her mother delights in seeing to the destruction of sinners without demonstrating the grace, forgiveness and love for sinners that Jesus brings about in the New Testament.
She always prayed in exactly the same way. First of all she thanked God that she had lived to see another day, and then she thanked God for sparing the world another day. Then she spoke of her enemies, which was the nearest thing she had to a catechism.
As soon as ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord’ boomed through the wall into the kitchen, I put the kettle on. The time it took to boil the water and brew the tea was just about the length of her final item, the sick list. She was very regular. I put the milk in, in she came, and taking a great gulp of tea said of three things.” (1985:7)
Hence, we see that Winterson’s mother is concerned with the wrath of God without the concomitant grace towards sinners that the New Testament brings about with the coming of Christ, and it explains why Winterson in alienated from Christianity by her mother’s condemnation. Arguably the lack of love in the Winterson household is what drives Winterson to seek love elsewhere, which in turn does not help since Jeanette Winterson finds men repulsive as a species.
In her words, men are beasts, exalted above women simply by their superior authority delegated to them by the Bible, but otherwise not appealing because they just seem to be vile drinkers and slobs who depend on women and cheat on them at the slightest chance. Winterson finds patriarchy unfair because she cannot bring herself to respect the male species who would become her master, who lust after women and make use of women and oppress women in their households without offering anything much in return.
Indeed Winterson finds men disgusting, describing one of the men a woman marries as a pig and subsequently a beast. Men are described as slothful creatures who lust after women and make use of them sexually and domestically, only to repay them by having affairs and drinking, demeaning the lives of the women who serve them. While this may be a skewed view of the male species in general, I think what Winterson objects to ultimately is the absolute power that men command over women when they do not seem to do anything to deserve that respect, instead exploiting women as slaves and sex objects in the household to be mistreated.
Winterson views men as lustful and lascivious as well as bestial who will chase after anything in a skirt regardless of age. Her disgust for men is evident in the passage in which it becomes evident that she is not physically attracted to men or sexually stimulated by them the way she is by women. To Winterson, men are just after one thing: sex, as women are disposable sex objects to be used and gotten rid of.
What Winterson thus objects to in the Christian suppression of lesbian love is the arbitrariness with which same sex attraction is made a sin when the legitimate kind of love, heterosexual love, seems to put women at a losing end. Iit is ultimately women who suffer whichever choice they make, only that homosexual love is viewed as a grave sin subject to being demonized and rejected by most of the Christian congregation. This is true especially of the church elders and the clergy, who view it as a visitation of demonic spirits and thereafter the need for exorcism or excommunication, when all Winterson can find is a more authentic kind of love than the love held between a male and female.
Indeed, all Winterson can think of Melanie’s (her first lover) loveliness when they are separated, it seems unfair to be being viewed as demonic possessed when all she feels is love for Melanie, albeit for the wrong sex according to her religion’s laws. In fact, Jeannette is alienated many times over by her mother, whose religious superstitions seem to her extreme and fanatical as well as ridiculous. In a sense, the ultimate hypocrisy she views of her mother is the denial of her opportunity to reunite with her birth mother while all the time suffocating Jeannette with her ambitions to turn her into a missionary.
Her mother then fails to genuinely care for Jeannette, only viewing her as a tool to further her religious ambitions and status in the church, while denying her the right to love in whatever form in comes for Jeanette. This authentic love for Jeannette Winterson is lesbian love or the genuine love her mother has for her, which her adoptive mother ruthlessly thwarts at every turn. Indeed, Mrs Winterson is described in terms that make her seem to be a religious monster and hypocrite by Jeannette Winterson.
Religion is thus seen to be so suffocating for Jeannette Winterson; she would rather choose the demonic than be esteemed highly by her church by joining the missionary life. Indeed, the alternatives that Winterson chooses, namely getting excommunicated from her church, or working for funeral parlours and asylums, hardly seem a respectable route to take, but it is the price she is willing to pay for authenticity and self-truth. Along those lines, we can say that Winterson condemns the church for labelling her as an ape of man when she believes lesbianism is something far more complex. Jeanette’s lesbianism is not merely about being a male surrogate but being something in between or beyond gender, just as a homosexual man who loves a male does not truly want to be a woman.
At the same time, in celebrating lesbianism, Winterson, does not seem to be mindful of the consequences this choice has for women. Indeed, for Winterson, it is the authentic choice. Even so, to become a lesbian is to be alienated many times over, from the church, from society, from one’s family, since it is a high price to pay for non-conformity. Indeed, in her introduction to the book Jeanette Winterson describes herself as living in poverty and extreme decrepitude.
She manages to escape this poverty by writing a bestseller that is semi-autobiographical, but how many lesbians can make the same claim to fame and success? The ugly truth is that for most lesbians, a life in shame and secrecy at the fringes of society without the glamour and fame Jeanette Winterson enjoys, is the norm. Hence while Jeanette Winterson may have successfully escaped a life of slavery to a man, as she has chosen a path that is dangerous and unfulfilling for most others who choose it because of the high amount of rejection one faces from society as a consequence of that choice.
Going back to the title, Winterson writes that oranges are not the only fruit, meaning that men are not the only choice, but to me it seems that she has exchanged one form of servility for another. Servility to a man might be demeaning, but servility to a woman risks the loss of one’s reputation and respectability as well as rejection by the whole church and all of society. Certainly, Winterson does not seem to realize she has just chosen a different master. Her new master is woman rather than man.
Along those lines, Winterson’s novel may be viewed as a diatribe against the hypocrisy of Christian faith which endorses heterosexual love while profaning homosexual love, when heterosexual marriage in her novel is depicted as something of a sham. Her adoptive parents barely love each other, and the women in the novel are all complaining of the trap that marriage has lulled them into, leading them to marry drunkards and gamblers. At the same time, the reader is left to wonder if Jeannette Winterson, being led by her lesbian politics, has depicted heterosexual marriages fairly. To be sure, not all heterosexual marriages are as dysfunctional as the ones she describes. There are genuinely loving heterosexual families, and men who do not seem to be merely beasts or simply desire sex objects and slaves in their households, yet all this seems glossed over by Winterson in her desire to glorify the lesbian choice.
Jeanette Winterson thus seems to be writing with the political purpose of creating a lesbian utopia, in which all the men as beasts, expelled from the paradise of women living together with authentic passions. But indeed again, contemporary readers could question if lesbian passion is the only authentic passion. To be sure, the high amount of rejection each clandestine lesbian relation ends with presents a highly dystopian form of love instead. Winterson’s utopia of lesbian love might be ideal in her eyes, but cannot come into fruition as long as most of society is heterosexual and heteronormative. Nonetheless, Winterson has written a compelling critique of the heterosexual norm in society and the religious orthodoxy that reinforces it. The hollowness of orthodox marriages in the novel in contrast to the fiery passions she finds in the arms of women seems to confirm the idea that homosexual love is more authentic than heterosexual love. It is also true that because of Biblical scripture, women in heterosexual marriages experience a high degree of subordination to men. Namely, women are commanded to bear children and be domestic keepers while men can have all the alcohol and affairs they want, seeming to get away with it. Thus it would not be surprising that Winterson finds women receiving the losing end of the bargain when it comes to marriage. Indeed, the very institution of marriage is something of a joke in the Winterson household.
To sum things up: Winterson has written a compelling critique of the way in which Christianity treats homosexuality. She writes against religious hypocrisy and authority in the Christian church. She questions why the institution of heterosexual marriage should be viewed as sacred when it is clearly so full of flaws. She decries the patriarchy of the Bible, which would exalt men and place them in places of authority when they do little to earn respect for that authority and abuse that authority, as the men who try to hit on her sexually when they are married show. The alternative, to work in an asylum and funeral parlour, might seem lowly, but it is her freedom from an oppressive patriarchal slavery which she will not accept. Indeed, with Winterson’s talent, it is little wonder she does not feel the desire to defer to a man. Less talented and weak minded members of the female species might be content to be always subordinate, but for Winterson’s case, it is clearly a case of one who does not see the need to defer to a male race which is not superior to her in any way.

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