The Function of Fairy Tales in Jeanette Winterson’s "Oranges are not the Only Fruit"

Seminar Paper, 2005
18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Fairy Tales in Oranges are not the Only Fruit
2a. “The Princess and the Moth”
2b. “The Perfect Woman”
2c. “Winnet Stonejar”
2d. “Beauty and the Beast”

3. Fairy Tales and History: A Matter of Perspective

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

In terms of genre, Jeanette Winterson’s 1985 novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit is definitely groundbreaking. The author uses autobiographical elements, elements of the female Bildungsroman but also of the typical coming out novel. Furthermore, besides many allusions to other literary works and an enormous use of intertextuality, Winterson constructs girlhood through fantasy, myth, and fairy tales which challenge the expectations about any conventional novel. As Paulina Palmer describes, in Oranges “Examples of realism, fantasy and anti-realism flourish side by side,” co-exist and intermingle with each other (2). By mixing all these different genres in her novel, Jeanette Winterson destabilizes the possibility of a single authoritative reading of her fiction.

Definitely intriguing is her use of fairy tales within Oranges . Because traditional fairy tales have often been subject of feminist criticism, it seems curious that especially Winterson, as a lesbian author, interweaves many, seemingly traditional fairy tales into her plot. After the 20th century suffrage and liberation movements, feminists such as K.E. Rowe argue that these “domestic fictions” have encouraged women throughout centuries to blindly await Prince Charming in order to fulfil their primary goal in life: marriage (237). These tales picture women as subdued to men, first to their fathers, then to their husbands, as dependent heroines who need to be rescued from the dangers the world bares. It is furthermore well known that “By virtue of the beautiful simplicity that folk tales have, by virtue of their single context, they become ideal vehicles for incorporating elements of the cultures which produce them” (Rabkin 100).

Yet, I argue that the fairy-tale episodes in Oranges are not as traditional as they at first seem to be. Instead of picturing women in their expected position, namely both subdued to and dependent on men, Winterson’s fairy tales serve a quite different purpose: Strongly connected to the main plot, they stress the most crucial moments in the protagonist’s development and furthermore work to illustrate the importance of story-telling. In order to prove the idea that in Oranges fairy tales are everything but conventional, I will restrict myself to some clearly representative examples.

2. Fairy Tales in Oranges are not the Only Fruit

2a. “The Princess and the Moth”

“The Princess and the Moth” is the first fairy tale connected to the actual main plot. It occurs early in the novel and is sandwiched between Mother’s story of her conversion and her dream about Jeanette’s future as a missionary. When reading this fairy tale, it first seems to be unconnected to the main story, almost out of place, since the explaining plot which goes hand in hand with this tale, is not told yet. The reader can only guess that the tale is somehow connected to Mother’s conversion; yet, it can only be deciphered after continuing reading the novel further. Then, however, it becomes clear that the tale mirrors Mother’s reasons for her decision to dedicate her life to the Lord.

Mother, in her early life, is mirrored by the princess who is “brilliant”, “beautiful”, and “sensitive” (Winterson, Oranges 9), yet disappointed of her life. No one seems to find a solution to help her to overcome her disillusionment in life. Finally though, the princess meets an old hunchback who guides her onto a satisfying path of life. The hunchback mirrors Pastor Spratt who plays a major role in Mother’s life; he is the only one to recognize that Jeanette’s mother is “a woman of great energy and resourcefulness” (Winterson, Oranges 9), or, as An Gydé remarks more generally, he is the “personification of the abstract notion of faith” (44). In the tale, the old hunchback convinces the princess to take over some responsibilities in her life: to “milk the goats” in a small village, “to educate the people” there, and to furthermore “compose songs for their festival” (Winterson, Oranges 9). These actions definitely match with the duties Jeanette’s mother takes over in her life: She regularly tries to accomplish good works (milks the goats), makes people listen to the word of God (educates the people), and plays music for them (composes songs for their festival).

Furthermore, in the main plot, the Frenchman Pierre definitely plays an important role in Mother’s development. A first hint in the novel is given shortly after this fairy tale, and it becomes clear that there is a secret rendering in Mother’s life which she does not want to reveal yet: “I asked mother to teach me French, but her face clouded over and she said she couldn’t. ‘Why not?’ ‘It was nearly my downfall.’ ‘What do you mean?’ […]. But she only shook her head and muttered something about being too young, that I’d find out all too soon, that it was nasty” (Winterson, Oranges 16). With this, a foundation of Mother’s past is laid quite early but the complete secret about Pierre is revealed a lot later in the novel. However, one day Mother tells Jeanette: “It’s time […] that I told you about Pierre and how I nearly came to a bad end […]. It’s not something I’m proud of” (Winterson, Oranges 84). Finally, she tells Jeanette about Pierre and declares her loss of belief in romantic love between man and woman.

The princess, according to her title, lives in a very high social status and so did Mother, when she first met the Frenchman: “She wasn’t with the Lord then but she had high standards” (Winterson, Oranges 84). Pierre and Mother fell in love with each other - or at least, that is what she first thought it to be: love. However, she soon found out that the “fizzing” and the “buzzing” and a “certain giddiness” in her belly, “not only with Pierre, but anywhere, at any time” was not love but a stomach ulcer (Winterson, Oranges 85). Whereas Mother, at first, thought Pierre to be handsome, she nowadays rationally reclaims that he was neither clever nor good looking. The fairy tale’s image of the dying moth pictures Mother’s dying feelings for Pierre. Ironically, the narrator does not choose a butterfly but a moth as a symbol of love which underlines the idea of Pierre being not as wonderful as he first seems to be. Ultimately, the same way the princess moves to a little village, also Mother decided to “shortly fled the country to avoid him” (Winterson, Oranges 85) and moved from the big city Paris to a village in England.

As Susana Onega explains in her article “History/Story-Telling in Oranges are not the Only Fruit ,” this fairy tale is “an overtly fantastic version of the same story” (143). It clearly pictures how a loss of belief in romantic love led Jeanette’s mother to the higher love of God. Faith in the Lord is substituted by the romantic love between man and woman, and, by both understanding Mother’s disappointment in her early history and recognizing the aesthetic side of this tale, the reader starts having more sympathy for Mother - a sympathy which can never be gained throughout the main plot. The tale makes her dedication to the Lord more understandable and Mother gets a more ‘human’ side. Ultimately, this fairy tale shows how Jeanette, in her early youth, adores her mother, follows her blindly, and expresses the protagonist’s attempt to explain and justify Mother’s behaviour in life.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


The Function of Fairy Tales in Jeanette Winterson’s "Oranges are not the Only Fruit"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Jeanette Winterson, Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Fairy Tales
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Anonymous, 2005, The Function of Fairy Tales in Jeanette Winterson’s "Oranges are not the Only Fruit", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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